Introducing our Meeting Magician: Lina Patel
Words by Lorin Camargo • Jan 19 2021
Learn all about the facilitation & collaboration designer who’s helping us re-shape the way our global community comes together online.
A few months ago, we were given the opportunity to bring in an expert to help improve the way we and our 31 member organizations design and deliver online meetings. Right away, we thought of Lina Patel.
Having worked with us in 2020 on our strategy, Lina has already spent a great deal of time guiding our team as we’ve worked to re-evaluate the needs of our network members. We can’t say enough how thrilled we are to have her back!
As the former “Chief of Getting Things Done” (Chief Operating Officer) at Code for Australia, and the Founder as well as Facilitator & Collaboration Designer at Revma Consulting, Lina is skilled in creating supportive spaces, facilitating collaborative processes and building strong, respectful working relationships.
We recently had a chat with Lina about her story leading up to the work she now does, and what might be accomplished through this project — here’s what we learned:
How did you find yourself working in the realm of facilitation and collaboration design?
In a way I sort of stumbled into it and in another way I’ve been doing it for quite some time. I guess officially I started working as a facilitator and collaboration designer when I joined a firm called Collabforge. What they do is facilitation and collaboration design with government or public sector clients — and if you’re working with facilitators, you eventually become one.
Another thing is — a lot of things that make for good facilitation are actually skills I had been building for quite some time, I just didn’t realize when you put them all together it’s a job called facilitator.
What are some of those skills?
Well, one of them which I think is useful and significant to mention is that I grew up in quite a chaotic household, so in a way I’ve been working with groups and group dynamics since I was about 8 years old. From quite a young age, one of the skills I developed was an ability to notice the smallest changes in the atmosphere of a room or in a group of people, and looking back it’s what I needed to do as a kid to sort of get through childhood — but in another way, it means that from quite a young age I’ve been attuned to the way people respond and communicate with each other, verbally and non-verbally.
Another professional influence is that I joined a large accounting firm straight out of high school. Early in your career you’re pretty much just taking notes in lots of meetings, so it meant I was in a lot of different contexts with a lot of different people. I got to see which of my colleagues were successful in their approach, and again it was just years of observing people in groups and noticing, ‘Oh okay, that’s interesting — they had a very different outcome in their meeting — I wonder what it is that they did?’
I’ve been really fortunate to have worked alongside people who run phenomenal meetings. That wasn’t all they did, but that’s one thing that attracted me to those particular people — when they walked into the room they were just able to achieve really amazing things. At the time it seemed like magic, now I know it’s a skill they developed and honed.
Very cool! And what made you enter the civic tech field?
At the time I didn’t know what civic tech was, and for the first 6 months I still didn’t really understand what it was. My whole career has been in technology — I grew up in and around enterprise technology, which has a very different shape and flavor to web-based technology.
A lot of people in civic tech have much more of a web-based experience of how things are made and how things work. I found that really fascinating because enterprise technology has very centralized control, whereas with civic tech, like the internet, things felt much more distributed.
To me, that was quite revolutionary — and quite incredible that you would decentralize control, and that this mindset around decentralizing control is also how civic tech organizations themselves are structured.
There’s one more thing about civic tech … I have this soft spot for small outfits that punch above their weight, and I just think every civic tech organization is that. And even civic tech as a sector — it’s a small outfit, yet everyone has this really outsized ambition about shifting government and making democracy better and — those are such lofty goals and I love that people are putting their effort into that.
Why do you think it’s important to have effective online meetings?
I’ll take that back a step and say, it’s not just that we want to have effective online meetings — I think every meeting should be effective. Online just being one way that you bring people together.
So if I go back to why it’s important to have effective online meetings, I think of this quote by Peter Block from his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, which says, “The future is created one room at a time, one gathering at a time. Each gathering needs to become an example of the future we want to create”.
This quote really goes back to why I think meetings matter — because each meeting is an opportunity to create the future.
I love that! Is there anything else you’d like to add about effective meetings?
When people leave a meeting energized, inspired and wanting to come back together — that’s what an effective meeting can feel like.
So, an effective online meeting would be one where people feel energized rather than depleted, or where they have a sense of progress in their work and in their working relationships.
