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

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

 

Our deepest Self, is a verb

“The Self is a relation, which in relating to itself and willing itself to be itself, is grounded transparently in the power that posits it.”  – Soren Kierkegaard

I have been asked to preview some chapters in a book that a facilitator colleague of mine is writing. She is digging deep into the philosophies underlying the Technology of Participation (ToP) facilitation methodologies to preserve them for future practitioners and facilitators.

While I am delighted to be asked to take a look at her first draft, I confess to being a bit overwhelmed by their depth and more than a bit intimidated by the intellectual breadth of the philosophers, such as Kierkegaard from whose ideals, ToP methodologies have been developed.

The founding philosophies of ToP point to the intentionality of being self, and the attentionality of examining self. They say that we exist as a being; but our acts of examining ourselves; relating to ourselves and making intentional choices about ourselves are the essential components of being. To be, to examine our being, allows for growth, discovery and evolution.

What this really means is being ourselves is dynamic – our Self is a verb.

To quote the author, “When I reflect on myself, I am standing outside my self-in-the-world looking at myself as I am in the world. I can observe my activities, characteristics and experience and the ways I have been with others. I can see what is happening around me and I can sense my own reactions to the events in my life.” 

As complex as these ideas are, they allowed me to fully understand why we do things the way we do, when we use the ToP facilitation methods. One of our go to techniques is the brainstorm, where we ask people to generate ideas, and then we put those ideas, one by one, on a wall. Next we examine the ideas, individually and in relationship to other ideas.

Individual brainstorm ideas

This act of removing an idea from its origins and examining it relation to other ideas allows us to step away from our assumptions around that idea which creates space for something new to emerge. We have actively related our ideas to themselves.

In so doing, we end up with new relationships, new interpretations and an evolved understanding. Our initial idea became a verb and turned into something else.

New interpretation of existing ideas

On a more practical level, if, while I am in the middle of a heated discussion with a colleague, I am able to observe my behaviour and understand my feelings, and I can create a new understanding of my actions (my self, relating to itself) and recognize that I don’t want to antagonize my colleague, I can choose a different approach (and willing itself to be itself). In this manner, I can find a new interpretation of my colleague’s actions which will lead me to a different outcome.

A current term for self reflection is mindfulness, the movement, appropriated from ancient Buddhist roots. The practice of mindfulness involves being aware moment-to-moment, of one’s subjective conscious experience from a first-person perspective. In other words, relating self to itself. Mindfulness has gained popularity as a method to handle emotions, by observing and becoming aware of those emotions.

According to Wikipedia “…studies have shown that mindfulness meditation contributes to a more coherent and healthy sense of self and identity”.

Mindfulness also has a relationship to emotional intelligence which says our emotions are part of our social operating system and our first step in becoming more emotionally intelligent is to be aware of our emotions and our relationship with those emotions. Once we have some awareness we can start to work our emotional skills and become more emotionally intelligent.

I’m certainly not an expert on the subject of mindfulness or emotional intelligence, but the relationship between the philosophies which underpin ToP facilitation methods and what we call mindfulness and emotional intelligence appear strongly related to me.

All of this is a long way to say, without this deeper understanding of the underlying philosophy or why the ToP method requires a specific process, it is easy to write the methods off as overly process centric. It is also easy for anyone to think they can run with them after a brief exposure. The reality is that ToP methods require study, practice and reflection in order for a practitioner or facilitator to become highly effective.

Experienced ToP practitioners will tell you that ToP facilitation methods are their go to methods, that very little rivals their effectiveness. Now that I have a deeper understanding of the philosophies, I am ever more committed to my go to methods.

Full disclosure, I am trained by ICA Associates in Canada on ToP methods and find myself wholly absorbed by their depth.  ICA Associates is Canada’s only trainer of ToP methods

 

 

 

 

 

What I believe to be true…

“I’ve been asked to speak on work-life balance at a women’s leadership conference”, said a friend of mine.

In my blunt fashion I said, “Good lord – why are we still asking professional women this question? Why do we assume that women, who are powerful and competent, need answers to this question? How often do we ask men this question?”

Image governs behaviour

In 1956, Kenneth Boulding wrote a book called The Image. In it, he wrote that our behaviours are a reflection of the images that we hold of ourselves. In his words “…what I believe to be true; my subjective knowledge. It is this image that largely governs my behaviour“.  

As events occur, they alter our images and as our image alters we alter our behaviour accordingly. Images are built up as a result of our past experiences. They can be deeply ingrained and are held in place by the messages that reach it. “The meaning of a message is the change which it produces in the image“.  When a message hits an image – it can be rejected; it can add to the image or bolster the image; it can clarify the image; or it can intrude on the image, catalyzing some kind of change, even a revolutionary change. When this revolutionary change happens the image may be re-organized. 

