Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Decision Making in a Fog

One of the challenges faced by forming groups is who makes decisions at the outset. When people first come together to explore whether or not it makes sense to form a group, there can be ambiguity about who has a voice in that.

Is it everyone in the room? Everyone who was invited to that first meeting (including those who couldn't make that first meeting)? Everyone identified as a stakeholder (including some who weren't even invited to that first meeting)? Only those in favor of moving forward? Those who show up to a second meeting after it has been announced ahead of time that the new group will form for x purpose on y date at z location? It can get confusing.

Because of the power and recognition associated with being a founder, some new groups are tempted to delay making decisions about purpose, values, and vision until the group has reached numbers that approximate the hoped for size of the group. While the impulse is understandable (you can only be a founder once; everyone who comes later is only a "joiner"), it's generally a mistake to delay these foundational decisions, if for no other reason than it's hard for people to know what they're joining if it's ill-defined. Who wants to join a fog?

While the dynamics outlined above can exist for any forming group, there are additional challenges for cooperative groups, where you can expect considerable sensitivity to the dynamics of power imbalances and how leadership roles are filled. In general, the dream of cooperative groups is that all members will have a say in how the group functions and what it does. 

On a practical level however, it can get cumbersome waiting to hear from everyone before moving forward—especially as the numbers swell and it gets increasingly difficult to get everyone to a meeting. Thus, groups need to address the question of how they move forward on solid footing when members miss meetings. What is the balance of the rights of missing members with their responsibility to not hold the group up through their absence?

Healthy cooperative groups of a minimum size (say a dozen) will need to delegate in order to get their work done efficiently. This requires establishing clear mandates (whereby the subgroup is authorized to act on behalf of the whole), and it will require that the group define the qualities wanted in people filling leadership roles. Further, there will need to be decisions made about how leadership roles will be filled. 

With respect to power (by which I mean the ability to get others to do something or agree to something) it will be a huge help if the group takes the time to develop a picture of how power can be distributed among the membership in a healthy way. (Hint #1: If your model is that it will be distributed evenly then you don't understand how it works; power is almost always distributed unevenly, but that doesn't necessarily mean that's a problem if there's awareness of the distribution and the ability to talk openly and in depth about how that's playing out—after all, power can be used wisely.). If there is the perception that power is being used inappropriately, how will the group discuss it? (Hint #2: This can be a tough nut.)

Even if you accept my recommendations of essential things to put into place early on, there is still nuance about how early on. It is unlikely, for example, that you'll tackle these key process questions at your first meeting, yet you may need to establish who will call the second meeting and who will draft the agenda for it. Even these simple next-step questions move you in the direction of filling leadership roles and determining who has more power than others. On the one hand it's hard to generate enthusiasm about discussing process concerns at the first meetings (when the focus is more properly on trying to build up a bonfire of excitement about all the good things your group is going to do in the world). On the other hand, failure to do so early enough can inadvertently push you down the road of a poor start with respect to leadership and power dynamics.

People who are experienced in cooperative dynamics (and the traps that leaders can fall into) can be leery of taking on too much of a leadership role too soon, yet their failure to do so can put the group at risk of losing precious momentum. Even when a forming group desperately needs clear leadership, anyone stepping into that void is at risk of being suspected of immature ego management (because of how much people carry around with them the lesson that prior leaders tend to misuse their power). Yuck!

One of the reasons that forming groups tend to be overly cautious about making decisions that will define the group is the catch-22 dynamic of needing sound leadership in order to make sound decisions yet being nervous about determining the early leadership for fear of backing the wrong horse in the absence of appropriate checks and balances. Thus, the group can be hesitant about making decisions without clear leadership, and at the same time hesitant about designating leaders without a clear decision-making process. Gridlock.

When forming groups are sloppy about asking members to fill leadership roles (not being clear about what authority leaders have to operate on the group's behalf and when they need to consult) then everyone suffers. Good intentions are not enough. You have to spell it out if you want to dispel the fog.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Reunion in Northfield

This past weekend, for the first time in 45 years, I attended one of my college's reunions (Susan and I both graduated from Carleton College in 1971). 

