Saturday, 13 January 2018

Improving Business: Small Changes for Big Impacts

Shallow stone steps covered in moss and fallen leaves.
Small steps can take you a long way.
A lot of people think the way we do Quaker decision-making, our application of the Quaker Business Method, could be significantly improved. Or, at least, the way one or more Meetings they are involved in do it could be improved.
But we don't need to tear things up and start again, or introduce significant, novel variations in order to improve the way we do business. There are small changes we can make that, when applied in the right circumstances, can make a huge difference. This post will explore some of these, with explanations as to the purpose and advantage you can expect to see. It's likely that some Meetings will already be doing some of these – Quaker Business Method is not the well-defined, definitive set of practices we tend to think – but there are certainly many that don't.
The first point is simply a good practice for any sort of organisational meeting in any context, but in my experience Quakers are no better at it than anyone else. That is provision and reading of documents in advance. Most of the time, there is no good reason that factual information and background not be provided in advance of a decision, nor that formal written reports be read aloud. This takes up a lot of time that could be spent on things that actually require Friends to be present together in prayerful discernment. Where written material isn't suitable for some Friends, for example due to sensory impairment, Friends should be able to find ways to provide that material to such Friends – even if it is something as simple as someone reading it to them (though providing written material in appropriate electronic format will enable many visually impaired people to “read” it using computer software). While some struggle to absorb written material, it being read out verbatim in meeting will not make things any better for many such individuals – and will be worse than providing written material for many others. Clear but detailed information is best provided in advance, and Friends should actually read the material and come to business meeting with their minds, as well as their hearts, prepared.
A closely related point regards particularly highly detailed information, such as lots of figures. Even if this information is provided in advance, people will need to refer to it during the meeting. It is not reasonable to expect, even when the material has been provided in advance, that people will bring copies with them. A lot of people will consume such documents electronically if they are available in such form, and not everyone who does so will bring a suitable electronic device to be able to refer to the material during the meeting. Many of these people will prefer not to print things out, even if they have the ability to do so, to avoid wasting paper and ink. Even those who do refer to hard copies in advance will often forget to bring them with them. As such, detailed material should be provided in written form at the meeting. This can be printed copies, passed around and shared between several people to save resources, or it can be presented on a flipchart, whiteboard, or some form of overhead projection (be it old-fashioned transparency or a data projector).
Of course, however well briefed people are, there will always be questioned, and when they are asked and answered during the business session then everyone benefits from the answers. However, the (generally reasonable and positive) convention that each person speaks only once to each business item can make it difficult to ask questions, knowing that you will not minister again with that additional information. This is why some Meetings provide, during the business meeting, separate time for questions and answers before discernment. Everyone is gathered, and the rooting in silence maintained, but once the business item has been presented, anyone may stand and ask questions, or provide additional information. It's important for discipline that this be essentially factual, though sometimes asking the person who presented the information for their opinion may be appropriate. For instance, where a budget or accounts are presented, there might be a lot of factual information that needs to be teased out with questions, which might then be followed by fairly brief discernment. Where a Friend has brought some proposal for action by the Meeting, it can be very helpful for questions to be asked to refine and clarify that proposal before discernment. Questions asked in this time are not to be considered ministry; you need not wait for the Spirit to prompt you to ask a question, and they should not be considered direct contributions to the discernment that follows. Similarly, the answers obtained are not ministry, but merely the direct answers to the questions asked.
Another thing that can have a surprisingly significant effect is being thoughtful in scheduling. Different items of business are demanding on those Friends present in different ways, and you should avoid, if possible, putting the same demands on people for several items in a row. It can be helpful to ease people in gently, with straightforward items at the start of a session. If your meeting is going on long enough that there are breaks, consider putting some short reports that will likely require no action before breaks, to help people wind down and avoid stretching their collective resources. When people are rested and energised from a break, you can start dealing with more difficult matters again.
A huge difference can be made through planning and preparing items. Beyond just what information is distributed in advance, or how a question is framed in a session, there are a lot of different things you can do to help people engage with an item of business. Visual aids are not unQuakerly (though consider whether they create access difficulties for anyone present). For difficult items that people really need to think about, but it's not workable to have a threshing process in advance, you can set aside some time for small group discussions before discernment (preferably before finishing allowing questions as described earlier in this post). Sometimes you can even use a more spiritual or personal/reflective activity to help people get in the right frame of mind for discernment. The bag of tricks for this is infinite.
It's worth spending some time focussing particularly on the framing of questions. Sometimes we need to bring an item to a business meeting that is extremely open, that could go in any number of directions. However, when we do that it is more likely to take a long time and fail to reach unity. Perhaps a committee will be asked to study options, or more information about different possibilities sought. If you can present an item as a clear question with a small number of options, even if those options have some blanks left to fill in, you are more likely to find a clear answer in reasonable time. “What shall we do about X?” type items, while sometimes appropriate or even unavoidable, will tend to take a lot of time, prove difficult for clerks, and lead to no clear, decisive forward motion. To be absolutely clear, that is okay sometimes. Expect to return to such matters in future sessions before a clear path of action is discerned, however. Be prepared for a definite opening arising with surprising speed and clarity though, because sometimes the Spirit is remarkably clear – even (or especially) when we aren't. Just don't bank on it.
When planning, it's also worth asking does this really need business meeting time? Some things, especially some reports, or updates on ongoing efforts, do not always need business time. Updates of information might be presented during the meeting and recorded as minutes of record, and some material can simply be distributed through appropriate channels without taking up any meeting time at all. Anything which is absolutely expected to be a one-way provision of information does not need time for ministry and discernment, and we not necessarily need to provide opportunities for questions in the meeting environment, either – provided that effective channels of communication exist, and they really should. You can also reach a wider audience who will be more likely to absorb the information if it is provided other than in business meeting; even if the information is recorded in the minutes, experience suggests that more people read newsletters and email updates than read the minutes of meetings they did not attend.
Another thing worth considering in some circumstances – only when it's warranted, a technique not to over-use – is splitting difficult items up. You can present information, and perhaps allow some small group discussion or reflective activity, and then turn to other business while people continue to digest the earlier matter. Preferably after a break, which means a chance for unstructured discussion if people want it, you can then return to the difficult item, and people will have worked through the immediate reactions and had a chance to reflect and discuss, and thus able to approach it in a more appropriate state of mind.
My final point is one for clerks, though it will be easier for them if the rest of us bear it in mind as well. Quaker Business Method is often thought of as slow, and as a method that has difficulty reaching a definite outcome. This complaint is often exaggerated, but it is not entirely undeserved. The thing to remember is that there's nothing wrong with this. It is a natural result of essential humility in a process where we seek to discern guidance from the Divine. It is also natural when that guidance is being filtered through and reflected on by a number of individuals who will have their own perspectives, even as they strive to set aside their preconceptions. While we do not seek consensus, we do seek unity behind our decisions – not unity that they are right, but unity that they are what the Spirit is nudging us towards; when it's stronger than a nudge, it's more likely that unity will come easily. Because of this, it's important for clerks to understand, accept, and act on the fact that we don't always get a clear result. We have to trust our clerks discernment of the sense of the meeting, in finding that there isn't a clear sense at this time, and to support them when they seek to find a way to help the Meeting move forward to get closer to making a decision at some point in the future.
There's lot's of these little variations and tips that you can try, and I'm sure I've just scratched the surface. What other little tricks and clever ideas do you know, for helping Quaker decision-making run smoothly and effectively?
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