Monday, May 4, 2009

Third Time's the Charm

It's Sunday evening, and I've just concluded a weekend of consulting with a group in northern California. It's the third time I've worked with this group since August, and it was a solid confirmation of the advantage of multiple visits, with breathing room in between.

A number of years ago I recall having a conversation with Sam Kaner (lead author of Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, and principal of the San Francisco-based consulting firm Community at Work), in which he reported being at the place in his career where he no longer accepted clients unless they were willing to commit to multiple visits. What a revelation! Though I had never thought of asking for that, the advantages were obvious. From that point forward I started angling for that whenever I discussed work with prospective clients, and every now and then I get what I ask for.

If you know that you have a future weekend booked with the same client, it can take considerable pressure off the weekend at hand—you don't have to do everything in one go, and you can teach sequentially. The payoff of this more gradual (and therefore humane) approach was never more apparent than this weekend.

Like many groups, my client this weekend had a history of fairly passive meeting facilitation and no history of working emotionally in plenary. My primary assignment was to help them work through a backlog of tensions and to model how to work topics that were simultaneously
complex and emotionally volatile. The first weekend (where they were test driving me as a consultant), I did all of the facilitating. When they liked my work well enough to contract for three more weekends, I asked to start the second weekend by observing their facilitators run a "typical" meeting.

While the group had some concerns about whether they'd be getting full value out of paying me to watch them, it turned out they did. Not only was I able to reference my comments for the remainder of the weekend to what I observed Friday evening, I also got a much more accurate read on the cultural shifts that would be needed for the community to turns things around.

At the conclusion of the second weekend, I strongly suggested that for the
third weekend we switch our approach and rely as fully as possible on the community's own facilitators to run the sessions, with me helping them prep and available on the sidelines to coach and step in if things got off track. The community agreed to this suggestion and the primary facilitation of the weekend's 10+ hours of plenary was divvied up among three members of the community. To be sure, I stepped in often—to make comments and to handle some delicate moments—yet all three facilitators did an exemplary job and the group was buoyed by the experience of seeing their own people step up strongly. Now, for the first time, the group believes in its own capacity to commit to substantive changes in how they run meetings, and to actualy pull it off.

As a consultant, it was gratifying to see the group progress from overwhelmed to hopeful; from entrenched to enriched. It was exciting to witness the group responding well to the training progression:

Weekend I: relying totally on me to demonstrate a better way
Weekend II: bridging from my practices to their current habits
Weekend III: having them behind the wheel, with me serving as a safety net
Weekend IV: fine tuning the skills of their facilitators

In this learning sequence, the group gets a chance to absorb principles of good meeting dynamics in their bones—not just in their heads. In a single weekend, it's rarely possible to access this kind of learning. Instead, if all you can count on is a 48-hour stretch with the client, about the best you can hope for
is to deliver an inspirational demonstration of good technique, which, unfortunately, is rarely enough to turn a corner.

As a consultant, I'm always trying to work myelf out of a job. This weekend, perhaps for the first time, it really felt like I mght make it.

1 comment:

Liz Logan said...

Makes perfect sense, and fits with my experience and what many of my colleagues are doing in the Genuine Contact program. I really like this model.

I am also appreciating how imporant it is to have down time in between training for digestion and learning journals for reflection, not to mention homework... which reminds me, I need to go work on mine!