I attended two meetings on the same day last week – one in the morning and another in the early evening. There were some common participants – though most were not. I was struck by how the space and configuration of both gatherings differed and affected how things went. The key issue was how the space was used.
The first meeting is a regular gathering that assembles around a round table. There are now so many attendees that we have to move back from the table in order to let everyone in and the circular table functions only as a place to hold coffee cups and refreshments. The meeting has a chair and a common discussion agenda known in advance. Participants can see one another well. The leader starts informally with a question and invites responses. These are varied and certainly not unanimous, but what marks them is intelligent speaking and deep listening. We retain our own points of view but grow by learning from others. There is high trust developed over years of regular meeting – but it is also possible to invite new members without appearing to be a closed shop. In fact a newcomer joined us this week, participated, and remarked at the end, “I’ve been looking for a group like this for some time.”
The second meeting was in an a room resembling a rectangular parlor – filled with random furnishings – some sofas and wing chairs and a few dining chairs. The meeting chair was at one end of the room. There was a small topic list on a display board. Participants could not see each other well though hearing was not a problem. The dynamic was quite different, partly because it was a newer group, but also because the shape didn’t support the common purpose of moving forward and collaborating. The shape of the room also didn’t allow participants to see others’ faces.
Others who attend might have different observations than mine. But circles go way back in how people gather. First nations people meet in sacred circles and use symbols like a talking stick to signify respect for and attention to the speaker. I’ve sat at many rectangular meeting tables through the years as well as being in many classrooms. What these room shapes share is a different dynamic in the relationship between the leader and the participants. One year on the first day of teaching, I asked the back row of the high school class (all boys, naturally) to come up and take the front row while everyone else was to move one place back. I then said – “Just, kidding, – but I’ve got your number”. Similarly even on a small board, the not-so-loyal opposition sat as far away from the chair as possible and made her life difficult in every meeting by opposing pretty much everything even when the all had a common purpose.
Space and setting matter. Both are worth consideration before you convene your next meeting. As a colleague observed recently, when people say that meetings are a waste of time, they really mean Bad Meetings.
You may hope I didn’t really mean Bored Orientation. For better or worse many of us who sit on volunteer boards have experienced an orientation session recently. There are some things I really like about the process — and some that I would prefer were handled differently.
A changeover in volunteer personnel can be exciting and there are many ways to accomplish integrating new and continuing members of boards. One way that happened last year was to be taken to a posh club’s private dining room for breakfast and to get the lowdown on how everything works. The more recent session was more conventional. It went somewhat better than I anticipated. At least this actual one was not as bizarre as the one depicted in BBC’s wonderful spoof, W1A.
The first plus on entering the room was the setup. The meetings regularly take place in a large room to accommodate the more than forty participants. Usually the room configuration looks something like this:
People can neither see each other nor much on the screen above the heads of the chairman. So perhaps a good start for any orientation meeting would respond to this preference:
Does the room setup work relate to the meeting’s purpose? Can the participants all see and hear one another?
But instead, this time the room looked something like this:
There were actually two large tables to seat four people on both sides of the room with a large aisle in the middle. Welcome back to high school. We were in a classroom with the teacher up front — to be instructed as newcomers — even though some of us had been actively involved in the organization for two to four years; fewer than a third were coming for the first time. But there was little likelihood that there would be an attempt to find out what anyone already knew. My preference :
Does this meeting require my presence and what is my role? Am I a new learner or a mentor? What do people know already?
The introductions at least rated an A. The facilitator asked us to rise from our chairs. We then learned about the geographic areas we represented by walking along a continuum or treating the room’s four corners like a map — moving around based on the color of our socks, or where we lived, or where we were born, or where we lived the longest, and what we saw as our highest priority for the organization. This gave us a quick orientation to the diversity. It met my preference:
For introductions, do something to see the range and diversity of participants that makes a visual impression. Just saying names won’t work for most of us.
Another introduction trick I like for a smaller group is to ask people to state two lies and one truth about themselves and let others guess which is correct.