Driving into Northfield from I-35, we passed the Malt-O-Meal plant (it has be made somewhere, right?) and the carload of us enjoyed the same uneasy double take when we read the sign that proclaimed their output to be a "Post Consumer Product." The images of cereal offered up as something post-consumer was not particularly appetizing, until we unraveled the mystery: Malt-O-Meal is a breakfast product offered by the Post Cereal Company—think Raisin Bran, Grape Nuts, and Shredded Wheat—not a post-consumer product, as in something that's previously journeyed through someone else's alimentary canal. It was a challenging image.

In any event, Susan and I were two of 70-some folks who came back from the class of '71 to reacquaint ourselves with one another and with the college (it was sobering to discover that at least two major buildings completed after we graduated are now slated for demolition). Our two days were filled with countless conversations and the occasional moment of edification (it is a college, after all) where we learned about what Carleton has in store for the future and what each of us alumni has been up to since the reign of Richard Nixon. 

It was a lot of ground to cover. The trick of it was accepting early on that we'd never talk with everyone we'd like to, and that we were certain to be exposed to a steady diet of TMI. It works best if you approach it as a buffet, rather than an all-you-can-eat smörgåsbord. Just nibble when you find something delectable, and let everything else slide by.

While each day was long (bed never looked better each night) I got there in sufficient time to recharge my battery overnight and was good to go the next morning. It is a measure of the progress I've been gradually making with respect to my cancer that I get a little stronger each week, and can do a little more each week. A month ago, reunion would have done me in before dinner but this weekend I was able keep going until afterwards.

It turned out that the most envelope pushing aspect of the weekend was a lot of walking—much more than I'm used to. Even though the campus is relatively compact (accommodating only 2000 students, up from 1350 in my day) and I took my time, my feet cramped in the night and I had to get up and walk it off multiple times.

A nice bonus from the weekend is that I reconnected with two classmates (Barb North and Phil Wheeler) who are now living in Rochester, which will add to my larger support group in situ once stem-cell therapy starts at Mayo Clinic next month. I figure you can never have too many friends in your corner.

The other unexpected bonus from the weekend was access to a ripening Montmorency cherry tree in the backyard of our overnight hosts, Ray and Elsie Martin. It turns out that Elise doesn't care for sour cherries (it's a testament to our friendship that Susan and I like her anyway) and the two of them are about to depart to Nova Scotia for three weeks. Thus it's now or never for the cherries and we were happy to carry home a couple pies worth before the neighbors got them.

I think the best part of the weekend was seeing how relaxed people were. At least that was case for most of the folks participating from our class. At our age many are retired and it seemed to me that most were exhaling and enjoying life. There seemed to be a minimum of trying to impress one another with curricula vitae, and a surplus of bonhomie.

While pretty much everyone had their credulity stretched by efforts to explain how Donald Trump became the Republican candidate for President (what a country!) my age cohort came of age during the incredible folly of Vietnam and thus we know in our bones that this too shall pass.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Getting Stronger

It has now been 137 days since I went into the emergency room at St Luke's Hospital (with excruciating lower back pain) and discovered I had an advanced case of multiple myeloma and was close to renal failure.

Placing everything else on hold, my life since then has been focused on putting myself in the best possible position to contain the cancer and regain as much life function as possible. On the one hand, I'm 66 years old and have already had a full life. Maybe my allotment has run out and everything I've been doing the last four-plus months will distill down to looking for a graceful exit. 

As it happens, I've been able to devote a substantial portion of the last few months to connecting with friends and loved ones. If this is indeed my swan song, then I'm pleased with how it's unfolded. I've seen and been able to have heartfelt connections with almost everyone I'd like to, and the outpouring of support and well wishes directed my way has extended well beyond what I imagined it might be. It has been a very touching winter and spring.

However, I don't feel done. It feels much more like a new chapter to me than the end of the book. 

Though my prospects for living well with multiple myeloma are still difficult to assess, I am working closely with my oncologist in Duluth to try to push the cancer into remission and to regain what I can of my vitality and stamina. I have a lot to live for and am fully behind the joint efforts of my doctors, my friends, my partner (Susan), my kids (Jo & Ceilee), and myself to bolster my prospects.

