Thursday, May 29, 2014

Group Works: Good Faith Assumptions

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 Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The fifth pattern in this segment is labeled Good Faith Assumptions. Here is the image and text from that card: 

Assuming others' good intent increases trust and effectiveness. Instead of interpreting "negative" actions as attempts at manipulation, insult, or power-play, we choose to believe people are doing the best they can and look for underlying values or needs in common. Searching for a better story, we find or create one. 

This is an interesting and powerful pattern.

On the one hand, I believe that there's a strong tendency to find what you're looking for. A lot of my success as a facilitator comes from my ability to set aside delivery and focus on how the speaker is thinking of what's best for the group. Looking for common ground, I'm often one of the first people to find it. If, instead, you're on guard for disrespect or a battle, then it's much more likely that that's what you'll find. Yuck.

The fact that two people have come to different conclusions does not necessarily mean they're asking different questions. In the name of safety, one person may advocate for restricted access (keeping the bad guys away), while another may promote increased traffic with minimal impedance (thinking safety in numbers, with many eyes watching).

Hint: If you can't think of a good reason why someone did what they did, you need more information. They may be taking into account factors you're ignoring (or the other way around) or they may be weighing things differently, but their answer will not be: "I just did it to drive you crazy; I'm a sociopath."

In general, the assignment of bad intent surfaces in one of two ways: a) a disposition to put a bad spin on things because of a history of tough interactions (read damaged trust) or unresolved tension; or b) feeling threatened or attacked by the person's response in the moment, either because of the position they've taken, or because of the way they've expressed themselves.

If it's genuinely a good thing that we all don't see things the same way—more viewpoints gives us a wider perspective on the issue—we have to welcome those differences, even when they go against what we want (or what we think we want). The object here is not to give a fake smile when you'd rather groan, but to exhibit curiosity—how did they get to a different viewpoint than you; maybe they have thinking that will enhance yours.

Interestingly, the strategy of expecting people to act in good faith tends to elicit better behavior in others. Even when someone acts out of malice (when bad intent was actually present) it tends to work better to assume that's not what the person meant, as it's an easier path back to the way we all mean to be then pulling their pants down in front of the group because they were mean and you caught them at it. 

To be clear, I'm not suggesting you be a fool and turn a blind eye to patterned viciousness; rather I'm making the case for being gracious and compassionate as a point of departure.

If someone lashes out or speaks with vehemence, try to understand where that's coming from rather than how it may cause hurt. If you seek relationship ahead of retribution, it will go easier all the way around.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Chip Off the Old Block

Since last Tuesday I've been on assignment at Sandhill, helping my old community construct a 12,000 gallon cistern. While it's gratifying to know that I can still do the physical work, lifting and setting concrete blocks for eight hours the past three days has been exhausting. I've been easing out of bed each morning, not jumping.

Still, the work is going well. After having done a few of these projects (I've previously built two septic tanks and one cistern using a poured slab floor, block walls, and a poured roof) you learn mistakes to avoid and better methods of production, and this project has gone more smoothly than any I've done before.

1. Dig a big hole. More than enough to be able to walk around the work on the outside, the excavation needs to be able to accommodate the possibility of cave-ins without disastrous delays or necessitating that work will need to be redone. In this instance, the footprint of the cistern is 27' x 8.5', so we had the backhoe dig a hole 43' x 25'. (It's a bit eerie to be working in a nine-foot hole where you can see strawberries blooming above your head on the edge of the undisturbed garden—kind of a mole's eye view.)

2. That said, you need a tight enough hole that you can get a cement truck close enough to drop the concrete for the floor (with a minimum of chasing wet concrete by hand—talk about work), yet without running the risk of the truck collapsing the soil under its approach and sliding into the pit. (I've never seen a cement truck tip over with a load on, but I'm sure it isn't pretty—most especially when it ends up in your backyard.)

3. Much of the art of construction is learning when you need to be picky and when you don't. There are certain errors, such as the levelness of the floor or the squareness of the walls, where being a half inch off over 25 feet can haunt you the remainder of the project. Others, such as a sideways curve in a slab form or a crack in a concrete block don't matter a hoot.

My crew is young and eager, yet inexperienced working with concrete and block. Thus, when they see a slightly damaged block they ask me whether it's usable or not. Experience allows me to think ahead to how the block will be stressed and what it will take to overcome the defect. If a block is chipped, can it be hidden by placing it next to a pilaster; how much surface boding will it take to smooth over the hole? I can see ahead to make these assessments, and they haven't a clue. 

