Friday, June 28, 2013

Group Works: Gaia

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 fourth pattern in this segment is labeled Gaia. Here is the image and text from that card:

The presence of nature in group activities—through natural settings, altars, decorations, and more—provides grounding, beauty and inspiration. Nature gives perspective, letting us know we are one small part of a very large whole, always connected.

This pattern carries with it an enormous assumption: that our best work is done in the context of seeing humans as a part of nature; not apart from nature. While I agree with this philosophy, it represents a sea change from dominant Western thought, and it's worthwhile to pause and recognize this (rather than blithely agreeing that it's nice to have a window in the meeting room that overlooks a natural setting, and moving on to the next card).

The book that's touched me most deeply in the last year has been How It Is, which represents the collected writings of Viola Cordova, a Native American philosopher (1937-2002). She was a Jicarilla Apache mixed with Hispanic descent, who grew up mostly in northern New Mexico. She became a professor who studied and taught Western philosophy while articulating Native American philosophy. She did a lot to contrast the two cosmologies (White/European versus Native American) and her writing is inspirational.

Cordova explains that in Native American philosophy there is an emphasis on place, where beliefs about how the world began and what it means are specific to a locale and not expected to be the same everywhere.

There is just one Earth, of which we are all apart. There is no heaven; no parallel universes. The Earth is our home (as well as the home of all other peoples and species); it is where we learn the meaning of harmony and coexistence. It is not inherently dangerous.

Humans are a herd animal, where right behavior is best understood in the context of the collective, not as what's best for the individual. When someone acts selfishly they are seen as sick, rather than celebrated as entrepreneurial or institutionalized as crazy. 

At best, we are in transition from the world view of humans-as-lords-of-the-universe (a right given to us expressly by an omnipotent God who exists in a non-temporal plane of reality). 

It is against this background that I suggest we approach the pattern of Gaia. In this context, it is not merely about creating a pleasing atmosphere (though that's a fine consideration); it's about invoking a reminder of what we're aspiring to live by—a reminder of our rootedness in the Earth and the paramount importance of having our decisions and our behaviors informed by that life-sustaining connection.

To be sure, invoking nature can be accomplished in an amazing variety of ways: with song, with raiment, with an altar of natural objects (imbued with special meaning to the participants), or, as in the image that accompanies this card, with natural vistas.

That said, I want to complete my reflections on this card by voicing concerns about taking this one step further and meeting outdoors, in natural settings. Though that choice may reinforce the sense of connection with nature (good), and provide relief for those who feel cooped up inside in nice weather, outdoor settings can be highly distracting. (For that matter, so can busy window views in indoor settings.)

While outdoor one-on-one conversations can work fine, the acoustical challenges increase geometrically as the number of participants rises. Outdoors it's harder to contain the energy, especially when the sky is your ceiling (or even with a leaf canopy swaying the breeze). To be fair, I've conducted workshops in clearings in the woods that have turned out fine, but for the most the call of the wild will tend to undercut the call of the facilitator and I want you to keep that in mind. 

For the most part, it's better to go for a walk outside, and to meet inside, where you can take advantage of the physical definition of the space as an energetic container. 

When it comes to meetings, I prefer to invite nature in, rather than inviting the people out.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Making Omelets for Cooperative Groups

As a process consultant, most times my work with a client involves putting out a fire. To be sure, I'm often asked to teach how to prevent fires as well, but most times there's one already burning before I get the call.

Sometimes, in the process of extinguishing one blaze I uncover another and there's not time to handle both. Several months ago that happened to me and I made the choice to keep my focus on the problem I was asked to address, letting the new fire smoulder while I attended to the original one. 

In the final hour of my time with that group, we were headed toward a solid conclusion—where the fire was coming under control—when suddenly someone in the group unexpectedly tossed a gas can into the meeting, a couple folks got badly burned (I'm still speaking metaphorically) and stomped out of the room, leaving me to pick over the charred remains, and tend to the wounded as best I could. It was not the ending I or anyone else was looking for.

The group was frustrated at not getting a happy ending, and the people at risk from the new fire (the one I uncovered and didn't address) were doubly disappointed because now there were two fires and I was going home.

While I tried to set up a fire brigade for the new blaze (a plan for how it would be dealt with as a priority after my departure), and I pointed out that knowledge of the new fire was itself product (because it's much better knowing there's a fire and its location then mistakenly thinking there isn't one), those offerings brought scant joy. In consequence, there is a significant fraction of the group that came away from the weekend with the feeling that they were burned by me, and want no part of my working with the group again.

While that's sad for me, it goes with the territory, and that's what I want to focus on in this blog. 

While I'm brave enough (or foolish enough) to always think I can help a group in trouble, the truth is my work is not always effective. Perhaps I don't learn enough about the full dimensions of the problem ahead of time; perhaps I don't find a way to connect with all the stakeholders; perhaps I make a poor choice about how to proceed, or misinterpret a key statement; perhaps I underestimate how long it will take to clean the wound, apply the salve, and bandage the patient.

In any event, my souffles don't always rise; sometimes they fall flat. What I don't do is play it safe. If I was hired to put out a fire, then I'll do my best to extinguish that sucker, which almost always means working close to the heat and under pressure from the clock.

Completing the transition to a cooking metaphor, I'm reminded of the famous Harry Truman quote, If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. As a process consultant I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, trying to turn grease fires into tasty meals. With the group I mentioned above, the dinner party was naturally disappointed by the food displayed at the end of the weekend: charred on the outside and undercooked in the middle. 

On the one hand, it makes sense to not bring back a guest chef who didn't produce a delectable meal the last time. On the other, I was asked to work in a kitchen that no one else wanted to enter, to demonstrate how it was possible to produce good food (unifying agreements) without building a new kitchen (switching to a different decision-making process), or firing some of the kitchen staff (asking some challenging folks to leave the community).

