Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Alvar Constitutionals

I’m vacationing on Drummond Island, just east of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and I have two priorities for the next two weeks: spending time with my wife as she recuperates from fibromyalgia and some version of chronic fatigue, and working on a book about cooperative group dynamics.

As neither of those priorities tends toward the aerobic, I’ve fallen into the habit of taking a break mid-afternoon and going for a long walk. My favorite so far takes me north along the access road to our cabin. Within a mile I pass through a lovely fen, replete with marsh grasses waving in the summer breeze, murky water (stained deep brown with tannic acid from the ubiquitous conifers) gurgling through culverts on its way to Lake Huron, and myriad birds darting through the air fattening up on the plentiful insects that thrive in bogs.
Just another mile down the road, I can reach a rare exemplar of Alvar grasslands, which are fragile eco-systems supported on shallow beds of limestone. This one—part of the Maxton Plains Preserve—is in full bloom, showing off its variety of wildflowers, sedges, and marsh grasses. It’s an odd mix of arctic tundra and Great Plains prairie grasses that survive on thin soil too meager to support trees or shrubs.
Because it is based on limestone—not the pre-Cambrian granite that characterizes the surface geology of most of the North Woods—and because the soil is so thin that conifers cannot get a purchase, the habitat is slightly alkaline. That stands in sharp contrast to the dominant soil pH of the taiga (think wild blueberries and the highly acidic soils needed for them to thrive). The limestone shelves were scoured clean 10,000 years ago by the last Ice Age, and lays so flat that portions of the roadway are nothing more than bare limestone.
It’s an excellent habitat for many rare plants and birds and Alvar grasslands exist only in patches of the upper Great Lakes, in a portion of the Baltic region of Europe, and on some islands off Sweden. What a delight to have stumbled upon a patch so close to our cabin! A daily stroll through the portions of the preserve accessible to me on foot offers a perfect restorative after hours hunkered over a keyboard.
For reasons that escape me (it is, after all, the last day of June, it’s been a wet spring, and we’re unquestionably in the North Woods) we haven’t seen more then 10 mosquitoes in four days and have not spotted a single black fly. (Can you hear me knocking on wood?)
Although most of the folks renting the other cabins at our resort are here to fish (whitefish, trout, and salmon), I intend to catch mine at an island restaurant later in the week. There’s a firm rule here that you are not to clean fish in the kitchenettes. We haven’t even been tempted.
We have a small TV in our cabin, and apparently it’s hooked to cable. However, even though the World Cup is on screen daily, we haven’t even turned it on yet to find out. As Bill Watterson noted in the title of his 1993 Calvin & Hobbes classic, "The Days are Just Packed."

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Catching the Ferry

Ma’ikwe and I are on Drummond Island, which is as far east as you can go in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and not get out of your car. We’re tucked just under Sault Saint Marie and, as Sarah Palin would have already told you if she weren’t busy going rogue, you can see Ontario from our front porch.

We’re here for two glorious weeks, and so far the mosquitoes are not. While the daytime temperatures can dance into the 80s, it reliably drops into the 50s at night. That means sleeping with a blanket, which is only a wistful memory for those trying to negotiate the sultry summer nights back on the farm in northeast Missouri, where sheets are sometimes a bit much.
Ma'ikwe's Vacation
This is a recuperative and nostalgic vacation for Ma’ikwe. When she developed the symptoms of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue last November & December [see my blog of Dec 14, 2009, Adventures in Hydrotherapy, for more on this], she decided, wisely, to scale down the 2010 construction season on her new house. Instead of working right through the summer, she scheduled a break in late June, with the option of a second session in late summer if the building’s needs and her available energy were adequately aligned.