It is worthwhile to be very precise about the placement of 90-degree angled rebar when the slab is being poured, such that the portion that extends vertically out of the slab will fit nicely into the cavities of the concrete block. If it hits the webbing of a block it's a bitch. Because I'm invariably too busy during a pour to attend to rebar placement (I'm usually running the screed board), I've learned that I have to set up a simple system that can be done right by someone who has never poured concrete before. I finally figured one out and all the bars were placed correctly. Hurray!

As the only experienced block layer in my crew, I insisted on placing every one of the 52 blocks used in the bottom course in a cement-rich mortar bed to correct any issues in the levelness of the slab. If there was going to be a problem with how level the walls were, I wanted it to be my fault, rather than falling on the shoulders of someone who was laying block for the first time. This care paid off in the smoothness with which we were able to lay up the succeeding courses. Sometimes you need to go slow for a time, so that you can go faster later.

After seven days on the job, I am enjoying a day off (and so is my back). In fact, that's why I have the time and energy to post this blog entry. I week from today I leave for two weeks on the East Coast and my goal is to have the walls completed and ready for backfilling before I board the eastbound Southwest Chief June 3. As of today the walls are half up (seven courses of block have been laid and grouted, with seven more to go).

If we can avoid a serious cave in for another fours days, we should be golden. Then I can form up and pour the roof when I return, when no one will be holding there breath during a heavy rain.

I enjoy projects like this:
o  Unlike most of my group dynamics work, it's clear at the end of the day that you've accomplished something. (With group work, progress can be subtle.)

o  I enjoy working with my hands and using my body. (Or at least I used to. Every year it gets harder to lift full bags of cement, or maintain a spring in my step while schlepping buckets of grout.)

o  After 40 years of homestead living, I've learned quite a bit about working with concrete, block, brick, & tile, and it's a joy to put that knowledge to use. Even though I no longer do all the heavy lifting, I can still teach the techniques and lay out the work.

o  It's satisfying to pass along practical experience to an interested younger generation. I've received a good bit of this kind of mentoring over the years and it's time to pay some of it back.

It's amusing to realize that these days I'm the oldest block, whose health is most chipped—and yet I'm the one who's relied upon to determine whether chipped blocks are still serviceable. There's a symmetry about it that's pleasing to me.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Wisdom of Studs Lonigan

A few years back I was visiting my good friend, Marty Klaif, and noticed on the end table in his living room a fat paperback copy (873 pages!) of Studs Lonigan, the classic trilogy by James Farrell, that's considered one of the best American novels of the 20th Century. I'd never read it and Marty recommended it highly, so I borrowed it.

Like many others, I have that disease where I acquire books faster than I read them, so I didn't get around to it opening it up until this spring. But it's a compelling story, with surprising application to modern life, even though it was written 80 years ago.

The story follows Studs from 13 to his early death—a span of about 18 years. He was the son of an Irish Immigrant chasing the American Dream on the south side of Chicago. Starting out as a tough, though essentially good-natured teenager, he degenerates into a physically broken, dispirited alcoholic. While the prose is somewhat wooden and repetitive, Farrell does an excellent job of capturing the ethos of working class immigrant neighborhoods going into the Great Depression, replete with sharply defined racial prejudice, a strong sense of peer camaraderie, serious abuse of alcohol and tobacco, and the essential failure of the Catholic Church to make a difference. It isn't just about the Depression; it's depressing.

o  The book opens with Studs smoking in the bathroom before his eighth-grade graduation—the last of his formal education.
o  He's obsessed with sex and women, yet tongue-tied in their presence. He fantasizes for years about being with Lucy, a girl that he once spent a lovely spring day with, holding hands and sitting on a tree limb in a neighborhood park (haven't we all been in that tree?).
o  Studs constantly dreams of getting ahead, but it never quite works out. He makes regular attempts to straighten out his life, and then falls off the wagon.
o  He's obsessed with looking good and being admired, which happens only occasionally and never lasts.
o  Studs is reflective and full of contradictions, critical of posturing in others, and then indulging in it himself.
o  He tries running away from home to assert his independence, yet has nowhere to go, gets found by his father, and continues living at home after recognizing the futility of striking out on his own. Ultimately he depends on his father for employment (in his painting business).
o  The old neighborhood transitions from Irish to Black in Studs' lifetime; the pool hall that was the centerpiece of his adolescent social scene gets sold and closes up.
o  He's prideful and easily offended. When challenged his knee-jerk response is to fight. While he enjoys a certain amount of success with his fists (until his health breaks down), it is more of a haunting memory than a persona.o  He doesn't know who to talk to about the things on his mind, or what to say when he has the chance.

