What the Heck is a “Container”?!

On our call with @jodie, @idelisse, and @alison yesterday, I raised a design challenge that I was pondering about the makeup of the folks who will be in the room in November (2:1 ratio of Wye members to invited guests). I figured we’d all quickly acknowledge it, say a few words about it, then move on. To my surprise and frustration, we ended up spending the rest of the call on it. Afterward, Alison and I debriefed, which helped me get clearer about what I was trying to say and perhaps why the conversation went the way it did.

Even before the election, we knew that two things would be hard about the upcoming meeting:

  1. Shifting focus and attention away from the short-term and toward the long-term
  2. Having enough of a “process” conversation to ensure success after this meeting

The election results make both of these things harder. Two of our Design Team members have shown leadership with the full Wye group about maintaining focus on the long-term at our meeting. This is not a new stance among Wye, and their alignment around this following the March meeting is the reason why we’ve been doing what we’ve been doing this past year. I feel pretty good about getting the Wye folks somewhat aligned around this before the meeting.

I don’t feel as good about this with the invited guests. They haven’t been part of this group in the past, they don’t have that history, and they are likely coming to the meeting to be with a group of their peers at a time of distress and need, not to help Wye in particular figure out what it wants to be and do in the next year and beyond.

We need to do our best to make sure the guests are clear about what will be happening at the November meeting. Even with that, their tolerance for talking about process more granularly will be lower than everyone else’s for the reasons stated above. That’s the point I was trying to make yesterday.

I think part of the reason our conversation yesterday was so difficult was that we are not on the same page about what a “process” conversation needs to be and why, and what “two-feet in” looks like.

There are two components of a “process” conversation:

  • Roadmap — the mechanics of what will happen, when, and how
  • Container — the “space” and agreed-upon norms in which we’ll have this conversation

Creating a “container” for a face-to-face meeting or for a process that is meeting-oriented is relatively straightforward, because most people have a clear, visceral understanding about the different aspects of the container. The most obvious component is the actual physical space, which people can see and touch.

The harder aspect of container-building has to do with agreements for how the group will behave. These tend to be hard regardless of whether the group is in a face-to-face meeting or not, although in a face-to-face context, it’s more easily understandable and enforceable, because the behavior is transparent to the entire group and there is usually facilitation, which means that the feedback cycles are more or less immediate.

For example, we ran into this challenge with the Future Forward process we did with Ev last year when we discussed the working agreement for transparency at the kickoff meeting for the meeting itself. In theory, that should have been straightforward — the proposed agreement fulfilled the need the participants described — but it was an emotional issue, and we needed to slow down to work it out. Discussing it for the six-month process as a whole was even harder, but because we took the time to work it out when we were all together, we were able to come to agreement fairly quickly are do our work successfully.

These kinds of conversations are laborious, and they suck, but they are necessary, especially for asynchronous processes and especially when they constitute a significant shift in culture for the group. Because of the trust in the room, we could propose something at a high-level and possibly skate by, but as soon as people start experiencing the ramifications, they will start questioning the container.

This exact scenario happened with STP a few months into the experiments process, when Alison and I announced that we were going to make our Facebook group published. We had agreed on this months earlier, but the reality of it triggered a much different response in the moment, and we had to work through it.

If we want our container to be resilient, we need folks in Wye River not only to go along with our suggestions, but to be advocating themselves for them. That means they have to understand them deeply and sit with them.

The specific challenges we’ll have will be around questions of transparency, roles, and permeability. The complexity and abstractness of these challenges was what was making our November design challenging pre-election, but they will be even more challenging now, especially with the high ratio of guests (who won’t have the same context and motivation to be in this more “process-y” conversation) to Wye members. That’s all that I was trying to say yesterday.

Idelisse brought up a good point yesterday that I want to address. Decision-making / governance is another one of those “container” issues that are very challenging to work out. The network principle I abide by to help with this is, “Avoid group decision-making.” You can generally avoid most governance issues when the group is small and trust is high. But the questions we’re wanting to work through around transparency, roles, and permeability are necessary, and we need this core group to be on the same page from the beginning.