Saturday, January 30, 2010

Nurturing the Culture of Collaboration and Curiosity

I’m visiting with FIC Board members Jenny Upton & Marty Klaif. They live at Shannon Farm, located about 30 miles west of Charlottesville VA, tucked into a valley just below Rockfish Gap, where I-64 crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail. Today is the conclusion of a two-day meeting of the Fellowship’s Oversight Committee, which convenes semi-annually for face-to-face conversations to reset the organization’s gyroscope midway between our spring and fall Board meetings. It also gives me an excuse to see friends.

We were supposed to have driven to Dunmire Hollow yesterday, to rendezvous with fellow Board member Harvey Baker, but we were dissuaded by a forecast of freezing rain, followed by sleet, and topped off with heavy snow. As much as we love Harvey and a weekend of being sequestered in his handmade house in the wooded hollers outside Waynesboro TN, we value our lives even more. There was a marked dearth of enthusiasm at the prospect of all-day ice capades, where we'd be negotiating 600 miles in shitty weather, pausing for two days of meetings, and then doing it all again in reverse. Even if we managed to stay on the road and arrive unscathed, we’d be exhausted by the tension. Keeping in view that telephony is a relatively well-developed technology—and getting cheaper all the time—the idea of including Harvey by sound seemed very sound.

As I type this Saturday morning, snow is gently accumulating outside Jenny’s house: two inches so far with several inches more en route. This is the tail end of the storm that glazed Tennessee yesterday. If you don‘t have to drive in it (and there’s no danger of running out of half-and-half) it’s delightful to sip coffee by the wood stove and watch a Christmas card unfold before your eyes.

• • •

Two nights ago, Marty & Jenny asked me to be a resource for an after dinner salon at Shannon, to explore the ways in which the community’s style of doing consensus was helping or hindering them achieve the desired outcome of solid decisions, characterized by efficiency and enhanced connection among members. About 20 people showed up (which is about a third of the adult population) and we chatted for a couple hours.

Mostly we talked about the culture of consensus—both what it is and how to manifest it. This is such a great topic I thought I’d blog about.

While there are many aspects to healthy culture, I’m going to confine my comments to two aspects of how a group wrestles with non-trivial issues in plenaries (meetings of the whole). I figure if you can get that part right, the rest will follow pretty easily. Those two parts are Discussion and Proposal Generation.

Principle #1: Once an issue has been identified as being plenary worthy (that is, it has passed a group-determined screen for being appropriate for whole-group attention) then you should religiously complete the Discussion phase prior to beginning the Proposal Generating phase.

If you don’t, people’s premature ideas about solutions skew the conversation and muddy the water. Worse, many groups adopt the standard that issues should be introduced to the group accompanied by a draft proposal for how to solve them (under the mistaken notion that this will save time). Unfortunately, many groups start with a proposal on the table—and many groups struggle with the ensuing dynamics.

The point of the Discussion phase is to identify all the factors that a good solution to the problem needs to take into account. If group members are allowed (much less encouraged) to propose responses prior to getting all the factors on the table, it’s placing the cart firmly in front of the horse, and it’s just a crap shoot whether the solution can anticipate all the factors and do a decent job of balancing them. What’s more, there can be a lot of time eaten up with defending premature solutions, and people who have not yet contributed their thoughts about factors may give up, thinking the train has already left the station. It can be a real mess.

While Discussion can happen in a wide variety of ways, let me offer a plain old vanilla three-part method for accomplishing this:

Step 1—Brainstorm the factors: let everyone offer in an unrestricted way what they think should be taken into account—hopes, fears, concerns, questions, values, etc.

Step 2—Vet the list: take the brainstormed ideas and ask the group whether everything proposed is a factor that the group should take into account (as opposed to something that’s basically just of concern to the person who proposed it). The idea here is to screen suggestions for the ones that can be reasonably linked with the groups’ common values and mission. The aim here is to secure group buy-in that everything remaining is appropriate to be taken into account.

Step 3—Prioritize the vetted list: address whether some aspects take precedent over others, or whether all factors be weighted evenly.

Hint: when a group gets used to this sequence, Steps 2 and 3 tend to go pretty quickly, because members get in the habit of only suggesting group-appropriate factors in Step 1, and there are usually only a few things (or none) that you want to emphasize in Step 3.

While doing the Discussion phase well is important, it needn’t be that hard. For the most part, the heavy lifting is done during Proposal Generating. What you’re emphasizing in Discussion is listening and sorting, and making sure that everyone’s input is welcome. Caution: there can be considerable variety in what “welcome” looks like to people. Where some members may thrive in a wide-open raucous brainstorm where people toss comments in on top of each other like live grenades; others find this hopelessly chaotic. Where some prefer a more contemplative, one-person-at-a-time talking stick format for gathering input, that slower (sometimes rambling) pace can drive others bonkers.

Once the group has completed Discussion, then it's time for solutions. In many cases it may be an excellent idea to ask a committee (or even an inspired individual) to draft a proposal based on what comes out of Discussion. However, let’s suppose you want to keep the conversation going in plenary.

Principle #2: There is an optimum tone for each phase of working an issue. In Discussion you want to emphasize curiosity and inclusivity. This can include advocacy and considerable passion, yet shouldn't be characterized by people feeling isolated or not heard. In Proposal Generating you want something quite different: you’re looking for bridging, and the exploration of ideas about how to connect and balance disparate concerns; you want creativity and discernment. Advocacy should be checked at the door. Where you are emphasizing acceptance in the brainstorming aspect of Discussion, you want to labor with contributors in Proposal Generating, drawing out their thinking about how well their ideas connect the dots.

The most valuable contributions in this phase are those that offer new ways to put things together or to respectfully balance factors coming out of Discussion. Sometimes this is done through an accumulation of partial links (rather than by producing a unified field theory that ties everything together with a ribbon and bow). Creating and maintaining this kind of environment is typically the trickiest part, as it calls for the greatest departure from the adversarial and competitive environment most of us were steeped in growing up. The more a particular issue grabs us, the more we have a conditioned tendency to fight for our position (as opposed to surrendering to the wisdom of the group). Thus, to succeed in creating the culture needed in Proposal Generating, it's necessary to lay down your weapons, and to be open to fresh thinking about how best to respond.

