Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Group Works: Closing

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:

1. Intention 2. Context 3. Relationship 4. Flow 5. Creativity 6. Perspective 7. Modeling 8. Inquiry & Synthesis 9. Faith

In the Flow segment there are 15 cards. The third pattern in this category is labeled Closing. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 

The formal ritual that concludes the collective time and space by completing the cycle of a group process. Include everyone, acknowledge the end of the time together and mark the transition point, ushering in a shift to what follows.

While it's a little odd to focus on "Closing" before "Opening and Welcome," C comes before O alphabetically, so here we are. 

In many ways the opening and closing are mirror images of each other: bookends that mark the boundaries between informal social time and meeting space, where different behaviors are expected. One of the main reasons for these markers is to avoid the frustration (and dissipated or unfocused energy) of some people being ready to meet while others are still being informal (engaged in side conversations, telling jokes, checking text messages, getting a cup of coffee, etc). You want a crisp beginning and ending so that everyone's time has been respected To that end everyone deserves to be given a clear signal about the transitions.

That said, there are some rhythms that are peculiar to the closing, and I'm going to expand this consideration to include all that ordinarily needs to happen between when you pull the plug on the last agenda item and the meeting is over. I refer to this segment as the "Caboose" and it includes four main  components:

1. Tying up loose ends
Just because you stop talking about a topic doesn't mean you're done, or even at a good stopping place. If work remains, then you need to name a shepherd (this could be an individual or a subgroup, standing or ad hoc). What's more, this is a chance to reflect on other aspects that have been tackled in the course of the meeting to see that they have their shepherd needs met as well.

To be clear, the role of shepherd is to track what work remains on a topic (as well as what partial decisions have been reached, so that work is not repeated the next time the topic is broached) and sees to it that it comes up again in a timely manner. Shepherds do not decide things; they just accept responsibility for keeping a topic alive and moving it forward appropriately.

Sometimes tying up loose ends involves testing for potential agreement that is available but unarticulated, and in danger of being lost if it is not harvested in the dynamic moment. It's an art being able to sense when agreement is close and worth probing for as the last grains of sand are trickling through the hourglass.

2. Summary of the product
I've found that it's important to do this every meeting, in part to contradict a decided (and unhelpful) cultural tendency to focus on how the glass is half empty rather than half full. While both can be true, groups will naturally lean toward a focus on what didn't get done or completed, rather than on the progress that was achieved, with the result that they'll leave the room with a sense of heaviness instead of celebration. Yuck. 

By making an effort to have the last piece be an up-tempo reminder of what got accomplished in the meeting (which expressly includes partial product, the narrowing of choices, or a sharper focus on what work remains; not just what got wrapped up with a ribbon and bow), it leaves a good (or at least better) taste in people's mouths. Caution: I'm not talking about blowing sunshine up anyone's ass; whatever you say has to be real and substantive—you're just making sure that the group recognizes all that it got in exchange for the investment of its valuable time.

Summarizing product can generally be accomplished in 1-3 minutes. Five at the absolute most.

3. Meeting evaluation
This is an important element, whereby the group reflects on how the meeting went. It's valuable both: a) for the group to hear each other on what worked well and what didn't (a common framing is to ask for Hearts and Deltas: Hearts being what you liked; Deltas being what you wish were different); and b) for the facilitator to hear how their efforts landed in the group.

Feedback is the lifeblood of learning and you'll never get responses about the meeting that are as rich (both in terms of numbers and depth) if you wait until later—perhaps by asking via email. Thus, making space for live reflections right at the end of the meeting is crucial to getting the most data.

For this to go well, it's imperative that the facilitator not respond with explanations, which may come across as defensiveness, which will have a suppressing impact on further comments. Your job is to smile and take it, doing nothing to interrupt the flow of honest reflection. There will be time enough later to reflect on what weight to give critical comments. That said, it's OK to ask clarifying questions if you don't understand what someone said or what it refers to—vague feedback isn't particularly useful.

Warning: don't let the group slip back into the abyss of content: keep evaluative comments focused on the how of the meeting. 

Finally, it's OK for the facilitator to ask some leading questions if there were particular moments in the session where you made key choices and were unsure how well they landed. Sometimes groups have trouble dropping into depth, and asking for greater detail helps get you into useful territory (Comment: "The meeting was great." Facilitator's follow up: "What was great in particular?")

4. Closing ritual
Pick a closing that is consonant with the energy in the room. If you had a brutal meeting punctuated by interpersonal tensions that did not resolve well, do not close with a rousing rendition of Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.

Closings should generally be tight and not drag on. People are often tired at the end. You can get a bit of an energetic boost simply by having people stand for the closing, but it's better to end early than risk drifting beyond the agreed ending time. 

I like to close with a song, but that's strictly a personal preference. Almost anything can work so long as it's focused and with easy-to-understand instructions. (If you pick a song, think ahead to whether you want to sing it solo or will be asking the group to join you—which is better energetically. Caution: There is an important difference between being a competent singer and a competent teacher of songs. If you pick a song that people don't know, be sure you have someone lined up to teach it expeditiously.)
• • •
In addition to these components, there can be nuance around when to start moving into the Caboose. This is a time management issue and entails the facilitator having a good read on what it will take to complete all the elements. In general, the Caboose takes about 15 minutes but there are a number of reasons why that might be shorter or longer.

o  Sometimes you are not at a good stopping place relative to the last topic when the clock tells you it's time to segue into the caboose. Now what? If you see a time squeeze coming you have two main choices:

a) Ask for a time extension to work this last topic a bit more, in an effort to get all the product possible before calling a halt.

b) Make adjustments on the fly, which might include truncating the summary, shortening the closing, or even skipping the evaluation (while I personally find this last choice distasteful, it's an option).

o  If there are fewer people at the meeting, you'll have fewer variables to manage when tying up loose ends, and fewer comments to hear during evaluation. Translation: a shorter Caboose.

o  If there are many worms on the floor that you're needing to get back in the can, then tying up loose ends will take more time.

o  If it's not fairly obvious who will shepherd unfinished business, or there's some underlying tension in the group about which subgroup has what responsibilities (say, unresolved power dynamics associated with certain committees or managers) then allow more breathing room to sort it out without anyone feeling like there's a gun to their head.

o  In that same vein, if a lot got accomplished it may take a bit longer to summarize the product. 

o  In assessing the time needed for evaluation, did powerful or innovative things happen (or not happen) relative to process that will be important for participants to comment on, or was the meeting fairly vanilla? Do you, as facilitator, have a need to get real-time reflections from the group about certain choices you made during the session (say, the frequency and way that you cut people off who strayed from the topic or were repetitive)? If so, budget time to get to those without inadvertently pushing the meeting into overtime.

Hint: During meeting prep I like to plan for a closing that takes 3-4 minutes (rarely anything longer) and then factor that in when I calculate how much time is needed for the Caboose. Then, if I feel time pressure building, I can seamlessly switch to a much shorter closing to gain time (say, having everyone hold hands for 30 seconds of silence, reflecting on all that got accomplished).

There's an art to bringing the train into the station on time, and the better you get at it, the more invisible it is to the group (because it's done without strain or drama).

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