Removed from all the temptations of life at Dancing Rabbit, Ma’ikwe’s priority this fortnight is rest. One of the most insidious aspects of her illness is that she can do too much and not find out until 12-36 hours later, when body aches and lethargy descend to inform her that she had inadvertently drifted into deficit spending of her energy budget. It can take days to recover from an ill-advised burst of enthusiasm that, maddeningly, felt totally fine in the moment.
The journey up here has also been a stroll down memory lane. Ma’ikwe spent 7-8 years of her youth living in different places in the UP, and many summers in the area helping her Dad band birds on Great Lake islands as a wildlife biologist. As we drove up Wisconsin and made the trek across the UP from Menominee to St Ignace, Ma’ikwe would tell stories of what happened in her life at this point and that.
• We got out of the car in Manistique and sat on the dock where the family boat was often moored—she pointed out the exact berth where her father, brother, and she sometimes waited days for the weather to clear. The routine then was reading book after book, with the boredom of weather-bound ship life punctuated by forays to the nearby Pizza Hut.
• We pulled over at a little roadside store near Little Hog Island (just east of Naubinway), drawn by signage offering an improbable menu of pasties, Mackinac fudge, smoked fish, wild rice, maple syrup, and UP wines—a combination of local specialties you wouldn’t dare consume in the same sitting. Ma’ikwe had had it in mind all day that we’d stop in just such an establishment to get pasties and that alone would have made the stop successful. But it was better than that. In addition to scoring the meat-and-root-vegetable-filled dough pockets characteristically found of North Country mining culture (my wife claims pasties are the one and only way to appreciate rutabagas), Ma’ikwe secured a bottle of her favorite cherry wine from Traverse Bay Winery, and I happily bought a filet of smoked trout. While alcohol products are a staple of such hole-in-the-wall (or in this case, hole-in-the-woods) convenience stores, you typically cannot expect to find quality beer—there just isn’t enough space in the cooler. We knew however, that the Force was with us when we glanced at the beer selection as a last impulse. Along side a variety of de rigueur malted products from Miller, Coors, and Budweiser was one lonely 6-pack of Wild Blue, a potent blueberry-flavored micro-offering from Blue Dawg Brewing in Baldwinsville NY, that just happens to be Ma’ikwe’s absolute favorite beer. Yeehah!
• Outside Epoufette (where do they get these names?), we paused to appreciate the Cut River Gorge. Though the 231 steps to the bottom were more than Ma’ikwe wanted to negotiate (actually, it was the 231 steps up that she wanted no part of), I decided that a bit of aerobic activity was a nice contrast with two days of car travel and I traipsed to the bottom, where I admired how much earth moving (gorge forming) could be accomplished by the steady hydraulic audacity of a stream no more robust than a babbling brook. As an example of what can be accomplished with time and determination, it reminded me of the pyramids.
Laird's VacationThis is a working vacation for me. We’ve rented a small cabin for two weeks: it’s a modest 20x20 structure that’s not much more than a bed, bathroom, and a kitchenette (the smallest of 18 offerings available at Papin’s Resort). While rustic, it comes with electricity and internet access and I’ll be able to keep my oar in the water when it comes to handling email traffic, which claims about 2-3 hours daily. The cabin also comes with a view of Lake Huron from our front porch, and I’m anticipating many relaxing hours there with Ma’ikwe, a book, a drink, and a journal (in any combination).
In addition to gobs of unscheduled time with my wife (which is priceless), I’ll be working on a book about cooperative group dynamics [see my blog of Sept 25, 2009, Booking My Future, for more about this.] While I’d planned last winter to start carving out a couple half days per week to move this project along, I’ve enjoyed little success with that plan, always allowing the press of more immediate needs to claim my time. It was Ma’ikwe’s idea to set up this writing retreat as an alternate strategy, and she was wise to do so. (I just hope she wasn’t motivated to get sick to up the ante on my prioritizing the time away.)
In the next fortnight I intend to:
—Review what I’ve already written (which is a bunch)
—Determine my audience
—Organize the presentation into digestible chunks (read chapters)
—Select a style (probably a combination of principles illuminated by anecdotes & examples)
—Line out what writing does not yet exist, and what needs to be overhauled
With luck, I’ll even get to the point of doing some writing (other than blog entries).
• • •
We had started Saturday outside Green Bay (where, incidentally, I finally completed my NFL blackout bingo card by personally visiting every US city sporting a franchise). With only 300 miles and change to get to Drummond Island we took our time driving into and across the UP, and made a number of little stops along the way (some highlights of which I’ve reported above). Yesterday morning, before leaving our motel, Ma’ikwe had researched the ferry schedule from De Tour Village (which has to be my all-time favorite name for a ferry terminus) to Drummond Island and learned that a boat departs eastward every hour, at 40 minutes past the hour.
As we were “on vacation” and the wait couldn’t be more than 59 minutes, we weren’t paying attention to time. Imagine our surprise when we entered De Tour Village and noticed that the digital clock on the bank read 5:39. Turning the last corner, the ferry was immediately in front of us and the attendant waved us right on board. We had no sooner crossed the threshold, than they drew up the gangway. One minute later we were under way.
If timing is everything, this vacation is off to an auspicious start.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

To Think That I Saw It on McGuckin's Shelf

Back when I was a kid and living at home, my Dad (who was not exactly Mr. Fix-It) would occasionally be cajoled by my Mom into attempting a home improvement project. Often enough, I'd tag long. If the job got tricky and it appeared that an exotic tool might be useful, he was wont to exclaim, "What we need here is a left-handed smoke bender."

Decades later, now I'm the dad, and I bump into my own moments where an unusual tool or fancy bit of hardware exceeds the capacity of our community's workshop to provide it. Last year, for example, I was replacing a gas line and discovered that the wingnuts on our flaring tool had been compromised beyond use. After some close reconnoitering, I ascertained that I was looking for 5/16" nuts with fine threads. While that's not common, neither is it unheard of and I was able to produce a couple of serviceable specimens after poking around in the odd lot bins of our implement shed.

While those makeshift nuts got the job done, they weren't elegant. What I really wanted was a pair of new wingnuts—not just regular hex heads—so that I could operate the flaring tool without resorting to a wrench. Unfortunately, it was far easier to find my resolve than to find the wingnuts. I struck out at all the area hardware stores; I came back empty from the holy trinity of Menard's, Lowe's, and Home Depot; I even started looking for wingnuts in my cross-country peregrinations, stopping in any large, old hardware store that still sported wooden floors—but all to no avail. If a place had wingnuts at all, they were invariably coarse threaded. Looking for a demonstration of service, I kept getting a lesson in supply and demand. Grr.