That’s not to say that every meeting has to go smoothly and happily, I think there always needs to be room for conflict and disagreement, but I also think there are some things you can look after every time you bring people together, which makes it productive, and means that you’re respectful of people’s time, attention and energy.
What are some of the biggest challenges when it comes to meeting online?
First, I would draw the distinction between working from home and needing to connect online versus meeting online (being in a place of your own choosing and meeting online). I think it’s useful to split these up given the current context we’re in, in that the effects of COVID are still very unevenly distributed.
So, the first one in terms of working from home — I really like the analogy which has been doing the rounds that: we’re in the same storm but we’re in different boats.
And so some of us are sitting on really nice cruise liners and it’s all kind of comfortable and we don’t really notice the big waves outside, whereas some of us are on really small boats that are being thrown around on the stormy sea. I think that’s one of the challenges of meeting online during a pandemic — that for some people there are so many other factors at play. Same storm, different boats — that’s one challenge.
Now I’ll speak a little bit about just meeting online. So, imagine a world where you got to choose where you sit and you know what you’re doing is just connecting virtually — where I notice a challenge is not with organizations who already were remote, it’s for everyone who had to switch really rapidly. Like, overnight you had to go from having done a lot of stuff in person to now only being able to do stuff online.
A few things I see around challenges there is that, for organizations and people who had to switch to being entirely online, there’s this thing they do where they try to treat online as a ‘digital version of meeting in-person’. And that’s just not going to give you a good result because they’re two separate things — they’re two really separate mediums.
So, it’s a challenge when people think that you can just take something you used to do, like post-it notes, and put it online. There’s a whole heap of stuff that that doesn’t factor in about why post-it notes worked well — you had something physical, people were writing with their hand, they were putting it on a wall. And those things can’t necessarily be replicated when you’re moving a mouse around on a screen.
Yeah, that makes sense. It seems that a lot of people are feeling exhausted after having so many online meetings.
I feel that goes hand in hand with, again, if you think you can interact with the people who are on your screen the same as if they were in the room with you, you’ll get exhausted. So, I think there’s some very useful reframing about what is actually going on for us physically, as physical human people, when we’re meeting online, and I’m hoping to share some of what I’ve learnt around just having a different way of engaging with the screen — because the screen is not the people.
Bouncing off that, what are some of the main things you hope to accomplish while working with us on this project?
One thing is, and I probably should have mentioned at the start — my mission is to alleviate workplace suffering, and to bring more kindness into the world, one team at a time.
So, if I’m able to alleviate needless workplace suffering for any of you — what becomes available is the possibility for you to have more energy to put into the social change work you’re doing through your involvement with civic tech.
It’s a bit like, if you had better shoes — you’d be able to walk further. So essentially, I’d love for people to be able to (1) become more comfortable and build their own skill around running amazing meetings and (2) when that needs to happen online, just have a few more creative options and approaches to doing that. This way, you’re leaving those moments and those gatherings energized and ready to go out into the world and make change happen through civic tech — rather than being so drained from all the meetings that there’s no creative energy left.
Awesome, we can’t wait! On more of a personal note, what do you like to do in your spare time?
Hang out with my chickens and notice the wild birds where I live. And yeah, definitely throughout this year I’ve been home a lot, so I’ve become much more attentive to where I live. In the past I would wake up, have breakfast and then I would basically head to the other side of town where I had a desk at a co-working space. Whereas now, being home for all this time, it’s just opened my eyes to some things I never would have noticed about where I live.
I started bird watching — so, I now know a lot more about birds and the birds in my neighborhood. I started a newsletter for my apartment building. I now have chickens. So yeah, I guess in my spare time I’m just a lot more engaged and involved with hyperlocal things.
Nice! We’re just about ready to wrap up. Is there anything you’d like to add, that I haven’t covered?
If there’s one thing I would share with people, regardless of whether they get involved with our project or not, it would be this small thing: turn your self-view off on Zoom (if you’re using Zoom). Having to perform for yourself puts an extra load on your nervous system, and that probably makes you more tired than you need to be. That then extends to, when you’re choosing what online platform to use, preference platforms that allow people to have their cameras and self-view off. That will make it easier on other people.