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:

  1. Manager/chairperson
  2. Facilitator
  3. Recorder
  4. 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 ProcedureRobert’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.

Future applications

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?

  • Depending on the context you could perhaps have the chairperson acting as facilitator?  ie, they set the agenda for the meeting / outline the topic or issue to be solved in advance, but then during the meeting itself they don’t contribute their own ideas but instead facilitate the other members in putting forward their views?

    • Thanks for the suggestion Nicola. I believe the problem with that is that the role is then not neutral, particularly in a work environment when the chair is usually a manager. I think most chairs would also find it difficult to put aside their views and not take an active role in the conversation.

      Could be one approach to consider for smaller groups though.

  • Comment from Chris Williams at Interaction Associates (added with permission):

    It’s so great to see that you found the Interaction Method useful. In response to a few items you mention:

    · Group memory – yes, very important still! While typewriters are not utilized anymore, at Interaction Associates we now teach our clients to utilize Microsoft Word to actively record meeting minute in real time, especially if you have a large TV monitor or screen projection capability. This works especially well if you are conducting a virtual meeting, where meeting participants are not in the same geographic location. We also teach that one person should be the facilitator, although they can also take off their “facilitator hat” announcing they want to contribute an idea, which the recorder would then capture. Then, the facilitator can resume their role as neutral servant. Sometimes we combine the facilitator with recorder role as the same person. However, I have found that with meetings where you have 5+ individuals, it is appropriate to have a separate recorder and separate facilitator as they have role clarity and focus. The recorder also has the ability to contribute their ideas as well.

    · Different purposes of meetings – yes, you are correct! A meeting can take many sub-purposes…however, we have found that complex decision making and problem solving typically take multiple meeting sessions to effectively build agreement on the problem, brainstorm potential solutions, and then move into implementation phase.

    · Facilitator role – Yes, it can seem unrealistic to bring in an outside facilitator for every conversation. While an outside facilitator can be useful for a strategic offsite, often each member of a group can serve in the facilitator role to practice certain meeting management skills. At IA, we do this on a rotating basis, so every employee in the company is expected to be able to find time where they try out facilitation techniques and build their skills and process muscles.

    As we like to say at Interaction Associates, learning and practice are heuristic – there is not one ‘right’ way and style – but to make it your own.