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Monday, February 27, 2006

Holding Better Meetings

The one thing that mostly gets stuck in people's minds after they've been to a DEC meeting is its sheer unproductiveness. Nothing seems to get done, your expectations get destroyed, and the world seems closer to oblivion.

Hudson over at MyDD recently did an EXCELLENT post on how to make meetings better. Here it is:

GRASSROOTS 101: 13 Cures for Bad Meeting Syndrome
We've all had this experience: We attend a meeting of the Concerned Citizens of Whoville. Lots of ideas are thrown around, in no particular order -- some awesome, some awful. Maybe an argument breaks out over strategy. A few people urge caution at every turn, finding reasons why every idea won't work, or is too "risky." Others build castles in the air -- plans and schemes which require dozens of volunteers, piles of cash, and years to come to fruition.

Then we all go home.

Until the next meeting.

And at that next meeting, the exact same thing happens: We argue. We brainstorm. We doodle. We wonder when the meeting will be adjourned so we can go home and do something useful, like folding laundry.

And everyone wonders: What happened to all those plans from the last committee meeting? Did anything get done since last month? Who was supposed to do those things? (Not me!) When will we ever save Whoville?

For those wanting to break this endless cycle of bad committee meetings which are all talk, no action, here is a short list of how you can stop having unproductive meetings, and start actually winning your grassroots battles.

NOTE: This advice is pitched at organizers, but is also meant for attendees -- so that you can hold your meetings' leaders more accountable, or start your own Whoville Concerns group if necessary. Not every suggestion will apply to every situation, so go ahead and pick and choose whichever ideas resonate.

(1) Form Task Forces, Not Committees.

Don't have committees. Have task forces instead. What's the difference, you ask? Good question.

A committee is a group which feels obliged to meet regularly -- and perpetually. There is no limit to the potential work they might do, and no finish line in sight. Procrastination becomes rife.

The most likely result of a committee meeting is that three sub-committees get formed. That just means more meetings, and more deferment of direct action to tackle the problem you met to address in the first place.

Committees tend to generate endless lists of ideas -- for someone else to do. Committees get boring quickly, and attendance drops, because there's always another monthly meeting where nothing much happens.

A task force is a group convened to address a specific problem or goal, within a limited time period. It has a clear purpose, and a definite lifespan. When that task is completed, it can disband -- or re-form itself to address the next task. But not until the first one is achieved.

(2) Ditch Roberts' Rules of Order

If you have to follow rigid rules of procedure in order to keep a meeting together, you might as well pack it in now. Roberts' Rules exist for one purpose: For someone in power to keep rowdies in line.

To be blunt: If the organizers of a group can't keep conversation flowing productively through firm but good-humored direction, and the attendees won't listen to each other unless someone cracks the whip with a musty rulebook, you've got the wrong organizers and the wrong attendees.

If you are in that situation, the mature folks in the room should recognize each other, and form their own group to get things done -- leaving behind the rest to call out "Madame Chairman, Point of Order!" every three minutes.

(3) Titles, Bylaws, and Minutes, Oh My!

Here's a little secret: No one reads minutes. Except the most pedantic and least useful members of your group. What you need from a meeting is a quick checklist of agreed-upon actions, with assignments of who does what.

People also love to talk about titles and bylaws, because it brings out everyone's combative or nitpicking streaks... and navelgazing is a whole lot easier than actually doing anything.

Who will be Chief Indian, and who will be Vice Chief? What constitutes a quorum? Were the minutes of the last meeting biased toward one faction or the other? However will we structure our complex organization... of seven people?

All these debates are substitutes for work.

So don't waste time on titles, bylaws and minutes, except to the extent you have some legal requirement to do so -- for example, the annual meeting of a nonprofit organization. If minutes are required, they should be as brief and pithy as possible. Don't bother with a blow-by-blow of every little thing said, because it just invites quibbling from the above-mentioned pedants.

Do yourself a giant favor: Let the actions that people take shape the group over time, rather than postponing action until you've all agreed on an ideal structure. There is no such thing, anyway.

(4) S/He Who Works, Leads

When you get to the point where you actually need titles, bylaws, or minutes, you'll know it. You will have been through enough together that the real "doers" will have emerged, and the talkers will have faded into the woodwork -- to avoid the work that everyone is being assigned, and held accountable for. Your leaders will be, de facto, those who actually followed through on the tasks they agreed to take on, and helped others to do the same.

(5) Encourage Brainstorming...

The free flow of ideas is essential to a lively conversation, and if you talk long enough, people do sometimes come up with surprisingly clever ideas. So long as the group is able to recognize a good idea when it appears, and then to follow through on it, brainstorming is the fun and lifeblood of a good meeting.

(6) ...But Have A Clear Agenda

But you also must have some kind of agenda going in. If people don't leave feeling that they've tangibly moved their issues forward, they won't come back.

An organizer of any meeting has an obligation to everyone who shows up: Attendees should leave feeling they got at least one meaningful thing done, and with an assignment for the next thing they can reasonably achieve before the next meeting. Such results only happens through real planning and conscious direction.

If your agenda for a meeting is just general discussion of broad topics, you have two options: cancel the meeting until there's more specific things to do, or have a working meeting.

