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.

_______________________________

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!

Towards your vision

Part 4 of 4

In the first 3 articles of this series, we talked about articulating your story, defining your vision and getting real about what stands in the way of your vision. And let’s be honest, the third step was absolutely the hardest.

It takes some emotional digging and a bit of hard reflection to be boldly honest about what stands in your way. But defining that – magic! Because now, you can focus your energy on moving towards the vision, by tackling your obstacles.

Strategy sets the direction for moving towards something. 

Step 4 in the Personal Strategy process is defining your strategies

Strategy is more process than goal, in that is sets the direction for moving ‘towards’ something, allowing one to discover the real nature of the path along the way. Without the strategic framework of directions, action can be scattered and piecemeal.

Strategies need to be aimed at your obstacles, rather than your vision. Too many plans fail because the strategies aim for the vision and fail to address the barriers. Focusing on the obstacles keep strategies related to the real things that are blocking your vision. The movement of an obstacle unlocks elements of your vision.

In the case of the person who is afraid of rejection and therefore selling their services, a strategy that they may consider (to move towards vision of being a ‘go to’ consultant) is to find speaking engagements, or partner with someone else so that less direct selling is needed. Another strategy may be to take a Dale Carnegie course, or a Selling Skills course in order to build skill to overcome the fear of selling.

Not every strategy is bold and new.

Often, strategies point to a new behaviour or attitude or activity. It’s important to recognize that in times of transition, some things that you are already doing need to be protected to support the more venturesome strategies.

Let’s get started on your personal strategy.

 

Favourite warm puppies

Part 3 in a series

So, now that you have articulated your story and defined your vision, now what?  There are so many things standing in your way, right?

It’s true. There are things standing in your way and that is the purpose of step 3 in your personal strategy process, the obstacles conversation.

Obstacles stand in the way of achieving your vision.

Obstacles are concrete manifestations that stand in the way of achieving our vision. They are about behaviours, actions and attitudes that inhibit us. Importantly, they are NOT someone’s fault, there is no blame to be assigned.

Obstacles are often artifacts of previous decisions or events, which can block the changes that we might need to make. Obstacles are utterly fascinating because we have real relationships with them. They tend to be our favourite warm puppies that keep us ‘distracted and poor’, in the words of Jo Nelson, ICA Associates.

Let me give you an example. I worked for a large national telco in the 2000’s. In the western offices, we had a favourite warm puppy called THE EAST. We fed and nurtured that puppy and every chance we got, we showed off our puppy. A change in the expense policy, well THE EAST is clearly trying to make our lives difficult. We are the fourth stop on a national town hall tour, well what can you expect from THE EAST? The Christmas party was cancelled because THE EAST thought pot-lucks were fun… and on it went. We worked very hard at building up THE EAST’s capacity to stand in the way of … something, nay everything.

The process of honestly and deeply defining root issues holding our obstacles in place is where opportunity lies. This is the thing to resolve in order to unlock our vision.

Once we articulate an obstacle, it is much easier to figure out what to do.

Another example: an individual has made a decision to become an independent consultant with a vision of being a ‘go to’ expert. One of her favourite puppies is ‘I don’t like selling’. A deeper dig into the root issues identifies a fear of being rejected by putting herself ‘out there’ which ultimately inhibits her ability to find new business.

The value in being coldly honest and stating the obstacle for what it really is (a fear), is that the obstacle can become concrete and genuine strategies for overcoming the obstacle can be developed.

If the obstacle isn’t clearly articulated and clearly defined, any efforts to overcome the perceived obstacle will be misplaced. If the obstacle isn’t addressed, achieving the vision will be much more difficult.

The obstacles discussion is a powerful stage in personal planning as it highlights where your energy will need to go in order to move towards your vision.

Let’s get started on your obstacles discussion.

 

 

 

What do you want?

Part 2 in a series

… “and in this box, I’d like you to write out personal vision statement

Is there anything more daunting? The prospect of filling that blankness with something deep, insightful or inspirational is overwhelming. It is soooo hard. Why?

It’s hard because this just isn’t how the  the brain forms new insights and it’s not how a creative process works.

Step 2 in a personal strategy process is to identify your vision.

