Those of us in social change and knowledge work spend a lot of time in meetings. Too few meetings optimize the contribution of everyone who is participating. Undoubtedly you have sat in meetings in which you wondered why the group was having it and why you were there.
A first step and very practical approach to improving meetings is to start with answering why you are having the meeting in the first place. I covered some of those basics here and have a handy worksheet to plan better meetings.
Yet most of what I covered in those posts and worksheet were the cognitive tasks you need to think through when planning: the why, who and how.
Beyond the Cognitive
:I was at a training led by Cocreative Consulting recently during which they introduced another way to think about meetings which I appreciated. They named four agendas (besides people’s personal agendas :) that engage the whole person in a meeting. They are:
Aligning – Connecting – Learning – Making
Aligning – This agenda engages the spirit and your intentions. Is the ‘why’ clear? Has the group aligned around a goal or shift they are trying to create?
Connecting – This agenda engages the heart. This is the agenda that too often in our action oriented culture we ignore. It can get dismissed as too “touchy feely.” Yet without trust, groups do not work at their highest potential. What element of connecting people to each other could you build into your next meeting? Remembering to do a check in and check out is a way to build this into your meeting. Asking each participant to answer a simple question that goes beyond basic introductions is another way. How do you help people share with other to build connection and connect to the people impacted by the work?
Learning – This agenda engages the head. Before the group jumps into problem-solving, have they clearly defined (and agreed) on the problem they are trying to solve together? Is there a wider more complex landscape that the challenge lies within? How might the group map that system so that they create a shared understanding?
Making – This agenda engages the hands. While traditional meetings often leave this out and end up being a lot of talk – what tangible product could the group produce that would move their work forward? How might you design the meeting so that the time spent together is focused on creating a product together rather than just planning? Is there a way to create a prototype together that brings the group’s ideas to life quickly?
I will be keeping these four agendas in mind as I design meetings in the future.
Need help thinking about how you might apply this to your context? Inquire about a coaching call.
What does all this growth mean for us going forward?
Challenge: An education related organization had accomplished all the key goals in their current strategic plan. Over this period, the organization experienced substantial growth both in the number of clients it was serving as well as the scope of the services they were providing the field. With the increased staff strength, the board had become accustomed to relying on staff for direction and strategic thinking. The organization needed to assess the implications of this growth, ensure that there was alignment of staff and board in order to set direction and clear goals for the next 3-5 years.
Approach: After interviews with each of the board members, and external stakeholder interviews as well as focus groups with staff, I facilitated a one-day retreat with the board and staff leadership. The retreat focused on:
• conducting an environmental scan to identify key trends impacting the organization’s work,
• reviewing the themes from the interviews and focus groups and discuss their implications
• envisioning the organization’s future impact on the field,
• resulting in identifying two to three key strategic goals for the organization.
Results: The organization now has a new strategic plan with clear support from both the board and staff leadership. The process helped the board step into its strategic role. Board meetings now have time dedicated to focusing on strategic questions. Staff leadership was also able to recognize how some of their actions encouraged the board to rely on them. Thus they are now equipped to make different choices moving forward. They can be clearer about what is staff work and what is the board’s responsibility.
Are our board and staff focused on the right things?
Challenge: A local land trust organization had a regular good practice of conducting a board self-assessment each year. Over the past couple years, a few indicators created some concern. The group decided it would benefit from outside facilitation for its annual board staff retreat to dive into the issues raised in the self-assessment, including roles and responsibilities between board and staff.
Approach: In addition to the board self-assessment results, I conducted a survey of staff and board. My goal was to learn about the board’s current concerns and to understand the staff’s perspective on the organization’s current state. During the retreat, after a brief presentation on nonprofit life cycles, the group considered where their organization stood in its development. I then shared the themes from the survey and had the group discuss the implications.
Board and staff learned that they had more in common than they thought on their perspectives of what the organization needed to improve in terms of operations. It also became clear that the board was eager to stay at the governance level and focus on longer-term strategic issues. Through small group work, the groups considered its current initiatives and areas for future development and sketched out next steps. The group then gave each small group feedback.
Results: Through the retreat, the board and staff were able to open up conversations focused on roles and responsibilities that they had had some trepidation about addressing. The conversations revealed more agreement than individuals had expected. The group identified areas for growth and left with increased clarity on roles, goals and next steps.
Here are three books to consider adding to your list:
The Art of Community: Seven Principals for Belonging by Charles H. Vogl
I was intrigued by the book’s subtitle since I am someone who moved a number of times over the course of my growing up. I spent a lot of time chasing that illusive sense of belonging. With the traditional forms of community breaking down and loneliness on the rise, more people are in the business of trying to create community. It could be an online community, a community of practice or a co-working space. Vogl describes the essential elements to build community including creating a boundary, initiations, rituals, symbols. While a bit philosophical, I found the book very accessible, enriched by stories illuminating the principals.
Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up by Jerry Colonna
I heard about this book from an interview that I heard on one of my favorite podcasts, On Being with Krista Tippet. Jerry Colonna is Tippet’s executive coach. His insights on what people bring to their work and leadership from what they learned in childhood and their family of origin were fascinating. Colanna considers growing up part of being an authentic leader, especially identifying and letting go of those “ghosts in the machine” that we learned growing up, drive our behavior but no longer serve us as adults. Learning to sit in discomfort, letting go of our illusion of control, and peeling back the façade of “everything is awesome!” I appreciate his insights into the human condition. Yet I was struck by how like too many other business books the stories he included were from people represented a rarified stratosphere of our society of venture capital and start up CEOs.