Finally, about two months ago, I decided enough was enough and I resorted to the Internet. To my shock, I still reported no joy. Sure, I found purveyors of 5/16" wingnuts with fine threads… but I had to buy at least a case lot, and I only needed two.

Coming In on a Wingnut and a Prayer
And then it hit me: why not try McGuckin Hardware in Boulder? They're a family-owned outfit in downtown Boulder with service as distinctive as its name—started by Bill McGuckin in 1955. (I think I love their improbable Dr. Suess-inspired name nearly as much as their commitment to what Larry the Cable Guy would style, "gettin' 'er done.")

I have several friends in the Front Range of Colorado and over the years I've had a number of chances to stroll down McGuckin's aisles, which are packed to the gills with both quality merchandise and knowledgeable, jocular clerks (their wait staff is into service, but not servile). While I'll admit to having a weakness for well-stocked establishments with old-time qualities and an up-to-date inventory (I'll go into hardware and stationery stores recreationally if they look old enough and have a reputation), I think McGuckin's is an experience anyone could enjoy, even if your wingnut collection is already complete. Shades of Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery in Lake Wobegone, if McGuckin's doesn't have it, you probably don't need it.

Knowing that my recent six-week sojourn around the country would end in Boulder (where I attended the national cohousing conference
last weekend), I was resolved to give McGuckin's a try.

Holding my breath last Monday morning, I walked into the nuts and bolts section and casually asked if they had any 5/16" wingnuts with fine threads. Without missing a beat, the guy looked me right in the eye and asked how many I wanted. He had more than a box and was happy to sell them to me by the each, at 90 cents a pop. As McGuckin's is located 800 miles west of where my flaring tool resides, I splurged and bought three. Whoopie!

As the clerk shook out my modest request into an equally modest brown paper sack and marked them up for the register, I shared how elated I was to have finally satisfied my heroic quest. He chided me: "You should have tried here first." I retorted, "But I live in a different time zone." Without breaking cadence, he rejoined, "The Post Office still picks up and delivers here, and I'll bet they still do at your place, too. Keep us in mind whenever you're having a bad hardware day."

Next time, I think I'll ask for a left-handed smoke bender. I'll bet they have that, too. (Can't you just see the image that Theodore Geisel would have concocted of the clerk pulling it out of a musty box on the fift
h shelf in the second attic? Even though the last time they needed anything from than aisle was 13 years ago, the clerk knew where it was.)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cohousing Observations

Last weekend I participated in the national cohousing conference on the campus of the University of Colorado at Boulder. It’s the sixth national conference in a row that I’ve attended going back to 2001, and I have a handful of observations about that segment of the Communities Movement: 

1. The energy was good. There were about 300 people who attended at least some portion of the five-day event. Wednesday and Thursday there were four pre-conference tracks that people could follow. On the weekend, there were 60 workshop choices: 10 slots with six concurrent sessions every time. On top of that there were numerous bus tours of completed projects in the Front Range, a Saturday night banquet, and three plenaries. There was a lot going on.

2. The mix was about the same. Mostly the attendance was comprised of folks shopping to see if cohousing was for them, or people in a forming group looking for technical advice and/or fresh recruits. There was a sprinkling of folks from Europe and Australia. As the housing market has started to improve, there were fewer built groups advertising openings. Finally there were the normal cadre of professionals who service the cohousing market (which is where I fit in).

3. Cohousing continues to grow. In the US today there are about 120 completed projects, with plenty more in the pipeline. Growth in this segment is probably on a par with, or perhaps somewhat ahead of that of other segments of the Communities Movement.

4. There are roughly 6-7,000 people living in cohousing communities in the US, which is about 0.002% of the US population. In contrast, there are around 50,000 people living in cohousing in Denmark (where the concept originated), which is 1% of the population there. More, Chuck Durrett reported during the closing plenary that in a recent survey fully 40% of Danes said that they'd like to live in cohousing. Wow!

5. While my knowledge of Danish cohousing (which I've never visited) is much more limited than the US version (I've worked professionally with 40 different cohousing groups in this country), my understanding is that there is a much wider range of house size and pricing options available in Denmark than in the US. In Scandinavia they've taken downsizing a significant step further and this has opened up cohousing as a viable option to folks with much lower means than has happened to date in the US. As there is a significantly less profit potential in designing and building affordable housing, I haven't seen much interest among developers in addressing this issue. Thus, while cohousing represents a definite step away from mainstream materialism, it remains the bourgeois and consumptive end of the Communities Movement.

6. The theme of this year's conference was Sustainability through Community, and keynote speaker Bill McKibben (author of Deep Economy) made a number of interesting points:

—Not only is the growth in farmer's markets and community supported agriculture operations growing at 12-15% annually, but surveys show that consumers are 10 times more likely to talk with people at either of these two venues than at a grocery store.

