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.

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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?”

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

The level-setting toolkit: How to establish facts before making decisions

The objective, or facts, level of thinking will help you ensure you’re on the same page as your group, leading to better outcomes and time saved.

By Robin Parsons, IAF Certified Professional Facilitator

Years ago, I worked for someone who used to say to me, “Facts are friendly, facts are friendly.” It wasn’t until I jumped more deeply into the study of group facilitation methods that I truly understood what he meant.

The objective level of data (a.k.a. facts) are not just friendly, but the essential starting point for thinking clearly. And in many group settings or situations, clear thinking is exactly what’s needed.

It sounds like a magic recipe for project or group success. And yet it’s so simple it’s often overlooked. We have a bias towards a deeper more analytical mindset, often ignoring the observable data.

Why start by agreeing on the facts?

Have you ever been in a meeting where everyone around the table is shaking their head at an outcome, wondering “How did we miss that?”

This can happen when we make decisions before we’ve considered all sources of data.

Factual data needs to be the starting point to every conversation. It ultimately saves time, produces better outcomes and promotes aligned understanding of even the most complex problem.

Without objective data, we’re doomed to fail

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Without a solid grounding in the objective level of data, we tend to flounder. We find ourselves going around in circles and struggling to ground ourselves in the present reality. Each person approaches the conversation with a different understanding of the situation which often leads to confusion and the absence of clarity.

What is the objective level?

I want to lay out some scenarios that prove my point and explore the reasons why we’re apt to gloss over it. Often, we’re eager to get to the good stuff (that deeper level of problem-solving) or maybe we feel too pressed for time.

Questions to start with

  • What words did someone actually use?
  • What did phrases did you read in the document?
  • What do you remember seeing? Hearing? Doing?
  • What happened first? Second? Third?
  • Where did the incident occur?
  • When did it happen?
  • Who was there?
  • What do the meeting minutes say our resolution was?
  • What did we capture as an action item?
  • What are the numbers: Dates, times, figures, prices, specs?
  • Even: What colours do you see?

These are a series of questions that I frequently ask participants and students of facilitation alike. It is surprising how difficult it is to get a response to these questions.

The questions are easy and the answers obvious, and yet, people hesitate to offer a response.

They are perplexed. They think it might be a trick question. They can’t figure out why I would ask such simple questions. They think I’m looking for something much deeper or more profound.

But, at the objective level, the answer could be as simple as ‘red’.

Facts, data, sensory information

In facilitator speak, we call these simple questions “objective level questions.” These are the facts. Basic information and sensory inputs. And we use them to begin a conversation aimed at thinking through a topic.

Objective data grounds a conversation

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It is surprising how often people push back on starting a discussion by confirming the objective level of data. I hear things like:  “Everyone knows that”, “These people are too busy for this”, “We don’t have enough time” or “We all know the process”.

In our time-pressed environments, the time spent ensuring we are uniformly grounded in the facts has become either luxury or superfluous.

Yet, when I walk into a room to do business process work, we start with the current state. It is virtually a guarantee that when the current state goes up on the wall, people will say, “I didn’t know that”, “I had no idea”, or “Seeing it from end to end really helps me understand the situation”.

But, if we interpret too quickly, we may miss important facts

In my experience, groups have a bias towards interpretive thinking, because it’s such an important part of the thinking process. The challenge that emerges with our bias towards interpretive thinking is that we are quickly led towards interpretations without having fully considered all our data points.

In these cases, decisions are made with incomplete data sets.

Objective data brings clarity

There is tremendous power in spending time on the objective information that sometimes seems too simple for words.  It accomplishes a number of things:

1) It ensures that everyone in the room shares a common understanding of the topic

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It is much easier to move a conversation forward when people in the room are not grappling for facts. Many times, I have seen a meeting chase its tail because participants did not start with the same set of facts. How many times have you seen a discussion start with the correctness of a number?

Until the facts are clear and known by all, the meeting will be circular.

2) It ensures that, if there are different perspectives on a fact, these will surface

This doesn’t mean we’re trying to get at alternate facts, but it does remind us that I can see a 20% gross margin as excellent and someone else can see it is an opportunity for improvement.

