Thursday, November 29, 2012

Totems on the Bosque

I was in Albuquerque this morning, visiting dear friends Peggy & Earl Loftfield. After coffee and a light repast of banana bread smeared with piñon butter they suggested a field trip to a patch of open space owned by the city near the Alvarado Elementary School (where Earl attended 2nd to 6th grades).

There, in a field that had been employed as a corn maze the month before, I saw thousands of Sandhill Cranes recently arrived from their summer breeding grounds in Canada, pausing to enjoy the clement weather and the abundant gleanings. They were peacefully sharing the space with rafts of Canada Geese (who were focusing more on the alfalfa than the corn). A variety of people were strolling or jogging on the dirt pathways that bordered the fields, enjoying the nearly perfect day of full sun, a slight breeze out of the north, and temperatures in the 60s.

I've always had a strong affinity for large birds. Perhaps their awesome grace and wingspan evokes in me a vestigial linkage with their majestic ancestors, the dinosaurs (in ways that mere wrens and robins do not). I love watching the long-legged cranes float in for landings, dropping their legs from the horizontal to help create drag just before they commence back flapping to spill their air speed.

While the birds closest to us kept a wary eye on our approach—fully prepared to honk a throaty warning if we got encroached within 50 feet or so—most of their brethren gave their undivided attention to the steadfast divestment of kernels from ears, in an earnest attempt to recapture the calories they had expended in migration. Their silvery backs glistened in the sunshine.

In addition to enjoying these birds because they were large and because they were many, I have an affinity this species because I live at Sandhill Farm and thus enjoy a namesake connection. For me, the Sandhill Crane is a totem (in part, I suppose, because they are seen all over the US). Back home, I'll occasionally see one or two in flight overhead or resting on one of our ponds during the spring or fall migrations. This isn't that surprising in that our farm is located in northeast Missouri and falls well within the boundaries of the greater Mississippi flyway. But before encountering the jackpot I witnessed this morning, I doubt I'd ever seen as many as 50 at one time. Wow!

As scrumptious as it was for the cranes to feast on unharvested corn in fields where humans aren't permitted to walk, hunting isn't allowed, and dogs must be leashed, they also need access to water and a safe haven at night (because raccoons and feral dogs do not honor no hunting signs and tend to enjoy fowl dinners every bit as much as we humans did last Thursday). When I asked Peggy & Earl where the cranes bivouacked at night, I was told that they repair to the riparian zone along the Rio Grande, whose wide watercourse snakes sinuously through the city just a mile to the west. 

The floodplain there is known as the bosque, and it's protected from development because of the unpredictability of water levels when the snow pack in the Sangre de Cristos melts each spring. Large cottonwoods thrive in proximity to the life-giving water and their broad branches make ideal nighttime perches for the visiting cranes—who are no doubt grateful for the spacious accommodation of their convention-sized numbers. From there it's an easy commute back to their corn(ucopia) each dawn.

Corny as it sounds, I was amused to realize that it was the Loftfields who introduced me, right after breakfast, to hordes of Sandhill Cranes lofting into fields for a breakfast of corn. The symmetry still makes me smile.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Day at Home

Today is exactly halfway between my birthday (Oct 25) and Christmas—which I've always considered auspicious (of course, May 25 is also halfway between those dates, but spring is too far removed from the holiday season to have the same gravitational pull on my psyche). Occasionally Thanksgiving falls on this date, which makes it extra special, but this year it's only one of the days in waiting as part of the long Thanksgiving Weekend. 

While many good citizens are out shopping this weekend, responding to the clarion call of Black Friday and the materialistic imperative, I'm enjoying a quiet weekend at home. I haven't left my zip code in three days! That's noteworthy in that my arrival home Thursday afternoon—just in time to make the prune stuffing and giblet gravy for the 5:30 feast—ended a 90-day stretch where I was only home 15 days.

As I lay in bed this morning thinking about what to write about, it occurred to me to simply describe what I'll do on my Sunday at home, as it does a fair job of capturing my exotic mix of homesteader, process consultant, partner, and network administrator…  

o  Butcher a Deer
Yesterday Mica & I started working up the four deer that had been shot during the hunting season and were hanging in our walk-in cooler, which represents the major portion of the community's meat supply for the coming year. Starting yesterday morning, we took our time with the first one, slowly reacquainting ourselves of deer anatomy. Once in the groove, we polished off two more by mid-afternoon, leaving the final one for today, when Cody, a nine-year-old neighbor from Dancing Rabbit, comes over for his first up-close-and-personal encounter with a deer carcass.

o  Decant Wine
Every year, the bulk of the community's black currant crop goes into homemade wine. Twenty pounds of fruit is enough for seven gallons, which is the size of our largest carboy. Often we harvest enough for two or more batches but the fruit set was poor this spring and there will only be one batch. Per usual, I started the wine right after the fruit was harvested in July and it's a tradition to bottle it (siphoning it from the secondary fermenter) Thanksgiving Weekend. Now's the time.
Scrub the Kitchen Floor
There are a bunch of chores on the farm that don't need to be done every day (there are also a bunch that do, but that's a different rhythm) and we divvy up most of them among the membership to see that they all get covered without anyone being asked to shoulder too much. One of my tasks in this regard is scrubbing the kitchen floor. 