In a hot kitchen, I work deliberately and with purpose. While I try not to rush, I meet people head on, making sure I've heard what they have to tell me, letting them know how that fits (or doesn't fit) with what others have said, what I'm doing with all that I've heard, and what the plan is.

Not everyone responds well to my directness. Not everyone likes it when I share news from others that they don't want to hear. I don't always make a good choice in how I share hard information. There is always room for me to improve; ways in which I can learn to be less triggering and more compassionate. In short, I can always be a better short order cook, and it's on me to find the lessons when meals I prepare go uneaten.

All of that said, if someone wants an omelet, it will necessarily mean breaking eggs. Even though there may later be remorse over the unborn chickens or the lost beauty of whole eggs—for which I can have genuine sympathy—I will always break the eggs once an omelet has been ordered. Even when the customer tells me after the fact that they didn't really want an omelet, it's my job to hear that with as much grace as possible… and then prepare myself to go back into the kitchen.

If you need clients to like what you cook every time, I agree with our 33rd President: stay out of the kitchen.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Balance Versus Chemistry

As a process consultant, one of the aspects of cooperative groups that I'm frequently asked to comment on is organizational structure—how groups can set things up to function well, with healthy and effective relationships between the plenary and committees (or the plenary and managers).

Among the central concepts I advocate is that of a Steering (or Coordinating) Committee, which has four main functions:

a) Drafting plenary agendas
Being the gatekeepers for what's worthy of plenary attention, what's mature enough to come forward and what's most pressing (or been longest in the queue).

b) Task monitoring
Following the status of work commitments made at the plenary level, troubleshooting as appropriate.

c) Playing centerfield
Being the default shepherd for any issue that doesn't otherwise have a home (with a standing committee, an ad hoc committee, or a special advocate).

d) Exercising emergency powers
Being the group authorized to step in when action is required and there's no time for a meeting (which generally boils down to imminent non-trivial threat to life or property). Hint: though this function should rarely, if ever, need to be invoked, it's hell to pay if it's not in place when you do need it.

Many groups have some version of the Steering Committee function, or at least a group handling the first part of it: drafting plenary agendas. What I want to explore today is not the committee's mandate, but how people are selected to serve on that committee. In my experience the most common method is asking each standing committee to name a representative that will, in aggregate, comprise Steering.

There are two reasons why this is a sound approach: First, it makes sense from the perspective of balanced representation (under the theory that most group functions are overseen by standing committees, it's reasonable to project that at least one member of Steering will have familiarity, if not expertise, with what comes along).

Second, it's relatively straight forward to fill the slots, as you simply ask each committee to cough up a rep. 

Unfortunately, there are more reasons why this is not a sound approach:

In my experience, committees are most apt to select a Steering Committee representative based on two criteria: a) availability; and b) willingness to defend the standing committee's interests in how agendas get crafted. While it's OK that these factors are in play, surely more factors ought to be taken into account. Let me enumerate them (in no particular order):

1. Chemistry
This is how well the configuration of people functions together, and is fairly distinct from their skill set or the sum of the individual member's qualities. While this is not necessarily easy to define, ignoring it is not smart. A committee that endures constant friction is fractious and the work suffers. When Steering is comprised of independently selected representatives of different committees, you're essentially playing Chemistry Roulette.

2. Ability to communicate clearly
Make no mistake about it, the group that controls the agenda is a powerful group. As such, it behooves them to be as transparent as possible why they're making the choices they are (and how that's in the group's best interest). That means clear communication, both orally and in writing.

3. Ability to take the heat
You have to anticipate that at least a portion of the time some people will be unhappy with the choices Steering makes, and that means taking arrows. Whether you deserve the criticism or not, you can count on getting it, and you'll need a certain toughness to be able to handle that without freaking out, getting defensive, or collapsing. If you're afraid of offending someone, you're probably not suited to serve on Steering.

4. Ability and motivation to labor behind the scenes 
Often enough, Steering will not have enough information to make the best decision or can anticipate the need to meet with someone privately to convey unwelcome news (perhaps about how the issue they advocate will not get time at the next plenary). This means actively seeking out others for important, and potentially delicate, one-on-one conversations, the success of which can make a big difference in how smoothly plenaries run.

5. Demographic balance (such as gender, class, age, ethnicity, spirituality)
Often enough, the group may have a clear preference that there be a balance in representation other than by skill or area of interest in community life. If so, those screens need to be on the table.

6. Financial literacy
At least some portion of the time, issues will have a significant financial component. When those occur it may be imperative that there be sufficient savvy with numbers and budgeting (not necessarily the same thing) to be able grok the fiscal import of different options.

7. Respect for process (if not facility with it)
Folks on Steering will be expected to consistently operate within the boundaries of the group's process agreements (it will definitely not land well if they take shortcuts and get caught out). Steering will frequently be in a position to shine a light on questions of due process. As such, they will be expected to adhere to the same standards they expect in others. 

8. Ability to see issues through the lens of what's best for the group (as distinguished from personal preferences) 
While it's rare for someone to say baldly that they're simply pushing their personal agenda, it's relatively common that people are accused of that (especially by people who disagree with them). As Steering is expected to act as a champion for what's in the group's best interest, you'll naturally want people serving there with a demonstrated ability to do just that. 

• • •
As complicating as these factors are (in assessing whether candidates are suited to serve on Steering), it's actually worse than that.

While factors 1, 5 & possibly 8 are qualities wanted for the committee as a whole, the remaining factors probably only need to be held by some of the committee. This is significant because if Steering is comprised of reps from standing committees, who's testing to make sure these factors are taken care of? If, on the other hand, the whole group is assessing for the presence of these factors then it's easier to discern if there is sufficient representation to satisfy the need.

While everyone is in favor of "balance" as a criteria in theory, it turns out that when you look at it more deeply, it can be damn hard to achieve balance in multiple directions simultaneously. It's rather like the difference between juggling three balls at once, and juggling eight. While the principle is the same, it's much easier to inadvertently drop a ball or two when you're attempting to keep eight in the air.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Trail by Meeting

To paraphrase 19th Century American essayist, Charles Dudley Warner, Everyone complains about meetings, but nobody does anything about them.

