20 secrets to mastering a large virtual meeting

large virtual meetings - mainVirtual meetings have become a fact of our work lives in the Covid-19 era. As a facilitator, I’m learning so many things about this fairly new-to-me medium and feel I’m really starting to get a handle on it.

Until now, the largest virtual meeting I’ve facilitated has been for around 18 people. Next week, I’m making a big leap, and will be hosting two meeting for about 68 people using Zoom. They are a group of stakeholders in a fledgling industry who are preparing to launch an industry network to share research, learnings and technology. Many of them are strangers to each other.

The purpose of the consultation-style meeting is to get input from the attendees on a draft proposed vision of the network. The organizers have already done a lot of aspirational thinking and had conversations about its goals and purpose. We want to present their ‘first draft thinking’ to the participants and give them opportunity to weigh in during the planned three-hour meetings .

I’m feeling confident that the meeting will go well , because during the past few months I’ve learned what makes a successful virtual meeting, especially one of this size:

  • Getting everyone engaged quickly
  • Inspiring great conversations
  • Optimizing the flow of the meeting
  • Keeping the meeting within the planned time frame
  • Ensuring everyone’s tech is working.

It sounds like a tall order for a virtual meeting room, but I’ve discovered a lot of tips and tricks that I’d like to share with you for when you’re feeling brave enough to host a big group meeting.

tools-3411589_640

What’s in my toolbox?

  • Ask for help! I’ve decided to up the production quality of the event and so I’ve determined that I will need two co-facilitators, one who is purely technical operating the broadcast components and assist with technical issues, and hybrid helper who will operate the zoom platform,. This is essential!
  • We’ll set up a contingency communication channel that is external to the meeting as well. This is necessary in case a participant is bounced out of a meeting room or is struggling with meeting access. It’s also helpful when participants need something in a breakout rooms because the chat is not persistent between main rooms and breakout rooms. This will be published to participants in advance and again during the meeting.  For help, text xxx xxx xxxx
  • Zoom will be our platform, which has the superpower of breakout chat rooms. It can manage up to 50 chat rooms, more than enough for our 68-person meeting. Everyone will be assigned to a break out room, allowing for smaller group conversations which we will ladder up from 2 to 4 to 8 over the course of the three-hour meeting.
  • We’ll also be using another Zoom superpower, which is the ability to pre-set a countdown timer for how long each of the breakout chats can last. (Find this under the option menu when setting up breakout rooms. Then people will be automatically re-assigned to another breakout room for further discussion with new faces. This was an important experiential objective of our meeting, that stakeholders would have an opportunity to meet peers and make connections.
  • Google slides are your friend. This is an easy-to-use data collection tool because everyone knows how to type on a document. And because I can’t eavesdrop on rooms (dropping into a breakout room is quite disruptive), using Google slides allows me to see the progress of all the groups in real time. We’ll use a Google form for participants to fill out if they’re willing to continue to stay involved with this network.
  • We will also make our client sponsors co-hosts. This will allow them to move between breakout rooms so they can participate in small room conversations according to their preferences.
cat-2374290_1280

Art of virtual engagement

Because we are not face to face, here are some essentials for the meeting to be a success:

  • Cameras must be ON – you need to see faces.
  • Be clear about the purpose of the meeting and realistic about the tangible outcomes.
  • Get people engaging quickly – this is where breakout rooms are so powerful. I encourage people to use chat box, either one to one or one to many. These alternate channels really help, even if I can’t see them all. For example, I’ll be using the online platform, Mentimeter, which has a Iive polling tool. You simply go to the link in a browser, get a six-digit code and can ask participants a question, such as an icebreaker: “What do you like to be called?” which generates a word cloud and is quite fun. (Thanks to Martin Gilbraith for that tip!) This is a simple way to get instant engagement.
  • I will also create in meeting polls to ‘take the temperature’ of the group on the ideas presented.
  • Get a little personal. Because people are working in their homes or apartments, ask them to bring something personal to share with everyone – the kid, the cat or the dog. I’ve done this before, and it really personalizes and livens up the experience. Or, ask them to grab something close by that relates to what we’re talking about.
  • You will not know the technological capabilities of the attendees and though there will be a range, it’s wise to assume lower capability. You’ll no doubt get a few, “I clicked on this link, but it didn’t work!!” (Pro Tip:  Make sure you have a public link for your google docs!)
  • Strip out complexity. I’ve learned that in virtual meetings you need to take it down to the basics. I will replace a lot of ‘large room’ conversations with small-group conversations. This helps with maximum sharing capability.
plan-2372176_1280

Other dos and don’ts

DO – Send meeting reminders with meeting links 1 – 2 hours before a meeting starts.

DO – Open the meeting early so you can test audio and video. We will be opening an hour early to catch any potential problems. It’s also a good idea for the facilitators to do a dry run.

DO – Be fastidious about timing, ensuring the meeting starts and ends on time. Have a timed agenda and be sure to build in transition time between activities and chats. And, be sure to send the meeting link out ahead of time.

DO – Be crisp and clear. Use verbal instructions and screen-sharing written instructions when you are asking people to do something, such as a task or assignment. Copy the instructions into the chat box so they persist into the breakout rooms.

DO – Ensure that you pattern the meeting to build safety and capacity for people to talk with each other. For example, I will say, I’m going to give you something to think about and then pair off people to talk about the topic.

DO – Be thoughtful about the conversations you’ll have in the larger room.

DO –  Be clear with your co-facilitators about exactly who is doing what. Who will share the file link? Who will admit participants? Who will monitor the chat box? Who will share screens? Etc.  It makes for a MUCH smoother meeting experience.

DON’T – Bite off more than you can chew, putting too much process into the stages of the meeting and trying to cram in too much information and expectations.

DON’T – Use new technology you haven’t tried out ahead of time. Nobody needs to experience that.

DON’T – Be in intransigent mode, lecturing for hours. People will just shut down.

DON’T – Forget to give people breaks.

And finally – be sure that you have thought about how you will follow up with participants and that your participants are clear about how they might follow up with you. We plan to send them the documents they generate in the workshop immediately following the workshop. The contact information that we will collect in the Google form is immediately delivered to the client.  We will also collect a bit of meeting feedback too!

Bottom line, conduct your meeting like the professional that you are and you’ll be rewarded with the satisfaction of nailing this new world of workplace meetings.

Virtual meetings and Coronavirus: We need tech know-how but also compassion

blog 6 working from home - feet up

Who would have thought just four short weeks ago, a majority of us would be hunkered down working from home? But in this once-in-100-year pandemic, this is our new normal.

So just how do we navigate this new work world and remain productive? It’s not ‘rocket science.’ We do have the technology, and everyone is learning to roll with it, from organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other world leaders who are conducting virtual meetings, locally, nationally and internationally.

If your company or organization has little experience with virtual meetings, it will take some keen organizers, a few tech-savvy folks and discipline to keep your workplaces ticking as close to normal as possible.

Most importantly, cut yourself a little slack if you’re new to this.

source

Our new reality

I’ve been working from home for five years, so I feel comfortable with it. But now that I have to meet with my clients digitally rather than face to face, I’m experiencing some of the challenges we all face in the coming weeks.

Whereas I once had space to myself, I suddenly have more company in my home office with the kids out of school. I find myself asking my 16-year-old son to vacate our shared space (“ Mooommm!!!”) when I’m about to go into a Zoom meeting or a video conference call.

From a client’s perspective, this will certainly change how I work with them for the foreseeable future. What does that look like? We’ll meet online in shorter, more frequent, chunks and there will be more takeaway work for participants.

penguin-funny-blue-water-86405

“The more you adapt, the more interesting you are.” – Martha Stewart

We will all have to learn how to adapt and we will evolve as we do so. I’m finding myself doing that every day. This will force us to elevate our remote working game, that’s for sure.

On March 12, I began the first of a four-part series of discussions with a client. On that day, everyone was in the room. It was business as usual.  By March 17, 40% of the group was remote. By the third meeting a few days later, 75% of participants were remote. The final two meetings were larger groups and 100% remote participation.

What were some takeaways?

  1. Virtual meetings require more planning: In addition to typical process planning (establishing objectives, building supporting process), we also need to think about how technology supports and disables.  What tools do we use for co-creation? How will we create breakout groups work when people are both inside and outside of the room? How will groups capture their content?
  2. It takes (at least) 2: It is really important to have someone running the technology – addressing microphone issues, feedback challenges, video cameras, screen shares, poll launches, and breakout rooms.  The other person is managing process, conversation, the chat box and capturing notes. It’s overwhelming for one person to try to everything.
  3. Arrive early: Let participants know the room is open 15 minutes early so you have time to troubleshoot technical issues.  The most common phrase we hear in a virtual meeting is …“can you hear me?”
  4. Use a common platform: In the third meeting, I had voice participation, video participation, and in-room participation. Managing sound and creating breakout rooms is much more complex. I tweeted a comment “hybrid meetings are almost more difficult” and had a flood of responses from facilitators who said, “almost?? no ALWAYS”.
  5. Level the playing field: To balance participation, ask everyone to use the same mode of participation. Everyone is on a conference call, or everyone is on a video call, or everyone is in the room. In my last set of meetings I had a few folks gather in a meeting room to participate as a group. I sent them to their individual work spaces (totally not what I would normally do) to join the call individually to ensure the same experience for all.
  6. Leverage breakout rooms: Breakout rooms create intimate discussion spaces where participants have more opportunities to share. Decide how you will capture their input. If you are in a hybrid scenario, match people in the room with people outside of the room to balance participation.  In my second meeting (conference call participation), I had my in-room people fire up a Skype meeting with the remote people so they could conduct their break out session.
  7. Consider co-creation tools carefully: To the extent possible, use platforms that your group is familiar with. For example – if they are accustomed to working in Powerpoint, asking them to shift to Google Slides will create some discomfort and cost you time.  If you are using a platform for creating content that is new, build in time for the group to learn it.  It often takes longer than you expect.

I admit that I am finding it a bit exhausting, never mind my tech helper who had a tiny meltdown after our third meeting where we had so much complexity. But I’m determined to make this work.

blog 6 virtual meeting picYour office is nicer than mine

For those of whom working from home is relatively new, we are all on a huge learning curve, so how do we need to be?

For one, we all need to have compassion for one another. We all have different home setups. Some people may be working from a cluttered kitchen table with an older computer, while others have an aspirational, eye candy office and impeccable tech. (Jealous!) Pro tip: If you’re working with the popular Zoom online tool, the virtual background feature (Click on the up arrow beside the camera icon in lower left hand corner, select virtual background, choose your background) allows you to have a bucolic background like the Golden Gate Bridge. Thought you might appreciate that!

blog 6 ecard dog

Meanwhile, here are some tips for making your routine virtual meetings go smoothly.

  • Be patient with each other, we’re all in the same boat.
  • WiFi connections are often unreliable. If you can plug your computer into a router, in many cases you’ll get a more reliable connection.
  • If you’re trying new tools, don’t be afraid to experiment. There are an infinite number of tools online. (See the list below)
  • Ask experts at your workplace for help.
  • Try to be in a place that is distraction-free and let the people in your home know, so your husband doesn’t walk into the room in his underwear. (My family has learned to wave at me from behind the laptop to avoid being in my video meetings).
  • For better lighting, have windows in front of you rather than behind.
  • Buy a webcam if you can.
  • A good headset goes a long way and blocks out background noises.
  • If you’re using Zoom, like so many people are, it has a “touch up my appearance” function in its help centre, which incorporates a soft focus that evens out your skin tone. Yes, for real.
  • Use the mute button as your default to minimize background noise and for those moments when your dog decides to bark, or your kids are getting a bit loud.
  • Shut down email and other notifications to keep distractions to a minimum.
  • Have a Plan B for when technology goes sideways. You can always go back to the dependable conference call.
woman-in-black-and-gray-coat-wearing-red-earphones-3783110

Break the ice and acknowledge everyone

Just because you’re not all together in one room, doesn’t mean you can’t set a positive tone, encourage meaningful conversations and establish a sense of cohesiveness.