—This last statistic is all the more impressive when you place it in the context of the claim that there are three things that can make a substantial impact on how long (and how happily) you live: a) how much you exercise; b) how well you eat; and c) how much community (read: meaningful social interactions) you have in your life.

—Bill is an advocate of the 350 Initiative, which is based on a general agreement among scientists that the human population cannot be sustained on Earth if carbon dioxide levels persist above 350 parts per million in the atmosphere—and they are currently estimated to be at 384 ppm, and rising. There is a big Work Day slated for Oct 10 (10/10/10) and he was banging the drum to get as many involved as possible.

I found myself wondering whether the kinds of changes made in cohousing communities are enough to bring us back from the brink and within 350 ppm. I don't know, but I suspect that the lifestyle changes needed will be far more than what we've seen so far.

7. The final plenary was poignant. Chuck Durrett & Katie McCamant—who co-authored Cohousing, the seminal book that explained this Danish import to the US audience in 1988—each spoke personally about what living in cohousing means to them. They each admonished the audience (of about 60 diehards who stuck it out to the end) to go forth and get involved more in their local areas and neighborhoods. Like many networks, Coho/US suffers from a dearth of individuals motivated to get involved in outreach. What was poignant about this pitch is that cohousing has been intentionally built on a model that doesn’t ask residents to align with social change values. Rather, people are recruited to cohousing based on the appeal of a safe and caring neighborhood.

How surprised can Katie & Chuck be that the communities they’ve striven so hard to build with a minimal commitment to common values lack the outreach focus needed to make the 350 initiative come alive? In cohousing it's always been much more about who has the right money than who has the right values, and you can't have it both ways. To be sure, there are communities that have a strong commitment to outreach and social change work (Dancing Rabbit, Earthaven, The Farm, Twin Oaks, Sirius, and Hummingbird Ranch come easily to mind), yet none of those are cohousing groups, where common values are traditionally soft pedaled in the interest in marketing. I believe the dynamism of the Cohousing Movement is limited by its very success: people who moved in for a good neighborhood don't particularly appreciate being told after they move in that they aren't doing enough for sustainability and world peace, and it's not surprising that it's hard to find enough "burning souls" to keep the lamps lit.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Rules of the Road: Beware of the Potholes!

I recently got an email from my friend Becca Krantz, asking for my views on a bush-full of thorny questions about how to run effective meetings. While the list is somewhat eclectic, they’re all worthy queries and I’m inspired to offer my responses as a blog series. Here’s what she asked:

1. Setting up meeting space—what are the minimally acceptable standards? [See my May 26 blog on Meeting Architecture]
2. Children in meetings—what's appropriate for the children and what’s appropriate for the adults? How might the answer vary by topic? [See my blog of May 29, Asking Children to Play in Traffic]
3. What considerations should be taken into account when determining how informally or formally to run meetings? [See my blog of June 7, When Process Agreements Expedite & When They Congest]
4. What can be done about getting input from, and building consensus with people who don't come to meetings? [See my blog of June 16, Working with Ghosts]
5. What are the pros and cons of rules in community?
Today I'll warp up this series by addressing the fifth and final question, on rules.

As a group process consultant I often find it useful to look at how a collection of people will position themselves along a spectrum of views on a pivotal topic. Attitude toward rules is a great example of this and it's essential, in my view, to grasp that members of a typical group (while my observation here will apply to most small groups, it will be a statistical certainty in groups of 20+) will join the group with a predictable and widely divergent fundamental attitude about rules. Thus, even before you've had your first conversation about whether you want to record the hours members spend cleaning common facilities, you have a problem. As I essentially laid this spectrum out in my aforementioned blog of June 7, I'll not repeat it here.

I believe the best strategy for rule development is to promulgate enough that there's reasonable clarity about what's expected, and a solid basis for a conversation if there's tension. Other than that, I recommend doing without. Pro-rule folks sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that if they just spelled everything out there'd be no ambiguity or confusion. There are a couple of reasons that that dream is a mirage.

First, it's impossible to anticipate all the situations you'll face, so no amount of foresight will lead to a set of "rules for all seasons." Second, well-intentioned people will disagree about how to interpret rules, no matter how unambiguously you think you crafted them. Further, there's a wealth of complications that falls under the heading of "extenuating circumstances."

On top of the potential confusion about what rules mean, there is delicacy about deciding how to handle perceived violations. It will serve a group well to anticipate this and establish norms
about how to proceed ahead of need. This will include both a) the process by which the charge will be examined, and b) the range of possible sanctions if the group determines that an agreement has indeed been broken (note that I said "possible sanctions"—you don't want to tie the group's hands when it comes to the judicious application of clemency).

Beyond all this it's a good idea to go back every so often (at least once in five years) and prune the orchard, removing rules that no longer apply or make sense. If you neglect this, new members will quickly catch on to the reality that there are rules that are either silly (or at least inappropriate) or otherwise ignored, and this will undermine the effectiveness and respect that you'd like them to give to the rules that are still appropriate.