While cooks are expected to sweep thoroughly at the end of their shift each day, it's a rear guard action where we're slowly losing ground to stray food scraps and feral dust bunnies that breed behind storage buckets and in the corners that escape the reach of the broom. In the end, there is nothing for up but to get down periodically on your hands and knees and push entropy back. Today's my day for that.

o  Do My Laundry
I'm between road trips (home Thursday and out again Monday) and aim to take advantage of a sunny forecast to sneak in a load of laundry to have clean clothes in hand (and on body) for when I board the train west tomorrow evening. Tomorrow there's a chance of snow flurries, so it's prudent to get it done today. As we rely on a clothes line for drying, you have to take what Nature gives you.

o  Fill the Back Porch with Firewood
We have four buildings with bedrooms at Sandhill and I live in the White House (the original farmhouse), which also has the community's kitchen and serves as Sandhill's nerve center. Our primary heat source for the White House is a reliable airtight wood stove that we've had for more than 35 years, and we stage about a week's worth of split and dry cord wood to fuel it in our back porch, just eight feet away. As the wood there gets used, we resupply it from an open-sided storage shed out back. It's timely to fill the porch today, ahead of tomorrow's snow flurries.

o  Write Text for a Capital Campaign
As FIC's main administrator, I'm also the main fund raiser. Our Board made a commitment last spring to building a new office, replacing a funky '70s era house trailer that has served us for the last 15 years. The new building will cost us $90,000 and we'll be trying to raise half of it through an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign that will launch Tuesday (if everything comes together in time). It's my job to write the text that will be posted on the campaign website, succinctly making the case for why this project is worthy of support.

o  Put Out Lunch
At Sandhill all the adults take turns cooking. Your shift starts in the afternoon and continues through lunch the next day. As I was the dinner cook yesterday, that means I'm responsible for lunch today. While this tends to be dinner revisited and no big deal, it nonetheless has a guaranteed slot on Laird's dance card today.

o  Listen to a Football Game
I'm a sport fan and enjoy following football, the NFL in particular. Having grown up in Chicago, I'm a Bears fan. They've stumbled the last two games against strong opponents and have fallen into a 7-3 first place division tie with the Green Bay Packers—their archrival. The Bears badly need to get back into the win column this afternoon against the Minnesota Vikings. Kick-off is at noon. 

o  Write a Blog Entry
I aspire to post something every three days, and I'm overdue…

o  Post a Homework Assignment
I conduct facilitation trainings around the country and in two weeks I'll be in Santa Cruz for Weekend VI of an eight-part training. The teaching theme will be Delegation and it's time to send out homework in advance of the class, to get the students thinking about the topic before I send them the handouts.
o  Complete My Report from Last Weekend
A week ago today I was up to my eyeballs working with Vashon Cohousing in Seattle, offering them my thinking (and skills) about how to handle conflict constructively. I worked with them three days, culminating in seven hours Sunday. For each client I have as a process consultant, I make a commitment to write a report afterwards providing an overview of what we did, what I observed, and what I recommend they think about. While I sketched out my report on the train ride home, I still have a chunk of work to wrap it up and send it off.

o  Eat Dinner with Ma'ikwe
My intention is to complete my chores at Sandhill this afternoon and sashay over to Dancing Rabbit in time to enjoy the late afternoon and evening with my wife. It's a priority to spend time with her when possible, and I'm leaving tomorrow for 16 days.

o  Take a Sauna 
I was first introduced to saunas as an eight-year-old, when I attended summer camp in northern Minnesota and I've always loved them. A silver lining to Ma'ikwe's battle with chronic Lyme disease is that her doctor urged her to get an infrared sauna as part of her treatment protocol (Lyme bacteria don't like the heat) and this summer she did. Ma'ikwe aspires to take two sauna sessions daily (30+ minutes each), and I can get in there with her if I'm around at the right time. This activity is all the more enjoyable now that the weather is turning cold. And besides, I like seeing my wife naked.

o  Play a Game with Jibran

My wife's son is 15 and we enjoy playing board games together. Sometime between the sauna and bedtime I'm hoping that we can connect for a game or two. It'll be the middle of December before we get the next chance and I'd rather not wait that long.

