Saturday, February 20, 2010

Where to Do the Heavy Lifting on Tough Topics

When a group tackles a tough issue, there is considerable leeway in how to sequence the conversation. Part of the art of facilitation is figuring out an inclusive, yet efficient way for the group to work the tough parts—that is, to do the heavy lifting.

No small part of this is figuring out what to attempt in committee (which could be as few as one or two people) and what to handle in plenary. On the one hand, savvy committees (or managers) can often save the group gobs of time because they may be able to anticipate 90% of what the plenary will generate acting as a whole. On the other hand, brilliant work by a committee may not be swallowed by the plenary if it's offered up too much, too fast—it may feel like the answers came out of a smoke-filled back room and the group may balk. The conclusions and suggested direction may feel like it was done to them rather than with them.

The magic of doing work in groups is that the individuals are able to participate live in the developing consideration. The bane of working in groups is when folks insist that everything be chewed on in plenary, under the mistaken belief that subgroups can't be authorized to act of the group's behalf without accusations of a power elite. What's the way out of this conundrum (how do you get the magic without the tragic)? I think there are three key moments in wrestling with tough issues where
it's important that each person who self-identifies as a stakeholder feels their needs have been met:

o Their concerns about the issue have been accurately heard by the group (Note: this may have a significant emotional component.)
o Any proposals do a fair job of balancing their interests with those of other stakeholders in the group.
o The action steps being asked of them in the final agreement are doable and not an undo burden.

In order to successfully navigate each of these checkpoints, it's best to test for each of them in plenary—even if that means three separate meetings. While it can often streamline the group's consideration of an issue to make judicious use of committees to conduct research (how have other groups handled this?), to draft proposals (how do we best weigh the factors in play?), and to oversee implementation (who will do what when?), it is dangerous to let a committee attempt to answer to these questions without at least having their work reviewed by the whole. It is often crucial that a person can hear how others answer the same questions in order to feel fairly treated. That is, it is often inadequate and unsatisfying to simply be told by a committee that they have no cause to worry.

One of the interesting features of these three checkpoints is that they each have a characteristic energy, and it can be important to understand this nuance when trying to handle these moments well. Let me walk through them one at a time:

1. Hearing Everyone Accurately
This is mostly about giving people full room to state what's up for them on the topic. This can stir up considerable passion and the trick here is to be minimally reactive, which includes helping others not feel swamped by someone else's bow wave. The objective here is hearing, not agreeing.

2. Balancing Interests
After you've surfaced all the factors that need to be taken into account, the group needs to make a transition to problem solving. That means laying down advocacy (which you probably got an earful of during the name-that-factor phase) and focusing on bridging. Here you're looking for ideas about what links various factors, probing for creative ways to leave none behind. You will also get into relative priorities, continually reminding all the stakeholders that one's right to have your pet concerns taken into account is tempered by your responsibility to work constructively with everyone else's factors as well.

3. Reasonable Implementation
Even right before the finish line, the wheels can fall off the wagon if there's the feeling that the proposed actions entail unreasonable requests (expecting the vegetarian to kill and dress the turkey for Thanksgiving dinner). Sometimes you have to slow it down at this juncture to make sure you're not accidentally swallowing a half-baked or ill-advised implementation plan.

While potentially awkward dynamics may surface in any of the phases, the heaviest lifting generally occurs in the Balancing Interests phase, where you're trying to find solutions that bring together disparate concerns. The trick is not letting them come across as desperate concerns. The art here is in creating a constructive (rather than constrictive) container for the consideration, where everyone knows that the train won't pull out of the station unless everyone's on board.

It's important that everyone knows where in the sequence the heavy lifting will occur, and that it is being protected with plenty of time and skilled facilitation. When done well, the magic is that the group feels uplifted and lighter, rather than exhausted by just having lifted up something heavy.

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