Because online meetings are asynchronous deliberate attention to connecting conversations is really helpful. Here are a few things you can do to achieve this:

  • Ask each participant their name and a simple question, like how the weather is where they are. I was recently in a video conference with 60 people from around the world, and this technique worked quite well because everyone in the group felt acknowledged.
  • Use a poll tool, like Zoom’s or Mentimeter , and ask a variety of questions of participants on the subject matter. It’s super easy to use. In fact, Zoom has a whole suite of cool functions. (See below)
  • Use a shared document for taking meeting minutes (e.g. Google Docs, Word now allows co-creation). That way, everyone can work on the same document to get better results.
  • Record the meeting if people can’t make it: Zoom also has a record meeting function.
  • Even if you’re a bit camera-phobic or haven’t showered yet today, it’s always helpful to see faces, so please put your video function on, (you can always use the “touch up my appearance” function!)
  • Do something fun, like ‘virtual lunch’ or ‘virtual coffee break’. Schedule a time when everyone gathers just to each lunch, share a coffee and talk about their day. No shop talk.
blog 6 woman on computer on floor

Look at the bright side – no commuting!

Working from home is not terrible. Think of all the advantages – no commuting, staying in your pajama bottoms (though you may want to have a decent top for video meetings), and the ability to throw in a load of laundry in the middle of the day and take your dog for a walk.

There’s a simplicity and fluidity that can be beneficial to working from home, even if virtual meetings are on the agenda. There’s a new intimacy to the way we have to work now, and we may just have to be more deliberate in creating cohesiveness, documenting our work and communicating with intention.

Helpful resources

There are infinite online resources for virtual meetings. Here are a few I’ve found helpful

Officeless: This site represents a movement that started in Brasilia. They posted a particularly good guideline for working remotely in our current circumstances.

This CNET article has a long list of Zoom tips, tricks and hidden features.

Co-creation tools

Google slides / Google docs – really great for co-creation. Google was the first to create co-edit docs and they are an easy to use, easily accessible tool.  It’s always fun to correct someone else’s typos as they make them.

Liniot is a free, sticky and canvas service that requires nothing but a Web browser. This is a simple tool for a brainstorm / cluster process. A bit ‘old school’ looking – it covers off a basic brainstorm session.

Miro.com is an online collaborative whiteboarding platform.  Use it for brainstorming, clustering, mapping and diagramming.  I have not used it, but have heard some good reviews from others.

Mural.co has come to my attention.  It is also an online collaborative whiteboarding platform. It seems to support a larger canvas and offers many templates.

Hardware tools:

Jamboard is an interactive style of whiteboard that supports cloud-based collaboration.  From Google, it’s got lots to offer and requires some investment dollars.

What I’m reading

Collaborating with the Enemy, How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust, Adam Kahane

Adam Kahane works on complex problems and has discovered that the conventional collaborative scenario where all are aligned to a common vision, harmonious relations and that clarity about who does what is not always possible. Collaboration, in these scenarios must embrace discord, experimentation and genuine co-creation to emerge in conflicted situations.  This book is about his experiences and the model he has evolved.

Why can’t we all just get along? Easy tips for building stronger teams

What’s the cost of infighting?

I recently wrote about the damage that infighting, or an “us versus them” mentality can bring to organizations. When groups aren’t getting along – or see themselves as competing with other departments or team members – it can drain productivity, dampen morale and lead to a lasting sense of bad blood between the opposing groups.

Why look to facilitation?

Part of what I do as a professional facilitator is to resolve old hurts, engineer a better sense of collective understanding and ultimately, build stronger teams.

Whether it’s a more general goal, like helping groups work better together, or a specific one – like putting together a strategic plan – leaders can use a similar process to reconcile perceived differences.

These are tried and true ways of building bridges, and often start with a simple clearing of the air and bringing misunderstandings – or different understandings – into the open.

Who needs this?

If you’re a leader, or work alongside a group that is having trouble coming to consensus, there are a few methods you can try to help bring everyone back onto a similar page.

josh-calabrese-236920-unsplash

Try these tips – pulled straight from my facilitator handbook – to help reduce siloed thinking and find unity even among widely varying opinions.

It makes a world of difference – and here’s how you can try it easily, yourself, from the comfort of your own meeting room.

  • Get it all out

Ask everyone to tell you (or the group) everything they know about the subject. What are all the known facts about a topic or subject? Get everyone’s perspective, even when they are at odds. Then ask what is exciting? Concerning? Where are they feeling positive?  Negative?  Where is information missing? What else might they need to know?

  • Use active listening

You can borrow some of the specific exercises I outlined in a previous blog, or, more informally, you can simply give people on your team five minutes to talk about their perspective without interruption. Everyone just listens. Then let someone with an opposing or different perspective talk for five minutes, uninterrupted. If there’s a party with a third perspective, ask them to speak for five minutes, without interruption. By doing that, you can help give a sense that there is a space for all perspectives to sit around the table.

When all the sides have been heard (without interruption), ask the group to summarize their understanding of each perspective and confirm with the speakers that their perspectives have been correctly heard. In this manner, the group affirms its understanding of the various perspectives.

Often, I find the people that talk the fastest, the loudest, the most passionately, the ones with the most vehemence, often haven’t felt heard. They hang on to a position because they’re desperate for someone to simply hear them say it.  You can easily ease this by simply allowing them to fully hold court and present their view and understanding of an issue.

  • Focus on commonalities
    hidde-rensink-156982-unsplash

If you’re finding teams or individuals are working at cross-purposes, try to find a common interest. Is there any common ground they can agree on? What are they worried about? What’s at risk? What are the implications if they don’t get the answer they’re looking for? What are some alternatives?

If you’re able to move towards common ground, even, say, making a joint recommendation from a shared position, then you start to move away from gridlock.

  • Reframe “rightness” and “wrongness”

Is being wrong so bad?

In her book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Katheryn Shultz writes that when you open your mind to other opinions than your own, when you stop laser-focusing on being right, you can enable a whole new level of learning, brainstorming, problem solving and creativity.

But it’s tough! As she points out, since grade school, we’ve all been conditioned to try and get the best marks, find the right answer. And if we’re wrong, we’re diminished. We feel embarrassed, ashamed, rejected.

Yet, she contends, when you get a “right answer,” you’re simply affirming something you already know – and where’s the growth it that?

Only when you explore wrongness can you truly grow and learn something new.

With this in mind, try to encourage a mindset during group discussions that that nothing participants say is wrong. This will help create movement in the room – when that fear is reduced and when people find themselves more comfortable sharing ideas from all different viewpoints – and listening to those who they might usually not.

5) Think like a facilitator

If you’re facing a situation where your team members are really stuck – and you find yourself in the middle – don’t be afraid to say it. It’s not unusual for me to observe an impasse during a group discussion and share that observation with the group. I will ask the group if they see it differently.  And then I will ask the group for ideas on how to move forward: maybe everyone needs a break, maybe everyone wants to continue to hack away at the problem, or maybe we can shift tracks and tackle another issue and return to the sticky issue later.

When in doubt, I always put it back to the group, so they understand where they are at in the process, and so that the group has the opportunity to identify what they need in order to find their way back to a productive place.

I’ll be honest, there used to be a time when I felt that I was failing to “own the meeting” when I turned the decision back to the group (i.e. how could I run the meeting if I didn’t have all the answers?). Now I understand that I never owned the meeting in the first place, the group did. My job was – and is – to help the group decide what it wanted… And, in a lot of cases, this is a leader’s role too. If this scenario sounds familiar, I encourage you to take a moment, forget about ownership, and think more about consensus – like a facilitator!

Show me the ROI: Here’s what professional facilitation is really worth

What’s a professionally facilitated session really worth? Can the value be measured or quantified?

I say yes.

Just like any other professional service, professional facilitation offers real value to your team, your projects and your organization.

Though some may brush it off as a feel-good, warm and fuzzy exercise (trust falls, anyone?), in my experience, those who take part in a well-run, facilitated session nearly always take something away. And not just nebulous positivity, but actual, measurable, bottom-line value.

My clients continue to tell me that facilitation offers them numerous intangibles that, much like having a good boss or feeling passionate about your work, are difficult to put a price tag on. But, for those who are looking for a return, the value per dollar can be proved.

So, if you’re trying to determine whether your organization can justify the cost of a single or multi-day session with a facilitator, bring out your own calculator and see what kind of savings you’ll actually be walking away with.

Here are some examples that I have experienced.

Recouping the cost of a bad meeting

In recent years, analysts and professionals have become increasingly frustrated with the tried-and-true traditional boardroom meeting. Volumes have been written about how poorly run meetings waste time, money and goodwill amongst even the keenest staffers.

rawpixel-780494-unsplash

Read enough of articles in this vein, and you might walk away wondering if you should ever host—or attend—another meeting again. (You can find a few more thoughts, from different industries and professionals, here, here, here and here.)

With professional facilitation, you flip that equation.

Instead of being a drain on money and resources, a well-run meeting can in fact offer tangible rewards. Think: a meeting where the real work happens. This is what happens when you hire a facilitator.

Reap returns from employee engagement

As above, researchers continue to demonstrate the benefits of having a well-engaged workforce. Employee engagement—measured by happiness at work, willingness to try new things and understanding how one’s role serves the organization’s greater strategies —has been shown time and again to lead to measurable profits, because employee morale is linked to performance, which is linked to organizational success.

Professionally facilitated sessions or meetings draw heavily on the principles of employee engagement and are designed to leave attendees with a sense of belonging, a strong voice and, yes, a sense of being personally engaged in the process from start to finish.

Time is money – and so is time saved

I had a client who was new to an organization and had inherited a team she characterized as “traumatized.”

She needed to get to know this team, and importantly, she needed to get past the trauma so the team could be productive, quickly.  We hosted a three-hour workshop where the group explored its past and its impacts. My client believes her onboarding and relationship-building with her new team was accelerated by at least two months.

neonbrand-605156-unsplash

She leap-frogged over the common new-leader hurdles, and was able to see problems and opportunities at the organization in a more complete way.

She says this was all thanks to her team’s open and thorough input during our facilitated session, and that it led directly to operational efficiency (not to mention an improved sense of morale!).

For the price of a half-day facilitated session, she told me later she estimated she had gained two months of improved productivity.

Let’s do the math:

According to articles highlighted above, if an average salary is $60,000 (this is was a not-for-profit organization), and eight people were in the room, for three hours, the cost of participant meeting time was $720 (assume 2000 working hours a year). The cost of the manager’s time was another $120 or a cost of $840 cost for meeting participants. Add in the cost of the facilitator at $1,200 and the meeting cost was $2,040.

If productivity, due to improved employee engagement improved by just 10% (i.e. suggesting that $66,000 worth of work would be accomplished annually) the cost of the meeting is recovered in less than two weeks!

(Disclaimer:  I’m not an economist and I am often guilty of bad math!)

Harnessing the power of alignment

I often run an exercise called an historical scan, where the group create as a visual representation of their history-to-date. As they see their highs and lows and the shifts that they have experienced, they explore the implications of their experience. Individual stories merge to become a shared story, a common context emerges and a sense of belonging often results.

This collective understanding is a powerful springboard for planning  for future success.

The impact of stakeholder buy-in

When everyone takes part in a strategic planning session—and actually takes part, not just sits in the back row on their phones—the result is a team-wide, or company-wide, ownership of that strategy. I create space for every participant’s voice which supports both stakeholder engagement along with the time-savings of collective understanding and power of alignment – it’s like a project-accelerating trifecta!

This is an example of going slow to go fast.

The cost of 10 people in a room for eight hours of strategic planning at $40 / hr., plus $3,000 for the facilitator puts this cost of this meeting (not including lunch or meeting space at a hefty $5,500).  Now, subtract the cost of the four meetings with 10 people each for two hours trying to align themselves, which have now been avoided ($3,200), not to mention 15% of everyone’s day reading lengthy email chains for the next month ($48 / person / day for email time= $9,600) now that they have shared understanding, and the cost of a facilitated meeting is recovered many times over, very quickly.

