I’ve been keen to read some of the leadership books I’ve read reviews of but not found time to read. A few months ago, some people involved in ALA activities who wanted to do the same decided to set up a library leadership book club. we all voted on the books we wanted to read and the most popular one was How to make meetings work: the new interaction method. We had around a month to read it and then set a date to discuss it via Google Hangout.
The interaction method
The edition of the book I read was published in 1976 and it was amusing to read some of the suggestions about using typewriters (or getting your secretary to type it for you!). Unfortunately though, despite being published a long time ago, many of the problems discussed in the book are still true of some meetings today, such as:
- Multi-headed animal syndrome (everyone going off in different directions at the same time)
- Confusion between process and content (talking about how to discuss topic or what to discuss)
- Unclear roles and responsibilities
- Data overload
- Repetition (going over same ideas again and again)
- Traffic problem (managing conversation and ensuring everyone gets chance to speak)
- Confused objectives and expectations
- Problem avoidance
- Poor meeting environments
The interaction methods aims to address these by having four defined roles in a meeting (plus other general principles such as defining the purpose of the meeting and only holding them if necessary). The four roles involved in the interaction method are:
- Group member
Each of these roles are self correcting, with all three other roles keeping them in check. The main difference you’ll probably note are the roles of facilitator and recorder which meetings don’t tend to have, and these are the roles much of the book concentrates on.
The facilitator is a ‘neutral servant’ of the group – they facilitate the meeting but do not contribute their own ideas or evaluate other’s ideas. The facilitator is responsible for ensuring the meeting moves towards its purpose (usually in making a decision) and ensuring that all group members have had opportunity to contribute. They are also responsible for organising meeting arrangements and logistics.
The recorder is also a neutral role and again does not evaluate content. The recorder ensures that each point discussed at the meeting is recorded. This record acts as the group memory so that the group members can focus on the conversation. The group memory also acts as a visual reminder of where ideas have come from, and supports the facilitator when reviewing meeting progress or aiming to move to a consensus. The book recommends using flip charts for the group memory (though of course now it may be possible to do this electronically and project to a screen).
The group members are active participants in the meeting. In addition to contributing to the meeting, they are also responsible for ensuring the facilitator and recorder are fulfilling their roles as expected (i.e. unbiased, comprehensive, not favouring certain group members).
The chairperson/manager is an active group member during the meeting, though is also responsible for setting the agenda, setting any constraints to ideas, urging members to take responsibility for tasks, and making final decisions (particularly when group consensus cannot be reached).
Thoughts about the interaction method
When we discussed the model in the book group, we agreed that some elements were definitely something we could see the advantage of whilst others we were not sure about.
- Group memory – we were unanimous in agreeing that the group memory would definitely be an advantage to many meetings, and we discussed different ways of using technology to help facilitate this (no typing up afterwards that way!). One option we discussed was using Google Docs to enable more than one person to contribute to the group memory. We weren’t sure whether sharing the role of facilitator was a good or bad thing though – it may lead to confusion over roles again and mean people could lose focus on the discussion, but does mean everyone can contribute actively to the meeting.
- Different purposes of meeting – we all agreed that things often get confused in meetings when a number of different purposes are part of the same meeting. We discussed whether it would be useful to remove reporting out of meetings (unless it needs to be done in a face to face group setting), and grouping other activities within the meeting to help focus. So you might have email reports and background information about the meeting sent the week before the meeting for everyone to read in advance, then at the beginning of the meeting decide on a process for the discussion, then move onto problem solving, and conclude with decision making.
- Facilitator role – we thought the role of facilitator was an interesting concept, but we were concerned about the skills needed to fulfil this effectively and also about the fact that this removes someone from the conversation. The book recommends bringing someone else in to facilitate a meeting which removes the problem, however in practice (particularly for voluntary committees) we aren’t sure this would be an option. One option we considered for ALA (where most of their meetings are held at their two conferences, ALA Midwinter and ALA Annual) was that ALA staff could perhaps train as facilitators and committees could book a facilitator in advance to help them. The conferences are so packed though that I doubt adding another complication to the schedule would be a welcome change!
We also discussed different methods and models used in meetings such as Parliamentary Procedure, Robert’s Rules of Order and Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure (formally known as Sturgis standard code, which ALA uses). I have to confess I know very little about these and do not know which CILIP follows, but it would be beneficial to learn more about them, particularly as next year I will be responsible for chairing the CILIP West Midlands AGM.
I have to be honest, I don’t think the model is something I’ll be completely following, however some elements I do think would be useful. I’d definitely like to remove reporting from meetings if possible (mainly to reduce wasted time when this could be done by email), and I’d like to consider using the group memory technique for meetings where long discussions are needed to help reach consensus.
I also plan to read about some of the rules for different meeting types to help me understand more about formal meetings. I’d like to observe an ALA Council meeting at ALA Annual if I can fit it into my schedule.
Are there any other models for meetings I should look at or consider for future? Any tips from your experience?