Keeping meetings short
Long meetings are a pain. Let’s make them shorter. Here are the tools that sociocracy has to offer.
Avoid large groups
We avoid large groups. Hearing from everyone takes too long, and we cannot deliberate — which is the goal of getting together as a team.
How can one achieve good decisions for the whole while having small groups? How can we make sure all gets done? How can we make sure we’re not in silos? How can we make sure we hear all the input?
- Distributed power and clear domains: for every group, we need to define what they can decide. The authority to make decisions now lies in small, nimble groups. No need to show up for every meeting. Only attend the one that’s relevant to you.
- Linking. Instead of involving every member of a sub-group, just include 2. Hearing two people is typically sufficient to hear the sub-circle’s input without overloading people with meeting time. With two people you can be sure one of them will remember to carry information back as well to create good communication both ways. You can easily hear from 4 entire groups while only having 8 people in the room.
- More attention to feedback loops. Before every decision, the circle will ask themselves: who has important input to give on this that we’d like to hear? And after the decision: how can we hear people’s input on our decision so we know what to change the next time we review? The better our feedback lines, the more trust you will build and the less you will have a need to decide everything together.
Just doing some of that should reduce the number of people in the room and also reduce the number of agenda items (because not everyone has to talk about everything anymore).
Define the desired outcome
No agenda items without defining the desired outcome! (Even if you decide to change after talking about it.) If the desired outcome is clear, you can channel people’s attention to goal.
I have thought about this quite a bit and have come to the conclusion that there are really only 3 different kinds of outcomes, and they build on each other: reporting is also included in asking for feedback which are both included in decision-making.
- Reports: if it is a report of a decison made or action taken elsewhere and the people in the room don’t have a say on the topic anyway, then there is no need for hearing reactions. People should be allowed to ask information questions but not everyone needs to hear how they feel about the decision. Tell everyone who they can give feedback to if they have something to say but that needs to happen outside of the meeting.
- Request for feedback: if the desired outcome is to receive feedback, clarify questions first and then hear reactions. There is no need for those reactions to converge, so one or two go-arounds for everyone to say a few sentences are typically enough. The feedback is taken back to the group or individual that was requesting the feedback. It is not being discussed until there is consensus on any decision.
- Decisions: if something can only be decided in the large group, it might take time. There are rarely decisions that need to be made by a large group if we distribute power well. If it does happen, it will likely take time. You can still use the hacks from the next section to make it as bearable as possible. Never try to generate a proposal in a large group. The proposal needs to be outsourced and prepared before the meeting. During the actual meeting, you only go through questions, reactions and consent/objections. Boiling it down to dealing with objections sifts through all the things to say and reduces it to what is necessary to come to a decision. Here is an article that walks you through the sociocratic decision-making process.
The regular hacks…
There are a few facilitation-related hacks that make meetings shorter.
- Separate steps: Separate your steps well so people have an easier time being on point. The most obvious one is to separate clarifying questions from reactions, and reactions from the decision. Give people clear prompts on what you want to hear. (That takes some practice and some people have a really hard time learning that!) I often give fill-in-the-blanks like “What I need to know so I understand the proposal is _____” to force people not to give me reactions when that is not the right time for it. That way, every contribution will be more ordered, and everyone will be operating on the same plane which makes it easier to get to a place of convergence and shared reality. (If you dare, do it the sociocratic way: call what we call a round where everyone speaks for every step. In the long run, moving forward as a group, like a school of fish, saves you time. Read an article on rounds here.)
- Out-sourcing: Ask yourself: what can we do today so we’re in a better place next time? Often, the answer is out-sourcing. If you don’t have the right information or person in the room right now, stop talking about the agenda item right when you notice! Move the discussion along to the question of how exactly you will get to a better place next time. “We don’t have this piece of information? Let’s stop talking about this topic and instead make a plan on how to get the information so we’re in a better place next time”. Find someone to write up something, assign someone to get the information, talk to that person, find a group to make a mindmap — in short, delegate any prep task to a small group outside of a meeting whenever you can.
- Role model good use of meeting time: As people notice they can be heard (which they are in sociocratic organizations), they stop repeating themselves and they might even start passing. I encourage role modeling for this one. “Everything I wanted to say has been said so I’ll pass” takes a lot of courage to say for some people, especially for those in power. You cannot make other people pass but they might like that you do it. (And chances are, your passing makes the meeting much shorter already.) Another strategy is timing yourself. Since, again, this goes against culture in some organization, role modeling helps. If those in power decide to time themselves, it will set the tone. “Would someone be willing to time me and let me know when 2 minutes are over? I have a lot of thoughts but I also want to make sure we have time to hear others and time passes so quickly for me when I talk.”
If you’re interested in learning more about sociocracy, start with this 4min video.