So that's my day this November 25.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What Sucks the Air Out of the Room

I was asked recently what can be done when a member of a consensus group reported dreading plenaries because there were frequently times when they "experience mind-numbing process that sucks the air out of the room." OK, that doesn't sound very good. As I contemplated what might contribute to that condition—and what the remedies might be—a number of things occurred to me. In fact, it got interesting enough that I thought I'd write about it…

o  Working Below Plenary Level
One of the big energy eaters for consensus groups is not being sufficiently disciplined about what's appropriate to handle at the whole group level. Lacking clarity about what's plenary worthy, I regularly encounter groups that inadvertently drift into discussing details that ought to have been handed over to managers or committees.

When groups are sloppy about this, and fail to delegate appropriately, members who are not interested in those details are trapped. If they attend the meetings at which this happens, they are forced to sit through conversations about what color to paint a wall, the menu for Thanksgiving dinner, or whether to buy Nantes or Danvers carrot seed for next year's garden. Shoot me now. If they don't attend the meetings (to avoid the mind-numbing conversations), then they're at risk of being accused of slacking and not sufficiently supporting the group. Some choice.

—The Remedy: It's important that the group has agreement about what kind of things should be discussed in plenary, so that agendas are drafted with that boundary in mind and facilitators know when to call people on coloring outside the lines. Further, there need to be clear mandates (and minutes) for handing off work to managers and committees, so that they'll know what they can decide on their own and when they'll need to return to the plenary for consultation.

o  Welcoming Passion
The default meeting culture in the US is modeled after the tone, pace, and civility characteristic of dinner table conversation in Northern European countries. That is, one person talking at a time in well-modulated voices. If someone raises their voice or speaks on top of another it typically means upset. While there's nothing wrong with that culture per se, it's not the way everyone was raised.

In Southern European cultures dinner table conversation is much different: people talk on top of each other, and with considerable energy—not necessarily because they're upset; but just because they're paying attention.

As groups of any size are likely to have people from both sides of the aisle, there's a natural tension about what culture prevails. In most cases calm and deliberate dominates, with the consequence that the southern inclined are often discouraged from participating with their full range of expression. Essentially they're damping down their energy to accommodate their northern-oriented compatriots, who tend to get tense in the presence of passion, and struggle to differentiate between excitement and upset at the upper range of the register.

The Remedy: Most groups could benefit from a conversation—and an intentional decision—about how they're going to work with emotions. When groups don't do this, allowing any emotions air space in meetings is scary (where are the boundaries?) and passion tends to be the casualty. When people are not certain of what's OK, nothing is—and everyone gets the message (intended or otherwise) that you better keep a lid on it. The good news is that this can be turned around. Just have a conversation about how to take the lid off… without taking anyone's head off.

o  The Purpose of Meetings
While pretty much everyone knows that groups have meetings to address issues, that's not the only reason. In cooperative groups there is also the objective of building relationships among members. The reason that's important is that when groups haven't made that dual purpose explicit—and few have—there will come times when those purposes, which most of us intend to play nice with each other, can be at odds.

Here's how it might work. The group is discussing an issue and building momentum toward a unified agreement about what to do when someone says, "Wait a minute, something doesn't feel right." When the group dutifully asks what that something is, suppose they get, "I don't know; it's just an uneasy feeling." Now what? If you're at the let's-get-er-done end of the why-do-we-do-meetings continuum, you might respond to this exchange with irritation—where you had been building momentum nicely toward a solution the conversation has been suddenly shunted into a siding and there was no telling when you'll get back on track. For the let's-get-to-know-each-other contingent, however, it's just getting interesting.

The point here is that if you position yourself at one end of this spectrum, then you can get frustrated with meetings that are focusing more on the other end. It can even feel like the air is being sucked out of the room.

The Remedy: Have a conversation that illuminates these two objectives for meetings, so that the group will be able to navigate accurately when tension arises (a la my example above). Hint: Neither of these objectives is wrong, but it takes nuance to balance them from meeting to meeting, and from issue to issue. That will hardly be possible if you haven't got the language and concepts in place.

o  Understanding the Role of the Disinterested
For every issue that makes its way onto a plenary agenda, every member will be in one of two relationships to it: either they will be a stakeholder on that issue or they won't. For stakeholders it's a relatively straight path to their being interested in the conversation; for non-stakeholders it's probably less obvious but I want to make the case that they're perfectly positioned to safeguard the process by which the conversation unfolds. They can be active as bridge builders when stakeholders are having trouble hearing each other accurately—precisely because they care little about the issue, they can care a lot about the relationships.