Embedded in this is the idea that it's good to have a readily accessible place where the group's rules and explicit norms (perhaps an Agreement Log) are kept (and better yet, indexed). Inaccessible rules, or ones that exist only in oral tradition, widen the gulf that separates grizzled veterans from starry-eyed rookies. This tends to significantly complicate and retard the goal of integrating the new folks into community life. The more rules you have, the more important it is that the group commits to laying them out clearly for prospective members (so they know what they're joining) and to helping newbies make sense of group norms and culture.

In any event, to get good results from rules, they need to be seen more as a guide than as a weapon; as a pathway to understanding what the group considers appropriate behavior, rather than as shackles or opportunities to judge. Any rule can be misused. Any rule can be bent. The biggest trap of all is allowing the substitution of rules for discernment and compassion. Rules can invite people to sort behavior into a black & white assessment that is a perversion of the shades-of-gray reality we live in, and I want to warn against that.

Though I am emphatically not saying that it's inappropriate to have boundaries nor that you shouldn't hold people accountable when they stray across them, I want to close this focus on rules with a reminder that a primary motivation for forming groups is to build relationships and that this goal can be utterly perverted if a group drifts into a culture where rules are applied with the mindless zeal of fascism. I object to the notion that bringing heart into the application of rules equates to being weak-willed. We need groups which hunt strongly for relationships, not groups that strongly relate to witch hunts.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Working with Ghosts

I recently got an email from my friend Becca Krantz, asking for my views on a bush-full of thorny questions about how to run effective meetings. While the list is somewhat eclectic, they’re all worthy queries and I’m inspired to offer my responses as a blog series. Here’s what she asked:

1. Setting up meeting space—what are the minimally acceptable standards? [See my May 26 blog on Meeting Architecture]
2. Children in meetings—what's appropriate for the children and what’s appropriate for the adults? How might the answer vary by topic? [See my blog of May 29, Asking Children to Play in Traffic]
3. What considerations should be taken into account when determining how informally or formally to run meetings? [See my blog of June 7, When Process Agreements Expedite & When They Congest]
4. What can be done about getting input from, and building consensus with people who don't come to meetings?
5. What are the pros and cons of rules in community?
Today I'll respond to the fourth question, working with people not in the room.

In most groups of size (10+ members), it's common for some portion of the membership to miss meetings—people get sick, they forget, their must-see show is on TV, they're on vacation, etc. In fact, if the group is large enough, there may never be a time when everyone is in the room. The challenge is figuring out how the partial group can still do legitimate work and yet the rights of those who missed the meeting have not been abrogated.

What to do?

The Rule of Three
After decades of observing and working with groups to solve problems, I've distilled what I've learned into a six-step sequence which I label An Issue's Journey:

Step 1: Presentation of the Issue (what are we talking about and what aspects of it are appropriate for the group's attention today?)
Step 2: Questions (does everyone understand what was just said?)
Step 3: Discussion (what are the factors that a good response to this issue needs to take into account?)
Step 4: Proposal (what's the group's best thinking about how to balance the factors identified in the previous step?)
Step 5:. Decision (is the group ready to formally adopt a proposal?)
Step 6: Implementation (what are the tasks, deadlines, and budget appropriate for putting the decision into action?)

I further recommend that groups get in the habit of breaking this sequence into three steps, where they automatically pause between Steps 3 & 4, and again between Steps 4 & 5. If you adopt this, it translates into a minimum of three meetings to fully address an issue (and it may take more if the group struggles to complete any of the steps in one pass). In summary, I recommend that the plenary's consideration of an issue be broken into three phases, where there's an intentional pause between each phase:
Phase I

Phase II

Phase III

While there are a number of advantages to this, I'll name three of them here, one of which directly relates to today's focus on absent members:

a) The pace of meetings does not work equally well for everyone, and if you pause between Discussion and Proposal it allows room for people who attended the meeting to add reflected input that they were not ready to offer in session. If you pause between Proposal & Decision, it allows people a chance to reflect on whether the proposal on the table is really the best one available while the concrete is still wet. This adapts to the reality that some people are not as quick on their feet (or, in this case, on their butts) and can do a better job of forming and articulating their thoughts if given more breathing room.

b) It is often convenient—and efficient—to assign to a committee the task of drafting a proposal based on the factors that the plenary has identified in Step 3. If the plenary insists on moving from Step 3 to Step 4 in one go, that option is not available. In the case of complex and/or volatile topics (which, uncannily, the most challenging issues almost always are), it is often a poor use of group time to barrel ahead into problem solving immediately after the factors have been flushed out. Put your committees to work!

c) Finally, the pause gives you a leg up in
solving what Nancy Drew might style The Mystery of the Missing Member because it protects the opportunity for people who were absent to offer input as well (not just those who were there).

Of course, for this to work well, it requires that your minutes are sufficiently reliable (both in terms of breadth and promptness) that people who missed the meeting can tell what people said and why. Here's how it can work: adopt a norm whereby there's a guaranteed window to receive reflected input on paused topics, and delay any work on next steps until the window closes

Let me give you an example. Suppose you have a standing committee for dealing with children issues called the Parents Committee, and the issue you're wrestling with
is child behavior norms in common spaces. In addition, suppose that plenaries happen the first of every month, you've established that the window for reflected input is seven days long, and the first meeting on this topic happens May 1. Finally, for the sake of this example, let's say the group successfully completes Phase I steps during that initial meeting.