When I laid this out at Shannon there was simultaneously interest and in the room and skepticism. People could see that I was offering something different—and perhaps something badly needed—yet there was considerable inertia in a community that had been around for 36 years. There was some despair about what it would take to turn the good ship Shannon onto a new course. People weren't sure it could be done.

While it might be tempting to wonder what’s taken the community so long to get around to asking these questions, I believe that’s looking at dynamics through the wrong end of the telescope. The thing to focus on here is that the group still cares and still has energy to make it better. That’s gold. While I don’t know what success they’ll have in shifting out of their well-worn grooves for addressing issues, they have a chance. There's juice in the group to have the kind of culture I described, and I'm celebrating that.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Walking the Line Between Facilitating & Consulting

As a process professional, I'm frequently asked to both help a group through a tough issue (typically one that's both complicated and volatile, though not always) and to offer advice about how they can operate more effectively & inclusively. In the case of the former, the group is looking more for my skill as a facilitator; in the case of the latter, they're wanting my thoughts as a consultant. Given that good facilitators should not be mucking around in the content of the conversation, it's dangerous business when I'm wearing both hats—and I try to warn groups about that potential confusion up front.

I'll give you example to illuminate how messy this can get. Last weekend Ma'ikwe and I were conducting a facilitation training in Atlanta, at a cohousing community called East Lake Commons. While the teaching aspect of the weekend is focused on facilitation, the live work we were doing for the host community was on the topic of Work Participation (which is a fairly common issue for groups to wrestle with and one that I've worked with as an outside consultant a dozen times).

Going into the weekend, the students had asked me to do some of the facilitating for East Lake Commons, so they could see me work. In addition, the host community had made a request that I offer some consulting advice about how to get through the complexities of the Work Participation (based on my experience with that issue and with group dynamics in general). Thus, when we prepped Friday afternoon for the opening plenary that evening, I was in the awkward position of explaining to the facilitation class how I was going to give advice as a consultant (rather than making clear how I was going to run the meeting as a facilitator).

This got even crazier the next day when I had to caution the class about how to properly digest what happened Friday night, when I laid out a recommended package for how to manage labor. There was a very positive response at to my suggestion that the community establish a standing committee which I styled the Participation Committee, whose job it would be to track what was wanted and what was being accomplished. I recommended that this committee canvass the entire membership to determine what interest, skills, and availability people had for work that the community wanted done, and that it be on call to assist other committees whenever they encountered difficulties in getting needed tasks covered.

Saturday morning I emphasized that what had happened Friday night had little to do with facilitation, and a lot to do with my deep experience as a consultant. Moreover, the community had done a lot of work to be in a position of receptivity to hear advice on that topic. If either of those two ingredients had been missing, the result of my having offered device might have been vastly different and I didn't want the students getting the notion that it was jim dandy to simply spout off with whatever advice they were inspired to give on the topic at hand. (I've seen what can happen when students attempt this without permission, and it ain't pretty—"Who died and appointed you God?")

As it's tempting to want to be the savior (where the group is eagerly gathering the pearls of wisdom dribbling from your lips, to string together into the Necklace of Insight), I have some words of advice about donning that persona:

1) Unless you have been explicitly hired as a consultant, don't offer advice without first getting permission to do so ("I have some suggestions for how you might handle this situation; would like to hear them?").

2) If you're an outside facilitator, you might be better off packaging your suggestions in a report given to the group afterward, rather than steering the conversation toward your ideas in the moment.

3) As a facilitator, you need to be scrupulous about limiting your direction to what members of the group have brought into play. That is, it's OK to suggest ways to work with the ideas and concerns that the members have contributed; it's not OK to start mixing in ideas based solely on your own experience or thinking.

4) If, as the facilitator, you make suggestions about what the group should do, it's important that you monitor closely how the group responds. If there's resistance, it's crucial that you not fight for your position and accept gracefully that the group is not buying it. If you don't, it immediately undermines your neutrality, which is an essential piece of your license to facilitate.

5) If you feel compelled to drift into the consultant role, pause and make it explicit to the group that that's what you're doing—be transparent!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Jeremy Bentham and Consensus

Today was the final day of a facilitation training weekend in Atlanta, and during a prep session I got into an interesting discussion with an experienced student about consensus that revolved around how much effort to put into working with outliers—the folks in a group whose orbit is furthest from the core. Where I feel that consensus groups are obliged to try everything they can think of to work constructively with the input of all members, my student demurred. She preferred a philosophy that evoked the spirit of Jeremy Bentham, the 19th Century British philosopher who advocated Utilitarianism: the notion that society would be best off if it consistently made choices that would produce the greatest good for the greatest number.

As far as I'm concerned this is essentially the same theory behind democratic voting—that if we support what the majority wants then more people will be happy than not. Even leaving aside such abuses as disinformation, ballot-box fraud, and what Noam Chomsky styles "manufacturing consent," completely fair and open elections (assuming there are such animals) can lead to tyranny of the majority. In fact, widespread dissatisfaction with voting processes is no small part of the impetus for cooperative groups to try consensus—where no relevant thought (however childish) is left behind.

While I'm a strong proponent of consensus, I freely admit it's not an easy process to master. It calls for a completely different mind set than the adversarial and competitive one that we've been deeply conditioned to accept as the water we swim in, and unless the group succeeds in creating and maintaining a culture of curiosity and collaboration in which to conduct its business, consensus is not much more than unanimous voting, which tends to be exhausting.

