Tagged ‘meeting‘

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time


There are things I’ve done to facilitate group discussions that, in retrospect, make me roll my eyes and yearn for witness protection.  Even more astonishing than the cockamamie things I asked people to do is the fact that 99.9% of the time, people would do them!

Without flinching,

  • The head of UMOS agreed to write a ‘pressing community need’ on a balloon and tack it to the wall to be popped later by the expert facilitator as we established need priorities.
  • Waukesha County’s budget director along with his key staff wrote their ‘most important outcomes’ on paper airplanes and sailed them at me and my co-facilitator in a flurry which had us scrambling around the floor trying to pick them up and read them.  (We planned pre-flight but not post-flight.)
  • A police chief used crayons to draw his favorite summertime memory as a boy which had him on his bike in the hills overlooking his town and then label the picture “Lucky.”  (This was actually one that worked pretty well – helping a new Youth Collaborative harken back to the golden days of freedom and playfullness of their youth.  Unfortunately, they then went on to plan more structured activities for kids.  Oh well.)
  • Emergency shelter directors constructed their ‘visions’ of how the Shelter Task Force should operate using (what else?) Tinkertoys.  (Didn’t work – they all looked like spaceships.)

In addition to this kind of stuff, I went through a period of taking little jars of Play-Doh to every meeting.  I probably have more Play-Doh in my office right this second that Milwaukee’s biggest day care — because, you know or maybe you don’t, that you really can’t use Play-Doh twice.  Has to be new.

Anyway, participants in a planning meeting will generally do whatever the facilitator asks them to do if the facilitator conveys a genuine commitment to the process and a real enthusiasm for the results.  If the facilitator equivocates, then people will hang back.  I witnessed someone at a large gathering not so long ago open the meeting by promising a great icebreaker and then, surprisingly, losing his nerve at the last minute.  If you’re going to do something different, you have to plunge in like you believe it. 

Now I pretty much stick with the simple and striking.  Like this ball.  This is possibly the most enticing ball on the planet.  So I use it to do introductions or I’ll just have it sitting on the table available for people to  pick up and fiddle with.  People like it that I thought to bring some toys; most people will get into it.  It helps them play while being serious.  Takes the edge off.  Gives them something to laugh about.  Makes the room warmer and happier. 

Sometimes, though, people gather to plan or discuss or strategize and they are just too up tight to pick up that ball.  The ball will sit there the entire session.  Like it was made of crystal.  Everyone is afraid of the ball, ignores it, looks at their hands.  When that happens, witness protection is looking better and better.

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Show of Force

If you’ve got a lot of fire power, it’s hard to resist the urge to show it off.  Hence, the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds and the whole concept of Shock and Awe which I’m kind of ashamed to admit I’ve used in various efforts to try to beat out competition for one thing or another.

But like every other tool, you have to be strategic about when you use it.  As an evaluator, I frequently meet with programs to review progress.  Usually, I meet with the agency director and the program coordinator.  But sometimes, I walk in and there’s a sea of people – from administrators to line staff to the receptionist.  Then I think to myself, why do they think they need all these people here?  I thought about putting a limit on the number of people at an evaluation visit but then, I thought, doesn’t a program’s decision about who needs to be there telling me something important?

Lobbying elected officials or meeting with bureaucratic higher-ups is another area where people often miscalculate the appropriate show of force.  Do you want a roomful of supporters if you’re trying to get a touchy piece of legislation passed?  Of course.  Standing room only.  But do you want a crowd when you’re meeting with an individual elected official about a delicate policy issue?  Different matter.  If each person in your delegation represents an essential and unique expertise, it’s probably ok to bring them along.  But if they are just taking up space or helping you feel more confident or important (it is nice to have an entourage), think again. 

When policymakers see a gaggle of people heading for their office, they put on their public face.  Not their ‘let’s get to know each other’ face or ‘let’s work out this problem’ face.  They glad hand, listen politely and move on.  And then they wonder why you needed a small army to talk to them. 

Advice?  Think about who will add essential value to a meeting; who will make the outcome better.  Make sure you’ve determined who is going to play what role.  Think Blue Angels.  Each one of them knows the plan and sticks with the program.  That, and the fact that they’re maneuvering those amazing planes within inches of each other, makes for a very impressive show of force.

Jan Wilberg Janice Wilberg

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Jumpstart Your Meetings

“Let’s go around the room and have everyone introduce themselves,” the group leader says.  “I’m Fred from UWM.”  “I’m Gladys from General Motors.” You know the drill.  I decided recently to just give my name with no affiliation, a Cher-envy play that got no attention whatsoever.  “I’m Jan Wilberg.” Kerplunk.  Everyone waited the decent interval (where my affiliation would have been) and went on to the next person.

So boring.  SO BORING.

There are ways to do introductions that a) make them fun; b) break the ice; and c) and most importantly, build the relationship strength of the group.  Focus on the last point for a moment.  If I go to meetings with you for ten years and all I ever hear is that you’re Fred from UWM because you never say much and flee immediately following the meeting, I’m missing a chance to build a relationship with you and UWM that could be of value to both of us.

So what to do?  Start the meeting with disclosure and laughter.  Here are some things that either I’ve done or I’ve seen done by way of juicing up the introduction drill at the beginning of meetings:

  • My all time favorite intro/ice breaker is to ask people to tell us their name, affiliation, and one thing about themselves we wouldn’t find on their resume.  This is how I found out a local economic development leader was the San Francisco spelling bee champion and how an incredibly mousy state bureaucrat was a bungee jumper.  I’ve also found people who were studying to be ordained, raise Christmas trees in their off hours, spoke five languages, ran marathons in foreign countries, and a whole bunch of other weird, quirky thing that immediately enriched the interaction of the group.  Why?  Because we right away feel like we know each other better.
  • A good friend of mine, Marcia Jante, former Director of UW-Extension in Waukesha, would start each coalition meeting with a completely off the wall question for introductions.  If it was national dairy month, she’d say, “Tell us your name, your organization, and the dairy product that best represents you.”  Huh?  People are totally taken aback by a question like that – which is good because they giggle, chat with their neighbor, the room buzzes.  It’s good energy.  I was Gouda cheese.
  • Friday, I was at a meeting where the facilitator asked each person to introduce themselves and describe one relationship that had developed as a result of their membership in the coalition.  This seemed to take forever — but it was truly worth it.  Generated heartfelt comments, made people feel connected and happy.  A good use of time.

What bothers me about  boring introductions is that we are missing opportunities for better relationships, better projects, and more impact.  You know how Facebook, by sharing little snippets of people’s daily lives, makes you feel like you know a lot more people a lot better?  Think of that approach – the widening and deepening of social networks – as a way to create a more dynamic community for your group.

We’re more than where we work.  And when we share that, somehow it makes our work richer, more worthwhile, just better.

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