Friday, March 30, 2012

Consensus in Heavy Sledding

This winter I worked with a group that had struggled mightily to complete their annual budget process. They were using consensus and the experience had been grueling. While they finally got through it, they crossed the finish line more with a sense of exhaustion than completion. Hoping they could have a different, better experience the next time they encountered a budget blizzard, they asked for help. (While this group's facility with consensus was only average, their awareness that help could improve things and their willingness to dedicate the time and dollars to the attempt made them above average.)

I worked with the group for three days—Friday through Sunday. In addition to facilitating a pair of three-hour plenaries Saturday and Sunday afternoon, I spent more than four hours specifically addressing the role of the facilitator in negotiating heavy sledding (which generally translates into two main challenges: complexity and volatility—for the most part, a group's worst nightmare is a topic that features both). On Friday I spent about eight hours listening to people in ones, twos, and small groups telling me what they thought was wrong and what they thought needed fixing. Interestingly, though not surprisingly, some of the reports were contradictory.

The plan was that I would teach the group how to use consensus more adroitly, so that they could reach a decision with broad buy-in on tough topics, and the vehicle selected for demonstrating this was revisiting the most draining discussion of the just-completed budget cycle. While there was easy agreement that this was an excellent example of something the group hadn't done well, there was nowhere near agreement about why it hadn't gone well, or whether it was wise to go back there so soon.

(As the weekend unfolded and I became aware of the tremendous resistance among some members to reopening the discussion, I had the distinct image of World War I trench warfare, where soldiers begrudged giving up even an inch of territory that had been purchased so dearly in blood.)

In any event—even if was a matter of fools rushing in—I was game to try. I am a firm believer in tackling the hardest issue that the group is willing to attempt, in the belief that progress there will be the most inspiring and uplifting. (If you only demonstrate how to handle lightweight stuff, the skeptics will be wondering if the group has really turned a corner, or just been mildly entertained by a display of cooperative prestidigitation.) In preparing for my work, I created an outline of the steps I'd take to lead them through the minefield that was the budget, and it seemed to me that sharing this template would be a good subject for today's blog. Here's what I did:

A. Background Interviews
As soon as I had arrived on site, I started having conversations with stakeholders (people known to care a lot about the outcome), the better to understand what their core concerns were, and the dimensions of the distance between viewpoints. Hint: While it's often not strictly necessary to have an individual conversation with every stakeholder, the stronger the emotional attachment, the more important it is to meet with that person ahead of time.

B. Determine a Point of Entry that Lays out the Gulf Between Positions and the Work Ahead
In preparing for the first plenary, I distilled what I'd collected from Step A into what I styled "Findings" and offered that to the group at the outset. If done accurately (I always check to make sure the group is on board with what I offer), this frames where we are, crystallizes the key questions needing attention, and suggests a pathway through the maze. Done well, this saves gobs of time in the attempt to get traction. I provides a road map for how we'll work, which makes it easier for people to follow where we are and where we're headed.

C. Start with Attention on Any Significant Unresolved Distress (if that's in play)
Essentially, if there exists significant tension in relation to the issue I think it's better to make an attempt to address the distress prior to addressing the issue.

While it's rarely possible to address all the unresolved distress in the the room, fortunately that's not typically necessary. Rather, you need to address enough distress that two important things happen: a) it releases the tension that was on top (taking the edge off and allowing those that expressed themselves to be more open to what followed—think of it as removing virtual earwax); and b) it establishes that the facilitator is willing and able to work through messes as they occur (which allows the group to relax its anxiety about whether messes are likely, thereby expanding the range of input that the group will find usable).

Note: by "working with distress" I am not talking about taking sides or determining who's right. The aim is simply to make sure that people feeI heard to the point that they were ready to go on.

D. Trusting that There is Sufficient Wisdom in the Group to Know the Way Through the Hard Stuff
As the facilitator, I see my job as midwife, not as wizard. Thus, I try to set the table and maintain the right atmosphere for a live birth, but it isn't my baby, and it's not my job to pull a rabbit out of a hat. To serve in this role, I listen carefully to what people are saying, trusting that the clues about what can work to bridge differences among people will lie in what they say.

E. Identify Themes and Potential Bridges as They are Uncovered
After each chunk of conversation, I offered the group a summary of themes or trends, helping to clarify a viable pathway through the maze, and the elements of agreement that might be woven into a cohesive whole. In each case, I was simply giving back to the group what it had just given to itself.

F. Once One Level of Understanding Is Reached, Use that as a Basis to Build the Next
I expect each round of consideration to be an advancement, based on what went before. I insist on progress yet am ever mindful to not go so fast that people are left behind. It is, of course, important to pause after each round to make sure there's solid buy-in with the product of one level before asking it to support the weight of the round of building.

