Agenda… the word is loaded with meaning, spanning both one realm that is extremely logical and rational, as well as another that is deeper, more fraught, and generally less conscious. I recently made a discovery that fits somewhere in the dance between these two….
This particular small group seemed to be in the throes of transition. An initial “project-manager-as leader” structure had evolved and been quite helpful during an earlier phase of the project, yet at this point a more collaborative team leadership structure was being called for. This is much clearer now, in hindsight. At the time, not much was clear, except that something wasn’t working well. Some team members had already threatened to stop attending the planning and implementation coordination meetings led by the project manager.
The existing meeting structure began with a circle check-in, an opportunity for connection that was clearly appreciated by this group. Yet the energy seemed to take a nosedive whenever the project manager presented a long list of concerns to begin the “work” part of the meeting. While the “draft agenda” was followed by an invitation to add any additional items she might have missed, this did not appear to lift the energy.
From a purely rational perspective, agendas serve a very logical function of “Let’s make a list of all the things we need to talk about, so we don’t forget any of them. Then we can prioritize, and start talking about them”. Yet as human beings, we are not just rational, and something was clearly not working in this situation.
Given the time pressures of an intense implementation schedule, there was not much time for lengthy analysis or discussion. Instead, I acted on a hunch. Even though my formal role in this situation was one of content expertise rather than process consulting, I offered an in-the-moment intervention. “Let’s NOT do an agenda today,” I suggested. “Instead, we can keep going around the circle. Mary, as the project manager, why don’t you start, and pick ONE item from your list… maybe the one that feels most urgent or pressing to you.”
Mary blinked, but chose an item. “Now tell us what you think should happen with it, and what kind of help you would like. So that we don’t get stuck on any one item, if the group hasn’t come up with something that works for you in the next five minutes, we’ll go on to the next person and their most pressing concern. After we go around the circle in this way, we’ll come back to any unfinished items.”
And then the group began to enthusiastically work on the issue that Mary had named – they seemed ready and willing to take responsibility, demonstrate competence, and shoulder the work that needed to be done. In three and a half minutes, the issue was resolved to Mary’s satisfaction, and group was ready to move on to the next person. We continued by having that person offer their most pressing concern, their initial solution idea, and any requests for help, as the framework for the next burst of group collaboration.
By the time we had finished going around the circle in this manner, the group seemed fully energized and ready to go and continue carrying out their various responsibilities. It also seemed that Mary might be starting to feel less overwhelmed and more supported, realizing that she wasn’t the only one holding the concerns of the group-as-a-whole.
However, it took a few times before the new pattern became clearly established. The next time the group met, there was some back-and-forth about what form to use. Despite the clear success of the previous meeting, a few group members were ready to dismiss it as an “interesting experiment” and return to the conventional approach of “creating an agenda” before working on any of the issues.
Others, however, were extremely reluctant to start by having the whole group listen to the project manager read the long list she’d prepared beforehand. Fortunately, the group as a whole chose to go with what had already begun to work well in practice, regardless of how unconventional it might be in theory.
By the end of the project, the whole team was working well in a collaborative leadership mode. While it’s likely that many other factors contributed to this shift, I was struck by how useful it had felt to change the traditional “agenda” format. I wanted to write about this discovery and share it with others, in case you find yourself in a situation where this might be a useful approach to take.
Those of you already familiar with Dynamic Facilitation, might recognize a few parallels between that method, and my on-the-spot improvisation. This team was not working on a “wicked problem” and there was no need (or room) for the “four charts”. However, I did encourage each person to offer their own “initial solution” to their “most pressing issue”, before having the group work on that issue. On a broader level, it was my own comfort and experience in working with DF’s emergent and multiple agendas, that inspired me to play with variations on the conventional agenda format.
Those of you not familiar with Dynamic Facilitation, (or those of you who want to deepen your practice!) may want to consider attending “From Conflict to Creative Community”, my upcoming workshop in Ottawa… there are still a few spots left, and I would love to have you join us, if you are so inspired!