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.

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