Monthly Archives: January 2020

Preparing for Change

It doesn’t really matter what kind of change a meeting is trying to make; the first thing to do is simply prepare for change.  If we skip that part, the change making eventually stagnates.

So what indicates that a meeting is ready for change?  Below, you’ll find my suggestions in a format traditional to Friends: advices and queries.  These can be used in worship sharing, in committee meetings, in meetings for business, or in private reflection.

Click on any of them to read about the concept in more detail.

These advices and queries are a product of my own experiences working with Friends, distilled during some work I did as a consultant New England Yearly Meeting.  My process of developing them included interviewing members of the staffs of New England and New York Yearly Meetings, reading research done by nonprofit organizations (including Project Include), and considering principles gleaned from a Massachusetts Council of Churches podcast interview with Marty St. George, executive vice president for commercial and planning at JetBlue Airlines.

ADVICES

  1. A meeting that is prepared for culture change will commit to clear communication and mutual transparency.Nothing gets hidden under the rug. An unknown future is difficult enough; we can’t engage with the unknown future when we’re also using energy to deal with an unknown present or an unresolved past.
  2. A meeting that is prepared for culture change will value relationship and function over structure and process.This will mean understanding that no structure or process is “one-size-fits-all” and that a commitment to relationship and function will require ongoing (not one-time-only) willingness to adjust/adapt structure and process.
  3. A meeting that is prepared for culture change will take joy in experimentation, understanding that long-term growth requires patient devotion to perpetual learning.
  4. A meeting that is prepared for culture change will bravely ask for specific new information, new tools, and new skills from sources outside of the meeting.

QUERIES

Knowing Where We Are

Last November, New York Yearly Meeting had a number of potentially difficult pieces of discernment to do.  The fall sessions agenda almost had the look of a list of greatest hits in terms of “things Quakers get passionate about, and not all in the same direction.”  I was a little keyed up going into it.  So were a lot of people.

Spoiler alert–we did just fine.  But one of my favorite moments was when a Friend rose during meeting for business and asked a super-articulate, obviously thoughtful, extremely specific question that made no sense at all.  It stopped the room cold.  It wasn’t the fact that she wasn’t making sense; Friends often say things that don’t make much sense.  But her tone and vocabulary were so rational, so measured, that it seemed like she should be making sense.  So it was weird.

After a moment, someone ventured, “Um . . . is it possible you’re talking about the wrong agenda item?”

She was.  We were on Item #2; her question referred to Item #3.  And in that context, it would have made perfect sense (and did, twenty minutes later, when she repeated it).  We all laughed, including the Friend who had made the mistake.  The confusion, in that case, was harmless.

But often, confusion isn’t harmless.  In the past few weeks, I’ve been sharing elements that need to be in place for meetings before they are ready for culture change.  The fourth and final one is this: A meeting that is prepared for culture change will commit to clear communication and mutual transparency.  Nothing gets hidden under the rug.  An unknown future is difficult enough; we can’t engage with the unknown future when we’re also using energy to deal with an unknown present or an unresolved past.

There’s a lot to unpack there, but I want to emphasize the last sentence, which says that we can’t engage with an uncertain future (change) if we’re also spending physical, intellectual, emotional, or spiritual energy on our anxiety about either the present or the past.

If we’re not communicating clearly and transparently–in other words, if some of us have one understanding about what’s going on while others have a different understanding–then we’re creating anxiety about the present.  We demand sameness, or lack of change, moving forward because we’re so busy feeling uncertain about what’s happening now that we can’t possibly deal with uncertainty about the future as well.

And if we have buried conflicts, things we’ve never resolved, in our past, we’re spending emotional energy on keeping those buried.  Our energy is going toward dealing with the past, so we can’t summon enough to engage meaningfully with the future.  Therefore, again, we demand sameness, or lack of change, so that at least we know what to expect down the road.

A meeting that’s prepared for culture change will have dealt with its past and made its present transparent.  Then, Friends will be equipped to dive into the future, the (only remaining) unknown.

(In other words, if you’re looking at Agenda Item #2, make sure that everybody else is, as well.)

Fixing a Broken Balloon

A good friend of mine had his fifth birthday last year, and I got to thinking about some of my favorite memories of him.

Once, when he was two, he brought me a limp yellow balloon.  “Bwow up, pwease?” he implored.

I tried.  I put it to my lips (despite not knowing where it might have been) and blew, but there was a hole in the balloon.  “I’m sorry, love,” I told him.  “I can’t do it.  It’s broken.”

He considered this seriously and toddled away.  A few minutes later, he brought me a hammer and said, “Dat’s okay. You fix it!”

I loved this little boy’s absolute faith in me.  He was also doing an admirable job of asking for what he needed.  “Bwow up, pwease.”  The directions were clear.  “You fix it.”  Again, no questions about intent.

On the other hand, I wasn’t doing a very good job of expressing my needs.  “It’s broken,” while simple enough for my friend to understand, wasn’t specific.  No wonder he brought me a hammer!  How was he supposed to know what the real problem was if I didn’t tell him?

