The following are a set of thoughts from Bill about a previous workgroup which might be beneficial to an endeavor.
I was on a workteam that made the following agreements:
- All meetings take place as scheduled
- All are invited all the time
- Business proceeds with who shows up
- Significant decisions and findings are noted for the record
- Significant decisions and findings could only be revisited for a compelling reason
- Not being able to make the meeting where the decision was made is not a compelling reason
- Scholarship and evidence are compelling reasons
Extrapolating, your summary pages would record significant findings and decisions. Significant findings might be consensus on a core conceptual framework, a model that represents a conceptual framework, or the like.
People who join later are introduced to findings as "this is the way it is." (Not in a rigid, inflexible sort of way, but in the way a surgical team would say, "these are our methodologies and surgical techniques, they are supported by evidence, and it's the way we do things around here."
So, people joining must have something better to offer - preferably based on scholarship and evidence (which prevents the endless debating of opinion) - in order to claim to have a compelling reason to reopen prior discussions. This also creates a structure where discourse is always aiming for a higher target.
Our group went through an exhaustive process over a six month period. (We were an internal corporate education group at an academic medical center). We started by asking, What bodies of knowledge do we rely on? Then, What are the major theories or conceptual frameworks from which we work? Third, how are our current practices and course offerings supported by the theories and conceptual frameworks? (Every OD practice and course we taught had to be supported by at least one theory, and contradict [or violate] no theory.)
You might find an approach like this helpful for (a) putting some structure to the conversation and (b) placing a few boundaries on the conversation (the boundaries being for the purpose of keeping participants sane, for the original reason you cited).
Whether you adopt the above, some variation, or something else entirely, I think you will accomplish what you want by creating a structure in which there is a specific, concrete, tangible goal that always represents aiming higher than the last specific, tangible, concrete goal. That should prevent the endless traveling in circles over well worn ground.
I probably should have added that choosing specific, tangible, concrete goals can themselves be topics of public discourse.
One more thought...
In my experience and opinion the greatest impediment to productive and meaningful conversation is getting off track, commonly referred to as off topic (OT for those in the know!).
But simply declaring something off-topic is off-putting and alienating. Despite the best intentions, it can come across as capricious and arbitrary. Better to have a corral in which topics are placed (this would be a public place where all can see what has been placed there). The community can decide which of these topics ought to be brought into a named topic of conversation, and given their just due. In THAT conversation, anything off-topic is sent to the corral.
This is a powerful and engaging way of staying on topic. No one feels blown off, and conversations stay on track.
For each conversation I suggest that the following four roles be declared, openly and publicly.
- Conversation facilitator: declares the topic and purpose of the conversation, introduces and guides the conversation, asks foundational questions, makes sure all have a voice, seeks to draw out the thoughts of participants (especially quiet ones), keeps the conversation on track.
- Scribe: the person who will note significant findings and decisions.
- Corral Manager: who will identify OT conversations and place them in the corral.
- Time Keeper: who will let people know how much time is left (which implies that I think conversations ought to be time limited, which in our situation could be days, weeks, or months, but in all cases time limited).
From time to time people can be invited to review the corral and select topics for conversation. None of this by the way suggests that only one thread at a time can be running. Indeed, corral items might move to a thread of their own immediately. The key element is that it is OT to the conversation in which it first surfaced.
Systems Thinking World Discussions
Systems Thinking World Q&A * Gene Bellinger