Saturday, June 28, 2014

Where's the Puck Going?

This past week I attended a nonconference hosted by the Tamarack Institute for Community Encouragement (Kitchener ON) entitled "Community: Programs and Policies." (Actually, it looked a great deal like a conference, but the organizers wanted very much for us participants to consider it a series of conversations, and not at all stuffy like a conference—which goal they largely achieved.)

In the opening plenary. Al Etmanski interviewed John McKnight (known broadly for his articulation of the theory and practice of Asset-Based Community Development). Toward the end, Al wanted to know what was ahead for John as a visionary about community organizing. As Al lives in Vancouver BC and this event was happening on Canadian soil, he phrased his query: "John, where's the puck going?" Always one to enjoy a good sports metaphor, I smiled at this colorful framing in the land where ice hockey is king.

At the front end of the event, keynote speakers McKnight and Peter Block (who joined us via webinar from Cincinnati) drummed home the message that neighborhood assets and community capacity are abundant—despite a general sense of diminishment and paucity in those arenas. The overwhelming majority of care is given not by government agencies or well-intended nonprofits, but by volunteers (93% apparently, though I have no idea how that was measured), and for those of us who want more community in our lives (is there anyone who doesn’t?) it is mainly a matter of harnessing what we already have available all around us, rather than lamenting that we don’t have more.

As you might imagine (at least I wasn’t surprised) there was an accompanying theme of engaging on all fronts—bringing policy makers, implementers, and clients to the table to make common cause. While there were some encouraging stories from places where this has been happening, by and large decisions affecting communities are made without the active involvement of all constituencies, and many people in the room were reporting fatigue and overwhelm.

Hmm. Asking overworked people to be sufficiently pumped up to go home and do more seemed uphill. In contemplating where this particular puck was going, I became interested in two leverage points, both of which I want to explore.

I. Moral Oxygen
In his closing remarks Etmanski named a handful of key concepts to hold in view as we move forward, and the one that grabbed me most he labeled "moral oxygen," by which Al meant making sure that we, as caregivers and community builders, take time for renewal and support. Given that the need is bottomless, it's not unusual to allow our giving to get out of balance with our receiving, to the point where we're running on empty.

Not only is it not much fun (both for ourselves and those around us), but it markedly undercuts our effectiveness. Truly, less can be more. And while I'm all in favor of canoe trips in the North Woods for refilling spiritual reservoirs, or reading Margaret Atwood or Robertson Davies after dinner instead of another report, I want to take this in another direction.

Community is not a spectator sport. It is something you do with others; not for them. In that regard, participants at the Tamarack event were challenged to consider how they can be part of the communities they're hoping to foster—to think of themselves as members of the family, and not just as midwives. 

While on the surface this may seem to be yet another claim on everyone's (oversubscribed) time, there's magic that can happen here. Being a member of what Tamarack Director Paul Born might style "deep community" (in contrast with shallow or fear-based community) participants can get support and sustenance even as they give it. Thus, if service providers are willing to be vulnerable and more heart-connected with their constituencies there is the prospect of being renewed in the giving, rather than having that be something accomplished only on the weekends or during holiday.

I'm hopeful that many of the good people who were touched in their hearts during the time we were together will take away the insight that this kind of connection can happen through their work—and not just at annual nonconferences in Kitchener. You can't just gulp moral oxygen once a year and expect it to sustain you for months at a time without regular replenishment, and I think the most exciting strategy is figuring out how to find oxygen in the work, rather than around the edges.

II. Harmonizing a Cappella
My second point of leverage comes from contemplating the moment when you have everyone in the room for the first time—especially when there are people present who do not ordinarily talk with one another. It seems to me prudent to anticipate that at least some of the time (if not most) the various voices will not all be singing from the same hymnal. Then what?

If the music is sour, or too off-key, people will not be inclined to come back for more. So it's important that those initial all-skate sessions go well. In the course of our four days together, there was little attention given to how to do that, or the primacy of this initial conversation going well. 

To be fair, there was one workshop on The Circle Way, that explored the power of sharing circles designed to enter heart space. This is a format that tends to be heavy on ritual and proceeds at a deliberate pace. And there was another session in memory of Angeles Arrien and her work with the Four-Fold Way (an introduction to the archetypes of warrior, healer, visionary, and teacher). These offerings are directly relevant to the question of moral oxygen, yet there was nothing focused on consensus, facilitation, conflict, or power dynamics. Were all of these so well understood among participants that no attention was needed?

Maybe. But I doubt it. In particular, I foresee three primary challenges, none of which I consider trivial. I want to explore these by walking through the hypothetical example of a rundown low-income urban neighborhood, where all parties have come together for an initial conversation about how to strengthen the community. For the sake of simplicity, let's say there are four main stakeholders: municipal government, nonprofit social service agencies, local churches, and neighborhood residents. (I know I'm oversimplifying, but it's enough complexity to illuminate my points.)

—Culture Clash

Culture can be viewed through many lenses, including racial, ethnic, national, class, and meeting. While any of these may be in play, I want to focus mainly on organizational culture—the ways in which service agencies see things differently than city hall, which sees things differently than the local churches, which is different again from the people who actually live in the neighborhood. It's not enough that everyone is in favor of strengthening the sense of community in the neighborhood. Each may be holding a different part of the same community elephant.