Of course, as a process consultant, I'm trying to do something about them, but it's definitely uphill. Overwhelmingly, people recreationally bash meetings in the same way they do the weather (which was what Warner actually wrote about). 

Suppose you bumped into a couple of friends in a grocery store and spontaneously asked them if they wanted to join you to see a movie, and the friends replied that they'd love to but needed to attend a community meeting. Most of us would have an immediate sense of who had the better prospects for an enjoyable evening—and it wouldn't be those attending the meeting. 

That doesn't sit well with me. Expectations have a large influence on our experience (to twist another aphorism, What you think you'll see is what you'll get), and I frequently point out to people that if you go into a meeting expecting it to be draining that you're already most of the way toward manifesting that reality. Fortunately, the obverse also obtains: you can appreciably alter the likelihood of positive results simply to holding in your heart that they're possible, and allowing that seed to sprout and grow.

I'm personally dedicated to the Sisyphean task of trying to undo the lousy PR that meetings suffer from, group by group. We need, I believe, a culture where people are excited to go to meetings, where there's the opportunity to both solve problems collaboratively and to deepen relationships. We want, even need, people to be eager to participate, to be curious about what will be discovered and what will be creatively resolved. 

To be sure, getting there will require more than white light. For many of us there's a lifetime of bad meetings that reinforce our low expectations, and we'll need a string of positive experiences to ignite the tinder of hope I'm carefully ricking before you.

We need to insist on high standards for how meetings are conducted. We need:

o  Appropriate agendas
    —drafted and circulated ahead
    —reasonable time allotments for the items to be discussed
    —topics ready for plenary consideration
    —topics screened for impact and urgency
    —clear objectives for what you're trying to accomplish with each topic

o  Participant behavior that is disciplined and focused
Do your homework ahead of the meeting and then follow this mantra in session: What does the group need to hear from me about this topic at this time?

o  Good facilitation
Good meetings are not an accident, nor are they just a matter of properly aligned celestial bodies, or good intent. It takes talent to be able to manage: a) discussions well; and b) energy well (which, unfortunately, are completely different skills). The good news is that they are both learnable. The bad news is that most folks are only inspired to learn from falling on their faces, which is tough on the complexion.

o  Good presenters
There is an art to concise and focused presentation of topics. It is not open mic and it is not amateur hour. Good presenters prepare ahead and are lean of expression without sacrificing clarity or necessary context.

o  Good delegation
High functioning groups have a clear understanding of how to sequence work so that valuable whole group time is respected, and that committee and manager contributions are poised to succeed and be honored. Healthy groups know as much about when to stop talking about topics as they do about when to start.

o  Responding to differences with curiosity and openness
One of the principal reasons meetings are experienced as exhausting is because participants find it so hard to resist going into battle mode when they encounter disagreement. And the higher the stakes, the thicker the battlements and the heavier the artillery. War may be exhilarating in the moment, but it's always exhausting afterwards—all the more so if you've suffered wounds. In contrast, curiosity and creativity are leavening (and require no armor whatsoever).

o  Bringing one's heart into the room as well as one's mind
Effective meetings are not a tug-of-war between the head (read product) and the heart (read process). Rather they are a dance between the two. Sometimes people "know" a thing more surely or more deeply through one mode than the other, yet both count and both need to be welcome at the table if you're going to do your best work.

Thus, if someone goes into distress in the course of a meeting, it is every bit as much a source of information and a source of energy as it is a source of danger. The best groups are alert to the opportunity this presents and learn not to be afraid of conflict. Mind you, I'm not suggesting you foment it; only that you strive to not be reactive to the emergence of reactivity. Think of it as meeting aikido.

• • •
Most people relate to meetings as a necessary evil (actually, some think of them as an unnecessary evil, but I'm going to assume a baseline acceptance of their inevitability for the purpose of this blog). They view them as an energy drain, or perhaps a mind-numbing exercise in amateur democracy. Some view meetings as treacherous, as an environment bristling with thorns and pitfalls.  
While meetings can undoubtedly be thorny at times, I have gotten to the point where, a la Brer Rabbit, they are my briar patch, and I try to embrace whatever I encounter, rather than insisting on people always making sense, arriving on time, paying attention, or being non-reactive. Rather than trying to defang the dangers (or switch to cultivating thornless blackberries), I've learned to navigate them.

While I'm busy extolling the virtues of meetings, let me add one you may not have thought about: it's an excellent way to screen prospectives.

Some groups prefer that meetings be closed, such that only members or residents are allowed to attend them. In general this is done to preserve air time for the decision makers, to prevent awkwardness around the uninitiated not being able to make sense of what happens (and possibly freaking out), and to protect confidentiality and candor in the considerations.

All those concerns notwithstanding, I've had overwhelmingly positive experiences with encouraging wannabes to attend group meetings and then using a debriefing with them afterwards as a membership interview (not the only one, mind you, but an important one nonetheless). As soon after the meeting as I can manage, I try to sit down with the person and find out:
o  What did they notice (and what didn't they notice)?o  How did they experience the energy of the meeting (if they noticed at all)? 
o  If there was tension at any point in the session, what were their impressions about how it was handled.
o  Did they use good judgment about when they spoke, if they spoke at all?
o  How well were they able to track the conversation?
o  How would they summarize the product of the meeting?

Since social skills are an important indicator of a person's chances for success as a member in a cooperative group, there is nothing that reveals information about their capacity in this regard quicker than debriefing a meeting that the prospective and I both attended. Yes, there have been times when the guest was disruptive and compromised what the group was able to accomplish, but the disturbances have always been relatively minor and a small price to pay for access to such a sensitive litmus test.
• • •
I find it trying that our culture—and I'm talking about cooperative culture—tends to view meetings as a trial (at least of one's patience, if not of one's stamina and one's commitment to diversity) instead of as an opportunity. We've got to cease thinking of meetings as a gauntlet to survive. Instead of trial by meeting (where only the innocent and pure of heart emerge intact—as if such people existed) we need to transform that phrase into trail by meeting, where the curious are rewarded and the path ahead emerges from the fog. 