The Remedy: If you can sell this orientation to the group, then everyone will have a solid reason to have their head (and heart) in the game regardless of the topic at hand (read less air sucking).

o  The Energetic Advantage of Separating Factor Identification from Problem Solving
In working an issue it's been my experience that it can help enormously if the group is disciplined about first surfacing all the factors that a good response to the issue needs to take into account before turning anyone loose on problem solving. While it sounds reasonable enough when presented this way, groups are uncommonly prone to two habits that don't align with this guidance:

a) Some groups expect that issues be accompanied by a proposal as a condition for getting onto the agenda. This misbegotten notion is used as a substitute for expecting items to come to plenary in a sufficiently mature condition. The problem is that someone has to invest time and effort in crafting the proposal and if they don't anticipate well enough, then their work can be trashed in plenary and that doesn't feel very good.

b) When someone names a concern (or factor) it's relatively common for someone else to immediately follow that with a way to address it, essentially moving from Factor Identification to Problem Solving. When a group dances indiscriminately between the two it can be crazy making. The former is expansive; the later is contractive. If the group is not careful about this, it's at risk of hyperventilating and losing its way. Kinda like having the air sucked out of the room.

The Remedy: Stop placing the proposal cart before the factor horse, and get religion about assiduously completing Factor Identification before moving along (deliberately) to Problem Solving.

o  Managing Repetition & Cross-town Bus Traffic
In most cases the two most common day-in-and-day-out meeting behaviors that undercut meeting efficiency are repetition and off-topic comments. On the challenge of repetition, it can be hard in a culture that embraces the philosophy that "everyone has a piece of the truth" to simultaneously digest that we only want to hear that truth once from you, and it may not even be necessary to hear it once if someone has already expressed the same opinion.

On the challenge of off-topic comments it can be hard to walk the line between encouraging safety, acceptance, and creativity, while at the same time chiding members for enthusiastically sharing insights that reach escape velocity from the orbit of the topic on the table.

The Remedy: To ride herd on these enemies of focus, you need facilitators that are willing to be firm with a lasso, and a group that will back up its facilitators.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Knowing When to Labor & When to Let Go

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 Knowing When to Labor & When to Let Go.

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 [posted July 20]
VII. When to be formal [posted July 29]
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms [posted Aug 10]
IX. Coping with blocking energy [posted Aug 19]
X. Defining respect [posted Sept 3]
XI. Balancing voices [posted Sept 18 & Sept 30]

XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake [Posted Oct 27]
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability

• • •
Sometimes work on an issue gets stalled and it's not clear whether to stay the course or lay it down. Today's examination is about how to discern which course seems wiser.

Here are questions you might reasonably ask, in the hopes that the answers will cut through the fog. While there's a great deal of subjective assessment in answering these questions, they're still better than relying on tea leaves, chicken entrails, or ouija boards.

A. How Close to the Finish Line Are You? 
If the end is in sight, the answer favors laboring on—both because you already have a lot invested in achieving the progress to date, and because not so much remains. If you've lost momentum near the starting gate, however, then the answer favors laying it down.

B. How Entrenched Are the People Who Aren't Budging?
The stuckness you're experiencing on this issue translates into individuals holding firmly to positions. If the people holding those positions see them as hard wired to core beliefs, it may be the very devil to get movement. If, however, the positions are more a representation of unresolved irritation with people on the over side of the aisle, then there's more reason to hope that laboring might yet be productive.

C. How Urgent Is Forward Progress?
Sometimes there's a deadline looming or an opportunity available in a defined window and it's unacceptably costly to delay. If that obtains, the answer favors more laboring. 

D. What Is the Cost of No Action Relative to the Cost of Pushing?
This question is related to the prior one, yet different in that you're estimating what the group may have to pay (in dollars, time, and energy) with either choice and than comparing price tags.

E. What New Approach Might You Try That Would Inject Hope of Breaking the Logjam?
If you're leaning toward laboring, it will help morale if you have an idea or two about how to get at the issue through a fresh approach. Do you have one?

F. Is There Any New Information Available That Might Shed New Light?
Whenever a group decides it's ready to start developing proposals there's the implication that you know enough to make a decision. While that may be an accurate assessment, the truth is that you never know everything. Maybe a search for additional information will provide an insight that can break open the stalemate.

G. Is There the Time and Psychic Energy Needed to Labor Successfully?
The decision to continue laboring is not made in a vacuum—it commits the life force of real people. Is there enough gas in the tank to get you to finish line? If not, maybe laying it down is a better strategic choice.

H. What Is the Fatigue Factor in the Group; How Badly Do They Need a Break?
How drained is the group as a consequence of the work to date not having been enough to resolve the issue? If the group is exhausted, it's not likely that they'll greet a decision to stay the course with enthusiasm.

I. How Many Concerns Need to Be Resolved in Order to Pass a Proposal?
This is another angle on Point A. When looked at through this lens though, you're conducting a census of how many questions remain to be resolved—essentially, the more the scarier. It's much more daunting to be facing four different concerns than four people with the same concern.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Crossing the Line

Ma'ikwe and I just completed a two-year facilitation training in the Midwest, and I want to share what a pair of the graduating students—Tony Sirna & Alyssa Martin from Dancing Rabbit— did during their last opportunity to do live facilitation under their teachers' umbrella.

