Wringing meaning from my blog postings is not necessary a pealing to all.
Stephan Wik, a friend in Ireland, sent me this message yesterday:
I always make time to read your blog as I find your insights useful and, for the most part, concise. Thanks for the hard work you put into them.
I'm writing to make a small suggestion. I'm not sure how much exposure you've had to non-US audiences, and I haven't seen anything in your writings that indicate you are interested in communicating with the rest of the world outside the US. If you are however, you may wish to consider replacing some of your idioms with more generally understandable expressions. Even I, a native English speaker with an American mother, find that at times I struggle to understand what you are trying to convey.
Here are some examples from your latest blog:
"Hot dog" (does this mean you are excited?)
"all sulfur and no molasses" (no idea what this means)
"This is a combo characteristic" (a combination characteristic? What does that mean?)
"I reckon" (I believe this is used in the Deep South of the US to mean 'I understand'?)
In a spirit of international understanding,
While I'm all in favor of international understanding—and am happy to hear from readers about their reactions to my postings—this is not a simple request. Stephan is quite right to point out that my writing is full of idioms (as well as replete with metaphors and ripe with analogies). Thus, there are times (a handful of which Stephan has enumerated above) when my attempt to be breezy and eclectic comes across as an odd wind, blowing the meaning out of reach. Oops. In an effort to stretch the language (intentional) I accidentally poke a hole in the envelope, and the meaning leaks out.
"All sulfur and no molasses" is an excellent example of this. It's an old expression dating back to the early days of medicine when lay doctors would offer doses of sulfur as a general curative (think of it as a crude forerunner of sulfa drugs). However, because it tasted so awful (think rotten eggs) it was common to offer the patient two tablespoons of molasses (a ubiquitous backwoods sweetener) for every one of sulfur. It was thus an old-fashioned "good and bad" kind of thing that I resuscitated in reference to cooperative groups that offer leaders criticism (sulfur) out of proportion to compliments (molasses).
Rather than eschewing obscure, but apt phrases, I like bringing them down from the attic, dusting them off, and giving them some sunshine.
The fact is, I enjoy playing with the words as much as I enjoy working with the words. While I'm not intending obfuscation, I do intend to entertain as well as elucidate; I strive to enrich and at the same time elongate.
In short, I don't lay up—I always go for the green (golf metaphor). As a process consultant, there is no meeting so complex or volatile that I don't think I can handle the dynamics; there is no knot I don't think I can untie. Even though I sometimes fail to make the jump and land in the mud (even spectacularly), I just get back in the saddle, besmirched clothes and all, and try to make the jump the next time it's in my path.
My friend (and main tech support), Tony Sirna, has advised me that my blog entries would be much more accessible (not to mention better read) if I placed key words in the titles, or even just used titles that stated directly what the topic would be. But how boring is that?
My understanding is that contemporary newspapers are written to be understood with an eighth grade vocabulary. I'm aiming higher—at least for college freshman level. While this sometimes means I'll miss my mark—and Stephan is quite right to point this out—reaching for a simile that puts a smile on reader's lips is an irresistible temptation.
Ask not whom Laird has told; for if you read my blog, then I have toiled for thee.
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Wringing meaning from my blog postings is not necessary a pealing to all.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
While offering a workshop on Power & Leadership in cooperative groups over the weekend, I was urging participants to take home the idea of making time to explicitly define what qualities constitute healthy models of leadership—so that members will know when they're operating in ways that people will support, rather than criticize.
When someone in the audience asked me to delineate the characteristics of a healthy leader, I balked, suggesting that groups already know the answers to this—if they just stopped and took the time to think about it—and that it would probably go better if each group generated their own list rather than relied on my suggestions (as the buy-in would be better).
While I still like my answer, I've changed my mind about sharing my thoughts. Thus, here's my offering of 20 desirable qualities in a cooperative leader (while you may not find all of them in a single individual, you're probably hoping to find most of them):
1. Ability to hear fully what others are saying. Note that this implies more than just getting the concepts right; it also involves getting the tone right, and the affect. Even more subtly, it implies being able to show others that what they've said has been fully heard. (Hint: it is often insufficient to merely assert that you've heard someone.)
2. Ability to hear critical feedback accurately and with minimal reactivity or defensiveness. This is a big one. Leaders who are poor at this teach their groups to not bother to attempt it, resulting in disgruntlement and undermined authority. If you're having trouble with the leader's behavior and they'll punish you for pointing it out, what options do you have? Not good.
3. Ability to respond with openness and curiosity when people disagree. This is about being able to resist the temptation to tense up in the face of divergence and to model excitement instead. (Hot dog, the group will have a range of perspectives to weigh in its deliberations!) The point of operating cooperatively is not to have everyone respond harmoniously; it's to have the richest possible stew of ideas to work with. Celebrate when you get it.
4. Ability to report authentically on their emotional state. One of the keys to effective leadership is coming across as real person. One of the keys to that is being able to share feelings in a way that's both accessible and believable.
5. Knows their weaknesses and doesn't try to bullshit others into thinking they're strong in places where they aren't. This is about knowing what you don't know, and not hiding it.
6. Models interest in learning. Leaders are often in the position of teaching others what they know. While that's good, it helps a lot of they're also interested in learning from others.
7. Fosters an environment of sharing the stage with others and passing on what they know if the group depends on that skill. Good leaders encourage others to grow into leadership. Part of this is teaching; part of it is getting out of the way; part of it is being gracious when others step up and letting them carry the moment.
8. Ability to appreciate the contributions of others. This is about sharing accolades, and making sure they are not too parsimoniously distributed. (Group members will be able to contain their enthusiasm for taking on leadership roles if it's all sulfur and no molasses. Good leaders know this and make sure that appreciation flows easily.)
9. Protects air time for other voices. This is a slightly different version of #7, focusing on making it a little safer and a little more welcome for everyone to add their $.02.
