Thursday, September 21, 2017

"Balaton Group" Members - bonded and empowered by face-to-face conversations

I am writing in my Ibis Styles hotel room, on a cold, rainy fall evening in Budapest, overlooking the Danube River. This morning, my Balaton Group colleagues and I concluded most recent of successive annual meetings on the shores of Lake Balaton that began in 1982.  The group’s mission “generating new research, new action and new solutions for sustainability” is aptly described on the Group’s website, and need not be repeated.  A display of several hundred book covers of volumes published by Balaton Group members exhibits the range of member interests and contributions. There is a short video, crafted by filmmaker John deGraaf that conveys the texture of our annual meeting, limited to about 50 members, that more closely resembles an extended-family gathering than a professional meeting.
At this year’s conference, a survey by Balaton Group co-founder Dennis Meadows provided a useful way of capturing this distinctive ambience. Members were given a sheet listing the names of the 50 plus participants.  We were asked to enumerate our conversations with other members according to the following scheme: (a) a pleasant, casual conversation (b) an extended conversation including new information that would be professionally useful  (c) an extended conversation containing contextual and theoretically relevant content that could very likely lead to a future professional collaboration.
Conversations typically took place during meals, in one-on-one conversations arranged by appointment; on the bus-rides to-and-from Budapest, and on long walks. In “category b” I also included “professional coaching” sessions.  I always have extended conversations of this nature with present and former “Donella Meadows” fellows, highly capable young professionals who are invited to join the meeting and discussions, with full funding.
Reviewing this compilation was illuminating, both about the meeting process and my own role. I had engaged in at least one-on-one or small group casual conversations with all but three participants.  There had been twenty or more extended conversations, including those with Donella Meadows Fellowship recipients. Two of these lasted more than two hours, and several consumed more than an hour. At least three are likely to be followed up with professional collaborations.
I came away from the meeting, exhausted, but also enriched and empowered, both professionally and personally.  The result was exactly what Donella and Dennis Meadows envisioned when they founded the Balaton Group. I am reminded of a quotation from Lee Kuan Yew School Dean Kishore Mahbubani that I have posted in my office.   One of the oldest truths about the human condition is that direct conversation always helps.  There is no substitute for face-to-face dialogue


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