Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Untangling Hair Balls

Last week I was in Atlanta (at East Lake Commons) to deliver Weekend I (of eight) of the two-year training I’m offering with my wife—Ma’ikwe Ludwig—in Integrative Facilitation. In exchange for hosting the weekend, the home community had the chance for outside facilitation of meetings on real issues (I figure the students learn much faster facing live bullets than through reading, watching demonstrations, or practicing role plays).

In this case, East Lake Commons selected a community favorite: Work/Participation. It’s probably the single topic I have the most experience navigating as a process consultant. In fact, almost all cooperative groups struggle with this one.

In addition to being a volatile topic (one in which emotional distress is common), it’s also a complex topic. That makes it a double whammy, and it’s no wonder that groups struggle with it. While it was a tough nut for the students to attempt to crack in Weekend I, it also offered an abundance of teaching moments, one of which I want to share in this blog: a model for tackling a complex topic (aka “a hair ball”), based on the old military strategy of “divide and conquer”:

Step 1: Identify all the questions that need to be addresses (the interwoven strands of the hair ball).

Step 2: Tackle them one at a time. Hint: while it’s likely that some strands will make more sense to tackle before others, don’t get hung up on the sequence. Expect many of the strands to be interconnected and for there to be complaints that the best answer to the current strand depends on the answer to other strands. Do not be dismayed! Just be diligent about keeping the focus on one strand at a time. If you allow multiple strands to be discussed concurrently, you’ll be at risk of getting swamped by the variables, which expand exponentially. (See Step 7 for how to navigate the issue of interconnectedness.)

Step 3: In working a particular strand, your first order of business is identifying all the factors that a good response to this issue needs to take into account. This is essentially a brainstorm, where you want to set aside evaluative comments—at least at the outset. Warning: Once you’ve determined that a particular strand is plenary worthy, make sure that this step happens in plenary (as opposed to in a committee).

Step 4: After you’ve completed identifying factors, go through a vetting step, where you establish that each factor generated in the brainstorm belongs on the list by virtue of its being connected with at least one explicitly held common value. The point of this is to separate legitimate group factors from personal preferences.

Step 5: Next comes problem solving, where you attempt to find the proposed response that best balances the factors that survived the winnowing of the previous step. Hint: the trick to having this stage go efficiently, is making it clear that you are looking for suggestions that connect and bridge the various factors; you are not looking for advocacy here.

Step 6: After crafting your best response for dealing with this strand, set it aside and pick up another. Repeat as needed, until all strands identified in Step 1 have been addressed.

Step 7: Last, take a look at the whole package, to ascertain how well the individualized responses hang together as a cohesive package, making adjustments as needed.

• • •
Note that in this model, problem solving (Step 5) does not begin until you have completed identifying (Step 3) and vetting (Step 4) all the factors that a good response needs to take into account. It is very common for groups to struggle with complex topics because well-intentioned subgroups attempt to draft proposals prior to the factors having been agreed upon in plenary. Don’t fall into this trap! For good results, it is important to keep one’s problem-solving cart squarely behind the criteria horse.

1 comment:

IntoNow said...

Hi, Laird,
I followed the link here from one of your recent posts, and am glad I did. This is helpful, even though what you lay out is fairly simple -- lather, rinse, repeat. It's probably similar to what I do anyway -- but it's useful and reassuring to me to have it articulated clearly!!