Maybe you see the process of using a sticky note to pass information along as efficient and someone else sees it as vintage.

I can see a colour as orange and someone else as tangerine.

3) It reduces anxiety and frustration

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Frustration, anxiety, pointed questions, bad decisions and blame often stem from a fuzzy understanding of the objective level of data.

When decisions are made with incomplete data, where one person held a piece of information that another did not, blame and frustration are often the outcome.

Time spent sharing the basic facts contributes to the clarity which allows anxiety and frustration to dissipate.

A group I worked with found itself in a circular situation where there was resistance to exploring current state processes (because everyone knows the process) and frustration because no one knew what the processes were and what came next. There was an overwhelming sense that the problems were too hard to solve.

4) It helps us to challenge our assumptions

One of the most important aspects of spending time on the objective level of data is that it helps us challenge our assumptions and prevent us from relying on past strategies and outcomes that may bias our thinking in a situation.

A former NASA flight director talked how they stave off panic in a crisis situation. The answer? Start with a series of objective questions:

  • What was everything they knew and did not know about the situation at hand?
  • What did the data actually say about the situation at hand?
  • What was the worst thing that could happen as a result of the situation?
  • Did the team have enough information to know for sure and how could they get more information?

Here’s how to bring objective thinking into your next meeting:

  1. Give people in a meeting time to review a document. Ask them to high light or underline key words or phrases.
  2. Once a presentation has been given, ask: What jumped out at you?
  3. Ask someone to read passages from a document or presentation out loud.
  4. Circulate pre-reads with a couple of questions such as: What caught your attention? What ideas did you highlight?
  5. Open a meeting by asking someone to recap the outcomes of a previous meeting.
  6. In a follow up meeting, ask the group what they remember from the previous discussion, what happened first, second and then…

What are some helpful objective level questions you might ask at your next meeting? Share your answers below.

 

About Robin Parsons: I’m a certified professional facilitator and certified ToP® facilitator with 10 years of experience facilitating groups. I can help your group, team or stakeholders solve problems, develop plans, answer questions and clearly understand situations. If you’re looking for strategic planning facilitation, professional group facilitation or process facilitation services, reach out to learn more.

Facts are friendly

What are some key words? What phrases did you highlight? What number was quoted?  What did you hear? What graphs did you notice?  What colours do you see? 

These are a series of questions that I frequently ask participants and students of facilitation alike. It is surprising how difficult it is to get a response to these questions.

The questions are easy and the answers obvious, and yet, people hesitate to offer a response. They are perplexed. Why you would ask such simple questions of a capable group of people? Is it a trick question? There must be some deeper significance sought. The answer couldn’t be as simple as ‘red’.

…students have said to me, “I didn’t know where you were going with the question, so I didn’t know how to answer the question” … when I asked the question, “what colour did you see?”.  

Facts, data, sensory information

In facilitator parlance, we call these simple questions objective level questions: the facts, basic information and sensory inputs. And we use them to begin a conversation aimed at thinking through a topic. These basic pieces of information are drawn in through what we’ve read, heard, seen, experienced, touched or tasted and they help us to form a common understanding of the topic at hand. These pieces of data inform a concrete starting point that is necessary for a group to successfully think through a topic.

Western thought values thinking that connects dots, sees patterns and looks for meaning or what we call the interpretive level of thinking. Analysis, deductive reasoning, extrapolation, interpretation are all forms of interpretive thinking and are tremendously well trained in professions such as business, engineering and accounting. A connect-the-dots response is the kind of response that is often rewarded and the thinking that make us seem smart. When we can take a piece of data and turn it into thoughtful commentary we are ‘bright’, ‘insightful’ and ‘quick thinking’.

“Our nervous system is at the same time a data-gathering system, an emotional processing system, a meaning-creation system and a decision/implementing system.” – Edgar Schein

There is a bias towards interpretive thinking

In my experience, groups have a bias towards interpretive thinking. Without question, interpretive thinking is an essential part of the thinking process. The challenge that emerges with our bias towards interpretive thinking is that we are quickly led towards interpretations without having fully considered all our data points. Decisions are made before all sources of data have been considered and all facts present. The result can be outcomes that later earn a “how did we miss that?” kind of reflection.