The Art of Gathering: How we meet and why it matters by Priya Parker
This book was cited in the Art of Community and since a lot of what I do involves group meetings and gatherings, it caught my interest. What I didn't know is that Parker is a facilitator so the book had particular relevance to my work. Yet the book ranges beyond work focused gatherings and includes what makes a good party or ‘happening’ tick. Like I have advised and then forgotten to follow my own advice, a good gathering/meeting needs a clearly defined purpose. She encourages you ‘not to be a chill host’ and to take leadership of your event, why it is so important to pay attention to meaningful beginnings and endings and how to move the conversation beyond the merely polite to healthy controversy. Whether you would like to make your next get together more meaningful or have an big work gathering to facilitate, you will walk away with a deeper understanding of how to make that happen.
Apparently this summer I am studying the “art” of things – since this shows up in each of these titles.
What’s on your reading list?
Emerging from Crisis
Challenge: A small watershed organization had survived a tumultuous several years after the death of its founder and long-standing executive director. During the founder’s tenure, the board had been a following, governance board. The board led by a new board chair had navigated many challenges including an unsuccessful merger attempt, theft by a caretaker at one of the organization’s properties and other problems. The board decided the organization needed to take stock and reimagine itself, making the most of the legacy left by the founder and rebuilding an organization to meet both today’s realities and live into a new vision its future.
Approach: I interviewed the board members and supported board members as they interviewed external stakeholders. Through the interviews, it became clear that the organization while it wanted to engage in longer range strategic planning it was only in the position to do short range planning. Most board members had been involved with the organization for years and many were burned out. Yet some found it challenging to let go and allow new leadership to emerge. Many had come on during the founder’s tenure and were not prepared to engage in the hands on work that the organization now needed from its board and it now had no staff. I facilitated a one-day retreat to help the group uncover what they had learned from their experience and think about where the organization stood in terms of the phases of development that nonprofits typically go through and what it meant for what was required from the board at its present stage of development.
Results: Over the course of the organization’s several years of turn around, the board chair had essentially been working part time for the organization without compensation. During the retreat, the board decided to make her executive director and pay her for her work. A new board chair was named. Several board members announced their departure making way for new leadership to engage with the organization. The board also set several short-term goals for the year.
Building Shared Leadership
Challenge: A well-respected state level education nonprofit decided to celebrate its 30-year anniversary by engaging in strategic planning to envision its future and set goals for the next 3-5 years. The organization had emerged from a challenging period in its history during which long-standing but no longer financially sustainable programs were sun-setted. The executive director who had been with the organization since its founding hoped to strengthen the organization’s staff and board leadership by increasing shared leadership. The board was small and the majority of it members are relatively new to the organization. The executive director priorities included considering whether the organization’s name adequately represents its work; how to build capacity within the staff and board for greater shared leadership with the executive director as well as longer-term succession planning.
Approach: I interviewed all the board members, external stakeholders as well as the staff. I facilitated a session with board, staff and a few external stakeholders that encompassed a look back at the organization's accomplishments over its 30 year history, considered the trends in the wider environment impacting the organization and reviewed the themes that emerged from the interviews. The group then discussed what implications the trends and themes had for the organization as it considered its future direction.
Results: Through the interviews a number of issues emerged including the weakness of the board. Through the feedback and discernment process in the first session, the board decided to take a break from strategic planning and focus on its own development. Six months later the board had recruited new members and taken steps to create more a sense of shared leadership with the executive director.
Need similar results for your organization? Inquire about scheduling a coaching call.
I was at a three-day training last week for the Standards of Excellence: An Ethics and Accountability Code for Nonprofit Sector. One of our trainers, Justin Pollock of Orgforward helped us dig into both the why and the how of each of the major areas of the code.
He posed two provocative questions set up our conversations – When XYZ is going well in the organization, what does that make possible for the people? And for people to achieve these results, what are the favorable conditions that need to be in place?
Getting caught up in the "thing"
Too often organizations and the consultants that support them get too caught up in doing the “thing” – whether that is strategic planning, clarifying the mission and vision or program evaluation – without stepping back and thinking what they are hoping to get from this work – or what they are hoping will be different.
By asking “when strategy and mission is going well in the organization, what does that make possible for the people? What does it enable staff, board and volunteers to be able to do better? What are the benefits?” first, you get at the hopes, aspirations and motivations for the strategy or mission work. And further by asking, “what do they need to know, have access to, be able to do and believe?” – in other words – identifying the favorable conditions for making progress in this area.
Putting it into action
What does this look like in practice? With strategic planning for example – what will be different when you engage in strategic planning? Too often people complain about an involved process that just resulted in a plan that sat on a shelf. When does strategic planning have real benefits for the organization? This could be in terms of the process itself – having time and space to dig into why the organization does what it does. This could uncover misalignment between stakeholders – whether board, staff, clients – on expectations. By uncovering these, they can then be worked through to bring people closer together in their understanding of the organization’s goals. When done well, the process helps the organization focus its resources, letting go of activity that is no longer serving the mission. It can serve to enable the organization to work on reducing the “friction” and “static” within the organization.
What are the favorable conditions to make these positive results possible? Favorable conditions would include having an inclusive and participatory process. If people feel like they are simply being told what the goals and priorities are by a few people within the organization, they may or may not be ‘bought in’ to the desired outcomes. Even if they are included in the process from the outset unless they feel like they can speak openly and honestly, they will just be going through the motions. A second condition that supports success is to have a clear pathway to translate large organizational level goals into team work plans and individual goals for the year. This will facilitate action.
Uncovering the why and the how
So the next time you launch into a large project, takes some time to consider these two questions – when we are successful with our project, what will it make possible for people in the organization? – to get clear on the “why” behind your work. Then consider “what are the conditions required to make our work go well?” – to think about the “how” of your project and set yourself up for success.
Need help with this. Inquire about a coaching session.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
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