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In my last blog I discussed how great meetings potentially save the world. As an example I used the Climate Talks in Paris of last December, during which the meeting was brought to a successful close by using the Indaba, an inclusive meeting technique. And so I advocated (and still do) the use of many more inclusive meeting techniques. The meeting process as we know it has been used for decades, if not centuries, and is not being up for the challenge. We simply need these inclusive processes if we want to save the world.

So yes, I was quiet exhilarated by the results of the Climate Talks in Paris last December.

Do meetings really save the world?

It was not long before people started pointing out that the results of the Climate Talks where not any close to solving the problem they were supposed to tackle. The Climate Talks did not deliver! I was especially touched by the pertinence of Richard Hamesreflection on the issue.

Delving back into the history of the Climate Talks, he came to the conclusion that the results of previous agreements have been very meagre (understatement). And there are no indicators that the new agreement will prove any better. On the contrary: the agreement suggests aiming for a maximum rise of 1,5° Celsius of global temperature (and agreeing on a maximum rise of 2° Celsius by 2100). But this aim is absurd. We’re already close to a 2° Celsius rise – so a target of 1,5° Celsius is well… non-sense.

So was I wrong? Is the Indaba, or any other of those inclusive meeting techniques, not quite the saviour I have been holding them for?

As I pointed out in my previous post, great and inclusive meetings POTENTIALLY save the world. If you aim for a great result, then you need inclusive meeting techniques as they act as a catalyst towards a positive reaction. But inclusive meetings will not, in itself, guarantee a positive outcome.

The question then is how to use these meeting techniques to realize the potential. Clearly, the Climate Talks did not deliver, despite the Indaba. But looking at it from the other end: with the normal process the result might have been worse. Of course it’s hard to compare between the situation with and without Indaba, but there is a reason the presidency turned to this method.

Holding meetings that deliver

The question still remains: how to hold inclusive meetings that deliver? Let me start by stating that the potential is only as big as the willingness of the participants to come to a close. Of course, this willingness increases when you use an inclusive method.

A normal meeting process where all participants sit around a table usually exacerbates the differences between participants, making agreements harder to make. Inclusive meeting techniques are designed to let participants coalesce around common agreements. But eventually, if (some) participants do not want to reach an agreement, the end result will be less impressive than many hoped for, whatever inclusive technique you apply.

Having said that, there is a couple of common features that will help capitalise on the potential of inclusive meeting techniques. I’ll name 4 of them.

1. Use sub-groups

Reaching agreement with 195 parties like in the Paris Climate Talks is near to impossible… unless you break up regularly in small groups. One thing inclusive meeting techniques have in common is that they strike a balance between conversations done in small groups and in plenary. With 195 participants this seems like a no-brainer. But have you tried this with smaller meetings? How often do we sit around a table with, say, 15 participants trying to reach a close? Using sub-groups helps! With growing complexity, more and more people (need to) get involved. Inclusive techniques make it possible to have the right conversations and make the right decisions by using subgrouping.

2. Downplay the hierarchy

Hierarchy means that some participants have a bigger say than others. That’s the opposite of inclusive. This worked out fine till recently (and still does for straight forward problems), but many of our current problems, be it societal or organisational ones, have become too complex to leave decisions to the powerful. Nowadays solutions are multi-layered and multi-disciplinary, thus requiring involvement by more and more people. Inclusive meeting techniques help tackling the problem hierarchy inherently brings.

3. Slow down to accelerate

Speed is a strange notion for meetings slow us all down individually. That’s one of the main reasons we so loathe meetings. They take out all the individual speed you had and it feels as the whole process is stalling. ‘While we meet, work is waiting for us’ – that feeling. But with our solutions being multi-layered and multi-disciplinary, we can’t do without meetings. Inclusive meeting techniques, because of their results and call to actions, give energy and lay the ground for the acceleration after the meeting. In that sense the Climate Talks could be called a success as the world is finally talking about the end of the carbon era.

4. Create transparency and accountability

Multi-layered and multi-disciplinary solutions require participants to know what is happening and who will take up what task. The whole Agile manifesto, which is in essence about inclusion (of client, teams, stakeholders, etc…), is built on transparency and accountability. You see it back in their meetings (or ceremonies as they call it). It’s also why many inclusive techniques are so fond of using big paper flips. They capture the results of a meeting in such a way that it’s visible for everyone. At the Climate Talks, the presidency, leading the meeting, would openly ask for participants to expose their bottom line and then ask for a breakout between contending participants. Thus, everyone could hear what was not resolved and see who was held responsible for a solution.

And so I still advocate the use of inclusive meeting techniques. In an ever increasingly complex world we need to maximize cooperation. The normal way we hold our meetings is not fit for that. We need to radically change our approach to our meetings and make them inclusive. The Climate Talks in Paris is only the beginning.

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