Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Gnostic Imaging

I was at St Luke's Hospital yesterday for my monthly check-up with my oncologist. When I stepped up to registration (so I could get outfitted with one of those nifty plastic wrist bands that help staff make sure I'm the right "Laird Schaub"), I was surprised to see a display of full-color tri-folds on the counter that advertised "Gnostic Imaging." 

Say what? They've got CT scans for detecting esoteric, spiritual knowledge? What will they think of next! It's one thing, I thought, for a hospital to be on the cutting edge of medical research; it's all together something else to be dancing with the Wu Li masters. And I was very curious how that intersected with treating cancer.

For a minute or two, my mind started flowing in all manner of creative directions, trying to make sense of what I'd seen. Then I adjusted my stance and discovered that a box a facial tissues had been obscuring the left-hand margin of the flyer, which actually read, "Diagnostic Imaging." Oh. My bad.

• • •
But then again, what if I had read it right the first time? Wouldn't that be an interesting East-meets-West kind of Hippocractic amalgamation? And why not on the cancer ward—where the veil between this life and whatever is next tends to thin out precipitously. Who's to say what kind of knowledge is most needed when one is close to transition?

Further, why not offer one-stop shopping for all your medical inquiries? For the most part modalities come in their own boxes (or edifices, in the case of hospitals) and don't tend to play well with others. Western medicine here; Chinese medicine there; Ayurvedic in this corner; Ayahuasca in that corner; over the counter on this side; over the rainbow on the other side; snake handlers in the sub-basement; and bats in the belfry.

It's not just what science or your spirit guide tells you should have the inside track on our attention: it's what you have faith in. And that's a highly personal decision. 

What I know—having lived through being close to death 28 months ago when my cancer was first diagnosed (and imaged at St Luke's, thank you)—is that a positive attitude and a strong support network make a difference. While those intangible factors are not definitive (optimists die, too, after all), my oncologist in Duluth and my hematologist at Mayo Clinic (who are both all in on Western medicine), freely acknowledge that attitude impacts outcomes for reasons that defy quantification. 

Hmm. Maybe there are no accidents. Maybe St Luke's should be offering gnostic counseling, offering a menu of medical approaches, rather than one-size-fits-all. They could think of it as hedging their bets, catering to the patient's proclivities, rather than trying to direct them. Just a thought.

Isn't it amusing what kind of insights can be triggered by standing in just the wrong place at the right time? Life tends to be a lot more interesting if you're paying attention.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Facilitating Outliers

As a professional facilitator one of my most difficult tasks is working with individuals who are out of step with the rest of the group and feel strongly about the validity of their views.

Even though I do my best to make sure that everyone is heard, when there is little to no resonance with the outlier's views it is depressingly common for them to claim that I have been biased in how I facilitated the conversation—that if I hadn't skewed things there would have been more support for their ideas. (Actually their thinking proceeds in reverse: the fact that the group didn't respond well to their thinking is evidence, in their eyes, that I must have skewed things, because that's a more palatable explanation then that the group heard what they had to say and the earth didn't move.)

While I try to be careful to make sure that outliers have been heard (by giving back a summary of what they said until they report that I got it), a complicating factor is that I'm an active facilitator, who will rein in repetition, redirect off-topic comments, and name any disturbance in The Force. Commonly enough outliers have had a lifetime to perfect their craft and they don't particularly appreciate my cramping their style (for example, by limiting their opportunity to repeat their views, or by not allowing them to hijack the topic on the table to flog their agenda). They will conflate my active management of the conversation with my being biased. When they are the main ones acting out, it may look like I'm picking on them. Never mind that I told them up front how I would facilitate and got their explicit buy-in to do so. 

[Caution: This pattern does not obtain with all who find themselves in a minority position: I am only describing the dynamics when it does.]

Because we're talking about humans, it's typically more attractive to blame others for what's not working than to look in the mirror. So it's not surprising that it plays out this way—yet awareness of the pattern doesn't make it any more fun being the object of the outlier's frustration. 

