Meetings reflect the basic operating system of a group of people. In organizations where power dynamics are heavily at play you will see lots of meetings chaired by those with the power. In flat organizations, circles and open space events are probably more the norm. Communities meet in all kinds of different ways, but essentially a meeting is a good way to make the operating system visible.
A great deal of the work I do involves helping organizations and communities shift to more participatory meeting processes. It isn’t always easy, and today I had one of those days when the stars didn’t quite align in a way that created the magic. I needed to return to a default setting for the group, because they weren’t prepared for such a massive shift in how they were meeting. To have gone on would have been to alienate them and prevent real work from getting done. So we had to shift on the fly, change our hosting styles and reconfigure the room and the process architecture to enable people to be comfortable enough to dig into difficult content. It is a tough call and a fine line to walk but flexibility, curiosity and willingness to learn will help you as a facilitator stay present to the group’s needs, which is after all, of primary importance.
So what if you want to change that operating system? What if you want to tinker with the DNA of a meeting process? What does it take?
In my experience it takes a lot of work up front and not just in the planning phase. You also have to change the WAY you do planning. If you are trying to move from a top-down, command and control meeting style to something more participatory, here are a number of factors to pay attention to:
1. Create a core team that learns together. This is a basic tenet of any systems change initiative. A core team stewards the change and creates the shift. In doing so they also embody the change, which means that they have to be reflective of the whole in their composition and willing to learn together about new ways of working. Successful core teams in my experience spend equal time learning, building relationships and working together. They are made up of a variety of people with a variety of experiences and interests and the very best teams contain people who are willing to stretch, perhaps host part of the meeting in a way they have never done so before. The core team become the designers, champions and leaders of the change, reflected in the way they approach the shift. They don’t simply hire a facilitator and give orders: they host. They have a stake in the outcomes, and they believe in change.
2. The invitation is a process. I’ve written about this before and it is crucial: invitation is not a thing that you send out over email – it is a process. It includes conversations with key potential participants, it is an iterative process of learning, refining, communicating and listening. It involves writing something, creating web presences, making phone calls, taking people out for coffee. If you haven’t gone out for lunch with at least one potential participant as a part of your invitation process, you aren’t doing it right! Short changing invitation will result in poor preparation for participants and perhaps even a rude surprise when they arrive and see that you have changed everything. Too much change all at once to the unprepared can be shocking.
3. Participants have to want it. Successful shifts in meeting culture come in part from participants who show up because there is compelling work to do AND because there is a promise of a new way of working. If people show up just to do the compelling work, they aren’t going to want you to monkey with their meeting process too much. Creating that frame of mind in participants is a time consuming process but it pays huge dividends in shifting a culture of meeting. This is a key plank in the invitation platform and shouldn’t be dismissed.
4. If you don’t get it right the first time, don’t fight it. Learn from mistakes. If you get a world cafe set up and the group rebels, take a stand for the work, not the process. The worst kind of facilitators are those who let their attachment to process stand in the way of good work getting done. Instead of forcing yourself on people who “just don’t get it” get out of the way and help them do the work that they are hungry to do.
Systemic change does just happen because you have a good theory and some smart ideas. It happens because you have sensed the timing and offered the right things at the right time. I’m not saying that we should shortchange people either and simply offer them comfortable options, not by any means. But a system’s tolerance for challenge is a sensitive thing and walking the edge comes with high stakes. Learning how to do this is a lifelong skill.