Friday, December 19, 2008

The Role of Shepherd: Keeping Track of the Sheep

One of the most potent concepts in consensus is that of the neutral Facilitator. That is, the person guiding the plenary meetings should not be a stakeholder on the topics being discussed (or at least not a major stakeholder). The idea, simply, is that if the Facilitator is identified with a certain position, they'll likely slant things in the direction they favor, either wittingly or otherwise. If this is the perception, then participants will not experience the meeting as a level playing field, and it's much less likely that the topic will be examined cleanly.

In the context of plenary meetings, a corollary to this concept is the idea that the Presenter of each topic (the person who lays out why the group is talking about this topic and what the objective of the conversation is) will not be the Facilitator. It is relatively common for the Presenter (someone who knows the topic thoroughly and understands why it's coming before the group at this time) to have a definite opinion about what should happen. While you may want to be able to harness that passion in the presentation, you don't want their opinions to contaminate the neutrality of the Facilitator.

Even when the Facilitator thinks they can introduce a topic neutrally, beware! It is not always predictable what will trigger a reaction among participants, and if the Presenter inadvertently steps on a land mine, you'll be glad to have a separate Facilitator available to clean things up. The Facilitator's prime directive is helping the group move both inclusively and expeditiously through topics; they are there to safeguard the group's process and should be as disinterested as possible in the decisions.

Taking this one step further will get me to the primary focus of this blog: the role of Shepherd. It is quite common for a group to not complete a topic in the same meeting at which it is first introduced. When this happens there's inevitably a question of what will happen next. (To be sure, groups don't always address this question well, but they should.)

Sometimes a topic is advanced to the point where a person or subgroup is asked to work the topic in particular ways: for example, to conduct research, to craft a summary statement, to go door-to-door to solicit input from members who missed the meeting, or to draft a proposal taking into account all the factors that surfaced in the discussion. In addition to that, there is the role of Shepherd, the person or committee who:

o Collects and archives all the input from group members relevant to the topic.

o Sees to it that all assigned tasks are completed in an orderly way (by which I mean involving all the right people in a timely manner). Note: the Shepherd may or may not be the one doing these tasks.

o Makes sure that the topic comes back to plenary when it's ready to be taken up next—when assigned tasks have been completed, the presenter is good to go, and there's group energy for the tackling the consideration. This will involve collaboration with the Agenda Planners [see my blog of Jan 25, 2008 for more on this role].

o Answers inquiries about what's been happening with the topic.

o Tracks progress on the topic until all plenary aspects have been disposed of, at which point the Shepherd role is laid down.

In addition, at the discretion of the plenary, the Shepherd may be asked to:

Suggest the order and format in which subtopics are considered. It may also have recommendations about what useful work can be done on this topic outside of plenary.

As I am defining it here, the Shepherd is a coordinating role, and not a decision-making role. It is the Shepherd's job to make sure that the sheep (or threads, if you prefer a weaving metaphor) are not lost and that they are properly cared for and sorted; it is not their job to shear, breed, or butcher. The key here is understanding that Shepherds have a defined, limited role. Good ones can significantly relieve the workload of both Agenda Planners and Facilitators—two groups that tend to have overflowing plates, and which will greatly appreciate the pastoral assistance.

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