Knowing of this frustration (there are untold numbers of cooperative groups who blithely adopt consensus as their decision-making process with no commitment to training in it and with little idea about what it takes to get good results), the advocate for Utilitarian Consensus was trying to make the case for a middle ground approach where a group would first make a good faith effort to achieve consensus, but if it didn't succeed (after x number of meetings), then it would proceed to voting, with some kind of super majority (80%?) needed for a proposal to be adopted. That way, stubborn holdouts would not be able to stop the group from moving in a direction that was overwhelmingly popular. It was a way to cope with tyranny of the minority.

While I can follow why there are supporters of this approach (frustration with outliers is a relatively common phenomenon in consensus groups), I don't support it and resist labeling it consensus.

One premise that undergirds the position favoring Utilitarian Consensus is that many outliers don't seem to act in the best interests of the group. Another is that some portion of outliers don't belong in the group (either because there isn't an appropriate values match, or they're consistently violating agreements about acceptable behavior). While I acknowledge that these things occur, and there are times when separation is the right conclusion, I think it should only be considered when all other attempts at constructive resolution have failed.

I worry that if a group uses consensus with a voting back-up, then the majority will not work diligently enough to find a way to include the outliers. The pressure will all be on the holdouts to persuade more people to their view, because if the stalemate persists the minority will simply be outvoted. Worse, if the group votes with any regularity, it may never successfully make the transition from a voting culture to a collaborative culture.

Culture, Not Cloture
While it's not hard to understand the impetus for a voting back-up as a response to endless meetings (trial by exhaustion), I have a different idea. Instead of focusing on how to limit air time for the disaffected (cloture), look at how to create the right atmosphere for group deliberations, well-oxygenated by the warm breezes of bridging energy (rather than enervated by the chill winds of advocacy). In order to access the true power of consensus—both to solve problems and enhance the connections & energy in the group—it's important to step off the merry-go-round of battling for individual favorites in the interest of finding the solutions that best balance all the factors in play. It means learning how to step outside your own analysis to see what's best for the whole. There's magic in that and super-majority voting does not promote it.

Having said all that, there is yet another level to this examination: at what point is it reasonable to conclude that everyone doesn't belong in the same group and it's OK to let go of the hope that you can find a way to include everyone? At what point is it appropriate to start encouraging the disaffected to leave the group?

This is a delicate matter, yet important to start defining before you're there (as it's nearly impossible to be seen as handle this even-handedly if the viability of a specific membership is at risk). When has the group tried enough and it's time to pull the plug?

Fortunately, if you have decently articulated standards about the qualities you're looking for in members and are reasonably diligent about screening for a good fit, then this will be a rare occurrence. Nonetheless, most groups that last for any length of time face some version of this at least once in their existence. Thus—whether you cleave to the version of consensus that I espouse or are inclined toward the Utilitarian model—you're still well advised to prepare to have to face this unpleasant moment.

Guideposts on What Will Help You Sleep at Night (If You're Thinking of Asking Someone to Leave the Group)
While there's no hard and fast rule that will guide you unerringly to know when the moment to let go has arrived, I can give you some useful hints. In no particular order:

Hint #1: If in connection with the outlier's latest challenge you haven't at least once been with them in a meeting where you were not triggered by their behavior and can honestly say that you were there for them, then you probably haven't tried everything.

Hint #2: If you haven't been able to demonstrate to the outlier's satisfaction that you've understood their point of view, then you haven't tried hard enough.

Hint #3: If you're thinking of leaving the group rather than asking someone else to, you're probably at the end of the line.

Hint #4: If you've asked in outside help in an attempt to resolve the impasse and there's been no movement, you may be done.

Hint #5: If you can't see any way to interpret the outlier's behavior was well-intentioned, try harder (you can be sure the outlier's story will not be that they've been placed on Earth simply to torment you and the rest of the group—find out what their story is and try it on before giving up).

Hint #6: You can object to someone's behavior and still respect their feelings and ideas. If you think that objectionable behavior means that someone's contributions to a discussion are disqualified, think again—they may be doing the best they can. Don't conflate the way people express themselves with what they are saying.

Hint #7: If you're having trouble articulating what the outlier has done that violates an explicit group agreement, then think twice before asking them to leave—the tension may simply be illuminating ambiguity in what the groups stands for or how it operates.

Hint #8: If you haven't given the outlier a clear opportunity to hear concerns about what places their membership in jeopardy and given that person a reasonable chance to correct the problem, then it's questionable that you've followed due process or acted with compassion.

Hint #9: Finally, if you find yourself telling the story over and over about how you had to do it, it probably means you're uneasy about the possibility of having acted precipitously (methinks the lady doth protest too much.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Falling Short as a Partner

Two days ago, Ma'ikwe told me, “I want to talk about what marriage means to each of us.”

OK, I thought. That sounded like a good subject. It turned out, however, that when we got into it, that she first wanted to address a different topic, "Ways in which I’m frustrated with you as my partner.” While this wasn't exactly bait-and-switch—I believe that Ma’ikwe is genuinely interested in the first topic—it’s just that we never got there because the surprise topic was on top, and not simple to navigate.

Here's a summary of her critical feedback:

I’m not with her enough. In particular, I don’t spend enough time at her home, Dancing Rabbit. With her current health challenges (see my blog of Dec 29, 2009) it appears that the stress of travel may be too much and she’ll have limited energy for working with me, which chokes a significant part of how we’ve been together during our 4+ years as a couple (either through participating in FIC meetings/events, or through delivering group process consulting and/or training together. For the immediate future it appears that this pathway to time together will be more of a gravel road than a four-lane highway.
Jibran, Ma’ikwe’s 12-year-old son, much prefers being at DR to being at Sandhill (where I live), and it’s awkward for her to come over to Sandhill without him. So it’s much easier for her if I come over to DR. And I haven’t been doing that enough to suit her.
I’ve committed to too many things and/or not prioritizing time with her high enough. If I took on less, there’d be more of me to go around.
My major commitments include:
o My partnership with Ma’ikwe
o My home community, Sandhill Farm
o My two kids (and their partners and my granddaughter)
o Process work
o Friendships (far and wide)
o Writing (mainly for Communities magazine, this blog, and the book in me trying to be born—see my blog of Sept 25, 2009)
While I’m reluctant to take anything off this list, or even to shrink my current level of commitment to any of these (magnificent?) seven, Ma’ikwe has urged me to look more closely at this, as well as the possibility that I might cut loose some lesser planets of connection circling around me in deeper orbit. Her sense, at least part of the time, is that she’s dead last when it comes to how I parse out my time among the Big Seven. Ouch! While I don't share her assessment of how I prioritize my time, it's sobering to know her view and feel her hurt.
I’m not consulting with her enough before making commitments with my time. When I countered that it was my sense that she did the same, she had a different story. Ma'ikwe felt that I turned down her invitations to be more involved in her choices about where to commit, whereas she never got invited to offer input on my choices.
In the past year, I stepped down from administering a health care fund for the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, and became a founding member of Green Eggs (see my blog of July 26, 2009), a consortium of cooperative business consultants. While each of these involvements represent a similar minor time commitment, Ma’ikwe was totally supportive of my passing on the FEC responsibilities, yet upset that I jumped into Green Eggs without first discussing with her whether that made sense in terms of everything currently on my plate (I had been discussing with her all along my growing interest in cooperative economics; yet she felt left out of the decision-making).
How It Looks from My End of the Kaleidoscope
I like how I apportion my life, and I value all of the commitments I have. Still, I want to honor Ma’ikwe’s requests. When I suggested that I might be able make more time available for her if I cut back on down time, she was dismayed. She wants me to offload significant chunks of commitments (though not to her, of course) so that there’d be fewer periods of squeeze, where too many things are clamoring for my attention at the same time.
While I can’t be sure she’s wrong, I am highly reluctant to attempt less. I feel that many people have supported my getting to where I am today and that I have service obligations to do what I can to repay that investment. Though Ma’ikwe’s is arguing that the quality of my service will be enhanced by accepting fewer commitments, I don’t think this is her call to make.
Unfortunately, her upset raises the ante, as what's at stake now is not just what I can deliver, it's how well I'm perceived as a responsive (as distinct from a responsible) partner. This is tricky stuff, and I'm not at all confident I'll get it right. Fortunately, however—and I truly mean this—Ma'ikwe will be a faithful barometer, and won't hold back on letting me know how well I'm doing. It's what good partners do for each other.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Cultures I've Called Home

Home is one of those elephant words, whose meaning at any given time depends upon which part you’re touching. This is the third installment of a blog series where I unpack some of those meanings…

Essentially, I experience home as the familiar yet precious elements of our lives. Home is where we feel seen and connected. It is where we touch our roots and the place from where we fruit. It is at once a paradoxical touchstone that is both now and hopelessly distorted by a past that we can never really return to, nor ever truly free ourselves from.

Here's the outline of my series:
—Home as Family (Dec 24, 2009)
—Home as Place (Dec 27, 2009)
—Home as Culture
—Home as Routine
—Home as Work

In this third entry, I'll focus on Home as Culture.

Over the years, I've tasted a number of these. I grew up in the Republican Leave-It-To-Beaver suburbs of Chicago. Then there was my intoxicating (in multiple senses of the term) residential college experience, rife with hot stove political debate and social experimentation of all stripes. Beginning in my early 20s I settled into the arcane world of intentional community, with its unique mix of sustainability, authenticity, and grunge. Surrounding that, my community life is embedded in a traditional small town rural America culture that is an amalgam of God-and-apple-pie conservative, live-and-let-live libertarian, and unpretentious aw-shucks hillbilly. (Thus, driving into Memphis MO, our county seat, last week to donate blood for the Red Cross and to browse at the public library, it was like crossing an international cultural boundary—though only separated by 13 vehicle miles, Sandhill and Memphis are thousands of miles apart when measured by temperament and weltanschauung.

Let me examine each of these in turn.

1. Suburban America Culture
This was a self-absorbed culture that didn't concern itself much with what happened elsewhere (think of the movie, The Truman Show). When I grew there in the '50s and '60s the American Dream of upward mobility was not yet discredited.

While there were some things of substance discussed openly (issues around child rearing, the Vietnam War, the job market), there were many other substantive topics that were off limits (intimacy, what constitutes abuse, failures in the democratic process—when you wanted to throw up at the prospect of the Republican or the Democrat getting elected). There's only so much speculation about the weather or what fruit to suspend in your lime jello that a person can stomach, and loyalty to da Cubs, da Bears, and da Bulls palls after the umpteenth iteration.

2. College Dormitory Culture
This was not just a melting pot; it was a stirred pot. Kids who have been placed together primarily on the basis of SAT scores do not comprise a particularly homogenous cohort. By luck, I thrived in a college (Carleton, in Northfield MN) that had little off-campus housing and required everyone to be in residence (no commuters). As it developed, this was a precursor to community living and gave me my first taste of the intensity and stimulation that are characteristic of intentional communities.

I loved the late night bull sessions and trying to figure out the right balance of social and academic where there was no longer parents present to rein me in when I strayed off track. I liked taking responsibility for my own life.

The summer before my senior year the Vietnam War had come to a head. The draft was at its peak, and I got to experience, for the first time, how cultures can clash. I felt that I had more or less fit in and was acculturated pretty well living in the suburbs through high school. In college, just like everyone else, I was questioning the assumptions of the status quo, and felt like I was essentially searching my soul in the same manner as my peers. However, when I went home in the summer of 1970 (student strikes had led to suspended classes the preceding spring, after Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia), it was immediately apparent that my suburban culture was on a collision course with my college culture.

Adults in the suburbs of Chicago were pissed off that students (who were enjoying the privilege of higher education as a consequence of their parents' financially success) were using the opportunity to foment revolution. I learned that not all cultures fit together, and part of what makes a culture "home" is the feeling that you can be yourself and be accepted for who you are. When I returned to the suburbs in the summer of 1970 (it may have been the Summer of Love in San Francisco, but it was the Summer of War in La Grange IL), I found out that I had to work at fitting into a culture that I had left just three years previously as a well-integrated export.