10. Discipline to use air time concisely and on topic. Leaders tend to lose social capital if they are unable to display terminal facility, or regularly invite the group to board cross-town buses to explore side traffic.
11. Functions well in chaos. It can be a contribution of no small dimension if a leader can trail blaze a path through dense woods, especially when others feel trapped in the trees.
12. Can function well when the stakes are high. It's another, analogous skill to be able to perform with grace under pressure. It's one thing to understand the theory of leadership; it's another to be able to think lucidly and act with nuance and effectiveness with the game on the line.
13. Can follow as a well as lead. In cooperative groups, it tends to be important that the same person is not always the leader. Thus, it follows that each person who is sometimes a leader, is also sometimes not a leader, and it won't go down well if that leader is not also a good follower on those occasions when they're not on leadership duty. (How can you ask others to respond well to you as a leader if you're not capable of modeling that when you're responding to others as leaders?)
14. Follows through on commitments. Every time you make a promise you don't keep, a little more air escapes from your credibility balloon.
15. Is willing to cheerfully do their share of the grunt work. A number of these qualities (#6, #7, #13) are versions of being able to show range. In this case, it's being willing to sweep the stage after the performance, not just being able to sweep people off their feet when performing on stage.
16. Laughs easily. This may seem a small thing, but grim leaders ain't that inspiring. Of course, if they're only laughing at their own jokes, that's not much of an improvement.
17. Doesn't act as a martyr. This means resisting the temptation to use their contributions—however unique and/or heroic—to pressure people (even subtly) into siding with what the leader wants and not valuing what others want just as much. The most insidious version of this involves the leader asking the group to support their requests because of all that they've sacrificed for the group—regardless of whether the group asked the leader to make those sacrifices.
18. Is able to function gracefully in the face of people reacting with partial information. This is a tricky one. Leaders often know more of the story than others in the group (some of which may be privileged, sensitive information) and it's not unusual for leaders to be criticized by group members who don't know the full story. While this is unfair, it goes with the territory. If you need to be loved all the time, think about getting a dog.
19. Comes across as human. This is a combo characteristic—admitting to failings and irritations (# 4, #5, #16) without attempting to gain leverage through their articulation (#17).
20. Is good at bridging divergent viewpoints. This is the ability to bridge between positions such that both parties feel heard and respected, illuminating a pathway of connection that might not have been visible to either side. It's the step beyond #3.
Friday, September 23, 2011
I'm in Occidental, California right now, in position to participate in the FIC's Art of Community gathering, which starts today and runs through Sunday. I just love community events, where the Fellowship junkies get to press the flesh with people eager to receive and share information about community living.
I figure a healthy organization should be obsessed with learning all it can about its constituency and nothing beats a community gathering for giving us a clear snapshot of our audience, where we come face to face with a representative sampling of the folks most interested in what we have to offer. People are happy to tell you what they want: all we have to do is be open and pay attention.
The winds of interest in community and sustainability are blowing more strongly every day in this country, and we intend to be flying some kites pretty high this weekend. If you are reading this in northern California and want to come play, it's not too late to join the party. Bring your own virtual kite, and we'll supply the string to get it aloft.
1. Strong Winds Possible
You have to wonder by what process the Wyoming Highway Dept decided they needed to post a sign with those words on it, indicating to drivers that the winds which are characteristically present in the High Plains may actually blow while you're driving. Duh.
"Mabel, I'm not sure our Winnebago can take much more of these gusts. I'm gonna write a letter to the goddamn highway people telling them they oughta warn people about this shit. It's dangerous!"
Never mind that it was never that bright an idea to be barreling along the highway at 75 mph in a box on wheels. Sigh. How much do you need to caution people that it's not a good idea to abandon common sense just because you're on the interstate?
2. Elko: Where Pasties Meet Pasties (or is it Meat Pasties?)
Elko is a wide spot in the road as you wend your way along I-80 from Utah to California. Though it has a population of less than 50,000, it's far and away the largest town in the northeast quadrant of Nevada, where there's little water and lots of land. Tony and I spent our second night there, and got to learn a bit more about it than you'd learn breezing through at 65 mph.
Perhaps uniquely in the United States, Elko features two Silver State staples: mining and casinos. In consequence—I doubt anyone intended this—there's an unusual opportunity for word play (which, if you know me, I hate to pass up). When you see "pasties" advertised in town, it could be either one!
The one I learned about first is the traditional Cornish meat and vegetable baked-in-a-dough-pocket delectable that's readily available in northern Minnesota and northern Michigan (because of the mining tradition). Sure enough, we passed a store advertising this savory miner's lunch item on our way out town. See my blog of June 27, 2010 (Catching the Ferry) for the last time I bumped into pasties of this variety.
The other version, of course, refers to something entirely different: a piece of adhesive costume that barely (so to speak) covers the nipples and aureolae of a woman's breasts, designed simultaneously to draw attention and to meet the minimal standards necessary to avoid charges of indecent exposure. You can bet that some appreciable fraction of the scantily clad show girls that are a regular feature of Elko casino floor shows are sporting pasties—and I'm not talking about dough pockets.
3. These Buds Are for You
Tony and I laughed about how we could have used Budweiser plants as directional guides for when to enter and exit I-80. Heading north on I-25 out of Loveland the second morning, we essentially followed the guidance "turn left onto the interstate right after you see the Budweiser plant on your left." (There is this monster you-can't-miss-it brewing plant just before leaving Colorado and entering Wyoming.)
Then, more than 1000 miles later, we took the advice "exit the interstate and turn right onto California 12 right after you see the next Budweiser plant on your left," this time in Fairfield CA. Kinda eerie how Budweiser goes wherever we go.
