Friday, May 17, 2013

Group Works: History and Context

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:

1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith

In the Context segment there are eight cards. The keystone pattern in this segment is labeled History and Context, so that's where I'll begin. Here is the image and text from that card:  

History and Context hugely influence how the rest of the patterns are invoked. Pay attention to why things are the way they are and what the people coming expect. Tune in to discern when to respect the existing culture vs. when it benefits to stretch toward something new.

People see reality through the lens of their experience. If the topics to be addressed have had a rocky history, then loins will be girded when revisiting them. If the group has not had success dealing with distress, than you can expect there to be tension whenever there is tension.

Sometimes change (in formats, facilitation style, setting, time of day, etc.) will help a group open up to new possibilities—while the past is prologue, it need not be fate. Sometimes change will be unsettling, and you can ask the group to swallow too many new things at once. You must gauge the group's range and resilience. Does it slant more toward risk tolerant or risk averse? Sometimes the group will be ready for a change out of frustration (we've been stuck for a while; what have we got to lose?); sometimes the group will open up to experimenting from a sense of security (we trust our base and the strength of our connections; if this doesn't work we can always return to what has served us well in the past). More, you need to be sensitive to how you are perceived by the group and its willingness to trust you. 

The image that accompanies this pattern is evocative. Where one remembers flood, another—perhaps someone who has never known high water—sees only dry ground. Neither is wrong, yet it may require a strong construct to bridge the swirling eddies that separate these realities. Unexamined, imagine how differently these two people would respond to a proposal to purchase a boat? What would be prudent to one would be paranoid to the other.

Context comes in many flavors. Let's walk down the aisles of your local Context Mart and peek at what's on the shelves:

o  Relationship to Cooperative Culture
In the mainstream culture, meetings are a civilized battle (at least they're civilized most of the time; sometimes they're vicious). The dominant society is competitive, hierarchic, and adversarial. If you're operating in a cooperative group, there is an attempt being made to turn those things around—to think and act collaboratively instead of competitively; to be curious when people disagree with you, rather than combative. While the cooperative theory isn't that hard to lay out, it ain't easy undoing a lifetime of conditioning and living up to cooperative ideals in the dynamic moment—especially if it's about something close to the bone. 

Hardest of all to navigate is the situation where Person A is being enthusiastically cooperative and Person B is being defensively reactive. On the one hand, you want to honor B's viewpoint and make sure the train doesn't pull out of the station with them still standing on the platform. On the other, you want to object to their uncooperative energy and reestablish a collegial and creative atmosphere to continue the examination. 
o  Relationship to Meetings
As a professional facilitator, I believe that practicing one's craft is an important step in getting better. When I work with students learning this skill I urge them to be brave and volunteer often to run meetings, so that they'll get this practice. I tell them, "Hey, the bar is really low. Most meetings are just awful and you almost can't help but offer a better experience, even if you're just a beginner. While your performance may have been only so-so, most participants will think it was fine."

For the most part, people in Western society think of meetings as a necessary evil, as something you try to survive—certainly not something to look forward to. Even if your cooperative group is trying to do better in this regard, you need to be aware of the possibility that meeting participants are at different places along the journey to rehabilitating meetings as an opportunity for celebration, connection, and collaboration.

If one participant dreads meetings, while another squirms in their seat in anticipation, you have a decided gap in context that you'll need to navigate.

o  Relationship to the Topic
Not everyone identifies as a stakeholder on every issue (thank God), and people tend to behave differently based on how much they care about the outcome. More nuanced still, people will behave differently based on whether prior engagements with that topic have gone well (by their lights) or gone poorly. If it went well last time, then it will probably be smooth sailing again. If it was tough sledding last time, then it will likely be a slog.

Unconsciously, we tend to expect that future engagements on a given topic will be a continuation of past engagements. While that may not be good thinking, it's human nature, and we're better prepared for meetings when we have a sense of participants' personal history with the topics queued up for consideration. It's especially useful to know if there's been what Yoda might describe as "a disturbance in the Force."

o  Relationship to Other Stakeholders
Sometimes the trickiest dynamics are not the identification and balancing of values underlying positions, but the damaged connections and/or low trust between the people active in the consideration. 

