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The 80/20 Rule of Meeting Facilitation

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There, by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, is a classic facilitation book that I’ve kept by my side and keep going back to for insights. One of the notable points in the book is the “80/20 rule” of meeting facilitation, based on the authors’ observation that people often spend 80% of their time in meetings on issues that they cannot resolve, and 20% of the time on finding common ground. Instead, they argue that the ratio should be reversed— people should spend 80% of their time finding common ground, and 20% on where they disagree. According to the authors, “In our experience, the procedures described here [on finding common ground] will deliver 100 percent agreement on at least 80 percent of the items within an hour, even in groups of 60 to 80 people.” [emphasis mine] It’s a remarkable statement that I’d like to examine in more detail.

The rationale is that, in the process of sharing their experiences and values when searching for what they have in common, people focus more on what unites them, rather than on protecting their positions and resorting to subgroup stereotyping. As different shades of opinion emerge, it becomes easier for people to establish areas of common agreement. They develop a better understanding of where their individual views overlap, as well as diverge.

Finding common ground is NOT the same as compromising or seeking 100% agreement. It is not about pressuring people to change their minds or agreeing for the sake of agreeing. In fact, Weisbord and Janoff emphasize the importance of letting disagreements surface, clarifying the nature of the disagreement, then staying with the anxiety and ambiguity that comes along with it. They exhort facilitators to restrain the urge to “help” the group to resolve differences that cannot be resolved—hence, the title of the book.

What does this look like in practice? Since I haven’t had an opportunity to sneak into one of their sessions (although I would like to!), I’ve devised an imaginary scenario and possible agendas for addressing that scenario: the first, a conventional agenda that I’ve often experienced as a participant, and the second, an agenda that I would use, that incorporates the 80/20 rule. So here goes:

Imaginary Scenario

City A is planning to build a housing and retail complex through a public-private partnership to address the need for affordable housing. Current residents of the neighborhood are concerned about the possible effects of overcrowding and increased congestion. The city wants to convene a meeting including the neighborhood residents, representatives from the property development company, local business owners, and city officials, to obtain feedback about various stakeholders’ concerns and come up with ideas for possible solutions to address those concerns.

Conventional Agenda and projected outcome

80/20 Agenda and projected outcome

I think that the second agenda would be a much more productive meeting, but what do you think? What would you do differently? Please tell me your thoughts!


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