The dividends of risk avoidance (a.k.a. the money you’ll save by doing things right the first time)

If you fail to include a group of stakeholders that are required as part of a formal consultation process, you could potentially find yourself facing missed deadlines, increased project costs, and the addition of scope. Even if not required, missing out on including a stakeholder group’s input could still ding your budget in a big way. My sessions are designed using careful discovery and a nine-step planning tool, help teams and organizations avoid this type of risk up front.

I ask the questions you might’ve forgotten to ask yourselves at the outset!

How to calculate value:

If you take any of the above scenarios and estimate that they represent even 1% of a project’s value (whether by adding performance-enhancing information, improving attitudes/productivity/efficiency/understanding or avoiding a costly missed discovery), the return begins to add up pretty quick. On a $1 million initiative, you’re already representing five figures worth of payback for your time and effort put into organizing a facilitated session.

Ways to sustain the value:

Now that you can start to see some of the value of this type of planning, you can even plan to multiply it! Do this by:

Following up

  • Plan a similar engagement each year (i.e. for annual planning) or schedule a follow up (I recommend at least one, 90 – 120 days following the initial planning) to ensure you’re keeping your promises to yourselves. These can be professionally facilitated or internal, but following a similar style.crissy-jarvis-1316073-unsplash
  • Committing also to regular third-party or internal check-ins for a multi-month or -year project will allow you to keep the conversation going and continue to build listening and analytical skills among team members or participants.

Engaging the next level down

  • If you’ve completed strategic planning or visioning with senior levels, ensure that this work is passed down to the next level of leadership and follow up with those leaders, and their direct reports, to measure understanding and adoption of those ideas.

The multiplier works both ways

The cost of disengagement and productivity loss can be reversed with a facilitated process. And, if you follow up, that gain endures.

But, if no follow up action is taken, not only do you lose the productivity and plans of the day, you reverse the engagement. If you’ve promised yourselves the world and then do nothing, this encourages people to feel worse than possibly even when they started.

 

Keep this in mind as you embark on your next strategic or project planning journey. If you need me, I’ll be close by, ready to offer real impact — to your people and your books.

Leave the cliffhangers to Hollywood. Here’s how to end your meetings on a satisfying note

Catharsis, the final chapter, the end.

Whatever you call it, humans need closure. Whether it’s reading the last chapter of a good book to find out what happens, hearing the punchline of a joke, or making a decision at the end of a strategic planning or business meeting.

That’s right – even in the boardroom, the rules of human nature apply.

Enter the Decisional level of thinking, the final step to the ORID methodology.

In a sense, this is the easiest step of the process. To complete it, you and your participants don’t need to make a big “D” decision, but you do need to bring the conversation to some kind of resolve or conclusion, what I call a small ‘d’ decision. It is often as simple as planning a single next step – like scheduling a follow-up meeting to determine how to put the day’s work into action, or assigning some takeaway actions.

But as small a thing as those seem, they can be surprisingly easy to overlpencilook, especially because they often come during the final minutes of a long session!

Yet, without a final decision to close the session, you risk provoking a sense of futility, frustration or reluctance among you participants. They feel their time has been wasted, are unsatisfied and may never want to take part in another planning session again if this one doesn’t give them that all-important conclusion.

So, make sure you nail the Decisional phase, and you’ll ensure you win supporters – and generate commitment – throughout the room.

Here’s how to do it.

Leave enough time.

The clock is counting down. People have begun gathering their belongings, packing away their laptops, checking their watches and staring at the door.

Maybe the room you booked is about to be taken over by the next group. Or, perhaps you have out of town participants eager to catch their flights.

You can’t hold them back much longer … do you really need to complete this final phase?

Yes!

The Decisional phase is the conclusion to the long, fruitful hours you’ve already invested. Pay it the attention it deserves.

What to do: Take an extra few minutes if you do run over time. I, myself, won’t let my groups leave until we’ve at least created some sort of decision or next step.

Even if you just agree that the conversation isn’t finished and a follow-up discussion is needed.   Briefly summarize what you hope to achieve and you wil have brought the discussion to conclusion.

You can avoid this problem altogether by ensuring throughout your workshop or session that you are constantly checking the schedule to prevent the hours from getting away from you.

Know what you’re deciding on.

If you don’t know what you want to get out of your session, it will be hard to know what the end should look or feel like. So, ensure you carefully and thoughtfully determine the objectives for this discussion.

What to do: Work with your team to define your intention for the meeting, and what success at the end of the day will look like.  Refer back to these when planning the Decisional steps to ensure you’ve met your intention. Are you:

  • Making a decision? (What is our decision?)
  • Putting forward a recommendation? (What is our recommendation?)
  • Ensuring your group is fully informed? (What is your comfort with this topic?)
  • Seeking feedback on a topic? (What else do we need to know?)

Your objective will tell you what your decisional step needs to be.

Design your process fully.

You’ve run through your entire agenda, thought through some difficult dilemmas and agreed what’s wrong or what solutions might work. But if you haven’t included time in your agenda to make some concrete decisions, you risk your intelligence evaporating into thin air. Clues that this has happened sound like “There’s an hour of my life I’m never getting back!”

What to do: Careful planning, again, makes the difference here. Paying attention to the ORID structure (what are the facts, what are the internal/emotional responses, what are the  insights and finally, what next?) makes a tremendous difference. Intentionally planning the part of the meeting where you ask for closure, resolve, what the group has decided, or the next step matters.

This will help you solidify the idea that, after all the brainstorming, ideation and discussion, you are committed to coming away with a result (or perhaps even just a plan on how to create that move the result forward).

Flesh out each preceding stage.

If participants in the room aren’t on the same page, can’t seem to agree on facts, or are stuck in endless ideation, you may have gaps in the Objective, Reflective or Interpretive stages of the discussion.

What to do: If you find yourselves stuck when you go to make a binding decision or agree on a future step, consider returning to a previous stage to make sure you’ve completely explored it. It may be necessary to obtain additional facts, or explore past experiences more, or consider additional alternatives. A clue that this might be the case is when you hear “ I just don’t know enough to make a decision”.

Include the right people in the room.

I’ve been in a situation where groups reached the Decisional stage, and only at that point realized that no one present had actual decision-making power (or, in some cases, budget) to implement any changes.

ladder of involvement
Source: Institute of Cultural Affairs Canada

What to do: Planning, again, at the outset can prevent this problem to ensure your end state is in line with your group’s influence level. If you’ve come too far, rather than letting your work go to waste, consider creating a recommendations report that you can present to the decision-makers, with the supporting rationale. Determining which recommendations you intend to put forward is decisional-level of thinking or identifying the right people that need to be included. That clarity is also decisional level of thinking, which in this case informs your next step.

There is a theory called the “Ladder of Involvement”, which defines what kind of input a group is actually being asked to provide. Be sure at the outset that you’re honest with stakeholders which level of decision making the meeting is asking for.

 

Deciding to decide

People have committed time, ideas, efforts opinions and have worked hard to understand their fellow participants. Ensure that if you’re organizing, or moderating, a strategic planning or feedback session that you’ve included all the important ingredients, from the O to the R to the I and crucially, the D, so that everyone goes home happy. Both your group and your organization will then be able to benefit from real action – not just hours stolen from their busy schedules.

Strategic Planning got you spooked? Part 2

What’s holding you back? Here are the most common barriers to corporate road-mapping — and how to instantly banish them from your boardroom.

Part 2 – Why “10-commandments” style plans just don’t work

Bring those skeletons out of the closet, we’re going to fix them once and for all! Leave the fears behind so you can get back to work on your inspired, executable plan.

(…continued from part 1.)

Fear 5: You’re scared your plan will be a “one-hit” wonder

The problem: Who’s this strategic planning session for anyway? This is the first question your participants are going to ask themselves as they walk in the room. The answer should be: for them. Not just for senior leadership, not just for management, but for everyone who participates. Yet, this can take some convincing, and a properly designed process, to make that true.

rock star

An inclusive process that prioritizes participation is a hugely valuable tool for overcoming apathy, disinterest and a lack of buy-in. People don’t get excited about things they weren’t involved in. And they don’t love being given a ‘to do’ list without any input. (Think about how well that approach works with kids and spouses!)

The solution: Personally, I don’t like the term ‘buy-in’ as it feels vaguely manipulative. And so the answer to the problem is to create inclusive process that encourages genuine contributions and aligns input from everyone involved. To achieve this, the facilitator deploys a series of techniques that contributes to alignment, such as asking teams to contribute their ideas and connect ideas to the company strategy.

The right process will leave everyone feeling included, valued and with a stake in the planning and the outcome. When each individual has been encouraged to put their thoughts and opinions into the mix, they’re then much more likely to internalize the plan – because at that it’s their baby too, not a directive delivered from on high, nor just a list of someone else’s ideas. Even if senior leadership designs the initial strategy, including other layers of management and staff during the validation process should be the next step, to ensure this inclusiveness and investment from all teams.

Fear 6: You’re scared that the plan is un-executable

The problem: We’ve all been there. We get swept up in the excitement of a really good brainstorming session, we’re sketching out amazing cure-all strategies that will transform the world as we know it. But what good is this type of plan if it’s unattainable? How can we be sure a feel-good strategic planning session doesn’t lead to goals that seem outlandish or unrealistic once viewed on our computers in the cold light of Monday morning?

The solution: A great technique for creating a realistic plan is a healthy discussion of obstacles. Some people fear this type of approach, concerned that the conversation dwells on negatives and is inherently destructive.

In fact, a well orchestrated discussion of what holds us in place leads to plans that are grounded in reality and aimed at obstacles. Plans that focus on the desired future state, without also considering the obstacles create a ground hog day experience for the group, where they discuss the same old challenges a year later and the amazing strategies continue to be un-executable.

Another solution is to look at planning as a series of steps, rather than a single event. Once you’ve landed on concrete steps for action, take those ideas back to the organization. Go to small teams for feedback. Ask them to add their own additional insights, and don’t be afraid if new questions come up. Ask them to help you address considerations and questions such as ‘What would this mean for you?” and “How can we bring this to life?”

Once you’ve completed the plan, give control over its implementation to broader employee groups by creating a portfolio of projects. Split goals and objectives into manageable tasks and assign them to appropriate units. Invite team members from these units back to your 90-day follow up session to understand how they are progressing.

Fear 7: You’re scared that this session will produce the same old stuff

xerox 2

The problem: When you begin planning, do you find ghosts of meetings past can come back to haunt you?

Do you hear the same old arguments, barriers, knotty issues continue to rise to the surface, never to find resolution?

If your strategic road-mapping sessions have started to feel like an endless merry-go-round where you continually address the same old stale, stubborn issues, consider adding new activities into the mix.

The solution: You can’t expect something different to emerge if you keep starting with the same ol’ SWOT every time! Get rid of the familiar and try doing something different.

First, involve different people. As above, having a diversity of voices and skill-sets in the room is a powerful way to give you new, fresh and surprising perspectives. It’s a way to change the conversation – often for the better.

Other remedies could include techniques like environmental scans, historical scans, scenario discussions, , tours of unrelated , all to stimulate creativity and shed well-worn mindsets. Get off-site! Go to an unusual location. See how others are solving problems that might look different than your own, but underneath are probably quite similar.

And don’t forget to really dig deep to explore the things that hold you in place. Discovering the deep contradictions in an organization is a doorway to the future.

Fear 8: You’re scared it won’t work

trip.jpgThe problem: You’re worried that the plan, with all the hard work and optimism you invested in it, just isn’t going to move the needle in the way you’d hoped. What if you try something and it fails? Wouldn’t this be the most disappointing outcome of all?

The solution: Although there’s nothing wrong with failure (especially if you learn something from it), you can also try and prevent it in the first place.

Understand that even though your strategic plan might be approved, it still might not be perfect. The key is to check in regularly on the plan’s progress. Ask what is working and what isn’t.  Work to determine what you night need to change to succeed. This will give the sense that the plan is a living document, easily editable once you learn new information. Flexibility is important, using the plan as a strong guiding hand.

Want to learn more about how professional facilitation can transform your next strategic planning session from frightening to fruitful? Reach out to arrange a consultation.

Strategic planning got you spooked?

What’s holding you back? Here are the most common barriers to corporate road-mapping — and how to instantly banish them from your boardroom.

