Language, laptops and lethargy

A few things grabbed my attention whilst preparing for and facilitating the World Carfree Network‘s annual general meeting. As mentioned in the report back post, it was a very international gathering. I’ve noticed that these gatherings bring with them specific challenges for participation that I don’t encounter so often elsewhere.

There are the obvious ones like language, but in this instance we were able to use English as a common language with very few problems given the high standard of spoken English of all the participants.

No, the main challenge is the laptop or rather all of the laptops. Maybe it’s a ‘being away from the office’ thing – a perceived need to keep up with work via email. Maybe it’s more human than that – taking advantage of a venue’s wi-fi to skype friends and family back home. But laptops are suddenly everywhere in meetings. Look round your circle of participants and there could be as many as 30-40% of them with an open laptop on their knee. To my knowledge only one is taking minutes….. So are the rest distracted or focused? Does the laptop replace the visual learners need to doodle in order to increase access to the discussion? Or are they only half-listening and half web surfing?And during every break there’s a rush for the laptop with a comparable reluctance to return to the meeting at the end of the break.

I’m used to ‘phones off or on silent’ being a standard part of most group agreements that I negotiate with groups. Should laptops be added to the list?

Perhaps symptomatic of the same underlying issues is the lethargic response to calls for concrete action. After all, especially in the third sector, we’re busy people. We’re all stretched. Many of us are campaigners by both day and night. A group has done tremendous work reflecting, discussing, planning, consenting and then we get to implementing… and suddenly no one has the strength left to lift either hand or gaze when the moment comes to volunteer to take a project forward. OK so I’m exaggerating slightly, and I’m certainly not reflecting only on World Carfree Network here (they were pretty good as it goes), but all that hard work is in danger of slipping away unimplemented for lack of a volunteer working group… As a facilitator I find it a tough one. Sure I can throw a bit of weight around and cajole people into finishing the process off, but that’s not a role I’m comfortable with. Is it a reflection of the lack of substantial communication available to international working groups – that phone conferences don’t inspire in the way face-to-face meetings do, requiring more input for less outcome?

As always more questions than answers…

But before I stop, a brief reflection on agenda preparation. In this particular instance the WCN had done most of the hard work by the time I came along,and that seems to be common with the international organisations I’ve facilitated for. But it’s always harder to feel that you can inhabit such an agenda. It’s easier to live and breathe (and therefore facilitate) an agenda you’ve known and nurtured since conception. And yet I don’t always remember to have that conversation with groups. It’s an important one, and I enjoyed reading Gillian Martin Meher’s recent post on it.


Towards carfree cities

York’s a lovely city any day of the year, but on Friday it was in full sunshine. Perhaps not ideal when you know you’re going to be indoors all day. The World Carfree Network was holding its annual conference: Towards Carfree Cities IX . Friday, day 5 of a 7 day programme, was the day of the annual general meeting. It’s rare for us to facilitate such a widely international event. There were representatives of member organisations from across the globe – as far afield as Mexico and Austria down to the rarefied atmospheres of Leeds and York itself.

It’s also rare for us to facilitate an event with such a blend of formal governance structures and genuine grassroots democracy. I’m not used to facilitating discussions towards consensus one moment and in the next facilitating a formal vote for the election of Steering Committee members. WCN statutes require they attempt to reach consensus, but with an 80% majority vote fallback, which I’m glad to say that we didn’t require.

We heard updates on the organisation’s work and finances, and borrowed elements from Open Space for the main topic of discussion – running the Network effectively in a time of financial hardship. If you’ve got a bob or two to spare, I’m sure WCN would very much appreciate all donations, big or small. At this point I should say that this was one of Rhizome’s pro bono pieces of work. We’re committed to using the surplus we create from paying clients to support grassroots organisations who could benefit from external facilitation, training or mediation but don’t have the resources to pay for it.

For me it was very positive – watching the group work hard to find co-operative and creative solutions to their problems. In an ideal world we would have got further with the detailed planning of next steps, but on day 5 of a packed programme energy levels were understandably low and finishing on time seemed more appropriate.

I’m told that we set an all time record for finishing on time. I was regaled with anecdotes of previous AGMs going on so long that they spilled over into the planned evening entertainment – heated discussions going on until 1am on a riverboat ride in Budapest whilst the sights drifted past unseen…

These evaluation comments give you a representative sample…

What worked well

What worked well 2

What worked less well