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.


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.

Reclaiming the fields: rivers, cafes and commercial greenhouses

Saturday, I was co-facilitating a day’s meeting with the emerging Reclaim the Fields UK network. RTF exists elsewhere in Europe as a network of mainly young people trying to take back control of food production. Until Saturday there was no equivalent network here in the UK.

45 people came together from a range of projects, some rural and some urban, at Grow Heathrow to share stories, connect, and begin to think about how they can work together as a UK network.

A few days ago there seemed to be a shift from the organisers and we were being asked to facilitate all of the above plus a few much more concrete agenda items – discussion and decision-making on an upcoming international day of action, for example. Suddenly the agenda looked overfull and the emphasis on lovingly preparing the soil and sowing the seeds of the network looked threatened. Some negotiation followed and it was agreed that there was no need for a co-ordinated response to the day of action – groups and projects could decide autonomously on their response and we could go back to a more reflective agenda.

In the morning we asked people to draw and then tell their stories using the metaphor of rivers. We then heard from folk at Organic Lea about the history of land movements in the UK – Kett’s rebellion, the Levellers, the mass trespass at Kinder Scout and more. The afternoon was spent in a World Cafe process designed to explore and deepen the participants’ understanding of the common ground between existing projects as a step on the road to an effective UK network. Running a World Cafe in an old commercial greenhouse with long benches for seating, and few flat surfaces (except the flagstone and gravel floor) to write on required a little ingenuity, but we improvised and it worked fine.

I came away content that we’d done a good job. Not that there wasn’t stuff to learn.

The shift in emphasis on the agenda, I mentioned above, told me that we had been too quick to accept the original ‘brief’ we’d been given. It had all seemed very clear, but we should have questioned it a bit harder, because if there’s other things on the organisers’ minds they will come out, if not in advance then on the day. Indeed it may not have been a shift – it may have been there all along, just not being articulated.

We also changed the third and final question of our World Cafe – an intuitive decision which we hoped would help create a firmer foundation. The original final question had seemed OK to us, and to the organisers in the run-up, but on the day we weren’t convinced it added enough to the existing discussion.

The last half hour was given over to finding volunteers to ensure that another gathering could take place to start planning the detail of a network. In reality people began to share a series of disconnected or loosely connected ideas, many of which were unrelated to future gatherings. It’s clear from this that the World Cafe hadn’t created enough space for all of these ideas to emerge and be heard. We ran with it and still had time to find a working group to take forward the idea of a second gathering in Bristol or Glasgow. I think we could have got the working group decision sooner had we been firmer in articulating what we saw the purpose of that final 30 minutes as being. I think there was enough reluctance at dictating such a narrow purpose for the group to feel empowered to use the time for other things. And that’s no bad thing, although it might have been had we not brought it back to the next gathering in time.

I haven’t seen the evaluations yet. But will post them and some photos when they’re sent across to me