One of our Cooperative Leadership Certification Cohorts meeting for their session virtually.
This global pandemic is revealing a lot about what has not been working in our economy, workplaces, and beyond. One thing that is certain that we need ways to be agile AND human-centered in our cooperatives.
In these times, I have been particularly grateful for the collaborative and needs-centered team meetings that my cooperative has conducted. Okay, what? Yes, you read that correctly — I’m thankful for our meetings at Round Sky to help keep me aligned and connected to my team. I know there’s a reason why people hate meetings and moving them online without shifts doesn’t make them better!
One of the things we found in our research and work with our clients is that meetings are a core place where dysfunction, disconnection, and lack of alignment can be amplified. And I am sure as things are intensifying, these meetings are not getting easier.
However, meetings can also be a place for connection, moving work forward, meaningful engagement, and humanizing each other. And, meetings can be a place to show up for each other in times of crisis.
“meetings can also be a place for connection, moving work forward, meaningful engagement, and humanizing each other. And, meetings can be a place to show up for each other in times of crisis.”
Through our work and research, we’ve designed an optimal flow to share with you. I want to dive into one specific aspect of the flow in this piece: the tensions.
“Tension driven meetings” are a practice we learned from Holacracy and incorporated into our meeting flows, here at Round Sky. Using this practice means that from the start of this crisis, I was able to bring up my concerns for my team AND we were able to shift to address the relevant needs for our team members, our clients, and our community. It’s a very responsive and human-centered way to manage the operation, strategy, and team needs.
Waste = Food
The tools we teach our clients are based on a number of principles, and one of those is the principle from ecology: “Waste = Food.” Essentially, in healthy ecosystems, there is no waste, it is all consumed as food by other parts of the ecosystem. When we think of our human social ecosystems, we can see that we’re very good at noticing what’s missing, what’s broken or what’s wrong in any situation. In organizations, this usually shows up as complaining or negativity (“swamp talk”) and so, it is discouraged. Then all that important information turns into waste. This waste is then swept behind doors, or under rugs, and starts to stink.
Instead, we support and teach our clients how to use the ability to notice what’s needed by making explicit room for our ‘tensions’. In other words, we want to make use of the energy and capability to notice what could be better or what’s in the way of doing a great job.
Tensions = Food
These ‘tensions’ are then properly composted through the meeting processes to produce food: improvements for the organization. What was complaining, now has a place in our processes to be listened to and processed into a more effective and efficient organization.
“What was complaining, now has a place in our processes to be listened to and processed into a more effective and efficient organization.”
This can be particularly helpful in times of crisis, like we’re in now. This is a completely new situation and we really have to depend on the people in our team and ourselves to sense these tensions and the needs of the team in order to be able to navigate ongoing uncertainty.
Why frame agenda items as tensions?
Using the power of tensions can help:
- reframe “complaining” or “feedback” as important information for the team to use
- utilize our collaboratively designed meeting practice along with tensions means to show up to ANY meeting ready to facilitate, knowing that together you’ll do a good job especially in times like now… where we need each other’s perspectives and sensing in order to figure out how to move forward.
- Use a powerful and human-centered practice that efficiently invites all team members to bring forward whatever is on their mind with respect to their team, from celebrations of work done well, to things that aren’t working, or priorities that need revisiting.
- build (and kind of demand) engagement as everyone gets on the same page. This is not a conference call that people can simply stay on mute the whole time.
- create a strong pathway for organizational responsiveness because everyone in the organization has been empowered to see what’s needed and has a place to come where they can come to do something about it
What are tensions in action?
I’m sure you’re wondering what tensions are in a team meeting context. Tensions are whatever is on your mind with respect to your team. We use the term ‘tension’ to indicate any difference between where we are as a team today and where we could be. These can range from things you are excited about, a new idea for a service or product, and things that are dire and urgent, like ‘we have to work remotely all of a sudden, and how do we learn that set of skills while navigating a real live pandemic.’ So the term is not just negative, it’s also fundamentally positive because we’re inviting all teammates to sense what’s in the way of their doing better work, and bring that to the meeting agenda.
We recommend building your meeting agenda from the tensions of everyone present, not just the manager or the lead, via a ‘round’. A round, where each participant is invited to speak in turn, is particularly helpful in an online environment because it is harder to read social cues and see who has not participated. When you allocate agenda building to one or a few, the opportunity to harness the collective intelligence of your team is lost, even if you, as the agenda builder go around to ask people before the meeting what’s on their mind. This subtle shift can be profound and can take a few weeks or months of practice to produce engagement, but it will do so. After building your agenda, invite team members to vote on those tensions according to which ones they feel are most important to this particular meeting.
In addition, as agenda items are placed on the agenda, have the person raising that tension put their initials on the item. This is critical because that person becomes the ‘tension-holder’ for that item which means they carry a special role during the processing of that agenda item to identify the outcomes which will incrementally move their tension forward. In other words, it’s not up to the manager or anyone else on the team to decide if the outcome has moved the tension-holder’s tension forward, that decision is made by the tension holder.
So, what do we do with those? How do we process those tensions?
Part of what I find so comforting about our team meetings is that I know that my pressing needs will be addressed in some way. Because we’ve clarified and consented on the processes together, we are able to get through quite a bit of tensions in our meetings. We aren’t making the same decisions over and over. And, what needs attention, gets it.
In the Cooperative Leadership Certification Program, we teach our students what to listen for and how to facilitate tensions to both be centered on what that individual needs in order to make some progress on resolving that tension as well as how to be efficient. You won’t learn all of the ins and outs in this blog, but you can review the Three P’s image for a cheat sheet below.
These are the outputs of any agenda items. Depending on what that tension holder needs from their tension, the output will change and the process for how to get that output will change.
Tension-Driven Meeting Tips
I know this is a lot of information. Here are some overarching tips to share with your team as you try this out.
- Think about any ‘tensions’ as items we put on the agenda. Remember, this can be anything!
- When the facilitator chooses your item to process, it helps a lot if the participant is ready to introduce it and ready to identify which kind of output would help move that tension forward (see the Three P’s).
- When an agenda item requires a decision, the tension holder is responsible for crafting a proposal for the decision and making amendments to it prior to the objection round. This is a hugely streamlining and simplifying hack. If we don’t have a tension holder who has this kind of power in a team meeting, items will drag on for much longer than is necessary or helpful.
- You can support your team by being willing to share any ideas that would move another person’s tension or item forward.
- Be concise (not repeating ourselves or others, using clear sentences and words as much as possible, and not over-indulging our desire for attention), and
- Be attentive to the needs of the whole team in addition to any needs we have for ourselves in our roles. With practice, these tools can help bridge the individual needs with the collective needs.
There is a lot of talk around using this time in our homes to become our best selves. It’s a pandemic. Just be as okay as possible during this time. For me, the direct communication, the processes I trust, and the predictability of our meetings and what to expect, offers me comfort and stability in these times. It’s also helped to bring about the human needs we each have.
Try reframing your next few online meetings with gathering the “tensions” from the team to get at the heart of the matter. Over time, you’ll find yourselves more human-centered and agile as you source your agendas from your team to align on the work together, tap into the needs of those on your team, and build engagement across space.