Isn't that a nicer image?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Short Sale; Buy It Back

I just wrapped up a five-day visit with my daughter (Jo) and son-in-law (Peter) in Las Vegas. I was lucky to hit a "cool spell"; the daytime temperatures never got above 105 degrees. I'm telling you, they know how to do sunshine there. Because it's June and we're within a week of summer solstice, it starts getting light well before 6 am and lingers well past 8 pm. For this past week at least, it was Sun City every bit as much as Sin City.

Besides digging out from under a backlog of email, the most timely thing I did was help Peter scrape the lime scale off the housing of their swamp cooler so that we could use it to cool off the back porch and help take some of the burden off the whole house air conditioning. (I benefited directly from that repair, as I relied on the back porch table as the bivouac for my laptop for the duration of my visit.)

While I mostly hung out at Jo & Peter's house (near the intersection of Rainbow and Charleston, in the northwest quadrant of the city), occasionally we'd drive somewhere and I'd get inundated by billboard messaging, which is all the more striking when you're visiting a city of almost two million and live in a rural county with a population under 5000.

Within the genre of billboard advertising, there's considerable variety, and I want to hghlight a few that are not that prevalent elsewhere in mainstream America. Being Vegas, no small number of the displays—especially the ones nearer the Strip and the airport—promote shows and entertainment opportunities geared to pique your interest (there's a reason they call it "titillation"). 

There are a few billboards that inform readers (at 55 mph) of the chance to pull the trigger on semi-automatic weapons at a local firing range (which, invariably, is depicted by a buxom blonde in a black sports bra gleefully banging away with a machine gun). Who knew this was even a marketing niche?

What I mainly want to comment on though, are billboards promoting the services of lawyers. A popular one leads with the headline, "Enough said, call Ed," which I found intriguing because it gives no hint as to what kind of legal problems Ed will help with—excepting, perhaps, those where people talk too much (which, unfortunately, is not very defining).

The one that I found most disturbing read:
Short Sale
Buy It Back

This was posted by a pair of entrepreneurial real estate attorneys who want your business in giving banks the business. I figure this could only happen in America: brazen promotion of homeowners walking away from their debt and then taking advantage of the subsequent bank write-off to repurchase their house at a lower price. It's one thing that people do this; it's another that it's a marketing strategy.

Las Vegas was one of the hardest hit towns when the housing bubble burst in 2008. Real estate values plummeted as much as 60% there. While prices are slowly starting to rise again, there remain many in town who owe more on their mortgage than their house is worth, which financial state is colloquially referred to as being "upside down" or "under water." Owners in this condition have no net equity in their homes. As such, sometimes they simply default on the mortgage and walk away, leaving the house to the bank, for whom the property was the collateral on the mortgage.

There turned out to be enough of this that it resulted in Vegas experiencing a mosquito problem for the first time in its history, despite its inhospitable desert climate. Here's how it happened:
o  Vegas is one of the fastest growing cities in the US.
o  As such, a high percentage of home owners have only recently bought their homes, which translates into having only paid down a small percentage of the principal on their mortgage.
o  The housing segment that was most affected by the sub-prime mortgage crisis was that which was most leveraged: luxury homes. 
o  Many luxury homes in Vegas include backyard swimming pools.
o  People who buy luxury homes tend to be more money savvy and financially "creative" than most, and are also more likely to have multiple homes.o  Thus, the people most likely to be under water in Vegas were also the ones most likely to be in a position to walk away with minimal disruption to their lives.
o  When people defaulted on luxury home mortgages in Vegas they stopped taking care of their swimming pools.
o  The banks holding the mortgages suddenly owned lots (in both senses of the word) of luxury homes.
o  Banks don't like owning homes, they don't like being property managers, and they especially don't like losing money.
o  Because of this, banks rarely want to rent out homes they own (they'd rather sell them), yet they are slow to write down losses (which meant they were cautious about selling homes at a loss).
o  All of this was a perfect storm for mosquitoes, as the stagnant housing market translated into a proliferation of stagnant swimming pools, which—voila!—were magically transformed into perfect mosquito breeding grounds.

Insects aside, banks holding overvalued property (by which I mean the book value of the unpaid principal exceeded the market value) eventually bit the bullet and started accepting offers to buy homes in their mortgage portfolio where they'd have to eat a loss. This is known as a "short sale." While there's been no shortage of short sales across the whole US the past four years, they've been particularly prevalent in Vegas.

Is there any crisis that is not seen as opportunity for lawyers? As a profession they do fine in steady times, yet they do exceptionally well in chaotic times. When people are buying and selling at a frenzied rate (often under distress) each transaction is another chance for brokering fees. Other people's misery can be a gold mine for attorneys. While I knew that, I wasn't used to seeing it advertised on billboards.

I can understand this from a free market perspective—the two lawyers whose faces are on the billboard are simply informing the marketplace that they claim to have expertise in navigating a tricky spot that a lot of people find themselves in these days. What's bothersome is the moral/cultural perspective. 

The lawyers in question are trying to promote business by encouraging people to default on their mortgage, holding out the promise that you can have your cake (getting right side up) and eat it, too (you don't have to leave the home you're in).

Extending the "under water" metaphor, the lawyers are effectively encouraging people to get to the surface (where they could breathe better by virtue of a positive net equity in their home) by grabbing hold of a banker and pulling them down to propel yourself up. Just because you can legally break your contract with the bank and stick it to them to enhance your financial situation, I question this practice because it feeds the competitive urges that got us into this mess—an overheated housing market with people buying houses as much for speculation as to secure a home ("Quick, buy that house before the hoarders get it!")