Another way this plays out for the outlier is this: I've been acting this way consistently and I never got push back about my behavior until you (Laird) showed up. Because you are the different element, the problem is you. You can follow how they got there, but this simplistic analysis neglects to take into account how group members may have been cowed by the outlier's behavior, to the point that they're reluctant to voice objections—either about their views or their delivery. Many people in cooperative groups are conflict averse and will choose to suffer in silence rather than risk being in the outlier's crosshairs. I'm not saying this is a good thing, but it happens.

Ironically, I could be the outlier's best friend in being heard—precisely because I'm neutral on the issues and see it as my job to make sure that everyone's views are being taken into account. This tends to be of little solace, however, when the outlier's perspective is not persuasive. When I summarize responses and the preponderance of opinion slants away from the outlier's position, the outlier may question the validity of my summary—rather than to reflect on what they may have missed in their analysis.

In the extreme, the outlier may know ahead of time that their position on a key issue is not widely shared and will strategically choose to skip the meeting at which that issue is discussed and then weigh in after the fact, expecting their late input to be honored—even though they have completely sidestepped the concomitant responsibility to listen respectfully to the views of others. Essentially they want their views taken seriously but haven't extended the same courtesy to others. This goes over about as well as a turd in the punch bowl.

As a facilitator, I'm caught among a handful of imperatives: a) protecting everyone's right to be heard on the topic at hand; b) calling people on their behavior when it's out of alignment with the group's process agreements; c) naming what's happening, even when it's painful or awkward; and d) trying to see that no one feels isolated, even when no one else agrees with their position. If the outlier takes the view that calling them on coloring outside the lines is a personal attack and will only accept agreement as evidence of support, it can be damn near impossible to deliver on all four imperatives.

Unfortunately, an outlier with their heels dug in comes across as someone who is both holding the group back and doing so in pursuit of a personal agenda. A double whammy. That is, they are not generally perceived as having the group's best interest at heart—which may or not be the case. It is a common error in logic for people (independent of whether they are in the majority or alone in their perspective) to think: I know that I'm thinking of what's best for the group; therefore those who think differently may be doing so for suspect reasons. What's missing here is that reasonable people can disagree about what's best for the group. In fact, in my experience, it's rare that people don't have a way to tie their views to common values. Typically, they have an novel way of interpreting common values, or may be emphasizing one at the expense of another, but there's almost always some legitimacy to their position.

I have often pondered what this might look like from the outlier's point of view. It amazes me how commonly outliers come across as unshakable in the worthiness of their position—even in the face of overwhelming evidence that no one (or very few) are persuaded by their thinking. How does that work? Do they really believe that they alone can see the truth? That everyone else is shallow in their thinking or misguided in their analysis? While it's a possibility, I have rarely seen it play out that way. It's much more likely that the outlier is off about something than that everyone else is, yet it doesn't appear that that even occurs to them as a possibility, and that seems off. How can you agree that the best interests of the group is paramount and not consider that possibility (even to the point of feeling threatened or disrespected when I suggest it)?

I know If have to speak up about what I see (I can't let the threat of awkwardness stop me from doing my job), yet I'm still working to find better ways for that to land well with outliers. It's a tough nut.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Ramping Up in Duluth

Last weekend Susan and I got an invitation to visit Bob and Lois, retired UMD professionals who live along the North Shore, overlooking Lake Superior. At a recent party Lois casually revealed that they had ramps on their property and Susan's ears pricked up. 

Ramps are wild leeks that possess a semi-mythical reputation among foodie wildcrafters. While, for some reason, they are particularly associated with West Virginia, their range is fairly extensive: all over the Eastern US and the Midwest. Part of the appeal is that their season is remarkably short—like that of morels. You have about 10-14 days to harvest them at peak flavor and minimal woodiness. Plus you have to know where to find them. 

Susan and I wasted no time in setting up a date to journey up to Bob & Lois' (with bucket, shovel, and gloves in the back seat) to see what we could harvest, not knowing what we'd find. After a delightful drive along the shore of Lake Superior en route, we pulled into their driveway and were pleasantly surprised when Bob revealed that every green thing we could see on the forest floor behind their house was a ramp. Yikes! We'd hit a gold mine. 