The key element of how the message is received and how it impacts the image is the value screen that a message must pass through. In Boulding’s words “the values are perhaps the most important single element determining the effect of messages on its image”

I was reminded of this model the other day when I realized that if really DO want to be 10 pounds lighter, then my image needs to shift to that of a person who IS 10 pounds lighter (the revolutionary change). I need to filter the allure of the pumpkin scone through a value filter that says “skinny people don’t eat pumpkin scones”.  Then I will triumphantly turn up my nose at said scone. 

If we accept this model, then maybe the question we need to ask professional women is:  “What is the underlying image that we hold, that makes us think we need to keep answering this question? What messages are we receiving that say we don’t know the answer? What values are we filtering our perceptions of work/life balance through?”

 I think this would spark a far more interesting conversation.  

Facilitation for image shift

When facilitators work with groups, they often work within the framework of image shift. A group wants a certain outcome – so what needs to shift, in order to achieve the outcome? If a group wants to be a high performing team – what image do they hold of themselves? What messages are reinforcing the current image, and what values are these messages being filtered through? What are the resulting behaviours? How do these aspects of the image model need to shift to move the group towards its aspirational state? What are the underlying contradictions preventing this shift? 

These are fascinating conversations that groups must navigate as they shift from their current state towards the desired, future state.

Facilitation is an enabling process. 

Too much left brain?

July 21, 2015

In modern society we have highly valued a certain type of person and a certain type of mind – people such as engineers who can analyze data, computer programmers who write code, MBA’s who can crunch numbers. 

This type of individual draws heavily from the left side of the brain – that part of our mind that we understand to be rational, analytic, and logical. The left side of our brain reasons sequentially, excels at analysis and handles words. A person with these strengths is definitely the kind of person you want doing your taxes.   

In contrast, those we have considered ‘right’ brained may be artists who express themselves non verbally, writers who create beautiful images, futurists who see patterns and suggest trends. This type of person draws more heavily on the right side of the brain which is nonlinear, instinctive, it reasons holistically, recognizes patterns and interprets emotions and non verbal expressions. This is someone we want as a coach or counsellor.

In A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pinkhe summarizes 3 decades of research on the brain’s hemispheres to 4 key differences:

  1. The left hemisphere controls the right side of the body; the right hemisphere control the left side of the body. 
  2. The left hemisphere is sequential; the right hemisphere is simultaneous. 
  3. The left hemisphere specializes in text; the right hemisphere specializes in context.
  4. The left hemisphere analyses details; the right hemisphere synthesizes the big picture.

I have recently facilitated strategic planning meetings with two management teams that had a heavy weighting of technical skills, or what we’d call left brain skills. Our meetings included an workshop where we identify barriers to achieving our desired future state. The process of brainstorming options went well – many ideas were generated. The process of organizing the ideas into clusters went quickly, albeit with a more linear approach to organizing ideas.

Once ideas are clustered, we look for the larger pattern of causation and the deeper meaning. We’re seeking the root of the issue to assign a name to the cluster. This name, then represents the obstacle that requires future attention.  

What a challenge for these left brain-centric teams. 

They struggled to see a larger pattern; they struggled to see context and they struggled to assign larger meaning. The left brain was struggling and there wasn’t enough right brain thinking in the room to offer balance. A certain level of frustration began to arise. Soon the groups began taking a name from one cluster and assigning to another cluster with a small modification, to get the job done – the root of the issue may have been missed.

I happened to read Daniel Pink’s book a week or so later and had a giant eureka moment; to get a left brain crowd to do right brain work was going to require much more instruction, direction and example from the facilitator. The group won’t automatically jump into the more holistic, pattern identification work. It’s not that the group doesn’t have these capabilities, it’s that for these groups, the right brain skills were under developed, in part because we have valued these skills less in our ‘Information Age’. It will be necessary to ‘wake up’ their right brain thinking prior to such an exercise. 

Our brain has two halves that work together, not independently. The left side of the brain hears the words that someone says, the right side creates meaning. Damage to one side of the brain impacts our entire being. We aren’t ‘half brained’ even if we pull on skills associated with one side of the brain more – both sides of our brain work together. 

So, this leaves me asking questions: what are the implications for businesses stacked with left brain thinking? What are the risks for organizations that value sequential thinking over the holistic and pattern thinking? What are the potential impacts to long term success if organizations dissect the problem without synthesizing the bigger picture?

Can a business that values both its ‘right’ and ‘left’ brain be more successful?

