Friday, August 6, 2010

Whether to Patch or Pitch

As a process consultant I spent a lot of my time helping client groups figure out what agreements will best serve them where they previously had none. In general, groups begin with a surge of optimism and a distaste for bureaucracy. This combination often translates into a paucity of written agreements about how they'll operate, trusting that good will carry them safely through the rough spots. While true to a point, I get called when the wagon gets stuck in the mud; when good will is no longer enough to get traction on the issue.

In fact, I just got hired this week by the remnants of a group that I worked for previously. The original group brought me in too late to save that configuration and I mostly helped them amicably separate. However, in the process of providing that help, the continuing subgroup got religion about the value of establishing certain baseline agreements before inviting new folks to join the restart. Thus, for the first time in my career, I've been expressly hired to provide a template of the basic agreements that the nascent new group would be wise to have in place before opening the door to new recruits.

Mind you, I've not been asked to draft the agreements; I've been hired to pose the questions that the group will answer in their own way. My sense is that there are many good answers to such basic questions as:
—What are the basic rights & responsibilities of membership?
—How will the group work with emotional input?
—How much are people wanting to be in each other's lives by virtue of being a member of the group?
—What are the expectations of members to be available for critical feedback from other members about their behavior as a member of the group?
—What is our model of healthy leadership in the group and how will we support that?

If, however, you don't have clarity about where the group stands on these foundational questions, I'll guarantee that there will be tension around the ambiguity. It's an assignment I'm looking forward to.

• • •
Now let's fast forward and suppose that you've already got a set a basic agreements in place, and the issues you face are not so much about how to handle situations not covered by your agreements, as about whether your agreements are handling situations well enough. Assuming there's a general sentiment that some change is needed, I want to discuss the dilemma of whether to tweak an existing agreement (patch the tire), or overhaul it (pitch the tire and get a new one). This can be a tricky consideration.

On the one hand, overhaul tends to take more time. On the other, an overhaul will tend to be more elegant and lead to less trouble down the road. Here are some factors to take into account in making that call:

o How frequently does this agreement come into play? (Is it often enough to justify the investment of an overhaul?)
o To what extent is the tension around how to apply this agreement signal an inadequate agreement, and to what extent is it simply showcasing unresolved interpersonal tensions (which no amount of agreement adjusting will resolve)?
o How frequently have you tweaked this agreement in the past? (There can be a fatigue factor if the group is facing the prospect of putting patches onto patches that have already been patched).
o If you've overhauled this agreement before, how recently?
o Do you have the motivation, time, and skill needed for an overhaul currently available among the membership? (Getting everyone to feel bad about not investing in an overhaul is not a great way to boost morale.)

• • •
Let me close with a story about tweaking versus overhauling. While the "kitchen sink" is often used metaphorically to refer to an exhaustive effort, how exhaustive should the effort be when the kitchen sink is the problem?

In our community kitchen, the sink is located on the north wall and we have a window right behind it, providing both a nice view and natural daylight. The window sill is right at the same height as the top of the linoleum backsplash. Over the years, a crack has developed between the backsplash and the sill, allowing water to get in there and swell the particle board underlayment.

It is not a good place to expect caulk to hold up over time, and one conscientious member took it upon herself to stick a thumb in the dike by cutting a narrow strip of wood to length, painting it white to match the window sill, and nailing it in place after laying down a bead of silicone caulk. This took less than a hour, looked half decent, and protected the particle board from further exposure to moisture. Unfortunately, it also created a modest dam for water coming onto the sill—either from overly zealous sink activity, or from rain driven by a north wind—and you could tell that it would not be a satisfactory long-term solution.

The person effecting the quick repair did not have the time or inclination for anything more extensive. Fair enough. To her credit, this quick-with-the-lath person was perfectly willing to allow someone else room for a more complete response.

As someone who enjoys woodworking and has drifted unwittingly into a life that is bereft of it, I accepted the challenge and put about six hours into crafting a piece of tapered white oak to cover the entire sill. It overlaps the edge of the backsplash and drains toward the sink. By selecting the grain carefully, I was able to present a surface that exposed a considerable amount of ray flecks, making this solution aesthetically pleasing, not just hydraulically functional.

There are several keys to this story: 1) the initial responder was open to another solution; 2) I had the time and skills to work on an overhaul; 3) the community values thorough responses when they're affordable.

Though it doesn't always work, on this occasion at least, we successfully turned things around by throwing a solution at the kitchen sink.

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