Friday, June 29, 2012

They Could Be Giants

I'm a baseball fan. 

While I ordinarily don't blog about it, something happened Wednesday that will likely never occur again in my lifetime and I've got to celebrate.

The Giants swept the dog-ass Dodgers in a three-game series this week and didn't allow a run. In the 123-year history of the Giants franchise, this had never happened before. Back in 1954—when they were still the New York Giants— they did it to the Philadelphia Phillies, and twice since moving to the Bay Area they've managed to throw three consecutive shutouts (just not all against the same team). But doing it against the arch-rival Dodgers is the sweetest of all, and I'm a happy guy.
• • •
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and my father taught me to love baseball. It was one of the few pure shared joys in our tumultuous relationship. He had grown up alternately living in St Louis and Chicago and was thus steeped in one of the strongest natural rivalries in all sports: Cubs versus Cardinals.

My Dad was a Cardinal fan and we'd sometimes sneak out to the car (the radio in which had superior reception than the box sets or transistors we had in the house) on summer nights and listen to KMOX broadcast the Cardinal games. It was with my father that I learned to tell the likely progression of the game based on the timbre in the announcer's voice (upbeat if the Cards were ahead and more sober if behind; it was probably a laugher if the announcer was telling stories rather than describing the action on the field; dead air signaled a pivotal late-inning moment in the game).

Not surprisingly, most of my early childhood experiences at the ballpark were watching the Cardinals play at Wrigley Field (though I can recall a particularly gripping pitching duel between Billy Pierce of the White Sox against Whitey Ford of the Yankees at Comiskey Park, the outcome of which hinged on a spectacular sliding catch in center by Jim Landis—but I digress). 

Indoctrinated as a baseball fan early in life, somehow I never bonded with the Cubs, and avoided hitching my wagon to the Cardinals' caravan either. For some perverse reason that remains obscure I established an early, tentative preference for the Cincinnati Reds and rooted for them right up until Horace Stoneham moved his Giants from the Polo Grounds to City by the Bay in 1958. I was only eight at the time, but I switched allegiance to the Giants on the spot and haven't looked back. Always and forever, I'll be a Giants fan. (Lest you think this is an anti-home town thing, I root unabashedly for the Bears in football and the Bulls in basketball.)

Mind you this has not been a particularly sagacious move (are leaps of the heart ever?). Until 2010, the San Francisco Giants had only made it to the World Series three times (1962, 1989, and 2002) and lost them all. It wasn't until the miracle of Buster Posey that the Giants caught lightning in a bottle and brought it all home two years ago in five games against the Rangers.

If there is any rivalry in professional sports that can equal that of the Cubs & Cardinals, it's the Giants and the Dodgers. (Note: since reading Dan Jenkins' sports classic Semi-Tough in the early '70s, I invariably refer to the the Los Angeles National League baseball club as the "dog-ass Dodgers." You have to understand that if you're a dyed-in-the-wool Giants fan, as I am, then you are automatically a Dodger hater. Your second favorite team is whomever the Dodgers are playing.)

Thus, there is no greater joy than the Giants coming into the three-game set against the dog-ass Dodgers three games behind them for the top spot in the NL West standings and then hosing them three straight to pull into a tie for the division lead. It's even better that the Dodgers are having a good year (stomping on the downtrodden isn't near as fun).

As an ameliorating factor, the Dodgers' best player, Matt Kemp, is on the disabled list and didn't play in the series. Going the other way, the Giants have had solid pitching for the last handful of years, and you might think that this great once-in-a-lifetime performance featured the confluence of their best three pitchers lining up perfectly in their five-man rotation to face the Dodgers. Not so. Deliciously, the Giants' two most reliable pitchers, Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain, didn't pitch against the Dodgers. Whoa! The Giants achieved this singular string of goose eggs with a rotation of Zito, Vogelsong, and Lincecum. And while Timmy Lincecum is a bona fide major talent (he's won two Cy Young Awards, after all) he hadn't won a game in two months. So nobody saw this coming.

