Running a Community Meeting for Burn Blue

So first, some background.

In May 2007, a few of us started a not for profit in Seattle to promote blues dancing. We called it Burn Blue. It was my first take at helping to shape not just a team, not just a project, but a whole company. It’s been fun and a huge learning experience for me.

Burn Blue runs a weekly blues dance in Seattle. As such its success or failure completely depends on the dance community in Seattle that come to it. We’ve been really successful in reaching out to this community, and Burn Blue has done really well because of it.

I’ve personally had a lot of fun guiding Burn Blue toward being more community driven & transparent. I love this fuzzy stuff.

Fast forward to last weekend. I was running Burn Blue’s community meeting. We had promised people pancakes and a voice in Burn Blue’s future, and 35 people showed up.

There were however, a lot of challenges :
1. It was a lot of people, a lot of new people, people that hadn’t necessarily been to a community meeting before, people that didn’t necessarily know what Burn Blue was about.
2. There was a lot of information that we as directors wanted to get across to them about changes that we had made.
3. We wanted the people there to feel that this was THEIR meeting, that Burn Blue was there for THEM, and not the other way around.
4. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. We wanted to make sure that we discovered any other important things that needed to be addressed.
4. We wanted to actually get stuff done. We wanted actionable items out of the meeting along with the names of people who would do them.
5. We only had 3 hours.

Long story short, we did it right.

The directors and officers (all 5 of us) had met previously and talked about what we wanted to put into the meeting. We set a very rough agenda and recorded a few things that we wanted to hit. More importantly, we practiced setting an agenda in that meeting and working through it.

We had a big [Visible Agenda] and wrote ours down on a huge post it. It looked something like this :

  • 1:00pm – arriving, eating pancakes
  • 1:30pm – where are we? (temperature & retrospective)
  • 2:00pm – burn blue structure
  • 2:15pm – going over people’s input
  • intermediate lesson
  • venue
  • improving feedback
  • security

Basically, people got there and milled around a bit while we helped -topher with pancakes (this was in our house). Around 1:30, when the pancakes still weren’t done, I called everyone’s attention together and gave them a couple jobs while they continued to eat and talk.

First, I wanted to get a group [Temperature]. I had written down Burn Blue’s 4 part mission on a giant post it and I drew a line to the right of each for part for people to judge us on.

Second, I had two more giant post its with the classic “keep” / “change” from retrospectives for people to add things to.

This was all information gathering, so I let the [Participants Write]. I also gave them an expectation that part of the meeting would last about half an hour.

Half an hour later, the formal part of the meeting started. We explained a little bit about what burn blue was. Then we started to go through what people had written down.

Karissa, my wife, who’s also a director, saw people beginning to get excited and start talking over each other, and she suggested a few [Ground Rules]. We as a group settled on [Use Gestures], [One Conversation], and [No Stories]. We also hadn’t actually set an end time for the meeting, so I asked people when they wanted to end. We decided that 4pm would make the most sense.

As we talked about the temperature sheet and the keep and change sheets, we wrote down things that we needed to talk about onto the [Visible Agenda]. We almost used it as a [Parking Lot] for everything until after we were done going through the input we’d gotten already.

And on it went. We found, as we’d hoped, that a lot of the things that we (the directors) had wanted to talk about were also concerns of the community. There were also several things that we hadn’t thought about.

We kept going. Our [Ground Rules] kept us focused. Pretty early on, I asked the group for the authority to play “Time Nazi” as we had close to 20 agenda items to go through and less than 2 hours left. When we went over 5 minutes on an item, I’d let people know, but some items were important enough to keep talking about, some weren’t.

We jumped around a bit on the agenda. Several times, the same person that brought up an agenda item conceded that it probably wasn’t as important as another one, and we went in roughly order of importance, crossing off agenda items as we covered them.

We ended up finishing the meeting at 4pm, deciding to leave the last few agenda items uncovered until the next meeting in a few months. As we had talked about each item, we had also been adding to another [Big Visible Chart], our [Action Items].

People left the meeting (though many stuck around to hang out) with a feeling of excitement and ownership. A feeling that things had just gotten better, that they had been heard and they had helped that to happen, knowing what their next actions were. The meeting was a total success.

For my part, I’ve been working a lot on lately and have had all these awesome patterns swimming around my mind. I called up several for this meeting. And had done so previously for the directors just before. This helped made the facilitation of the meeting into a joint effort.

It was really fun to take the reigns and pull out patterns that fit and customize them to the situation. I’m looking forward to our next meeting.


2 Responses to “Running a Community Meeting for Burn Blue”

  1. Will Shaver Says:

    Jeremy –

    Facilitation, Software, AND blues dancing?!

    No wonder I connected well with you at Agile NW.


    I’m a long time (10 years) WCS/Ballroom dancer and just getting into this blues thing.nn1

  2. jeremy Says:

    That’s funny.

    Actually I was just telling someone that there is a huge values crossover between facilitation and agile. There is also some crossover between those two and dancing I suppose.

    Yeah, the blues thing is fun :)

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