The way the training program works, each weekend is hosted by an intentional community that provides free room and board for the class in exchange for outside facilitation on real issues explored in real meetings. (The pedagogical principle here is that students will learn faster facing live bullets, as it has a wonderful effect on focusing one's attention.)

Tony & Alyssa had been assigned to co-facilitate a two-and-a-half hour meeting on the topic of conflict, where they'd distilled the key questions (in consultation with an ad hoc committee from the host group established to shepherd this topic) to the following five questions:

Question #1) When is conflict affecting the group enough that it should be brought as a plenary agenda item?

Question #2) How should the facilitator handle conflict and emotion when it arises in the meeting?

Question #3) When does the group want to seek outside help on a conflict and how will that be handled?

Question #4) Can the group require a member to work on a conflict they're involved in?

Question #5) What happens if a conflict remains unresolved?

While that list was potent enough to keep us plenty busy in the meeting, the community subsequently added four more when they were presented the first five:

Question #6) What is the process and/or protocol for attempting to resolve conflict before it comes to plenary?

Question #7) How shall the community respond when a member goes through conflict resolution, appears to have worked though it, and then rubber bands into the same distress over the same issue?

Question #8) How shall the community respond to situations where resolving conflict appears to require therapy?

Question #9) Do we need to put into place any additional agreements for coping with one member engaging in a personal attack on another member?

Based solely on the first five questions—and the community's desire to talk about conflict while steering clear of getting bogged down in working any specific conflict—Tony & Alyssa knew right away that there was no chance to complete this topic in one session. The challenge was where to start and how to get deep enough. In thinking this through they ginned up, all on their own, a 20-minute version of an exercise called Crossing the Line to ground the conversation before tackling any of the questions.

The basic concept of Crossing the Line is that people carry all manner of background and baggage with us into human interactions, and if those differences are not disclosed or digested it can lead to considerable mischief and misunderstanding about where a response comes from and what it means.
As far as I know this technique was developed as a tool for diversity trainings, to explore issues of racism, privilege, sexism, etc.
Here's how the exercise works: all members of a group are asked to stand on one side of the room and a line is drawn down the middle (we used yarn stretched across the carpet). The group is then given a series of statements meant to elicit information about their background relevant to the subject in question, and offer insights into their feelings about current dynamics in the group related to the subject.

For each statement, people are invited to cross the line if it is true for them. If it is half true, they can equivocate by stepping on or near the line. Once movement has stopped in response to a statement and there has been a moment for the group to digest who is on what side of the line and what that means, the moderator says "thank you" and everyone returns to the original side of the line, ready for the next statement. The entire exercise is done in silence, excepting for the moderator.

The art is in crafting the statements such that important and tender information is shared. The sequence of the questions matters a great deal, as you gently guide the group into ever deeper explorations that are closer to the bone.

Here's the set of 31 statements that Tony & Alyssa concocted for this occasion:

Cross the line if:
o  I grew up in a family where conflict was hidden or stuffed
o  Conflict in my family of origin equated to yelling or raised voices
o  Conflict was handled well in my family
o  Conflict in my family led to physical violence
o  I usually get my way
o  I have a harder time handling conflict with men
o  I have a harder time handling conflict with women
o  It's harder to resolve conflict with people who have different backgrounds than me
o  Conflict is a regular part of my life
o  When encountering conflict my first instinct is to avoid it
o  When encountering conflict my first instinct is to be accommodating
o  When encountering conflict my first instinct is to compete
o  When encountering conflict my first instinct is to engage
o  I've ever had an experience of conflict resolution going well
o  I'm uncomfortable initiating conflict resolution with another person
o  I have the skill and tools needed to resolve conflict well
o  I'm comfortable mediating conflict between others
o  There are skilled folks available for working with conflict if I need them
o  Conflict in the community is having a significant negative impact on my life
o  Conflict in the community is having a significant negative impact on the group
o  I think that the current level of conflict in the group is normal and acceptable
o  Conflict in the community makes me feel afraid
o  I'm considering leaving the community because of conflict
o  The community has the skills needed to engage constructively with conflict
o  I'm afraid that working with conflict will take up too much time and energy
o  I'm afraid to bring up a conflict
o  I'm currently a major player in an unresolved conflict in the community
o  I contribute to problems in the community
o  I favor requiring members to engage in conflicts that affect the community adversely
o  I have an ally in resolving conflict
o  I have seen a conflict that was resolved well in the community

The following noteworthy themes emerged from this exercise:
—There were wide family of origin differences in how conflict was handled (while this was not surprising in and of itself, it was new for the group to slow down and take that in).
—There was general acceptance of conflict being a normal part of community life, and recognition of resources available for dealing with it constructively.
—There was very broad diffusion of answers to the series of statements about a person's first impulse when encountering conflict, that could be illuminating as a complicating factor.
—Two members disclosed for the first time that they were thinking of leaving the community because of unresolved conflicts. Gulp!
—There were strong themes of sadness, tenderness, and hope in the reflections shared afterwards.