[Editor's Note: I had gotten this far in drafting this blog when the Giants started last night's game with the Cincinnati Reds... ]

You might think that such an outstanding sequence by the other three starters would put pressure on Bumgarner and Cain. Well, think again. Zito, Vogelsong, and Lincecum all lasted through seven innings in the Dodger games, with the bullpen taking care of business in the 8th and 9th. Yesterday the Reds—in first place in the NL Central—arrived in San Francisco for a four-game set, and Bumgarner promptly shut them down on one hit, in an eight strikeout, complete game masterpiece, giving the Giants four shutouts in a row—all against first place teams! When you're hot you're hot.

The Giants had never thrown four consecutive shutouts before last night and this marks only the 17th time since 1918 that any major league team has done so. The last time was the Baltimore Orioles in 1995, when they had five. All of which is to say that magic is happening at PacBell Park. Tonight the Giants give the ball to Matt Cain as he attempts to push the streak to five and equal the Orioles accomplishment of 17 years ago. How likely is it that the magic can continue? Well, Cain has won his last eight decisions and threw a perfect game just three starts back. It could happen.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Bob Brown: a Promoter of Community & a Kid at Heart

This spring the Fellowship for Intentional Community celebrated its 25th anniversary. Sadly, Bob Brown—an original FIC Board member back in 1987—didn't quite make it long enough to help us raise a glass in recognition of achieving that milestone.

I learned yesterday from Bob's niece, Lynn, that he'd had passed away in February. He would have been 80 in September.

It's my pleasure this morning to remember Bob...

Though he was only a part of FIC's inner orbit for a few years, Bob helped us get started. After serving a single term on the Board he stepped down and let others take his spot in the traces. Bob was a gentle soul whose gift was more about vision than implementation, and I enjoyed an epistolary relationship with him over the years, where he'd share his latest thinking about how to make the world a better place. (In fact, I was awaiting a response to my last note to him when Lynn broke the news of his death). As Bob never made the shift to email, that meant real letters with postage and envelopes… many of which were decorated with stickers. There was always a kid inside Bob trying to get out.

I recall fondly Bob's generosity. At FIC's second organizational meeting (at East Wind in the backwoods of the Missouri Ozarks in fall 1987) we wanted to connect with a couple Board members who were not able to make it to that meeting, and Bob sprang for a conference call so we could hear each others' voices. While such calls are no big expense today, 30 minutes cost $100 at the time, which was a significant fraction of the fledgling Fellowship's budget! Bob's donation made it possible.

Eight years later, he made another stand-out gesture in support of FIC relationships when, for the first time, we held our organizational meetings in northern California. It's always been part of FIC's culture to rotate the site our semi-annual meetings around the continent, both to even out travel expenses for Board members who live on either coast, and to attract the participation of intentional communities when we're in their area. (To date we've held 51 organizational meetings, meeting in 23 different states and two provinces.) In 1995 we met at Christ Church of the Golden Rule in Willits.

Bob was living in nearby Middletown and was delighted to have us in the neighborhood. Knowing that we all work hard during the meetings, he gifted all the Board members a day pass and massage at Harbin Hot Springs, also located in Middletown. I hold that in my memory as the most relaxed wrap-up sessions in FIC's history. It was also where I experienced my first watsu massage, courtesy of Bob's largesse. In the years since I've managed to get back to Harbin now and again, and every time I do I think of Bob.

In addition to our FIC connection, Bob and I shared a little-known common history with northeast Missouri. He had been in the US Air Force during the Korean War and did a portion of his service in the obscure town of Sublette MO, located seven miles north of Kirksville, which is the regional center for that part of Missouri. Bob was part of the crew that built a radar surveillance radar station there that was quietly in operation for 17 years: 1951-68. Six years after the Air Force Base was closed, I moved into the area (at the callow age of 24) and helped start Sandhill Farm.

For most of the last 20 years Bob devoted his loving energy to creating an intentional community styled Kidstown. While it never blossomed as he'd hoped, the aim was to "parent and grandparent deprived neighborhood children, teaching them high principles and how to live a harmonious life within dysfunctional families and society... Our highest priority is turning around tyrannical corporations and countries depriving people of their human rights, and abusing and destroying the environment. We are evolving into a spiritual, activist community, which may seem like an oxymoron but which is necessary for our own emotional, spiritual, and psychological health." 

Bob didn't aim small. 