The process that I use for a personal vision workshop is not rocket science, but it is highly effective. It works because it approaches a ‘vision’ statement from the bottom up, from the assembly of many ideas. It doesn’t ask for the big idea first.

Examine your data divorced from assumption.

A brainstorm mines your thoughts, desires and emotions for data points. Once the data points are assembled, they are examined without assumptions and in the context of other ideas that are also divorced from their assumptions. The next step is to look for the patterns and the deeper insight that the data point towards.

Brain science tells us that we form new ideas and new patterns when our brains are relaxed and able to form new neural pathways and knit old information together in new ways. This is one of the reasons we have our best thoughts in the shower first thing in the morning or when we’re out walking the dog.

Personal vision workshops create the opportunity to examine our own data points in a different context, in a relaxed and uncomplicated setting where new connections free to form and new relationships between ideas can be explored.

Where’s the value in spending time on personal vision?

By defining a personal vision, you create a frame from which to explore opportunities, evaluate options, create focus, eliminate distractions, and importantly, devise strategies for change and motion. If you can decide on your big picture aspiration, it is far easier to make smaller choices.

In a personal vision process, what matters most to you, in your complete life, will emerge.

You will define the pillars of your vision and an overall vision statement. Your pillars will be a reflection of the elements of your life that are most important to you. Often they include family, career, friends, learning, wellness and recreation.

My clients tell me they emerge inspired, excited, positively motivated, curious but firmly comfortable with their insights and discoveries. This is a great place from which to approach new chapters in your life, job hunting, big decisions or business opportunities.

Let’s get started on your vision statement.

 

 

 

Discover your story

Part 1 in a series

I can honestly say that I have worked hard at not dwelling on past events. I tend to believe that forward motion is really the only option. In that vein, I don’t support wallowing, navel gazing or blaming others for the present. I’m not an overly sentimental person.

 Why do I advocate a backward look as a starting place for a personal strategy

Whether we like it or not, we humans are powerfully influenced by our past. We are products of our experiences and our experiences often create patterns. Our patterns are worth understanding.

Being ourselves is a dynamic process and the process of relating to ourselves creates new awareness. At the risk of being overly complex, the Self is a verb. Self is in a constant state of action.

I could throw in some sage quotes like “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, but the point I’m making is that we need to articulate our patterns, understand our crunch points in life, recognize our highs and lows and tell the unfolding story of ourselves.

“What I believe to be true; my subjective knowledge. It is this image that largely governs my behaviour

There’s another deeper layer to our story and that is the images that govern us. Image theory says that what we believe about ourselves translates into behaviours; our images are held in place by values. Values are often deeply, deeply held. Sometimes we don’t realize even realize they are in place and potentially in need of an adjustment.

As an example, I was working with a client who has a deeply held image that being a good Dad is being home in the evenings. As we discussed possibilities for achieving his vision, we realized that this firmly held value of a Dad might need a re-frame. Can a good Dad also be the one who is at home in the morning or during the day?

Articulating our own story illuminates us. 

Articulating our own story honours ourselves. It provides an opportunity to illuminate and accept our ourselves, warts and all. In the language of Brene Brownwe accept our imperfections as gifts. And, importantly, we are set up to define our future. If we can tell our story now, is it easier to say what we want, and why we want it?

Reflection leave us open to new insights.

Reflective process seems to be rare in our always on culture. There’s so much shiny and new, why spend time on the past? We have so much going on, why stop to look back?

I have learned that the process of reflecting on data, divorced from assumption and presumption leaves us open to new insights. It is those new insights that can powerfully impact our future directions.

I am not a coach or a counsellor. I am a facilitator with a process that is as powerful at the individual level as it is at the group level. Contact me and let’s discover your story.

 

 

The space between tribes

I am beginning to wonder if people are unavoidably tribal?  

In spite of our big brains, incredible technology, massive quantities of literature, and bazillions of hours spent in learning, and training and development environments, we often behave in a mindset of  I’m great … and you’re not. 

Caution!  Approaching tribe!

According to David Rock’s SCARF model, our primitive brain values status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness above all else. When any of these five states is threatened, we retreat to defensive and protective postures.