Eerily, Studs' issues and self-perceptions are completely modern—or perhaps I should say timeless.

For example:
o  I wrestle with whether I drink too much.
o  I worry about stock investments and risk tolerance.
o  I don't easily talk about my feelings.
o  I imagine myself being the hero.
o  I silently judge others so that I'll feel better about myself. 
o  I wonder what others think of me.
o  I fantisize about sex.
o  I struggled to gain the respect of my father.
o  I worry about my gradual, yet steady decline of physical abilities.

Hell, we both grew up in Greater Chicago, and there's no doubt in my mind but that we'd both root for da Bears.

To be sure, today things are different: the power of the Catholic Church is no longer looked to (so much) as a moral compass; substantial progress has been made with respect to racial prejudice; the evils of alcohol and tobacco are better understood and moderated.

It's sobering to notice that I've already lived twice as long as Studs, and am still going. While I'm definitely getting creakier, two days ago I was the straw boss for the pouring of a 4.75 cubic yard concrete slab—and was still able still get out of bed the next day. Of course, I've taken better care of myself than Studs did. And now I'm letting Studs help take care of me, as art supplies insights to life.

Thanks, Marty.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Laird's Greatest Hits

This coming July I'm coming out… as a webinar presenter!

After 27 years in the saddle as a process consultant, I've developed a soup to nuts series of workshops covering most aspects of cooperative group dynamics. Think of it as the social side of sustainability. This is my current menu (in no particular order):

1. Consensus Headaches: Rx for meeting moments that are a pain for everyone
What's your worst meeting nightmare? Yelling & screaming? Participants breaking down in sobs? Sarcastic jokes? Nobody saying a word? Everyone talking at once? How about having no idea how to make things better? We'll look at all these and more. Participants are invited to bring their own consensus horror stories; I'll provide the wooden stakes (and answers).

2. Membership: questions you should have asked before joining
This workshop will present a set of basic questions that all groups must face in defining who they are and what it means to be a member: how to handle feedback among members, level of engagement in each other's lives, rights and responsibilities, grounds for involuntary loss of member rights, and the process by which someone joins the group and is asked to leave. We'll discuss why it's a potential disaster to delay answering these questions until they come up, and why most groups do it anyway.

3. The Essentials of Dynamic Facilitation: how to get through the agenda and build energy at the same time
Good meeting facilitation can make the difference between pain and gain. We'll look at the basic qualities needed to become a full-service facilitator, the process agreements needed to spread your wings, and how to recognize those magic moments when passion can be harnessed to transform binding into bonding.

4. But Seriously Folks... a close look at the two-edged sword of humor in meetings; how to encourage the good kind, and put a lid on the bad
All jokes are not created equal. With a light touch at the right time, a joke can relieve tension and buoy group energy. However, if it comes with a sarcastic bite, some may be laughing while others are steaming. And a joke at the wrong time may undercut a precious moment of vulnerability. We'll look at how to sort the good, the bad, and the ugly, and options for damage control if you get either of the last two.

5. Conflict: Fight, Flight, or Opportunity?
Does conflict mean your group is sick, or just paying attention? Starting with the premise that conflict is healthy and normal, we'll explore options for unlocking its potential using the whole person—rational, emotional, and intuitive. Rather than talking about "I" statements or being nice, we'll focus on what happens and what can be done when things get hot, concluding with a four-step plan for constructive engagement. Special attention will be given to the advantages of working in a group and in the dynamic moment, facilitated by those not in the stew.

6. Stump the Chumps
Ask our team of crackerjack consensus facilitators (cleverly disguised as Laird & Ma'ikwe) your tough questions about meeting dynamics, and we'll try to come up with brilliant and entertaining responses, showing how you don't have to be stuck (or stay stuck) after all. The format will be Q&A: you bring the Q and we'll supply all the A you can stand.