In the spirit of Bob's spirit, I'll close with the Global Pledge of Allegiance, which Lynn had printed up and sent to me as a remembrance bookmark, capturing the essence of her uncle's good intent, augmented by a smiling color portrait of his visage:

I pledge allegiance to the earth
And to the Universal Spirit
Which gives us Life;
One planet, indivisible,
With Peace and Justice for all.

I pledge to do my best
To uphold the trust bestowed
In the gift of my Life;
To care for our planet and our atmosphere,
To respect and honor all her inhabitants,
All people, animals, plants and resources,
To create a legacy for our children
And our children's children
In a world of Harmony and Love.

I pledge allegiance to the Universal Spirit,
By whatever name it may be called,
I align my Life
With the ongoing process of Creation;
To grow myself with care,
To act from my own integrity,
To be for others
How I would want them to be for me.

May we carry this vision in our hearts,
Into our daily choices,
And through our expanding consciousness
With and beyond our planet…

Those are words to live by, Bob. I'll miss you.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Redirecting Competition

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 Redirecting Competition.

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
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

• • •
One of the core challenges with consensus is committing to culture change. With rare exception, people who have made the choice to live in intentional communities—or to be part of cooperatives of any stripe—have been raised in a competitive culture that's adversarial and hierarchic. Just because we've got it in our heads that it's a good idea to move toward cooperation does not mean we'll behave that way when there's disagreement and the stakes are high. 

In fact, as a group process consultant for 25 years I'd say that the single most common dynamic that I'm hired to help groups work through is the tension that arises from members behaving uncooperatively when they don't see eye to eye on core topics. To be fair, this is hard to do. Unlearning deep conditioning is not for the feint of heart, and it is a rare bird indeed that welcomes critical reflections about their ruffled feather behavior in the heat of a cock fight. (Even though it was supposed to be a compassionate and dispassionate exchange of ideas, it turned into a passionate and tense exchange of salvos).

While it's all well and good to aim for cooperation, what are your options when competition emerges from the cave of our reptilian brains and seizes control of the energy in the room? How do you manage the monsters and get back to where you meant to be?

In my experience it's helpful to see people in competitive mode as under strain. While their behavior may be experienced as aggressive, manipulative, or otherwise unpleasant and/or disrespectful, it's more constructive if you can imagine them as fighting for air space rather than fighting to dominate. An image I rely on a lot (especially if emotions are running high) is that the upset combative person is drowning, and in that dynamic nothing matters to them more than getting oxygen. In the extreme that person does not care a whit what damage they inflict on others in pursuit of getting air, and civility is (at least temporarily) lost as a consideration. They not even be aware of what they're doing.

While it's certainly not always like that, it can be, and you need to be prepared for that possibility. Never mind how they got so triggered, they are. While it could be less wild and urgent than I've described, let's assume it is for the purpose of handling the most extreme case. (I figure if you can deal successfully with 500-pound gorillas then negotiating with gibbons and chimps will be a walk in the park.)

There are two main approaches to authentically deescalating this dynamic, and the order in which you employ them is important.

First, you need to build a bridge to the gorilla's emotional state (rather than commenting on the gorilla's destructive behavior). This means being able to reflect back to the upset person what they're feeling and what it's tied to (somebody said or did something, or someone didn't say or do something, that triggered this response—make sure that's understood). When doing this, it's important that you are able to give a summary that the upset person recognizes as accurate. 

Caution: It's typically inadequate to simply say, "I understand how you feel and what your reaction is about." It is not enough to have a sympathetic look on your face, you have to be able to give them phrasing they recognize and you need to be able to do this with an affect that comes across as matching. 

When done well, the distress should immediately start to diminish (everyone likes being accurately heard). This contradicts the tendency for the upset person to feel isolated and misunderstood (or uncared for), and is the essential starting point for redirecting competitive energy.

Second, go on to explore why this matters to the person (the upset is a sure sign that the stakes are high) and then make an attempt to bridge between this person's personal desires (which are certainly in play) and group values or norms. The point here is to legitimize why this person's point of view should be taken into account. In effect, you are trying to guarantee them air space—so they will no longer need to fight for air to breathe.

