Monday, March 2, 2009

Getting a Handle on Things

Today is Day Two of a week-long visit in Las Vegas with my son, Ceilee, my daughter-in-law, Tosca, my granddaughter, Taivyn, and my ex-partner and dear friend, Annie (who's also Ceilee's mother). Taivyn has now crossed the 10-month mark and this is the fourth visit to see her that I've been able to finagle since she emerged into the world last April 20. Notably, it is the first time that Annie and I have been with our grandchild simultaneously, and it is already being great fun for both of us.

As someone who's on the road half the time
(as a group process consultant, as a community networker, and now as a doting grandparent), I often benefit from the hospitality of others. Often I stay with friends; sometimes I stay with clients. When I'm at a friend's (and I'm not totally absorbed with a client), if I'm there more than a day or two I try to figure out a way to repay their kindness by giving something in return. While this is most commonly my taking them out to eat, or a gift of Sandhill honey or sorghum, on occasion people will allow me to tackle a home improvement project—especially if they know me pretty well.

As a homesteader on a farm that values self-sufficiency, I've learned basic carpentry, electrical wiring, plumbing, chain saw work, and an assortment of other DIY skills. My son, of course, knows that. And while Ceilee enjoys that kind of stuff himself (after all, he grew up on the same farm where I learned these skills), he's got a regular 9-5 M-F job and doesn't have much time available for home puttering once relaxation, cooking, eating, and quality time with his wife and daughter (not necessarily in that order) have been subtracted from his limited number of waking hours at home. All of which is to say, Ceilee had a list of projects waiting for my arrival. I flew into McCarran Sunday night, and had a screwdriver in my hand by 8 am Monday morning.

• • •
As a professional facilitator, it's important for me to figure out what's happening during a meeting. On the surface level, that means tracking the conversation and where it seems to be heading. Beneath that, I'm also expected to be able to get a handle on the interpersonal dynamics in the group and how the patterns there tend to complicate consideration of the issues.

Take last weekend. I was working with a group that was wrestling with the issue of how to fairly revalue the houses on their property. Although the group owns all the homes, member equity in the community (which they have a right to receive as a cash payment if and when they leave) is tied to the value assigned to the house that each member lives in. Originally, that value was tied to what it cost to build the house, adjusted annually by a COLA (cost of living adjustment). However, when the group recently looked at the possibility of building a new home (to accommodate additional members), they discovered, to their chagrin, that the cost of new construction was vastly higher than the book value of their existing homes. Perhaps double. Part of it was not selecting a good enough COLA; part of it was that construction costs have been rising faster than inflation.

As all members are expected to contribute equity to the community in relation to their housing, this reality created a great awakwardness. Under their existing agreements, if a new member moved into a house already built, they would simply asume the equity position of the former resident—which, for purposes of this explanation, might be $150,000. However, if the new person build a new home (instead of moving into an existing one), then their equity contribution would essentially equal the cost of construction, or $300,000. Double the price for a home of the same size and quality.

While this higher value would be returned to them if they left the community, it created a much higher financial bar for them to join, and the community wanted to address the issue of affordability both on grounds of fairness and diversity (hard to attract the younger members needed to effect an intergenerational mix if the buy-in costs were so high). There was dynamic tension between wanting the equity value of houses to rise—so that leaving members would receive a payout large enough that they had reasonable options for finding comparable housing elsewhere—and wanting equity values to be suppressed, so that cost was not a prohibitive barrier to joining the community.

While the issues were complex and not everyone found working with numbers equally comfortable (remember the range of enthusiasm in your fourth grade math class?), the waters were made even muddier by unresolved tensions among key members of the community Finance Committee, all of whom were long-term members of the community. In addtion to different philosophies and different ways of looking at the world (all of which fell within the normal range of what I see in cooperative groups, yet which are no less simple to navigate for being common), these folks also had very different communicaton styles and tended to find one another irritating.

We spent about 10 hours of plenary time grappling with this topic over the weekend. While we made steady progress laying out the background and identifying the values and factors that a good solution needed to balance, we really didn't turn the energetic corner on this topic (and get into that softer, more cretaive space where creative soltuions best germinate) until we were able to flush out a fuller statement of the tensions among Finance Committee members. The bad news was that this didn't occur until the 9th hour of the conversation. The good news is that it occurred at all, and proposals are no longer being held hostage to the unresoled interpersonal dynamics.

So this was a pretty good example of how I'm expected to get a handle on things, to help the group get unstuck. It's all in a weekend's work.
• • •
Imagine my amusement when I discovered what home improvement project headed the list that Ceilee and Tosca had generated for my visit: to install handles on all the cabinet doors and drawers in their new house (there are about 50). I guess getting a handle on things is what I do during weekdays, too.

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