Some of the most transcendent moments I’ve seen onsite have taken place in carefully controlled settings, where every aspect of a meeting was engineered to get people talking to each other. And listening across the boundaries of language, culture, agenda, and organizational loyalties.
As meeting professionals, we don’t often talk about the incredible convening power that falls into our hands, every time we bring a group together. Some planners and meeting designers take it for granted—it’s just what they do. Others rarely think about it, preferring to leave the heavy lifting of purpose and process to their clients.
But the ability to build a community of knowledge and understanding—on very good days, the ability to help that group form a common purpose or agree on a course of action—is one of the greatest benefits our profession has to offer. It’s an outcome that takes time, skill, patience, and resources. And it’s one of the best reasons to make sure a meeting is good when economic times are bad.
The problem is that the outcome of stakeholder meetings and consultations is by no means guaranteed. And when an onsite process goes wrong, it can do far more harm than good.
That was one factor that led Associate Professor Tess Lea, an anthropologist from Darwin, Australia, to conclude several months ago that workshops and consultations are bad for Indigenous health.
Lea had attended the Australia 2020 Summit, an initiative of the newly-elected Rudd government “aimed at harnessing the best ideas for building a modern Australia ready for the challenges of the 21st century,” according to a government website. Her critique speaks for anyone who has ever attended a consultation or outreach session with high hopes, only to come away with the telltale signs of consultation fatigue.
“Somehow, despite the gathering of some of Australia’s most independently minded protagonists, the solutions were exactly what the government is perfectly orchestrated to deliver,” Lea wrote. “So how does it happen that we ask for more of what we know to be the problem?”
She traced a textbook process that could have, or should have, been robust: from background papers to frame the issues, through facilitated breakout sessions driving toward agreement and action. But somehow, she said, the need for “consensus and reduction” stifled innovation and averaged out the loud, knowledgeable, divergent voices that should have given the entire process its meaning.
“Only dot points or caption phrases that were unarguable (such as ‘build community capacity’; ‘respect Indigenous knowledge systems’) could survive the punishing collective editing processes and pressure of the clock,” she wrote.
“The task of collapsing the contributions into something palatable for ministerial and media display was left to anonymous public servant helpers, specially recruited from the ranks of the young and promising to serve the discreet, invisible, yet highly consequential task of final editing.”
It didn’t have to turn out that way. Many years ago, I was part of a project team that covered a national consensus conference on HIV/AIDS prevention education. The issues were urgent, participants were expecting a tough discussion…and I’m sure some of them had doubts about the outcome.
The facilitator promised that everyone would be heard, and that our reporting team would capture the entire debate, in all its complexity—there would be no effort to average a wide diversity of views into an artificial consensus.
Then he distributed a collection of green, red, and yellow cards, and told participants that each group decision would be subject to a vote: green for agreement, red for disagreement, and yellow for propositions that were not ideal, but adequate. Crucially, he said anyone could raise a red card if an item needed further debate.
For those three days in the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec, consensus was defined as a healthy number of green cards, a wide scattering of yellow cards, and no reds.
The process worked, for two reasons that I could see. The first was a gifted facilitator who earned participants’ confidence by promising to respect their views, then delivering on the promise. The second was a reporting system that relied not on the “anonymous public servant helpers” in Lea’s account, but on a team of independent specialists.
It’s a model that any of us can adopt for any meeting that needs it. At a time when the global economic meltdown is challenging more and more meeting professionals to justify their jobs, we would do well to pay more attention to the design features that may be most important to our clients and our organizations.