From Dilbert to dynamic: facilitate your meetings

The more diverse a team, the more likely they are to have the right combination of skills to do big, meaningful things with care. But diversity doesn't naturally lead to effectiveness, and sometimes can even lead to misalignment. Many technology organisations seem to be getting it half right.

They grow the diversity of their teams (in terms of discipline, demography, and perspective) but are then surprised when mechanisms of collaboration built for significantly less diverse organisations fail to bring about inclusive, and in turn effective, meeting and conversation culture. (👋 Basecamp!)

A few years ago I stumbled onto this post by Chelsea Troy. She hit on something that really resonated.

"A caucus (and specifically an unmoderated caucus) is a type of meeting with no rules about who talks in what order or for how long. Instead folks jump in whenever they have something to say. The caucus probably sounds akin to some of your business meetings: most teams consider this meeting setup ‘not too formal’ and therefore lean on it in some format."

The more I facilitate, the more I see facilitation as a form of policy. When we make and consider technology, we have to collaborate. And when we collaborate we have to build spaces for conversations that:

  • maximise engagement
  • align across disciplines
  • establish touch-points to allow for collective work sprints

So how do we get there? Well first we have to understand that everyone is different People walk into a room with different amounts of power (perceived or real), varying perspective, and really different needs. People also don't experience conversations about the effects of technology in the same way.

When we don't facilitate spaces to recognise these differences, we treat conversations as an equal playing field, as if a set of participants have the same needs, inclinations, priorities, and ideas. That's not healthy or productive.

Doing that replicates dynamics: the people in the room who usually do most of the talking...will talk the most; the people who have the least decision-making power...will be excluded from meaningful consultation; the people who just nod along silently...will leave not having shared their valuable ideas and perspective; the people who are seen as 'experts' because they are STEMy will...be seen as the experts in the room. Correcting for this 'natural' pattern increases engagement, and allows teams to ask and address the real questions, not just the ones that happen to be the loudest or the most recognised.

So what do we do about this dynamic? It requires regulation...or facilitation.

Facilitation allows for a third dimension to conversations. It actively surfaces the things that remain unsaid, addresses the accumulations of inequity that inevitably build up, and creates space for the needs of the individual. This can help account for and unlock ambitions of the group, who might have great intentions to build socially positive technology — if only they could incorporate the wide range of expertise they need to when they design and develop it.

If we consider the act of technical production and improvement as important, because of its wide ranging effects on society, how do we build spaces that do it better with more diverse groups?

Inspired by Chelsea Troy's caucus post, I adapted one of my own meant particularly for teams I work with. You can check it out here and in two minutes get a better sense of how you show up as a participant in unfacilitated spaces.

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