Commitment ceremonies

When facilitating I’m keen to avoid what I call commitment ceremonies.

There’s often pressure as workshops/awaydays near a close for some process that gets people to agree on what actions need to happen and who’s going to be responsible for them. There’s a certain amount of anxiety attached to this often to do with having something to present to powers-that-be outside the room to prove that the event hasn’t just been a talking-shop. And it certainly confirms to a neat and tidy notion of meetings following a linear path that ends in certainty and completion.

The trouble is, in the real world, these action planning sessions often feel pretty deadly and inauthentic. They tend to assume the following:

– That action is what is needed now, as opposed to say further reflection

– That the people in the room are uniquely empowered to act, when frequently they aren’t

– That everyone’s nicely aligned and all are agreed on what should happen

Often, people will go along with these commitment ceremonies not because they’re wildly enthused but because saying “yes” now means the ordeal will end soon. They know how these things work: what’s agreed here may have only a passing resemblance to what will actually happen in the real world anyway.

What you can end up with is pseudo-agreements that mean boxes get ticked for productivity, but it’s not very convincing. On the upside, it can be quite polite and conflicts may, sometimes, be avoided – for now.

Of course sometimes there is lots of agreement and a well focussed exercise in co-ordinating future actions is just the thing. But often this is just done ritualistically.

Here’s what I tend to find more satisfying in a lot of contexts. Instead of focussing on actions, I try to get groups to be clear what point they have reached, in a way that means everyone speaks and gets heard. So we might have a round where everyone gets a chance to check in, perhaps responding to a very open question that let’s them choose to report what they’ve learnt, what they’re concerned about, what they see happening next… without a sense that only “action” is to be the focus.

Groups often get a few surprises in this process, realising that a lot has been going on for people – and that people in the room are often responding in quite different ways: some are reflective, some inspired, some anxious. Quite often, it turns out the people have already agreed actions anyway, and these sound much more convincing than those you get from an action ritual.

It seems to me a more human and believable way to end a meeting. I think that’s because it acknowledges the complexity and richness of people’s experience instead of squashing it into boxes. It may not look so tidy or fit a spreadsheet, but it feels more real.

7 thoughts on “Commitment ceremonies

  1. David Gurteen

    Johnnie, I couldn’t agree more. I feel just as you do and struggle with it myself. So good to discover I am not the only one who sees things this way.

    regards David

    Reply
  2. Cheryl

    Hear, hear ! I still encourage individuals to make a note of which people they will share their learning with once they leave the event. This is a very different kind of action point, leaving them in control but reflecting on what they can share with whom…

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  3. Cheryl

    Hear, hear ! I still encourage individuals to make a note of which people they will share their learning with once they leave the event. This is a very different kind of action point, leaving them in control but reflecting on what they can share with whom…

    Reply
  4. Robert Poynton

    As usual, you are, I think, quite right. Which makes me wonder what would happen if you brought the way of ‘ending’ that you suggest forward a little? As I recall one of Keith Johnstone’s favourites pieces of direction is to stop stalling and bring what might feel like the end forward, in order to see what happens next…….

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  5. Ian Glendinning

    Linking this to your “model fatigue” post, the process (of interacting) remains important, the predefined outcomes, the boxes ticked and the actions agreed, are just part of the ritual. Alternative rituals may be just as good, more obvious in team-builds etc, where the actions may be inherently useless – like your “half-time organges”.

    Organizational life is full of these action-theory hypocrisies. Causation & justification are easily confused. The reason we do things rarely has anything to do with outcomes casused.

    Decisions to act are so much more “macho” than agreements to reflect and continue dialogue 😉

    Reply
  6. Oliver Mack

    Great piece. It really caught my eye, because I agree. I often start a session with questions and end by asking what questions people now have in relation to the topic at the end of the day.

    Reply

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