It is in meetings that strategies are elaborated and acquire their legitimation. They are the crucible in which strategies acquire form. And yet meetings, whether at the international or the local level, are often perceived as less than effective at addressing issues. Participant frustration is a common phenomenon, however it is disguised by upbeat reporting, notably to the media. Electronic meetings in the Internet world have not yet proved to be significantly more effective.
In the search for radical new approaches to the problems of society, there is therefore a case for exploring radical new approaches to meeting. How such an exploration might take place is however also part of the discovery process.
2. Meeting inadequacies
A major difficulty with the meeting environment is the way in which participants, facilitators, organizers and sponsors tend to bring a quality of premature closure to the event. In this way co-creation is filtered or designed out of it, often when it is most needed. There are expectations of what the event will produce which pre-determine its structure and dynamics. People naturally bring agendas, whether explicit or hidden, or possibly even unconscious. There is also a strong presumption that whatever emerges can then be readily imposed on a receptive outside world for its greater good. Facilitators sensitive to these questions tend to be uncritical about the distortions they themselves bring through their favourite process often believed to be a panacea.
3. Radical innovations
In contrast to such tendencies, radical alternatives might include:
To the extent that such dimensions reflect a form of closure, they themselves should paradoxically be challenged by a sense of tentativeness, contingency and ignorance, as vital conditions for effective co-creation. Paradoxically also, efforts to bring about premature closure should be welcomed as material which can be processed into more appropriate forms and patterns. But any traces of condescension also need to be challenged.
Meetings succeed and fail through the articulations of reality that they accomplish through the instrumentality of words -- whatever other modes of communication may also be used. It is the definitiveness and significance associated with words which are constantly called into question during a vigorous meeting process. At worst this becomes an exercise in sterile word games. At best new and unexpected insights acquire a verbal container by which they can be held and transported elsewhere. Elusive qualities become communicable.
5. Recognizing problems in meetings
There is a case for moving beyond the assumption that a meeting is in some way a gathering of the forces of light to challenge the external forces of darkness. The problems of society and the planet are only too evident in the meeting itself. These range from the social problems of dominance and manipulation, through issues of social deprivation and psychological undernourishment, to the pollution and exploitation of the non-renewable resources of the meeting by misguided approaches to ensuring its productivity or to the development of its human resources.
Participants represent "demonic" forces as effectively as the "angelic" ones -- and indeed part of the challenge is to recognize the angelic in the demonic and the demonic in the angelic, for one participant's angel is usually another's demon.
6. Cultivating diversity
Inability to work with diversity has led to an obsession with achieving consensus at all costs. And yet diversity of values, perceptions, priorities and preferred strategies is a prime characteristic of meetings. Processes aiming to subsume such diversity under a cloak of consensus result in simplistic frameworks whose prime characteristic is their unsustainability. Just as a gardener can design and maintain a highly structured garden, it is indeed possible to achieve a highly ordered meeting. But such achievements should not be seen as proof that other much wilder styles of garden do not have adherents who would reject any garden without a self-organizing, unplanned or unpredictable quality. Cultivating diversity in a meeting is more of a challenge than providing programme slots for different approaches -- as is the case in wider society. There is also more to building diversity into a strategy, to ensure its sustainability, than adding an extra line-item to an action programme. Cultivating diversity calls for a process of weaving together which is beyond that envisaged by systems scientists.
7. Elusive qualities
Just as in wider society, there is an obsession with the productivity of a meeting. Meetings are frequently designed to manufacture products, whether in the form of books or videos, or in the form of declarations, resolutions or strategic action plans. And, as in wider society, the kinds of meeting organization that favour such productivity are frequently incompatible with evocation of the kinds of quality which enhance any sense of well-being. Ironically the declared, or implicit, objective of meetings is often to elaborate a strategy to improve the quality of life. But the divorce between method and objective is already evident in the meeting itself. Not only does the product-oriented approach need to be challenged, but also the quality-oriented approach that tends to emerge as a reaction to it. The latter too often manifests in a preference for simplistic feel-good processes.
Appropriate challenge is required to evoke valued elusive qualities in a meeting. They are not to be captured by ready-made definitions, indicators or processes. Just as there is a vital distinction between the frothy adjectives of a tourist brochure and the actual experience of a memorable location, so the essential qualities valued in sustainable communities are not those which can be readily named. An economically and environmentally viable household is no indicator of the sustainable quality of the relationships of those living there. Life under impoverished conditions in a garret is often remembered by a family as being qualitatively superior to that in a palatial residence.
8. Sustainable responses
Comprehension of appropriateness is itself a challenge. The nature of the qualitative balance associated with sustainability lies beyond the quantitative measures that are meaningful to economists and environmentalists of various persuasions. There is a danger in assuming that such a balance can be achieved through a mechanistic mind-set. Such preoccupations may reflect important pre-conditions, but these may be neither essential nor sufficient. In searching for clues to strategies of sustainability in meetings, there is a logic to recognizing self-organizing processes analogous to those in the natural environment. Just as external societal problems can be usefully recognized in meetings, so too can patterns based on self-correcting processes from nature. From such a perspective the degree to which attempts are made to adapt the logic of maldevelopment to remedial initiatives becomes a striking illustration of the strategic trap society has created for itself.
Meetings are an ideal laboratory in which to recognize these challenges. But when all has been done according to criteria which can be readily articulated, there remains the question of whether there is a "magic" or "soul" to the meeting. However this is understood, it makes the vital difference between a meeting which is "dead" and one which is capable of sustaining "life" as people aspire to live it. Imbuing a meeting or a strategy with "life" raises many issues which have yet to be addressed.
This work is licensed by Anthony Judge
under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.