Sunday, September 20, 2009

When to Reass

Yesterday afternoon I witnessed a facilitator bring a group back from a break and moon everyone in the first 60 seconds. I'd never seen that before.

I'm working with a group this weekend where the prime directive is for me to coach their facilitators as the community tackles tough issues around refining how they practice consensus and making decisions about the next residence to construct. We have 11 hours of plenaries lined up accomplish as much as possible inside of 42 hours, and that's providing 8-9 members of the group the opportunity to take a turn at the wheel under my tutelage.

As a teacher, this is facilitation improv, and one of the most fun things I do. There isn't much I can prepare for; mostly I just teach the moment, which includes stepping in to offer a redirection or summary while the meeting in progress; conferring with the facilitator(s) on break to help them road map the next sequence of focus; and meeting with folks outside of session to discuss facilitation—all of which takes place in the highly caffeinated world of process junkies, where people meet immediately before and after each meeting to discuss the meeting.

On the front end, I orchestrate the prep: we go over the objectives, identify a productive sequence of engagement, discuss format options, and anticipate potential potholes on the road to success. Afterward we repair to a quiet corner to debrief what happened: we explore confusing moments, celebrate effective choices, and walk through how to handle awkward moments differently the next time around.

When you're addicted to good process, like I am, it's hard to imagine a better life. I'm in meetings all day (I'm composing this blog before dawn, because when the sun comes up I'm in a meeting), I get to teach people who really care about what I'm good at, there's strong coffee (with half-and-half) available all day long, everyone is laughing a lot, we're accomplishing real work, there's excellent beer at the end of the day, and I get paid to do this. How good can it get?

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
gang aft agley —Robert Burns

Getting back to yesterday's meeting, I was observing the final plenary of the day, sitting right next to the flip chart easel. During a break, I had worked intensively with the two guys tag-teaming the facilitation to tease out the nuggets from 40 minutes of small group deliberations and determine possible ways to focus the final 30 minutes of the day—where the emphasis was on ending with as much solid product as we could gather. It was the fourth quarter, and we needed a touchdown. It was an animated 15-minute huddle (while everyone else was stretching, going to the bathroom, getting a cup of coffee, or all three), and my position was roughly analogous to a football coach drawing up a new play for the team on the back of a napkin during the final timeout.

As we were running a little late (the 10-minute break had stretched to 22) one of the two quarterbacks hastily scribbled the revised agenda on the flip chart and called everyone back to their seats. From my sight lines, I couldn't read what had actually been written on paper, but I knew were in trouble when one woman joked that "She was OK with the plan generally, but wanted no part of being "reassed"; she was fine with the one she had."

This comment immediately drew attention to the author's half-assed attempt at spelling, where the term "reassess" was missing its final "s." In the midst of this rising tide of ribald back door jocularity, the facilitator decided,
wisely in my opinion, to ride the wave (rather than buck it) and the next thing I knew he had his pants down and was bending over to demonstrate how "reassing" was actually done. This did a marvelous job of unifying the energy in the room, though not necessarily on the topic of construction.

After a minute of silence, everyone was able to resume a normal heart rate, as well as proper meeting decorum. The final 30 minutes was satisfyingly productive, and a valuable lesson was learned: i
n the heat of the moment, sloppy spelling can sometimes bite you in the assessment.

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