In the absence of the objective data, we flounder

Without a solid grounding in the objective level of data, we tend to flounder. We find ourselves going around in circles and struggling to ground ourselves in the present reality. Each person approaches the conversation with a different understanding of the situation which often leads to confusion and the absence of clarity.

 …. an 8 year old child comes through the door with a story of a fight erupting from a simple game at the playground. The child launches into her story and you find yourself asking: Where were you playing?  Who was there?  Whose ball was it? What happened first?  Then what happened? Who showed up? When did they show up? Ok, whose dog was it? 

You can’t understand the story until you understand the situation. You can’t understand the situation until you’ve compiled your facts – the objective level of data.

…a participant walks in to a meeting room, well prepared, having read the pre-read package. The meeting chair starts the discussion. The well prepared person shares the conclusion they’ve drawn. Someone else, who did not read the package says something like – “Are we talking about project x? What dates are you referring to? What part of the project are you addressing? “Who provided this material?” And around it goes until everyone has a common understanding of the situation. 

Objective data brings clarity

There is tremendous power in spending time on the objective information that sometimes seems ‘too simple for words’.  It accomplishes a couple of things. First, it ensures that everyone in the room shares a common understanding of the topic to be discussed. It is much easier to move a conversation forward when people in the room are not grappling for facts. Many times I have seen a meeting chase its tail because participants did not start with the same set of facts. How many times have you seen a discussion start with the ‘rightness’ of a number? Until the facts are clear and known by all – the meeting will be circular.

Second, it ensures that if there are different perspectives on a fact, that it is surfaced. This is not to suggest we are trying to surface ‘alternate facts’, but it does remind us that I can see a 20% gross margin as excellent and someone else can see it is an opportunity for improvement. You can see the process of using a sticky note to pass information along as efficient and someone else sees it as ‘vintage’.  I can see a colour as orange and someone else as tangerine.

Objective data grounds a conversation

It is surprising how often people push back on starting a discussion by confirming the objective level of data. I hear things like – “everyone knows that”, “these people are too busy for this”, “we don’t have enough time”, “we all know the process”. In our time pressed environments, the time spent one ensuring we are uniformly grounded in the facts has become either luxury or superfluous.

When I walk into a room to do business process work, we start with the current state. It is virtually a guarantee that when the current state goes up on the wall, people will say, “I didn’t know that”, “I had no idea”, “seeing it from end to end really helps me understand the situation”.  

Objective data reduces anxiety and frustration

Frustration, anxiety, pointed questions, bad decisions and blame often stem from a fuzzy understanding of the objective level of data. When decisions are made with incomplete data, where one person held a piece of information that another did not, blame and frustration are often the outcome. Time spent sharing the basic facts contributes to the clarity which allows anxiety and frustration to dissipate.

A group I worked with found itself in a circular situation where there was resistance to exploring current state processes (because everyone knows the process) and frustration because no one knew what the processes were and what came next. There was an overwhelming sense that the problems were too hard to solve.

 

Objective data helps us to challenge our assumptions

One of the most important aspects of spending time on the objective level of data is that it helps us challenge our assumptions and prevent us from relying on past strategies and outcomes that may bias our thinking in a situation. A former NASA flight director talks about the approach they use for staving off panic in a crisis situation.  They start with a series of questions:

  • What was everything they knew and did not know about the situation at hand? (objective question)
  • What did the data actually say about the situation at hand? (objective question)
  • What was the worst thing that could happen as a result of the situation? (may draw on experience and sometimes an objective question)
  • Did the team have enough information to know for sure – and how could they get more information?

Helpful objective level questions

What are some helpful objective level questions for your next meeting? Consider the types of questions a reporter might ask:

  • What words did you hear someone say?
  • What did they actually say?
  • What did phrases did you read in the document?
  • What do you remember seeing? hearing? doing?
  • What happened first? second? third?
  • Where did the incident occur?
  • When did it happen?
  • Who was there?
  • Where were you?
  • What do the meeting minutes say our resolution was?
  • What did we capture as an action item?