4. You're on the Left Coast Now
Mostly, when you cross a state line, the scenery is pretty much the same on both sides of the line, and so is the culture. Not so when you leave the Silver State and enter the Golden State. Shortly after cruising by Reno, we crossed into California and queued up for an agricultural inspection, where officials carefully check to make sure that out-of-state fruits and vegetables are not inadvertently carrying bugs or disease that might be harmful to California crops.
As we pulled up to the officer, his first question was where we were from. When we told him Missouri, he smiled and responded with, "Right on." Holy shit, we had fallen into a worm hole that dropped us into the 1960's. I had no idea anybody still talked that way. Welcome to the Hotel California.
5. Sleeping Wind Towers
It was heartening how many wind farms we passed along our route. Perhaps half a dozen. These were clusters of gentle giants: 200-foot towers, each with three 70-foot blades rotating sedately. Typically there would be 40-50 towers in an array. For reasons that were mysterious to us, the blades never seemed to all be turning at the same rate, and there always seem to be a few that weren't turning at all. Were they resting?
At one point there was a whole line of towers where none of the blades were turning. As we speculated about what might cause that (do they get sick together?), we noticed that one of the towers toward the end of that run was so tired that it had lain down. We wondered how long they needed to sleep like that before they had the energy to get up again, but didn't linger long enough to find out.
It'll just have to remain one of those anomalies of the road that will be investigated at a later date. Perhaps on the return drive next week, when we'll no doubt experience even more adventures in Americana.
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
I was recently working with a community that has been around for a while, and they were struggling (as many groups do) with how to work constructively with distress when it erupts in meetings. That's a familiar request for me, and I was happy to be available in case conflict popped it's pointy little head into the room. While things proceeded more or less without drama during most of my visit, the wheels fell off the wagon in the last 30 minutes of the final plenary. Not only wasn't there time to deal with everything that spilled out, we also didn't make the progress we were hoping on the topic that was suspended when the conflict erupted. Ufda.
While this makes a poignant story in its own right, what inspired me to write about it was what happened in the debrief after the meeting, when I was sequestered with seven members of the group who were interested in looking more closely at how the community has been functioning and what could be done to effect improvements.
First let me give some additional back story. The group has existed as a stable community for many decades, and has a considerable number of long-term members. That's a strength. A handful of these long-term members are also characters, with all the idiosyncrasies and range of personalities that you might imagine. In some cases, there are long-term hurts between long-term members that have never been resolved. That's a weakness.
Worse, in addition to the direct distortion that occurs whenever a person hears a statement from someone with whom they have unresolved conflict, there are the stories the rest of the group members tell about those who have not yet been able to find a way to forgive and move on. Thus, if Adrian and Robin are both still carrying upset about an interaction they had years ago that didn't end well, it is likely both that Adrian will be hyper-vigilant about what Robin says, and that others will also be reactive to Robin as well—not because they are taking Adrian's side, but because they have come to expect provocation from Robin.
Mind you, this mix of backdrop dynamics exists (in some form) in most long-term groups, so nothing I've said so far makes this group stand out.
Now let's return to the plenary. Continuing with the pseudonyms I employed above, we were working on the issue of whether the community wanted to grow. Early in the conversation one member, Jesse, stated that even limited growth would have impact on wildlife and the carrying capacity of the land. Shortly after that, Robin stated that though s/he was pro-growth s/he wanted to make certain that whatever was agreed to was something that Jesse was at peace with. Then all hell broke loose.
A number of people (we didn't have time to find out exactly how many) were triggered by what Robin had said. The first one to speak was Sandy, who characterized Robin's statement as "emotional blackmail." Essentially, the objectors inferred from Robin's statement that a) Jesse's views on growth mattered more than the views of others; and/or b) that Robin didn't trust the rest of the community to take Jesse's views into account (even though the group operates by consensus).
Listening to all this as an outside neutral party who didn't have a dog in the fight, it wasn't hard for me to hear what Robin had actually said in a neutral way. That is, there is nothing wrong with the desire to hold Jesse in mind when reaching a decision about growth. The reactive folks were projecting onto Robin a desire to hold Jesse above others. The fact that it may turn out to be true is not the point. From a process standpoint, I believe it's better for the group to be current in reactions, and not project trouble based on what's happened in the past.
There is an important difference between being vigilant about good process, and looking for a fight. I am not suggesting that people be naive about Robin's tendency to be provocative. Rather, I am suggesting that they keep working to see the potential good in what s/he said. In this case, it would have cost the group nothing to have spun Robin's statement as support for the laudable goal that everyone—including Jesse—be at peace with any group decision about growth. What's not to like about that? If, later on, Robin strayed from that innocent interpretation and was observed starting to play favorites, then would have been the time to blow the whistle.
Now let's return to the debriefing. The seven community members were eager to discuss the choices I made when working with Robin and Sandy in the plenary. In part, they were amazed that I could so readily access a non-nefarious interpretation of Robin's impassioned speech in support of Jesse. As we continued to unpack both what happened and how it was seen by the other seven—none of whom included Adrian, Robin, Jesse, or Sandy—it became clear that all seven found it difficult to imagine that Robin's statement might have been innocent.
And that's what I want to focus on today: how a group can fall into the trap of developing stories about people with challenging personalities and styles, whereby those people are seen as caricatures more than as living breathing humans who don't always do things the same way and are capable of change. This phenomenon of pigeonholing difficult people is not helping. And it's all the more sobering when it's being indulged in unconsciously by the folks most motivated to look at how the community is functioning. Yikes!
In the community I'm writing about, both Adrian & Robin are seen by many (at times, not always) as exhibiting bullying behavior. That is, they're both perfectly willing to push for their views about what's best for the group and have thick enough skins to withstand group disapprobation for their tactics. In their view, being able to take the heat is part of what makes them effective.
While I think that their view on this is seriously flawed (both are intelligent and valuable members of the community and I think they'd both be much more effective if they bullied less and worked more to acknowledge and work creatively with the views of others), I don't advocate that either become wimps. It's an advantage for the group that they're both willing to say what they think. The hard part is that they're perceived to be making it harder for others to say what they think, and that's a problem.