G. When Significant Distress Surfaces, Pay Attention to that as a Priority
While we tried to do as much emotional clearing as we could up front (Step C), it's not at all rare for more to surface as you proceed. Whenever significant tension erupts, it behooves you to suspend the focus on the topic to attend to the distress. In the example I was working, one person reached a flash point of overwhelm and frustration that resulted in their making an impassioned plea for a couple holding a different position to give it up. The result was tears and the couple leaving the room hurt and angry.

In that moment, you cannot simply return to the conversation about the topic and pretend that the eruption didn't occur; you have to give people room to respond to what just happened.

To be sure, this can be tricky to navigate. In the instance I've described, some were dismayed—even ashamed—that the couple felt so alienated. Others were in a similar place to the person who lost it, feeling fed up with how much attention was being devoted to the couple. After hearing a number of comments like that, another person was in distress about people speaking critically about the couple when they weren't in the room. (I made a commitment to share a summary of the comments with the couple at the earliest opportunity, so that we could continue.) A few others wanted to discuss what should be done about the topic (responding from the head), and I had to ask them to wait until we were at that point again—for now I was only looking for heart comments.

H. After Working the Distress, Return to Working the Topic
After we gave everyone a chance to respond emotionally to what happened, we used the remaining time to confirm where were on the budget topic (so that all the good work that had been accomplished prior to the blow-up was not lost), what would be next steps, and how the group would handle the aspects of the road map that hadn't yet gotten to.

It's relatively common that the group is not able to wrap up a complex topic with a ribbon and bow when it's time to end the meeting. While it's inevitable that there will be some degree of disappointment with that, it shouldn't mean that the time was a waste of time. If you're careful to identify the partial agreement and have a clear plan for how to complete what remains, that can be a solid result.

I. If There are Outliers, Do What You Can to See that They are Being Carried Forward in the Work
In most cases where there exist non-trivial differences about how to respond to an issue, the distribution of viewpoints is not even. That is, it's common for there to be a few folks identified as being on the edge, while most people clump toward the middle. Where that's the case, it typically makes sense for the facilitator to pay special attention to those on the edges, as they are the ones most susceptible to falling off the wagon and you need to make sure they aren't being left behind.

While there was some discomfort with my doing this because it was perceived by some as letting the outliers control the agreement, that was not what I was doing. Whenever I'm working with someone who feels isolated and misunderstood, I go through a sequence that includes hearing, understanding, validating, and bridging—followed by expecting people to walk the bridge, which is not the same as asking anyone to walk the plank. That is, I expect movement from people once this kind of attention and respect has been extended to them.

One of the more poignant aspects of the work I did with this group was how members experienced it differently. While about a quarter of the group could see the distinctions in the way I was working (from the way the group had tried to cover the same ground originally during the budget cycle) and noticed the shift in the way the outlier couple was responding, another quarter remained skeptical and saw the weekend as the same old shit. (The other two quarters didn't express how they experienced the weekend.)

My sense was that for the skeptics, their hope for the weekend was that I could get the couple to move toward the position held by most people, and that it wasn't necessary for the majority to rethink where they had gotten to—they didn't get it that I was looking for everyone to get on the bridge, not just for the couple to walk across to the other side.

J. Keep the Group Focused on What Kind of Response Is Desired
Repeatedly, I would lay out where we were in the consideration and what kind of a response I was looking for. It takes discipline to understand that and keep one's comments focused productively. For example, one of the most common challenges in facilitating consensus conversations is distinguishing between the discussion phase (where you are identifying the factors that a good response needs to take into account) and the problem-solving phase (where you are exploring possible actions that balance these factors). It is incredibly common for someone to respond to the expression of a concern with what might be done to address it. While the enthusiasm and good intentions are admirable, it leads to mass confusion if you try to be expansive (discussion phase) and contractive (proposal-generating phase) simultaneously.

Similarly, if your want a response from the heart, the facilitator needs to assiduously deflect responses from the head.

K. Model Curiosity
In cooperative culture—which is what you're striving for in consensus—you want the quality of response to new ideas or differing views to be curios rather than combative or defensive. You want the lowest possible barriers to people voicing divergent views, trusting that the group will figure out how to balance everything once all views are in the open and fully understood.

While this concept is not hard, it's hard to remember it in the heat of the moment—especially when the stakes are high and you disagree.

L. Believe in the Process
If you don't think a breakthrough is possible, you're much less likely to see one that presents itself. People tend to find what they're looking for—and miss what they're not looking for. If people come into a meeting expecting a fight, they're already most of the way toward manifesting one. If you don't start with the assumption that movement and flexibility are possible, you won't recognize it when it comes along.

• • •
While it's no doubt hard to make progress when the group is unused to maintaining an open and curious environment—there's a reason they call it heavy sledding—it is possible and it's well worth learning. In a world that's brittle and fractured, I'm buoyed that groups are asking for help in learning how to do this.

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