Since the initial diagnosis and the onset of chemotherapy I have been making slow but steady progress in regaining durability, focus, and flexibility. My kidneys are recovering and I have suffered no falls or broken bones despite how much the cancer has weakened my skeletal structure through calcium leaching.

While it's pretty certain that I'll need to cross sky diving and alligator wrestling off my bucket list without accomplishing either, I'm fine with that.

I want to devote more time to writing and teaching; to laughter and the enjoyment of good food, to leisurely travel and the general enjoyment of sucking on the marrow of life's bones. To the extent possible I'd like to manage doing this with Susan as my fellow traveler and life enthusiast. I figure we could do that for the next 10-20 years and be a very happy couple. While it remains to be seen if my psyche is sufficiently strong to manifest this vision of Laird's future, it is a compelling image and will be more than enough to keep my eyes on the prize as I undergo a stem-cell transplant at Mayo Clinic July 12.

Thus, I have 25 days to go before surrendering myself to the rigors of Rochester, where we'll reboot my blood producing capacity and see how the cancer likes that.

I am freshly back (yesterday) from a trip to Portland, where I field tested the range of my recovering strength to hop back in the consulting/teaching saddle long enough to conduct Weekend III of a facilitation training program I launched there in December. I worked with long-time partner Ma'ikwe Ludwig and the teaching went fine.

Though I came in for a landing each evening on fumes (and was glad that the training did not extend to a fourth day), each night's rest restored me for the day that followed and I missed no sessions. While Ma'ikwe prepped the various two-person teams that facilitated meetings for our host group each day, I would work with the remainder of the class (say seven students) to simultaneously offer a deeper exploration of choice cuts of the facilitator's craft. With two interchangeable teachers on the flight deck, we were able to keep everyone engaged and working with fresh material throughout the three days. 

While this is the last piece of on-site professional work that I'll attempt before the July transplant, it was highly gratifying to see how well it went and that there are excellent prospects for my being able to return to effective pedagogy after the summer. This is valuable both to me economically (it's how I earn my bread) and psychically (I can still follow my career path as a social change agent).

In the three-plus weeks remaining before Rochester, Susan and I will attend the 45th reunion of our college class (marking the first time I've attended—it should be quite the time, and an unparalleled opportunity for yet more conversations with people I haven't seen in many moons), and a wedding reception for the daughter of a long-time friend. Who knows, maybe we'll even see a baseball game (if you could label what the woeful Twins are up to these days "baseball").

Life is full of surprises.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Rising to the Occasion

I'm typing this from the waiting room of Portland Union Station, where I'm patiently awaiting departure of the eastbound Empire Builder. Over the weekend I partnered with Ma'ikwe Ludwig to conduct a three-day facilitation training in the Pacific Northwest, and the best news is that I was able to answer the bell and am returning home without being depleted or exhausted. Hurray!

Though I was pretty tired by dinner time each day, I didn't miss any sessions and was able to give teacher-grade attention to the class—which is my baseline standard for doing the work. After placing my process work on hold to focus on my health more than four months ago, it was gratifying to be able to once again give to others—helping to address, even in a small way, the imbalance in my karmic balance sheet.

It was the most ambitious thing I've attempted since being diagnosed with multiple myeloma in late January. It is also the last piece of work I'll attempt before my stem-cell transplant, which begins July 12. (To be sure, I still need to craft my reports from the weekend, so the work from last weekend isn't yet complete, but I can accomplish that in my own rhythm and at home). If things go well with the transplant and I am able to place the cancer in remission, the work this weekend will be a prelude to my reestablishing my consulting/teaching career. If things do not go well—which is always a chance, no matter how much I think good thoughts—then this past weekend my be my last turn at the lectern. As everyone present was aware of that range of possibilities, it added both poignancy and preciousness to our time together. At some point I will inevitably teach for the last time. Perhaps it just happened.