Here's a fair image of what we found in situ:


We'd arrived worried about the possibility of taking too much of a precious resource (greedy gourmands that we are), only to discover it was like a weed at their location—take as much as you want.
In no time at all we'd harvest three clumps, which yielded about six cups of cleaned product—more than enough for a delicious pot of ramp-potato soup. Yum. As an adult I've come to love the challenge of eating your zip code, and this ramp discovery nurtured my values as well as my palate. A perfect fit.

Though the cleaning took far longer than the harvesting, it was worth it. Next year we'll go for more. And no, we're not going to give you Bob & Lois' last name or the address where they live. Find your own gold mine.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Power and Love

Saturday morning Susan and I arose early (no small thing on a weekend, when sleeping in is a treasured option) to catch the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Aside from the breathtaking pageantry on a gorgeous day in jolly old England—labeled "crackers" by a British commentator, whatever that is—and an incredible array of hats (a milliner's wet dream), I was impressed by the homily delivered by Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. He's based in the US but crossed the pond for the chance at 16 minutes at the lectern in front of the British royals, the BBC, and all three major American television networks. (Though apparently he'd only been offered five minutes, he seized the time, and made the most of it.)

In an impassioned delivery, Curry's spoke about the power of love—certainly a topical theme for a wedding. While Curry made the case for how anything is possible if we trust in love, I was struck by how Adam Kahane harnessed the same horses to plow a different field in Collaborating with the Enemy, a book I read earlier in the week. While I was favorably impressed by Curry's admonitions about how powerful love can be in a marriage, I want to focus this essay on Kahane's work about the marriage of power and love.

Jacob Corvidae, a friend of mine who used to live at Dancing Rabbit (and currently resides in Boulder CO, where he works with Kahane) recommended the book. Kahane's work has special appeal for me because we both work with groups, trying to help them solve problems collaboratively—without asking anyone to shift their core values or alter their personality.

—Setting Kahane's Table
To better understand Kahane's concepts, here are his definitions for three key terms:

o  Power (per theologian Paul Tillich): the drive of everything living to realize itself.

o  Love (also per Tillich): the drive toward the unity of the separated.

o  Holon (per Arthur Koestler): something that is simultaneously a whole and a part.  

While "holon" is a new term for me and I define "power" differently (I think of it as influence: the ability to get others to agree with something or to do something), I want to present Kahane's thinking in his terms. [The italicized segments that follow are quoted from the book.]

Kahane contends that every person and group possesses both of these drives—power and love—and that it is always a mistake (unbalanced) to employ only one. Per Martin Luther King, Jr, "Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic."
With respect to group dynamics, Kahane believes that effective collaboration requires three kinds of stretches, all of which challenge conventional wisdom:

—The First Stretch: to Embrace Conflict and Connection
His foundational idea is that there is more than one whole. Having worked in the field of group dynamics for three decades I agree with him. It is sobering how much trouble I have getting people unstuck because of their belief that there is a single whole (a single reality) which they are aligned with and which those in opposition to them are not. (Why move toward others when you are closer to the truth?) Commonly enough, both sides of a disagreement have a similar idea about their being only a single whole and each feels righteous about their perspective being the one that's correct. Effectively, neither side is motivated to work with the views of others, resulting in a stalemate.

Things can proceed much more fluidly if you accept the notion that there are multiple wholes. You have one, and those who see the same situation differently have another. The more wholes you can include in  your awareness, the better chance you have to build robust responses (ones without holes).
 Kahane further believes that in complex situations that are not amenable to imposed solutions, we need to be able to both fight and talk; to both assert and engage. The key to being able to work with multiple wholes is being able to work with both power and love.

This challenges my thinking that fighting is antithetical to collaboration. While I have always been in favor of not ducking hard issues and of getting disagreements out in the open—and I am fully aware of the constructive potential of conflict—I have mostly experienced fighting as destructive, rather than a sign that someone has reached the limits of how far they can stretch to include another's whole. 

To be clear, Kahane's claim is nuanced. The use of power can be a constructive element to the extent that assertion is generative. Once you encounter resistance, continued pressing slides into being destructive and is no longer healthy. Going the other way, the generative side of love of engagement. But once it starts to engender capitulation, is crosses into the anaerobic breeding ground of manipulation. Kahane makes the case that fighting and talking are the two complementary poles of collaboration, and that going to too far toward either is ineffective. You need both.