What an excellent point of departure for the two hours remaining to explore how the community wants to work with conflict! (At least the group wasn't conflicted about the need for this examination.)

As a teacher I was proud to witness Tony & Alyssa crossing the line into the world of trained facilitators.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Elements of an Efficient Meeting

I was in a community recently where the question was posed, "What goals do we have for how we make decisions?" One of the brainstormed answers was efficiency.

While most members thought that sounded good (who would advocate for inefficiency?) what did it actually mean?

The more I thought about it, the more it sounded like a good question to address. Here's what I think are the elements of meeting efficiency. It turns out that there are surprisingly many.

1. Good screening of agenda items 
To be efficient, a group should be disciplined about not working in plenary below whats' appropriate for whole group consideration.

2. Adequate preparation
o  By the presenter
This means thinking through what the group needs to hear when presenting the issue and the relevant background information. Wandering presentations are not efficient.

o  By the meeting participants
This means reading background materials, reading proposals, reading minutes if you missed prior meetings, taking the time ahead of the meeting to think about the topic—identifying what you think about it and what's best for the group, and thinking ahead about how to express oneself concisely.

o  By the facilitator
This means laying out a clear road map for defining the sequence in which the group will engage on the topic, and selecting appropriate formats (how the group will explore the topic). 
3. Discipline about appropriate meeting behavior
Here are the Big Three reasons that discussions are inefficient:

o  Not staying on topic 
It's amazingly common for group members to drift off topic as one on-topic comment sparks a response that's off topic. While that second response may be interesting, it lengthens the time it takes to reach the finish line.
o  Not repeating
When a person is not confident that they've been heard the first time, they're likely to offer their views a second time, or even a third.

o  Listening carefully
If people are not focused and tracking well, they'll miss what someone said the first time, and then repetition will be necessary in order to get everyone singing from the same page of the hymnal.

4. Not backtracking
When a topic is carried over from one meeting to another, it takes diligence (and good minutes) to not re-plow old ground in an effort to get everyone back up to speed. While a brief overview of the prior work is probably appropriate, the goal of efficiency will not be met if the group isn't able to get to new ground relatively quickly.

Imbedded in this is an effective way to handle late arrivals in a meeting. It's inefficient to stop forward momentum to catch up those who missed the start (and it's equally inefficient to accommodate late arrivals by avoiding heavy lifting until the latecomers are seated).  

5. Effective delegation
Finally, efficiency will be compromised if the group is not able to use committees well. That means a smooth hand-off when you drop below what's appropriate for plenary level work (reference point #1 above), complete with a clear mandate. It also means not redoing committee work in plenary if the committee did what it was asked.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Unmet Commitments and the Erosion of Trust

This morning, Ma'ikwe and I woke up together in the same bed for the first time since Oct 15. That was a long stretch without rain. Naturally (given that we're both process wonks) we spent most of our time between eye opening and our first warm beverage discussing our relationship.

This is a tender topic. Ma'ikwe has been struggling with chronic Lyme the past three years, and the trip we are on now (attending a facilitation training in Ohio) is the first one we've taken together since January (other than to see her doctor). While my extensive travel allows me to make the money that supports the marriage, it means that I'm away from Ma'ikwe when she needs help—both domestic and emotional—thereby straining our bonds.

It's a Catch-22 where my attending to one need is inextricably linked to neglecting others. While navigating this dynamic would be hard enough, it's worse than that. We're also facing additional challenges:

o  As she wrestles with long-term debilitation and near-constant muscle and joint ache, it's damn hard for Ma'ikwe to do meaningful work. This limitation translates into an erosion of her self-esteem, and she has found herself starting to resent that I have choices she doesn't (simply because I'm not sick). 

o  Chronic Lyme (as distinct from acute Lyme, which most often can be treated successfully with serious doses of antibiotics if taken soon after onset) can have a profound impact on personality. While some of these changes may be reversible with the restoration of health, we don't know: a) what portion, if any, of what's going of for her now in terms of a shift in how she feels about our partnership is due to the disease; b) whether those feelings will change even if her health returns; or c) whether she will ever recover her health—20% of chronic Lyme patients don't. That's a lot of ifs.

o  Part of what's hard for Ma'ikwe is that she lives in a house that's not finished being built. It happened that the onset of her Lyme symptoms coincided with the start of work on her home at Dancing Rabbit in 2009. While that project is pretty far along, she doesn't yet have running water and that's a hardship that is irrevocably linked for her with my failure to complete the work on her cistern and water system. At the outset of the project I promised to install the plumbing and wiring and the work is still not finished.

Generalizing from this one constant burr in her saddle, her continuing need to haul water has become the poster child for the way I make promises I don't keep, and the way I prioritize other commitments ahead of the ones I make to her. Essentially, Ma'ikwe is questioning why she should stay in a relationship where her basic needs are so little supported by her partner. Ouch!

