Facts are friendly

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

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

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

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

Facts, data, sensory information

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

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

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

There is a bias towards interpretive thinking

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

In the absence of the objective data, we flounder

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

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

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

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

Objective data brings clarity

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

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

Objective data grounds a conversation

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

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

Objective data reduces anxiety and frustration

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

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

 

Objective data helps us to challenge our assumptions

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

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

Helpful objective level questions

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

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

Facts are friendly

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

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.   

Got strategy? Try story telling.

April 30, 2015

A brilliant strategy fails to resonate with the client, in spite of your diligence, analysis and expertise. Why?  

A recent post from Bilal Jaffery spoke to the importance of story telling. Once upon a timeMost marketers, he says, are shouting, not empathizing. Business storytelling misses the point. Messages that are communicated are more reflective of internal process, and fail to capture the hearts and minds of the buyer (client).

While that post was aimed at marketing communicators, the applicability to business strategy was immediately apparent. Timely too – given a recent experience delivering a cleverly crafted, well researched strategy that utilized core work methods and utterly failed to resonate with the client. Ugh! 

Did the client miss the plot? Was it over their heads? Did they not pay attention?  

Maybe. A more likely scenario is that the strategy didn’t tell a story that was client centric. The client couldn’t see themselves in the message. They couldn’t see how it would improve their day to day efforts. Greatness was shouted but empathy for their circumstances was missing. Why should they care about ‘core’ work methods?

If I think about leaders that have most captured my imagination, they have had something in common: story telling. They were communicators with an ability to deliver the dull corporate strategy (think monthly town hall meeting) in a compelling, engaging way. They put their message into a context that I cared about, more importantly they told me why in a way that mattered to me.

It’s worth noting that this concept is also at the core of Simon Sinek’s work “Start with Why”. Too often we lose the plot by being too caught up in what we do or how we do it. We don’t get to the why – ours, or the client’s. 

The moral of this story: if you want the client to ‘get’ your strategy, put it in a story they want to hear. Leave your brilliance for the epilogue!