I understood in my belly that the suburbs would probably never be my home culture again.

3. Intentional Community Culture
School ended (it always does), and I had to figure out what was next. Following the social service path that suggested itself out of the challenges I grappled with in college, I worked a two-year stint as a junior bureaucrat for the US Dept of Transportation (where I met the secretary of the administrative assistant for the Assistant Secretary for Administration—the scary part being that I knew what that meant).

While I lived in a succession of co-op houses in DC, that were mostly an extension of my college culture, I yearned to rediscover that cutting edge blend of stimulation and support that I'd found in college—I just didn't want to go back to school to get it.

I stumbled into Kat Kinkade's A Walden Two Experiment in February 1973, a first-hand account of the first five years of Twin Oaks. That inspired me to consider intentional community as the place where I was likely to find the culture I most felt drawn to. That led me to call a gathering of my closest friends from college in Sept 1973 Out of the 12 of us got together, two couples became the founding members of Sandhill Farm seven months later.

Fast forward 35 years. I still live at Sandhill and community culture has now been my identified home for a majority of my life. While it was a direct outgrowth of my college experience, it's instructive that out of that dozen friends who gathered in the fall of 1973, only my original partner (Annie) and I are living in community today. The others all drifted back toward a culture more like the one they grew up in. What seemed "normal" to me turned out to be aberrational for my peers. By affiliating with community culture, I found myself for the first time in a distinct minority.

Cooperative culture is rather rarefied air, and it's quite difficult to explain it to those who have never tasted it. Where I see sharing, auslanders see struggle; where I see support, they see irritation. Over and over I've found that I can meet complete strangers and within minutes—by virtue of our both living in community—can get into a meaningful exchange about topics I've never been able to discuss with my family of origin.

4. Midwest Small Town America Culture
I grew up in the Midwest and have always appreciated the salt-of-the-earth, what-you-see-is-what-you-get lack of pretentiousness about the regional culture. Where jaded coastal eyes tend to see Midwesterners as staid, I see solid (and the lack of cover-of-People-magazine sex appeal means the folks who live here want to live here, which is fine with me).

Yes, small town culture tends to be parochial, and nobody looks to Scotland County for trendsetting fashion statements. We eat low on the hog here. Wages are modest yet so is the cost of living. Productive agricultural land is still a relative bargain (especially when compared with bloated West Coast prices) and you don't have to irrigate to get a crop.

While it was made clear to me when I moved here as a 24-year-old that I wouldn't live long enough to be accepted as a local, my son (who was born here seven years after Sandhill was founded) was elected 4-H King of the County Fair when he was 16, and the librarians in Memphis still ask after him whenever I drop by the public library.

While we've made definite local connections over the years (after all, how bad can it be when we've been invited once again to Roger & Mary Walker's annual Super Bowl Party, where we'll get to schmooze with our ex-Postmaster and her family—who are lifelong natives of this area—while we ooh and aah over this year's offerings from Madison Avenue for the highest priced ads in television), it always feels a bit like speaking a second language, where you're always on guard against the possibility of an inadvertent social faux pas.
• • •
In sum, my home culture is intentional community, and it's common for me to immediately feel at ease in groups other than my own—even when I'm visiting a place for the first time. The familiarity is not with the people so much as with the culture. I know what their issues are; I understand their joys and sorrows; I can speak their language.

While I still retain memories and some degree of social grace relative to the other cultures I've lived in, nowhere am I as comfortable or feel as connected as when I'm in community.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Go(ing) by Train(ing)

I do a lot of training. Some of that is travel (mostly via Amtrak), and some of that is teaching (mostly about group process). I also do a lot of word play (but then, you already knew that).

Apropos these proclivities, one of my favorite signs in the whole world sits at the top of Portland Union Station (Amtrak's Romanesque terminal in the Rose City). High up on one side of the campanile, right above the clock face, is the italicized neon admonition GO BY TRAIN. Such good advice!

Today I'll share some thoughts about how to go by train—in the teaching sense of the phrase.

• • •
I've been asked to conduct a one-day workshop on facilitation at our neighboring community, Dancing Rabbit. It will happen next month on a Wednesday, midway between back-to-back three-day weekends that will comprise their annual retreat. In the morning we'll be focusing on theory and practice; in the afternoon we'll switch gears and I'll coach the folks who will be the plenary facilitators for the second weekend, helping them prep. During the second weekend meetings I'll be in the audience, taking notes and on call for offering impromptu redirection if things get sticky. It should be fun.

I love teaching and this is a body of information I've thought a lot about.

In preparation for this, yesterday I crafted a questionnaire that I've distributed to the people
who've said they'd be attending. (There are 13 of them, and I couldn't help wondering if it was entirely coincidental that when we offered the opportunity to become initiated into the shamanistic art of facilitation that we manifested exactly enough acolytes to form a coven. It gives one pause.) After putting this together, it occurred to me that it was excellent material to share with my readers, illuminating what range of topics fall under the omnibus (I did not say ominous) heading of Facilitation, as well as what kind of information I want from students in order to make the most of our time together. Just as facilitators need to be able to work effectively with a variety of participants, teachers need to be able to adapt their material to a wide range of prior experience and preferred learning styles. It's a dance.