As an example, I had a conversation last week with a woman who wanted my reflections about a longstanding upset she has had with her fellow community members over what she considered were niggardly and fear-based rules that sharply limited visitor access to community facilities. Note that these rules applied only to strangers, not to members' personal guests. The woman (a friend) was focusing on her desire that the community be a gracious host that welcomed people exploring community life. It was embarrassing to her that the community was being so inner-focused and small-minded. This dynamic was tying her in knots and she wanted my thoughts about how she might untie them.

I started by giving her back a summary of what she felt and why it mattered, thereby establishing that I was holding her accurately and validating the relevance of her concerns as a group issue—by which I mean, that the community's public image and its commitment to helping to promote community living were reasonable group values, not just her personal agenda.

Having established that rapport, I then proceeded to imagine what the feelings and underlying concerns were for the people on the other side, even though none were present for this conversation. As background, the community is located in a dense urban area and has had some history with break-ins and theft. My speculation was that the people advocating strict rules for visitors were focusing on community values as well—just different ones than my friend. My grope was that they were concerned principally with safety and a sense of home and hearth. It was a primary concern for them that their whole property—not just their apartments—be a safe place where they didn't need to be on guard, something rare in their urban setting.

When put that way, my friend could see it, and her knots immediately started to loosen. She wasn't, after all, anti-safe or anti-home; she was pro-hospitality and pro-outreach. 

While there is yet an important and not necessarily easy conversation to have about how to appropriately balance the values of safety, home, hospitality, and outreach, that conversation cannot proceed well until the players have first figured out how to not see the dynamic as a battle, where those with different views are the enemy, blocking your access to oxygen.

Hopefully, this exchange will lead to there being more breathing and more cooperative energy for the balancing conversation—while the monkey brains can play outdoors. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Consensus Interruptus

I was at the national cohousing conference last weekend (held in the downtown Oakland CA Marriott) and had a great time. There were 350 souls who attended at least a part of the four days of offerings. Susan Frank and I ran the conference bookstore, I helped put together the benefit auction, and I got the chance to handle seven workshop slots—four as the presenter and another three as the facilitator. Good thing I like to be busy.

This was my eighth national cohousing conference (I haven't missed any since my first one back in 2001, which happened to be held just a few miles north of this year's venue, on the UC-Berkeley campus). Like most conferences focused on community, this one had plenty of group process workshops in the program (in fact, I ran six of them). One thing that stood out though was that there wasn't a single workshop specifically focused on consensus training or how to use consensus to make decisions.

That's odd because it's far and away the most common form of decision making among all intentional communities, including cohousing.

To be clear, there were two well-attended sessions at the conference on consensus adaptations—ways to think about operating differently if you're struggling with consensus. There just weren't any offerings on how to do consensus well—or even any trying to make the case in support of the attempt.

As a consensus trainer and consensus advocate that left me uneasy.

There were workshops on sociocracy—now often styled Dynamic Governance—which was originally developed in The Netherlands as a consensus adaption for businesses) and then imported into this country (principally through the work of John Buck) and promoted as a superior governance structure for intentional communities.

There was also a workshop promoting the idea of trying to cultivate the inclusivity of consensus as an atmosphere, while keeping open the possibility of using something other than consensus to make decisions.

As far as I can tell, the motivation for these approaches is to address the frustrations that groups develop around working effectively with soft values, obstinate minority viewpoints, and challenging personalities.

While these are real issues and deserve attention, I'm not sold on either approach as improvements to consensus. It appears to me that there is a tension about whether it's a better strategy to train facilitators to be good enough that you can consistently get solid results with consensus, or give up on that and attempt to manage dissent through structure (featuring lots and lots of Go Rounds and super-majority voting).

In consensus, it's crucial that groups get clear about their common values and align membership selection to be congruent with those values. This understanding is the bedrock upon which groups build agreements. The alternative approaches showcased in Oakland are intended as work arounds for groups that are fuzzy about their common values, casual about membership selection, and/or unsure of their footing with challenging personalities.

While I don't doubt that the alternative approaches will work well for some people, I know of no format that is universally liked or is equally accessible to all.

If you adopt a fast-paced process that's committed to expeditious Go Rounds to gather opinions, it favors the quick-tongued over the contemplative. It has not been my experience that wisdom resides solely with the nimble, or that pearls aren't at least occasionally found in mouths that are clammed up during whole group conversations. I believe groups function best when they offer a variety of formats—not just the same one over and over.