Think about this. Lawyers are the best represented profession among people elected to political office in this country. It is also one of the highest paid professions, and lawyers have a lot of influence in the world. In turbulent waters, wouldn't you rather have the more powerful people serving as lifeguards, rather than as sharks?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Regreening the FIC's New Office

Two weeks ago, the FIC's newly struck Development Committee met. Ma'ikwe Ludwig, Alyson Ewald, and I were in my wife's living room (huddled around a laptop), and Mary Schoen-Clark joined us via Skype, from her living room in Oregon.

We devoted the lion's share of the call to discussing the FIC's capital campaign to raise $90,000 to have a new office built as part of Dancing Rabbit's new common house, construction on which is slated to begin this summer, with occupancy projected for two years from now. FIC raised $14,000 over the winter and still has a long way to go to meet its goal.

The Back Story
To set this in context, DR is constructing a 7,150 sq ft replacement common house (to accommodate its burgeoning population: 75 on the way to hundreds) inspired by the standards of the Living Building Challenge—the most stringent environmental and energy guidelines out there. It will include kitchen and dining facilities, bathing facilities, meeting spaces, and the community library. They approached FIC to buy an office on the second story, both to help with financing the project, and to help solidify the educational/outreach functions that this building will serve. 

As FIC definitely needs better office facilities (to replace an aging '70s era house trailer that has been our office since 1996), we gratefully accepted this offer in early 2012. To be clear, the FIC office will be only 800 sq ft, which is a mere 11% of the total building. Our room will not have plumbing or even internal partitions; we're just buying an enclosed space with bare walls, acoustical insulation, and a door with a lock. 

Thus, FIC & DR are partners in this project but not equal ones. Parallel to our effort, DR has launched its own capital campaign to raise $1.4 million to complete the building. FIC is just the tail on the DR dog.

When FIC agreed to this partnership 15 months ago we were caught in a bind that no one intended, and that no one even noticed at first. On the one hand, DR asked us to come up with half the money by the time of ground breaking. On the other, they didn't want us to announce the partnership until they launched their own capital campaign, which is only happening now. In essence, they didn't want to be scooped.

At first, we didn't think that would be a problem. We had reason to believe we could easily meet our immediate goal ($45,000—half the total we had committed to) through a crowdfunding campaign and a projected windfall. (We had been approached last year by a nonprofit that was expecting to dissolve and was friendly to the idea of turning over its residual assets—around $60,000—to FIC to continue its mission.)

However, things didn't go the way we'd drawn them up on the chalkboard. The Indiegogo campaign fell well short of the $45,000 we targeted, and the nonprofit decided at the last moment to not dissolve, which meant no windfall. Now what?

Development Committee to the Rescue
FIC Board wrestled with this dilemma when it met in early April for our spring organizational meetings. In consequence, we struck a Development Committee, whose job it would be, at a minimum, to:

o  Advise the Development Coordinator (me) on how to successfully complete the Green Office campaign.

o  Draft a job description for a new position, Development Director, who would be separate from that of Executive Director (I now hold the equivalent of both positions, and there was broad agreement that it would serve FIC better to have these two crucial functions covered by two different people).

o  Oversee a campaign to garner enough money ($10,000?) to cover the new Development Director's salary for two years as a part-time position.

o  Oversee the search to fill this position. 

Two weeks ago, this new committee met for the first time.

How One is Better Than Two (in the Eyes of the Donor)

While all four of us have considerable FIC experience, Mary was coming back into the FIC circle after wandering for more than 10 years in the mainstream wilderness. In addition to bringing fresh eyes to the table, Mary is a much more experienced fundraiser than the rest of us, and she had definite ideas about how to restructure the campaign that got us off to a dynamic start.

At her urging, we conceived of combining the two capital campaigns into one, for a number of reasons:
 —From the donor perspective, it is just one building with multiple functions. It relieves donors of potential tension if the same person is approached by both campaigns. In the end, neither group succeeds unless both succeed.
—Two campaigns means a diffusion of energy; by joining together there is the possibility of synergy. That is, donors get more bang for their buck by helping two entities at once.
—It's energetically consistent to have have two entities promoting cooperation to be actively cooperating (duh).
—In separate campaigns there will necessarily some duplication of effort. In a joint campaign we can have people doing what they do best for both groups and achieve better better efficiency and efficacy.
—Combining campaigns gives each group the opportunity to make a stronger case for what this building means in the world, because we can explicitly evoke the benefits for both groups.

Connecting the Dots
While our two Boards contemplate this proposed marriage, here's how I've been inspired to pitch FIC's Green Office under this new conceptualization. I invite you to look this over and sing along at home. See if I've strung the beads such that the necklace hangs together.

o  We want a world in which everyone has a decent quality of life.

o  We don’t have that now.

o  We need a future where we can sustain a decent quality of life—not just achieve it momentarily—without one person's gain coming at another's expense.

o  A crucial element of this is social sustainability, learning how to solve problems cooperatively; we will not turn the corner through technological advances alone.

o  We’ve all been conditioned to compete for what we want, and that’s not sustainable; worse, there is growing widespread dissatisfaction with the way the world functions today, with increasing alienation and isolation.

o  We need to learn how to share better; how to cooperate.

o  Intentional communities are the R&D centers where we’re learning on the ground how to cooperate; where we disagree about non-trivial things and it leads to enhanced relationships, rather than divisiveness and exhaustion.

o  The future that we crave and need is not one built around intentional communities, but it is built around relationships and a sense of community.

o  What is being learned socially in the crucibles of intentional community can be exported to neighborhoods, schools, churches, and workplaces—wherever people are eager to learn how to get along better.

o  What’s being learned in intentional communities about sharing and collaborative problem solving is crucial for our society’s chances for a soft landing through energy descent (the inevitable sharp rise in the cost of energy as we reach Peak Oil and the challenge of achieving and maintaining a decent quality of life on a greatly reduced resource budget).
o  Thus, the need for more community in the world is surging and it's about to get worse.