So here's what I asked:

Background Questionnaire for Facilitation Training
1. How would you rate your experience as a facilitator (pick one):

o Just fell of the turnip truck
o Some experience, yet not confident I grok the role fully
o Solid with basics, yet can get overwhelmed by complex or volatile topics
o Near wizard, yet want to hone my skills in specific aspects

2. Learning styles (pick all that work for you):

o Handouts and lecture with Q&A (you listen to me)
o Demonstration (you watch me)
o Practice (I watch you)

3. Which of the following aspects of facilitation are most important for you to receive help with? As there's undoubtedly way more stuff here than we can tackle in a half day—that's why I offer this as a two-year training—please limit your selections to the three that are most valuable to you right now:

o How to prep for a meeting (don't pick this one, as we'll necessarily have to cover this in the afternoon; I've included it here just to fill out the menu).
o Mind set of the facilitator (how to prepare for being up front and being a servant leader).
o Managing the Discussion phase—where the group identifies the factors that a good response to the topic needs to take into account.
o Managing the Proposal Generating phases—where the group figures out the best way to balance the output of the Discussion phase.
o The facilitator's tool kit (the basic set of techniques for keeping everyone on the same page and the conversation moving productively).
o Formats (an explanation and demonstration of basic choices in how to explore a topic, and why you'd choose each).
o Working with non-trivial emotional distress.
o Understanding the boundary between what to work in plenary and what to work outside.
o Room architecture (setting up the environment of the
meeting space to succeed).
o How and when to delegate effectively.
o Working with visuals in support of the conversation (the art of scribing in support of the meeting).
o Closing the deal (the art of finding common ground and what people can agree with).
o Off-roading (when to work off-script).
o Working as a team (there are a bundle of process roles that need to be filled in support of an excellent meeting; we'll lay them out and discuss which can be combined and how).
o When to get help (recognizing when you're in over your head).
o Challenging personalities (working constructively with your nightmares).
o Agenda development (the dance between Oversight and Process).
o When and how to incorporate ritual.
o Balancing thought and energy (both are in play all the time, yet are different lenses through which to see what's happening).
o Working with outliers (how to bring the strays into the fold).
o How to get useful meeting evaluations.
o The serious business of working well with humor (both yours and the participants').

I'll let you know how it turns out.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Stumbling Over Different Prospectives

Yesterday we had a community meeting that ended poorly, and I was in the middle of it. While this has happened before (and will likely happen again), it never feels good and is humbling.

Due to a heavy amount of December travel (typical each year around the holidays), it was the first meeting we'd had with all five members present in more than a month. In addition we had three people visiting as prospective members, and this was their first chance to talk with the everyone all together about what they were looking for and how they were experiencing Sandhill.

Understandably, the first half of our two-hour meeting was taken up with a check-in (hearing from everyone about how they were doing and providing an opening for personal reflections about what they'd been chewing on the last month).

When it was the visitors' turn to share, one of them talked about how he had been searching extensively for a community and had narrowed his choices down to Sandhill and one other place, both of which emphasized an economy and lifestyle centered around organic agriculture. To make a decision, he wanted to get current information about the community's commitment to providing ongoing opportunities to learn and experiment with organic farming.

I thought this was a great topic to discuss, yet knew it was beyond the scope of a check-in, so I asked that we come back to it later in the meeting. This guy was going to end his visit in a couple days and I thought it was all together reasonable that we make an attempt to address his question as a group before he left.

As it turned out, we didn't get back to this discussion before we ran out of time. Understandably, given that we hadn't met in a month, we had a number of things already on the agenda and items added mid-course tend to fall off the table. It was at this point that I got into trouble.

I was frustrated that we hadn't prioritized addressing the prospective's questions, which was work we needed to do anyway. Others felt that the topic was too large to attempt and that it was better to complete a bunch of smaller items and reserve the big one for another time—perhaps during our annual retreat coming up in March. While I could appreciate that this was a topic worthy of retreat attention, and there's a natural desire to conclude a meeting with as many topics as possible wrapped up with a ribbon and bow (which the question of Sandhill's relationship to supporting agricultural initiatives was not a good candidate to be), I was embarrassed that we had accepted this prospective (as well as the other couple) for a visit to explore membership and then might fail to discuss during his visit what we thought about his candidacy and the issues he raised. As far as I'm concerned, we were falling down on the job. (How do you invite people to live with you, have them travel a considerable distance to get to your place, and then not take the time to thoroughly consider their candidacy in a timely way??)

When I expressed this to the group, and urged us to meet again in the 48 hours remaining with everyone on the farm, it did not go well, and I think it's instructive to break down how this broke down.

There were two main components of the dynamic: a) my view that the group has an obligation to give a response to prospectives, if requested, about how we were viewing their interest in membership before their visit ends; and b) my upset about our not having taken this up in the course of the meeting. While I'm not defending my choice to express my upset (I have no doubt that what happened would have gone easier if I had not been in distress), it's worthwhile to look at how this becomes a mess.

We did not get off to a good start in that the responses to my statement were focused more on my views than on my upset. While there was support to stretch and have a second meeting (which I appreciated and was responsive to my concern), there was also reluctance. One person misheard my urging the group to meet as a demand that we decide right away whether to accept this person as a member, and they objected to being pushed into a premature decision. As people scrambled to figure out how to shoehorn a meeting into their Wednesday schedule, I became impatient. "What could be more important than this?" I asked with exasperation. This didn't go well either.

From their perspective, the other members were trying to work with me and felt trashed for their efforts. From my perspective, my upset had still not been acknowledged (my views had been recognized, but not my upset), and I was still speaking from a reactive place. While we finally got off the merry-go-round (and ended the meeting with an agreement to meet tomorrow to do what we can to tackle the questions raised by the propsectives), there was still a lot of raw feelings. After 35 years, you'd think we could handle this moment better, but here we are.

• • •
The Post-game Analysis
For me, there's still plenty of room to be more mindful about my rising upset and addressing it before it leaks into my responses to the issues at hand. If nothing else, I can do a better job of simply reporting than I'm upset, and uncoupling it from my views (as the commingling is almost never productive).

For the group, I believe that once non-trivial distress enters the equation, we have to work with that before we start working with the issues, or else the unprocessed distress will continue to infect and distort the conversation. Ignoring non-trivial distress doesn't work. And even though I know that (and get steady work as an outside facilitator expressly to handle this dynamic), it is nearly impossible for me to facilitate working with my distress. Part of my challenge is figuring out a way to get the support I know I need when I'm unsuccessful following the advice I've given myself in the preceding paragraph.