The heavy lifting is done when people have clearly different viewpoints and the stakes are high. What we most desperately need (as groups striving to create viable cooperative culture) are ways to handle those moments with authenticity, thoroughness, and compassion. I am deeply skeptical that there is a structural solution to what is essentially an energetic challenge.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Consensus Challenges: Wordsmithing in Plenary

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 Wordsmithing in Plenary.

I. When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
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

• • •
There's a key moment in meetings that occurs whenever the group makes a decision. Right after the cheering or exhaling—whichever seems more appropriate—there's an important wrap-up step: what gets recorded in the minutes?

To be clear, I'm not talking about procedural decisions internal to the meeting (what will we talk about next; are we ready to lay this down and move onto the next topic; should we take a break?). I'm talking about decisions that will have lasting effect beyond the meeting. These could be procedural (what authority do we give facilitators to run meetings; what is our standard for minute-taking; how will we create opportunities for people who miss meetings to have their input considered on plenary topics; how will we archive agreements?), behavioral (pet policy; work expectations; norms around children in common space), or operational (approving the annual budget; empaneling the Steering Committee; defining the mandate for Membership Committee).

Question: When does it make sense to take time in plenary to get the wording of an agreement exactly right for the minutes?

Answer: Rarely.

While this may be a surprising view, I'm weighing the cost of having the entire group wait while a small number of folks work under pressure to tinker with phrasing. Usually, this is a poor trade-off. Beyond eating the clock, this kind of activity is typically an energy eater as well. 

The argument going the other way is that if you allow the moment to slip away without pinning down the details—that place where the devil resides—what you thought was clear may blur. At the extreme, the agreement may unravel and the group will be condemned to recreate it in a subsequent plenary to resolve the confusion. No fun.

While fuzzy (and therefore ineffective) decisions are a real issue, I question the appropriateness of getting into the habit of drilling down to wordsmithing in plenary. If there's substantive confusion about the agreement, that should have been resolved before you tested for agreement. If however it's a question of semantics or word choice (which is what I mean be wordsmithing), then I think groups are well served to develop and use a protocol for offline tweaking.

As a professional facilitator, it's relatively common for me to help the client group navigate to a complex agreement (by which I mean one with multiple clauses or caveats) that has been fully presented orally, but which the minute taker has struggled to capture. In those moments I often propose that the group trust me to write the minute (the technical term for what gets officially recorded) afterwards. I commit to doing this within 24 hours (while my memory is fresh) and distributing it to the group right away. This has worked well and informs my recommendation. The group saves plenary time without loss of nuance.

That said, there are some cautions. For this choice to function well, the group will need to identify who among the membership is good at this (clear and thorough written articulation is a non-trivial skill and not everyone can answer the bell), and get a commitment from someone in that pool to handle that assignment as the need arises. In general, you want to stay with the question long enough in plenary to make sure you've captured clearly all the concerns about the wording, before turning it over to the wordsmith(s).

Further, there needs to be a clear mechanism for someone to voice a concern with what gets posted (the output of wordsmithing) in the event that memories of the agreement diverge. If this is going to work well (read save plenary time) it will be crucial that the turnaround time between the statement of the oral agreement and the posting of the written translation be as short as possible.

Having advocated for developing the capacity to wordsmith outside plenary, the ultimate test is whether you're actually saving time. If pushing word crafting outside plenary isn't working, you'll need to: a) get clearer guidelines for what's wanted; b) improve the capacity of your word crafting pool to deliver the goods; or c) fall back on completing the written minute on the spot.

At the end of the day, what will ultimately matter is whether the minute was clear and accurate; not whether it was written in or out of plenary. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Savoring a Soft Landing

I lost a student recently.

While there is always sadness and a sense of failure that accompanies such occasions, there was also something to celebrate and I want to share that story.

Not all people are meant to do things together, and there are definite limits to how widely you can dance with the muse of inclusivity before the circle is too wide and the bonds too diluted to sustain you through travail. There is considerable delicacy in knowing where that boundary is and how to examine it with compassionate and authenticity.