Part 1 – Chaos, crowds and cobwebs – oh my!

Does the thought of undertaking strategic planning give you chills? Are you worried that something might go wrong, or you’re not doing it right?

Don’t worry — you’re not alone.

In fact, I’ve been facilitating strategic planning sessions for more than 10 years and I continue to be surprised by how much hesitancy, fear and dread I encounter around this process.

It seems a poorly run or poorly organized strategic planning is like a bad horror movie that people just can’t get out of their heads.

But, when I hear about some of the sessions that my participants have been part of, this lingering bad taste in their mouth makes perfect sense. Sometimes sessions can go sideways. Sometimes they go nowhere. Or, most damaging of all, sometimes they lead to personal insult to and disengagement among stakeholders.

But that doesn’t mean the participants or the subject matter is to blame – it’s usually the process itself.

Here are a few common strategic planning bugaboos you may recognize – and some easy steps on how to fight back.

Fear 1: You’re scared to include a variety of people

The problem: I often hear from clients that they’re worried if they have a room full of participants representing multiple different business units and roles, the team will end up with too many ideas competing for limited airtime, leading to inefficient and exhausting debate.

Here’s what I say when I hear that: GREAT! The more diversity of thought, the better.

When it comes to strategic planning, thorough discussions are essential. To achieve this, you need more – not fewer – perspectives!

The solution: So how do you prevent a multitude of voices from descending into chaos? The difference is the design of the process, the way the session is run.

A properly trained facilitator (whether internal or third-party), uses consensus-driven methodologies that ensure a clear understanding emerges, that everyone stays on track, and that the outcome works for the participants – and the business.

Remember: everyone has intelligent input to offer when you ask the right questions.

Fear 2: You’re scared that, once complete, the plan will sit on the shelf, never to be referenced again.

The problem: Oftentimes, a group will complete a highly successful strategic planning dusty booksession, and emerge bursting with bright ideas, innovative solutions and ambitious commitments. Yet, when the plan is completed, it quickly gets buried under a pile of urgent paperwork, and is slowly relegated to the bottom drawer of the boss’s desk, never to see the light of day again.

So, the problems you set out to solve, the patterns you wanted to break, and the new way forward you envisioned, never gets off the ground.

There is nothing more disappointing than seeing good work go to waste. But, the good news is, you can easily prevent this frustration with just two simple clicks of your calendar.

The solution: First, choose the first initiative identified in the plan, and schedule it to be planned right away. In fact, try to schedule that kick-off meeting before you even leave the room where the planning has taken place.

Next, schedule one more meeting: a 90-day review. Include all people involved in the initial planning session. Here, ensure participants are prepared to report on what has been accomplished in the past six weeks since the planning ended. This will help reinforce that the work completed is being measured, that it’s important, and that each outcome matters.

It’s even better if this session is facilitated by the same person who led the strategic planning session, so you can bring everyone back into the same atmosphere, energy and mindset as the first.

Fear 3: You’re scared that people will just agree with whoever is leading the meeting.

ringmaster

The problem: It is very difficult to be a subject matter expert, a leader and a facilitator all at the same time.

The solution: When planning a strategic planning session, give the leaders a break. Consider hiring a third-party to take the reins of the session. This will take the pressure off internal stakeholders or meeting leader to act as neutral observers (which can often be nearly impossible!). Bringing in a neutral facilitator also removes the risk of and perception that any one person’s voice gets more weight than another’s. It also  minimizes the chance that participants feel ‘railroaded’ into supporting a certain point of view.  Plus, leaders can listen, fully participate and contribute their wisdom – rather than running the show or feeling like they’re in a room full of .

Fear 4: You’re scared that not everyone ‘gets’ the business (e.g. some people are just too junior to take part).

The problem: Sometimes highly trained or experienced people just don’t think those in other roles “get” what the discussion is about. So, they’re reluctant to bring in people who hold junior positions or have less experience. Yet even though these  different voices and viewpoints may seem unsophisticated or uninformed to one, they’re actually very much important contributors.

The solution: I firmly believe that only by collecting everyone’s wisdom can you get the wisest result.

A trained facilitator can design process which incorporates diversity to create a richer result. The benefit then becomes the enhanced perspective of the participants, the greater commitment to the results from more parts of the organization by involving more voices.

A tool that we often use is a “journey wall” which helps illuminate the history that has come before the current situation, where the group stands today, and what the ideal future state looks like. It can be really helpful to bring in a graphic illustrator to support this process; they can help create an illustration that captures this context and information in a way that’s easy to understand and actually see. As a bonus, then you have a permanent image you can use again and again.

These are just a taste of the common worries that hold people back from conducting a productive and valuable strategic planning session. Stay tuned for more tips coming soon. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a facilitator to help lead you through these, and other, thorny questions, reach out any time.

The importance of Interpretive thinking: Here’s how to dig deep while still staying on track

You been waiting patiently for me to uncover this next level of thinking. It’s familiar and comes easily to most groups. The only problem is, once you let the checkered flag fly on Interpretative thinking, it can be a little to easy to get stuck in an endless loop of synthesis.

Let’s explore how to make the most out of your Interpretive thinking – without running out of fuel before the finish line.

What does the Interpretive level entail?

By this point, you’ve collected a good amount of factual and intuitive information at the Objective and Reflective level of thinking. Without these information-gathering phases, you won’t have all the details you need to start digging deeper into the issues.

And that’s what this level of thinking is all about: connecting the dots between all the information you’ve gathered so far, and discovering the deeper insights. Now is the time to ask the group what it all means.

This is where you start considering the broader implications of the topic or project in questions and its potential impacts, significance and purpose.

You’ve determined X and Y to be relevant, and now you have to ask yourselves aloud, “So what?”

rawpixel-753977-unsplash

This is the last stop before you start making decisions, making it critical in the sequence.

How can it benefit my group or team of stakeholders?

During Interpretive level thinking, you will draw out the significance of information you’ve collected so far. When done properly, Interpretive-level discussions ensure all participants are heard, ultimately giving everyone a greater sense of ownership of the final decision you arrive at.

This level should also prevent others from feeling railroaded into agreeing to a certain conclusion, and that together you’ve thought about all the other people and processes that might be impacted by your actions.

The good news is, you should have no problem encouraging a group to dig into these meanings; in fact, it’s a level that people jump to quickly and easily — we’re all well trained to think at the interpretive level.

Sounds great – how could it go wrong?

Picture this.

You’re sitting in a meeting and you just can’t shake the feeling you’ve been here before.

rawpixel-665388-unsplash

The same familiar faces, sipping from the same coffee mugs, repeating the same arguments you know you’ve heard before. Is it just you, or were you in this exact same meeting, discussing the exact same topic, last week? And last month? And last quarter.

Nope, it’s not your imagination. Welcome to over-interpretation.

When groups get to this level of thinking, it can be easy to get stuck. And that feels frustrating.

As a professional facilitator, I see this “Groundhog Day” syndrome all the time.

There are further red flags that you have entered interpretative thinking no-man’s-land. Maybe there’s a small handful of loud voices that are dominating all others. Maybe the discussion is superficial, avoiding thoughts on the future impacts of a decision or how other stakeholders will be impacted by a project.scott-van-daalen-7183-unsplash

Maybe one team’s conclusions to race ahead are taken as the final decision – even before the discussion happens. If this is the case, it’s time to act.

Recognize these progress-blockers

You will not move forward productively if you find some of these characteristics repeating themselves. If you do notice one of the following, try and reverse it by broadening the group’s thinking with some structure using  thought-provoking questions. Here’s how.

Conversation killer: Combat it with:
Starting with a foregone conclusion or inserting one into the conversation

(e.g. “We have made a decision to go left – who wants to go left?” “We believe this is the best approach, now what?”)

Broaden the conversation and explore the position by asking the question – what are some other options available to us?  What else might we do?  What are some other considerations?
Intellectualizing or abstracting
(e.g.“We need to live into our values and walk the talk, set an example for the industry, be the change we want to see, aim for 110%”)
Bring these high-minded, noble ideas back down to Earth with practical examples. For example: What does living our values look like? What are some things that we might do? What specifically does setting an example look like?
Judging responses as right or wrong

 

If you have an opinion on what someone else is saying, remove your good/bad judgement and seek to clarify meaning instead. For example, “Tell me more about what is behind your thinking?  What would others think? What would be different about how we might do this now, versus what we have done before?  What could we do to make sure it works this time?”
Not getting different perspectives

 

If the same person is doing the talking for the group, or the same opinions are shared without a wider view, ask for other perspectives. “Is there another perspective” or “I’d like to hear from someone else” or “Put yourself in a different stakeholder’s shoes, what might they think about this and how might the issue be perceived?”
Allowing the loudest voice to provide only one alternative

 

Often the person who is most forceful with their assertations will win an argument, or dominate a discussion without much challenge. This makes the meeting feel more like an announcement (where a decision has already been made) rather than a true debate.

As above, consider it your duty to speak up and offer a counterpoint to this single perspective. Ask for other views in a round robin format – ask each person to share their viewpoint. “What do you think?”

Break the group into smaller groups, ask small groups to share their thinking with each other. Then ask the groups to share what they discussed as a small group. This will help get other voices into the conversation.

 

How do you know your Interpretive level of thinking is going well?
You know you’ve arrived at effective Interpretive thinking when you find people on your team:

  • Discussing implications, impacts, alternatives, consequences of a decision or project
  • Having spirited discussions about these lines of inquiry
  • Pushing into the depths of the topic, the “what ifs” and “what’s next”
  • Thinking about how others are affected
  • Discovering what the broader story means to the group or organization

arisa-chattasa-701558-unsplash

When “I level” of thinking is fully explored, people feel like they are looking at the topic comprehensively and really understanding what it means now and what it could mean in the future.

The group feels they have been meaningfully engaged in the conversation, have had opportunity to share their views and feel fully heard. Then, once you move on to the decisional phase, each and every participant is much more likely to support the group’s final outcome.

Good luck with your discussion!

 

 

Stop fearing – and start feeling – your instincts at work.

Here’s how emotions can make a powerful decision-making ally.

When making corporate decisions – when should you consider your gut?

The answer is easy. Always.

Contrary to popular belief, embracing your instincts at work – and, yes, acknowledging your feelings – can lead to more effective decision-making. But, like other levels of thinking, there is a time and a place for this type of articulation.

Read on to learn more about how tapping into your instincts can give you a leg up in corporate planning, strategy, decision making and discussions.

joey-nicotra-510944-unsplash

What are your senses trying to tell you?

How often have you said “I have a gut feeling about…”, “My ‘Spidey senses’ were tingling” or that “Every instinct was screaming at me”?

When you make these statements, you are acknowledging the powerful insights that our emotions offer. These are our instant, instinctual responses to stimulus. They are what we as facilitators call the reflective level of thinking.

When I offer group and strategic facilitation, I use a model called the Technology of Participation TOP® It offers a chronological methodology for clear thinking that we facilitators affectionately refer to as O R I D.

  • O is the objective level of thinking.
  • R is the reflective level of thinking.
  • I is the interpretive level of thinking.
  • D is the decisional level of thinking.

It is surprisingly easy to tap into the reflective level of thinking and insightful and enabling when we do – especially when it comes after the objective (or facts-based) level of thinking and before the interpretive and decisional levels of thinking.

I will go so far as to say it will be a relief to the people in your group to be given an opportunity to share this very essential level of thinking openly. You’ll make better decisions too.

Here’s why.

You tap into your survival-level reaction

The first level of thinking, the objective (O) level is the facts, data, external information that is readily available to us. This is the grounding level information that ensures we have a common starting point in a discussion. Without objective levels of thinking, conversations become fuzzy.  I wrote about this in a previous blog, The Level-Setting Toolkit.

The reflective (R) level of thinking is the next level of thinking. It’s the internal response that we have to objective-level data. Put simply, it is our emotional reaction to things we hear, see, touch, taste, read, and observe.

jared-rice-388246-unsplash

It is an essential level of thinking that originates in our limbic brain, also known as our primitive brain, that is responsible for our fight or flight responses. The limbic brain is what we have relied on for survival for millennia and serves humans well.