Sometimes, living in community is just down right embarrassing.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Straw Poll that Broke the Camel's Back

As a process consultant I get the chance to observe first hand which methods consensus groups use to work their way through issues. One of the most common is the straw poll, employed to determine which way and how strongly the wind is blowing part way through a discussion. As a consensus trainer I cordially detest straw polls, and today I want to make the case for why this is not a good practice.

[Years ago JRR Tolkien wrote that he "cordially detested" allegory when responding to a suggestion that Lord of the Rings was written with Hitler as the prototype for Sauron, and I've been nurturing that turn of phrase ever since, hoping that I'd
eventually be able to dust it off and put it back into play. Today I finally found the right occasion.]

Think of me as the Big Bad Process Lupine who is going to huff and puff and attempt to blow down the house of straw... (OK, so I get carried away with the metaphors.)

Consensus is a process that is all together different from Voting. While Consensus is based on the concept that the best decisions will emerge from the full group being in alignment about how to proceed, Voting is based on the idea that the best proposal will emerge from a healthy competition.

In Consensus a proposal does not advance to acceptance in the presence of any principled objections—even one; in Voting it only takes a
majority of votes for a proposal to succeed. Living in the US, nearly everyone has experience with parliamentary procedure and democratic decision-making that relies on majority rule. While there are number of possible variations, in the main Voting works like this: proposals are put forward, their merits are debated, and eventually there's a vote. If one proposal garners a majority, it passes and the matter is settled.

One of the reasons I'm uncomfortable with consensus groups using straw polls is that it's a form of voting (albeit a non-binding one), and one of the more common difficulties that groups have in fully realizing the potential of Consensus is that they never succeed in creating a culture of collaboration
(perhaps because they don't even perceive the need for it). If a group attempts to superimpose Consensus on a culture of Voting, then you're just talking about unanimous voting, and it's no wonder that many groups report frustration and weak results (as the only proposals that can jump that high bar are ones are typically so watered down as to have little potency for addressing issues).

Thus, I'm highly concerned that if a consensus group uses straw polls, they'll be keeping alive a competitive dynamic that undercuts the attempt to build and maintain the requisite collaborative culture.

The point of straw polls is
to test for the presence of momentum favoring one response to an issue over another. The idea is that this will clear the fog and help the group move productively through the forest (or at least the thicket) of ideas. While there is undoubtedly a need for groups to know where they are in a conversation and what aspects hold the most promise for being a path through the woods, I think there are better ways to meet that need than with straw polls.

When a group votes, the intention is that the group will be influenced to move in the direction of the majority. (I know that's not always what happens, but that's what the people who propose straw polls are hoping will happen.) No matter how many times you insist that the straw poll is not binding and is informational only, whenever you vote you are invoking the culture of Voting, and the group can hardly help but be influenced by that dynamic. Those in the majority start to relax (after all, they're winning); those in the minority start to feel the pressure (c'mon, you're holding up progress). Some people who suspect they are in the minority may even alter their voting so as not to be singled out for this kind of attention. To the extent that the group slides back into the culture of Voting, it moves out of the collaborative environment where everyone is working purposefully and trustingly toward a we're-all-on-the-same-team solution that everyone can support.

Better, I think, is for the group (led by the facilitator) to learn to follow the energy of a discussion, diligently identifying and working all relevant ends of the discussion (not just trying to find the road where most of the traffic is). Instead of asking the group which views seem to be dominant (the point of a straw poll), you can ask instead, "What ideas to people have that will bridge the disparate concerns expressed?" In a Voting culture the conversation pivots around advocacy (of one's own position) and challenges (of differing viewpoints). In a Consensus culture, the conversation should revolve around how to develop agreements that balance and connect all the factors. You are looking for how to draw an elegant circle around all the input—not just most of it.

Take some device from the Big Bad Wolf: if want to built an enduring collection of consensus agreements, go light on the straw. It may come at a price that's too heavy.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Weather You're Ready or Not

For some reason, it always seems that the Midwest experiences its coldest weather the first week of the year. It's like Mother Nature wants to start with a challenge on the way to attempting another record for highest average global temperature.

Ma'ikwe and I returned home from three weeks in the (relatively) balmy Southwest Dec 30. With the mercury—and precipitation—falling steadily since departing Albuquerque Tuesday morning, we were racing (within the speed limit) to arrive home before the roads froze (driving on rain-slicked pavement is one thing; ice capades in a 2000-lb car is another). Our last stop before Sandhill was in Kirskville, the regional center in northeast Missouri and where I indulge myself in duplicate bridge every Wed night. We'd timed our return so that I could catch the last club game of the year on the way home (make those gas dollars count!), and we'd dutifully arrived at 6:45 pm, affording us just enough time for a well-earned cup of coffee before the game began at 7.

Unfortunately, the Washington Street Java Company (which used to be owned and operated by ex-Sandhill member Julia Reed, and is my favorite local stop for a double-shot latte) caters mainly to the student clientele from nearby Truman State University, and with the students on holiday break WSJC was closed early. Bummer! On top of that, Mark (the club director) hadn't been able to secure enough people for a game and my card game didn't materialize that night.

While it's always disappointing to miss an evening of bridge, there was a silver lining. The temperatures had slowly drifted south of 30 degrees and the determined snowfall had finally succeeded in turning the sidewalks slick with a patina of fresh ice. I knew the roads would not be far behind, and was thankful to assay the final 35 miles home three-and-a-half hours earlier than would have been the case if I'd dallied for bridge.

As it was, Ma'ikwe and I drove the snow-packed back roads at 35-40 mph (instead of the 55-60 mph we'd have driven ventured on dry pavement), and we were most grateful to conclude our 1600-mile trek home from Las Vegas (where we'd started our return Monday morning) around 8 pm and without ever leaving the road unexpectedly or sashaying into the rear end of someone else's vehicle. Whew!
Loving Your Wood Stove
After dancing around the freezing point while depositing 2-4 inches of snow during those last days of December, King Boreas got serious. New Year's Eve the thermometer more or less kept pace with the number of hours left in the year, as both inexorably marched toward zero at midnight. Every day since, we've awakened to negative numbers. Some days the temperature bravely climbs into double digits, but nothing even hinting of melting. This makes for nice cross-country skiing and skating (after clearing the pond of snow), yet encourages everyone to concentrate on indoor activities.
While the sunny days that invariably accompany such cold weather are good for solar gain (let's hear it for south-facing double-paned windows!), it's also a great way to find out how bad the infiltration is in your house, as every tiny crack around doors and windows leaks a stream of arctic air, tempering the output of our hard working wood stoves.