The student in question (whom I'll call Robin) is a hard worker and has lived a life clearly dedicated to promoting community. At the same time, Robin identifies with a diagnosis of ADD (attention deficit disorder) and has presented a challenge for every group they've been a part of. Robin doesn't pick up social cues easily and often inserts themselves into conversations with an energy that is not congruent with what they have to contribute--which simultaneously is disruptive to what others are saying and makes it hard to understand their point.

Robin has accomplished much over a lifetime and has a lot to offer, yet they rarely wait for an invitation before offering their perspective. When speaking, Robin will often offer details that are aren't germane to the consideration, thereby elongating a statement that wasn't necessarily welcome or appropriate to begin with. On top of that, when these tendencies are pointed out, Robin typically has no qualms about pushing back, ratcheting up the tension level. In short, Robin is a handful.  

Going the other way, Robin sometimes has valuable insights about problem solving, and has been a good role model for speaking up for what they needed.

Drawn to facilitation training in the hope that they'd have more success being a resource to cooperative groups, it wasn't being an easy fit.

In particular we had two incidents where Robin was an outside facilitator in the context of the training and both times they were unable to resist offering unsolicited advice about how the group should handle the issue being discussed. Both times the group didn't like what Robin did (essentially violating the facilitator's neutrality by wading into content without portfolio) and we made sure that Robin got the feedback.

Chafing under that restriction, Robin reflected on the dynamic and came to the conclusion that facilitation was not their calling. What Robin really wanted was to be a consultant.

In some ways, Robin's confusion about those two roles can be laid at my feet. As a professional consultant it's relatively common that I'll be hired both as a facilitator and as a resource to offer expert advice about the choices group weigh during problem solving. (There is often interest in hearing about what other groups have done when facing similar circumstances and I often have knowledge about that.)

Robin had seen me serve in the capacity on a number of occasions and was having difficulty accepting that I was allowed to do something that they weren't. Even though this was laid out up front and we never pretended it would be another way, Robin nonetheless chafed at the dual standard.

The key part of this story though is not that there was difficulty, and not that Robin resigned from the training; it was that Robin reported how relieved they were that the separation was not acrimonious. Even though it seemed awkward to me (and to other students), we had been trying to make it work. We gave Robin straight feedback when coloring outside the lines. We listened to what they were saying and acknowledged their contributions. When things went well, we made sure to honor that. When Robin asked for special treatment, we took it one request at a time, negotiating as we went.

Life has been rocky for Robin, and it's humbling that the more humane treatment they received in the class—bumpy as it was—stood out in sharp contrast with the way it usually plays out for a demonstrative person struggling to cope with ADD. Even though it's not possible to achieve laminar flow with all configurations, and sometimes the turbulence is unacceptable, this was a good reminder that the effort to give everyone a try is worth the stretch, and what seems bitter to some can be perceived as sweet to others. When you're used to seeing the glass half empty, a mouthful of water can be surprisingly nourishing.

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.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Consensus Challenges: When Do You Know Enough To Act?

I'm in northern California this weekend, conducting a facilitation training, and the teaching theme is consensus. Two weeks ago students were asked what aspects of consensus were most challenging for them to understand or deal with well, and I got lots of replies. Today I'm launching a blog series in which I'll attempt to address a number of the issues that the students identified:

I. When do you know enough to act?
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

• • •
While it's easy to agree on the goal of gathering as much relevant information on an issue as possible before making a decision, it turns out to be surprisingly nuanced knowing when you have enough information to act. That is, at what point does the perceived cost of delay (in order to gather additional data) outweigh the risk of making a mistake in acting without it?

I figure you never know everything, so the question becomes when do you know enough? This is about risk assessment (the consequences of making a mistake because you acted precipitously) and also about where the group stands on the spectrum of risk averse (the world is a dangerous place) versus risk tolerant (the world is full of opportunity). What looks like a prudent action to the latter can appear as recklessness to the former; what appears as prudence to the former comes across as overprotective to the latter. There is no right answer or single best approach. The group will simply have to discern the balance point case by case.

Fortunately, when the group has a relatively stable population it learns from experience and you don't have to start from scratch each time. Over time, you'll develop a sense of what has a chance to fly without reexamining the entire range of options. 

