Monday, October 15, 2012

Facilitating When the Stakes Are Small

I was conducting a facilitation training recently when someone in the class mused, "How do you facilitate when there are significant differences about how to respond to an issue and the stakes are low?"

Hmm, I thought, that's a good question. Mostly, when conducting training weekends, the stakes are high, and we don 't get to practice working with penny-ante topics. In setting up training weekends I suggest to host groups that they pick hard issues for the class to wrestle with, both so that the class gets challenged and so that the home community gets maximal benefit from the occasion of having outside facilitation. 

However, the reality is that all issues are not created equal, and a good portion of the time facilitators will be working with topics minor enough that world peace will not hinge of their successful resolution. What then?

• • •
The facilitator's mantra is: What is the most productive thing for the group to be doing at this time? Plenary time is precious and should be used wisely. 

While the Prime Directive can be encapsulated in a single sentence, its application is somewhat sophisticated. In general, I teach facilitators to be able to simultaneously juggle the apples of Content with the oranges of Energy. Thus, a skilled facilitator needs to assess both:

A. What's needed to resolve the issue?
Typical questions here are:
What is an effective sequence for figuring out how to respond to the issue on the table?
o  Does everyone know where we are in the sequence and what kind of response is appropriate for the stage we're at?
o  Do we have the relevant background information in hand (existing agreements, minutes from recent prior work, research on options)?
o  Are there key people missing from the consideration, and, if so, can we usefully proceed in their absence?
o  Have we heard enough to be able to start floating proposals?
o  If there are non-trivial differences about what to do, what are the underlying group values at play?

B. What's needed energetically?
Representative queries here are:
Are we working in a way that's building energy and relationships among members?
o  Are there tensions among participants that are undercutting clear thinking?
o  Are people connecting at the heart level or only with their heads?
o  Is everyone tracking well, or are some engrossed while others are spacing out?
o  Is there enough fresh air in the room; is the temperature good?
o  How long has it been since people had a chance to move, or go to the bathroom?

So why would a plenary be giving time to low-stakes items? Here are some possibilities:

—It could be that you have to address a matter in plenary for legal reasons, such as state law that your corporation has a president and a secretary. Even if those are not functions that have meaning relative to how your group functions, you nonetheless have to have minutes that show you've selected people to fill those slots.

—Maybe the stakes are low because there is high competency in the group on the issue at hand and thus minimal concern about making a mistake. Suppose you're about to put up a new building and need to decide who's going to do the work. If you have an experience construction crew in mind with an established track record of delivering quality work on time and under budget, you pretty much know going in that you're going to gratefully accept their bid on the project.

—Perhaps the potatoes are small because everyone knows that the issue coming forward involves a request for which it's widely known that there is no broad support. You agreed to give it plenary air time in deference it's being a pet project of a valued member, but everyone knows that the proposal is a dead letter.

Beyond that, there are a bunch of ways that a group can inadvertently be discussing  something it shouldn't be, or are talking about the wrong thing. Let's look at some of those:

o  Are you working at the plenary level?
It's possible that the reason the stakes are low is because the plenary is doing committee work that has no business being addressed by the whole group. Oops.

o  Is there agreement that the stakes are low?
While this can be nuanced (some may be loving that the topic is on the table, while others would rather be napping or doing a sudoku in the corner) you can at least remember to ask the question. If everyone agrees the stakes are low, I'd suggest taking a hard look at whether to keep devoting plenary time to the examination. Isn't there more important stuff you could be doing?

If there's not a uniform response, it might be worth delving into what meaning adheres to the discrepancy. Maybe some members don't get it why it's worthwhile to pay attention when they're not a stakeholder on an issue (because they're ideally suited to safeguard the process and to attend to relationships). Perhaps those who want to dig in are failing to see the forest of how best to use plenaries for the trees of their pet issue.

o  Is this more about personalities than the issue?
Sometimes the churning about an issue has more to do with a clash of styles and communication preferences than it does about the topic. If this can be illuminated, the underlying issue may be a diversity struggle (how much can the group tolerate a range of styles and still function well?) rather than because the presenting issue is compelling.

o  Is this more about unresolved tension than the presenting issue?
It's possible that the real reason that this topic needs to be tackled in plenary is because of a disturbance in the Force, such that Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader are having trouble hearing each other without triggering Star Wars. That is, it might be appropriate to have the plenary support working on the dynamics, even if the topic that showcased those dynamics is not plenary worthy.

The mantra for a participant in a consensus group is: What does the group need to hear from me about this topic at this time? Note that there are several check points embedded in this admonition:

—What does the group need to hear from me?
This is not what does your best friend need to hear from you, or what do I think is clever in this moment; it's what does everyone need to know about your views on the topic. If someone else has already covered the points you would have offered there may be little for you to say, excepting a brief statement such as "So-and-so spoke my mind and I have nothing to add."

—What I need to say about this topic?
This requires discipline. Meetings are not open mic, where people are encouraged to say whatever damn thing pops into their head. They are expected to stay on topic. While it's not unusual for a current conversation to trigger relevant thoughts about a related topic that is plenary worthy, that does not mean it's a good idea to go there in the moment, sidetracking the focus.

What I need to say at this time?
 It's relatively common for someone to have an idea (perhaps even a brilliant one) about a response to a concern raised in the discussion phase of exploring an issue, but it's not appropriate to go there until all the concerns have been flushed out. While it's understandable why people have the urge to jump in with creative solutions, it's often counterproductive if the conversation yo-yos back and forth between the expansiveness of factor identification and the contraction of problem solving.

Sometimes—especially when the stakes are low—your best choice is to shut up. And a good facilitator will help point out to the group the cornucopia of opportunities to productively not speak when it's mole hills and not mountains on the menu.

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