These are the days of short, low-angled sunlight, where we're truly appreciative of all the work done in previous winters to have dry, seasoned wood on hand right now. You don't know what anxiety is until you experience bitter cold and an uncertain wood supply, where you need to go out that day to secure the wood needed to keep the pipes from freezing that night. Over the course of our 35 winters at Sandhill, we've had winter moments like that and I'm highly thankful that we're not reliving them this week.

This past week my life has been in orbit around the wood stove. I start each day by drinking coffee by the stove, followed by some reading (or blogging). While I occasionally make forays into other parts of the house (accounting in the office, yoga in my bedroom, a cooking shift in the kitchen, a jigsaw in the dining room), I periodically return to the stove to take the chill off. The last thing before bed is usually checking my email or reading by the wood stove, and then stoking the fire for overnight.

One of my winter rituals is making sure there's plenty of water in an old cast iron pot we keep on the stove in a simple effort to re-humidify the bone dry air. Before retiring for the night I top off the tea kettle we keep on the stove so that we'll save a dab of propane in getting the coffee water hot the next morning—and can get that starter fluid into our bloodstream that much quicker.

I love the simplification of winter. While I have a broken window to replace in the FIC trailer and need to fix a leak in the back porch roof, neither of these tasks can be accomplished in freezing temperatures. So I write more, read more, play games, and bide my time. This is the only time of the year when Ma'ikwe and I can sleep all night cuddled together, entwined in each other's bodies like hibernating snakes (at all other times I get so hot that I have to stick at least one leg out of the covers to wick off heat).

There's an old joke about Death being Mother Nature's way of telling you to slow down. I figure that in the Midwest, where we have real cold, we have the opportunity to use Winter for that purpose in a less dramatic or permanent fashion. We need only pay attention and go with what we're given.

That's my reflection for today. Now it's time to stoke the wood stove.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Puzzling in the New Year

A year ago, I was four days into a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat when the clock struck midnight Dec 31. This year I was sitting at the dining room table, four hours into a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

The puzzle had been given to Sandhill by Lindsey Jones (aka Miss Lindsey, or ML or short), an ex-member who gave us the puzzle in remembrance of Geoph Kozeny, a dear friend who died in 2007 of pancreatic cancer.

(I had last seen ML in February, when I stayed on the couch in her Berkeley apartment as I visited Bay Area friends for three days prior to doing some work for a community outside Santa Rosa. Although she had visited Sandhill this past Sept, I completely missed it because of ill timing: I had repeat work with the Santa Rosa client, and by the time I learned that ML would be visiting I had scheduled to arrive in the Bay Area the same day she departed for Missouri. Worse, I didn't get back to Sandhill until the day after she departed. Oh well, some things are not meant to be. Fortunately, I'd had a nice connection with her earlier in the year.)

I had first met Geoph in the mid-80s, when he came to visit a Bay Area friend, Craig Green, who was living at Sandhill at the time. He and I hit it off right away. We were the same age, both born and raised in the Midwest, and both keenly interested in community networking (that is, in addition to building and living in community, we wanted to promote it). A couple years after we met, we both got involved in the fledgling Fellowship for Intentional Community, and shortly thereafter, Sandhill became a regular stop on Geoph's peregrinations.

Geoph had committed himself to the life of an itinerant peddler of community. He hit the road Jan 1, 1988, and had almost completed two full decades in the persona of the Peripatetic Communitarian (under which nom de plume he authored about 50 back-page columns for Communities magazine) before the sand ran out of his hourglass. While his love affairs with—and in—community (combined with a minor in social change work in general) might take him anywhere, his regular holiday itinerary was to spend Christmas with his mother in southwest Missouri, followed by a week at Sandhill (in the northeast corner of the same state), straddling both his birthday (Dec 28) and New Year's.

As Geoph was an inveterate gamer, his Xmas booty would often include a new card game or puzzle, which he'd happily bring along for an inaugural spin at Sandhill, where there was a more reliably enthusiastic audience for such harmless indulgences. And thus it came to be that from 1990 onward, Geoph and at least one jigsaw puzzle were regular features of Sandhill's New Year's landscape.

Holidays are a time of reflection, and for being with friends and loved ones. This year I was missing Geoph, and I could think of no simpler way to evoke him than to trot out ML's gift and settle into the ritual of testing my eyesight for the ability to discern subtle shifts in color and shape. I figure it had to be healthier than obliteration by egg nog.

I knew I'd made the right choice when I opened the box for the first time and discovered that ML had pasted onto the under side of the lid a photo of Geoph, Kurt Kessler (a stalwart member at nearby Dancing Rabbit), and me intently hunched over the living room table working a jigsaw puzzle while festooned in New Year's party hats. While the year was uncertain (probably in the vicinity of '00), there was no question but that I was looking at the image on the exact anniversary of the day it was taken. How did ML know I was going to do that? It was both eerie and sweet at the same time, which is not a combination you encounter every day.

While there is still sadness for me about losing Geoph, the ache is no longer so acute, and I was able to stir the coals of our special friendship as I sorted the pieces, and not succumb to anguish. As a worked the puzzle, I would connect fragments of my life with Geoph, and it was a companionable way to ring in the New Year, with echos of the past.

With Ma'ikwe's able assistance, I was able to complete assembly of the jigsaw
on New Year's Day. Now, if I could only puzzle out how to fit together as neatly all the disparate and kaleidoscopic pieces of my complicated life, then I'd really be ahead. The reflective pause has passed and it's time again to get back into harness. There is, as Geoph well knew, still plenty of networking out there to do.