We must stop meeting like this….

One theme that emerged out of Saturday’s Reclaim the Fields UK gathering was the dominance of meetings as the way of discussing and deciding. Unsurprisingly in a group of urban and rural growers there were a significant number of people who don’t find meetings a useful tool. They do. They don’t talk about doing.

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I think transition initiatives face the same dilemma, for example, as they do and will continue to attract significant numbers of people who want to ‘do’ changes and not talk about them.

After all there’s nothing in the old zen proverb about meetings: “before enlightenment chopping wood, fetching water, holding a highly participatory and fully quorate meeting. After enlightenment chopping wood, fetching water, holding a highly participatory and fully quorate meeting” hmm, perhaps not.

So how do we conduct the ‘business’ of a network or group, in a fully participatory way? Much of the time on this blog we talk about making meetings as participatory as possible. There’s a danger we become complacent and see meetings as out prime or indeed only format for decision-making.What’s the use of a meeting that run with inclusion in mind if the meeting itself is a barrier to some people being included?

Is it possible to go weed the raised beds and come away with a good decision on next year’s budget or our next campaign action? Is it a case of mixing and matching until we find a happy medium? Interspersing time spent meeting with time spent doing?

What’s the problem?

The dominance of meetings creates a whole range of problems which I’ll briefly touch on here (feel free to chip in)…

Those that do meetings can feel resentment. It can feel to them like they’re doing the hard work – hours spent engaged in planning and doing meetings that are often tense and draining – whilst others get to play in the sunshine, or sit around campfires or whatever. This can lead to tribalism. And people being people, the sense of otherness that tribalism can create is often a source of conflict, discrimination and unease.

This resentment can rapidly spiral if the decisions of the meeting are called into question by those who didn’t attend.

Conflict can also flare as and when those that don’t do meetings take action (what they’re best at) without getting the go ahead…errr through a meeting. Potentially those that do have spent 3 hours huddled in meetings only to emerge blinking into the sunlight to find their decision rendered irrelevant by the action of those that don’t.

Simultaneously, those that don’t do meetings can feel marginalised and disenfranchised. These 2 perspectives aren’t mutually exclusive. Those that don’t can feel like second class citizens. They can feel that no-one’s interested in listening to their perspective. And repeated demands to “come to the meeting, then” don’t make these feelings any less real. In fact they risk aggravating by demonstrating that those that do haven’t heard that for those that don’t meetings are part of the problem.

So we abandon meetings then?

If I’m honest the thought of abandoning (some) meetings in favour of deciding whilst doing worries me. I feel compelled to explore the idea, but it raises questions.

  • How do we replicate all that hard work many of us have put into equalising power in meetings in much more informal settings?
  • Whilst flipcharts come in for criticism they do provide a visual accompaniment to a discussion that helps to engage more people. They also add a dimension of accountability – you can see if a point is in danger of being misrepresented. But you can’t write up a conversation that takes place whilst planting trees, building raised beds, watering seedlings or whatever
  • Same goes for minutes
  • It creates an imperative to make the doing (whatever that might be) accessible to all, in the same way we should be making meetings accessible. How do we make these tasks appropriate for all comers regardless of gender, experience, physical ability and so on?

Of course I can see an exciting hybrid – set the scene, create the space, start exploring the topic and then break for some small group work. Only in this model one small group weeds the raised beds. Another pricks out the seedlings, a third turns the compost heap and so on, before coming back to share ideas….

What’s your experience? Is it a meeting if instead of flipchart and pen we have woodpile and axe?Have you seen groups working well without formal meetings?

Of course we need to bear in mind that this tool – the blog- possibly lends itself more to those for whom meetings work as a tool. More on this later, I’m sure. Off to chop some wood.

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2 thoughts on “We must stop meeting like this….

  1. Whatever the criticisms of development work (and there are many), their practice highly influenced UK participatory facilitation. The Participatory Rural Appraisal approach, to name one, is premised on the fact that your ‘flipchart’ is the mud in front of you; and the environment around you is a ‘participant’. A meeting is a meeting whether the people talking are in a room or around their raised beds.
    Also good to consider the work of Chris Rose, who illuminates the idea that there are a minority of people who like meetings, others who suffer them for the greater good; and a majority who don’t and won’t come.

  2. Great (and that’s not a word I use lightly) post. And I SOO wish I had thought of that title!

    I think there may be a class thing going on here too (!!) Middle class kids socialised and rewarded for their literacy (flipcharts, minutes) and working class kids getting their validation from mucking around with machines etc etc.

    This is a VAST generalisation, of course. There are plenty of under-confident m/c people who don’t like projecting themselves in meetings. There are issues around race, gender, confidence etc etc, and I am obviously not saying that working class people are inarticulate “Mellors” types/Noble Savages.

    But this tension you describe is real – and the people who’ve been getting on with the grubby dirty and unglamorous work can (rightly) feel) used by the Eloi…

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