o  FIC is in the community business, making available the tools and inspiration of cooperative living.

o  We do it through publications (both in writing and online), through events, through technical assistance, and media relations; we do it through being there whenever anyone has a question about community living.

o  We do this without taking sides, or advocating for one form of community over another.

o  We partner with a wide variety of other nonprofits promoting community in the world.

o  We field over 2700 different visitors to our website daily, and that number is growing by 10% annually—the hunger for this information is staggering.

o  We’ve been limping along with a headquarters based in a ‘70s era house trailer since 1996, and it’s time for a better front porch, where people thirsty for community are invited to join us for a long thirst-quenching drink of cooperation.

o  To be ready for the surging interest in community building, we’re turning to collaboration—in this case with Dancing Rabbit, a vibrant 16-year-old ecovillage in northeast Missouri with a strong commitment to outreach and social change.

o  This new office will help us in many ways:

·      We’ll be able to double our efficiency in a clean, temperature controlled environment, both because of better organization and because of better staff morale.

·      DR is one of the most exciting experiments in community living today, attracting hundreds of visitors annually. Now, when people visit DR they’ll also find FIC, and vice versa.

·      DR is the most likely source of FIC staff labor. DR members are well educated, have above-average social skills, and prefer part-time work with a strong values match that they can walk to. We’ll be a perfect fit. This translates to lower turnover and better service.

·      For the first time, we’ll have facilities that are aligned with our core values of sustainability and decent working conditions; we'll be walking our talk.

o  FIC will have an office space on the second floor of DR's new common house, being built with state-of-the-art energy efficient design and materials.
o  This building will cost $1.4 million. Despite the strong commitment to constructing a showcase building, FIC will only be paying $113/sq foot for its office, which is below the national average for new construction; most of the work will be done with local labor.
o  Construction will start this summer, with a projected occupancy of summer 2015.
o  We invite supporters like you—who know why community is crucial—to step up and contribute to a future that works by getting FIC into facilities that work.
• • •
Back in 1971-1973 I held the only 9-5 M-F job of my life, working as a junior bureaucrat for the US Dept of Transportation. Fortunately, I had a great boss, Cliff Parker, who was about 12 years my senior. Among the many things he taught me, was to enjoy the idiosyncrasies that life sends your way. He was fond of a story about a former staffer who worked under him, who, whenever he got on a roll at work would report that he was "really selling potatoes now." 

While I have no idea to this day what that actually meant, I immediately loved the phrase and have adopted it as my own ever since. 

All of which is to say, now that you've heard my pitch for the new office, would you buy my spuds?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Delegation That's Finger Lickin' Good

I just completed the eighth and final weekend of a two-year facilitation training in northern California. The host group was Kingfisher, a retrofit cohousing community in the upper Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland.

The community jokingly refers to itself as KFC (as in KingFisher Cohousing). Of course, "KFC" is more commonly understood as a reference to Kentucky Fired Chicken, an icon in the fast food industry, and the community has been anything but fast moving (they've been trying to buy a suitable East Bay property since 2006) and because intentional communities are efforts to create a let's-slow-down-and-smell-the-roses values-based authentic life that is the very antithesis of mass marketed squat and gobble all-you-can-overeat buckets of cage-raised deep fried artificially hormone-plumped chicken breasts.

Kingfisher bought their property last December: two rows of modest bungalows that face each other across a driveway—four on one side and five on the other. Because of Oakland rental law, the community inherited nine renters who have the right to remain there as long as they're law abiding and continue to pay rent. That is, the community can only convert units into residences for community members as the current renters voluntarily leave. To date, two units have been converted and there are decent prospects for one or two more becoming available in the coming months. 

Since the community is small, this delay in the availability of the housing stock is working out fine (that is, the demand for community-occupied units is pretty well matching the pace of availability). However, buying a multi-unit rental property has had the unintended consequence of Kingfisher being in the business of property management until the inherited renters leave all nine units, and that could take a while.

One of the most productive—and instructive—moments of the weekend came when the class was working with Kingfisher on the challenges of property management. Two members (the ones living in the two units that the community now controls) were doing most of the work and there was uncertaintly about when they could act on their own judgment and when they needed to consult with the whole group before proceeding. It was a classic delegation issue. All agreed that the job should be handled by the two on-site members as a team, but what were the limits of their authority?

After brainstorming all the tasks involved, the group had a better understanding of what the Property Management Team (PMT) was coping with, but were no closer to defining the limits of authority. To get there we needed to develop a different list: not what things needed to get done, but what parameters did the whole community want to set, within which the PMT could operate without further approval—so long as they weren't coloring outside the lines.

That list looked like this:

How much could the PMT spend on their own to cover:
—repairs and replacements
—hiring for estimates, consultation, and installation
—legal fees 

Imbedded here might be expectations for quality and kind (for example, how green or how durable) of materials and work in effecting repairs or upgrades.

Work priorities
The community may want to have a broad brush say in how the PMT prioritizes its work. (Or maybe they don't.)

Standards for how the PMT relates to renters 
The community probably wants these interactions to be similar to that standards for members interacting with each other—that is, not adversarial. This might include expectations about timeliness in response to renter initiated inquiries, requests, or complaints.

Standards for due diligence around ascertaining renter culpability with respect to damage to units 
What should be the owner's responsibility and what should be the renter's, and how will differences be navigated?

Reporting expectations
What information (and what level of detail) does the community want about PMT activity, and how frequently should that be posted?

Right to self-organize
Is it acceptable that the PMT makes its own decisions about how it divides work between the two members, so long as they gets the work done to the community's established standards?

Emergency Powers
In what conditions can the PMT exceed its normal authority to act on behalf of the group (in the case of imminent threat to life or property?) because it deems that delay to consult is unacceptable; by what mechanism will those powers be invoked; what are the PMT's obligations to inform the community that this has happened; what will be the expectations of review afterwards to make sure everyone's OK with what went down. 

