The agenda-less meeting?

too much on the agenda?

Thanks to Dwight Towers for nudging me towards Chris Johnston on social change. In particular I’m mulling over Chris’s post Death to the agenda meeting. Like Chris I’d also invite you to take a look at Dwight’s post Adventures in the Liminal Zone – why do newbies not come back? and the discussion that it provoked.

Getting rid of the agenda – baby and bathwater?

Chris suggests that the agenda is a major obstacle to newcomers at a meeting getting involved in the group long-term. Here’s a taste of his argument:

The agenda meeting is designed for informed and committed people to share information and make decisions.

It’s an awesome format to use if you have a load of interested, experienced, and bought-in people sat in a room who want to get from A to B. It marshals interest and energy in a fair and disciplined way. It’s great at this. Go the agenda meeting….

The agenda meeting is not designed to satisfy the needs of inexperienced and not yet committed people for socialising, autonomy, mastery and purpose.

I find myself agreeing with the intention to find ways to make meetings more accessible to newcomers, but not with his conclusions. I don’t want to get into a point by point rebuttal because we’re not in conflict – we’re both arguing for the same outcome, and frankly they get dull very quickly. So I’ll keep it quick and then meander off into my own thinking. Chris says:

Strength #1 of the agenda meeting is information sharing. But why would you share info with newbies this way? Just have a comprehensive website – quicker, easier and more satisfying for the newbie.

A few assumptions here I’m not comfortable with:

  • newcomers are less well-informed – it’s a broad generalisation and like all generalisations there are plenty of exceptions to the rule to trip us up. Like the student campaigner I spoke to who had been campaigning for 3 years at university, including a year as a sabbatical campaigns officer. He rolled up to a meeting of a ‘town’ campaign group who treated him like he knew nothing and had no experience…. The fact that he stayed involved was due to his passion for the issues and not for the group
  • newcomers all have web access/choose to use the web
  • they’re all using it to read the website of the group we’re thinking of joining
  • they’ve all done that reading in advance of the meeting
  • the existing members of the group are all equally well-informed and don’t need an agenda to equalise their understanding and through understanding their ability to participate in the meeting

Strength #2 is making decisions. But why would you ask newbies to make decisions about issues they have little knowledge of, on tactics they have no familiarity with, in a room with people who know far more than they do?

Again, so many assumptions – see my student campaigner example above. But primarily, why ask them to make decisions? Because it sends a clear message that they’re a valued part of the group, that their opinion and experience (however much or little) counts and because it’s empowering.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against different types of meeting. Some more social, some more planning or whatever. I’m against tha assumption that the more focussed planning type meeting can’t be made accessible to interested newcomers.

Ideas for saving the baby and just getting rid of the bathwater

The problem is not the agenda per se but how it’s structured and facilitated. Let’s look at some common agenda related problems and a few things you can do about them:

Agenda is overfull. The group alleges to meet from 7.30 pm to 9pm but puts at least 3 hours worth of material on the agenda and wonders why meetings run late. This also means there’s no room in the meeting for simple but vital things such as time to get to know newcomers (icebreaker, proper introductions), breaks that can be used to socialise and find out about the group and each other, space to explain the group’s process and quirks such as the use of handsignals, consensus decision-making. All this means that for newcomers it’s sink or swim, and the water is not inviting.

So the golden rule is do less and do it well. Realistic agendas with some open space to react to local or world events, to take time to get to know each other, and especially newcomers, and so on. If you’re facilitating and your experience tells you there’s 3 hours of material for a 1.5 hour meeting, pause. Be creative, and if necessary be brutal with the agenda. There’s what the group needs to do, and there’s what the group would like to do. Creativity might take you to small groups working on different items in parallel (and even with a meeting of only 4 people you still have 2 small groups!), tools such as roving ideastorms to get a lot of work done quickly without the potential tedium of small group feedback and more.

As for the other stuff – financial report backs, hours of announcements, personal hobby horses. Find other ways to communicate those: newsletters, emails, websites.

Agenda set in advance. Great for allowing facilitators to prepare a process for the meeting, but a recipe for inflexibility and exclusion if not handled right. A pre-prepared agenda can easily take away the ability of newcomers to offer agenda suggestions. Accepting those suggestions sends a clear message – we value your input. How many groups have enough members that they can afford not to send that message?

Even the most pre-set agenda should only ever be a proposal subject to change in the light of new events such as an influx of newcomers or a breaking crisis that demands immediate action. Facilitators need to embrace the challenge of reworking agendas on the hoof. Co-facilitation is great for that. I facilitate the introductions whilst my co-facilitator reworks the first half of the agenda to take into account the need for change. Of course planning in some open space can save a lot of hurried reworking….

And of course pre-set agendas can place power in the hands of those who set them. There’s enough written about informal hierarchies already so I won’t add to that here. Let’s just say it sends a message, deliberate or otherwise, that there’s “them” and there’s “us” within the group. Newcomers are left feeling alienated, or jumping on the bandwagon of politicking to become “us”. Bring on the unhealthy, and ultimately self-destructive group dynamics. This group will implode in 10, 9, 8, 7…….

Preset agendas usually contain lots of assumptions about the priorities of the group, about the level of knowledge, about who gets to speak and so on… “OK so on to  the X campaign…. Jo, you’re our resident expert, tell us what to think and do”. Assumptions need to be aired and if necessary challenged. They create weak groups that fall to pieces in moments of crisis. To quote Jeremy Hardy talking about “the rallying cry of the left: ‘I thought you were bringing the leaflets’“.

