Welcome! This is a brief introduction to how we do meetings and decision-making.
A meeting is any time two or more people get together to talk about our work. There are broadly two kinds of meetings: Operational and Policy. Operational meetings are for getting things done. Policy meetings are for asking how things went, learning together, and deciding what we want to do next (changing our working methods, choosing people for roles, deciding on new strategy, etc.). An Operational meeting can have any format you can imagine — whatever works for you when you need to get work done. We won’t say any more about Operational meetings here. A Policy meeting has a specific format that is meant to give everyone a chance to be heard, and to ensure we make the best decisions we can in the time we have. A Policy meeting is also called a ‘Circle Meeting’.
Whenever a Circle Meeting makes a decision, this should be viewed as an experiment. A good Circle Meeting decision should have clear details about who will implement the decision, any guidance those people require, when the decision will be reviewed, and what criteria will be used to evaluate the experiment. No decision is ‘perfect’ — a decision is always our best guess about what will work. If we can afford to make the experiment, we should do so. If it is too risky or expensive, we should make the experiment smaller or less risky before we try it.
Circle Meeting Roles
There are three key roles in a Circle Meeting, and you may choose to use a few other ones as well. All of these roles are chosen by the group and serve at the consent of the group.
Key Role 1: Facilitator
The Facilitator is similar to a “chairperson” in other organisations. The Facilitator starts and ends the meeting, tells people who may speak next, and decides the group process to use.
Key Role 2: Secretary
The Secretary is responsible for the memory system of the group. The Secretary keeps the logbook of past decisions in a way that anyone in the group can view it, and answers any questions people have about policy. The Secretary sets future meeting dates and ensures everyone knows when they will be. The Secretary leads the agenda planning process.
Key Role 3: Team Leader (in a Board, this is the Executive Director, General Manager, or CEO) and every other participant
The Team Leader is the person primarily responsible for operations in the group. During a Circle Meeting, the Team Leader has the same responsibility as any other participant: to provide leadership when inspired, to raise concerns when you perceive them, to think through each issue as best you can, and to follow the leadership of others when there is no strong reason to object.
The Time Keeper pays attention to the clock, and warns everyone when the group is coming to the end of an agenda item, or to the end of the meeting.
The Note Taker records minutes, if the Secretary is not present or is unable to type fast enough.
The Scribe writes notes about what people are saying on a flip chart or white board, so that people can see what has been said. Sometimes a scribe draws pictures.
Circle Meeting Agenda Planning
A Circle Meeting is called by the Secretary. Usually, Circle Meetings are scheduled every one to four months (depending on how much work the Circle is doing). Any member of the Circle can ask the Secretary to call a Circle Meeting even if one is not currently scheduled.
When the Secretary calls a Circle Meeting, she invites members of the Circle to mention any issues they believe need to be addressed on the agenda. After some time for members to place issues on the agenda, the Secretary meets with the Facilitator and the Team Leader to discuss the agenda. At this time, the Secretary will also introduce any older policy that needs to be reviewed. The Secretary, Facilitator and Team Leader design the agenda, assigning times and considering which group processes might be most useful. The agenda planning process usually takes no more than 30 minutes. After the agenda has been planned, it should be circulated to the other Circle Members, along with any reports or proposals that are available.
Standard Circle Meeting Agenda
The standard agenda goes as follows (the times for Agenda Items are meant to be illustrative):
- [5 min] Check-ins
- [15 min] Administrative matters
- Set next meeting
- Consent to previous minutes
- Agree to agenda (after any necessary adjustments)
- [60 min] Content
- Agenda Item 1: Reports – 10 min
- Agenda Item 2 – 5 min
- Agenda Item 3 – 15 min
- Agenda Item 4 – 30 min
- [10 min] Closing
Decisions in a Circle Meeting
In a Circle Meeting, decisions are made by Consent. When a proposal has been made, everyone understands it, and everyone has had a chance to make some comment, the Facilitator “tests for Consent”.
The Test for Consent is usually a question asked of each participant: “Do you have any Critical Concerns about this proposal?” Other ways to ask that question include:
- “Do you see any risks with this experiment that we can’t afford to take?”
- “Do you see any dangers in this course of action that we can’t afford to risk?”
- “Is this experiment likely to stop us from accomplishing our Aims?”
- “Do you have a paramount, reasoned objection to the proposal?”
If a participant does have a concern that is critical — in other words, if she sees a risk we cannot afford to take — she must tell the Circle what issue she sees. The Facilitator can then lead the group in resolving those concerns by changing the proposal, or can test an alternate proposal for Consent.