Agendas, access and equality

Craig Freshley’s talking common sense again over on his Good Group Tips blog. This time he has words of advice on agenda setting. Amazing how such a simple concept as agreeing what to talk about can be so fraught with politics, power-plays and confusion! He writes:

“In principle, if we are a group of relative equals, deciding how we are going to spend our time together should be a group decision, or at least the group should decide the agenda-setting process. Further, every group member should understand the agenda-setting process and have access to it”

In that one short paragraph Craig’s put his finger on a number of important issues:

Firstly that agenda setting is an access issue as much as disabled access is, or having a hearing induction loop for the hearing impaired. It’s about letting people take part on an equal footing.

Secondly, if enough trust and accountability exists within the group then it’s fine to delegate the task of agenda setting to a working group, but the conditions in the group need to be right, and this needs to be agreed.

Thirdly, implied is that we often state we’re a group of “relative equals” (or indeed of equals, no relative about it), and yet in practice the way we set the agenda of a meeting gives the lie to that statement. An agenda set by a small number of people, an agenda set too quickly to allow for proper reflection, an agenda dictated by unrealistically short meeting lengths, an agenda only written on the chair’s notepad or with only a few copies printed…. all of these and more are obstacles to full participation, obstacles to equality and to access.

So at your next meeting consider who has set the agenda, and what that says about the power dynamics of your team, group or organisation – especially to those who didn’t have a chance to influence the agenda!



Dismantling the meeting, bit by bit

Photo: Fintan264

There are aspects of meetings I’ve always just accepted. There are other aspects I’ve always been uneasy about, but gone along with. Hmmm, probably not the kind of thing one should admit to on the internet.

Over the last year or so I’ve had the opportunity and the catalysts to challenge that acceptance and ‘going along with’ and make changes in how I think about meetings and how I approach them as a facilitator. Some of those catalysts have been in the form of wise words from co-facilitators. Some in the form of articles and blog posts – the joy of the web is that you can access thoughts of facilitators you may never meet.

Viv McWaters has just contributes a good-sized catalyst to the process of dismantling the meeting bit by bit in her post the myth of the agenda. Read it. Here’s a taste to tempt you:

An agenda is wallpaper – it covers the cracks in your meeting by pretending to provide structure and control. And certainty. When groups of people get together, yes, even for a meeting, amazing things can happen – if you allow it. An agenda is all about control and apparent efficiency. It’s also about someone being in charge – deciding what will and will not be on the agenda. It’s just another example of a one-to-many process.

Setting out your stall – introducing the day’s agenda

I spoke to, Richard, my co-facilitator of the recent Reclaim the Fields UK gathering today to debrief the experience. Amongst other things we discussed introducing the day’s agenda to the group. He asked for feedback, feeling it was something he didn’t usually do well. I don’t think he has much to worry about, but it was an interesting conversation about an aspect of a day’s facilitation that’s easy to overlook – the “agenda-check” that makes up part of the introduction to so many meetings.

This agenda for this meeting, like many I facilitate, wasn’t circulated in advance. It wasn’t clear who would be coming, so sending the agenda round just wasn’t practical. Even had it been, we still would have gone over it on the day. I like to see every agenda as a proposal, and indeed have written ‘proposed agenda’ at the top of the flipchart for as long as I can remember. So checking in with the group about the agenda is an established part of the routine, and I always ask “How does that sound? Does that work for you? Anything we need to change for today to be useful for you?” or some similar question.

The big problem is, that from a brief description of the day how likely is it that a group is in an informed position to know whether the proposed agenda will deliver on their expectations? Of course you can check back in at regular intervals. Of course if you’re doing your job well you’re always discerning the sense of the group and make changes accordingly.

But is that few minutes spent going over the agenda really about content anyway? Clearly, sometimes there’s a need to reassure anxious individuals and groups that specific discussions will happen and will be given the time they need. But it strikes me that much of the purpose of the agenda check is about setting the tone and building a strong working relationship. Even when we’ve co-designed the agenda with the group, it’s rarely with all of them, and for most this moment is their first sizeable glimpse of both you and the agenda. The details of content don’t matter, and often don’t sink in anyway. What the group take away is a sense of the dynamism (or lack of it) of the day – how interactive, how playful, how reflective, how full-on the day will be. They also get a sense of us as facilitators. How animated and energetic are we when we introduce the agenda, how quickly do we speak, how much eye contact do we make…… In many ways the agenda-check is a facilitator-check.

We’re setting out our stall. But like any stall, whether we browse or buy is not just about the wares the stallholder has on display, it’s about their presence. Too much, too little, too soon, too late and the customer may never even approach, or be scared off.

The agenda-less meeting: more musings

In the first part of this post fingers were compelled to keyboard by Chris Johnston’s post in which he critiqued the traditional activist meeting. He finished by promising us ideas for alternatives and has shared his thoughts in his latest post Birth of the activity meeting.

I’m more in tune with this post than his last one – it’s hard to disagree that meetings should: be activity-based; enable learning; give early responsibility; be fun and social. Chris calls these activity meetings. But I’m still a little uncomfortable with the possible interpretation that newcomers to activist meetings need a step by step introduction, hand-held all the way. See the middle step of his 3 posts Inspiration for the resurrection – it’s a fine line between peer support and coming across as paternalistic, patronising and worse.

Let me clarify…. given the choice of the way things are at the moment with your ‘average’ activist meeting, or the ideas that Chris offers, I’m sorely tempted to side with Chris. But it’s not that binary. Better agenda-based meetings are possible (paint that on your banner for the next march!). And they can be made accessible to newcomers.

Yes, have more (much more) activity in your agenda meetings. But the polarisation between the two creates a danger that we have a ‘committee’ doing the back-room drudge of agenda meeting stuff (including planning activity meetings) whilst newcomers have fantastic meetings. That way informal hierarchy and burn-out lie. So let’s take the drudge out of the agenda meetings we have whilst simultaneously organising parallel activity meetings. There’s no need to choose.

One choice is clear though, the way most activist groups currently meet has to change if we’re to encourage newcomers to join, and enable the current generation of activists to continue to make change.

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.