To be clear, I don't fail on all my commitments, or even most. Yet it's true that I regularly take on more than I can handle. Overfilling my plate means that things are frequently falling on the floor, and Ma'ikwe is tired of seeing her needs trod upon as a casualty of what she considers a character flaw. While there remain good things about our relationship, right now they are under siege. She's wondering if there's any realistic prospect of our manifesting enough time together to repair the damage. 

To her credit, Ma'ikwe is sharing these heavy thoughts and feelings with me while there remains an opportunity to work through them. But, just as with her struggle with Lyme, there's no guarantee of a happy ending: there's only a chance. It's up to us both to make the most if it.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Wall-eyed in Michigan

I achieved one of my life goals this weekend—seeing Sandhill's name on Zingerman's map of suppliers for their Roadhouse Restaurant

[This is also my first foray into posting images as part of my blog, and I can't think of a more noteworthy achievement to offer up as my inaugural graphic.]

This is a big deal as the folks at Zingerman's are fanatics about quality and this stamp of approval is a Côte d'Or sobriquet that money can't buy—you have to earn it. As sorghum is Sandhill's signature organic food product, it's incredibly satisfying to gain this coveted recognition. 

As sorghum makers we've been learning our craft since 1977. Over the years we've reinvented our cooking process twice, until finally hitting on what we're satisfied is a terrific process.

In the Beginning…
We started with a two pan batch system cooked over a direct wood fire. We had the pans custom made from stainless steel, with the first pan twice the size of the second and placed higher, so that the juice could flow easily into the smaller pan when the first batch was half cooked. In this method one batch of juice was cooked from start to finish all together. This represented a doubling of output from the single pan method that we first learned by apprenticing with neighbors.

When we hit out stride during the sorghum harvest, we'd cook 36 hours straight out of 48, meaning that one or two people would have to take cooking shifts through the night. It was exhausting.

If at First You Don't Succeed…
Not satisfied with the pace or control of the batch method, we switched to a Stubbs single pan continuous flow process. The pan was divided into two parts, connected at one end—like a giant U. We'd dribble raw juice in one end of the U, have it slowly progress along 16 feet, turn the corner, and then travel 16 feet back the other way, separated by the partition. By the time it had completed it's 32-foot journey (it took about three hours) the sorghum would be done and we'd drain it off. This doubled our productivity, but we were still cooking over a direct wood fire and things would occasionally get hairy when too much sorghum finished all at once. If you had a strong fire, the difference between perfect sorghum and something overcooked beyond salability was about 90 seconds. Under those conditions, we didn't have a lot of people volunteering to be in charge of cooking.

While we no longer needed to cook through the night with this system (hurray!), we'd typically start before dawn and would often cook well into the evening, making for looong days.

Third Time's the Charm…
Finally, in 2006, we switched to using live steam. We bought an old boiler on eBay, hauled it home, and set it up outside our Sugar Shack (where we cook the juice). We still use wood to stoke the boiler, but the sorghum is cooked by copper pipes immersed in the juice, and the steam is controlled by a valve. The trick to consistently producing excellent sorghum is cooking the juice as rapidly as possible—without losing control. With live steam we can take juice at room temperature and bring it to a boil in about two minutes. If we have too much sorghum ready at once, we can simply choke off the steam and slow everything down until the surge has been digested.

With our current method there are three pans set up in a cascade, where the juice flows from one to the next via float valves. In each pan there are channels that the juice must flow through maze-like to get from the entry point to the exit, merrily cooking and condenser as it goes. 

With our current method we generally start after first coffee in the morning and almost always wrap up before dinner time. Very civilized.
• • •
One of the joys of being in the sorghum business is that we're continuing a tradition that came into the area with the early settlers of the mid-19th Century. While we rely on modern technology for stainless steel pans (sorghum juice is incredibly acidic and literally eats carbon steel) there's nothing about our cooking process that relies on technology newer than stationary motors with flat belt pulleys. Our sorghum mill, as near as we can tell, was manufactured circa 1900. The wood that feeds the boiler is harvested sustainably from our property. The cane is cut by hand using machetes, and hauled to our mill with wagons pulled by our fleet of three gas-powered tractors—all of which were manufactured 50+ years ago.

I think it's pretty cool that we're producing high-quality sorghum with a low-tech system. And now we have photographic proof that Zingerman's agrees with the lofty opinion we've always held for our product. Next time you're in Ann Arbor, I suggest you stop by for a meal at the Roadhouse (located on the southwest corner of Jackson & Maple on the west side of town). If you order biscuits, ask for some sorghum to go along with the butter and they'll bring it right out. In addition to experiencing a traditional and distinctive American dish, you'll be getting a sweet burst of Sandhill in every bite. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Monday with Mildred

A week ago (before Sandy wreaked havoc on New York City) I had a chance to visit with an old friend, Mildred Gordon, at her home in Staten Island.

