Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Group Works: Opening and Welcome

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 seventh pattern in this category is labeled Opening and Welcome. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card:  

The beginning sets the tone. Start intentionally, in a manner that invites group members to connect with one another, enter their voice into the circle, and participate as their authentic selves. Attend to building enthusiasm, focus, and commitment for the work to come.

I think the best openings meet two disparate needs. 

First, to create a clear marker that informal social time has ended and meeting time has begun, during which there are distinctly different behavioral norms in play. In my experience more than a few groups don't establish explicit expectations around this, which results in all manner of mischief, such as:

• People drifting in after the scheduled start time.
• Side conversations tolerated during the meeting.
• Participants failing to set aside their personal chapeaus, to hold as paramount what's best for the whole.
• Authorizing the facilitator to run the meeting (giving them the power to rein in inappropriate behavior).
• Allowing upset to kill topics (not knowing what to do, they abandon ship).

Second, to set the stage for the kind of work anticipated, which is what the text for the card speaks to. It's important to understand though, that "authentic, inclusive, and connected"—while excellent objectives—can look like different things in different contexts, and selecting an effective opening is far subtler than mere cheerleading, or getting everyone to sing Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.

Meetings, you see, come in more flavors than Baskin & Robbins has ice cream. Let me toss out a few examples to flesh out my point. Sometimes…

o  You have a tough problem to solve (a proposal to put solar panels on the Common House roof aligns well with the group's commitment to being green, yet the increase in dues to fund the project lands crosswise with the commitment to being affordable).

o  The group will need to do heart work rather than head work (perhaps you just lost a founding member who put more than 20 years of body and soul into building and maintaining the community).

o  You need a combination of the two (some want to invite area neighbors to use the Common House as a meeting spot—there are a lot of nights it's not used at all; others are concerned that an increase in stranger traffic on campus will undercut safety and lead to more vandalism—but they're not sure that this concern will be taken seriously).

o  It's time for a celebration (we finally finished construction of the swimming pool that the group has been discussing and planning for five years; let's have a pool party with margaritas on the deck!).

o  The heavy lifting entails evaluating a key committee (we've got four empty houses and no prospects in the pipeline; what is the Membership Committee doing?).

o  You need to referee a sore spot (Ms Peacock is ready to brain her next-door neighbor, Prof Plum, who encourages his dog to howl at the full moon every month, and rebuffs her request to end this earsplitting ritual so that she can get some sleep).

o  You need to peer into the crystal ball long enough to craft a five-year strategic plan.

All of these meetings will be set up differently (or should be), and you want an opening where both the energy and the subject are consonant with the work ahead. Thus, you'll want to tailor the opening to that meeting's agenda.

Finally, a few words of caution: 

Caveat #1: KISS
Openings generally take 3-5 minutes, sometimes less. They represent a small fraction of the meeting, and preparation for them should be kept in proportion to the time they will take. If you are going to facilitate the front end of a meeting, then you should absolutely plan an opening, and make deliberate choices about. But don't belabor it. Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Caveat #2: It's Just an Opening
All of the above notwithstanding, at the end of the day the opening is only a beginning and not to be confused with the main event. The meeting is by no means ruined if you wrong-foot the first five minutes. A good opening is helpful and worth learning how to do, yet it's not crucial to the success of the meeting. If your brilliant opening falls flat, shake yourself off and move on.

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