The benefits of having a “bad” meeting

Earlier this month I helped facilitate the Show Me The Change conference in Melbourne. We mostly used an Open Space format with some added opening activities and the fun of playback theatre as part of the closing.

One of the participants Ellen Regos has written the story of her personal experience, blogged here. It’s worth reading in full.

I really like its honesty, in particular about her frustration for much of the event. The more I work, the more I want to encourage people not to have a good time if they’re not having a good time and get away from the insane notion that somehow everyone should be aligned, having the same experience and (especially) having a great time. Learning is non-linear and it’s just stupid to imagine it should happen painlessly and on some predetermined schedule.

Keith Johnstone, one of the pioneers of improv, is (I hear) fond of telling students on his courses to blame him if they’re not learning. This is genius: it completely legitimises frustration and provides a useful channel for participants to expend it… and it creates space for him to make lots of mistakes. It’s a vain facilitator who colludes with the fantasy that he or she will get everyone to have a great time, and Ellen does us a great service by pointing out our shortcomings and the limits of the format, as well as clearly identifying her own self-doubts.

I think it would be good to start more meetings with the idea that it’s actually ok to have a crappy time and achieve nothing – to provide an antidote to the tedious pressure to be positive and productive and make mostly fake commitments to action at the end. If we don’t really embrace the possibility of failure, we may actually be killing off the space for success.

In the end, Ellen gets something really satisfying from her experience, in part because she’s willing to embrace her frustration along the way. She seems to really get the simple principles of Open Space and this only underlines the importance of facilitators embodying them and then getting the hell out of the way. Out of the way of participants experimenting, having frustrations and epiphanies and making whatever meaning they want to.

1 thought on “The benefits of having a “bad” meeting

  1. Earl Mardle

    Spot on.

    I know some people hate this but the reality is that we are ALL making ALL of this up as we go along.

    There are NO repeatable experiences. Not ever. We live in a chaotic universe highly sensitive to initial conditions, if one of those conditions is that we have done something like this before, it can’t possibly be repeated.

    And there is no way for any system, process, model, magic wand or frigging incantation to be able to predetermine the outcome of any interaction among any arbitrary number of people from any, repeat ANY set of so-called backgrounds.

    Development comes from trust, confidence and getting over our fears.

    Trust in ourselves and in others, confidence that they, and we, will be able to cope with the results of our screw-ups as well as our achievements.

    And we are all afraid, every last single one of us. I regularly wake up in the morning with the thought in my head that we are “so screwed”. For me that is apparently the old North American Indian version of “its a great day to die”.

    It seems to me that only as long as I remind myself every day about the potential for failure, small and big, that accompanies every single thing we do, only then can I get moving and start the day in the confidence that I have accepted that I don’t know the answers; much of the time I don’t even understand the questions, even if I can hear them.

    Failure isn’t where we end, its where we start. Big deal. We need to get over it so we can have a life.


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