Overall, it's my view that if the community is going to turn this around, they'll need a systems approach, where everyone sees the role they're playing in continuing the dynamic. Pretty much, everyone will fall into one of three categories:
Category A) Those who habitually display challenging behavior and don't appear to be motivated to acknowledge it (much less work on ameliorating it).
Category B) Those who label the people in Category A as problem children, and then get protective for the group whenever those Type A personalities wade into the conversation.
Category C) Those who are passive in the face of dysfunction. This includes both those who skip meetings, and those who attend but disappear when the sledding gets tough.
What this community needs is more bridge builders and fewer people assigning labels.
Saturday, September 17, 2011
If you ask people for stories about the first time they tasted beer, most will tell you it was awful—that quaffing fermented barley for pleasure was something they had to work at. Not me. I had my first beer in the gloaming confusion of a neighborhood summer block party when I was about 10 years old and liked it immediately. Perhaps it's because I've always been drawn to bitter flavors, that poor stepchild of our taste palette (where sweet, salty, and sour tend to get more love).
I'm visiting Kalamazoo MI this weekend, offering a series of process workshops to student cooperative groups in conjunction with Western Michigan University and the Kalamazoo Peace Center. Last night, after my afternoon workshop, I went for a stroll downtown in broody 50-degree weather that announced the arrival of fall more surely than the calendar. After strolling up and down the pedestrian mall on Burdick, I wound up stumbling across the Kalamazoo Beer Exchange. What a hoot!
As you'd anticipate from their location in a college town (as well as from the first two words in the name), they have a lot of malt beverages on tap. In fact, they have 28 of them, covering a delicious range of all that's exciting in American microbrewing today, plus a smattering from other countries. While that alone would be sufficient for me to happily while away my evening, there's more. Coincident with my burgeoning interest in cooperative economics, the prices for draught beer at this place actually fluctuate based on real-time purchase patterns among patrons. You have to pay attention.
Here's how it works. The evening is partitioned into a series 15-minute "trading periods" during which all the networked cash registers in the two-story bar are feeding sales data into a central computer. Based on how well each of the 28 varieties are selling that period, the price for each beer may go up, down, or remain unchanged. There is a "big board" in every room that lists the current price of a glass of each beer. A clock in the upper right corner ticks down the time remaining in that trading period. Once the period ends, prices are adjusted, and then remain fixed for the next 15 minutes. Prices are posted in red if they dropped most recently, in green if they've risen, and in white if unchanged. Along the bottom of the screen is a ticker tape display moving from right to left, offering details about how much each beer's price has altered since the last adjustment.
While the algorithm is secret, the concept is simple. If a particular beer sells a lot during the prior trading period, it's price will rise for the next trading period; if sales are slow, the price drops. What an inspiring way to teach the principles of supply and demand—you can actually feel it in your belly! All changes are made in increments of 25 cents. While most beers are sold in the traditional pint, a few of the more exotic offerings came in a 12-oz tulip glass. Over the course of the three hours that I held down my bar stool (yes, I witnessed 12 trading periods), I saw prices as high as $6.50 and as low as $1.75 (for Bud Light & Miller Lite). As an aside, it's amazing to me that they allow that swill on the same page as Huma-Lupa-Licious, the bestselling IPA from Short's, a microbrewery in Bellaire, MI, which describes this beer as "a complex malt and hop theme park in your mouth." (How can one resist? I didn't.)
Occasionally (about once an hour) there is a "market crash," where all beers are suddenly offered at historic low prices for five minutes, producing a veritable
feeding drinking frenzy. However, because you are only allowed to buy two beers at a time (no cornering the market), you can only get so crazy. As I drank it all in, so to speak, I tried to figure out whether this concept encourages beer consumption, and I think it does. While you're probably paying less per beer (at least that's true if you're a savvy customer and able to discipline yourself to buying low while getting high), the novelty of it all resulted in my staying longer and ultimately drinking more.
While it's a clever gimmick and I admire their marketing ingenuity, neither do I begrudge the Kalamazoo Beer Exchange their shekels. For, at the end of the day, I am an adherent to the motto from the brewery in Bellaire, "Life is Short's, drink it while you're here."
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
In September 2008 my wife, Ma'ikwe, and I were at East Lake Commons, a cohousing community in Atlanta to begin an important experiment. It was the first weekend (of eight) in a version of the two-year Integrative Facilitation Training Program that I pioneered in 2003. It was also the first weekend we had attempted to teach this course together. What was at stake was: a) whether we were an effective teaching team; b) whether we were were effective in this format; and c) whether teaching together would be good for our marriage. So the stakes were fairly high.
Though we billed ourselves as co-trainers, the experience (and therefore power) gradient between us in that context was very wide. Because by that time I had already taught this course in its entirety three times, in Atlanta Ma'ikwe was teaching her first session while I was teaching my 25th session. While we were highly motivated to figure out ways to make working together go well, one of our main challenges was figuring out how to close the power gap.
I'm happy to report that in three years we've made great progress in that regard and this blog is devoted to chronicling that journey, focusing mainly on what's happened over the course of the 17 training weekends we've conducted since that launch in Atlanta.
