Friday, July 20, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Harvesting Partial Product

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 Harvesting Partial Product.

I. When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition [posted June 23]
V. Bridging disparate views [posted July 5]
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
• • •
Much of the time, when people anticipate a topic that's coming up on a plenary agenda, their fondest hope is to reach a clear conclusion about how to dispose of it, so it won't come back and the issue will be resolved. In reality, much of the time it doesn't work that way.

Maybe the agenda planners underestimated how long it would take to discuss; maybe there were unexpected icebergs to dispose of, requiring much more time than what was allotted; maybe there was emotional distress that bogged things down; perhaps one or more key players missed the meeting; maybe an essential piece of research was missing; perhaps someone forgot to photocopy the handouts ahead of time or you don't have the right adapter for the digital projector; possibly the facilitation was weak and/or the group strayed into ancillary topics that dissipated progress on the main issue; maybe the moon was in the wrong phase and the group was simply not productive. In short, there are many reasons why a group may not be able to complete a topic.

What I want to focus on today is how to best manage this situation. 

1. Time Management
If you're paying attention, you should be able to tell when you're falling behind and it's unlikely that you'll be able to complete the issue at hand in the time allotted. In those situations you have a choice to make: give it more time, or lay it down and move on. 

There is not one right answer about how to handle this. Factors include:
o  How close you think you are to the finish line. If you're only 5-10 minutes away, it's often the right call to extend the time.
o  How badly the group needs to experience completion—if you've had a meeting that's a series of uncompleted topics, the group may be starving for the satisfaction of crossing something off the To Resolve List.
o  What are the prospects for picking up time on agenda items yet to come? Perhaps a less important later item can be deferred; perhaps the group can move more expeditiously through a subsequent topic.
o  How badly the group needs to end on time. Just as there's a cost to stopping part-way through a topic, there's can be a cost to ending late—especially if it's a chronic issue. Which cost is greater?
o  Are you at a natural stopping place, where it will be relatively easy to pick back up again with minimal backtracking, or where the break can be used productively to conduct additional research or to develop proposals? For example, it's convenient to stop work once you've identified everything that a good response needs to take into account (the Discussion phase) and before you launch into Problem Solving mode.

Note that if you decide to lay the topic down unfinished, that you'll need to protect enough time to wrap up where you are, note the progress made, and lay out what will happen next. That is, you cannot start to do these things at the end of the allotted time without borrowing time from the next agenda topic.

2. Bookmarking Your Progress
Whenever you stop working an issue before it's complete, you want to be diligent about capturing what you got done. 

Among other things, this means a thorough summary of the sense of the meeting—this is more than just good minutes; it entails discernment about which direction things were headed and major themes from the conversation. It may even include explicit mention of what was not talked about and where the group seemed unclear.

If you equate success solely with completion, it's a trap. There are many milestones on the trail to completion, and each provides a chance to: a) reset your base camp on your assault of the summit (resolution of the issue) so that you won't be compelled to cover the same ground twice when you take this topic up again next; and b) celebrate what you've accomplished so far.

Suppose you're tackling a complex issue and begin the conversation with no clarity about where to start. Further suppose that after an hour of work you're not done and you don't even know how many more meetings it will take to get there. That can be very discouraging. 

Partial product can include:
o  Clearing the air of tensions related to the issue. (Note: if significant tensions are in play, this step is probably necessary as a prelude to productive problem solving.)
o  Clearing up misunderstandings about what the issue is and how people are affected by it.
o  Identification of subtopics to be discussed and resolved (think of them as the individual threads of the knotted ball of yarn that you're trying to unravel). Because each subtopic should take less time to complete than the whole topic, it's easier to see progress and to maintain heart.
o  Surfacing the factors that a good response to a given thread needs to take into account.

o  A plan for how to tackle each thread, including a preferred sequence for doing so.
o  Resolution of one or more threads.
o  A plan for how to work unfinished threads. Progress in this sense may be assigning work to a subgroup to: a) research how other groups have handled the same issue; b) investigate costs associated with a proposed solution; or c) convene a joint meeting of affected committees to develop a joint proposal.
o  Identification of aspects of the issue that have not yet been discussed (providing a punch list for what remains).

3. Road Mapping the Continuation
Whenever an issue is left unfinished, it's important to see that some elementary questions are addressed before moving on:
o  If the plenary will continue with this issue, who is the shepherd (the person or committee responsible for seeing that it comes back to plenary)?
o  If there is work expected to be completed before the topic comes back to plenary, what precisely is that, are there any deadlines, who has been assigned to do it, and with what authority and/or resources?
o  If there are interim reporting expectations, what are they?

4. Being Realistic
The better your agenda planners and facilitators are at reading the tea leaves, the better you can map out the likely course of how the group will tackle a topic. Many times you'll know at the outset that completion is not likely, or even desired (perhaps to protect time for digestion of information, exploration of feelings, incorporation of views from people who miss the meeting, or development of proposals based on the full group's input). When that's the case, make it clear to the group up front that the expected outcome on that topic is partial product, so that that can be experienced fully as success.

5. Seeing the Glass Half Full
Left to themselves, group members will tend to focus on what's not finished rather than on what is. Thus, if a topic is unresolved, they will tend to lament that further work remains, rather than celebrate what got accomplished. This dynamic is debilitating for the group and undercuts enthusiasm for meetings in general (why bother if we're not really going to finish stuff?). 

Worse, if a group is sloppy about identifying what it got out of a discussion, that product will tend to erode over time and have to be recreated at the next meeting—further contributing to the sense meetings are a waste of time if issues don't get completed.

Thus, it's important on many levels to pin down and make explicit whatever partial product was achieved when you're putting a trap over the easel of an unfinished canvas. This helps honor the time spent in the consideration, rewards the group for its effort, and keeps the colors fresh for when you're ready to paint next.

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