Further, it's important to differentiate between problems that can be solved, and polarities that cannot be solved but only managed.
—The Second Stretch: to Experiment a Way Forward
Kahane describes four ways of talking and listening:

a) DownloadingHere I listen from within myself and my story. I am deaf to other stories; I hear only what confirms my own story ("I knew that already"). The talking associated with downloading is telling: I say what I always say, because I think that my story is either the only true one or the only one that is safe or polite to tell. I assert that there is only one whole (for example, one objective or team or strategy) and ignore or suppress others. Downloading is the typical behavior of experts, fundamentalists, dictators, and people who are arrogant, angry, or afraid.

b) Debating
Here I listen from the outside, factually and objectively, like a judge in a debate or a courtroom ("This is correct and that is incorrect"). The talking associated with debating is a clash of ideas: each person says what he or she thinks, and some ideas and people win and others lose. This mode is more open than downloading because people are now expressing their different views and are aware that these are their views and not the truth ("In my opinion… ").  

c) Dialoging
Here I listen to others as if from inside them, empathetically and subjectively ("I hear where you are coming from"). The talking associated with dialoging is self-reflective ("In my experience… "). This mode opens up new possibilities because now we are working with multiple living holons, each expressing its power and love.

d) Presencing
Here I listen not from within myself or another, paying attention just to one specific idea or person, but from the larger system ("What I am noticing here and now is… "). When I am in a group that is presencing, it is as if the boundaries between people have disappeared, so that when one person talks, he or she is articulating something for the whole group or system, and when I listen, it is as if to the whole group or system. 

All four of these modes are legitimate and useful. It's not that we need to employ only one mode, but rather that we need to be able to move fluently and fluidly among them. 

According to organizational theorist Karl Weick: People find their way forward not necessarily because they have a good map or plan. Instead it is because they "begin to act, they generate tangible outcomes in some context, and this helps them discover what is occurring, what needs to be explained, and what should be done next." They don't need to have a clear vision or goal; they only need to have some shared sense of the challenge or problematic situation they are trying to overcome. Collaborative teams typically make progress not be carefully executing an excellent plan to achieve agreed objectives, but by acting and learning from this acting. 

—The Third Stretch: to Step into the Game 
We have to take action; not just watch and wait for the perfect moment when all stars are aligned. The way I frame this concept is that there will be times when you need to commit your weight forward without knowing where the ground is, trusting that firm footing will appear where you need it when your foot comes down.

The question about collaborating that I am asked most frequently is, "How can we get them to… ?" But in non-hierarchical, non-controlled collaboration, you cannot get anyone to do anything. We blame and "enemyfy" others, both to defend and define ourselves. We see ourselves self-centeredly as the protagonist at the center of the drama of what is going on around us, so when we experience a challenge, we react as if it is a personal attack against which we must defend ourselves. We are frightened of being hurt, so we separate and shield ourselves by asserting that we are right and others are wrong. We fear that if we collaborate with those others, we will become contaminated or compromised—that we will betray what we stand for and who we are.

The problem with "enemyfying" is not that we never have enemies: we often face people and situations that present us with difficulties and dangers. Moreover, any effort we make to effect change in the world will create discomfort, resistance, and opposition. The real problem with "enemyfying" is that it distracts and unbalances us. We cannot avoid others whom we find challenging, so we need to focus simply on deciding, given these challenges, what we ourselves will do next.

If you're not part of the problem, the can't be part of the solution. Playing it safe (staying above the fray) is not good enough.

Self-centeredness means that we arrogantly overestimate the correctness and value of our own perspectives and actions, and we underestimate those of others. This impedes collaboration because it distorts our understanding of the situation we are in and what we need to do, and it creates conflicts with the others we are discounting.

The essence of the third stretch is assuming responsibility for the role that we ourselves are playing in the situation we are trying to change, and therefore for what we need to do differently in order for the situation to change. This stretch is challenging because it requires us to take the risk of engaging fully in the situation and so being changed or hurt by it. It requires us to be willing to sacrifice some of what feels known, familiar, comfortable, and safe. "In a ham omelet," the quip goes, "the chicken is involved but the pig is committed." Stretch collaboration requires us to be pigs rather than merely chickens.