This can play out in a number of ways:
Personality clash, where one person's behavior is found irritating, independently of what they're saying.
Unresolved tension, where an unhealed prior hurt leaks into the current situation.
Poor track record, where there is skepticism about the reliability of a person's commitments to a project because they've flaked out or under-performed in the past.
History of selfishness, where there is low trust in the speaker's ability to think in terms of what's best for the whole.
Power imbalances, where there is a reaction to strong statements from someone too new to the group to have established credentials. Or, going in the other direction, a reaction to a well-established member who appears to expect deference by virtue of their years in service, rather than because of the strength of their thinking.

o  Relationship to the Facilitator
While the ideal facilitator for cooperative meetings is skilled, neutral on the topics, and well prepared, sometimes you have to settle for less than that. Participants can have doubts about the facilitator in any of these respects and that perception can undermine the facilitator's effectiveness just as surely as their making poor choices.

o  Relationship to the Setting
The size and shape of the room; lighting; time of day; quality, variety, and arrangement of seating; acoustics; and presence or lack of visual aids all have an impact on the atmosphere and energy of the meeting. Good facilitators give conscious thought to these factors in setting things up to create an environment congruent with the kind of meeting desired, and in a way known to be conducive to productive engagement based on knowledge of the group. (Heart sharing tends to go better in the evening, with the chairs in a circle and soft lighting. Business meetings typically benefit from a morning slot, with good natural lighting, and the chairs arranged to focus attention on a projector screen, flip chart, or easel.)

o  Relationship to the Format
Even though people always bring their emotional and intuitive selves to meetings (just try checking them at the door and see how that goes), that part of our humanness is not always welcome. Lacking agreement about whether to work emotionally at all—and most groups do not have explicit agreements about this—there will be predictable tension between the "Product People" who believe that meetings should be principally focused on addressing issues and solving problems, and the "Process People" who believe that meetings should only proceed in ways that enhance relationships among members.

While these two views are not inherently inimical, and can learn to play nice together, you can usually witness a manifestation of the awkwardness between them whenever there is a request to have a sharing circle, where people are given the opportunity to use valuable plenary time to speak from their heart, perhaps to clear the air or to establish the breadth of the environment in which an issue will be considered. It is expressly not a time for problem solving. What may be pejoratively styled as woo-woo navel gazing by the Product folks may be considered the gem of the meeting by the Process contingent, and this conextual gap will need careful navigation.

o  Relationship to Speaking in Group
If you take into account that many fear public speaking more than death, it's hardly surprising that in any normal group you'll have members who find it awkward to state their views in front of everyone. What's show time for some is no-go time for those whose tongues are frozen with fear. Thus, you need to think about how to make input giving more accessible. (Small group breakouts can help, as can a culture of responding first with what you like about hat was just said, rather than with "but… ")

o  Relationship to Stamina and How Long the Group's Been Sitting
There's an art to managing the group energy and sequencing agenda items such that the heavy lifting (when the need for high focus and resiliency is greatest) is attempted when the group's energy tank is closer to F, rather than edging toward E. 

Most people need blood flowing to their brain to do their best thinking (duh), and that translates into avoiding heavy agenda right after a meal (when blood is otherwise busy in the stomach) and getting traction on tough topics within 30 minutes of people sitting down. By and large it's unproductive to ask a group to sit longer than 90 minutes without a break or a movement exercise, so a good facilitator won't open up a large can of complication unless there's enough of the 90 minutes left to get the worms back in the can, or at least well tagged and into holding pens before it's time for a break.
• • •
As you can see, context and history have a lot to say about what gets said and how it's heard. Flying blind, or worse, simply assuming that others will relate to topics and the meeting environment in the same way that you do, is sure to lead to unpleasant surprises. There might be a flash flood coming at you out of a clear blue sky.

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