Making meetings effective could be a life and death issue.
Partnership working often requires joint delivery of something – whether a strategy, programme of action, event or whatever. But producing something jointly is a challenge. That’s one of the reasons why in organisations tasks are typically delegated – strip everything down to its component parts then use a hierarchical structure to bring it back together. But for partnership working it frequently needs to be a joint endeavour.
So, if you can’t find a way to jointly produce your health and wellbeing strategy you may well end up with something unworkable, which doesn’t meet the interests of all partners or which doesn’t have general buy-in – or possibly all three. And without a good strategy, there’s a risk of not doing the things which could make a tremendous difference to the health and wellbeing of your local population over the next 10-20 years – like moving to a more preventive and genuinely co-productive approach.
This is ‘for want of a nail’ stuff. So while it’s unglamorous and in many ways a small detail, and while it’s certainly not the only barrier to success, a failure to get people to jointly produce useful outputs could doom your health and wellbeing strategy or other joint endeavour, which could mean people dying early and living miserable lives.
I was interested in effective meetings and workshops when I was working for national organisations, but now back on ‘the front line’, I’ve seen how this can be make or break, in a number of areas of partnership working.
So, how to get most, and most appropriate, input from each partner organisation? The problem is that much of the work (in producing a strategy, planning a project or event) is best done individually, such as reading, making notes, ringing people, writing text. So the obvious thing to do would be to meet when appropriate – for people to get to know each other, to discuss and generate ideas, come to agreement – and do the rest of the work individually, co-ordinating electronically. The difficulty is that people often don’t do the things they should outside of the meeting. Paradoxically, they will spend two or three hours going to a meeting but won’t, (or maybe can’t), spend the same time doing that work at their desk. So one answer is to get people doing the work in the meeting.
At one stage in my career I experienced an attempt to do this. Several organisations were trying to produce a joint website. No-one was keeping up with the deadlines to produce text. So the project manager called a meeting where we would each, in our small groups, sit and type the text. There was some objection to turning up to a meeting of this sort, but it worked. I’ve also, over the years, experimented with different workshop formats, trying to make them more effective, sometimes disastrously but occasionally with some success.
So how can you get people to jointly do the work in a face-to-face setting? How do you turn a ‘meeting’ into a ‘work-shop’? What you are trying to get away from is plenary, or even small group, discussion where most people aren’t contributing most of the time, some people dominate, it often doesn’t produce conclusions or usable outputs and only a small amount is recorded. In such cases, the result is far less than the sum of what the participants could have produced individually.
Even within ‘traditional’ approaches there are advances on that. Individuals write on post-it notes which are collectively grouped and labelled on a flip chart. Discussions are electronically recorded and written up afterwards so important details (frequently concrete examples) are not lost.
But it’s possible to do even more. For instance, one person might check facts or find information on the internet. Another might skim a critical document, drawing out key ideas or evidence to feed in to another part of the process. A group of two or three people could draw a diagram, flow chart or systems map, perhaps with one person doing the drawing, another thinking through the details while a third keeps an overview. Someone else could write a key piece of text which is then edited by two others, with discussion about differences if appropriate. So a lot of work is done individually, but there's also plenty of valuable interaction.
It is not as easy as it sounds to adopt such a process. People tend to revert to traditional meeting styles. Maybe it’s because that’s what they know best, or perhaps it’s just the easier option.
I don’t have all the answers, and it actually depends on the people, the task and the context, which makes it more of a craft than a science, but here are a few of the things I think that can help make it work:
- Getting the general idea of a ‘work-shop’ understood and accepted. That means being able to describe it clearly and succinctly, and ideally point to past successes from using the approach.
- Explaining it to participants in advance so they know what to expect and what to bring (e.g. devices to access the internet, hard copies of key documents).
- Getting the organisation and layout of the room right. For instance, providing for people to work at tables rather than having seats in a circle for a discussion. There might also be workstations, each for a different task, with people able to move from one to another. Resources should be available, such as pens (and other markers), post-its, paper, flip charts, laptops, printers, access to the internet and key documents.
- Setting out the tasks quite explicitly. Because it’s a new way of working for most people, they need to be guided (a mistake I’ve made a few times in the past). This should particularly include what kind of output you are looking for. (E.g. a person on their own to produce draft text but if working pairs, to produce the equivalent in note form, to be written up properly afterwards).
- Ensuring people have appropriate roles. It’s easier to allocate people to tasks if you know them quite well and you know who is going to turn up. If that’s not the case, it may be better to let people choose what they do. The key thing is for people to be doing what they’re comfortable with and good at. You obviously don’t want people who hate writing to be tasked with producing text. The roles could be distinguished by task – e.g. writing, drawing, liaising – or function, e.g. researching, producing output, editing or critiquing. Some roles might be more about managing the process – for instance acting as an intermediary between different groups or co-ordinating activities
- Organising the process. There will be a need for co-ordination, both via the planning and during the event itself. Ideally, as people become more familiar with the approach, they will soon be able to self-facilitate, taking the initiative and finding useful things to do, but there may still be a need for someone to have overall control and allocate tasks (but it doesn’t have to be the meeting organiser who does that).
So how has this worked for me in practice? As I say, I’ve had a few disasters (some very disgruntled participants when they were expecting to come to a presentation!) plus some half successes. Just this week I suggested the approach (in passing, via email) to the person facilitating, but it was done by small groups (4-6 people) being given a long list of tasks and left to get on with it. So naturally we just sat around chatting, with some people dominating. (And frankly it would have seemed a bit rude if I’d suggested we each individually write our own proposals, even though in fact it might have been more effective). More positively, a few weeks ago, as part of developing a strategy, participants embraced the idea and we did get some task based, individual and group working, but it was mainly the familiar post-its approach and by about half way through we’d reverted to a big discussion.
Still, just writing this blog has sharpened my thinking a bit, and we’ve got another session in a month’s time, so I’ll see whether we can’t try and do it a bit better then. I’ll let you know how we get on. And who knows, we might even eventually save a life or two.