When we notice ourselves blaming others—focusing on what they are doing and what we hope or demand that they do differently—we need to bring our attention back to what we ourselves are doing and what we need to do differently. Sometimes what we need to do is to try to influence others—but now we are taking responsibility for, and willing to change, our part in the situation that we are all part of. Whenever we find ourselves distracted by others, we need to come back to the simple question, what must we do next? 

• • •
So how does this map onto my understanding of group dynamics? Seen through the lens of Robert Moore's seminal on male archetypes, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, I have struggled over the entirety of my adult life with a tendency to be too often the Warrior (who is overly fond of assertion) and not enough the Lover (who extends empathy). Now Kahane invites me to see the collaborative potential when the Warrior and Lover are balanced in one body. This shift in my thinking is both liberating and enlightening.

I am also aligned with the concept of letting go of control and working with what emerges. Skilled facilitation, I've discovered over my career, is not so much about about steering and delivering solutions, as it is about: 

• Creating a resilient container (stout enough to hold the energy and safe enough that vulnerability blossoms);

• Asking the right questions;

• Bringing your whole self to the task;

• Paying attention to what's happening; and

• Articulating what the group reveals about itself. 

It's an art form.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

When Committees Are Authorized to Make Decisions

One of the key challenges for groups of 20+ members working with consensus is how to effectively delegate. If you retain all decision-making in the plenary it invariably leads to a bottleneck—on the one hand there are too many plenaries and they last too long; on the other, committees are almost certainly underutilized (and probably demoralized by being expected to content themselves doing only scut work in service to the plenary).

[In this essay, "committee" is any subgroup of the whole, including a manager, who acts on behalf of the whole.]

In groups of 20 or more I strongly advocate that plenaries concentrate their attention on whole group concerns (such as interpreting common values as they apply to an issue, setting the annual budget, or defining member rights and responsibilities) and delegate to committees decision-making authority on all details that drop below the need for whole group deliberation. That said, stating theory is much easier than setting it up and having it go smoothly. There are challenges to getting delegation to work as elegantly as you can draw it up in a multicolored organizational diagram.

I was spurred to write about this issue (the underbelly of delegation) by a conversation I had recently at a community struggling with the question of what constituted fair notice of meetings at which decisions might be made that impacted everyone. The problem was that the group was committed to two core principles that weren't necessarily playing well together: a) transparency and the opportunity for people not on the committee to offer relevant input; and b) committees having a clear pathway to get their work done without being hamstrung by late input or complaints after the fact. What is the balance point between due process and efficiency?

Here are my thoughts about a checklist that consensus groups could use in assessing whether the committee is on solid ground or quicksand when exercising decision-making authority on behalf of the whole:

1. Is the committee coloring inside the lines?
Is it clear that the committee has the authority to make the decision? If there is any question about this it will generally go better if the committee pauses to get its mandate clarified before proceeding. Even with the best of intentions, wording can be exposed as ambiguous in particular situations and it will go better if you're asking for permission than forgiveness.

2. Adequate notification
•  Develop a protocol for how committee reports are organized, such that notification of work on pending issues is listed up front—perhaps in the subject line or the opening paragraph. The standard for notification should be blessed by the plenary, and it should specify how far in advance of the meeting the notice needs to be posted.

• If the committee thinks that there might be controversy or strong interest in the issue from members not on the committee, then it can use HOT TOPIC in the subject line, or some other attention getter that everyone understands. If they think that the issue is hot enough, they might even set up a special meeting with the expectation that it will be an all skate.

• If the person with input cannot attend the committee meeting at which the topic will be addressed, they can send comments electronically, or meet privately with a committee member ahead of time to convey their views. Note: It can be important that all group members understand this informal option (rather than complain later about being disenfranchised).

• Is email notice alone satisfactory? If there are members who don't read email, maybe you also need to post a notice on a bulletin board or stuff notices in mailboxes… or maybe something involving carrier pigeons. In this day of expanding media options it behooves the plenary to spell out "adequate" in unambiguous terms.