The Unlevel Playing Field
At the outset, we had a long way to go. Not only was it my program, I had many more years under my belt as a process consultant, all of the students in that class had been recruited by their exposure to my work and reputation, I am 20 years older than she, and the pace of the course was tailored to my speed and style:
o Most of the teaching happens on the fly in the context of preparing for, delivering, and debriefing live meetings for the host group. While Ma'ikwe and I can prepare presentations for a few hours Friday morning, all the rest of the weekend is keyed off of what the host group needs, which is out of our control and unscripted.
o Things happen quickly. While the trainers typically have the benefit of a conference call and perhaps some email dialog with representatives from the host group before we arrive on site (which supplies us with a general sense of where the live meetings will be headed), 90% of the prep work happens on the spot, often with only a few hours from start to show time. While meeting facilitators typically have much more time available in which to prepare (it's generally a very poor idea to start prepping for a meeting less than 24 hours beforehand, yet we face that as a steady diet during training weekends), we are teaching efficiency, the ability to focus on the essence of what's needed, flexibility, and trying to develop good instincts (not just good plans).
o Things are intense. Students learn (even more than they already suspected) that meetings are complex animals with many variables in play. As a group, the training class fills all the time available discussing those variables when planning for a live meeting, and the trainers need to simultaneously monitor that the student-facilitator is not overwhelmed (constricting the flow), and yet be as prepared as possible (expanding the flow). The trainers need to simultaneously protect the quality of the meeting for the host and the learning experience for the student, two objective that often coincide, though not always.
o We are on the job working with students, either as a group or individually, for about 30 hours from Friday morning through Sunday afternoon, and that requires stamina and skill at energy management. As trainers, we need to be "on" all the time. Where there are many stretches during a typical training weekend where students can zone out (or even go for a walk or take a nap), the trainers don't have that luxury.
The Theory of Leadership Development
One of the main teaching themes in this training (there are eight; one for each weekend) is Power and Leadership. One of the main points we make in that section is that leadership is needed in all groups (though it's not a particularly good idea that it be the same person all the time), yet cooperative groups tend to be weak in developing clear models of healthy leadership.
Lacking clarity, the default position is that cooperative groups tend to be suspicious of members who function as leaders (why are they drawn to the use of power?). In the pursuit of everyone having a voice and the widest distribution of power as possible (which are fine objectives), the tendency is to hamstring leaders to guard against abuse, with the result that equality is approximated through making everyone sufficiently weak.
We prefer a different approach: encouraging everyone who is less accomplished to get stronger.
We advise that groups explicitly define what qualities it wants in leaders and then create a culture that supports those qualities emerging. In our view, it's superior to celebrate strong leadership, so long as it's in alignment with the qualities identified as healthy. We believe that good leaders encourage the development of their replacements. While not everyone aspires to leadership (we discourage twisting arms or requiring that everyone take a turn in the barrel), you want the invitation to explore it to be as broad as possible—without any dilution of the standards.
In an attempt to walk our talk, this meant that Ma'ikwe and I would be endeavoring to encourage her star to rise without asking mine to set. While there is a theory of ascension that is predicated on the current leader abdicating and propelling their successor(s) forward in a vacuum (rising to the occasion), that was not what we were attempting. I had no intention of stepping back.
How It Looks to the Junior Partner
In our scheme for leadership development, most of the work falls to this person, who must step to the plate. That means taking the initiative to be more present. It means adapting to the format already in place, or making the case for change based on how it will serve the class—rather than just the junior partner's comfort level.
Partly this translated into Ma'ikwe developing her own teaching material (which she's done). She needed to be courageous about trusting her instincts about when to speak, and she's gotten there.
How It Looks to the Senior Partner
While empowerment is essentially the work of the person who wants to become more powerful, there is nonetheless work for the existing leader as well. Mostly it's about mindfulness.
This means monitoring the interplay when we're both in front of the class, making sure that the junior partner has entree (there are important, though sometimes subtle, differences among pushing, encouraging, allowing, and complicating). It entails a certain amount of pausing to see if Ma'ikwe is ready to go when we're both asked a question; it means occasionally deferring if I notice that both of us are ready to speak simultaneously; it amounts to discerning when what I have to say is sufficiently different to add it to what she's said and when it's better to simply let her answer stand alone.
It also means being gracious about dividing the air time, and giving her room to try new ideas. It means trying out my ideas with her, and not just expecting her to vet ideas with me.
In our scheme, I don't hold back on speaking when I think something needs to be said. In the overall pursuit of strengthening the course, I never hesitate to develop additional handouts whenever a new concept crystallizes for me. If she gets there first, great. If not, then I do it.
When we disagree about an approach, it's the responsibility of both of us to be respectful of the other, to be curious about the other's viewpoint. We both have to devote time to reviewing and talking with each other about our working relationship. Success in this attempt is not something that happens simply as a consequence of having the right mind set—it requires active attention and mid-course corrections.
A Work in Progress
For all of our advancement, there are still aspects of the program where our contributions remain grossly out of balance:
o I have authored 95% of the handouts. While Ma'ikwe is a talented writer (in fact, she has a book out, Passion as Big as a Planet) and has crafted some of the more recent handouts, I still write more than she does and there remains a large gap here.
o I draft all of the reports following each weekend (we produce individual ones for each student who does live facilitation with the host group, plus an overall report for the host).
o I continue to handle all of the accounting for the partnership, and the vast majority of the logistics for travel.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
Today is the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack that destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Centers. The horror of that day was the kind of watershed moment that people remember where they were when they first heard the news, or first watched the unbelievable video footage of the collisions and the buildings collapsing.
I was at home when the news first came in, alerted by a community member calling to tell us that her flight home from Hartford that morning was cancelled indefinitely. After that, we had the radio on all day. Because Sandhill doesn't have a television set, I watched the first images of the attack that night at Kurt & Alline's house at Dancing Rabbit. I recall how hard it was to accept what I saw as reality, distinguished from the trailer for a Hollywood thriller.
It seems to me an appropriate occasion to reflect on where we've gotten any closer the last decade with respect to security, and hope for the future.
I remember that the responses immediately following the attacks sorted into two kinds. The dominant kind was outrage (and it was chilling to watch how quickly the Bush administration was able to orchestrate a retaliation). While this was understandable, it was also depressing. How was the call for violence in response to violence going to end violence? Have we learned nothing?