Facts are friendly

Years ago, I worked for someone who used to say to me “facts are friendly, facts are friendly”.  It wasn’t until I jumped deeply into the study of facilitative methods that I truly understood what he meant.  The objective level of data (facts) are not just friendly, but the essential starting point for thinking clearly, when clear thinking is needed. 

 

 

 

 

I spent my holidays doing the mundane…

I spent my holidays doing the mundane and am better for it. I’d love to share some deeply philosophical reflection of inner discovery, but so many other people do that so much better than I do.

Instead – let me share the virtue of the mundane.

I did not:

  • go on a hot tropical vacation – since we were having what I called ‘Winnipeg’ Christmas temperatures, that may have been a miss.
  • go skiing – given our “frickin’ freezin'” weather (see above) – that seemed like a smart choice.
  • go to the mall – my teenager daughter successfully covered that base on my behalf (several times).

What I did do…

  1. Read a really enjoyable book.  I dedicated more than one day to couch surfing, eating Christmas treats and reading my book. I read Ken Follet’s “Column of Fire” and thoroughly enjoyed the dive into Elizabethan England religious / political affairs.
  2. I did not get out my pyjamas before noon for the better part of 10 days.  When you are dedicated to a book, it is difficult to see why pyjamas are not part of the picture.
  3. I built an infuriatingly difficult puzzle. Who knew the silly little pug puzzle would be damn difficult? I literally could not move on to anything constructive until I had conquered that ridiculous set of coloured cardboard pieces.
  4. I hosted parties. I love bringing together old friends and new friends, family and interesting people.  So – I hosted a couple of parties – both formal and informal.  I am endlessly grateful to those who trust me enough to show up for my food experiments.
  5. I made beef wellington! I’m not sure if that qualifies as mundane. Butchering a $120 piece of meat to prepare it for it’s to be ‘wellington state’ was angst provoking. Ultimately – delicious and rewarding.
  6. I sent Christmas emails to my friends and family (you know – those people you only connect with 1 or 2 times a year). And in return, I received such wonderful messages back. Sometimes we forget about the real intent and purpose of the holidays.
  7. I finished my Certified ToP Facilitator portfolio.  This was a HUGE amount of work and while not really in the spirit of book and puzzle, could definitely be done in my pyjamas. My assessment will happen very soon and then I will be acknowledged as skilled in the Technology of Participation facilitation methods… my go to method for its ability to enable clear thought.
  8. I cooked new recipes from a new cook book.  Really one of the most fun things to do. Worst case scenario – never cook it again, or put differently, this too shall pass.

And so the point of all this … I had my personal time, my downtime, my regeneration time, and my family and friend times. Honestly – 2017 was just so interesting, unexpected and challenging that a good bout of the mundane was utterly necessary.

And now… I am pretty jazzed about 2018

… and therein lies the virtue of the mundane.

Respect as an Imperative

I have decided to use my Audible account to listen to books that I typically would not read, but would like to read. Audible is a great way to consume those books that can be a challenge for ‘before bed’ readers such as myself. I just finished Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Written in 1936, this book has been a best seller for 80 years. Dale Carnegie courses continue to be widely available.

About once a week, on LinkedIn I see someone reference the research Google conducted which revealed the Five keys to a successful Google team. Item #1 on the list –  psychological safety. Successful groups feel they can take risks without fear of feeling insecure or embarrassment.

A six year study that was released by Harvard Business Review cites the ability to manage conflicting tensions as the most critical predictor of top-team performance. This study showed that teams that debate their ideas have 25% more ideas altogether;  healthy debate is a vital part of their performance.

Recently, I read a another HBR article discussing the turnaround at Campell’s (as in soup) due in large part to focusing on a culture which embraced civility and respect.

I found myself thinking about what unites these stories?  What are the underlying connections? I wondered, how did civility and respect become value that needed to be re-discovered?