3. When email isn't the right medium
Email is good for posting notices; less good for discussing issues, and downright bad for expressing or processing upset. Although I'm laying this out as if it's a done deal that email will be the primary mode of communication, I think if any party—on the committee or not—finds that email (or Tweets or Facebook) isn't working for them that they should be able to request moving to face-to-face communication and that that will be honored. Putting this one agreement in place will alone cut down on all manner of mischief, miscommunication, and unhelpful teapot tempests.

4. When input arrives late
While the committee is expected to work respectfully with input from all group members (not just members of the committee) that arrives in a timely manner, group members are expected to respect that it's unreasonable (and possibly disrespectful) to submit input after the deadline and expect the committee to back up. Committees may be smart to reconsider their thinking in light of late input, but they shouldn't be obliged to.

5. When the committee feels a disturbance in The Force
If the committee suspects that there may be more input than they've heard or that feathers may otherwise be ruffled, it may purposefully chose to proceed more cautiously than authorized. For example, the committee might post its decision as tentative and allow a comment period (two weeks?) before going to final, even though it has the plenary-blessed imprimatur to do so immediately. I'm not saying that they have to; I'm saying it may be prudent.

6. When criticism surfaces after the decision has been made
Perhaps a member is unhappy with the decision and believes some crucial piece of information may have been missed. They speak up to encourage the committee to reconsider the matter. While the member has the right to do this, it is linked to the responsibility to inform themselves of the committee's thinking (as captured in the minutes) to see if their concerns were already taken into account. Going the other way, it's the committee's responsibility to see that the minutes are good enough to accomplish this.

Alternately, a member may speak up because they feel the impact on the group has not been adequately thought through. Instead of new information they may have a markedly different take on the decision's consequences.

These possibilities lead us to:

7. When to reconsiderIn wrestling with whether to revisit a decision, I think the standard should be if any of the following conditions obtain:

•  Did the committee fail to follow the group's process agreements in reaching its decision?

•  Is there sufficient new information to justify a revisit? This is a judgment call. We never have all the information and there is always discernment about when there is enough in hand (about which you have reasonable confidence in its quality) to proceed.

•  Did the announcement of the decision trigger sufficient anguish and gnashing of teeth that it will likely affect implementation if unaddressed?

If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," then it's adequate grounds to reconsider. Otherwise, play on.

8. What if the committee is done and the energy is still unsettled?
While this hopefully is a rare occurrence (where reconsideration is requested and the committee declines), I think there should be another body (perhaps Steering or Oversight, if you have either of these animals in your committee bestiary) designated to step in and call for a meeting anyway—probably a plenary—to address the tensions and effect a return to laminar flow.

• • •
What I've tried to offer in this essay is a framework for troubleshooting problems in effective delegating. That said, more will hinge on an abundance of good will and the sense of everyone pulling on the oars together, than on the creation of airtight agreements. In my experience, energy issues are not solved well by structural responses—it's like trying to turn a nut with a screwdriver.

If people with concerns don't trust that they'll be heard, they'll be much more disposed to whining and monkey wrenching. However, if people feel they're input is welcome, then much of this will be sorted out through common sense and informal conversations over a cup of coffee or a beer.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Fog Bank of Silence

One of my hardest things to navigate as an administrator, facilitator, and cooperative leader is lack of a response. It can mean so many things. Let me count the ways…

—Maybe they didn't get the email (or phone message) and I didn't receive a bounce.

—Maybe I sent the message to a wrong, but valid, email address, and the recipient ignored it.

—Maybe they're thinking about their response and just aren't ready yet.

—Maybe they're upset with me (or what I said) and are delaying their response until they're less reactive.

—Maybe they need to coordinate their response with others and are awaiting word from them.

—Maybe they're too busy with other things to have moved my communication to the top of their queue.

—Maybe they're confused by my communication and are unsure how to proceed (or are wondering if a response is even needed).

—Maybe they don't know what they think, and are stalled out figuring out how to proceed.

—Maybe they're on vacation and enjoying an electronic moratorium (unknown to me).

—Maybe there's a crisis in their lives and everything non-essential has been placed on hold until that's dealt with.

—Maybe the person feels that responding to me isn't worth their time.