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman calls this our “fast brain.” This brain responds very quickly, very instinctively and not simplistically. This brain values memory (reflective) more than experience (objective).

The reflective response associates the objective data to something else, creates an emotional response or conjures up images. In short – it mines our internal responses to give additional context to objective data.

Why do we shy away from emotions?

Curiously, the reflective level of thinking is marginalized in the workplace. We are often uncomfortable with anything emotional and have many methods for shutting down emotional responses.

We label it unprofessional. We ask people to park emotions at the door. We say, “It’s just business, what’s the big deal?” In fact, internal communications are typically asked to steer clear of any language that’s remotely emotional and stick with clinically professional expressions.

As proof of this orientation, I was sharing the ORID model with a group recently, and a participant said “Wouldn’t it just be easier if we skipped the reflective level all together?”

That is a good question — should we skip it?  Absolutely not – and I’ll tell you why.

Why we need the reflective level of thinking?

We must observe and respect the feelings because they keep us out of trouble, they prevent cyclical thinking and they broaden our creativity and decision-making skills.

Our emotional response keeps us safe.

When we miss the reflective level of thinking, we overlook key insights and leave critical information out. For example, if we don’t pay attention to the immediate revulsion we experience at the smell of bad meat, we risk making ourselves sick.

The same is true when making a call in the boardroom. If changing the price of a product is giving you chills (and not the good kind), take that as a red flag that you may need to explore the data and rationale a little closer before making the final call.

Our emotional responses get us unstuck.When groups ignore the reflective level, they often become stuck. You would know this situation if you’ve ever seen it. It looks like silence, polite conversations, dialogue without conviction, big white elephants and simmering anger.

Groups can get caught in a place of subordinated, unarticulated thoughts which can show up in toxic and unproductive places later.

julieann-ragojo-634360-unsplash

Recently, a client invited me to help them with team development activity. They alluded to some past issues that had a new group struggling. The client did not want to explore the past, preferring to focus on the future, which is incredibly rational, normal and feels more productive.

The difficulty for this group is that the emotions were unexplored and had gone underground.

The result? The group was politely professional, engaging in safe dialogue and unable to build the quality of relationships they needed to tackle the sizeable project ahead of them. They were stuck.

Our emotional responses help stimulate higher levels of thinking

In the example above, we would have been far better to dig into the issue and risk some emotional statements in order to move the group forward. A group simply can’t move to higher orders of development, thinking and behaviour if it is stuck at the reflective level.

Importantly, they can’t tap into additional creativity and decision making capacity if their reflective state is buried.

Won’t this lead to messy, emotional chaos?

casey-horner-460825-unsplash
When I teach facilitation skills, students express fear and trepidation at exploring the reflective level of thinking in their work environments. They do not want to ask people how they feel. They fear opening a pandora’s box of chaos.

So, how do we let the reflective level of thinking into our organizations without turning into a sobbing, hysterical, fist shaking mass of humanity? How can we tap into this brilliant and essential level of thinking to enhance and improve our outcomes?

Next time you’re engaging with a team, try this approach.

Alternate positive and negative questions

The best ways to tap into the reflective level of thinking is to ask questions which mine for emotions.

Ask a question that asks for a positive, emotional response and then one that asks for a negative emotional response in your next conversation and see what additional insight emerges. Make sure you ask for both sides of the emotion to get a complete picture.

Here are some examples:

  1. What do you like about that? What do you dislike about that?
  2. What are you optimistic about?  Pessimistic about?
  3. What are you excited about? Worried about?
  4. What are you feeling positive about? Negative about?
  5. What is an association that you are making?
  6. What images are coming to mind for you?
  7. What is a metaphor that captures your thinking right now?

Treat your own deep-seated reactions as a friend, not a foe, next time you’re working in a group setting.

You may be surprised at the productive path it will lead you down.

What success have you found when following your instincts in the workplace? What barriers do you face from doing so? Feel free to share in the comments below.

About Robin Parsons: I’m a certified ToP® facilitator with a decade of experience in business facilitation. I’m here to help your corporate team define problems and solutions, plan clear paths forward on complex projects and fully leverage the expertise in your group. If you’d like to explore what facilitated strategic planning services or group facilitation could look like in your organization, contact me

Meeting rooms: The good, the bad and the just plain ugly

bored-employees-in-presentation

I need to get something off my chest. As a facilitator, one of my biggest pet peeves is walking into an inappropriate meeting room. It can sabotage the group before I even get down to starting the job I’ve been hired to do.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked into a room and uttered, “Oh, ?&*%!, how am I going to make this work?!”

Meeting rooms are a fact of working life, but we can’t seem to find a happy balance between aesthetics and functionality. Picture your meeting room for a minute. Is it the classic setup? Long, rectangular table, with chairs placed around? Maybe some art on the wall, an AV screen at one end, a sad, dusty plant in the corner, and a credenza for coffee/food at the other end? There may even be the smell of stale pizza and coffee lingering in the air.

Meeting rooms, no matter what’s up for discussion, have a huge impact on the experience of everyone in the room. When I ask for the ‘what worked well’ and ‘what would have improved the experience’ at the end of a meeting, this is what I end up hearing: The pluses are, everyone shared, there was respect in the room, we accomplished a lot, and we disagreed and found a way to agreement. The ‘improve’ are, there was no food or drink, (or beer) and yes, it could have been so much better if we had more (better) space.

But the space itself is never the No. 1 priority.

architecture-building-business-ceiling-lamp-260931

Pretty does not = functional

I’ve walked into rooms that had the aura of power and prestige – and even plush chairs. Often those rooms don’t work because they are filled with a too large table, isolating people away from each other and ultimately inhibiting conversation and creativity. Then there are those rooms that, in the name of technology, sport 82-inch screens on every wall. There’s no usable wall space and it creates a disconnected atmosphere.

I’ve seen it all. In my memory is a long list of sometimes beautiful but unworkable rooms (fantastic artwork, exposed brick walls), or just plain ugly spaces (basement room, beat up linoleum and mediocre lighting) where I’ve had to lead groups for a day or more. Here are some examples of meeting places that sound good – until you get there and find they’re not. Here are some examples.

two-person-in-bar-stools-1005639

Sounds good in theory…

  • Golf course: Sounds delightful. But my experiences have been sub-par, for an unexpected reason: too many windows. Yes, that view of the 18th hole was lovely, but it didn’t help that we didn’t have any wall space and anything on the windows was so backlit it couldn’t be read. People were backlit and couldn’t see each other’s faces too. And all that sunshine made the room a sweatbox.
  • Wine cellar: Sounds great, right? Wrong. Think about it, what are on the walls of a wine cellar? Wine bottles, leaving no space to hang charts and other material.
  • A library: Should be good!  But wasn’t. See wine cellar.
  • A tent: Sounds interesting, but it totally does not work.
  • An old school: Fascinating historic artwork on one wall, closely spaced windows on the other 2 walls with deep windowsills and heavy blinds. Again, no place for a work product. The wainscoting on the lower half of the walls became my useable space – not exactly easy on the neck for attendees.
  • Hotels: Are often guilty of jamming too many people into a room, maximizing room capacity, minimizing comfort. Between doors, credenzas, windows, retractable walls and artwork – they often lack usable wall space.
  • Wrong shape: L-shaped rooms are unworkable because some of the attendees can’t see each other, making it much harder to absorb what others are saying.
  • A lounge: deep, comfy lounge chairs seem like a great idea until people need to write things down and talk as a group.
  • Too small: A recent meeting I led had should have had a 25-person maximum, but they squeezed in 45. The tension in the air was already thick, and this only made everyone even more hot under the collar. It also created mini-silos of people, unable to move, completely unravelling the important discussions.
  • Too techy: Giant screens everywhere creates an isolating feel in a room (and eliminates wall space).
  • Whiteboard walls blocked by furniture: Love the whiteboard wall; makes me crazy when they are obstructed by credenzas, benches and tables.

Does it have the air of possibility?

So now that I’ve blown off steam about what doesn’t work, let me tell you about the things that make a room an inviting space. Don’t forget people may be spending entire days, sometimes wrestling with difficult or important topics. You want to create a mood that brings people up, not down.

Overall, a room should evoke an air of excitement and the sense that something different is about to happen. The room should welcome you enough to make you say, ‘I could spend a couple of days here. This is nice. It’s different than my daily life.’

Going offsite for meetings is an excellent idea, but you have to choose the space wisely. Not only because it can help people break some bad habits (yes, I’m talking to you, the person who always sits in the same spot at every meeting, but that’s a whole other conversation), but also because it invites the possibility of change.

white board

7 things that make a meeting space special

  • A room should be big enough to be comfortable, but not so enormous that it overwhelms attendees or creates an environment where it’s hard to have conversations. As a rule of thumb – if a hotel says the room max is 15 people on round tables, double the amount of space and you’ll have about the right amount of space of a full day or 2-day meeting.
  • Good lighting. Natural lighting is nice but good lighting, such as LED fixtures and/or flexible lighting makes my job easier. Appropriate lighting is important, so people don’t feel like they’ve been shuttered in a cellar. It’s also much easier on the eyes, helping people stay alert.
  • Flexible furniture. Tables and chairs that can move, to accommodate break-out groups.
  • Wall space. It should be plentiful enough for lots of paperwork. Remember that a workshop is about producing results together and that means they must be visible. Glass walls are also a great feature, because it allows for nice lighting, and you can often write on them.
  • Adjustable windows coverings. Though windows are nice to have, they can make it hard to take photos, make it hard for people to see and reduce wall space. Being able to adjust windows coverings is helpful.
  • Please be sure you have markers that work and accompanying erasers. And for heaven’s sake, get rid of the obstructive benches and tables.
  • Refreshment counter: This is in the category of nice-to-have, but making food and drink accessible is important, especially for day-long meetings.

If your meeting space has some or all of these things, I’m a happy facilitator. I can dream, can’t I?

Some of my favourite meeting spaces in Calgary:

  • Repsol: I’ve done quite a bit of work in these offices and hats off to their office designers! The rooms are great, with flexible furniture and rooms that can be reconfigured, AV space and natural lighting.
  • Millennium Tower, +15 conference rooms: While they lack the natural light, the rooms are incredibly functional with flexible furniture, whiteboard walls, unobstructed wall space and recessed counters for food and drink.
  • Downtown Public Library: The basement meeting space is decently designed for larger groups, including some rooms with glass walls.
  • Mount Royal University: MRU classrooms make great meeting rooms. Designed with both natural light, flexible furniture, lots of whiteboard and wall space. I can do great work here.
  • U of C Downtown Campus: (with reservations), I’ve worked in one room that had nothing but windows, pillars in the middle of the room and AV walls. On the other hand, I’ve attended workshops in rooms with flexible furniture, whiteboard space, and lots of wall space.

Drop me a note and let me know some of you favourite spaces to work in.

Update:  Since I wrote this, the folks at CPHR in Calgary invited me to their offices to see their training room space. It ticks all the boxes, natural light, lots of whiteboard space, flexible furniture, well lit, refreshment counter.  They are located in the Kahanoff  Centre and their space is for rent! 

The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt explores politics through the lens of human behaviour.  He identifies intuition and reasoning as key drivers of decision making. His research suggests that we make intuitive decisions and reason catches up. Our intuitive decision making is grounded in a set of moral codes. If you like political science (like I do) and find human behaviour endlessly fascinating (like I do), you’ll enjoy this book.

Ahem, we need to talk: How to prep for difficult conversations

upintheairmagnum -clooney

In the movie, Up in ­­­­­­the Air, Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) makes a living as a corporate axe man, doing the deed that local managers don’t want to do. He thrives off of the lack of connection to anyone or any place, jets from city to city as a “career transition counsellor” and seemingly heartless when fired employees cry, get angry or even threaten to harm themselves.

As a manager, you don’t want to be in the role of Ryan Bingham – ever.

Many of us as managers and leaders have had to do the uncomfortable work of giving negative feedback, rejecting an idea – or, in the worse cases, dismissal.

Difficult conversations are a reality in the workplace and it’s a skill you can hone. You might even find the tactics you learn useful elsewhere in your life, as a parent guiding social media-entranced teenagers or dealing with a cranky neighbour.