Being able to do the work also served as a helpful marker, indicating how far I've come in my recovery of everyday functionality. After all, my health goal is not simply to keep breathing; I need to be strong enough to deliver the goods when working with groups, which has implications about stamina, ability to focus my energy away from myself (good facilitators, in my view, approximate egolessness), and lightness on one's feet. It was not at all clear going at what level I could perform, and it was deeply satisfying to find that my recovery was strong enough to be solid as an instructor.

To be sure, this would not have gone nearly as well if I didn't have an accomplished partner to work with and the class benefited substantially from all the work that Ma'ikwe and I have done over the years to figure out how to blend our energies when sharing the stage. Even though I never left the room, there were moments when I needed to dial back my energy in order to focus on recuperation rather than delivery, and I could trust Ma'ikwe to handle the temporary increased load in those moments.

Dexa Bounce
I went to bed early Sunday evening (9 pm), happy to give my body a rest. Although I had a wide open Monday (with nothing scheduled before a leisurely 4:45 pm departure from Portland Union Station), I awoke with a small headache and was worried about how draining it might be coping with that for 38 hours on the choo choo.

After gratefully consuming a Honduran breakfast lovingly prepared by my host, Luz (scrambled eggs, salsa, warm whole wheat tortillas, garnished liberally with fresh-from-the-garden kale sauteed in oil and garlic), I went back to bed, hoping that further rest would work its magic on my headache. Fortunately, that's exactly what happened! What I had forgotten was the serendipity that my chemotherapy protocol calls for me to ingest 40 mg of dexamethasone (a steroid) every Monday and I reliably get a boost in well-being from that treatment. It couldn't have landed at a better time, and my headache is gone!

Ma'ikwe and I are traveling together as we head east. I'll get off at St Paul Wed morning, and she'll continue on to Chicago and then Quincy IL that same day. Via Skyline Shuttle I'll be back in Duluth by noon. After Susan collects me we'll drop off my still crippled laptop at Downtown Computer in order to get my email restored (messages have been accumulating for 11 days and counting) and Microsoft Office enabled. I'm doing what I can to prepare myself psychically for the avalanche of messages that will accompany the restoration, but I don't have much choice in the matter. I'm simply going to have to take my lumps.

A couple times over the course of last weekend I was able to avail myself of a work-around to connect with Susan. I borrowed Nancy's laptop (she's a student in the course) to compose a brief email message and then used Ma'ikwe's smart phone to establish a hotspot sufficient to send the message. (I couldn't use my laptop because I don't have access to Apple Mail yet). Fortunately this convoluted process was successful and we were able to share a few snippets. Though all too brief (an appetizer is not an entrée) , it was way better than radio silence.

I'm already looking forward with joy to ease with which I'll be able to connect with her again starting Wed afternoon—when all I'll have to do is to turn my head to the right and start speaking.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Becoming Less Frightened of Conflict

For many years I have offered an introductory workshop on conflict entitled, "Conflict: Fight, Flight, or Opportunity?" In it, I explain that many people engage conflict with a flight or flight response and that there are better choices. However, even if I can sell you on the idea that working constructively with conflict is possible, that doesn't mean it's easily accessible.

Three weeks ago I did a workshop on facilitating hard conversations about aging in community in which I laid out the importance of getting all the hard stuff out on the table, so that it could be understood and worked with and one brave woman in the back of the room asked, "I understand why you're telling us it's valuable to get strong feelings expressed, but they scare me to death. How can I change my reaction?"

What a great question!

First of all, it's not hard to understand how this could happen. In the absence of sufficient clarity, skill or courage, working with conflict can be chaotic and dangerous. People can get seriously hurt, and it doesn't take many experiences like that until you've learned to be afraid of it. Thus, rewiring one's response is going to require a steady diet of positive experiences—where engaging emotionally enhances connections rather than frays them.