The other main response—which was in the minority, yet still present—was much more interesting, and much more hopeful: How did people get so angry with us that these acts of terrorism seemed an appropriate action? If I've learned anything over my quarter century as a process consultant, it's that we need to move more in the direction of responding with compassion and curiosity in the face of anger, and away from the eye-for-an-eye impulse that we've been leaning into since the days of Hammurabi. We need to get better—much better—at separating strong feelings from the acts of aggression that they inspire.
I am not talking about condoning violence. I am talking about trying to understand it, rather than trying to punish it or contain it. I am talking about our desperate need to learn how to focus our attention on addressing the roots of anger, rather than the routes by which it is expressed.
Ten years ago Bush had his way, and the hunt for Al Qaeda and Bin Laden was on. Air travel would never be the same. Gradually, we learned the meaning of Orange Alerts, that part of one's journey to a departure gate would be made in stocking feet, and to never to stow nail clippers in carry-on luggage.
While I'm thankful that terrorist acts have not proliferated as much some feared they would, I'm not convinced that we live in a safer world. Instead, I believe we live in a more vigilant world, and one that is more bunkered and more brittle. We also live in a world that is markedly more populous today (by nearly one billion), creating ever-increasing pressure on a shrinking pool of natural resources. Simultaneously, the imbalances between the haves and have-nots have widen considerably over the last decade (this is true whether you're comparing per capita income among countries or monitoring the ratio of highest to lowest paid in US companies). In short, there is no reason to think that the conditions that engender anger are diminishing, yet the window of opportunity for us as a species to find a better response to anger is diminishing.
Both the means and motivation for acts of terrorism are increasing. How will we respond? I don't think the answer lies in better airport security. I think we still have a chance to turn this around, yet we have to get much more serious about working constructively with conflict. Literally as if our lives depend on it.
I had dinner last night with a friend who was working in Louisa VA—within 10 miles of the epicenter of the 5.9 earthquake that erupted Aug 23. When the initial shock wave rolled over her office, her first thought was that someone had blown up the nearby nuclear power station on the North Anna River. She was relieved to feel the aftershocks, indicating that the disaster causing the pictures to jump off the wall was probably natural and not radioactive.
Natural disasters are bad enough. My hope is that there is yet enough time and motivation to build a world where those are our worst nightmares.
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
The way I understand it, whenever it was announced that the reigning monarch had died it was the custom in some European medieval cultures for the people to shout, "The king is dead; long live the king!" While a switch in who's wearing the crown may or may not have signaled a sea change, the society would ritualistically pause and take a moment to recognize both grief and celebration.
As I reflect on how the composition and flavor of intentional communities change over time, it might be a good idea if a version of this ritual were adapted by groups in an attempt to better recognize the shifts from one reigning culture to another. While the shifts aren't typically as abrupt or as easily marked as the passing of one person, they can be every bit as profound and it might help with the awkwardness associated with long-term members who have their weight predominantly on one foot in the past while their other probes gingerly for a foothold in the present.
o California was especially hard hit by the collapse of the national housing market, triggered by the sub-prime mortgage debacle in 2007, leaving most Yulupans upside down today (owing more on their mortgages than their houses are worth).
o Although the community is relatively new, they have already suffered the deaths of five members, including Michael Black, founder and architect. When coupled with turnover, only half the original members are still living in the community.
o There is a stucco exterior to all the buildings in the community and some of it is falling off due to a construction defect. In addition to the headache of trying to figure out who's responsible for fixing it, it mars the aesthetics of their otherwise beautiful courtyard.
While the sum of this doesn't constitute a 500-year flood, Yulupa has undeniably been asked to endure a series of challenges evocative of the trials of Job—which reminds me to add that the job market hasn't been so great lately either, and some members have had to scramble to make ends meet, resulting in fewer discretionary hours that can be devoted to participating in community life.
Over the course of the last six years there has been a gradual erosion in participation, such that fewer people are regularly engaged in the upkeep and maintenance of the community, which includes the care and feeding of:
—physical plant (cleaning the common house, mowing the yard, pulling weeds in the community gardens)
—governance (attending monthly community meetings, being active on committees, keeping the books and posting reports)
—relationships (watching someone's cat while they're on vacation, taking chicken soup to a sick neighbor, hanging out with the kids in the courtyard)
Over the course of five-and-a-half hours of community meetings, spread out over the weekend, we unpacked the issue of declining participation and discovered a reservoir of grief over the loss of the community as it was in the early years, before they started getting dealt so many jokers. After giving residents the chance to individually voice in the group their sense of loss—not just of the people who were gone, but also of the sense of community that was no longer there—we distributed half sheets of paper to everyone and gave them five minutes to write down anything they'd like to let go of, so that they could be more fully present to enjoying and working with the community that Yulupa is today.
Next we led them in a ritual inspired by the medieval rite described in the opening paragraph. Taking considerable creative license, we had the Yulupans quietly file out of the common house and into the courtyard, where they circled solemnly around an antique brass pot. One community member read a poem invoking grief and remembrance of things past, after which participants were asked to consign their sheets of paper to the pot, where they were ceremoniously commingled with dirt from the community gardens and composted on the spot. Thus, that which went before was formally acknowledged as both precious and past, and at the same time was surrendered to become the nutrients that will nourish the community that will arise. The community is dead!
After a breath, we invited everyone to pair up and link arms for an up-tempo processional back into the common house, to the boom box accompaniment of the Beatles' Here Comes the Sun. Having let go of the past, we led a subsequent re-commitment ceremony, where members were asked to look squarely at those around them—the exact people with whom the once and future Yulupa would be built and sustained. Participants were then invited to publicly proclaim what new actions, if any, they were inspired to take in service to building a vibrant and healthy Yulupa, and could freely offer (no martyrs!) in recognition that success would be founded on the aggregation of each individual's contribution, not on what others contributed while you stood on the sideline. Everyone in the room rose to the occasion.
