Under What Conditions Is “The Answer In The Room”? 2 : The First Part of an Answer—Who is here?

Following on from my last post, asking about the answer being in the room—or not—one obvious part of the answer may lie in WHO is in the room. This has several aspects which I’ll explore briefly now.

One of the mantras of the OS movement is that ‘whoever comes is (sic) the right people’. This implies that attendance at a given meeting, discussion or workshop is voluntary. No doubt that is an optimum state of affairs, especially for developing some Rousseau-ian village square democracy. In practice, however, my experience points to two main conditions under which this possibility is not met just in terms of the folk who turn up (or don’t).

The first of these is pretty obvious: many of the workshops that I run as part of my business are embedded in an organisational process funded and driven by the ‘management’ (exactly who that is depends on whether the organisation is public sector, private sector or voluntary/nong government). When the management are asking for a workshop to be run there is a compulsion for attendance that is well beyond ‘voluntary’. Indeed, at the extreme, working with military groups as I often do, it can be the case that folk are simply told that a workshop is on and that they are expected to be there. (Strictly speaking, this is not an ‘order’, which is a much more limited thing, but rather a strong expectation and typically results in very widespread compliance.)

At worst, this can lead to a fairly difficult experience. If there is a substantial group of ‘prisoners’ in the room who don’t want to be there and don’t want to play ball, getting genuine engagement can take a lot of time and effort and sometimes just fails. That failure can be evident at the time or may emerge later when things that seem to have been discussed and agreed turn out to be recontested soon after.

On the other hand, the fact that people are expected to attend does not rule out active participation and ‘voice’. In fact, I use numerous OS like techniques to promote these outcomes, with great success in most cases. Either way, the almost-mystical idea that the right people self-select and hence the right answer must be in the room, is not automatically met.

In practice, for many of the things I do I think the people there ARE the right people. For example, if the topic under discussions is (say) how the particular organisation or sub-unit can become more flexible and responsive to work demands, having everyone in the group present to construct a way forward seems entirely sensible for two reasons: first, along the lines of the old cliché, if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem; linked to that, if only some people are present any solution that emerges risks lack of buy-in from those who are absent. Indeed, in some workshops where attendance is more voluntary I have experience of a few key players staying away in the hope (I and others have inferred) that they can disrupt the outcomes later on the grounds that “I wasn’t there”.

Generally—but not always—the experience is that the processes work in spite of the fact that those assembled did not simply volunteer. Sometimes, however, although everyone is there there’s no ‘answer’. So, if everyone in a group IS there and yet still we have no ‘answer’, what’s going on? The short answer—which I’ll explore a bit more in the next post—is that there may be questions that lie beyond the scope of knowledge of those present. In such cases the danger is that there is an answer in the room but it is not a useful or reliable answer upon which to act.

A second limitation on the right people being present is more complex. Suppose that some sort of invitation is issued to a range of folk, only some of whom show up? The superficial response is that they are the right people because they have the interest and the energy to be there. I don’t buy that as a principle. On some topics, I’m more inclined to lean the opposite way and quote Yeats, “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. Health care discussions that get swamped by the anti-vaccination brigade can rapidly create ‘an answer in the room’. But the answer is still unscientific nonsense and a danger to us all.

Even in a watered down sense, the danger of squeaky wheels or over-confidence (both of which I’ve mentioned before https://skm410.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/missing-voices-and-squeaky-wheels-how-to-make-sure-everyone-is-heard/ ) suggests that replacing involuntary attendance with voluntary attendance is not a panacea.

No doubt, on issues that are less emotive and where more shared goodwill exists, the idea that who turns up are the right people can produce good outcomes. But the mantra that they are by definition the right people seems to me to be shaky.

Overall, who is ‘in the room’ seems part of the explanation of what works well and what doesn’t but there seems no simple principle or rule to govern this. It is neither true that an all-volunteer membership guarantees an outcome nor that an involuntary membership prevents it.


About stephenmugford

Once a sociologist (1970-1997) then a consultant who reads a lot in psychology, cognitive science, complexity, etc and wanders along paths from one topic to another.
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