7. This is Delegated to the Ones I Love: a focused look at what should be done by the group as a whole and what shouldn't
For large groups working with consensus, it is crucial that they learn to delegate effectively (or the meetings will never end). This workshop will break down what work should/must be done in plenary and what can/should be delegated to a committee or manager. We'll lay out the essentials of a clear mandate, and the proper sequence of consideration that will empower committees and managers, yet keep their work in balance with whole group responsibilities. We'll talk about groups whose work is re-done in plenary and runaway committees who do way more than they were asked (bad, bad, bad.)

8. Consensus 101
Making decisions by consensus is an unnatural act. At least it is for people raised in a hierarchic and competitive culture—which is just about everybody. We'll go over the cooperative roots of consensus and explain why it requires unlearning old adversarial responses in order to succeed. We'll go over the essential ingredients of consensus, explain blocking and standing aside, and make the case for why it's the most efficient form of decision making, once you've learned how to do it well. Really.

9. Power Dynamics and Leadership in Cooperative Groups
While meetings are meant to be equally accessible to all members, the reality is they are not. This workshop will examine why power is unbalanced, and what a group can (should?) do to level the playing field. Not everyone is equally comfortable speaking in front of the whole group; not everyone finds rational discourse their strongest suit; not everyone can sit still for a three-hour meeting. We'll distinguish between "power over" and "power with" and discuss what groups can (must?) do to adopt healthy models of cooperative leadership.

10. Overview of the North American Intentional Communities Movement
In the world of intentional communities, there's kaleidoscopic variety. Find out from a community network veteran (who just earned his 40-year pin) what all is out there. I'll identify the major flavors available and how they're similar, yet unique. It's a big world out there, and the good news is that we all have more allies in our efforts to build a better world than we know.

11. Should You Start a Community or Join One?
For some people hungry for community life, this can be a fundamental fork in the road. While starting your own group may look like the clearest pathway to getting what you want, we'll explore the brambles you'll find along the way, and lay out the pros and cons of joining versus starting. There's more here than you might think!

12. Economic Leveraging Through Income Sharing: living the life you want without chasing so many dollars
Very few people choose to live in income-sharing communities. Yet many wish their lives were more economically sustainable. This workshop will explore the incredible economic leveraging available through sharing income. It's not just for families any more! Not only do you have more control over how you spent your time, you can more easily select work in line with your values and—through the miracle of sharing—you won't need nearly as many dollars to achieve a satisfying quality of life.

13. The Limits of Diversity
Almost all cooperative groups aspire to hold diversity as a core value. But how much diversity can you stand? Sure, you allow pets, but what about alligators—who eat small dogs and cats. How about people who can't stand any garlic in community meals or they'll throw up? More tenderly, how many people suffering from mental health challenges can you realistically accommodate? The key here is figuring out how to have a compassionate and authentic conversation about what's possible when you think you're close to the edge. It's work to stretch to include people who are different from each other and not everyone is inspired to stretch the same amount or in the same directions. Let's talk about how to talk about it! If you wait until you're there it may be too late.

14. Navigating the Swamp of Non-monetary Contributions by Members to the Group
This is the single most commonly requested topic I’m asked to help groups figure out—because it’s messy. While there are many ways to handle this well, in this workshop you’ll learn all the questions that need to be addressed, or the ambiguity will bite you in the butt. We’ll explore why groups want members to volunteer in support of the group, how to handle people’s wide variance in their skill and availability to do so, and understand the Martyrs & Slackers dynamic to which every group is susceptible.

• • •
Starting July 2 (that's a Wednesday if you're keeping score at home) and running for seven consecutive weeks ending Aug 13, I'll be offering through Ecovillage Education US two-hour live webinars on workshops 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, and 14. Participation will run $30 a pop, and you get $90 off if you sign up for all seven.

In addition, EEUS will be offering a couple of mini-courses this summer:

Starting an Intentional Community • July 26-Aug 1
Faculty: Ma'ikwe Ludwig, Alyson Ewald, Laird Schaub

Seven days of total immersion at Dancing Rabbit, this is a boot camp for would-be community founders. (It turns out that good intentions and a pure heart are not enough!)

Encountering Climate Change • Aug 22-24
Faculty: Ma'ikwe Ludwig, Alyson Ewald, Danielle Williams, Joan Shagbark

This three-day retreat at Dancing Rabbit will be a Joanna Macy-style exploration of the overwhelm many of us experience when trying to cope with global change.

