By Kitty Wooley
What does it take to motivate competent professionals to show up for mission-focused conversation on their own time? What is the result? How can interaction, knowledge exchange, and knowledge transfer be achieved when some participants are meeting for the first time – especially if they’re coming from different kinds of organizations and hierarchical levels?
In this blog post, I describe the experience of Senior Fellows and Friends, a group meeting for conversational events that has kept its momentum for 17 years, over 91 meetings, and become an organic engine of opportunity for new and midcareer leaders. The group started with an informal dinner discussion for recent graduates of the Excellence in Government Fellows Program in Washington, DC, USA.
The sub-headings that follow draw on a systems thinking article by Stephen Haines (1972) that reanimates the 12 Natural Laws of Living Systems framework.
Boundaries—Who’s in the network, and who’s in the room?
There are only three sine qua nons in this invitation-only network. Each person:
- must have a public service mindset and may work directly in government;
- must be open-minded, collegial, and willing to “park one’s importance at the door”;
- continues to learn and grow, despite career stage or past achievement.
Membership denotes only a willingness to be on the invitation list. The result of direct invitation plus participant referral, the Senior Fellows and Friends network hovers around 450-500, as people come and go. It has the least possible structure that can enable a rolling conversation about government and leadership, to which some of the same people return repeatedly.
Hierarchy—Flatter; minimal command and control; productive order emerges.
At each conversational event, speakers are unusually accomplished in some way, although they may not have a commensurate title or be widely recognized. They want to talk about their work and, sometimes, to gain experience of agency culture from the civil servants in the room.
Selection of speakers for an event is opportunistic: Is this someone who would be delighted to contribute to the commons by presenting, leading conversation, and hanging out with everyone? “Sage on the stage” presentation style is only allowed for short periods when material is complicated; otherwise, everyone is visible and is the same ‘size’.
Prior to our first virtual event in 2018 and the current COVID-19 pandemic, these events occurred in the form of dinners, where the setup evolved from a U-shape to scattered small tables set at an angle so that everyone could see the speaker and everyone else. The intent was to counteract ingrained learned helplessness and passive behavior.
At that stage, dinners were held in the Washington DC metropolitan area and the typical participant mix was diverse in terms of discipline, rank or grade, generation, race/ethnicity, and sector (government, corporate, nonprofit). There was a mix of midcareer managers and individual contributors, plus a few executives and recent hires. Participant numbers were capped at 36, with one-third of dinners having a wait list.
While the network has been meeting only on Zoom, a few things have changed:
- The typical discussion group size is 10. (If this grows the number will be capped at 25, the number shown on a typical computer screen.)
- People who work far from the Washington DC metropolitan area began showing up, from other parts of the USA and even other countries (India, Finland and South Korea, to date).
- As we moved into 2021, those of us who had attended the in-person dinners noticed a strong similarity with them that we characterized as “alert, relaxed, and collegial.”
Entropy—Setting up conditions that invite engagement in the room and renewal over time.
At both face-to-face and virtual meetings, the host guides a round of self-introductions to ensure that everyone is acknowledged and feels welcome. The speaker goes last and then launches into the topic. The host does a time check at the 85-minute mark. If the discussion is roaring and there is consensus about running over the usual 90-minute allotment, then it’s allowed to continue.
The host also watches the energy levels in the room (real or virtual) and intervenes if they begin to drop. It’s easier to keep the energy positive than it is to restore it if a negative comment were to suck the air out of the room. Flubs and imperfections are unimportant and are overlooked, as the energy in the room is the whole point. It is why people take part actively and keep coming back and is the basis for relationship-building in and beyond the room. The relational weak ties are a big driver of new opportunity.
At the virtual sessions, it is a requirement that audio and webcam are turned on. This fixed rule was imposed at the beginning, both to make the energy level evident and also based on experience with another group that failed in its mission after meeting for the better part of a year, not for lack of intelligence or ability to execute, but for lack of engagement and trust.
The host also sends a “Who was in the room” email shortly afterward to those who showed up, so that any who want to continue the conversation or start a new one can reconnect.
Multiple outcomes—Goal seeking at all levels.
Senior Fellows and Friends has served as a meeting of the minds across silos, generations, and turfs and even as a decompression chamber. Being in the room creates abundant opportunity to talk with accomplished, even renowned, people in an intimate setting. This is especially beneficial for midcareer participants, but everybody wins.
Discussions have prompted participants to seek new challenges or go for promotion. Networking has led to new professional connections and opportunities. Participants have commented on “amazing” and “unusual” levels of engagement. Senior Fellows and Friends has also produced two open access books on boundary-spanning, “Boundary Spanning in Practice: Broadening the Conversation” and “Unfettered: Mission-Aligned Boundary Spanning.”
What has your experience been in running groups long term? What have you found to be essential? Does this blog post raise questions? Are there assumptions you could revisit to create a more useful, magnetic pool of participants and potential partners that furthers your objectives?
To find out more:
For a full list of events and speakers, see: Senior Fellows and Friends events page: https://seniorfellowsandfriends.org/events/
For the boundary spanning books, see:
Haines, S. (1972, republished in 2018). The 12 natural laws of living systems – Life’s laws rediscovered: A universal thinking framework and guide. Haines Centre for Strategic Management: Chula Vista, California, United States of America. (Online): https://hainescentreaustralia.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/2018_07_18_a12laws-update_on-_2013_0-1.pdf (PDF 1.6MB)
Biography: Kitty Wooley MA PMP worked 19 years at the U.S. Department of Education, retiring in 2013. Through the Senior Fellows and Friends network established in 2003, Kitty initiates conversations and experimental projects that encourage public servants to jumpstart new potential by spanning organizational boundaries. She is the author of “Four New Models of Networked Leadership Development” in Innovations in Human Resource Management: Getting the Public’s Work Done in the 21st Century (edited by H. Sistare, M. Shiplett and T. Buss), published in 2009 by M. E. Sharpe.
4 thoughts on “How informal discussion groups can maintain long-term momentum”
By the way, the final versions of our third boundary spanning book, roleplays, and interviews went live today at https://seniorfellowsandfriends.org/permission-to-practice-public-service-boundary-spanning/.
The roleplay creators (all members of the SFF network who’ve attended events) and I presented the work at the Northeast Conference on Public Administration earlier this month. If you’re interested enough to sample the panel discussion at https://youtu.be/jnNPDZAGybI, we hope to meet you in the future!
You’ve done a great job creating reasonable rules, Kitty. Good fences make good neighbors and your emphasis on no ego is wise. The worst groups I’m in have many people wanting less to learn and more to show off how smart they are. It’s wearisome. Congrats!
Thank you, Mark. Your Lead From the Heart podcast interviews with researchers, authors, scientists and CEOs (http://markccrowley.com/podcasts/) seem very similar with respect to ego, in that everyone manages to keep theirs in check during the conversation. It creates calm, restful space – no matter how exuberant a speaker may be – that enables one to take in much more of what’s being said.
Appreciate that greatly, Kitty