23 Apr 2020

The Rituality of Project Meetings

European Projects Behind the Scenes (2)

Gregor Cerinšek, IRI UL

“Everything went so smoothly and effectively, however, I was really missing our joint social dinner. My dinner was very lonely…” (a project coordinator after a virtual consortium meeting)

In my previous contribution, I spoke about the differences between formal structures – as described in project application or project documentation – and informal networks, actual behavior and activities of people together with interpersonal relations and interactions that evolve in European projects. Based on the developed formal structure we plan our research & development activities towards achieving the objectives and, in addition, aiming to successfully address the evaluation criteria. The latter is especially important in the project (pre)application phase and could be considered as a key guiding principle in the application writing process. The formal structure includes the work programme, project methodology, Gantt chart with key milestones, organizational structure with specific roles, coordination, financial and administrative mechanisms together with evaluation, dissemination and sustainability plan.

The majority of European projects share certain similar protocols, as for instance the consortium meetings, review meetings, interoperability events between different projects, conferences etc. And I believe that consortium project meetings require some additional explanation effort. Two or three times per year the project partners meet physically in different locations. Meetings are organized by the hosting partner together with the project coordinator. The meeting host needs to arrange the meeting rooms together with regular accompanying activities and events, such as coffee breaks, lunch breaks, social dinner, and other social events (e.g. city tour).

In the formal part of a project meeting, the partners present the work that has been carried out so far, analyze the current status and, based on the achieved results, plan the forthcoming activities. The pre-prepared agenda includes presentations of work packages, project management, financial and administrative part and workshops in which partners jointly work on certain thematic areas or specific challenges.

Besides these more obvious and utilitarian characteristics, we should also dedicate attention to uncover and understand the importance of more hidden, yet very important elements of rituality in project meetings. In a broad sense, we describe rituals as social processes that give concrete expressions to more abstract (religious and metaphysical) notions. As (semi)public events they thematize the relationship between the real, earthly, concrete world on one hand and the spiritual and abstract realms on the other.

Meetings as rituals are manifestations of the project’s worship of itself, its ideology, project ideas and objectives – which project partners have to embrace and relate to on a regular basis.

A key aim of the meeting rituality is to enhance the integration of partners within a project team. Since the individuals working on a project are physically brought together in the same place – i.e. away from their regular job tasks and away from their social and family life (except for meeting hosts) – they are all able to fully commit themselves to the project, investing their time and energy, internalizing project’s essence and rethinking their particular role.

“Thinking about project meetings, I most enjoy the kick-off. When we all gather for the first time in a room in which the meeting will be held. People come from different countries, having different cultural backgrounds. Some of them are more introvert, others are very open and would like to discuss with everyone. Like at a party. Some people stick to themselves in their tiny desk space, staring at a computer. Some are in the middle of attention, chatting and laughing out loud. You can also notice minor cultural clashes and embarrassments. Some of them kiss three times, others two times, some don’t kiss at all. This is the informal rituality.” (Researcher)

Borrowing the theory and theatre terminology from Erving Goffman, the famous sociologist and social psychologist of the twentieth century, the backstage of the project meetings – i.e. all the informal activities, gatherings, and spontaneous discussions outside formal structures – could be considered as a key towards understanding the social dynamics in European projects. In contrast to what happens “on the stage” as shaped and defined by the formal meeting agenda, people feel and act differently in “backstage situations”. Frequently in informal spontaneous discussions, which could also be in national languages between partners from the same country, other considerations and perspectives emerge. People reveal different, additional or modified opinions. Even certain statements, claims and judgments, as expressed during the formal part of the meeting, could be approached from a different angle and reshaped. In the backstage individuals can feel more relaxed or confident in contrary to plenary settings where they are forced to manage with impressions. By choosing topics of discussion relevant to them – and the people they would like to talk with – they are able to influence the situations making them more controllable and secure.

As compared to the real actors in a theatre, project partners in their “backstage dressing-rooms” can truly be themselves; they can make jokes, display their true emotions and feel free of the strict requirements of their roles on stage.

And this becomes even more evident after two or three glasses of wine or beer. Understanding the meaning of informal socializing and corresponding rituality in the backstage is of main importance for successful project management.  

“Informal contacts are established, friendship is developed. You tell things to someone that is more of a personal nature. After dinner, we all went for a drink in a bar nearby and we shared among ourselves many things that could never be discussed at project meeting. (I admit, alcohol also played its part and we were all very relaxed and talkative.) In informal settings, trust is established within a project team; you really get to know other people. And these interpersonal relations are crucial – also for the overall project success!” (Researcher)

Project meetings as rituals can serve for (re)integration and (re)stabilization of the system. In the period between the meetings partners separately work on their project tasks; however, the alienation continuously grows due to geographical distance, specific objectives of partner organizations and a whole bunch of other working requirements that are not directly linked to the project. The connection with the project and its symbolic elements is being lost and we are approaching a critical stage, in which the stability of the system is endangered. Therefore, a new ritual experience is needed to reconnect the people; on a social level in terms of mutual cooperation and integration as well as on the symbolic level reconnecting people with the project as a formation with a meaning. Thus, even if the situation becomes critical in the interim period – e.g. if partners do not stick to deadlines, if research and development activities do not produce required results or if conflicts emerge – we aim to resolve these challenges and disagreements at project meetings. Most of the times we are successful since the meeting rituality calms down the situation and people, in general, feel better. Critical values become lower, and the system stability is re-established.

However, the previously described rituality does not always function in a constructive manner. European projects are neither socially, nor ideologically stable formations. Inconsistencies, disagreements, and ideological ambiguities could also present a source of tension, can produce conflicts amongst partners and unbalance the equilibrium in projects. In forthcoming blog posts, I will discuss how project meetings as rituals could be dysfunctional causing destabilization, especially due to opposing interpretations that emerge.

Gregor Cerinšek, IRI UL researcher and project manager, reflects on the background of European projects, i.e. all practices, events and activities that are not publicly discussed, but nevertheless significantly affect the acquisition of projects, their course and long-term success (or failure). He formulates findings and recommendations on the basis of conversations with project managers, coordinators, researchers, supervisors, consultants and evaluators – with all those who are in any way involved in the phenomenon of European projects.

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