Twenty-five people sat around a table. There was tension in the air: they had a problem to solve.. After years of fund-raising, their organisations had enough money to build a grand new building, for the benefit of the children in the area. Their expectations were high, because the architects were coming and each participant was determined to have her say.
They set the room out with tables making a square shape, so everyone could see everyone else; it was all very fair and equal. The chairperson, Jane, sat in the middle of one of the sides.
‘At our last meeting,’ she said, ‘we agreed on the aims and objectives for the centre. Now we need to look at the practicalities. What will the building look like?’
The nursery manager was the first to speak.
‘My nursery needs to have 12 children in each of two shifts,’ she said. The architect did the sums; there are rules about the space every child must have. He drew the room on a large piece of paper pinned to a board.
‘We need rooms where we can have private conversations with Mums and Dads,’ said the counsellors. The architect drew two rooms.
‘We need just as many,’ said the health visitor, her voice rising slightly. ‘We need them every day, because we will have contact with every single family.’ The architect drew two more rooms.
‘We need a space for our dental surgery,’ said the dentist. ‘Here’s my sketch of what we need.’ The architect added some more rooms.
The sketch grew and grew until it covered all the white paper. Everyone knew what she wanted. Everyone had a valid argument for her service and the space it needed. The architect added rooms here; toilets there; a kitchen at the back and storage areas everywhere.
Finally, the architect did some quick calculations. The building would need at least three times the funds that were available.
That was where the fun really started.
The midwife glared at the counsellor while the play workers got angrier and angrier as the dentist reiterated how important his service was to the public, and how he had the backing of the big guns in the NHS. The nursery manager looked as though she was about to burst into tears and the health visitor’s voice grew louder and shriller with every moment.
‘OK,’ said Jane. ‘Let’s break for coffee.’ Everyone got up, tight lipped. While they collected tea, coffee and biscuits, Jane and a couple of helpers moved all the chairs away from the table into a semicircle around the architect’s board. When people came back, cup in hand, it took them a few minutes to find a new place to sit.
Jane took up her chair in front of the board and said,
‘This is tricky stuff. Let’s look at it together. We know what each of us wants, but it’s clear that we can’t have it all. How can we sort it out? What are we going to do?’
There was a silence. She let it carry on.
‘Well,’ said one of the counsellors, Kathy, eventually. ‘I wonder if Susan (the health visitor) and I could share a room sometimes.’ She turned slightly to Susan who was sitting next to her. ‘Sometimes I go out on home visits, and I know you do too. What do you think? Perhaps we could have a rota?’
‘I suppose I don’t need the room everyday,’ said Susan, in a less shrill voice.
‘Could we use it sometimes to talk to our parents?’ asked the play worker, nervously.
Slowly, amazingly, the battleground, where everyone fought his corner, became a market place, full of haggling and bargaining. At last, the architect drew a smaller building, one where spaces were flexible and shared. He clicked away at his laptop for a few minutes, then looked up and grinned. They could afford it.
Susan and Kathy left the room together, bubbling over with a new idea they had, to hold a joint clinic where people could see them both in one visit.
Jane made a few changes to take the heat out of the situation. She let everyone have her say first, so they all recognised the problem. When she saw that it was hard for them to resolve their differences straight away, she called a halt. She stopped the meeting and made everyone stand up and walk about. They had a chance to ‘shake off’ some negative emotions.
Getting coffee together evokes feelings of cooperation and bonding. Most cultures in the world will prefer not to eat or drink with their enemies. By simply agreeing to eat and drink together, some of the tension between the people in the room disappeared.
Jane then changed the layout of the room. Instead of sitting round a table, glaring at each other, the participants found themselves sitting side by side, facing the same way.
Sitting face to face can be confrontational. In Jane’s new setting, people literally looked at the problem together. They began to take on some of the attributes of a team.
They felt they were engaged in a joint enterprise. They were a bright bunch. Jane had confidence that they would be able to solve their problems.
She was right.