Meetings are huge. There’s something incredible that happens in them: people come together and plan to take action, doing so amidst the uncertainty of the world they want to change and the diverse and often conflicting viewpoints in the room. When they’re sweet, those meetings move with focus and purpose through constructive conflict, the group makes decisions and it agrees to take action. That action moves the group toward its vision.
Sometimes meetings are a drag. Perhaps you can think of a time (or two or three) when you were in a less-than-amazing meeting. When meetings aren’t focused, or when there’s no action taken afterward, or when members or facilitators miss the chances for us to hear and learn from people in marginalized groups, the cost is high. People get bored, tired or frustrated. The excitement and sense of possibility around the group’s common purpose gets clouded, and people drop out.
Meetings can be excellent, and there are skills to make that happen. That’s what these articles are about: learning the tools and developing the skills to run meetings that build movements. Meetings that build momentum. Meetings that empower the participants to achieve a common purpose. Meetings that you actually might enjoy. Meetings that strengthen the relationships that are at the heart of organizing for change. Meetings that are a demonstration of the kind of world we want to create.
Let’s start with the seemingly mundane, wildly important process of setting next steps.
Setting Next Steps
Making decisions is the purpose of meetings. Taking action is the purpose of making decisions.
When people come together in meetings, they’re looking to decide how to organize their time and resources to effect change, and then to do the things that make that happen. Lots of other things can happen in meetings, but without this as a central focus the meeting isn’t serving its purpose and the group runs the risk of fizzling.
Setting next steps is the tool that helps a group make the often challenging transition from ideas and plans to action in a clear and conscious way. It’s used at a point in the meeting where the group has worked through what it’s there to work through. Maybe they decided they’re going to run a divestment campaign in their city. They outlined their campaign and came to consensus around their goal. They brainstormed a bajillion different possible tactics, and then picked a few that support their strategy (like flyering, holding a town hall meeting and posting some cat memes related to their campaign to facebook) to start with. Brilliant. Now what?
The group has made great plans, but the question to ask is “are they clear on who’s doing what, or even what specifically they’re doing?” This is where many groups stop, and there’s a good (or at least understandable) reason.
Deciding on the next steps for all those things means taking them from the realm of ideas and plans into the realm of actual things actually happening (aka physical reality, where things take energy and things are unpredictable). It’s moments like this when our brain (actually a particular part of our brain that worries — Buddhists call it the Monkey Mind) loves to throw out all the “what if’s” and “I don’t knows” and “I don’t think I have time’s” and “is this really going to work’s”. Next time you’re in a meeting see if you can notice it. It’s great.
This is your opportunity to be extraordinary. You already know that this group wants to take action, and now it’s just a matter of supporting them to make commitments to do it. So here’s the tool:
Tool: Setting Next Steps
I suggest leaving at least 10 minutes at the end of a meeting to set next steps. This is an essential part of running good meetings, and can also be the most challenging part. Keep the energy light and focused, and move swiftly from piece to piece.
Start by saying, “now’s the time when we see what our next steps are out of this meeting and get clear on how they’re going to happen.”
1) Identify Actions – Ask the group to look back on what was discussed (the agenda and notes are helpful here) and determine what the next steps are based on the decisions they made during the meeting — the actions that will move the group’s projects forward. Some might be individual actions. Some might be a project (a collection of actions). Scribe them to flipchart/butcher paper so the group can see.
2) Ask for Leadership – Go through the list of next steps one by one and ask who is willing to take the lead on making each item happen (I often call this “bottom-lining” the action). Make it clear that they don’t have to do it alone. If necessary, clarify the action and what’s entailed with the group. Don’t hesitate to ask someone directly (knowing that they may say no, and that’s OK). If no one volunteers, move on.
If someone volunteers to lead, then ask the group who is willing to be part of the team to support the lead. Clarify what kind of support the lead could use. Ask the lead by when they’ll finish the action item and report back to the group.
3) Review Unclaimed Actions – If there were any actions that weren’t claimed, ask the group once more if someone is willing to take the lead on it. This is a great moment to be gentle and compassionate and help the group to simply see that if no one takes it, it won’t get done. If no one volunteers, ask the group if they’re OK deciding to NOT take this action. If they protest, create the space again for that person or someone else to say yes.
4) Acknowledge – Take a moment to acknowledge the group in a way that’s authentic for you. It’s no small thing to move from ideas to action and be willing to take leadership and responsibility. This is the stuff that movements are made of.
The skill to develop here is doing this consistently, and then holding a strong space for the group through steps 2 and 3 so they take ownership of the action that’s got to happen and work in teams to do it.
Part of the value of this approach is that it helps the group to make a conscious decision about the action it will or won’t take. When groups don’t set next steps, they’re usually relying on the hope that someone will take on the appropriate action between meetings, or they’re assuming that the person that always takes everything on will keep doing so. Not great.
Bringing focus and clarity here not only moves the group forward, but it’s an opportunity to support a bigger and more diverse group of people to take leadership. And that’ll build movements.
Justin Haaheim supports leaders in social movements to build teams, win victories and live the life they would love. He leads workshops on organizing and movement building, and he supports leaders one-on-one as a coach. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him at http://justinh.org/.