• • •
In plenary, Kingfisher members tended to get lost in the conversation. On the one hand they knew they wanted to delegate authority to the PMT. On the other, they found it hard to stay out of the details of what the PMT had been embroiled in and started second guessing some of the decisions.

It's no fair (not to mention spectacularly ineffective) asking a subgroup to act on behalf of the whole and then not giving clear guidance about the parameters under which they're supposed to operate. Dont' make managers ans committees guess; spell it out!

In the end, even though we didn't have time to answer all the questions posted above, we had illuminated the pathway and that was the breakthrough: we'd identified the questions to ask. 

It's interesting how often that that's the harder part: knowing the right questions, rather than knowing the answers. Now pointed in the right direction, I'm confident that those KFCers will be lickin' their fingers before you know it.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Group Works: Circle

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 third pattern in this segment is labeled Circle. Here is the image and text from that card:

A Circle is a safe, solid, yet permeable space with an inside, an outside, and a focus that moves from person to person. A welcoming form where everyone can see each other and all voices are heard, it creates a field that invites sharing and story.

This is almost right. 

Circle in Sight
I agree that it's important to protect sight lines whereby all participants can see one another. Usually the size of the group (or the size of the meeting space) are such that one circle gets the job done. Mostly though, if you're likely to need the group to be able to focus attention on visuals (such as an easel, chalkboard, or projection screen) and in those situations you're actually better off with a horseshoe configuration, with the facilitator and the visuals located in the gap. (If you use insist on a circle, it's damn hard for the folks seated near the visuals to be able to see them.)

Circle of Sound
A round layout is definitely good for promoting hearing. Not just because the distance between participants is minimal (sound intensity decreases as the square of the distance between voice and ear), but because people are facing one another. If people are arrayed around tables or distributed as in an amphitheater, there will inevitably be times when one person is talking to another's back. Not so good.

And there is another angle on this. When someone has something to say, you absolutely want to make it easy for that person to be heard. However, it's not true that everyone needs of speak on every subject. Often enough, a person doesn't really care about the topic, or perhaps another person has already voiced the same views as a person who hasn't spoken and there's no need to have it said twice. Sometimes a person hasn't completed their thinking about a topic before it's time to move on, and they'd rather complete their digestion before opening their mouths (and displaying to everyone their half-chewed thoughts). Not so pretty.

Circles that Are Unbreakable
It's not obvious to me that circles are a "welcoming" form. Sometimes they can, even unintentionally, define an "in" group and an "out" group that is psychically all but impossible to penetrate. While circles are definitely not authoritarian (good), they are not necessarily egalitarian, or equally accessible.

Sometimes this can be subtly addressed by making sure that there is always an empty chair or two, inviting last arrivals to join the circle. Sometimes it's a stretch for people to be seated "on the inside" at a meeting, where they can't escape easily if things get unbearably awkward—and your well-intended invitation to "join the circle" lands (inadvertently, mind you) as an invitation to a neck-tie party (or perhaps a tongue-tied party).

Circling Around to Seating that Works
I agree with the notion that circles are a great layout for sharing from the heart. Just don't lose sight of the fact that all meetings aren't story hour. When you're doing business, for instance, horseshoes are luckier better. If you're expecting to use small group breakouts, then tables can be pretty handy. The key is not having the shape of the seating wag the dog—pick an arrangement that's congruent with what you intend to do, and don't be a slave to an idealized shape.

Don't get me wrong. I get around a lot and I like round a lot, it's just that sometimes half arcs, spirals, ovals, kidney shapes, and even the occasional amoeba can be just the ticket. Let those circles breathe a little.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Blood Alley and Soggy Bottoms

Monday I drove home after visiting my son, Ceilee, and his family for the weekend. They live near Blackwell MO (about four hours south of Sandhill) and the most direct route is up Missouri 21, through De Soto, Hillsboro, and Fenton, then skirting around St Louis on Missouri 141 before joining I-64 west to Wentzville.

As I've done this drive a handful of times, and had nice sunny weather yesterday morning (in sharp contrast with the tornado watch I zipped through on the way down Friday evening), it seemed straight forward enough. Though I started out on two-lane blacktop, I was only only two miles away from the transition to four-lane divided highway when the briskly moving traffic suddenly ground to a halt.

My first thought was that we were backed up at the light that controlled left-hand turns out of Hillsboro. However, after experiencing no movement in five minutes I started thinking accident, which guess was promptly confirmed by the siren and flashing lights of an ambulance cautiously advancing against the flow of southbound traffic. Uh oh.

It's hard in situations like this to know whether you're better off waiting it out or hightailing it in reverse, hoping to bushwhack your way through back roads that will allow you to sidestep the gridlock. Given that this wasn't my home turf, I decided to wait. After those choosing the alternate strategy cleared out, I was able to creep up far enough in line to see where the ambulance had pulled off the road, which I interpreted hopefully as an indication that the accident wasn't that far ahead of me.

Still, even with the impediment in sight, when the wait stretched past 15 minutes I decided to put the car in park and pull out a book. Fortunately, I didn't get much further than three or four pages before our line began to move. Just as a put my book away, I happened to glance to my left and scanned a large billboard indicating in a matter-of-fact way that I was traveling through Blood Alley—the deadliest stretch of highway in Missouri. Gulp.

I never would have noticed this sign if I hadn't been stopped. I don't know what was weirder: that I was reading about the local high rate of serious accidents while waiting for the road to be cleared from a serious accident; or that there was a billboard informing passersby about this dubious distinction. 

I never found out what level of injury was sustained by the people involved in the accident—as the ambulance didn't seem to be in any hurry to depart the scene, I figured it was either minor or fatal—but a van had apparently slammed into a compact, tearing up the former's fenders and crushing the rear end of the latter like an accordian. It looked pretty ugly, and I drove extra-cautiously the remainder of the way home.