My own would be:
a) I jumped out of an airplane.
b) A Zulu chief spilled coffee on my living room carpet.
c) I sang a solo on the stage of a national arts centre.
(if you read to the end you can find out the real answers!).
The next time you meet the person introduced in this way, it will be easier to remember their true fact than their first and last names.Therefore my preference:
Whether you have a large or small group, make introductions entertaining and fun.
But then things went downhill as we started what is known in a orientation as a “read-along” — rather like a sing-along but without the noise. There was text on the screen with a heading like “Significant Decisions”. Knowing the history of any organization is vital. But we don’t agree to serve on volunteer boards just to make significant decisions. We serve to change the world for the better. My preference:
In an orientation session a passionate story of changed lives encourages us to dream of a better future. Text headings or summaries combined with reading aloud assumes participants are illiterate. If the text is too dense or too small, perhaps we are.
There was a good exception to this format when a lawyer introduced us to the organization’s statutes. The wording was on the screen in a typeface actually large enough to read. She commented on the content very briefly and told us where to look for it later if we needed to: My preference:
Keep the focus on the big picture that you want people to take away and provide the detailed references in a handout. And don’t let the handout compete for attention in the session iteself.
Then we received a diagram explaining the organizational structure. Here is its shape with the titles slightly amended.
I found this very puzzling. The organization’s members seem to have some ability to push up — or back. Top down is probably accurate. It’s the slanted line that I don’t understand. But no one questioned what the diagram meant — including me. The next slide contained a suggestion that both the two should work collaboratively. But this diagram has a line that divides the two and it looks as though we are on a teeter-totter. My preference:
Test a diagram in advance to see if it conveys the meaning you intend.
Next came the expected org charts. The images on one of them didn’t match the handout and it must have been a last minute inspiration to do something graphic — it was the only thing vaguely ressembling a picture all day. Parts of the chart were colored and they flew in on the screen but the words were too small to read. So was the text on the handout without a high powered magnifying glass. My preference.
Check anything mounted on a big screen or handout for readability. And forget special effects, which distract from your message.
Next — Departmental presentations. What we saw on the big screen were personnel names — and telephone extensions. I didn’t need to phone anyone right then and I was not likely to use the handout in the future as a telephone book. My preference:
Avoid cutting and pasting something from a staff directory and calling it a presentation.
Here was another opportunity missed for the directors to speak passionately about the importance of the work they do — and to tell their stories. It’s the classic case of sharing features when what we need to hear about is benefits.And how about a quick online visit to Facebook and Twitter rather than being told that the organization has these sites ? My preference:
Show — instead of tell — whenever possible.
The last section before lunch dealt with our role as members of the board. That seemed promising. Were we going to hear from a continuing member about the satisfaction and opportunities in this kind of volunteer work? But no. Instead we had another read-along about current organizational mission, vision and values.
The topic might have been the most important reason for the day — so its agenda placement was puzzling. The graphics assigned roles of leadership, implementation and governance — in that order — to leader, staff and board members respectively.
While a leader has a role to play — presumably leading those who are already keen to follow because they have a stake in the outome — it raises the question of what governance really is. Are board members simply keepers of the flame or do they have a larger role to play in determining the organization’s future? My preference:
Explore what organizational leadership really involves. It’s something for a leaders, board members and staff to determine collaboratively. The orientation meeting could begin that conversation. Every meeting that follows needs to have it on the agenda.
I have served on volunteer boards of various sizes for more than twenty years. Sorting out these three issues is the most important thing we do — working on the business as opposed to working in the business. But we were moved onward to more mundane suggestions about how we were to behave — “show up, read the background materials, vote”. We then saw the meeting schedule for the year. My preference:
If the right people get elected or appointed — and that does mean “if “— these expectations are so basic to the process that we should assume they are there already. We need to leave commited and inspired!
Time for lunch. . . .
(a) FALSE I didn’t jump out of an airplane — but one of my sons did. b) TRUE. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a Zulu Chief, isited Canada in 1963 for an international conference and was also photographed by the famous portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh; the coffee spill was totally accidental. b) FALSE. I sang in a massed choir.)