… I’d love to hear what you think.   

All fun is not superficial

July 7, 2015

“All fun is not superficial, not everything serious is profound”, says Chris Whitnall from Talkforce.  

Words to live by when you’re a facilitator preparing for a meeting.

Why do facilitators prepare ‘fun’ activities at a meeting?  Why do they make you fly airplanes or play with building blocks? Why does this happen at offsite meetings? Serious money is spent on offsite meetings, shouldn’t we be focused on serious things? 

Neuroscience tells us that our brains easily traverse old neural network paths. These well traveled paths keep us safe; warn us of threats and are in part the reason why we drive to work ‘in a fog’ and get there safely. The neural connections are deeply embedded and regularly traveled. This is also why we are good at post-mortem analysis, forensic examinations, and deductive reasoning – because our brains have been there before.

Solving new problems, creating new ideas, delving into long term visioning, or imaging future states is much harder work for our brains. Our brains need to create new pathways or connect old pathways in new ways which takes a great deal of energy and requires a different catalyst.  

Have you every had a ‘eureka’ moment during your morning shower?  or during a run? Have you woken up part way through the night with a brilliant idea. Have you been talking about something and suddenly experienced a flash of insight on an unrelated matter?  How often have you woken up in the morning with the distinct sensation that you have a solution just below the surface that you can’t quite access… but you know its there. If you can find a way to re-enter that state of semi consciousness you might find it again.  

We’re all familiar with the movie cliche where the brilliant inventor has a massive aha moment, doing something quite fun, or completely unrelated to the problem to be solved. (There’s a great moment in a bar scene in The Imitation Game). 

What you are experiencing or witnessing is examples of new connections being made in your brain; the catalyst has been something that had nothing to do with the subject at hand. A common scenario is that the brain is in a relaxed or calm state and is free to expel energy on new connections.  

Generally, work environments are not very calm. Humour and fun at work allow us to relax, thereby reducing our defensive instincts. When we are less defensive and more relaxed, there is space and opportunity for new connections to be made, for eureka moments to be had, or even more simply, to be open to an new perspective.

Facilitators know this and work ‘creative space’ into meeting planning. There is method in our madness when we ask you to make a paper airplane or build a duck from building blocks. A single exercise may have multiple purposes. 

Offsite meetings are serious money and serious outcomes do need to happen.  A bit of fun can create a climate for serious ideas to emerge.

 

Do facilitation skills help your career?

June 23, 2015

Facilitation skills may be the secret sauce!

I’ve certainly had my share of good and bad moments as a leader and professional, but I think my best moments have happened when I’ve been in a facilitative leader mind set.

Umm.. what?

Merriam-Webster defines facilitator as: “one that helps to bring about an outcome by providing indirect or unobtrusive assistance, guidance, or supervision”. Roger Schwarz defines it as “…substantively neutral… intervenes to help a group improve the way it identifies and solves problems to make decisions”. The International Association of Facilitators (IAF) defines the role in this short short video as part architect, part process driver and part guide.

In summary, a facilitator is one who remains neutral, enables a process, and helps bring about an outcome. To do this, a facilitator must be open minded, transparent, curious, and draw on the expertise of a group. A facilitator believes the a group is capable and competent and able to participate in its own solutions. The problem solving insight comes from the group, not the facilitator. A facilitator also works with a group to jointly design a next step.

While there are many definitions (and this is greatly simplified), leadership is fundamentally about achieving goals and inspiring people along the way by harnessing people power. 

Under these definitions, the overlap between facilitative mindsets and facilitative leadership are more obvious: both are about achieving goals; both are about accessing the knowledge and expertise in the room (organization) and both are about believing in the capacity of the group (team). Many leaders will say they hire good people and get out of their way so that they can do what is needed.

The term ‘facilitative leader’ is used quite frequently by the facilitation community. So what does it mean? A leader with a mindset that says there is wisdom in this room embraces a facilitative style; a leader that ensures everyone has a voice that that every voice is heard demonstrates a facilitative style; a leader that is open and transparent about what they think, why they think it and actively invites alternate viewpoint portrays a facilitative mind set. A leader who listens well, clarifies understandings and tests assumptions acts in a facilitative manner.  

Whether 1:1, 1:several or 1:many – facilitation skills say a lot about whether your leadership style is autocratic, participative, inclusive, or hierarchical. How you handle a group discussion is very illuminating.  

After 25 years in the workforce and many years facilitating, both formally and informally, I’ve come to the conclusion that facilitation skills should be taught in virtually every educational program out there: engineering, science, business, arts, education, etc. How much better would the workplace be if more leaders embraced a facilitative style?