My philosophy is that it doesn’t have to be painful for you or the person you’re talking to, if you follow some simple advice and use the tips I’ve learned from years of experience as a professional facilitator.

armour

Shed your protective armour

Getting mentally prepared is the first step. The last thing you want is to be tossing and turning all night in the days leading up to the conversation, ruminating on what you’re going to say. (Although, you may still anyway.) But take the time to get your head into a place and be clear about what is important to you and what you would like to accomplish. Put yourself in the position of the employee. Think about what may be going on with them, what are their perspectives, values and intentions?

This involves casting off your defensive emotional armour that helps us justify our actions. If you go in like an armadillo, it is not a constructive starting position.

Your job as a leader is to be compassionate and generous and walk into that meeting with an open mind and a real sense of curiosity. You may think you have all the answers, but you don’t. What does it mean to go in curious? It means you will have to challenge your assumptions and biases – something all of us have.  Your job is to be non-judgmental and impartial.

Like the author Stephen R. Covey said, “We judge ourselves by our intentions – and others by their actions.”

Put aside your assumptions and judgments

Writing down your observations but not characterizing them is a good first step for preparing yourself to be judgment-free. A statement like this, “I noticed you were on your phone a lot in the meeting yesterday and left the room twice,” is preferable to “You were disengaged at the meeting yesterday…” In the second scenario you are issuing a judgement (disengaged) of what you observed vs. sharing objective facts (you were on your phone, you left the room twice).

no-judging

If you can remove the blame-game language, it will go a long way towards diffusing emotions and ‘judge-iness.’ The goal is to give the person a sense of safety by laying out why you’re having the conversation and what you hope to achieve from it.

When I’m in facilitator mode with a room full of people, you might hear “ I am hearing more conversations, I notice that you are no longer writing.” I am sharing what I see and hear, but not my internal assessment of those behaviours and so the room remains judgment free.

Pay attention to the safety of the conversation.  As a facilitator, I am very aware of ‘room safety.’ By that, I don’t mean physical space, but rather the degree to which participants feel that what they say is received with compassion and consideration.  Your job is not to admonish and criticize and, if it is, don’t bother. Your goal is to allow the person to have influence over the conversation, by saying, “I really want to understand your perspective.”

Don’t fear emotions 

There are myriad of hard conversations you might find yourself in, including the performance review, or having to give negative or uncomfortable feedback. Yes, any of these tete-a-tetes can go sideways. But that’s usually because the situation has been allowed to go on for too long without being addressed. The employee probably already feels alienated, unheard, frustrated or apathetic.

In these cases, you really have to spend time unpacking emotional responses, which frankly terrifies most people in the workplace.

But learning how to ask the right questions, without judgment, is the place to start. How you ask the questions are key:  What about this frustrates you? or What makes you angry? And then let the response come to the surface.

emojis

Be prepared to sit in the goo

When they don’t feel heard they can become angry or disengaged. Oddly, the person who talks all the time often feels unheard. Acknowledge the emotion by repeating back to them what you’ve heard them say. They need to know that you are hearing what they are upset about. They need to know you understand their pain, frustration and anger, by giving them their words back to them. This is when people become their real selves, and allows them to release their emotions.

If issues have been left unattended for awhile – be prepared to sit in the goo for awhile. Avoid justifying a circumstance – just listen. Then you can shift to the question: What do you need, what would help this?

Phew, that wasn’t hard at all.

Then you can get unstuck and move on to the possibilities for resolution.

You don’t have to have all the answers

It’s at this point that leaders make the common mistake of having the ready solution. Stop yourself right there. Rather, you should be asking the person, what does success look like for you or what do you want to happen next? This gives them the opportunity to process and interpret their own needs – not having you hand them the answers in a giftbox with a bow on top.

But, keep in mind once you have the solutions, your job still isn’t over.

listening - deer

Listening = kindness and civility

Wrap up the conversation with an agreement on follow-up steps. Again, this is about you asking decisional questions : What steps can you take, what support do you need and when should we meet next? This makes the person part of the solution, restoring agency to them to design the right solution. Let them figure it out.

Don’t be a Ryan Bingham, armoured up. When we take a more open tack, we can be pleasantly surprised how things can turn out. Just listening to someone is a tremendous act of civility and kindness.

I really like that leading role.

Five strategies for having difficult conversations

  • Approach the conversation with curiosity.
  • Abandon your list of why you are right.
  • Ask open and curious questions. (If you can add, “you idiot at the end of your comment,” it’s neither open nor curious.
  • Assume you don’t know everything.
  • Pay attention to the safety of the conversation. Create the conditions for safety with your behaviours (e.g. active listening) and the physical environment. Thinking about where you have the meeting, sends a message of safety.
  • Ask the person involved for suggestions on how we resolve the circumstance and situation. This gives the person agency to help come to a solution.
  • Be prepared to check in following the conversation.

Have you got a difficult conversation with a group that you need to have? Contact me here.

Resources and reading

Here’s a link to a recent interview on this topic.

Mastering Civility – Susan Porath.

I am loving this book! Susan Porath outlines what incivility is costing leaders and organizations and what to do about it.  Along with being a super interesting read, it offers suggestions for a healthier, happier, more productive workplace, better relationships and results. It’s fun to take the ‘how civil are you’ self assessment!

Give and Take – Adam Grant

This is an interesting listen (I love audible)

It has been assumed that the individual drivers of success and passion, hard work, talent, and luck are unquestionable. In our modern context, success is increasingly dependent on how we interact with others. It turns out that at work, most people operate as either takers, matchers, or givers. Takers strive to get as much as possible from others and matchers aim to trade evenly. Givers are the rare breed of people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return. While this might sound debilitating – it is fascinating to discover how givers are so successful, and what it means to be a giver. If nothing else – you’ll think about pro-bono work, volunteer time and lending ‘your stuff’ differently.

Nonviolent Communication – Marshall Rosenberg

I recommend this book often and refer to it frequently. The nonviolent communication model, at its core, is the model I use as a facilitator.  It is simple and incredibly effective in tense and difficult situations. Absolutely worth the time.

How a facilitator can set your business on a new course

compass - Supushpitha Atapattu

Francine has had a successful Calgary-based gourmet ice cream company for 10 years. It’s grown to 100 employees and her products are sold at hundreds of Alberta grocery stores and restaurants. As we head into the new year and a new decade, she’s planning to expand into British Columbia over the next five years. That will mean finding an office location in that province, hiring employees and prepping her team for exciting, but demanding, growth.

She describes her senior managers as her “dream team,” but when asked about the mood of her staff, she admits they are skittish about the company’s plans, and some people already feeling frustrated with their workload. How will they ever push through and handle the company’s ambitions?

Francine thinks she may need outside help to take the company to the next level. A good friend of hers, also a successful businesswoman, suggested she hire a third-party facilitator to help the team with discussions about the expansion. Her friend, after all, had a positive experience that helped her company in ways she knows she couldn’t do herself.

First, Francine is eager to have her questions answered: How can a third-party help my organization grow, make some changes to the culture and ultimately and get my employees on board and excited about my growth plans?

captain - Photo by Daniel Xavier from Pexels

Maybe it’s time for a course correction 

That’s where a facilitator comes in. When I go into an organization, my role is not to be an expert on the business’s service or product (although I do love my ice cream). My role is to provide the process so that the group can have the right discussions and make decisions about how to achieve the company’s goals and, in the process, change how they work together. The company or organization can be any size – as small as five or six employees or as big as 200.

You could think of a facilitator as a bit like a ship’s captain. All hands need to be on deck, and everyone needs to understand and agree on how the vessel should operate and the best route to its destination. The captain’s role is to make sure the crew has all of the tools and resources to avoid rough waters and not get lost along the way.

The first step when meeting my client is to conduct a thorough discovery. Some of the topics explored in this fact-finding stage are:

  • Why is the group coming together?
  • What does the meeting sponsor want to achieve?
  • What does the group want to achieve?
  • What is success coming out of a facilitated discussion?
  • What are the critical issues? topics?
  • What is the mood of the group; what kind of headspace are they in?
  • What is the change that we need to see in the group?
  • What will happen after the meeting?
  • How are results carried forward?

Leadership through participation

Leaders realize that in the midst of big changes they can’t simply manage from the top down, but rather need to be a participant in the transition. That’s where a facilitator can help. The initial thought is, “I’ve got something I need the group to do, or I need to get something out of the group. So, I need everyone’s involvement. And, I need to be a participant in this, not lead this.”

Typically, the decision to hire a facilitator is made by an owner or a mid- to senior-level manager who has a budget to work with. They realize they need to solve a problem, need to have a series of difficult conversations, or want to explore an opportunity. The self-aware leader realizes they need to be a part of the process, right alongside staff. Making decisions together helps achieve the goal of buy-in from everyone. After all, people need to be participants in the decisions that affect their day-to-day work lives.

My role as a facilitator can span a range of scenarios: business planning; optimizing a process; establishing organizational values; exploring challenges; building solutions; exploring difficult topics; making decisions; and, helping those routine meetings go more smoothly so that everyone gets a chance to speak. This (hopefully!) leads to follow-up and accountability.

think about things differently - ivan bertolazzi

A facilitator is an enabler of change

Once I’ve completed interviews with the client and any other relevant individuals, I draft a proposal, with the opportunity to go back and forth over the details. Then the real work begins. An agenda is drawn up for the group, getting feedback along the way about objectives. Once I’m clear on meeting objectives, then the detailed process development begins. When that is done – it’s time to meet and get the ball rolling.

Of course, there are expectations on both sides. There’s an onus on the facilitator – as an enabler of change – to help the group get to tangible results. Often, employees’ expectations are high. In those first meetings, the facilitator needs to create the conditions so that people will share freely and listen to each other, which from my experience can also be a teachable moment. I’ve been in meetings where co-workers have a habit of cutting each other off mid-sentence. In this case, I introduce exercises to help people not only to hear each other but also learn to really listen.

magic

Change doesn’t happen by magic 

At these first meetings, everyone needs to be in a I’m-willing-to-hear-what-you-have-to-say mode. Biases need to examined and hold space for new ideas. The elephant in the room can be that you may or may not succeed. The facilitator’s job is to help you get there, but it may take more one session.

One experience I had involved five or six meetings over five months, just to shift the way people were thinking and how they related to each other. At the end of the process, they had defined mission, values, strategy and milestones. The leader of the organization recognized that her goal to foster change in the culture through the planning process also meant assigning an ownership team for each strategy. She chose several stewards who were made responsible for moving the changes forward each step of the way, so it was a continuous process.

I never suggest that one session can change culture, but it can scratch an itch and start to build momentum towards something exciting and rewarding.

What I’m reading this month

Blog: Leadership Development – it’s about capacity not just competencies

This is a really interesting discussion about stages of ‘adult development.’ We understand there are stages in child development, so why do we assume that development stops at adulthood? This thoughtful exploration connects leadership development with stages of adult development. Lengthy – and worth the time.

Being Wrong – Adventures in the Margin of Error, Kathryn Schulz

Being wrong is an inescapable part of being alive. And yet we go through life tacitly assuming (or loudly insisting) that we are right about nearly everything — from our political beliefs to our private memories, from our grasp of scientific fact to the merits of our favourite team. Being Wrong looks at why this conviction has such a powerful grip on us, what happens when this conviction is shaken, and how we interpret the moral, political and psychological significance of being wrong. Drawing on philosophies old and new and cutting-edge neuroscience, Schulz offers an exploration of the allure of certainty and the necessity of fallibility in four main areas: religion (when the end of the world fails to be nigh); politics (where were those WMD?); memory (where are my keys?); and love (when Mr. or Ms. Right becomes Mr. or Ms. Wrong).

Mapping Dialogue, Marianne Mille Bojer, Heiko Roehl, Knuth Marianne

In a world of increasing complexity, answers have a short life-span and people have a growing desire to solve their own problems. Sustainable social change is increasingly depending on successful dialogue. This book provides a closer look at transformative dialogue tools and processes for social change. It profiles 10 dialogue methods in depth, and another 15 more briefly. The methods covered conceptually and in case studies include Deep Democracy, Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space Technology, Scenario Planning, World Cafe, the Israeli-Palestinian School for Peace and many more. The book gives insight into the foundations of practical dialogue work, a dictionary to distinguish dialogue from other forms of conversation, and inspiration from traditional African approaches to dialogue.