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While the language at times, in Carnegie’s book makes me cringe (like when he uses the terms housewives and cripples), there are core principles that resonate strongly and feel timeless:

  • Give honest and sincere appreciation
  • Be genuinely interested in others
  • Be a good listener
  • Try honestly to see things from the other’s viewpoint
  • If you’re wrong, admit it

What impact would Carnegie’s principles have on increasing psychological safety, as per Googles findings? If you bring a risky new idea forward and your group is both positive on your work and genuinely interested in what you’ve done – will it enhance psychological safety?

If you describe an intriguing new idea to your colleagues who listens carefully and ask curious questions, will you feel more comfortable bringing new ideas forward? Does it create a climate to generate more, creative new ideas? Will it help you explore your dilemma?

If you are in a disagreement with a colleague but feel that they are genuinely trying to see your viewpoint, will you be more likely to be patient, and curious in return?  Will you be more likely to admit you’re wrong, if you decide that you are? Will you find it easier to seek a mutually beneficial solution?

For me, the answer was yes and that Carnegie’s principles would underly healthy, psychologically safe, group dynamics and that they would enable a successful group dynamic that can exploit conflict for greater creativity.

On election day, lineups at the polls were surprisingly lengthy. A gentleman behind me started grumbling about how the feds and the city couldn’t figure out how to run an election, etc. etc.. My first instinct was to offer the civil but disinterested ‘hmmm’ response. However, since I was fresh off a listen to Carnegie, I decided to engage him.  For thirty minutes I asked genuinely curious questions and listened carefully. I confirmed my understandings and offered him positive affirmation. This seemingly grumpy, former municipal worker, told me with enthusiasm about his work with autistic youth, helping these young people build skills to participate in the workforce. Not an easy job but one that energized him. There was so much more to him than first impressions offered and I found myself deeply admiring this man’s work. 

What is the deeper pattern?  What else unites these stories?

As a facilitator, I operate on a set of working assumptions when I work with groups that look something like this:

  • Everyone has wisdom
  • We need everyone’s wisdom for the wisest results
  • There are no wrong answers
  • Everyone will hear and be heard
  • The whole is greater than the sum of the parts 

I start most workshops with these assumptions. I explain the assumptions to the room in a context that says each of you brings importance, perspective and value to the room that is essential for us to accomplish our goals today.  Without your contributions, we will be less successful.

In this manner, I demonstrate my profound respect for the group.

And there it is… the underlying pattern in these stories – the practice of respect. There was my ‘a ha’ moment.  The dictionary defines respect as: “a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements”.  It is our ability to withhold judgement and be open to the qualities of others, which in turn creates a different set of opportunities.

Former Campbell’s CEO, Doug Conant says:

“we’ve observed that the best way to truly win the hearts and minds of people, and generate huge returns for the organization and its stakeholders, is by leading with civility.  This means spending a considerable amount of effort acknowledging people’s contributions, listening better, respecting others’, and making people feel valued.

In a worldwide poll of over 20,000 employees, Christine Porath, co-author with Doug Conanof Campbell’s article found that employees who felt respected by their leaders reported 56% better health and well-being, 89% greater enjoyment and satisfaction, 92% greater focus and prioritization, 26% more meaning and significance, and 55% more engagement.

Individuals offer profound diversity, opportunity is presented by their diversity and possibilities are available to us through dissemination and aggregation of diversity. And it is available to us when we create a climate of respect.

It seems that respect is a bit of a secret sauce.

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So I like that – respect as secret sauce.  And I am still left with the question of why do we need to re-discover respect as a value? Why has it become harder to find, a bit more shadowy, and a bit more of surprise when we experience it? Why are we excited to state that employees are happier, more productive and healthier in a respectful climate? Why is it news? The questions feels particularly acute in our current digital, social and political climate.

I don’t really have a answer for this – but I happened to listen to a podcast by Farnam Street with Susan Cain author of “Quiet, the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.”

Cain mentioned that in the course of her research she discovered that self help books in the 19th century focused on character, virtue and integrity and in the 20th century – charisma, likability and magnetism. It seems that the criticality of character gave way to the importance of likability.