It was a helluva weekend. Long live the community!
Sunday, September 4, 2011
This is the concluding installment of a four-part series on outliers started Aug 25.
All cooperative groups struggle with how to work constructively with members who position themselves on the outer edge, and I want to explore some of the nuances that come into play with this dynamic. In groups that make decisions by majority rule outlier dynamics are often sidestepped simply through the convenience of voting, in consensus-based groups however, the culture is obliged to work with all elements, and that means the edges as well as the center.
In this series I've examined outlier dynamics in the following sequence:
I. Considered as a Singular Occurrence
II. Considered as a Pattern Based on Temperament or Style
III. Considered as a Pattern Based on Values
IV. Considered as a Strategy
This is the dynamic where a person consciously chooses to participate as an outlier—someone with a position on the outer range of the group's spectrum of views on a topic—because they believe it will gain them leverage in steering the group toward what they want. That is, they will purposefully present their views more extremely, either in style or substance, than they would in private, as part of a strategy to maneuver the group to the position they actually favor.
Implied is the intent to deceive or misrepresent, for the purpose of manipulation. As you might imagine, it can get nasty if other group members believe that a person is engaging in this kind of Machiavellian behavior, as it undercuts the bedrock premise that cooperative group decision making works best when everyone contributes what's true for them and then works creatively to find the best fit from all the input. If someone is intentionally distorting their truth to gain strategic advantage this is viewed as a perversion.
Caution: While it's not difficult to define this phenomenon, it's not at all easy to tell if it's occurring. Absent an outright admission of guilt, it can be nearly impossible to prove bad intent, or to distinguish between honest outlier behaviors and dramatized ones.
—How it looks to the individual
It's easy to see how a person could learn subconsciously to be an outlier because it's often an effective strategy to help get what you want. (In a recent visit to my son's family, I had plenty of opportunity to witness the limit testing tactics of my three-year-old granddaughter, Taivyn. While I think Taivyn's parents, Ceilee and Tosca, are handling this pretty well, it's not easy to be consistently patient and loving in the presence of this kind steady pressure, and thus, some kids learn that being an outlier can bear dividends. )
Many of us learn as children that it's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. If so, it can be hard as an adult to stop squeaking if that has proven to be helpful all a person's life.
In a more cold-blooded analysis, the outlier may be perfectly aware that they're exaggerating their viewpoint, and yet have no trouble sleeping at night. Perhaps they think everyone exaggerates and they're merely doing what everyone else does; perhaps they're addicted to the attention (and even irritation is better than being ignored); perhaps they feel justified in their practice because it's a lesson learned early in "how the world works," and only the naive and gullible show all their cards right away—the fact that others aren't politically savvy doesn't mean they should be artless as well.
—How it looks to the group
While the wide range of possible pathways to becoming a patterned outlier argues for extending to them the benefit of the doubt, the group may not be feeling that gracious if folks are in a state of frustration over how much effort is being exerted to labor with the same person over and over. If it's starting to feel like the tail is wagging the dog, resentment may accumulate.
A lot depends on both frequency (how often a person is an outlier) and stridency (how much the outlier fails to demonstrate an ability to hear and work well with the input of others). The less the outlier displays either of these tendencies, the likelier it is that they'll be worked with openly and fairly by the group.
What to do?
Rather than encouraging groups to get in the habit of pausing to judge whether patterned outliers are sincere in their statements (and not overamping for effect), I have a different suggestion. If someone proves themselves to be a regular squeaky wheel, I suggest putting them on a limited-grease diet—think of it as preventative medicine, to keep the outlier from becoming a fat cat who has more power over the group than is healthy.
Note first that I didn't say a no-grease diet. I believe it will work better if the group starts by assuming good intent on the part of the outlier and treating their views with respect (so long as they're rooted in group values and not solely in personal preferences). That said, I think it's reasonable to ask all parties to learn from what occurred and to make a sincere effort to not recapitulate the same polarized dynamic the next time an issue takes the group across the same trigger point.
—What this means for the individual
If the outlier pattern is based on temperament or style, I'm asking the person to take in how challenging it is for the group to labor with it. Typically, if a group gets to a solid, balanced conclusion when working with outlier behavior, it's in spite of the dynamics, not because of them. It will be in the individual's best interest to do what they can to adapt their behavior to what is easier for the group to handle. Not only will this be less triggering for others, but the group will be impressed that you're trying to be cognizant of what works well for others, which will enhance the outlier's social capital (something that is likely to be in short supply).
If the outlier pattern is based on values, I'm asking the person to digest how the group has been able to fully hear their interpretation and take it into account in figuring out how to sensitively handle the issue. I'm hoping that this digestion can lead to the outlier being more trusting of the group the next time this value comes into play, so that the whole conversation about the spectrum of views in conjunction with this value will not need to be replayed.
Let me give an example of what I mean. Suppose in the previous year the group considered a proposal to install air conditioning in the common house, and in the discussion it came out that most people thought it was a good idea (because it might significantly enhance the summertime usability of a valuable common asset), but one member was appalled that it was even being considered because, for them, it represented moving in the direction of bourgeois luxury and away from dedication to being a model of environmental sustainability. Suppose further that after unpacking the outlier's deep feelings about being environmentally vigilant, the group was ultimately able to come to an agreement to invest in passive cooling retrofitting of the common house employing materials with a minimal carbon footprint. While it took a while to work through all that, in the end everyone felt good about the outcome and there were excellent prospects for a cooler common house in July.
Now suppose there's a proposal for the group to increase it's fleet of cars from two to three, so that people won't have to scramble so much to get their transportation needs met.
There is a world of difference between these two potential initial responses from the person who was the outlier in the air conditioning conversation:
Option A: "This request to buy an additional car makes my soul shrivel. It says in our bylaws that we're committed to being environmentally responsible and there is no greater evil in contemporary society than our obscene dependence on gas-powered automobiles. We're selling out and I'm embarrassed to be part of a group that could bring this proposal forward!"