Here are some things you might consider, all calculated to help you make the transition to being less afraid.

o  Secure a Buddy Who is Not Afraid
One of the quickest ways to get traction on this dynamic is to identify someone else in the group who is not overwhelmed in the presence of strong feelings, and ask them to help you breathe through it when decibel levels rise and your sphincter starts to constrict. Ask that person to check with you whenever temperatures rise in the room, to help you avoid overwhelm (it's important to keep talking) or to get unstuck if your cylinders have already frozen. The idea here is that talking with a single trusted person will be more accessible than speaking in front of the whole group—or to people in distress.

o  Support the Group Being Willing to Engage 
Even ahead of completing one's personal work, it's possible (desirable?) to advocate for the group addressing the issue of what it wants to do when strong feelings emerge. (Hint: doing nothing is a poor choice.)

In my experience it is next to impossible to turn this dynamic around unless the group explicitly gives the facilitator (or someone else in the group with sufficient skill and moxie) the authority to engage the protagonists when conflict emerges, and this need to be in place ahead of the conflict—not established in the moment of crisis. Hint: It will probably not be enough to simply sign a blank check; it will serve the group well to establish ahead of time the menu from which the facilitator may choose how to engage with the conflict. There are a handful of decent options in this regard. Don't worry so much about getting the "best" one named. It will go a long way if you have a few named and make sure that the facilitators have the skill to execute them.

o  Doing the Personal Work
There can be considerable ore worth mining if you're willing to dig down and look at what your patterned response to conflict is and how that does or doesn't serve you. What does the fear protect you from? What is the bad thing that will happen if the fear goes unchecked? Is this response working for you? What would you prefer your response to be?

Though this work is not simple, it's doable and can lead to liberating yourself from unhelpful patterns. Sometimes professional help is beneficial in this effort.

o  Develop a Body of Positive Experiences
In the long run, perhaps the surest way to turn this around is to place yourself in groups where there is a commitment to engaging emotionally, for the purpose of accumulating personal experiences that contrast with the poor ones (where people got hurt when strong feelings were expressed and the group was left in a debilitated state) that are the basis for your patterned response.

By supporting your group turning the corner on this (by learning how to engage constructively in the presence of strong feelings and having the will to attempt it) you are putting yourself in position to have new and better experiences. Ultimately, a string of positive experiences will help you let go of your old fears (because it's old news) and will reinforce your desire to engage.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Heading West

It's Tuesday evening and I'm cooling my heels in the oversized Waiting Room of the refurbished Union Depot in St Paul MN, awaiting the on-time arrival of train #27, the westbound Empire Builder, for Portland OR and my facilitation training gig there this weekend.

On my way to the pick-up spot for the Duluth Skyline Shuttle this evening (about four hours ago) I stopped by Downtown Computer and plucked my ailing laptop from sick bay so that I'd have it on this trip. But I'm flying with two engines down. I have neither email capacity nor Microsoft Office, which means no Word and no Excel. As I conduct 98% of my business in those three programs, I'm pretty crippled.

I had dropped my laptop off with the good folks at Downtown Computer last Thursday afternoon, asking them to clean up my laptop in general and to remove the Trovi virus in particular. In the process they installed the Avast antivirus program, and wound up rebooting an updated operating system (I'm now running El Capitan) and reinstalling all of my programs. Unfortunately, the technie (George) needed my email server to complete the re-installation of Apple Mail and I wasn't able to track down the FIC web team quickly enough to get that into George's hands. 

I also just discovered that my copy of iCal has been stripped clean. Ugh. That was the calendar I've been relying on for the last eight years and it hurts to lose the data, both what's ahead and what I'd done. I'm hoping that the old data can yet be recovered. We'll see.

With only 15 minutes left to catch my van south to St Paul, I had to choose between taking my laptop as is (hoping to get Mail installed in Portland), or leaving it in Duluth and reuniting with it next Wed. Uffda. Ultimately, as you can tell from reading this, I took my laptop with me (at least Firefox is working).

Even if I'm unable to get Mail working in the coming days, I'll be able to work on my reports from the facilitation training before returning home and that will give me a leg up. Sometimes you have to settle for what you can get, and even a tenth of a loaf is better than none.

