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Use Your Meeting
Planning to Help Keep Your Field Vibrant and Growing
How can you keep
your field vibrant and growing? In
a mature industry with proven technologies, it can be a challenge to recognize,
try out and incorporate new ideas. This
paper (a) describes some of the challenges, (b) speculates on the causes of
those challenges, and (c) proposes some remedies.
The purpose is to create a learning system that keeps your field vibrant
and growing by systematic interaction with people who have knowledge that is
relevant to your field.
services, products, programs and social systems wear out.
Some people attribute this to entropy where everything in the universe is
always dis-integrating, but there are more specific and human causes than that
for the long, slow slide that affects most strategies and organizations. It takes anywhere from 20 to 40 years for an approach to lose
its legitimacy. There are several
“causes” of this. One is the
inevitable consolidation of ideas over time.
Even if we “let 1,000 flowers bloom” most die from lack of
nourishment and eventually, like a field of sunflowers, a dominant idea
establishes itself and crowds out the rest.
The slide may be
due to changes in the environmental factors that nurtured the original strategy
(a high-school diploma is no longer enough to get a good job), because the
strategy largely succeeds (civil rights) or because the as the strategy operates
it accumulates reveals flaws in the original construct such as contradictions
and blank spots or gaps. In
science, this is documented by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He shows exactly how “normal science” identifies the
errors and omissions in an accepted theory, and when the weight of evidence
eventually undercuts the existing theory – then the future overpowers the past
and there is a paradigm shift.
When a field of
practice is new there are many new people who arrive on the scene.
As time passes, a social system forms and a hierarchy is created.
The people at the top become the defenders of the revealed truth (the
dominant paradigm of thought) and gradually lose interest in other ideas as
their own success increases. This
reinforces the established order and adds legitimacy to the dominant paradigm.
The number of new
ideas is fairly constant, since all knowledge systems grow at the edges about 3%
a year. It is like watching the Mickey Mouse balloon getting blown up, larger
and larger. Eventually Mickey’s
ears, nose and eyes are visible only to those on that side of the balloon, and a
whole new sub-field is born. Bureaucracy
really does creep as one idea splits into two ideas, and one data element wants
four more data elements, and one form becomes two.
accumulate. The difference between
the rhetoric and the actual delivery begins to grow. As Peter Drucker tells us in his book Innovation and Entrepreneurship, eventually one of several things
will happen. One is that the system
loses credibility and goes into decline; another is that a competitor slices
into the void created by the discontinuity; another is that a new theory and
approach is developed that reconciles the discontinuities with reality; or –
the system simply collapses (remember the Soviet Union?).
About 85% of all
‘new’ ideas go nowhere, and about 15% are the seeds of the future.
What happens is that the people at the top DO NOT lose the ability to
assess or sort ideas, but they do they lose interest in considering them.
Or, they downplay the importance of the discontinuities or discredit them
because they challenge the dominant paradigm.
If the only people who are in charge of screening ideas are at the very
top of the social system and they are also the gatekeepers for the future, then
we can tell what their preferred future will look like – it will look like the
present (or the past). They will
tend to select ideas that area congruent with the ideas that made them
successful. Such is human nature
and this is not a bad thing because it creates stability in a system, but it is
something that must be balanced with the admission of new and unsettling ideas
if we are going to keep a system open and alive.
ideas that were in good currency and then fade from prominence come around again
for a process of renewal. This
happens in cycles that are about 10 to 20 years long.
These include: planning, community involvement, comprehensive services,
board leadership, staff leadership, computerization, and evaluation. All of these have been through two or three cycles in human
So, in the past few
years, community action agencies re-discover maximum feasible participation and
now call it community engagement; E&T re-discovers comprehensive services
can call it one-stop shops, and publicly funded social services agencies
re-discover common intake forms with -- hold onto your hat -- common intake
forms. Most administrators and
managers can fill their day with this, but how much of it is progress and how
much of it is just running the machinery?
Where do truly new
ideas come from? They usually come
from outsiders, from people at the edges of our boundaries including the
newcomers who are just coming in, and occasionally from insiders (usually old
people) who have nothing to lose.
