Thursday, May 23, 2013

Working a Hairy Eyeball

Recently I was facilitating for a group that I've worked with a number of times—a community that was familiar with a lot of my thinking (as well as my penchant for graphic metaphors). While I was being given background on a complicated topic, one long-term member confided, "You know, it'll be one of those hairy eyeball topics."

Momentarily bewildered by that phrase, I paused. Then I laughed. "Actually," I said, "I think you mean it's a hair ball, which is bad enough."

The biggest challenge with complex topics is not knowing where to start (almost anything can work); nor is it figuring out the best way to subdivide the topic into digestible chunks (there are often a number of productive ways to slice and dice big things into manageable yet meaningful flllets. The hard part is holding clearly the ways each subtopic relates to others and having the discipline to keep the group focused on one at a time.

The challenge is the lure of interrelationship—the ways that the answer to one subtopic almost always impacts how you answer others, and it's damn hard—especially when you're first getting under way and don't have answers to many other subtopics to guide you—to resist the temptation to jump to another, related topic before completing the one you're on. What I urge groups is that they assume for the time being that they have an answer they'll like to related questions—they just don't know yet what it is.

Using this approach you can productively chip away at an iceberg. Eventually all you'll have left is a pile of ice cubes, with which to cool your celebratory drinks at having completed the Herculean task of cleansing of the Augean Stables. (How's that for a mixed metaphor?)

Another big benefit of this divide-and-conquer approach is that it generates momentum, which is important to group morale. That is, when your bites are smaller, they're easier to chew and swallow, and each one gives the group a discrete experience of progress. You can check something off your To Do List and actually observe the number of remaining topics diminish.

Here are a couple of traps:
o  Some people don't enjoy being narrowly focused on one subtopic. They find it inhibits flow and stifles creativity. 

While there's no doubt some truth to that claim, all too often "free range" equates to "free of product." That is, when a group is all over the place—even when no one is off topic (which isn't that high a bar when the topic is broad)—it can be the very devil figuring out what to do with stream of consciousness input. While flow and creativity are valuable commodities, they don't guarantee success per se. 

Better, in my view, is that you offer a clear construct (a defined non-trivial subtopic) in which flow and creativity can flourish—gently, yet firmly, redirecting folks who start coloring outside the lines.

o  Some are consistently lured by the idea of prospecting for the mother lode: a unified field theory that will be a simple solution to the complex issue at hand. The idea is that sitting with the gestalt of the whole issue (and not limiting the conversation to fragments) will allow for a breakthrough understanding that will elegantly resolve the whole mess in a single stroke of brilliancy.

Because this strategy is occasionally successful—perhaps just enough to reinforce the desire to search for the Holy Grail each time—it can be difficult to get some members to give it up. It can have the addictive quality of buying lottery tickets: once you've managed to win once, it can be borderline irresistible not plopping down a couple bucks every time you're at the gas station.

The nuance here is knowing when a topic is complex enough that the piecemeal approach is a surer bet. The main clue here is the number of pieces. Simply put, the more interesting components (ones for which there is not an obvious and overwhelming group preference) there are to the consideration, the less likely it is that the group can weave a pleasing tapestry with all skeins on the loom at once.

• • •
At the end, after all the threads have been addressed as subtopics, you have to see if it all hangs together well. It's not uncommon that there's some tailoring needed at this stage, to make sure you have a suit that fits handsomely. But don't be daunted. It's almost always the case that last minute rehemming (and hawing) entails less shock than discovering at the prom that your new suit of clothes doesn't include pants—or enough fabric to cover your hairy eyeball.

[For more on this topic, see my blog of Sept 23, 2008, Untangling Hair Balls.]

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