See my list for other favourites.

Fresh thinking: Challenging our assumptions – yes, we all have them

Here’s your challenge for the week. Try to go about your business – let’s start small – for just one day without making one assumption about someone or something. It could be that neighbour kid with the blue mohawk walking down your street, your perpetually late co-worker, the meeting you’re about to walk into.

Your potential assumptions: He’d probably break into my car; she’s been out partying again; everyone in that meeting already has their mind made up.

Sound familiar?

None of us are immune from making assumptions, generalizations, biases or having blind spots – call them what you like – in just about everything we do. We come by them honestly, collecting them like burrs on a hiking trail. They can be rooted in where we grew up, how we were raised and our life experiences. We all have them and they motivate us to make the wrong or negative decisions or simply lead us down the wrong path.

How do I even begin?

A year ago, I had the chance to visit a safe drug consumption site to see how the facility operated. It was way out of my comfort zone because I don’t know that world. Drawing on my facilitator mindset, my goal was to be non-judgmental, listen and only ask questions. Over the course of the visit, I heard things like: “I come to this place because they treat me like a person,” and “I can speak my truth here.” I left looking at the clients as human beings and my assumptions about how and why these folks were here got completely blown up. That was a powerful moment for me.

Yes, it’s not easy to get to a place where we challenge our own assumptions. I bet you’re thinking, how do I even begin?

The first step is acknowledging we have assumptions. We all come into a conversation with them. They are a product of experiences, the information we consume, education, the social context we exist in and our culture. Our assumptions enable us in our day-to-day experiences. And it’s also how we shortcut our thinking. Step 1 is asking yourself: Where might I be holding assumptions?

fresh thinking - #3 reflect -andre mouton

The Unconscious Bias course I recently took helped me take an inventory of my own biases. We were asked to look at ourselves and then consider our underlying assumptions. When I’m working with clients, we often have a conversation about assumptions. We explore questions like:

  • What do we know to be true?
  • What assumptions are we holding?
  • What can be challenged and changed?
  • What cannot be challenged or changed?

These questions are helpful for any workplace looking at making decisions or reassessing a process they may have been wedded to for a long time and now want to change.

How do we make our assumptions, anyway?

Behavioural psychologist Chris Argyris came up with something called the Ladder of Inference, which identified how we “ladder up” from observable data to assumptions to action and the risks of not challenging assumptions. In other words, how 2 + 2 = 5.

Typically, this is how we make our assumptions and what we do with them, in a series of steps.

  • I observe many pieces of data and select specific pieces of data.
  • I interpret the ‘facts’ and add meaning – now I have an assumption.
  • I draw conclusions; I tell a story around that conclusion.
  • Then I take actions based on my belief.

That’s the kind of laddering up we do every day. But to diffuse that, we need to be aware that we’ve formed an assumption, but then challenge ourselves and ask: what data supports or contradicts my story?

I was recently teaching a facilitation skills class and a student left the room, and then came back quite late. From that point on, the student seemed quite distracted and disconnected. I found myself becoming focused on her seemingly distressed state and was sure that something bad had happened. This made me approach her and ask if everything was alright.

I interpreted her late arrival as an indication that a problem had happened and then assumed that she was in a state of distress, which contributed to her distraction.  Fortunately, my behaviour to ask if she was OK also tested my assumptions and I discovered that nothing of the sort had happened – she had simply lost track of time.

laddering up

Source:  Panorama Education

Put on your active listening ears

The downside of making assumptions is that it can create conflict with people who have another set of assumptions. Positions get entrenched and prevent us from genuinely listening to another perspective. That stops us from finding shared solutions and being creative. It also puts up a ton of barriers between ourselves, and our colleagues, which stops us from talking to people in a meaningful way.

By the way, I am guilty as charged on every count.

fresh thinking #4 active listening

One technique that I use to challenge assumptions is a listening process that allows someone to present a perspective for three to five minutes without interrupting. Then I ask everyone:

  • What did you hear that was new?
  • What did you hear that surprised you?
  • What did you hear that might have challenged something you already believed?

Then we start unpacking this by asking:

  • What would make something you are hearing true or not true, as a way to get someone to look at both sides of a subject.
  • What else do you know about this subject?

Then we’d repeat the process with another perspective on the same issue. In this manner, we start to surface and challenge the many assumptions that exist within a topic.

Getting to a productive dialogue

I’ll give you an example of a positive outcome after using a contradictions workshop. There was tension between a head office and a regional office over the adoption of a process. Each felt the other was dumb. We talked about the things that were stopping them from adopting the process. What emerged was that the parent company had bought the sub-company when they were financially stressed, concluding the company was not that smart and therefore they needed to be micromanaged. The reaction from the sub-company was acute frustration while the head office maintained they needed to get with the bigger picture.

fresh thinking - frustration

This is what happens when groups get siloed, giving them an excuse to keep doing things the same way. I’ve seen that happen a lot. But when we were able to identify the problem, they admitted that yes, they were each holding assumptions of ‘competence’ or lack there-of. It was a starting point for moving to a more productive dialogue.

Yes, there can be a downside to challenging assumptions. I know someone who has the ability to challenge every idea but then can’t make a decision. The assumption-challenging skill is on hyperdrive and paradoxically generates a whole new set of assumptions. You can hold yourself in an endless cycle of inertia. At some point, you have to say I’ve done enough. If you’re forever cycling through challenging assumptions, it’s useful but only until you stop making advances and taking the next steps. Be open and aware, but don’t get stuck.

Five ways to kickstart your action plan

  1. Awareness. Become aware that we hold assumptions, therefore they exist.
  2. Examine what assumption you might be holding.
  3. Get information about your assumption. Then explore and seek diverse input.
  4. Decide what your new position or assumption will be and how it will evolve to meet your purpose.
  5. Test your new assumption. You can do that by asking, “Am I off on this?” “Do you see it differently” “Am I missing something?” Be open to the idea that you might be wrong or need further input. Don’ be absolute. Form your position but be open to the idea that it might evolve. It creates the possibility of being wrong, which helps you be more right.

What I’m reading

Interested in more on this topic? Here are three books that helped me tackle the assumption trap.

Talking with Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell explores the concept of why we misread each other so often and how the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people fail us. He uses fascinating examples to illustrate. He talks about our “default to truth” (we believe someone tells the truth until we just can’t), our belief in transparency (that we can know what someone is thinking by their behaviours) and coupling (the proximity of circumstance that leads to outcomes).

Insight, Tasha Eurich

Tasha Eurich explores self-awareness and suggests that we are not nearly as self-aware as we think we are. She goes on to offer suggestions and practices that help us see ourselves more clearly in order to help us be more successful at work and in life. I liked the set of exercises in the book and the robust examples from her own coaching experiences.

The Skilled Facilitator, Roger Schwarz

Roger is one of the leading academics in the realm of facilitation and his approach to facilitation is fully informed by the ladder of inference. I have also spent five days training with Roger and pull his principles into my practice. I’d recommend Roger’s materials and course in a heartbeat.

How to boost your influence magic at work

“We’re blind to our blindness. We have very little idea of how little we know. We’re not designed to know how little we know.” – Daniel Kahneman, Author, Psychologist

When I ask people what they think it means to influence a person or group, I’ve occasionally heard this answer: “Winning them over to my ideas.”

BZZZZT. They would be wrong.

It’s a common misconception that the art of influencing means getting your own way or bulldozing people into accepting your ideas. I typically only see such attitudes in leaders who are, shall we say, self-absorbed or not really all that self-aware.

Good leaders – the type of people who have polished their self-awareness with experience – don’t walk into a room expecting the team to nod and agree. Is there really any satisfaction in that anyway?

Savvy leaders are more concerned with listening, getting to a shared understanding and building consensus instead of the ‘It’s my way or the highway,’ route.

Make listening well key to your leadership style

It’s true that it is part of human nature to try to influence other people and persuade them that we are right. (Yes, I’ve been guilty of that.) Everyone does it and it can feel really good – for about 10 seconds.

monkeys conversation
Photo: Mihai Surdu

But when we have listened well and heard well, we are rewarded. Good leaders get that. It’s the suspension of having to own something long enough to have heard what someone has to say. I know that sitting and listening is tough to do because it takes more effort to hold judgment at bay, there are just so many thoughts tumbling around in our heads.

You’re probably thinking, but that’s just not my style. But being a good leader transcends all types of people. I believe everyone has the capability to listen well; it just takes practice and thoughtfulness.

‘Quiet leadership is not an oxymoron’

I was recently on the teaching team for a six-day course.  One of our students was a self-confessed introvert. True to type, he tended to be quiet in group situations. Also, true to type, he was thoughtful.

convo - trung-thanh-LgdDeuBcgIY-unsplash
Photo: Trung Thanh

While it seemed that he was processing (taking notes, looking at people who were speaking) the teaching team had some concern about whether we were creating enough space for his participation.  Happily, he didn’t disappoint – when he spoke, he had the full attention of the room and significant influence by virtue of listening well and offering deeply thoughtful contributions.

Extroverts tend to ‘think out loud,’ giving the impression of listening less. But studies also show that leaders who spend more time listening than talking are regarded as more effective.

In my experience as a professional facilitator, I’ve learned that one personality style is not better than the other. We can all do this to get to a place of more holistic conversations.

Listen up: Influencing dos and don’ts

Don’t – Repeat a statement again and again. I call that the I’m-going-to-hound-you-until-you-agree approach. (This is also how children get puppies).

Do – Be more collaborative. Learn to listen well and grasp different threads of what people are saying. Then put them together to make a connection between different points of view.

Do – Acknowledge differing points of view.

boy yelling into microphone jason rosewell credit
Photo: Jason Rosewell

Don’t – Talk over people. It is a no-no, and so is saying ‘Yes, but…’

Do – Say ‘Yes and…’ It’s much more powerful and shows you are knitting together ideas.

Don’t – Invalidate someone’s comment with ‘I already said that…’

Do – Acknowledge pain or emotion because you’ll be seen as validating a person’s feelings.

Some of this may sound daunting. But in the realm of influencing you are better to be seen as the leader who says, ‘I thought I had the answer when I came in, but I see I did not.’ You show your human side, as a person who is able to challenge their own biases and shift their thinking.

Now that’s a satisfying feeling and one that will have your team giving you respect in a whole new way.

Close the listening loop

Another strategy you can consider as a leader to increase your influence is to wrap up a lengthier meeting or discussion with a short, reflective set of questions, such as:

feedback2
  1. What stood out for you today as a result of our conversation? You might get some eye-opening responses.
  2. What did you like or dislike about this session? If you ask this, be prepared for some honesty.
  3. What new insights did we take away?
  4. What is different now than before we met?

These four questions will get you to see the power of thoughtful conversations and understand – in the moment – how your group is thinking when they go back to their desks. After all, influencing is not a one-way street but a shared space of consultation and collaboration.

Mythbusting: What facilitation IS and ISN’T

So what do you do, exactly?

It’s a question all facilitators get – from friends, from family, from new connections at networking events … There’s not an easy way to describe group process facilitation – especially if someone has never worked with someone like me. But here’s a closer look of what my job is and isn’t.

What’s your organization looking for? This quick list might help get you closer.

  • For facilitators

If you’re a facilitator, I invite you to take a look and see if you find it to be true in your own experience (are there any I missed that you encounter?).

  • For prospective clients

If you’ve been told your group might benefit from facilitation, but aren’t quite familiar with the process, I’m hoping these descriptions help give a better picture of what we do, what we don’t do, and the value we can ultimately bring to your group.

A quick note

Please keep in mind, it’s never a bad thing to ask a question. So, even if you got it wrong – don’t let that stop you from asking a different one! Keep asking away.

I’m happy to share and curious to hear what you think and always happy to explain more about what I do. Here we go.