I am hypothesizing that in the 20th century we lowered the importance of how we interact with people in favour of how we look like we might interact with people.  The ‘appearance of‘ became more valued than the ‘behaviour of‘. Perhaps it was more camera friendly. Perhaps it was marketable. I’m sure it was far sexier. I’ve heard it said that many of our most venerated leaders would never have made it through the grinder of the modern media circus as they wouldn’t have been ‘charismatic’ enough.

I’d be curious about the perspectives of others and I think it merits a deeper dive.

In the meantime, I am compelled by the imperative of respect and the need to grow respect always, everywhere – to increase civility, our ability to handle conflict, our ability to embrace diversity and our ability to discover creativity…. and ever more humbly, to increase the enjoyability of lining up at the next election.

 

 

 

Bad acts of facilitation

In the last few weeks I have spoken with several people who have shared recent experiences working with a facilitator. In all cases they have said “the facilitator was not very good”. That catches my attention – what are they referring to?  What is happening when the facilitator isn’t very good? 

Complaint #1:  The facilitator had their own agenda. 

The group believed that the facilitator had an agenda and was maneuvering the group towards an already determined outcome. They felt manipulated, that their input was being selectively considered to match a previously determined outcome.

An essential rule – the facilitator must be neutral. The facilitator can not have a pre-defined ‘answer’. The facilitator may speculate on where the group will go for design purposes, but does not know ‘the answer’. Otherwise, the facilitator is perceived to be in collusion with the organizer and the group will not support the result.

Complaint #2:  We didn’t get anything done.

Two days of gruelling meetings coming to a conclusion with no substantive result. The group’s frustration is boiling over due to the inconsiderate waste of their time.

A facilitator must clearly define the outcome for the meeting. To be clear, it is an outcome such as a decision (we will select an option), not a description of the decision to be made (we will decide if option b is right). Facilitators are responsible for getting crystal clear on the desired outcome for the  meeting. This means detailed discovery discussions with the client. Poor discovery leads to poorly defined outcomes and dissatisfied participants.

Complain #3:  The facilitator talked too much.

The facilitator engaged with the discussion, shared opinions and took space away from participants. Participants were frustrated by the inability of the facilitator to ‘stay out of it’.

This is a common complaint when a subject matter expert is asked to lead a meeting. They have expertise, they want to share. A facilitator is content neutral. They do not have a role in content. Their role is to create the conditions for the people in the room to share their wisdom. Instead of hiring the subject matter expert to facilitate, invite them to participate and hire a content neutral facilitator.

Complaint #4:  The process was convoluted.

The facilitator didn’t have a process that was clear or well understood. Participants didn’t know where they were headed, the discussion seemed random.

This might be the most telling indicator of a non-facilitator. Good process is based on an understanding of group dynamics and how people think. The most involved part of event preparation is planning the appropriate group process. A good facilitator designs conversations to keep a group on track and to avoid random acts of dialogue.

Complaint #5: The facilitator was winging it.

The facilitator seemed to be adjusting their plan on the fly and didn’t really seem to know what was to be accomplished.

A good facilitation has iceberg qualities. Only about 10% of the effort it takes to create a good facilitated event is visible. The ‘submerged’ part of the event is the time taken to discover needs and prepare the right process for the group. It is not to say that a facilitator never changes plans mid-event, because that does happen. When course change is needed, a good facilitator discusses the situation with the group and makes change with the input and the consent of the group.

Remember that a facilitator, as defined by Roger Schwarz the leading academic on the subject, is  “a person who is acceptable to all members of the group, substantively neutral and has no decision-making authority, intervenes to help a group improve the way it defines and solves problems in order to increase the group’s effectiveness.”

I feel physical pain when I hear such complaints. To be an excellent facilitator is to embrace the mindset of a facilitator, to deeply understand the role, to have invested in training, to be expert in core methods and to constantly hone skills. Some people have natural talent for facilitation. All talented facilitators have invested in their skills.

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Are you engaging in acts of bad facilitation?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you may be guilty of bad facilitation:

  1. Weigh in on content
  2. Offer your opinion on the result
  3. Drive a group towards a specific answer
  4. Love being the centre of attention
  5. Wing it (process, schmocess!)
  6. Can’t explain the underlying methods that you’re using

Are you a thoughtful facilitator?

