Three thoughts on making a meeting into a meeting place

Three thoughts on making a meeting into a meeting place

Grouding meetings that are happening in the ether. Making a meeting into a meeting place. As the host, encouraging a meeting to be a place which makes space for emerging relationships.

Much of my working time in the last week has been diverted to cutting a brief from Leading Edge Forum's research into reconfiguring the collaborative workspace. This to help provide some stabilisers, pointers and provocations to provide support and encouragement in the current acceleration to remote and virtual working. Expect more in this space soon!

But for now I wanted to zoom in on a tiny moment of illumination in a coaching session yesteday. We were speaking about connecting in meaningful ways in virtual settings. Conversations about adapting to current, and perhaps irreversibly different, working arrangements are pretty much all the conversations I'm having just now at work.

This brings to mind work conducted with the World Health Organisation in 2010 and 2011 on collaborative meetings and products. From that, I’ve extracted a short description of how Professor Clive Holtham, running a webinar on webinars, set up our meeting place, with new underlining:

Placing a meeting

A while back I was in a webinar in a grand, windowless meeting room in the HQ of a global organization. There were about 14 people in the room and, sitting in his business school in London giving us a webinar on virtual meetings, a professor known only to me. It was a terrific webinar because he knew just what he was doing. In spite of being largely disconnected from the dynamics in the room, he knew how to facilitate a group who were a bit uneasy with the strange dislocated dynamics. Two things stay with me that I use in handling virtual meetings (often with strangers) now.
First. He took great care to describe where he was, not just the room he was in, but the brand spanking new building the room was in and history of that part of London, including showing us pictures of the cemetery up the road: Bunhill Fields where John Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress), George Fox (founder of the Quakers), William Blake (the poet) and Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe) are buried. He also invited us to describe where we were: in a windowless basement, in an iconic United Nations building commissioned in 1959 and completed in 1966, on a hill overlooking Lake Geneva. We had placed the meeting, institutionally and geographically, rather than leaving it drifting in an international vacuum.
Second. He encouraged us to reflect on how it felt to be in the webinar with the prime person absent and unknown. Some people described it as feeling cool rather than warm.
These might feel like small things, quite easy to overlook, but actually they’re massive in terms of placing people together in time, place and purpose, so that they can find a useful way of going on together. [Professor Clive Holtham, from Collaborative Encounters, 2011]

Making a meeting place

Tempo, ritual, and explicit structure and process matter even more in virtual settings than in face to face ones if meetings are to be more than a series of chaotic, incomplete and unsatisfyingly rushed interactions. With people who are multi-tasking bcause they are late for the next meeting and haven't had time to follow up from the last one. And probably, just now, are simultaneously trying to work out how to handle remote working they aren't really set up for, when the whole office has to close because the schools have just been closed.

Virtual can anyway be an even harder place to interrupt, cut through and make space to contribute, or to be fully present and in the flow of the work together, especially if you are the only one not in the room where it happens. Even more so if your natural style is to retreat to think things through and form what you want to say, rather than just jump in. Now, more than ever, it's vital to work hard together to uncrowd the virtual workplaces, already cluttered with agenda items, opinion, power just below the surface or fully on display, skewed by seniority, and drained of energy and attention.

How is there a way, in remote gatherings, to do some of the hard work that normally defaults to face to face settings - the work of making room for difference in order to come to sound decisions?

Recently, I’ve been working with the Swiss International Sociocratic Centre and am studying towards a Diploma in the Sociocratic Circle Method in a small international circle (Greece, UK, US) and supported by the Swiss expert team. There’s no place here for a full unfolding of the substance of the structures that are the foundations of the Sociocratic Circle Method. I can say though that my own modest experience is that this is a way of bringing a structure into a meeting that creates an unusually considered meeting place.  A place to which each brings themselves wholeheartedly, fully attending making new meaning together from encountering difference close up - in stripped back, structured rounds:

  1. An information round
  2. Two (or perhaps more) opinion rounds
  3. The development of a proposal
  4. Seeking and gaining consent to something (or leaving it to season if consent is elusive).

The knowledge that the power of everyone present is equivalent, that you will be witnessed, and commit to witnessing others, in pursuit of consent around an agreed subject, grounds meetings internally too. It's hard work, mind, and calls up self-regulating discipline that is rare, and necessary. As one of our number said, when we met in Solothurn in September last year "there's no corner to hide in in a Circle."

And consent is not consensus. You've been heard. You've been considered. You are now willing to consent to a course of action you might not have chosen. Consent has a much harder edge of going all in, sticking together and dealing what what follows without witholding or withdrawing because you didn't get your way.

Knowing that you are in this structure allows you to put principles above personalities, and to connect with your own inner spaces, and so connect differently with each other, and make your presence count.

The spiritual and foundational qualities of place

In ‘Illuminating the Blind Spot: Leadership in the Context of Emerging Worlds’, Scharmer & co. invoke Nonaka’s concept of  ’ba’. This is also useful for developing our mental models of meeting place, and placing meetings, both the internal places we make and the fluid external places we are present in, in constantly evolving relation to others and to the making of sense that happens between us. He speaks of  ’ba’ as being a space for emerging relationships, characterised by the following five elements:

  • Self-organisation - participants must “get involved and cannot be mere onlookers”
  • An open boundary that allows both for cocooning and for openness to other qualities (what the LEF research describes as porousness)
  • Transcending habitual patterns of time, space and self - participants share time and space and transcend their own limited perspectives or boundaries
  • Dialogues which make room for multiple perspectives and allows participants to see themselves through one another
  • A sphere that is constantly moving - every participant in a good place is at the same distance from the centre, which is not a fixed point, leading to maximum capacity and minimum conflict

Good enough for now, safe enough to try

So then, three ways of standing back and thinking about how these principles and practices might help you make a meeting, virtual or not, into a meeting place.
Holding to a core principle of sociocracy, this doesn’t have to be perfect, or forever. Just for now. All you have to ask yourself about some actions you might take is:
Is it good enough for now?
Is it safe enough to try?

Want more?

Alim, our commissioner for Collaborative Encounters (originally Collaborative Meetings and Products) has given me permission to share the report that David Gunn and I wrote, with involvement from him and Clive Holtham in 2011. Here it is. (Do let me know if you use any part of it.) David and I also started work on a collaborative encounters website which has an essay and some case studies on it, together with some of the patterns. It's been drifting for a few years now, but still holds insight.

A couple of years ago, I cut a version of this, updated, into a deck for a webinar that I offered as a gift for Steve Denning when he launched his book on agile organisations. Just a handful of slides.  I called it Make.Shift (as in Make.Shift.Happen and every collaboration space is make shift too). If you’d like a guided tour, just let me know.

Here are two blogs on the virtues of virtual leadership, and on place-making as a host. There are others, a bit more tangential, around creating a mindfulness infrastructure, and soundscapes.

Here's Otto Scharmer & co's article on Illuminating the Blind Spot in leadership which speaks of 'ba'.

Liberating structures is a useful set of collaboration rituals which might help you structure virtual collaborative workplaces as much as physical ones.

Be careful in what you read around sociocracy. Jeannine and Suzanne at the Swiss Sociocratic Centre are my guides and mentors and if you are interested in exploring ideas of the Sociocratic Circle Method further, I’d recommend doing it with them. I can put you in touch.  

Finally, you'd like an LEF briefing on virtual and remote working, building on Reconfiguring the Collaborative Workspace, drop me a line -

Photo by Joel Fulgencio on Unsplash