After the minutes are posted (let's say that happens on May 4), the window for reflected input officially opens. It closes May 11, at which point the Parents Committee can start its deliberations to draft a proposal that balances the factors that surfaced from two sources: the work done in plenary May 1 and any additional input that comes their way during the May 4-11 window. Let's say the committee completes its work in a two-week period (meeting as often as necessary) and distributes its proposal to everyone by May 25, in plenty of time for people to look it over before the June 1 plenary, when you'll move onto Step 4, using the committee offering as a springboard.

At the June 1 meeting, the group briefly reviews the output of the May 1 meeting and launches into Step 4 considerations. Let's say the group tweaks the proposal slightly and is satisfied they have a good proposal. Again they pause, this time to allow people who missed the meeting (who may or may not be the same folks who missed the May 1 meeting) to reflect on whether the proposal that the plenary is poised to adopt seems like the best balancing of the factors that came out of Step 3—this second pause is not a second chance to identify new factors; that window has closed.

If the plenary did a good job at the June 1 meeting, nothing may surface in the subsequent window and the plenary will officially adopt it at the July 1 meting. They will also handle Implementation at that time, wrapping up the plenary's work on that issue. If there is new thinking about the proposal that comes through the window following the June 1 meeting, then that will be the starting point when that issue is tackled at the July 1 meeting.

Key to this working is that everyone agrees that the windows are the places where people who missed the meeting have a guaranteed opportunity to have their input considered. The obverse is that people who missed meetings do not have the right to demand that steps be repeated at future plenaries simply because they weren't in the room when those steps were taken and they are unhappy with or confused about how things are going (while they can ask that the plenary back up and redo steps, the plenary is not obliged to do so). Nor does anyone have the right to demand that the group work with input that is delivered after the window closes. While it may be smart for the group to work with late input, the group has the right to decline—honoring all the good faith effort of those who showed up and protect the group from the possibility of its work being monkey-wrenched by those arriving late to the party.

Working with the Dispirited or the Passive
While the above set of agreements is meant to balance the rights and responsibilities of active and motivated members who miss meetings, it may not help much with those you rarely hear from. In this dynamic I suggest a different approach: go door to door and ask them why they aren't coming to meetings or otherwise being heard from on group issues. Silence is one of the hardest things to accurately interpret and I recommend that you make a reasonable effort to find out directly why people are opting out.

There are a number of possibilities for non-participation (which may apply singly or in any combination):
o They don't care about that issue.
o The way meetings are run doesn't work for them.
o They're discouraged about whether the group is really interested in their views.
o They've low confidence in their ability to be articulate and don't want to be embarrassed.
o They're too busy or overwhelmed to take time for meetings.
o They're confident that others will speak for them, and trust the group to make good decisions.

As you can see, some of these potential reasons (and I'm sure there are more than I've listed) are more troubling than others, and if you're just guessing, your potential "solution" could land wide of the mark. When all else fails, ask.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Pausing at the Reflecting Pool

When my friend Alline Anderson wants to let others know that she has familiarity with a certain dynamic, she is wont to say, “This isn’t my first rodeo.” Being prone to metaphors, I’ve always cherished that turn of phrase.

A week ago Ma’ikwe and I concluded a round of our two-year training in integrated facilitation that was centered in the Southeast. The training is comprised of eight intensive three-day weekends, spaced approximately three months apart. While most weekends we spend the bulk of the 48 hours from Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon prepping, delivering and debriefing live work with the host community, we depart from that routine on the final weekend. The last day of the last weekend (which took place seven days ago in North Carolina), the class meets all day to give each other reflections on how we’ve come to see that person and their development over the past two years. When we warned the class that it would take 6 hours, they scoffed (how much could there be to say?). It turned out the class was right. It took 8.5 hours—and nobody wanted to leave early.
Here’s the way we set it up. After taking care of logistics, 15 of us (13 students plus Ma’ikwe and me) settled into a circle of attention. As people felt called, one by one we assumed the spotlight. After offering some self-reflections about the two-year journey just concluded, that person moved into the center of the circle where they listened without comment as everyone, in turn, offered their concise statements (averaging two minutes each) about how they saw that person.
While that may seem a woefully short amount f time in which to offer a summary, we’d been practicing the facilitator’s craft of concision for two years and had also been learning to minimize our tendencies to repeat what someone before us had already contributed. Thus, each person was getting about 30 minutes of concentrated honesty and depth from a pool of people who had seen them through thick and thin; through moments of grace and disgrace; through moments where we channeled the divine, intermixed with stretches where we were lost in the wilderness.
While the comments were overwhelmingly positive and constructive, it can be excruciating to sit there and just take it. Last Sunday—much like the two-year training itself—paradoxically went on forever, and at the same time was over in a blink. There was laughter, tears, and more open countenances than you’d see at a snake handling. In short, it was awesome, and a perfect culmination to what Peter Buck (one of our students) claimed was “the most consistently authentic experience he’d ever had in his life.” While we only had our own flawed-yet-divine selves to see us through the two-year maze, we made do—simultaneously learning the art of helping groups navigate tough issues and lifting ourselves up in the process, getting clearer about who we each were and who we wanted to be in the world.
While last Sunday was not the first National Finals Rodeo for Ma’ikwe and me, we knew going in that the students had no idea what it would be like to try to keep their psychic balance for 30 minutes while silently riding the wild bull of deep honesty. We were all dishrags at the end, having been lovingly thrashed around by the compassionate and caring insights of our brothers and sisters.
What could be a more auspicious way to start the first day of the rest of our lives?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Who Dat?

