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

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!

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 if someone says something stupid?

February 2, 2016

He avoided eye contact, looked uncomfortable and squirmed in his chair, when I asked “How would you like to proceed?”

This wasn’t a cold call and I wasn’t a boss or an instructor asking pointed questions. I had been invited to a potential client’s office to discuss strategic planning. Our conversation was lively, engaged and with lots of shared ideas. And yet, when it came to taking a next step, the prospect was somewhat paralyzed. “I need to think about this” was his subdued response.

Bad salesmanship on my part?  Perhaps.  But I think something more complex was at play.

This person knows that he needs to put together a larger plan; he knows that he’s spending time in the urgent and unimportant and not getting to the important activity. He has an idea of what his future should look like and intuitively he recognizes that involving other people is worthwhile. And yet, he is… uncomfortable.

Where do you start? Who do you involve? If you involve people, do you raise expectations unreasonably? What if they aren’t the right people? What if they say stupid things? What if the discussion spins out of control? What if you get into the middle of it and don’t know what to do next?

What if .. what if.. what if….

I believe in the keep it simple mantra. A planning process does not need to be complex. It does need to be thoughtful. Here are my four key steps:

Step 1: Get clear on your why.  Why do you exist? What is the compelling, emotional reason that you get out of bed in the morning?  (please… do not say to make money or worse, add shareholder value… blech!)

Step 2: Dig deep to understand what stands in the way of achieving your why. These are often fundamental contradictions that are barriers to achieving your why.

Step 3: What do you need to do to address your barriers? What key strategies or big initiatives should you start that will address your fundamental contradictions?

Step 4:  What do you need to do in the next 3 months to implement your key strategies or big initiatives?  You can only eat the elephant one bite at a time.

OK, but who do I involve?

I believe that diversity of perspective is incredibly valuable, so I tend to advocate more minds, rather than fewer.  To get to ‘why’, involve your leaders, employees, suppliers, trusted advisors and key customers. You will be fascinated by their view. When tackling barriers and establishing strategies involve your leaders, key employees and trusted outsiders. Do not fear the outsider viewpoint, it will only add depth. When you start defining actions, make sure the people who are expected to execute are involved. No one likes being handed at to do list!

What if someone says something stupid?

It is extremely difficult for the leader of an organization to also lead a strategic planning discussion. Bring in a neutral party to lead the discussion. When you have what I like to call a ‘facilitative strategist’, stupid becomes wisdom and everyone benefits. Conversations stay productive and constructive.

What if we get stuck?

The facilitative strategist leading your process should have a robust understanding of a strategic planning process and should know where they are headed. In times of doubt, a discussion with the group about what’s next generally resolves those concerns.

What if we don’t like it after we get started?

The great thing about a strategic planning process is that you take it one step at a time and can re-evaluate direction after each step.

My advise to anyone fearing the planning process – find a facilitative strategist that you trust, look them in the eye and say – let’s pick a date! You will be pleasantly surprised at the energy and creativity that will result.

 

 

 

Reframe the problem

Aug 17, 2015

It turns out our parents were right. There really is more than one way of looking at a problem.  

Once someone perceives a problem in a certain way, it can be very difficult to see the problem in any other way. Past experiences and past brain patterns cause us to lock into a mode of thought. The expression “if all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” comes to mind.

Sam Kaner says that when tackling difficult problems most people reach conclusions quickly and are confident they have explored every solution option. Their expertise, past experience and frame of mind suggest that looking for alternatives is pointless and a waste of time (see a previous article “All fun is not Superficial for a small discussion on the corresponding brain activity)”. The idea that a problem can be reframed, that it can be considered from a different perspective and therefore dramatically shift their understanding is a significant shift for many people. It’s not a place they go to easily. 

A recent experience comes to mind that really illustrated this concept. A colleague was discussing an upcoming facilitation which was complex and looked difficult. They were being asked to look for cost reductions in a project that was well underway. We circled around the topic for a period of time, wrestling with the negative scenario, speculating on the level of automatic resistance that we would encounter. 

After a time, it was suggested that we re-frame the problem. Could we find another way we could look at this issue? Our thinking quickly shifted from the more negative ‘cost reduction’ to a more positive ‘project performance’ mode and the approach to the facilitation quickly emerged. I was reminded of the real value that comes from re-framing.

On a simplistic level., ‘our product won’t sell’ can be reframed as ‘we’re trying to sell our product to the wrong people’,  or ‘our employees are incompetent’ to ‘our employees don’t have enough time to do a quality job’, or ‘we don’t have enough money’ to ‘we haven’t figured out how to find new sources of money’. We instinctively do this when we’re trying to mediate between two people, kids, colleagues or employees.

So, if you find yourself stuck on a problem statement, and working with a group, consider the following steps: 

  1. State the perceived problem.  
  2. Brainstorm a list of ‘reframes’ of the problem.
  3. Discuss the implications of the possible reframed statements
  4. Decide on your next step 

You may be pleasantly surprised to discover that an alternative approach, option or solution is more evident than originally thought. 

For a more detailed discussion, check out The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making by Sam Kaner.  

          

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.