Facilitation is NOT…

Counselling

I get this question a lot. People ask me often whether I feel like an Oprah or Dr. Phil when groups are sharing difficult truths, grievances, frustrations and the like.

paolo-nicolello-1127477-unsplashAnd it’s true, many of the exercises I lead participants through can feel therapeutic, simply because it gives a space and a process for people to talk about topics or opinions that perhaps aren’t often sought – or as openly received as they are during a facilitated workshop.

Yet, here’s the big difference between my work and those professionals who offer professional counselling advice: I do not deliver feedback.

Through careful questions, I open the floor for people to speak and act as a neutral observer, repeating back what I’ve heard to make sure I’ve understood.  Sometimes I’ll ask the group to repeat back what was said to ensure the group understands.  At no point am I weighing in with my opinion or in judgement of what has been said.

In this way, facilitation is a bit more like coaching, encouraging a group to work together to arrive at their own unique solutions or end points.

Consulting

I’ve written before about the differences between what I offer and the services a consultant can bring to an organization.

Consultants are hired for their knowledge and expertise in a particular field. The consultant often goes into an organization to discover the organization’s circumstances and then offers their assessment of the situation and skills to address. Instead, I’m hired to help teams discover their own thinking.

Crowd management

If there are a few “strong personalities”, that round out a team and seem to be paralyzing progress, I’m often asked  to help bring the naysayers on-side.

jordan-300359-unsplash

Oh, dear! What a responsibility, to transform a vocal dissenter into a compliant team-player. Unfortunately, no, I cannot offer this service.

But. (Don’t worry, there is a “but.”)

Instead, I create processes that create space for everybody else. So those loud, scene-stealing, types aren’t erased or transformed, but rather, come into context, as everyone else (even the shy, quiet types) are given a time to speak, and have their chance to own the conversation.

When you create this type of situation, everybody else gets louder and the “loud voice” becomes noticeably quieter simply for lack of airtime.

Interestingly, the so called “loud voice” are often loud because they don’t feel heard.  So really demonstrating that I have heard them goes a long way as well.

Bringing a group to a pre-decided endpoint

Similar to the above point, I’m not a wrangler. Sometimes a client will approach me to let me know s/he has already made a decision and needs someone to help bring all others on-side, to bridge the understanding and pave the way for a new world.

This is awkward.  If the decision is already made and we’re pretending that it’s a participative decision, then it is better if I walk away. It goes against my ethics to run a manipulative event.

nathan-shively-57964-unsplashIf, however, the decision is not fully made and there is genuinely a role for the group in making the decision, then I create process that allows the group to participate within the defined boundaries, acting as the neutral process support to get there.

Another alternative, if the decision is made and we need to group to understand the decision, why it was made and explore implications and impacts or perhaps begin planning for implementation – then this is also a great role for a facilitator.  What we aren’t doing is “forcing compliance”.

Training

This is a bit of a fine line. Yes, you can use a facilitated process to help people discover a new topic or subject area, and there is definitely such a thing as a facilitative trainer,  but no, I myself am not an expert in a subject or here to help others learn how to perform a new task.

(Unless the topic is facilitation – in that area I am qualified as a formal trainer!).

I remain neutral on all content. If there is a subject matter expert present, who needs help leading a group through a certain type of process, I can aid in that journey, but the content will never be a facilitator’s to own or pass along.

The bottom line

Ultimately, I can help groups come to a resolution around a problem, area of tension, or difficult question. But I’m not counselling, training, executing crowd management skills or manipulating a group to do it.  Facilitation is about offering good process that taps the wisdom of the group, enables the group to discover its thinking, and lets the group itself discover that they had the answers all along. And honestly? I can’t think of a more rewarding job than that.

When asking the tough questions, use WHAT not WHY

I read a lot – or I guess, I should say, listen a lot. That’s right, like many others out there, I consume a lot of books through Audible and also have a steady stream of weekly can’t-miss podcasts bookmarked on my phone.

These recordings help me keep my hours behind the wheel both entertaining and productive, while giving me plenty to think about in both my home and work lives.

Recently, I was listening to a new Tasha Eurich book, Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life.

The beauty of clarity

If you’ve ever heard me speak, or worked with me through a facilitated session, you know I’m a big fan of clarity and the self awareness it can bring.

Though this book is more about better getting to know one’s own self, in it, I came across a valuable nugget that rang very familiar for my professional work.

The author talks about the importance of asking yourself WHAT questions more often than WHY, when going through self-reflective exercises.

Funny enough, this is a golden rule among facilitators too!

Eurich posits (and I strongly agree) that while WHAT questions generate possibilities, creativity and breadth of thought, “WHY” questions can often shut down those paths of positive exploration.

When facilitating, I always encourage participants to ask themselves questions like, “What were all the events that happened?” or “What are you worried about ?”; “What are you proud of?” or “What might we need to change?” These lead to more productive ideas than WHY questions.

The downside of WHY

WHY questions often seem to lead – one way or another – to criticism or limiting thoughts. (“Why can’t we get this right?”, “Why haven’t we been doing it that way all along?”, or “Why won’t the other team see things our way?” “Why did this happen to us?”).

When we ask WHY questions (on a personal or professional level) we are examining the causes of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, which can lead us to very superficial answers.  Our brains search for the easiest response.  WHY can lead to reduced decision quality as we fall victim to “recency effect”: where the most recent experiences are given disproportionately more weight.

WHY questions can also lead us to being defensive. They can feel accusatory and stir up negative emotions. WHY can draw us to our limitations and keep us trapped in the past.

“So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do” – Ben Franklin

The magic of WHAT

Meanwhile, WHAT questions tend to keep us open to discovering new information about ourselves, even if the information is negative or goes against our beliefs. WHAT questions can draw us towards our potential, keep us curious and help us create a better future.

Asking WHAT encourages us to name our emotions, which can help us to stay in control. (e.g. “What emotion am I feeling right now?” versus “Why am I feeling this way?”)

Transitioning from WHY questions to WHAT can move us from victimhood to clarity and action. (Scroll down below for a master list of questions for your own use!)

And, like with so many other examples of life imitating work, I find this is just as true for organizations undergoing self-reflection and searching for a clear path forward as it is for self-inquiring individuals.

A counter-argument for WHY

In Insight, Eurich quotes Jim Collins in his book “How the Mighty Fall,” where, on the flip side, he suggests companies that get wrapped up in WHAT they are, and don’t understand WHY they got that way, risk becoming extinct. He encourages organizations or groups to ask themselves WHY?

edwin-andrade-158050-unsplash

In the business world, there is a technique called “5 Why’s” which is aimed at drilling to a root issue by pushing past the superficial response to an initial WHY question, by asking Why four more times. “Why did that happen? Why did THAT happen? Why? … Why?…”. The expectation is that repeated query gets a deeper response.

And yet…

I’d argue, however, that you can ask the ‘WHY’ question that Jim Collins references in a WHAT format.

For example:

“What are all the factors that have contributed to our success?”

“What is our purpose?”

“What keeps our customers coming back?”

“What can we do differently?  Better?”

“What holds us in the present?”

“What blocks us from moving forward?”

“What happens if the customer stops buying from us? Talking to us?”

andre-mouton-744484-unsplash

Self-awareness meets facilitation

While considering how both Eurich’s views and those of facilitators are so similar on the WHAT versus WHY question, I started thinking whether I might be on to something greater.

I began considering what other areas of facilitation methodology (like the ORID method that I use) that could be applied to a person’s everyday self-reflection – not just in a professional setting. (Look at that, another WHAT question!)

In The Courage to Lead by R. Brian Stanfield, he promotes exactly that – the use of facilitative practice for deeper self-exploration.

I have begun to apply this theory of facilitation in my inner world – taking myself through the Objective, Reflective, Interpretive and Decisional steps as part of my own self-reflection at the end of the day (especially after, say, a professional engagement I’ve led or a family event that has left me with lots to think about).

I’ve found it is in fact helping to lead me to wiser, more satisfactory conclusions and decisions – rather than leaving me ruminating or losing sleep over an experience.

Now I’m left to wonder what other connections between organizational health and personal wellness can be made. WHAT do you think?

Here is a quick guide to reframe less productive WHY questions into more production WHAT questions.

Non productive Productive
  • Why am I in this situation?
  • Why do these things always happen to me / us?

 

  • What are the actual events and happenings?
  • What do I remember someone actually saying?
  • What words did they use?
  • What happened first?  Second? Third?
  • Why did he say that?

 

  • What emotion am I feeling right now?
  • What am/are I/we worried about?
  • What am/are I/we excited about?
  • Why can’t the other group be helpful?
  • Why can’t our leader think more like we do?

 

  • What role do I/we play in this situation?
  • What might be the motivation of our leader?
  • What might be the motivation of the other team?
  • What might be important to the other team?
  • What might the other team be worried about?
  • What do I/we need to move on?
  • Why did this happen to me?

 

  • What are the implications of this situation for me?
  • What are some alternatives?
  • What are the risks and benefits associated with the alternatives?
  • What am I prepared to accept as a limitation?
  • What am I not prepared to accept as a limitation?
  • Why should I expect anything different to happen?
  • What might I do differently next time?
  • What steps can I / we take in the future?

Behind the scenes: A facilitator’s dilemma

Update: Here’s what happened!

June 6, 2019 – Thanks to those of you who weighed in on social media and offered thoughts based on your own experience to this post.

I wanted to make sure I delivered an update to close the loop and share a pretty interesting lesson learned – one I wasn’t expecting from this situation.

Normally, in my work, if a group is searching for a way forward, I would recommend some sort of consensus-based solution which sometimes feels like a compromise. In this case, as I write below in my original post, my own advice probably would have been to get both people to try and find common ground and act in good faith as they both moved more closely toward it.

In fact, in this scenario neither I nor my fellow consultant had to really give anything up or change the way we do things.

Instead, we just worked hard to keep our sections separate and define our scope and goals for the audience. I think the saving grace really was that we had discussed it beforehand and realized that the value, outcome and skills we were offering to the client were different.

So, we told them that! The consultant explained she was there to review and aggregate data, draw out insights and offer advice from her lens of experience. I explained that I was there to help the group explore the content, discern patterns, generate insight and draw their own conclusions.

Together they determined their next steps.

christin-hume-482925-unsplashThe consultant and I kept our sections separate and never interfered or interjected during each other’s activity – knowing it could confuse the crowd if we did.

We both had plenty of time to work with the group, and the client’s support, to let our skills shine. And, it turned out to be a great pair of workshops – for all involved.

Overall, the client was happy we were able to accomplish separately for her what she needed us to do.

What would you have done in this situation? Feel free to tell me in the comments below.

Behind the scenes: A facilitator’s dilemma

I have written recently on a topic that I have plenty of experience with. Infighting, or a sense of competition between teams in the workplace, and how either a facilitator, or a group leader, can work to resolve it.

But here’s the thing. Even though I’ve got lots of helpful answers for those facing this morale-dampening corporate squabbling, these types of situations can be pretty stubborn to solve.

And even though I like to think I’m pretty good at what I do, I don’t always have all the answers.

When it comes to opposing positions, things aren’t always black and white. And even professional consensus-builders like me don’t get a pass.

Here’s a recent example that has led me to follow all my own advice – and hey, I’ll admit, it’s tough work with no easy answer. Here’s the scenario:

I was recently paired with a professional consultant to tackle a project for a valued client.

Because of the very different nature of what we both do, we almost immediately had a clash of approaches.

listen

It makes sense: a consultant is hired to bring the answer to the table.

Meanwhile, a facilitator’s job is to bring the answer out from the group of participants.

A consultant formulates opinions and shares their work, a facilitator discerns the opinions of the group.

A consultant provides content, the facilitator provides process. A consultant is hired for what they know, a facilitator is hired to help the group bring forward what they know.

So, she and I continue to go back and forth on how we want to run our joint session. Her job is to offer her insights and gain the approval of the group and mine is to discover what the group thinks and enable them to agree with each other.

Honestly, I am not entirely sure how we will resolve our distinct approaches.  And please stay tuned to hear how it ended up.

But I will tell you, in the meantime, it has reminded me that when you’re coming at a problem or opportunity from different mindsets, even if both have some willingness to compromise, the final outcome may not look like what you wanted or hoped it would be going in.