If you answer yes to these questions, you may be a thoughtful facilitator:

  1. Deep respect for the wisdom of the group
  2. Conscientiously neutral and ensuring there is space for all opinions in the room
  3. Keeper and driver of process
  4. Concerned with achieving desired outcomes
  5. Can discuss with you the details of their process and rationale behind them
  6. Have discuss client needs, group dynamics, needed outputs and event objectives, at length

Need to hire a facilitator?

If you’re hiring one for the first time, look for the following:

  1. Professional certification (through IAF, INIFAC or other)
  2. Have formal training  (Technology of Participation, The Art of Hosting, The Skilled Facilitator, Leadership Strategies)
  3. Adhere to professional ethics (see IAF’s code of ethics)
  4. Engage in continuous professional development

 

Purpose matters!

It’s interesting how often I am called into lead a conversation about work plans, roles and responsibilities or team building and when I dig deeper, the issue that emerges is clarity of purpose, or more specifically the need to define purpose. A group is struggling because purpose is not clear. Humans need purpose. Without clear purpose it is difficult to achieve focus, it’s hard to set direction and even more difficult to realize results.

What does it look like when it’s missing?  What happens when its discovered?

Group 1:  Help us with a work plan

A cross functional group of leaders was tasked with a project. The team had put a good deal of energy into defining terms of reference which included the model for how they would manage themselves, make decisions and hold themselves accountable. Their deadline for producing a work plan was approaching and they could not see a path to that outcome.

As I listened to the client share their journey, share concerns about timelines and mention personalities (everyone mentions personalities). They were going in circles. They couldn’t get agreement on what needed to happen and in what order things should happen. There were competing views around what was important.

I finally asked the question, “Is there a shared understanding of the group’s purpose? Do you know why you exist?” The client stopped and after a short pause, said No. We really don’t.

I proposed a 2 hour purpose discussion where we talked about the needed outcomes, the problems to solve, the ‘solution’ that the organization would buy from them, and the improvements that would happen as a result of the initiative. When we got to the end of the discussion, the group had coalesced around a shared understanding of their purpose.

There was great relief and a whole lot of clarity in the room after that discussion. With purpose, it was much easier to determine what the work plan needed to be. 

We refined their purpose at a subsequent meeting and then dug into the elements of a project charter including defining “Who”, “Won” and “Done”.  At the end of five 90 minute meetings , we had defined Purpose, Who, Won, Done, Risks, Dependencies, and the Work Plan.

Group 2:  Help us decide on our focus for the next year

A sales organization wanted to define their key focus areas for the next fiscal year. The organization had experienced a trifecta of change in the previous two years: rapid, wide spread economic downturn, dramatic changes in senior leadership, layoffs due to downsizing. The group was not going to hit their sales targets this year and they were very real about the importance of turning that situation around.

In my discussions with the client, we talked about culture, the change in market conditions, the evolution of technology and the impacts. We talked about leadership and personalities and long term loyalties and competing interests and market positioning. And then my client realized that what he really wanted for his group was focus.  I asked the question, “What is the core purpose of this group?”  “Do you know why you exist?” 

Again, the answer was “I think we’ve lost sight of it given all the change and upheaval in our organization”.

We took a day and started by looking backwards at their history and then forward to identify their needed purpose. Once defined, this group realized that their purpose statement was the missing link that bridged their past and their desired future state. They defined their purpose in a way that was true to their history and culture yet strongly grounded in their market realities.

We continued the planning process by discussing barriers and identifying the focus strategies that would help them realize their purpose. The group is integrating their focus strategies into their account planning and is holding themselves accountable for change.

Group 3:  Help me win hearts and minds

A procurement organization is engaged in a transformational change that affects their roles, expectations and responsibilities. Workloads seem overwhelming. The status quo is no longer, there is pressure to change, and their future state a function of yet to be complete initiatives.  They were caught between the no longer and the not yet.

Thirty-five people gathered for a day to review status of major transformational initiatives and the leader felt strongly that he needed to “engage hearts and minds” so that this group could embrace and weather the challenges of this significant transformation.