In the workplace, this occurs with distressing frequency.

David Logan, author of Tribal Leadership, says we live in and operate within tribes. We may be a member of many tribes, but inherently organize in a tribal fashion. Logan says there are 5 levels of tribes and each level behaves and performs very differently. Tribes at the lowest level are often a destructive form of tribalism as their mindset is that ‘life sucks’. Tribes at level 4 are hugely productive and innovative with a ‘we’re great mindset’ and at level 5, can be history making with a ‘life is great’ mindset.  Management structures in most organizations are at level 3 which operates in an ‘I’m great, you’re not’ frame.

The level 3 type of mindset shows up many ways in an organizations. A facilities group treats all inquiries by a development group as spurious because they know their business better. Marketing is sure that sales has sandbagged their numbers (because they know better). Executive Directors bristle under the direction of boards as it challenges their autonomy (their ‘greatness’). Mid-level managers never get over their outrage of not being consulted (because they’re great), trampling their sense of relatedness. It goes on and on.

If you’re not part of the tribe you can’t be trusted.

As facilitators, we are often called into the ‘spaces between tribes’. The places where suspicion and misunderstanding have the potential to flourish, have already taken root or have left their legacy. In short, between the level 3 and lower tribes.

We are asked to engage in consultations to pre-emptively ward of the ‘you didn’t ask me’ conflict; we are asked to lead conversations because groups are polarized and don’t know how to resolve their conflict; or we are asked to address unresolved conflict and figure out how to go forward.

Today’s problems are complex and our cultural landscape is more diverse than ever. Is there anytime in history where we have been more cross-culturally and globally connected than now? It simply isn’t viable to consider just one tribe, when we make decisions.

Tackling complex problems requires the wisdom of many. The participative environments familiar to younger workers are going to be essential for harnessing diversity and channeling it towards problem solving. I believe that newer generations of workforces are ‘wired’ for collaboration having spent their entire educational experience in a collaborative space. Leaders who fail to tap into this energy will find their organizations left behind.

Low level tribal leadership can not handle complexity.

The level 3 and lower tribal leader are notable for what they do not do. Level 3 and lower leaders do not build relationships between tribes, leaving their organizations vulnerable to the challenges of complexity. Level 3 and lower can become preoccupied with protecting turf, elevating themselves or undermining others.

The functional leader who defends his boundaries rather than forging bridges with other functions reduces his organization’s capacity for problem solving. The back room decision makers will struggle to enrol a collaboratively minded workforce.

A facilitator closes the space between tribes. 

The facilitator approach to addressing this tension is about making sure that the intentions of approaching tribes are transparent; that all points of view are on the table and that tribes are actively listening to each other.

Ultimately, a facilitator helps build relationships across tribes, between tribes and within tribes. This approach ensures that the expertise in the room is acknowledged and leveraged; that diversity of perspective is harnessed and that everyone is heard. In this manner, larger challenges can be tackled.

Most importantly, however, facilitator lead approaches can teach tribes how to how to incorporate a facilitative style in order to move up the scale of tribal behaviour in the organization, on an ongoing basis.

Talk to a facilitator about closing the space between your tribes.  

 

 

 

 

When groups struggle to decide

One of the most interesting things about working with groups is observing their dynamic through a decision making lens.  At certain points, during a workshop, a group needs to make a decision, revealing much about the nature of their group.

As a meeting leader, you need to be aware of what is happening in your group at that time. Is the decision process going well? Is it stalling? If so, what is happening?

Step 1: Observe

The first step of a meeting leader is to observe the dynamic. What are you noticing? What behaviours are evident? What is going on at the surface? Below the surface?

When groups are struggling to decide, you may see:

  • silence, the group is not speaking
  • limited support for new ideas as they arise, the group doesn’t know what it believes
  • stilted dialogue, the group is uncertain of safety and is feeling cautious
  • an absence of insight, the group can’t decide what something means
  • different perspectives are not acknowledged, the group hasn’t decided to support each other

A struggling group is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it may
be a necessary thing. 

Bruce Tuckmans article Developmental Sequence for Small Groups  defined a the ‘forming, storming, norming, performing’ model that many of us are familiar with. At the heart of this model is an acknowledgement group development follows a cycle and takes time. Groups go through four distinctly different phases characterized by different behaviours and challenges.