—Maybe they're teaching me a lesson by purposefully making me wait. (I know this is pretty funky—not to mention passive aggressive—but I've had it happen.)

—Maybe their computer, router, or internet service is on the fritz. If any link is broken the message will fail.

—Maybe my message got inadvertently shunted into the spam folder and was never seen (even though it was received).

While I doubt this covers all eventualities, it's enough to make my main point: if your start guessing about the meaning of silence, there's an excellent chance to get it wrong. It's better, I think, that you don't peer into your crystal ball, and just admit you don't know.

As if this isn't messy enough, in my case complications are compounded by a tendency to take my eyes off something once the ball is in the other person's court. Thus, it typically takes me a while to catch on that I haven't received a response I was expecting, and to send a follow up note.

While I ask people to at least acknowledge receipt of a communication if they aren't going to respond in a timely manner (48 hours?) that has proven to be a difficult request to comply with if people are not already in the habit. As you might imagine, I sometimes have to breathe through some irritation when people expect me to write twice (or even three times) before they write once, but such is life. If I want a response badly enough I exhale and write again, typically under the header: gentle nudge (even when I'd prefer to use a baseball bat to get their attention).

Without question, parting the fog of silence can be an exercise in patience and diligence—all the more so when you aren't being met halfway and the recipient is oblivious to the inconvenince their non-response is causing.

Surely you aren't subjecting others to that, right?

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Email Headers as Navigation Buoys

We're all trying to survive in an environment of information glut, and some of us are drowning.

Just last week I had a student in one of my facilitation trainings explain that he missed seeing the course handouts (that had been distributed two weeks prior to our getting together) because he gets too much email to track it all. He needed a text message alerting him that an important email had been sent. Yikes! 

Essentially, he wanted me to communicate with him twice (via two different media) so that he could avoid being responsible for looking at everything that came in every morning on the flood tide swamping his In Box. While I'm sensitive to how spam chokes our email, burying the wheat in a surfeit of chaff, I didn't have a great reaction to the request that I do more work so that he could do less. (Who's zooming who?)

Given that it's highly unlikely that we'll put the genie back in the bottle (do with fewer or less robust modes of communication), we have to figure out better ways to cope with information overload. If you are part of a group that relies heavily on email to communicate (many of us are), I suggest adopting a protocol whereby group members classify in the subject line the kind of communication that is being sent. I recommend using ALL CAPS in the following ways:

Use this when you want a timely response from recipients. Usually this is accompanied by a drop dead date, such that your approval is assumed if there is no reply by the deadline, or you have no preference. If you respond late there is no guarantee that your input will be taken into account. This is used mainly to coordinate (as in setting up meeting times), to gather input in a routine manner, or to run drafts by people that you expect to be noncontroversial.

This lets people know that a meeting is coming up at which a decision might be made. If you want to have your input on this matter considered, attend the meeting. Or let the shepherds know your views ahead of time if you can't attend. 

If that header is too dry (who said we can't have fun?), how about LAST TRAIN, to inform everyone that this is their final chance to have input considered before the train leaves the station and the decision is likely to be made. If you submit views later than that, it's less likely to be taken into account, because the bar for reconsideration is necessarily higher than the bar for consideration.

This alerts readers to the fact that an issue is about to be discussed about which there is known to be some energy. Either there is already a fire, or there is plenty of smoke. So wear fire retardant clothing.

Hear ye, hear ye. This announces that an agreement has been reached and there is now a new sheriff in town—by which I mean a new policy or a fresh agreement. Maybe you'd prefer DONE.

This announces the record of what happened at a meeting. The minutes are where you'll find the rationale behind the decision, which may be important in discerning whether you have anything new to offer (if it's already been taken into account maybe you needn't speak up).

To be used for personnel notes, or delicate negotiations where recipients are not permitted to share the contents without express permission. Perhaps you'd enjoy SHHH instead.

No action or response is required. The content is informational. If time is tight, these are the emails to skip or jettison.

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While these categories won't cover everything, they can provide a rational basis for a quick prioritization without even opening the email, providing only that the communication has been classified correctly. And when time is tight, you'll appreciate having access to a tool that can serve as a personal flotation device to help navigate the deluge.