The everlasting hunt for the hum

bee hives

I’ve been thinking about meetings a lot this week…..while in a lot of meetings.

It’s been odd joining an organisation during what we can officially refer to as Strange Times. The thing I have found most difficult is in finding the rhythm of the place. Every team and organisation has what I call a ‘hum’ when its going well – hearing the hum helps you acclimate and settle into a place. As a leader, listening to the hum (or lack of it) helps you understand how to tune your style into the place but also how you might go about setting a different rhythm. And I need to remember that I’m not the only leader – to be effective in my space I try to be respectful and careful to fit in with my heads of services and their hum.

It’s hard to describe the hum as its something to feel rather than define – but I suppose you could say its about abundance – teams with a hum have a sense of psychological safety but more than that they are creatively and productively abundant – there is a net energy gain. Hopefully you have all been in such a team and you know what I am talking about. The hum is set as much by the rhythms and rituals of the team as much as it is set by anything to do with the work to the people involved. The cultural symbols of meeting formats, email protocols or even whether something is done as a presentation or a formal report help signal cultural and behavioural norms – when you throw this stuff off it can be difficult for people to orientate themselves.

But with teams all about the place – and not just our place – that hum can be difficult to hear at the moment. Some of that is the crisis mode that we have been running in where ‘the way we do things round here’ has been forced to change in good and bad ways. Some of that is the disconnect of being virtual when you are used to being face to face but I think that more than that we are all realising where and when we do the emotional labour of settling team dynamics and unless its explicitly designed in we miss the conversations in the office and the walks between meetings to do some of the quieter checkins and small bits of work that glue things together. As a new person my lens into the organisation is often narrowed at present to agendas and formal getting to know you calls and as a result I have a heightened appreciation for those small moments between meetings where you chat – for all I have also often appreciated that time back to myself to take a breath.

I’m a massive fan of working flexibly and not being wedded to an office – and I think redesigning our rhythm’s to reflect that will be really useful. Some meeting work better online – others need the richness of a physical meeting – either way we need to think about it to avoid it being set in negative patterns that don’t bring the hum. I am increasingly drawn to the idea that we need to consider our rhythm’s seasonally and I will be talking to my team about how we make sure that we adjust to reflect the shorter days and the need to make sure that we all see some daylight. Its going to be a long winter and tuning into this and looking after ourselves and our connection to nature is going to be so important. I throughly recommend following Lorna Prescott and her thinking about permaculture if you want to explore this further.

But this week I am mulling about meetings because you can tell a lot about organisation from its meeting behaviours (and its reception area) and Adur and Worthing is no different.

It is striking in coming into Local Government how set piece meetings provide a lot of the structure and rhythm of the organisation and create the places where questions or portfolios are held. The drum beat is set by the published formal timetable – our commitment to the public about when decisions will be taken but this then sets up a rhythm for the rest of the organisation as much of the work that we do rightly ends up in those public and democratic spaces.

Charting an idea’s path through this is a useful way to understand how decisions are made and also when and when they are open to influence and shaping and when they are actually being checked and edited to make sure that they fit with the organisational whole. My current preoccupation is working through where the public get chance to take part in that process – but more on that anon.

I think of these formal meetings – and the programme boards and working groups that support them – as being the scaffolding of the organisation – they are what we hang the work on and they provide a inexorable drumbeat that needs to be served – but the choice of the menu is dictated by politics and strategy.

An idea with momentum is present in all of these spaces and the spaces between and is moving smoothly through the system – ideas which don’t have momentum or which are difficult will have a more syncopated path through. You lose the momentum when you lose control of the agendas and focus of these spaces and allow ideas to wallow.

Doesn’t sound very agile does it? The other element is what power you cede to these spaces and what you keep as operational. Creating spaces where you can set and check direction but devolving the delivery decisions to the people best placed to take them but there has to be a join between the two – active spaces where delivery meets strategy and governance. That scaffolding is needed for the agile work as much as for the linear stuff and to ignore the support that these structures can bring ignores a major lever for change and more importantly for momentum and sustainability of change. These formal meetings can feel like parts of history – but that doesn’t mean we can’t be writing the next chapter for them.

As a regular workshop facilitator and someone who has also run engagement events my professional language talks a lot about how you ‘hold’ spaces. Managing the energy in a room is an intrinsic part a facilitators toolset and its one of the things that has been hard in lockdown as its very difficult to actively manage the energy of online spaces. This week I have been wondering about how to more consciously apply those same principles of holding a space to the more formal meetings that I chair. I think this is the key between active meetings that move things along and passive ones where it appears that the preordained agenda and the set piece items that have to be considered are running the show.

Going back to the hum – the rituals of formal meetings are in the DNA of an organisation like a council – but how we chose to use them can make the difference between the active pursuit of our purpose or the stifling effects of bureaucracy – and its appreciating that difference that brings the agility. Ending on a practical note – expect to find me more focused on meeting agendas, timing and preparation – will let you know how I get on.

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