A working meeting is one where you have a specific group task to achieve. It can be as simple as folding, labeling, sealing and stamping those 500 flyers. Conversation flows (and ideas emerge) informally. Nothing may come of that talk, except social bonding, which is important. Or great ideas may emerge, precisely because people are not trying to "perform" as often happens in a formal meeting. And if nothing else, you've got your flyers ready to mail out. Other ideas for working meetings: hand-painting signs together; going over voter or tax rolls looking for new supporters; having everyone bring in their address book, to send notes to friends to get involved; a homegrown telethon to drum up members or support... and so on.

It's guaranteed that people will go away feeling better about a working meeting than an unproductive one around a conference table.

(7) If It's Important, Don't Rely On E-Mail

How many times have you said or heard this phrase in a meeting: "I emailed him about it, but I never heard back"?

If it's important, don't just email someone. We all know how much email comes over the transom every day, and how little of it gets (or deserves) our attention.

Didn't hear back about that email? Then call the person. Send them a postcard. Send a fax, too. Knock on their door, if necessary. Do all of the above. In short, make a real effort to get an answer. Only then are you absolved of the burden of getting an answer -- and you'll at least never rely on that source for answers again. People are distracted in our society. We get far too much unwanted email, too much junk (snail) mail, and too many telemarketing calls. Americans are also working multiple jobs to make ends meet. So when you need to get in touch, it pays to contact people in every way you can. You may annoy 5% of people by being so persistent, but most will be glad that you got through.

(8) Keep the New Blood Flowing

All groups experience attrition: People move away, lose interest, get mad, flake out, and, well, die. A steady (but not overwhelming) stream of a few new faces per meeting helps keep things fresh, keeps people on their better behavior, and introduces different perspectives.

Naturally you want to avoid a revolving door. If you have a totally different group each meeting, that's not progress. But a well-organized group constantly attracts more people, because it will have buzz and excitement that others want to get involved with.

If meetings get too large, that's the point where you can finally consider sub-task forces or new projects. Too many members? That's the least of your problems.

(9) Make It Fun and Comfortable

This should seem obvious: People are more likely to get things done at (and come back to) meetings if they are held in a comfortable place, where everyone can see each other's faces, and not have to sit in the way back. There should be something to drink and munch on, but nothing so elaborate as to be a distraction.

Seems obvious... But how many grassroots meetings are held in a small room with 4-6 people around a little table, and the rest in the peanut gallery behind them (where the conversation leader can't see that they've got their hand up), with not even $5 worth of soda and peanuts on hand? It's kind of silly, but people truly are happier in a meeting if they have something which keeps their hands (and teeth) busy.

(10) Keep It Brief and to the Point

Another key to continuity and success in meetings is: Keep meetings short and brisk. 90 minutes is stretching it; an hour is ideal. If people are having such a good time, they'll stick around and keep talking more informally -- which is when a lot of the best ideas and strongest bonds come about.

(11) Identify Talent, Play to Strengths

An effective organizer recognizes people's strengths, and makes use of them. Some people like making calls and have a good telephone manner... Others hate it. The same goes for everthing from door- to-door work, opposition research, design, writing factsheets, to decorating the gym for a party.

Some of the most valuable people in any group are lone wolves. Put them in a group situation, and they are almost useless. But put them onto a specific task that taps into their strengths, and which they can tackle on their own into the wee hours of the night, and they'll amaze you with what they produce. There's no sense using someone who could design a website around your campaign, or someone who is adept at reading complex regulatory statutes, or someone who is a good public speaker, to do something else which they don't enjoy and wastes their talent.

And when others see what a great piece of work one of these people has produced, they'll be motivated to do something equivalent with their own, particular skills.

(12) Continuity Is Key

An underlying theme of many of these suggestions is continuity -- how to ensure that one meeting actually builds upon the previous one, rather than repeating it.

It seems elementary, but this rarely happens: The leaders of any group must check in with partic- ipants in-between meetings to get a status report on tasks they were assigned, nudge them along, provide help if they are stuck. And to remind them that they will be asked for a report on their assignment when you all get back together.

If you just wait until the next meeting and ask, "So, how did everyone make out with your assignments," you'll get a bunch of blank faces back. Unless you enjoy feeling like a teacher whose students never do their hoemwork, take steps to avoid that awkward and irritating moment by reaching out beforehand.

(13) Leverage Every Contact To Gain Critical Mass

The most difficult phase of organizing any campaign (whether political, or issue-oriented) is getting over the hump. Until you gain critical mass, things look bleak... How can a handful of people sitting around your kitchen table change anything?

Remember that every person who has expressed an interset in your committee, task force, cause (or whatever you choose to call it) has a world of contacts that even they may not be aware of. Even the most reclusive person can be a vehicle for spreading your message, even if it consists of bringing a small stack of flyers with them to the dentist's office.

With every person who gets involved, squeeze out as much good work and contacts as they can stand. Do they have a sibling, a co-worker, or a friend, who could come to the next meeting? Would they be willing to put your next announce- ment into an envelope, and send it to their local Christmas card list? Turning a Gang of Four into a Gang of Eight is as simple as each person bringing just one friend to the next meeting... And while such exponential growth has its limits, in my own town, we were able to expand a tiny band of 40 people into 4,000 paid-up members, and stop a major multinational corporation to destroy the place we lived with a massive, polluting plant -- despite the company spending nearly $60 million in its failed efforts.

You can prevail, whatever the issue is that matters most to you. Ending bad meeting syndrome is one place to start. Good luck out there.


This is very good advice for any DEC to follow.