It might be an assumption about process (that we’re all familiar with and believe in consensus, for example), an assumption about priorities (that the action we’ve been planning for weeks is still more important than the war that’s just broken out), assumptions about knowledge (we all understand the issue well enough to discuss taking action on it). I’m sure you can think of others.

Agendas create a focus on tasks. Let’s face it, the agenda is usually about getting stuff done. Fair enough I hear you say – we’re activists, we like to get stuff done.

Building in time to your agenda to balance task with maintenance, that is how we feel about getting stuff done, is hugely undervalued but has such an impact on the life and effectiveness of a group. Meetings aren’t a penance. Well, at least they shouldn’t be. They best ones are a balance of effective action and, dare I say it, fun. We want to build groups that we enjoy being part of whilst getting stuff done.

Agenda formalise roles within groups. With each task tends to go “the person who usually does that thing”. Could be the facilitator – were not exempt! That closes the door to skillsharing, creativity, and change within group. Don’t let the agenda threaten a culture of openness, experimentation (And yes, some will fail. Pick yourselves up, dust yourselves off and chalk it up to experience) and challenge.

So, to-agenda-or-not-to-agenda? The agenda is a tool for your group. It’s not your group. It has no magical power over you. Use it to improve your meetings not ruin them. Keep it alive, flexible, spacious, welcoming and it will serve you well.

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7 thoughts on “The agenda-less meeting?

  1. I’d also suggest making a clear distinction between ‘open’ meetings and task meetings. Open meetings are for newbies and focus on their needs and interests (what made you come along to this meeting) and explaining what the ‘oldies’ have already done. Think of them as general engagement. ‘Task’ meetings are where there is business to get through. The two kinds of meetings can run back-to-back, as long as the time when one becomes the other is clear and there’s a break at that point for people to come / go as necessary.

    If you’re planning a task meeting, have a contingency plan for how to welcome and accommodate newbies, in case some turn up unexpectedly.

    Cheers

    Penny

    • Thanks once again Penny. I think open meetings (at least meetings that don’t follow the usual format) are for everyone and not just newcomers as they help reinvigorate groups and remind us that there are different ways of doing things. I struggle with the concept that task meetings are primarily for the ‘initiated’. I’d like to see more than just a contingency for newcomers but an active ethos of making all meetings, task and otherwise, fully accessible. As much as anything I feel there are lots of the initiated who, if pressed, don’t fully understand what’s going on in a task meeting but have never dared articulate that because of this sense that these are meetings where we have no time to waste on bringing people up to speed.

      Quality of task is as important as quantity, and we get better quality through clearly shared assumptions, clearly shared aims and processes. And if we’re sharing that clearly, we’re a lot closer to having a meeting that newcomers can more easily join….

  2. Thank you for an excellent synthesis (in the Hegelian/Marxist sense!) of some work done by me and Chris. I think your ideas, and those of Penny, deserve to be used far and wide…

    Two videos I made about this may be useful

    the ‘normal’ experience of a newbie

    and one of the ways it might be done differently.

    If I get time/chance I will do one around your ideas and Penny’s.

    Best wishes

    Dwight Towers

  3. Pingback: Meetings matter – how to make them better «

  4. Pingback: The agenda-less meeting: more musings | rhizome: participation|activism|consensus

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  6. I’m really glad to find (somewhat belatedly) this interesting conversation between Rhizome, Chris & Dwight.

    I’d like to do more thinking (and – hah – doing) myself about taking more of the elements of good meetings into Doing situations/days/afternoons. Not everyone likes meetings, and I think we need to be able to not do them as a movement sometimes. What would a well self-organising group that doesn’t *do* meetings do?

    Actually, this happens all the time, especially when people see a lot of each other, and know each other’s approaches and opinions.

    ~

    Another side light on the issue of agenda meetings and involvement. I broadly agree with Matthew when he says that the needs of ‘newbies’ and ‘those already involved’ are more complicated than they sound in Chris’ post. I like Chris’ useful and clear sighted simplification – simple here is not a bad word. And what he says is often true – people do come to meetings with different needs, and we need meetings (or unmeetings) which enable us to meet enough of each other’s needs.

    Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a problematic resource to draw on, though. It draws a distinction between “basic”, “deficiency” needs, naming them e.g. food, water, shelter, sex; and “being” needs like love, respect, creativity, morality, problem solving. Once an individual has met their basic needs, they are free to be a social animal.

    But human beings meet all these needs socially and cooperatively (even when muddied with hierarchies and competition). We don’t make food in a fundamentally different way to the way we have meetings and make community. Or make love. I can’t see much room for seeing how deep our humanity and sociability, our culture, goes in Maslow.

    The problem for an activist group, then, is not how to meet the needs of each individual or type, but how to be a group in which the social, interpersonal dynamics can make everyone feel their needs modifying as some needs are met, as they’re pulled into the group.

    We’ve all had that exciting feeling of letting go some of the stuff we came with because there’s something very exciting coming on. That feels like a step beyond meeting any one individual’s needs, yet central to being the kind of group which can meet everyone’s needs enough. Both Matthew and Chris write about some good ideas for helping this happen I think.

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