Saturday, October 4, 2008

Poisoned Fruit

One of the most common issues I run into in group dynamics has to do with well-intentioned committee work—which could even be the product of one person's efforts acting alone—that gets trashed when it comes back to the whole group for evaluation and approval (or at least that's the committee's impression).

While it's always possible that the committee just missed the boat and failed to reasonably work with the group's known concerns, the more common explanation is that the group either: a) never asked the committee to work on that issue; or b) simply assigned the work to the committee without giving it adequate (or even any) guidance about what to take into account. In both cases, it can lead to a train wreck.

Let's suppose the committee gives the issue serious attention (by which I mean lots of hours of research and proposal crafting) and does solid work in coming up with a proposal. If they have a blind spot and miss one or more key factors that need to be addressed, the proposal may unravel on the plenary floor. The committee members feel deflated (instead of the celebration and appreciation they had been anticipating, they instead get criticized for moving too fast, or pushing a personal agenda!), the issue remains unresolved, and nobody particularly wants to pick up the hot potato. Worse, who'll want to serve on a committee next time an issue pops up?

It's not unusual to get asked as a consultant to help a group deal with an issue that has this dynamic as part of the package, and often there's poisoned fruit involved. (It looks nice, but don't eat it!) Let me explain how this works.

In my most recent example of this, the topic was Work/Participation. There had been numerous attempts to clarify the community's position on what work needed doing, yet none of them had gone smoothly and it was a rancorous issue. Understandably, some members of the group wanted to preserve the hard-earned fruits of those past labors, and avoid starting back at Square One. (The topic had never been that much fun to discuss, and they wanted to maximize the use of prior work and minimize what it took to get to the finish line—which is pretty understandable.)

However, once I'd determined that other members of the community had foundational concerns with how that prior work had been generated (by which I mean the community had never established an agreed set of factors that would be used to screen what work went onto the list of what was needed), then I knew we couldn't take a bite of that prior fruit. As tempting as it was, it was poisoned by poor process. Better to take the long way around and do it right. In such cases, it's actually quicker to go back to Square One. (Just as building a new house from scratch is often easier than adding on to an old house.)

When doing an energy audit on what it takes to make an effective decision, you don't just count the person-hours devoted to discussing the topic in meeting; you also have to take into account the quality of implementation and buy-in with the decision. It's no bargain if the group grumbles about the outcome. Once you've determined that an issue deserves whole group attention, it is a penny wise and pound foolish to attempt to save time by shortcutting the process. 

Eating poisoned fruit just gives you indigestion.

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