Option B: "As you might imagine, this request to buy an additional group car triggers my deep concerns about the environment, and I'm not having a good reaction. That said, I'm also remembering how well the group held me last year when we worked through the common house air conditioning issue, and I'm holding onto the hope that a similar thing will be possible now."
Note that I'm not asking the outlier to change their values; I'm asking the outlier to change how they express them, building on past successes in getting to a balanced place when this value is in play.
If the outlier pattern is a strategy, I'm asking the person to do some personal work. I want them to consider how their choice to be cagey is fundamentally at odds with the culture of cooperation that the group is (hopefully) trying to create. Cooperation is based on transparency, compassion, and authenticity. Offering an overstated opening statement to gain a tactical advantage for one's position flies in the face of all three of these principles. While the group may nonetheless be able to successfully navigate a false start, it's a complication and doesn't help the group do its best work.
While the outlier may be convinced that this strategy improves the chances that their preferred outcome will prevail, it does so at the expense of group trust and cohesion, and I'm asking the person to take in how costly that is to relationships as well as to group functionality.
—What this means for the group
If the outlier pattern is based on temperament or style, the group might usefully examine what it can do to be less reactive to bluster, tears, hand waving, or ethnic speech patterns. Rather than punishing the outlier for not being "normal," the group can work on stretching to embrace a wider range of "acceptable."
If the outlier pattern is based on values, the group can learn (as well as the individual) from a thorough examination of the range of interpretations about a particular value. The group can anticipate that the same range of interpretations will surface again the next time that value is evoked. Rather than wait to see what the outlier does with it this time (see Options A & B above), the group can acknowledge at the outset that this range of interpretations will be a factor that the group will need to balance. This can bypass all kinds of drama that will only be a repeat performance and not particularly illuminating.
If the group suspects the outlier pattern is a strategy, I suggest taking the high road and steering clear of condemnation and outrage. I think it will be more productive if you focus mainly on how you're trying to create cooperative culture and it isn't clear to the group how the outlier is on board with the program. While the outlier has the right to be heard, that's coupled with the responsibility to work hard to hear and work constructively with the input of others, and you're not seeing how they're doing the latter while insisting on the former.
While there will always be outliers, groups have choices about how well they understand what's happening and how much they suffer from the tensions associated with the expression of outlier views, and the fatigue associated with being forced to watch reruns.
Thursday, September 1, 2011
This is installment three of a four-part series on outliers started Aug 25.
All cooperative groups struggle with how to work constructively with members who position themselves on the outer edge, and I want to explore some of the nuances that come into play with this dynamic. In groups that make decisions by majority rule outlier dynamics are often sidestepped simply through the convenience of voting, in consensus-based groups, however, the culture is obliged to work with all elements, and that means the edges as well as the center.
In this series of entries I'll examine outlier dynamics through the following sequence:
I. Considered as a Singular Occurrence
II. Considered as a Pattern Based on Temperament or Style
III. Considered as a Pattern Based on Values
IV. Considered as a Strategy
This person holds an extreme (in the context of the group) interpretation of one or more of the group's values and the pattern is that the group repeatedly bumps into that when working issues. The further out the position, the more work it is to bridge to it. The more frequently it surfaces, the more exhausted the group can become.
Perhaps their take on the group's commitment to taking seriously the environmental impact of its choices leads the outlier to consistently advocate for non-motorized approaches to everyday needs. While this may be a reasonable position in a group dedicated to living off the grid in a remote rural location, it is likely to come across as extreme in a group of urban professionals—and if you hear one more plea for a bicycle-powered washing machine you're going to puke.
—How it looks to the individual
Assuming good intent, the outlier sees their behavior as being true to ideals, and helping the group steer clear of compromise for the sake of expediency. While aware of the effort that the group must invest in finding acceptable choices when obliged to work with this person's outer orbit input, the outlier believes they're acting in service to the group's long-term interests; they do not view their choices as selfish. The outlier tends to be frustrated with the group for either being too narrow or too short-sighted in their normal thinking.
—How it looks to the group
It can be hard for the group to maintain an attitude of openness and grace if the outlier is a frequent flyer in the ionosphere, consistently pushing the group to travel where there doesn't seem to be enough oxygen to sustain consensus. Sometimes the group can appreciate how the outlier's sharply different views can help inform and deepen the consideration. More often though, the group gets frustrated with the task of bringing the outlier back down to within range of what everyone can live with. There tends to be disappointment with the outlier for not having done more of that work internally, before they spoke.
When trying to work with people espousing edge positions there is a balance to keep firmly in mind: the outlier has the right to expect the group to make a good faith effort to hear their views and why they believe they are a reasonable interpretation of group values; in return, the outlier has the responsibility to make the same good faith effort in the other direction—hearing and working with the all the views that differ from their position. These two go together and the group can get in trouble if anyone is insisting on one without extending the other.
But let's suppose you're handling this fine. What does it mean if this pattern persists? There are a couple possibilities that are worth considering. Though neither may obtain, you might keep them in mind.
First, do you have a values fit in your group? Are you solid about what your values are? Are you putting out a clear message? Are you screening prospective members appropriately for a value match? A consistent outlier pattern may reveal sloppiness on the group's part, where the outlier's values may not fit with the rest of the group. Or it may showcase value slippage, such that there isn't any longer the solid alignment you once had. Note: if a values mismatch is revealed, it is more likely the result of everyone operating in a state of fog, rather than intentional misrepresentation—try to go easy on the blame.
Second, are you developing a culture of curiosity and bridging when the group labors over tough issues and it's necessary to work with one or more people on the edge? Maybe the group's exhaustion is more a measure of the group's brittleness and lack of a collaborative culture in heavy traffic, than a mismatch of values.