Yesterday I was thinking (wistfully it turns out) how I could devote most of tomorrow (as the choo choo rumbles across North Dakota and Montana) to catching up on my email. Oh well. More time for reading, I reckon, and contemplating how best to introduce this weekend's teaching theme—Conflict—to the class. Fortunately, since discovering my cancer four months ago, I've been working to make friends with it and I've come to enjoy the pleasures of a reduced workload quite a bit. So I don't anticipate any trouble making the adjustment. My email will simply have to wait.

I'm feeling good physically at the outset of this trip—in fact, it's the best I've felt since November. It will be interesting to see how well I hold up to 38 hours of travel in coach. With Susan's help I was able to pare down my travel luggage to the 25 lbs I loaded into my medium-sized roller suitcase. So I think I'll be OK on schlepping. With respect to the cumulative fatigue of travel, I'll have better than 22 hours to rest and recover once I arrive in Portland before the training begins in earnest at 9 am Friday morning, so I have some cushion there.

I'll let you all know how I'm faring once I get the Rose City Thursday morning. Hopefully I will not arrive in a bed of thorns.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

ER in the Gloaming

Sunday morning I noticed when I got up to pee around 5 am that I was developing a headache. While never any fun, headaches are fortunately rare for me. I made sure to drink a glass of water before returning to bed and figured that would take care of it. (The most common etiology for headaches, at least for me, is insufficient hydration.)

Unfortunately, that simple remedy didn't work and the headache gained in strength as the day arrived. As there was no trauma I could trace it to (I hadn't bumped my head into a door jamb, for instance) it was baffling to figure out what was going on, and what to do about it. At 9 am I started turning to my optional pharmacology. First I tried extra-strength Tylenol, but it didn't make a dent. At noon I took a muscle relaxant (Robaxin) that has been reliably effective in providing relief from back pain, but it also was ineffective up against my headache. Now what?

I tried going back to bed and that helped insofar as reduced movement equated to less pain, but my neck was getting stiff from holding my head so still. The whole experience was debilitating and I was losing ground on three fronts:

a) I was tired of the pain and had no clear pathway to relief. I get headaches so rarely that I didn't have much personal experience to guide my expectations.

b) In addition to the acute pain, after half a day of it there was also an accumulation of pain and the weary prospect of more to come. I didn't know how I was going to sleep that night.

c) I'm a cancer patient who is undergoing chemotherapy that involves my regular consumption of heavy-duty drugs, some of which can have serious, if unintended, side effects. Was that in play? Did the headache signal something even more serious related to my cancer?

As you can see, I had a lot of unpleasant thoughts dancing through my head, such that after 16 hours of coping with a headache that still hadn't crested that I was ready to ask for help. Fortunately, the oncology team that I work with in Duluth is on-call 24/7, and there was a doctor available to talk with me right away, even at 9 pm on a holiday weekend. My guy was worried about the possibility of bleeding in the brain (unlikely, but possible) and recommended a trip to the ER, which we dutifully took in the failing light (the sun sets late here in the North Country as we get close to Summer Solstice).

In situations like this the main strategy of emergency care medicine is to secure relief from pain and to discover, or rule out, dire causes. So ER docs are taught to look for boogey-men and then test for their presence—hopefully to eliminate them as being in play, but to respond promptly to them if they are. In my case, the docs were principally worried about bleeding in the brain, so that meant a CT scan of my head, followed by interpreting the results. Unfortunately, it took us until 1:30 am to get that far, and we still weren't done.

It happens (I didn't know this until yesterday) that CT scans are notorious for not giving a clear read on what's happening at the back of the head—which was the very spot in question. Ugh. That meant that the negative result was not conclusive, so the docs huddled and decided a lumbar puncture was called for, to see if there was blood in my spinal fluid. Double ugh. More fun yet. 

Though the puncture only took five minutes to perform, we didn't get it accomplished and the results examined until 4:30 am. Triple ugh. The end result of all this, I'm pleased to say, was that there was no indication of blood in my brain; I just had a garden variety headache of unknown origin. The upshot of this was that I could go home and enjoy the rest of my night. Whew!

Susan and I wearily drove home, just as dawn was beginning to lighten the Eastern sky.

It was a Memorial Day to remember. We were most grateful to be able to sleep in until 10 am.