Mildred celebrated her 90th birthday in August, and is in failing health. Each of the three days I was in town, starting with Monday, I made a point to spend 45-60 minutes visiting her in situ in her ground floor room, reminiscing, reflecting, ruminating, and remonstrating (I have never known Mildred to resist sharing her insights about what I ought to be doing). Not being sure if I'll see her again, I savored each conversation—which were both light (because we weren't trying to solve any problems and reach any conclusions) and evocative (because Mildred still asks probing questions and offers trenchant observations about human foibles in general, and about mine in particular). While she no longer has the strength to stand on her own, her opinions do not need a walker.

I had been warned that her cognitive focus comes and goes and that she might not know me. While it's possible I simply lucked into a stretch of good days to visit, Mildred had no problem recalling who I was, or many of the details of our multitudinous interactions over the last quarter century.

• • •
I first met Mildred at Twin Oaks in the late '80s, when she and a contingent of others from her community (now called Ganas, but then flying under the flag, Foundation for Feedback Learning) attended an assembly of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities. The founding core group had moved together from the Bay Area in 1978 to establish their community in a thoroughly urban row house section of Staten Island, an easy 20-minute walk from the St George Ferry Terminal, where commuters by the hundreds journey to and from lower Manhattan every half hour. 

They purposefully sited their community to maximize their exposure to urban stimulation and cultural diversity, and they got their wish. While I stopped by Ganas a handful of times in the late '80s, my visitation rate went up substantially in the '90s, after Elke Lerman, my ex-partner and mother of my daughter, Jo, moved there in late 1989. While Elke and I had ended our romantic relationship, we had an enduring commitment to co-parent that encouraged me to visit Ganas more frequently.

As a natural consequence, that meant more time with Mildred and the other long-term members. Ganas turned out to be a fascinating community culture, where members routinely devoted at least five hours every day to examining interpersonal interactions and the myriad ways in which we mishear one another and distort reality in a never-ending attempt to control it.

It was fascinating to be immersed in the conversations and to witness how the group—mainly under Mildred's deft guidance—would unpack emotional distress for the purpose of illuminating dysfunctional patterns and getting to the place where clear-headed problem solving was possible. In fact, I owe much of my thinking about the interplay of emotions and thought to watching Mildred work. 

While some of the time I was the monkey in the barrel (that is, it was Laird's reactivity that was in the spotlight), I never felt picked upon—I was just taking a turn like everyone else.

My memory of those exchanges with Mildred (back in the '90s, before she was in her 90s) was that she was much more interested in my receiving her reflections of me than the other way around. While I struggled with this imbalance it at first, I ultimately came to see how it was foolish to let this get in the way of receiving her gift. Though it was up to me to determine what weight to give her views (and there were times when I definitely didn't agree with her), it was not in my best interest to push away what she had to offer—which, of course, was exactly the reason her community was originally styled the Foundation for Feedback Learning.

Most people (unwisely) have armored themselves against hearing critical feedback, even though it's extremely valuable knowing how others respond to our words and our behavior. Sure we might be misunderstood, but how will you know that unless people tell us? And the problem can be much worse than mishearing. It's not rare for people to assign bad intent to things you did or said that they don't like and it can cripple relationships, even permanently, if that's not brought to light. I'm not talking about being happy that people are having a negative reaction to you; I'm talking about being happy that you get a chance at the information that they're having a bad reaction to you.

Earlier this year I was working with a group in which there was a committee that thought they were conducting business as a paragon of good process. They believed they performed to a standard of openness and information exchange that was unparalleled in the community. However, that was not the word on the street, where multiple members reported to me privately that they were disgruntled with that committee, that they found to be arrogant, pushy, and close-minded. When I duly passed along to the committee this anonymous feedback they were dismayed. 

Because I had been asked primarily to attend to a different issue, it turned out that we did not have time during my visit to examine the gap between the committee's view of itself and the reservations others in the group held about the committee's performance. Thus, in the closing evaluation, I was sympathetic to the committee convener who was in anguish over my having uncovered a tension point in the group affecting his work with no progress having been made on resolving it. He was, understandably, not a happy camper.

The convener then went on to say that he'd gotten nothing out of the weekend, which I felt went too far. It is not at all the same thing to think that everything is going to fine and to know that it isn't. While much remains to be done (laying out the dimensions of the problem, working through people's reactions to what was shared, and deciding what to do about it), it's a definite first step to even know that a problem exists.

It occurs to me as I write this how much that exchange I had with the convener last spring was a perfect example of why Mildred devoted a large chunk of her life to examining all the goofy things humans do to insulate themselves from feedback. It also occurs to me how potent the lesson was because she offered it to me as a gift, not as a trade, thus helping me to better see the subtle ways in which I also have learning to do about receiving feedback. Thanks, Mildred.