When it comes to risk assessment, there are a number of potent questions to ask:

o  What happens if things go badly? 
Sometimes, when you really look at it, the bad thing isn't that bad, and it makes sense to not be so cautious. Other times the cost of getting it wrong is unacceptably high, and it's wiser to gather more information—or to figure out how better to limit the damage in the event of failure.

o  What is the cost of delay?
This is the obverse of Act Now coin. It may manifest as frustration, dissipated energy, or a loss of momentum. Sometimes that's more expensive than making a mistake.

o  Is the decision reversible?
This can be an important consideration in assessing the cost of a poor outcome. It's one thing to be embarrassed by a mistake; it's another to be stuck with it.

o  To what extent can we gather information about what others have done in similar circumstances, and how well to do we think their experience applies in our situation? 
Even where we think this is possible, do we have the time, resources, and motivation to do the work? It's not particularly helpful to pine for information that's inaccessible or to wait for data that no one has the availability or inclination to gather.

In the end, there is no guarantee of success and you have live with the reality that you are susceptible to failure through taking an action and also vulnerable to failure through not taking an action. You can pick your poison, but you can never be totally safe.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Reflecting on the Light

I. Sunshine in the Desert
It's June in Las Vegas. While this is a city that prides itself on both the volume of the action and its availability independently of diurnal cycles (casinos are notorious for offering gaming floors that feature neither chronometry nor fenestration), I've diverted my business trip to the West Coast to see my adult kids—not to kid around with adult diversions. 

As such, I can tell when the sun is up. Having crept within three weeks of summer solstice, Old Sol is up early (and often), and it's hard to sleep in. Long days and a desert climate have translated into triple-digit daytime temperatures every day since I arrive last Wednesday, with hardly a cloud in sight. While that will mean excellent conditions for observing tonight's full moon, it also means I need to drink extra (non-alcoholic) liquids and have to be careful about when I go for my daily constitutional with Zeus, Ceilee's seven-year-old sweetheart of a pit bull. 

Whenever he sees me putting on shoes he gets excited, hoping that means a walk is imminent. While it more probably means a car trip to which he won't be invited, occasionally he's right and his tail wags at a metronomic rate that would tax a first chair violinist to keep the beat.

Much as both Zeus and I love our walks around the neighborhood, this time of year it's easier on both of us if I wait until after sundown—which means heading out north of 8 pm. That way his poor feet aren't as apt to suffer from contact with the black tarmac whenever we cross a street. After soaking up solar radiation all day, the streets are hotter than action on The Strip.

The long days are also good for my getting some work done. I never run out of reports that need attention or commentaries to write, and a consequence of my farming lifestyle at Sandhill is that it's hard for me to sleep in past sunrise. When I visit my kids this time of year I'm typically the first one up in the morning. I make the first pot of coffee and it opens up an hour or two at the keyboard before anyone else stirs.

II. Sunshine in the Dessert
Like a lot of families, food is a bonding experience for me and my kids and we look for opportunities to enjoy special foods at the same time as each other's company. While mostly that means particular cuisines—Japanese sushi, Thai curry, and Brazilian churrascaria—it also includes indulging in after-meal treats like ice cream, that are not a regular part of my diet. Already on this visit I've enjoyed two of my all-time favorites (on separate occasions, mind you): green tea and coffee. The soothing cool is a terrific contrast with the intense flavors and heat of the Las Vegas culinary experience in June (while the restaurants are invariably air-conditioned, the hot wings aren't). Yum!

III. Sunshine in the Deseret
It's shaping up to be another historic presidential race in the US. Four years ago the Democratic choice boiled down to a woman (Hillary Clinton) and a Black (Barack Obama). Whichever way it went, that person would be the first of that category vying for the top political office in the country.

Now, of course, Obama is the incumbent, and the Republicans are offering up a challenger who will break ground again: Mitt Romney will be the first Mormon candidate. I like that we're pushing the electoral envelope and shining light into the dark corners of political prejudice.

You may not know that in 1849, two years after they first arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, Mormons proposed to the US government the establishment of a new state called Deseret that encompassed almost all of what is now Utah and Nevada, plus southern California, northern Arizona, and bits of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. While it didn't work out, and they had to settle for Utah in 1851, Mormons have never lacked for chutzpah. This year—163 years later—they're hoping to raise the Deseret flag over the White House. We'll see.