In our discussions, I asked him how much involvement the group had in defining the future state. Did the group have a uniform understanding of their intended state? Could they articulate it? The leader agreed that so much was happening so fast that this hadn’t been done yet.

I led the group through a half day workshop that defined their purpose, their Why? We answered the question of why this group was important to the organization. Why did they exist?  What was missing without them? The group arrived at its purpose and felt such a strong commitment to it that they decided that we should hold a subsequent session to enrol the entire group of 55 people in the purpose statement. 

Group 4:  Help me with my resume

An individual contacted me asking for help with their resume. They needed to update it; they felt they were on the edge of a career event. After some discussion with the client, and the explanation that I was a facilitator, not a resume writer and asked “Do you need to discovery your story? or write a resume?” We embarked on a the discovery.

The client did an individual brainstorm and we worked together to find the patterns and the insight. At the end of the workshop, the client was able to articulate her personal purpose and value statement in a compelling and authentic manner.

I find the purpose discussion with individuals particularly interesting because it unearths a series of unconnected but very present ideas. The end result is deeply satisfying for an individual. 

Humans crave purpose. Groups are comprised of humans.
Groups need purpose.

Purpose creates context for defining problems and articulating solutions. Purpose matters!

 

 

 

Meeting organizer: book facilitator first!

I would like meeting organizers to call facilitators before they book venues and dates for meetings.

In the past several months, I have done a dozen facilitations for as many groups, and in virtually all situations, the date was booked, the agenda partially defined and the meeting room decided BEFORE talking with the facilitator.

While this sounds like a rational approach, if you’re the facilitator it is completely backwards.

A professional facilitator starts every client engagement with a thorough needs assessment. We need to understand what is to be accomplished, what has happened so far, the challenges and the dynamics of the group and who will carry out the work that emerges from the work shop. We are curious about the relative strengths and weaknesses of a group; the history of the group and its promise.

Once we understand these factors, we can address the client’s uniqueness and design an appropriate agenda and meeting process. Until the process is defined, the room needs are less clear (beyond something BIG).

So, I’ve crafted a list of things that I’d like meeting organizers to know:

  1. Give your facilitator SUFFICIENT LEAD time. Good facilitation needs preparation time. The call on Monday for a Thursday facilitation is thoughtless at best and a recipe for disaster at worst. Leave booking your facilitator to the last minute and it is likely that the good ones will not be available.
  2. Make time for the facilitator to conduct a thorough NEEDS ASSESSMENT  interview with you. If there isn’t time for that conversation, consider changing the meeting date. Without a good discovery conversation, you may not get what you want from your meeting.
  3. Consult with the facilitator BEFORE you finalize dates and rooms. Your facilitator will know what their room needs are when they’ve considered the processes to be used and the number of participants involved.
  4. Do NOT hand a professional facilitator an already baked agenda. The value in hiring a facilitator is their expertise at designing an effective agenda that will accomplish your meeting goals. If you’ve already decided agenda and process, hire a time keeper.
  5. TRUST your facilitator. Facilitators have spent lots of time with lots of groups and  have learned through trial and error what works and what does not work.
  6. Book a room with LOTS OF WALL SPACE. Natural light is awesome and we love it too, unless it means that there are NO WALLS for posting the efforts of the day. Golf courses seem like a good idea until you realize that there isn’t any uninterrupted wall space.
  7. Book a BIG, FLEXIBLE room. We want two or three times more space than ‘maximum occupancy’ dictates. People NEED to move around during a long meeting.
  8. Avoid rooms with a FIXED BOARDROOM table in the middle of a long narrow room. These rooms aren’t comfortable or particularly functional and you will certainly feel like you’ve been held hostage by the end of the day.
  9. PUT AWAY DEVICES. You are making this investment and taking people out of their jobs for a period of time for good reason. Give yourself the gift of focus and implement a no device rule for the day.
  10. SEPARATE lunch space from work space. Move lunch to a different room. Food is messy and so are work spaces. Participants need a physical break during full day meetings.

Successful meetings are a result of good discovery, good process design and good physical environment. The role of a facilitator is to ensure all  three elements are well addressed. So start your meeting organizing with a call to the facilitator!