Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Pause That Refreshes

—Manchmal eine Pause

That's what Coca-cola came up with to export their long standing catch phrase, "the pause that refreshes" into Germany. It literally translates into "sometimes a pause" and is what I want to explore today—when, sometimes, it's a good idea to pause when laboring with a tough issue, rather than keeping your foot mashed on the gas. I got this wrong recently, and I want to share my cautionary tale.

One of the most common complaints about consensus is that it takes too much time. As a group process consultant and professional facilitator, I specialize in up-tempo productive meetings. I've learned a great deal over the years about why groups flounder and what they can do about it. However, occasionally I get in trouble even when I appears everything went fine. Sometimes, I don't pause in the presence of a yellow light.

Recently I facilitated an all-day set of meetings for a group that was exploring a new business venture, and we uncovered a cornucopia of concerns on our way establishing solid footing. In the course of the day we unpacked multifaceted issues, drilled down to root values on the trickiest ones, and then handed off to various committees the assignment of drafting specific language or developing detailed responses that the whole group could review before formally adopting. There is a definite art to knowing how much work to attempt in plenary and when it's more efficient to hand over the wordsmithing and fine-tuning to a team—if you delegate too soon, there's not a firm foundation and the work that comes back is at risk of being overhauled; if you delegate too late, you've squandered plenary time while committees languish. All and all, I felt good about the work we'd done to walk that line.

However, it was more complicated than that (you could make the case that it's always more complicated than that, but that's the subject for a future blog). In addition to the business issues themselves, the consideration was complicated by the presence of unresolved tensions that some community members had with one of the people who was willing to serve on the business management team. Even though he appeared to have the right skill set for the job, there were serious questions about how readily and thoroughly he shared information.

In the evening, when we took time to review the day's work, one member reported feeling we'd moved too quickly in approving the composition of the management group. She needed more progress on the unresolved tensions as a pre-condition for moving forward and hadn't been able to articulate that reservation earlier.

This was a tricky moment for the group. On the one hand, nobody wanted to ram anything down the throat of a questioning member. On the other, people were saddened by the prospect of watching the day's work unravel and losing the buoyant feelings of serious accomplishment that had accompanied it. What to do?

As it happened, the unresolved tensions had already surfaced in the day's conversation, but the would-be member of the management team declined to discuss the tensions in plenary. This was not an across-the-board "no" mind you; it was an I'm-not-willing-to-examine-those-tensions-in-this-setting "no." Having identified that this work was needed and could be done later, we chose to move on. While the person wanting that examination allowed us to continue under those conditions, ultimately she recanted in the evening.

It's instructive to take a moment to break down this dynamic, where we made a poor choice while everyone thought they were acting in the group's best interests:

From the Perspective of the Group
The group mainly wanted to maintain forward momentum on a complex issue.
We weren't ducking anything, yet neither were we insisting. We were on a roll, and people were liking the combination of engagement and accomplishment. It would have been highly awkward to have pulled the emergency cord and asked that the work be suspended until the tensions got addressed.

From the Perspective of the Objector
The person with the reservations wasn't sure enough of her concerns to make that request. She was savvy enough to understand that there would be a cost to asking for a hiatus and she wasn't certain in the moment that she wanted to pay it.

Not everyone processes information and feelings at the same rate, and those differences can get accentuated by the presence of an experienced facilitator, where the pace picks up. It's not that people were being missed—knowing that the objecting woman was sitting on concerns (she was not passive) I was tracking her constantly to see whether she was on board with what we were doing. It was more subtle than that. She had been hesitant to ask that things slow down because she wasn't yet sure of her analysis. Being uncomfortable does not always translate into "go slow," and clarity about what underlay her discomfort didn't emerge sooner than the evening session.

From the Prospective of the Management Candidate
The person who put themselves forward to serve on the management team was willing to discuss the uneasiness with their management style, yet had learned that doing so in plenary was a poor setting for them. It was too excruciating being in the hot seat. So this person asked for an alternative venue. He was taking care of himself and still being responsive. While it may be an open question whether any substantive progress will be made in a clearing session to be held later (prior attempts to mine this issue hadn't produced much gold), I don't have any problem with the request to handle critical feedback in a smaller group setting. You want people to have options.

From the Prospective of the Facilitator (me)
While I'm reasonably satisfied with what I was tracking during the consideration of the business issues, it was also the case that I had been explicitly asked to demonstrate working on distress as an outside facilitator. While I offered to do so when the objector asked for that, I didn't see the potential trap when the management candidate deferred.

What I understand now is that the objector had little faith in the group's ability to work through the conflict (which had proven persistent and resistant to resolution) on their own and was pinning her hopes on what I could do as an outside gun. The timing of the group's work with me was such that it wasn't possible to schedule anything extra with me once we agreed to not work the tensions in plenary, so the choice to work the dynamic later necessarily meant proceeding without me and the objector had little faith in the outcome.

In retrospect, I went too fast when asking the group if it was willing to continue working the business issues while the tensions were on hold. In the dynamic moment, it was hard for anyone to think through the consequences and make the case for stopping without being at risk of escalating the tensions that we had just agreed to not examine. Talk about a pickle!

This was one of those cases where the subject (making delicate decisions about the business) was held hostage to the unresolved tensions, and in my desire to give the group as much product on a tough issue as possible, I drove past the caution flags.

Fortunately, the objector was brave enough to come back to the topic in the evening, as her concerns coalesced into a clearer objection, and the group agreed to place a one-month delay on the day's decisions, to give everyone time to digest the implications, and to give the objector and the candidate the opportunity to have that small-group conversation about their unresolved tensions.

Even though the pause came late, at least this time it didn't come too late.

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