While I'm nervous about Mormon hegemony (it sends a chill up my spine whenever someone thinks they are God's chosen people, a line of belief that has been used since time immemorial to legitimize all manner of brutalities and outrage—once you view non-believers as the Unwashed, it is a surprisingly small step to seeing others as "them," thereby rendering most humans as no longer worthy of humane treatment), what truly disgusts me about today's public environment is not the persistence of theocratic zealots; it's the viciousness and lack of civility in political discourse. It's one thing to disagree and be passionate about one's beliefs; it's another to vilify and indulge in knee-jerk negativity. 

As sure as the sun shines in the desert, we—as in all of us—have to be able to do better than that.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Game of Homes

I'm in Las Vegas this week, visiting my kids. Yesterday, as often happens when we get together, my daughter Jo introduced me her latest favorite television show—an HBO series introduced last season, The Game of Thrones.

The show is based on the first book of a highly successful fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, written by George Martin, and first published in 1996. The action takes place in a medieval setting, replete with knights, kings, swords, arrows, mythical creatures, whoring, and all the political intrigue you can shake a stick it. Yesterday I watched five episodes, which was half of the first season. The acting is supurb, with the main character, Eddard Stark, played by Sean Bean (Boromir in Lord of the Rings). He's middle aged (though not over the hill) and lord of a minor city, Winterfell. 

He has two daughters and four sons, one of which is a bastard. The eldest two sons are just coming of age as fighters. Eddard is a good and honorable man, with a terrific and loyal wife. They are trying to do well by their people and to raise their children to be good leaders, but the examples around them are not wholesome. It is a story of lust and power, as almost everyone is trying to "win" the game of vying for the throne. Only Eddard and his wife seem to understand the costliness of the game and refuse to play—thereby earning the mistrust of all. While the setting is fantasy, the human interactions—showcasing fantastical appetites and perversions—are all too real. Of course, that's what makes it so compelling drama.
• • •
When I wasn't watching television (I can stop any time, really), I was riding around the northwest part of town looking at houses. Jo and partner Peter are trying to take advantage of the free fall in the Vegas housing market, where prices have plummeted more than 50% since 2007, bringing them down into their price range as first-tome homeowners.

Jo & Peter have been doing house tours with a local realtor for the past half year and are somewhat weary after 8-10 such junkets. While they've found houses attractive enough to an offer, someone else has always outbid them so far. 

I was told yesterday was typical: 

o  The original time to get together with the realtor (Suzanne) was 2:30, but we didn't rendezvous at the first house until after 4 pm—apparently there's a lot of slippage in the realty business, as prior appointments run long.

o  In addition to starting late, we had trouble with the first house on our tour. To begin with, it was in a gated community and the gate code didn't work. After waiting for someone else to enter (so that we could follow them in), the owner refused to let us view the home. Suzanne had tried to call ahead, but there had been no answer, and the owner was unwilling to show the house without an appointment. Catch 22. He wasn't happy answering the door, and we weren't happy being turned away. Not an auspicious start.

o  Fortunately, things picked up from there and we wound up viewing four houses, all reasonably close to each other. Two of these were occupied; two were empty.

o  Traveling between houses was not always smooth. Suzanne doesn't own a GPS and would often get lost. If we tried following her she'd occasionally travel through a yellow light and leave us behind, not realizing there was a problem until a few minutes later when she was out of sight. Sigh. (Not everyone is as skilled at leading as Eddard Stark.)

o  It was 7 pm by the time we finished and could turn our attention toward dinner.

For all of that though, this was a good tour. Of the fours places Jo & Peter looked at, two were good enough to make offers on, and one appeared to give them an inside track—that house had come on the market just nine days ago and the owner refused to accept bids from anyone but first-time buyers for the first two weeks. As Jo & Peter have already been approved for FHA backing (as first-time homeowners) and were willing to pay the asking price, this seems like a solid chance.

We all have our fingers crossed that Jo & Peter can win the Game of Homes by September. That's my next scheduled visit to Vegas, and I'd like to help them with home improvement projects when I get here. They just need a house first.