Instead, I should have tried this: “I can’t blow up this balloon because there’s a hole in it, and I can’t fix it.  But if you bring me a new balloon, I can blow up the new one.”

In my past couple of posts, I’ve been sharing elements that need to be in place before a meeting can engage in change.  Today’s blog is the third of four on this theme, and it has a lot to do with the balloon and the hammer.

I’ve had a number of experiences in working with meetings as an outside facilitator, and I’ve noticed that some meetings succeed in changing with outside help while others don’t.  At a certain point, it occurred to me to go back and look at the requests for help themselves retrospectively, after I know what sort of success the meeting actually had, to see whether there’s anything about the request itself that might predict ultimate success.  And I did discover some predictive elements, one of which is the specificity of request.  If a meeting asks for something very specific – “bwow up, pwease” – they tend to do better than meetings that just ask for help generally – “it’s broken.”  And interestingly, the meeting doesn’t necessarily have to correctly identify what they need.  There’s something about the self-reflection and asking process itself that indicates readiness.

So–a meeting that is prepared for culture change will bravely ask for specific new information, new tools, and new skills from sources outside the meeting.

Stopping for the Elmo Potty

A few weeks ago, I visited Westbury Friends School, a Long Island Quaker school for preschoolers through second-graders.  It was assembly day.  The children were learning about equality and fairness.  They explained to their parents that the two ideas are not the same.  Equality means that everyone gets the same thing, and fairness means that everyone gets the same opportunity to be successful.  “We will always try to be fair, but it won’t always feel equal.”

It’s pretty amazing to hear four-year-olds explain the difference.  As the various students raised their hands, we heard lots of repetition, a considerable amount of “just be kind,” and a couple of long, rambling stories.

This section of the assembly was only meant to last about ten minutes, but it went on for at least twenty because–as the lead teacher later explained–the children were excited and sharing.  In fact, at one point, we stopped everything when a three-year-old raised his hand and announced, “My mommy says I don’t need the Elmo potty anymore.”

We all clapped.

In other words, we didn’t stick too close to the plan.  The needs of the people in the room were more important.  In my last blog post, I told you that some research I’ve done with others seems to indicate that there are four elements that need to be in place prior to culture change.  The second of the four is this: A meeting that is prepared for culture change will value relationship and function over structure and process.  This will mean understanding that no structure or process is “one-size-fits-all” and that a commitment to relationship and function will require ongoing (not one-time-only) willingness to adjust/adapt structure and process.

Does your meeting stop for the Elmo potty?

Are you able to be flexible about process based on the needs of the people in the room?

One-Way Tickets

A few weeks back, I found myself taking a New Jersey transit train for the first time in quite awhile.  I used to travel from NYC to various parts of New Jersey pretty frequently, and accessing the ticket machine and navigating Penn Station again brought up a series of memories.  Specifically, I found myself pondering one-way tickets.

Round-trip tickets are sometimes cheaper than two one-ways, and they’re certainly more efficient.  One financial transaction.  One time waiting in line.  But when I started traveling in the ministry, I learned that buying round-trip tickets often didn’t work out.  I’d find myself in the Hudson Valley or New Jersey or out on Long Island and plans would change.  I’d be asked to attend an extra event, or I’d be offered overnight hospitality somewhere, and suddenly I found myself navigating an unexpected pathway.  The second half of my round-trip ticket was wasted.

So I started buying one-way tickets when I traveled.  These were practical but also had spiritual resonance.  They represented my commitment to flexibility and opportunity, and I learned to find that openness genuinely exciting.

Flash forward.  In 2019, I had a contract with a Quaker organization to process some data from a multiyear project and compile the conclusions into usable documents.  One such document had to do with culture change.  By looking at the data from the project, conducting interviews, and cross-referencing with research done by other organizations, I found evidence that there are four conditions that must be met before a Quaker meeting can seriously engage in culture change.

The first is this: A meeting that is prepared for culture change will take joy in experimentation, understanding that long-term growth requires patient devotion to perpetual learning.

In other words, they invest in one-way tickets.  How does the meeting enter new experiments?  You don’t want to place dynamite on the track behind you, because it’s certainly possible that you’ll want to go back.  But you also want to stay open to the possibilities.  Are the members of the group purchasing one-way tickets or round-trip?  Are you entering the adventure fully prepared for whatever happens, thinking it likely that one experiment will lead to another and to another, or are you trying one new thing with the basic assumption that you’ll probably return to the status quo?

In other words, if your first experiment doesn’t work out, will that be a reason to attempt another experiment, or will that be a reason to return to safety and say “well, we tried?”

(Incidentally, just this week, I realized I was doing this–dabbling in a particular situation with my safe, round-trip ticket and then comforting myself by saying “I tried.”  So I enact this pattern, too, and that’s a thing for me to recognize.)

When we’re entering into a change, are we nervously clutching our round-trip tickets, or are we “patiently devoted to perpetual learning?”