That groups struggle is necessary and to some degree unavoidable. Importantly, if even one member of a group should change, you start over. You are back at the forming stage.

Step 2: Self reflection

This is a small but important step as the meeting leader. How are you feeling about what is happening in the room? How important is it that the group resolve their roadblock right away? Do they have time to resolve it?

Take a quick breath to understand how you are reacting to what you are seeing first, before you jump to diagnosis.

Step 3: Diagnosis

Why are the observed behaviours happening?  What do you think is a root cause?  What might some contributing factors? A bit of dispassionate analysis is needed. This is often where a third party facilitator has an advantage as they don’t have a lot of pre-conceived ideas.

  • Is there an overweighting of a single thinking style?
  • Is the group newly formed?
  • Has there been a change in the membership of the group?
  • Is the topic of discussion relatively unfamiliar?
  • Are trust levels within the room low?
  • Are there ‘factions’ within the room?
  • Are there ‘elephants’ wandering freely in the room?
  • Is this a ‘hostage-like’ scenario?

Intervention can be simple.

Step 4:  Intervention

As a meeting leader – there are things you can do to address the dynamics that you see happening. You have to decide on the degree of intervention that is needed. Intervention can be quite simple.

In the case of an overweighting of a single thinking style (which is common when you deal with departmental groups), add diversity. Bring others, into the discussion, who will offer a different perspective which can be beneficial in unblocking a group. Alternatively, plan your meeting activity so as to stimulate an alternate thinking style. A common approach with technical groups who tend to be quite analytic (left brained) is to have them work with images, which stimulate the more holistic, pattern thinking right brain.  (see Too Much Left Brain )

Often, I work with newly assembled groups. As an example, a board of directors has turned over and is quite new, but open to working together. Their limited familiarity causes them to be cautious and reserved. Their group dynamic is as yet, undeveloped. They are forming.

This is the easiest problem to solve. Spend time on activities which will increase familiarity such as personal story telling and small group work or fun exercises. Have the group define its primary purpose. Maintain a supportive environment and encourage articulation of thoughts. In my experience these groups become much more comfortable over the course of a single day. Be aware that a similar process is necessary when new members join an existing group.

New topics are an interesting dilemma for groups. The topic is often the reason for bringing them together, but the topic may be quite different, unfamiliar or uncomfortable and causes the group to act accordingly. In this scenario it is important to give a healthy quantity of time to the topic itself. Increase the amount of time spent the group spends on reviewing facts, reflecting on the topic and exploring meaning before moving to decision. Often groups are pushed towards decision too quickly in these scenarios and find themselves resistant. Time spent exploring the topic will improve decision making.

An untrusting dynamic is more complicated to resolve and will take more time. A good starting point may be to clarify the purpose of the group. Have the group articulate their issues and focus on ideas. Acknowledge and reflect the experiences of the group. What has happened before? Encourage transparency of thinking. What did they mean when they said that? Ask group members to state their reasoning and intent when they speak to reduce the risk of further misunderstandings. Maintain an open and supportive environment. Adoption of this form of dialogue may allow you to get to a decision. Turning this dynamic on a permanent basis is a longer term proposition and a more complicated intervention.

In the case of factions in a room, where the camp is obviously divided, decision making becomes elusive because the factions may be supporting a specific position. In this scenario, it is necessary to define the problem and define the common interest of the group. Focus on establishing options, establish decision criteria and then move towards decision making. A deeply divided group has a host of issues that take time to overcome.  This may be the most complicated intervention and require more than one conversation to get to a result.

When there is an elephant wandering freely in the room, suspend your planned agenda and deal with the elephant. Good decisions can not be made with a large, unresolved issue.

In the case of a room full of ‘hostages’ – people who would rather be anywhere but here, find out what would be a useful outcome to them. If there’s nothing in sight for them, let them leave the room. They do not want to be a part of the process and won’t help you get to a good decision.

Ask the group what it needs. 

Last and perhaps most important, ask the group what it needs to resolve its struggle. Ask  what would be helpful to the group at this point in their struggles. Sometimes groups will ask for more think time, or more discussion time, more facts, more structure, or better decision criteria. When in doubt – ask the group.