I had an overnight layover in New Orleans Tuesday, as I switched trains en route from Atlanta to Tucson, and Weekend 5 of my cross country odyssey. That gave me a chance to stroll the streets (always a good change of pace when you’re facing three straight sedentary days on the choo-choo) to see how the BP disaster was affecting oyster offerings in the Crescent City.

The answer: bivalves are still plentiful, if a bit smaller and not as firm as those succulent R-month darlings I remember lovingly from prior trips. My testing ground is the Acme Oyster House on Iberville in the French Quarter (which is surely where Wiley Coyote would have frequented if he’d gone for oysters with anything like the determination he displayed for road runners). I was impressed that there was a waiting line on the sidewalk (backed up by a New Orleans policeman) even at 9 pm on a Tuesday night in June. Talk about a solid reputation.
As I sandwiched myself onto a stool at the raw bar, I watched the Celtics claw back from a 12-point halftime deficit in Game 3 of the NBA Finals on their own parquet floor. I sucked down two glasses of Abita’s seasonal offering on tap, a bowl of chicken & andouille gumbo, two dozen raw oysters, and then topped it all off with a third dozen charbroiled and sprinkled with parmesan. Yum! I was feeling pretty good about my gustatory prowess until I glanced at the wall and noticed that you have to consume at least 30 dozen in one sitting to get your name mentioned, and the king of the hill was some dude from nearby Hammond who managed to slurp down 42-1/2 dozen (and still walk). Ufda. I wasn’t even within an order of magnitude of honorable mention!
Suitably humbled, I nevertheless enjoyed a hand-rolled maduro-wrapped torpedo from the cigar storefront on Bourbon St where you can watch the guy roll while you watch, and walked the streets on a muggy summer night that threatened to rain any minute but never quite did.
According to my informal poll of French Quarter bars, Celtic fans outnumber Laker fans by 9:1. Who knew?
I love taking my time with a good cigar just walking the streets and absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells of a city thrumming with night life. My favorite moment has passing the office of a dentist named Supa Jolly, just off Canal St. I had images of a guy with big bushy eyebrows and a clown nose pulling wisdom teeth. What a name!
In the morning I had time to send off an email blast, stroll down to a delicatessen for a muffaletta and a latte to go, and get back to my room for a shower before schlepping my gear down to Union Station to catch train #1, the westbound Sunset Limited, which departed on time, just before noon.

Monday, June 7, 2010

When Process Agreements Expedite & When They Congest

I recently got an email from my friend Becca Krantz, asking for my views on a bush-full of thorny questions about how to run effective meetings. While the list is somewhat eclectic, they’re all worthy queries and I’m inspired to offer my responses as a blog series. Here’s what she asked:

1. Setting up meeting space—what are the minimally acceptable standards? [See my May 26 blog on Meeting Architecture]
2. Children in meetings—what's appropriate for the children and what’s appropriate for the adults? How might the answer vary by topic? [See my blog of May 29, Asking Children to Play in Traffic]
3. What considerations should be taken into account when determining how informally or formally to run meetings?
4. What can be done about getting input from and building consensus with people who don't come to meetings?
5. What are the pros and cons of rules in community?
Today I'll respond to the third question, examining the pros and cons of formality in how meetings are run.
First of all, “formal” needs to be defined. In general, this translates into explicit structure, meaning how things are done is clearly spelled out, or routinized. It may also imply lots of structure, though not necessarily. It probably means doing things the same way, with minimal deviation or exceptions. In the extreme, it means that work is not valid, or information or opinions can (even should) be ignored if they don’t come through approved channels in a timely way.
In general, how much a group leans toward structure or formality (or away from it) will tend to reflect where the members fit on the pro-rules/anti-rules spectrum. On the pro-rules end, folks like clear rules and agreements because it allows them to relax. They know where they stand; they know when they've done their fair share; they know when they're out of bounds; expectations are well-defined. Formal structures tend to put people on this end of the seesaw at ease. Conversely, lack of meeting structure makes people of this persuasion edgy, as minimal rules translates into "jungle ball" in their experience, where crafty people can take advantage of process flexibility to manipulate meetings through inappropriate outbursts and off-topic digressions.
On the other end of the polarity, the anti-rules folks view formal agreements as straight jackets that force people into cookie cuter homogeneity, quashing creativity and individual freedom and expression in the name of mindless conformity. The folks on this end are suspicious that the request for increased formality is simply a disguised maneuver to control meetings through parliamentary chicanery. They fear that the heart of the matter will be inaccessible through the barricading complications of structure.
You can see the problem. Since neither end of this spectrum is wrong, the challenge is finding a place somewhere toward the middle where everyone can co-exist. Typically, you'll want enough routine and formal structure that there's no ambiguity about the following:
—How things get added to the agenda.
—What issues are worthy of plenary attention [see my blog of Jan 25, 2008 on Gatekeeping Plenary Agendas].
—What comprises a concise presentation.
—What kind of behavior is expected from members in meetings.
—What kinds of contributions are appropriate at various stages in the consideration of a topic.—What permission is there for offering emotional input on topics.—How will the group work with conflict that emerges in meetings?
—When a binding decision has been made.
—What you expect minutes to cover.
When all is said and done, the crucial question is whether the group made a good decision that everyone understands and can abide by; it is not crucial how the group got there. Process agreements are meant to help make the journey from issue to solution easier, and if they don't meet that standard I'd be suspicious of how well the group is being served by the structures in place.
Of particular note is the degree of clarity that exists around the authority of the facilitator to run a meeting. While flexibility can be a good thing, ambiguity here can be especially expensive in that most facilitators will drift toward passivity in challenging moments if there is a lack of clarity about what license they have to step in to guide tender moments.
High Tension Lines
Finally, I want to offer a word of caution about the context in which the request for increased (or decreased) formality arises in the group. If it's in response to the observation that trust has degraded in the group, and tensions have increased, proceed carefully! While there is a tendency for the pro-rules people to see additional structure as an aid in bringing behavior into conformity (and holding people accountable for deviations from acceptable process), this same request will tend to be seen by folks on the other end of the spectrum as a platform for punishment (rather than a request for clarity).
My advice is to address the tensions first, and try as hard as you can to get everyone feeling better connected, before you talk about making adjustments in the formality of your meeting structure. At the end of the day, trust is built through actions, not through rules (or their lack).

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Fish That Got Away

Ma'ikwe and I just launched a two-year facilitation training in the Mid-Atlantic States this past weekend, and mostly it went well. At the outset there were a handful of participants unsure whether they wanted to commit to the full two years, and most of them converted after experiencing a dynamic opening weekend. Note however that I said "most" and not "all." There was one person sampling the training who came to the opposite conclusion, and I want to write today about her, about how my work can fall short even when it's mostly landing long.

Style Clash
Partly our misfit was a matter of communication styles. Where I tend to be more orderly and disciplined about how I work with topics (image a honeybee systematically working a patch of white clover), this woman was more comfortable with a meandering and non-linear way of exchanging information (think butterfly flitting among the blossoms in a random pattern), where an agreed upon topic was more a point of departure than a destination.

After repeatedly experiencing my redirecting her comments to the topic at hand, she felt hemmed in and disrespected. I was reining in her enthusiasm and undercutting much of what she found pleasurable about meaningful discourse.

In addition, there was tension between us around pace. While I work purposefully with groups on how to speak on topic and as non-repetitively as possible (to respect time and preserve the opportunities for others to contribute to the conversation), this woman preferred spaciousness when it was her turn, so that she could present her ideas and relate her experiences in her own style and in multiple ways. Where I saw redundancy, she saw richness and nuance. Where I thought I was protecting the group (emphasizing balance and focus), she thought I was needing to be in control.

The reason this is an important topic is because neither of us is wrong. Both us wanted movement, and both of us wanted everyone to have a turn at contributing. Most poignantly of all, both of us thought the other was indulging in behavior that was truncating this common goal. Ouch!

While I can accept that some people are turned off by how I work with groups (though the number is thankfully small, it's greater than zero), it never feels good. Further, it makes sense for me to pause when this happens and see what I can learn about what went wrong. I've gleaned two lessons from last weekend:

1. I need to be more diligent about first making sure that I've established a solid connection with a person before suggesting that they consider modifying their style in order to communicate more easily with the group—even when the person is a student, and enters into the exchange with me predisposed to give serious consideration to my ideas about possible behavior changes. In the case of this woman, I moved too quickly and she felt unseen and disrespected. That's on me.

I think that if I had been more careful, there was ample room for me to fully connect with this woman and still introduce my ideas about the value of staying focused and concise. I was sloppy, and I squandered the gift of her initial interest.

2. The point about our different styles also carries with it a deep lesson about how we can unwittingly fall into the trap of creating meeting culture that works well for people with similar styles, while repelling folks with different strokes. Who am I to say that a more free-form, and open-ended communication style cannot produce insights and linkages that aren't every bit as valuable as what emerges from the more focused and disciplined approach that I prefer? [See my May 17 blog Taking Pot Shots at Consensus for more on the importance of protecting a forum where all voices are welcome.]

I need to take my work to another level, where I simultaneously protect the widest possible range of styles and keep the group on task. It's simply too expensive to tolerate people being pushed off the dance floor simply because they don't know the steps to my music.