I hope you can join us for one of more of this cornucopia of offerings!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

What Color Is 4096?

Do you play computer games? I do.

Everyone needs recreational relief, and I (try to) have no judgment about the choices others make in that regard, so long as it doesn't hurt anyone. (I have a problem, for example, with people who blow off steam by going into the woods and kill things.) In any event, I spend a frightening portion of my work day in front of a laptop, and it's convenient to turn to computer games (and tracking sports results) as an enjoyable counterpoint to plowing through email and crafting reports.

I don't go to the movies often (and don't subscribe to Netflix), I haven't lived with a TV since it was stolen from the living room of our group house in 1972 (and I don't subscribe to Hulu), I don't troll the internet (and therefore don't get lost in the fun house of TED Talks), and I don't do Facebook.

On the other hand, I do read books (the things made out of paper that do not require a power supply) and I have regular dates to play duplicate bridge on Wednesdays and board games on Mondays—where the current favorites are Settlers of Catan (Cities & Knights), Ora & Labora, Trajan, and Agricola. It's the golden age of board games… but I digress.

My history with computer games goes back as far as my history with computers—it was a natural extension of my lifelong interest in gaming and was easy to indulge because the person who introduced me to computers, Geoph Kozeny, loved games as well. To be clear, we enjoyed games that required geometric perspicacity, manual dexterity, and spatial perception, sprinkled liberally with a sense of strategy, logic, and probability. (Games where you shoot people or conquer enemies are not recreational for me, and I don't go there.)

My all-time favorite was Lode Runner (the 1983 classic from Brøderbund), which goes back to my earliest days in computing, circa 1990. (Sadly, it's not operable on OS X, and there's no way I'm switching to a PC just to have access to Lode Runner.) After that, Tetris owned a part of my soul for many years.

In recent years, I've relied on my daughter (Jo) to infect me, which has meant Bubble Spinner (my personal best is 1,474,268—level 99) and Cube Attack (top score of 1,996,823—level 76). Every now and then I do Bloxorz, which is challenging both to pronounce and to play elegantly (I'm a sucker for geometric puzzles).

Last month Jibran (my 17-year-old stepson) casually introduced me to 2048, a deceptively simple number/geometry game that is apparently all the rage right now. When I asked Jo about it last week while we were together for a family wedding, she replied, "Oh yeah, I have it as an app on my smart phone." (Why did I think I could introduce a new game to my daughter?)

Anyway, after Jibran suggested I give 2048 a look I didn't come up for air until I finally won the game two days later. Talk about infectious!

The game is played on a 4x4 grid where either a 2 or a 4 appears semi-randomly in an open square after each move (with 2s being far more prevalent than 4s). A move consists of using an arrow key to slide everything in one direction (up, down, left, or right) so long as there is at least one open square for a number to move into, or there is at least one pair of identical numbers adjacent to each other that can be pushed together in that direction.

Whenever two identical numbers collide orthogonally (because the arrow key pushed them into each other), they merge to become their sum, which means that all of the numbers are orders of two. Essentially, you win by getting the number 2048 to appear somewhere in the grid, which can only be accomplished by getting two adjacent 1024s to collide, which can only be done be getting neighboring 512s to join, etc. When you reach the point where there are no more legal moves, it's Game Over (duh).

One of the delightful aspects of the game is the unique color combo used for each number:
2s are black on a light gray background
4s are black on a tan background
8s are white on an light orange background
16s are white on a dark orange background
32s are white on a dark rose background
64s are white on a red/orange background
128s are white on a pale yellow background
256s are white on a medium yellow background
512s are white on a deep yellow background
1024s are white on a bright yellow background
2048s are white on an intense yellow background

One of the clever features of this game is that if you persist long enough (and learn the secret of how to sequence the numbers for efficient advancement), once you reach the promised land—manifesting a 2048—the game pauses to congratulate you and then gives you the option to continue playing. And why wouldn't you?

Shortly after reaching the game's namesake for the first time, I decided my life goal would be to reach 4096 (that is, I added it to my bucket list of 1000 game accomplishments to achieve before I die—see Aunt Sylvia's Game for more on that). While it took me five weeks (during which I did non-game things also… really), I finally get there this past Tuesday:


Answer to today's trivia question: white on a black background.

Now I wonder if I can finagle an 8192…