It’s important to remember that not all struggle is bad. In fact, struggle is often needed to come to a common understanding or agreement on a topic.

Some of the benefits of a struggle during the decision process include: 

  • increased group cohesion
  • increased commitment to outcome
  • increased likelihood that important topics are coming to the surface
  • areas for additional discussion are exposed

As the leader of a group meeting, your role is to create a healthy process for decision making. The group’s job is to get the decision made.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brainstorming: method or madness?

Brainstorming is a waste of time, right?

I have just read several articles on why group brainstorming was a waste of time or a poor solution for problem solving or a way to devolve to the mushy middle.

Detractors say that brainstorming is a terrible problem solving tool. It’s unfocused, meandering and produces poor outcomes. Brainstorming was never designed to be  a problem solving tool. A brainstorm was intended to be an idea generation tool, period! It is a way to expand the range of options for additional exploration, discovery or development. It is true – it is a terrible problem solver and if someone invites you to a brainstorm to problem solve, tell them you’ve had a better offer.

Group brainstorms generate the same number of ideas as an individual brainstorm – so why waste time on group brainstorms. It’s true. A free form brainstorm without benefit of facilitation produces meh results.

Group brainstorms are chaotic, unfocused and full of silly, unproductive ideas. Brainstorms can be excruciating for introverts – free form, vocal, out loud and often unpredictable. Extraverts may love the group-iness of it all and be so utterly distracted by the commotion that they can’t come up with unique thoughts.

There are always critics who can’t censor their thoughts in a brainstorm and stifle creativity, thereby undermining the value of a brainstorm. Another nail in the brainstorm coffin. Don’t get me started on the social loafers, who assume that others will contribute, so don’t put much effort into the event. And worse, there are those, that just by showing up, inhibit creativity (e.g a senior leader).

Is brainstorming the great ‘organizational placebo‘?

In my experience, the answer is no.

A well designed brainstorm delivers benefits.

Some of the benefits of brainstorming include the fact that an individual is generally not able to represent a range of diverse perspectives. A group brainstorm presents an opportunity to pull diverse perspectives into a room to generate a set of ideas that wouldn’t necessarily come up from an individual with a single perspective.

Research shows that facilitated brainstorming groups match the performance of individuals working on their own.They generate more, high quality ideas.

A well designed brainstorm allows every individual equal opportunity to contribute, it creates space for every idea and taps into diversity in the room.

A good brainstorm offers a collaborative experience which brings people together and helps them feel like they are part of a process. This has significant value.

BUT – certain conditions must be met for a good brainstorm.

A good brainstorm doesn’t typically, magically happen. Generally some thoughtful attention to process is needed. Here’s what I have learned really matters.

Create a clear, focused question for participants to respond to.

  • As an example: What new programs could our community association offer that would interest our residents? 
  • Related article:  The power of a problem statement

Give participants 2 or 3 minutes of individual, silent time to think; ask them to write their ideas on a piece of paper in front of them. 

  • This is really important. Introverts and extraverts will benefit from this silent reflection as it gives time to consider perspectives and marshall thoughts.

Once individuals have written their ideas down, ask them to select their best 3 – 5 ideas and write each, individual idea on a sticky note. 

  • This ensures that every person’s ideas are collected; it gives an opportunity for everyone to contribute and ensures that every person’s ideas are visible.

Collect the ideas, read each one aloud and put it on a wall/whiteboard. 

  • This ensures every idea is heard. All perspectives are present and accounted for.
  • Only allow questions of clarification. Do not critique the ideas at this point.

Only then should you begin a discussion about the brain storm and pursue your intended outcome – which will likely include some type of convergent thinking. 

My approach draws from a method that is documented in the Technology of Participation and taught by ICA Associates. It is time tested, well worn and highly effective.  The most important part of its effectiveness is the capacity to allow individual thought and perspective to surface and new insights to emerge; one of the major criticisms of the mosh-pit approach to brainstorming.

There are many brainstorm tools and approaches.  Here are a few:

The real trick is what you do next with the ideas.

Related article: Too much left brain.