Commitment ceremonies

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

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.

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