Humans think in logical frameworks. We divide things into categories, we describe how the categories relate to one another, and we take the actions suggested by those relationships. Thus, to transform action you must first transform thinking, which means you need to shift to a new framework. This suggests a simple litmus test for determining if a meeting you’ve held recently actually promoted transformation: Did the framework change?
Most meetings use some kind of framework as an initial structure to get people talking. It could be a methodology, a set of distinct aspects of a problem, or a list of organizational priorities. However, throughout the discussion a new framework often emerges as participants identify the key priorities for future action, which may or may not have been anticipated by the thinking of the past.
When this happens, the group needs to shift its focus from the old framework to the new one, and they need a facilitator with the presence and authenticity to do this effectively. That means the facilitator cannot be overly invested in the old framework, even if using it was his/her idea! For example, my friend and colleague Bob Tipton recently facilitated a meeting where he felt the vibe in the room and shifted participants’ focus in the middle of the meeting. A participant later told him it was the most productive meeting he had attended during his entire career.
Unfortunately, some leaders are reluctant to abandon the framework they used to structure the meeting because they’re afraid people will think they chose the wrong framework coming in. For example, I once facilitated a meeting for an agency that had a clear leadership mandate to transform. During the meeting, a new framework for action emerged organically from the discussions, but after the meeting the client decided to map the content of those discussions to the old framework lest people think that the meeting hadn’t gone according to plan! By doing so, they squandered the momentum for transformation that was embodied in the new framework developed by the participants themselves.
To put it simply, if you come out of a meeting with the same framework you brought in, just with content listed under each category, then chances are you’ve completed a homework assignment. If you come out of a meeting with a new framework that has emerged organically from meaningful conversations among the participants, then you’ve taken an important step toward transformation.