While it's impressive that so many people can drive so many miles in this country without being involved in serious accidents, safety is somewhat of an illusion and I'm always shaken when encountering tragedy like I did Monday morning. I'll bet the folks in those two mangled vehicles felt every bit as safe as I did when they started their vehicles Monday morning...

• • •
The geology of Missouri is quite different when you get south of the Missouri River (which is where Ceilee lives). There's an abundance of old rock and natural springs that translates into poor farmland and breathtaking river courses. Steelville—the float trip and canoe rental capital of the state—lies less than 30 miles southwest of Ceilee's domicile.

When we drove to his mother-in-law's outside of De Soto for a fried chicken dinner Sunday night, we took the back roads and I was deeply impressed by the mud-coated vegetation along the floodplain of the Big River (which, with a sense of humor, is a small tributary of the Meramec River. The state had received something approximating one-quarter of its average annual rainfall in the last week and quite a few rivers had jumped their banks when the ground couldn't drink the water down fast enough.

While the flood waters have started to recede, all the way home I observed a number of low lying fields that appeared to have a more promising future as water parks than as cornfields. Too bad rice isn't an option. Though Monday's long June hours of brilliant sunshine helped wring the water out of soggy bottoms, the radio reported a 70% chance of thunder bumpers Tuesday night. Sometimes it's hard to get off the merry-go-round.

The good news is that our garden crew needn't spend much time watering transplants and seedlings this spring—which is a good thing considering all the extra time needed to keep pace with the weeds, which are also enjoying all the water.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Group Works: Aesthetics of Place

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 second pattern in this segment is labeled Aesthetics of Place. Here is the image and text from that card:

Gathering places that are beautiful, comfortable, functional, and creatively designed to serve the purpose of the meeting call forth participants' best life energy to contribute. Thoughtfully arrange the space and decor to inspire, focus, and sustain the group's work.

Meetings and conversations occur in a place. While that place may increasingly be virtual, or electronic—and thus exists only in our imaginations, or in distinct places for different participants—each individual is always someplace, and that place has an impact on how we interact with one another. That is, even when we are on the phone or instant messaging, we are influenced (perhaps subtly) by what’s in our field of vision and the ambience around us. (A phone call near a departure gate at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport will be quite different than one conducted from an easy chair in your bedroom.)

Mostly meetings and conversations happen live (or we evoke memories of live meetings to fill in the blanks) and so I want to concentrate my thoughts on that dynamic. Understanding the impact of environment is complex.

Ability to Focus Attention
People vary considerably in how well they can concentrate and block out what’s happening around them that is not relevant to the matter at hand.

I think, for example, that one of the things I most value from my college education was the ability to not let ambient audio stimulation distract me. When I was tired and ready for bed, I did not need to ask my dorm mates, or even my roommate to dial it down. At school, our TLA (three letter acronym) for this ability was styled SRP—selective reality participation—which was most commonly applied to the phenomenon where you’d consistently miss hearing a request from your mother to mow the lawn, stated directly in a normal tone of voice, yet would pick up right away when someone mentioned casually in a side conversation across the room that ice cream was about to be served. We’re filtering for what we want to hear all the time.

I’m not talking about selective deafness so much as the ability to focus one’s attention consciously. Partly this is tracking conversations well, while tuning out airplanes roaring overhead, or noise ambient car traffic intruding through an open window on a warm day. Partly it’s tracking one conversation happening in the midst of many, as at a cocktail party, or in a crowded restaurant. (When I’m in a car and trying to follow a sporting event on the radio, fellow travelers can find disconcerting my ability to follow the announcer’s call of the game despite other conversations in the car and increasing static from a fading signal.

Partly this is a cultivated capacity for controlling one’s attention, and not drifting into internal dialog or wool gathering. A lot of my skill as a professional facilitator is as simple as being able to pay attention better than most people, which includes not being distracted by place or imperfect conditions.

Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder
Even if two people are equally affected by aesthetics, it’s unlikely that they would have identical standards for what was pleasing, what was irritating; what was soothing, what was provocative.

Mind you, that doesn’t mean you should just throw up your hands. Where there is a basic agreement that aesthetics matter, there are tendencies that you can make use of:

—You can select a setting and time of day that are conducive to the kind of engagement you’re seeking (a softly lit, evening session in a cozy space with a variety of comfortable seating options for heart sharing; a brightly lit, well-ventilated space with easy sight lines to an easel or chalkboard for a morning session devoted to creative problem solving).

—There will also be associations that are peculiar to the group or to key members of the group (if you were on the Gryffindor Quidditch squad you’d be ill-advised to hold a pep rally in a hall bedecked with the green and silver tapestries favored by Slytherin). If there is a particular trauma associated with the meeting place you’ll be using, perhaps something needs to be done to cleanse the space (smudging?) to dispel the bad juju (being mindful, of course, how ritual attention to psychic energy might itself be triggering to others in the group!).

—If there are members with bad backs, compromised hearing, or weak bladders, what kind of seating works better for them? These things matter, even if they’re operating below the horizon of consciousness.

—(Room) size matters. People (and the interactions among them) are affected by the relationship of space to numbers. If the room feels crowded it creates tension that translates into a lower threshold for irritation. If it’s too large, the energy tends to dissipate and it’s subtly harder to create and maintain focus. What’s more, this is not simply a matter of volume. A low ceiling (in an otherwise well-proportioned space) will feel oppressive; a high ceiling will allow energy to escape even if the walls work to contain it. Stodgy furniture leads to stodgy comments.

Know What You Don’t Know
Room arrangement is an art form. (There’s a reason that feng shui has cachet.) If you have responsibility for setting up a good meeting, yet don’t feel skilled in this aspect of prep—you can be "room blind" in the same way that some are color blind—you can at least learn to ask for help. You can remember that it’s a factor to take into account and find those in your group who are good at it to extend themselves on the meeting's behalf.

Being a good facilitator is not so much knowing how to do everything well yourself, as it is knowing everything that needs to be taken care of, making sure that all aspects are covered, and that all the folks with process responsibilities know how to play well with one another.