In a different article, I identified seven types of meetings (or dialogues) we commonly have at work.  In this blog entry, I want to highlight the five levels of involvement required by meeting participants.  For more on these different levels of involvement (or the different types of workplace dialogues), I recommend reading Sam Kaner’s book, The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making.  It is one of my favorite books on the topic.

Here is the list of the five levels of involvement from Sam Kaner’s book.  Each level of involvement requires greater levels of participation by the meeting participants and a greater role for the facilitator.

  1. Presenting & Reporting: a one-way activity, where the group members merely sit and listen.  This is the lowest level of involvement required and even an unskilled facilitator can lead these discussions without incident.
  2. Comments & Questions: group members are participants in the meeting, but on a limited basis.  At this stage you begin to need facilitation, but the facilitator is mostly focused on ensuring each person who wants to ask a question is given that opportunity.  This level of involvement and below tend to be ceremonies.
  3. Extensive Discussion: demands sustained concentration and effort by each member of the group.  When teams are engaged in extensive discussion, the facilitator takes a more active role in guiding the conversation to surface other viewpoints and supporting tension.
  4. Convergence & Alignment: participants are asked to think from each other’s points-of-view and tolerate the tensions that may arise during periods of misunderstanding.  At this step, a facilitator is crucial as they are ushering participants one-by-one safely through the Groan Zone in the quest to develop shared understanding.
  5. Ownership & Commitment: everything described in convergence and alignment, plus the added requirement that the participants persevere unto they produce a solution that gains the enthusiastic endorsement from all members.  This is the highest level of involvement which ends in a sustainable agreement.

So what happens when the meeting organizer does not plan for the appropriate level of involvement when inviting participants to a meeting and establishing their agenda?  If you do not follow the guidance outlined in Collaboration Explained for meeting preparation, I normally see three common outcomes to poor meeting planning.

  1. The participants are confused on what their role in the dialogue will be and leave feeling disgruntled.  Someone comes to the dialogue believing they are present to discuss a proposal and evaluate alternatives, but in reality the session was just a Q&A on a decision already made in advance of the meeting.  It is important for meeting facilitators to establish up-front what will be the role of the meeting participants.
  2. The meeting is too short to achieve the purpose.  There is just no way ten people can come to convergence and alignment on any meaningful topic in less then twenty minutes.  Facilitators need to allow an appropriate amount of time for dialogue.  This normally means reducing the scope of the meeting and\or the number of participants.  It is highly unlikely multiple, meaningful decisions can be made in a single session.
  3. The wrong techniques were applied by the facilitator and the people leave the dialogue feeling bruised and battered.  The set of facilitation techniques needed to achieve ownership and commitment are quite different from the set of techniques used for presenting and reporting.  Facilitators need to think in advance what practices they want to bring to the table to assist the meeting participants in their collective thinking.  This requires the facilitator to have a deep set of tools and experience using them in different contexts.