Sunday, June 10, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Closing the Deal

This is the continuation of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is Closing the Deal.

I. When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal
III. Wordsmithing in plenary
IV. Redirecting competition
V. Bridging disparate views
VI. Harvesting partial product
VII. When to be formal
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms
IX. Coping with blocking energy
X. Defining respect
XI. Balancing voices
XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability

• • •
Typically, there are three main challenges to facilitating tough topics. The first is managing non-trivial distress. The second is flushing out all the factors that a good response needs to take into account (plus vetting and prioritizing), and the third is finding the best solution—the subject of this essay.

If the topic is complex, consider aggregating elements of the solution piece by piece, demonstrating to stakeholders how their concerns have been adequately reflected in what’s being proposed. In general, you’re better off checking first with the stakeholders you think might have to stretch the furthest to feel included—on the theory that if you can’t hold them, you probably don’t have a viable solution and you might as well know that from the get-go.

The trick here is steadfastly steering the group away from the advocacy that was featured in identifying factors, and repeating to the group the mantra: "How well does this suggested response balance the factors we came up with?" When a person feels their concerns have been left out of a proposal, ask them what would work better. Invite everyone to be a part of the solution, rather than a naysayer.

You are trying to create an atmosphere of inquiry and collaboration rather than survival of the fittest. Often, the facilitator—who is actively looking for a creative solution—will see a good way to balance disparate factors sooner than others, who will tend to be more oriented toward protecting turf.

Caution: if, as facilitator, you offer up a solution that you think would work well, you have to gracefully stand down in the presence of resistance. It's all well and good to help the group move along; it's not OK to fight for your ideas, as it will tend to undercut the neutrality that is the bedrock of your license to operate.

The key to selling your idea to the group is showing how everyone's core concerns are being addressed. If someone feels left out, they'll be reluctant to get on board and you'll have to try another tack. If everyone can see how all players are being held and at the same time being asked to give a little, proposals will be more palatable.

When are you ready to test for agreement? 
There are two screens to use in making that assessment. First, does the proposal cover all the bases? This is mainly a matter of logical analysis: do the elements of the proposal hang together (are they consistent, both with each other and with existing agreements); are all concerns addressed (completeness); is it practicable (do you have the skill, resources, and motivation to implement)?

Second, is everyone on the bus energetically? Regardless of how comprehensive you believe a proposal to be in addressing the issue, it matters a great deal whether it feels good to the group. The pitfalls here are:
o  A key stakeholder may feel that they've been asked to stretch more than anyone else (why should they have to "pay" more than others?).
o  The suggestion to test for agreement may come sooner than some have had enough time to fully grok its ramifications and how they feel about it.
o  People may feel that the process has been sloppy (perhaps not enough relevant information has been collected; perhaps a pushy member is perceived to have been bulldozing on this topic; perhaps one or more stakeholders have been shrill in the consideration, using emotional blackmail to steer the conclusion).

The symptoms of energetic non-alignment include flat affect, body language that indicates discord (folded arms, frowns, lack of eye contact, squirming), irritation, and sarcasm. Caution: a person may feel uneasy (and display one or more of the above symptoms) much sooner than they can articulate what's bothering them. Thus, a direct inquiry about what's going on—however well intended—may not illuminate the concern.

A skilled facilitator needs to be able to read when the energy in the room is sufficiently aligned to ask if there's agreement. Typically, with smaller decisions you can go faster (no one wants to dawdle, and the consequences of a mistake are less daunting); with larger decisions it's prudent to be more deliberate (sometimes you're facing a fork in the road where the ramifications are large and it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to retrace your steps and do differently if you don't like what you get—in those moments its generally a good idea to pause and take a deep breath before committing).

When closing the deal, a crackerjack facilitator is part cheerleader ("We can do this!"), part magician (you're apt to see solutions others miss, especially if you're the only one in the room looking at the glass half full), and part sheep dog (continually urging the group to move in the direction of the corral that will hold everyone, and away from protecting isolated ideas).

While I appreciate that you may have never seen someone facilitate when costumed in a short skirt and knee socks, rigged out with a megaphone, a shepherd's crook, and a tall pointy hat adorned with stars, I've never been one to let odd raiment get in the way of a good meeting.

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