The largest source is from outside -- from competing domains, from
universities and think tanks. If
funders are smart they have a permanent program development, evaluation,
dissemination strategy. This used
to be common in the Federal government, in DOL, HUD and HEW. OEO had the best program development shop in existence.
The Federal role is largely gone.
Foundation, Casey, Enterprise, HAC, CfED, Aspen, NWAF and the other
intermediaries have moved into this void and are the primary source of new
ideas. Think tanks like Brookings,
AEI, Urban Institute and Heritage are fountains of new ideas.
People at the edge of
the domain. They may be trying
to push it outward or trying to get in, but you can feel them pushing!
They are the people who are brand new to the system and see it with
They come from inside, from the evaluations that prove that things are
not working and from that annoying staff person who keeps pointing out the flaws
in the existing system. This may be
the junior staffer or the people who are really old -- like the board member who
retired from their real job years ago. These
people are no longer vested in defending the status quo.
They have nothing to lose by bring critical of the existing system.
So now we are ready to allocate “workshop time" or “clock time” to
the various types of data, information, knowledge and wisdom that will be
presented to participants in the ongoing system of learning.
a normal year when the system is not under threat and it is more-or-less
business-as-usual, about 70% of the speakers and clock-time should be on current
program operations, regulatory issues, management issues, and continuous
improvement of existing strategies. This
is “maintenance” training. This
is the typical panel-of-peers, the leading practitioners of the accepted
remaining 30% should be allocated among the topics listed below.
The amount of time on each depending on your own assessment of what is
most needed to open things up, keep things moving, present a new idea or bring
something to a close.
Environmental scan. Changes
in the (1) economy (including science and technology, globalization), (2)
social values and (3) demographics. One
or more of these three are the drivers underlying almost all change in a
society. Only about half of the
change in these three areas gets picked up in public policy, and the lag-time
is anywhere from 5 to 20 years. What
is coming at you or has changed to create new threats or opportunities? Which of these changes will most likely affect public policy?
What is happening in the world? How
do you weight the probability of these new things having a real effect?
B. Domain Boundary Review. What separates employment and training from vocational
education or other skill training? What
are the overlaps, incursions, or softening of boundaries that create
opportunities for expansion into another domain or that make you vulnerable?
Is one-time drug use by a juvenile a criminal justice issue, a health
issue, an education issue or a parenting issue?
What can be re-classified into your domain?
Or, booted out? Where are
some of the places we can look?
Contrarian Perspectives. The
people who look inward and say “we should be doing it exactly the opposite
of the way we are doing it.” They
are also the people who point out the discontinuities between the rhetoric and
the performance. “Give a man a
fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and he feeds himself
forever” is one of those sayings that human development professionals love
to quote. Yet the facts are that we give away 40 billion dollars worth
of fish (food programs) plus 16 billions dollars worth of fish (rental
assistance) plus 12 billion dollars worth of fish (cash assistance) plus 50
billion dollars worth of fish (health care) every year, and – how much do we
spend teaching people how to fish? Not
quite as much. Peter Drucker
(Innovation and Entrepreneurship again) tells us exactly how the discontinuity
eventually results in (1) a competitors filling the gap, (2) loss of
credibility in the system, or (3) the collapse of the house of cards. We need people who are not afraid to tell us the problems
that we have now – and to call upon us to change.
Visionaries and Next Generation Scenarios.
These are the people who look outward and try to anticipate what the
world will look like or should look like ten or twenty years from now. What are some of our options?
The creation of a
vibrant agenda is not something that a staff person can do, and it will not
happen if the board delegates primary responsibility to a consultant or to an
association staff person. A
conference planning system and committee needs to create a basic structure for a
normal year that is 70% maintenance activity and 30% re-invention activity.
In a year when there are major new environmental challenges, the ratio
might shift to a higher percentage of re-invention.
OTHER PROCESS ISSUES
should begin at least a year in advance.
committee should include (1) a few prominent insiders, (2) a newcomer, (3) an
old codger, and (4) an outsider. Assign
a staff person to provide logistical support, take notes, to organize the
meetings and schedule the conference calls.
planning group will also meet at the end of the conference to debrief what
worked and what did not work, and to set up the process for the coming year.
For help with your meeting planning, please e-mail Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 510-339-3801.