Agencies may be looking for a lower incidence of unwed mothers or a decrease in people receiving welfare. The municipal government may want less violent crime or fewer drug-related deaths. The churches may be aiming for higher attendance at Sunday services, or more households willing to temporarily place refugees. Residents may want a heated, well-insulated meeting space, or lighting at their playgrounds.

Each of the stakeholders comes to the table with a somewhat different agenda and is beholden to somewhat different constituencies. While these disparate goals are not mutually exclusive—no one is "wrong"—it's not obvious that the conversation won't devolve into squabbling over limited resources.


In most situations like this, the neighborhood residents will be inured to being told what they need—rather than asked their opinion and actually listened to. That is, they'll have already had a lifetime of experiences where they weren't asked what they wanted, or else weren't listened to (perhaps because the decision had already been made and the public hearing was just window dressing).

Understandably, this leads to deep discouragement about public process and cynicism about "meetings among all stakeholders." As the rep of one of those other stakeholders, it can be hard having your well-intended offer spurned and not even being given a chance to show that this time might be different. While it's not fair to judge you for the sins of those who preceded you, there's truth to the adage: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

At the outset residents are likely to be suspicious of outsiders' motives, so the current will be moving against you as soon as you put your canoe in the water. Better have your paddle out.

—Cooperation Versus Competition

Ostensibly, meetings of all stakeholders are attempts at being cooperative. But are they?

It is not enough that you intend to be cooperative. You have to understand that achieving that requires a culture shift, and unlearning deep conditioning in a competitive, hierarchic, and adversarial world. The key moment comes when someone presents a viewpoint that appears antithetical to yours and the stakes are high. Do you respond with curiosity or combativeness? Are you open to having your mind changed (based on an expanded understanding of what's going on) or do you want to win?

In general, this is where skilled facilitators earn their fees—gently, yet firmly reminding people of the way they intended to be and providing graceful, face-saving ways for belligerents to back out of dead-end confrontations.

• • •
In fact, it's my sense that skilled facilitation may be needed to manage all three of the pitfalls I've outlined above. In the dynamic moment, you need the ability to reach out and show everyone that they are not just genuinely welcome at the table, but that they are seen accurately, not judged, and that no decisions will be made unless everyone signs off on them. You need to create a container in which people not only say their truth, but that they feel fully heard (note that I'm not promising that they'll get their way or that others will agree with their thinking), and that it's worth their while to make this attempt. If the first meeting goes well, the second one will be much easier.

Hmm. You might be wondering if these objectives can be managed by The Circle Way or Four-Fold Way, both of which encourage deep sharing and reflection. My experience is that they can help, but they will not work in all situations. Think back to the point about culture clashes. Slowing down and speaking deliberately can drive some people crazy, and what is meant as an even-handed circle that is open to all, will be perceived by others as a noose—choking off spontaneity, passion, and natural rhythm. Meetings should never be one size fits all, and it's incumbent upon the facilitation team to think through formats that will invite and bridge. It's OK to ask participants to stretch, but it won't work well if you're asking only some participants to stretch while others are left in their comfort zone.

What the Puck?
I admit that that's a lot to accomplish in an initial meeting, yet the good news is that it's possible. And when you think about it, can we afford to aim for anything less?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Roger and Me

For the past several months I've been enjoying a rolling (and freewheeling) email dialog with Roger Stube in Connecticut. Though we haven't yet been in the same room together, we're buddies. Roger is new to intentional community and styles himself as a political conservative (which I am not). Though he walks the other side of the street, he's curious and we have a lot to talk about. Think of it as cross pollination.

Recently Roger asked me to profile what kind of people are drawn to intentional community—a question I don't recall ever having addressed before. First, Roger ventured the following types, to prime the pump:

o  Idealists
Mostly likely young, may be disillusioned with the world as they see it. Are looking for a better way.

o  Disconnected
They want friendships/support they could not find in the outside world.

o  Lost
Don't know what they want to do with their lives and communities look interesting.

o  Conservationists
They want to lighten their footprint on the earth.

• • •
While I found that a good start, I added:

o  Social Change Agents
Those looking to make the world a better place and see community as a base of operations.

o  Integrators
Those looking for a more integrated life (walking their talk). While I reckon this is a subset of Idealists, it has a different flavor than what Roger described.

o  Simple Livers
Those wanting a simpler life featuring more sharing and less consumption. This is a flavor of Conservationist, though with greater emphasis on a life centered around relationships rather than material acquisition and consumption. That is, there is a positive side of this choice, not just embracing privation.

o  Authentic
Those drawn to a more authentic life (less bullshit and posturing; less attention to fashion). They are drawn to an everyday lifestyle where participants share and discuss what really matters, dropping easily below the veneer of social niceties.

o  Socially Awkward
Those who feel rejected everywhere else. While this is variant of Lost. These folks are not sure they'll find a home or acceptance anywhere.

o  Parents
Those looking for a great (stimulating, progressive, safe, supportive) environment in which to raise a family.

o  Concerned with Quality Aging
Those looking for security, dignity, and usefulness as they age and are seeking it through living among friends and neighbors in an inter-generational context (not a retirement home or gated community for the silver haired).

o  Spiritual Alignment
Those looking to live with those who share their spiritual path, both to walk the path together and to share their ecstasy.

o  Answer Seekers
Some hunger for charismatic leaders with answers to life's vexing questions. (These are the folks that Erich Fromm wrote about in his 1941 classic Escape from Freedom). These are people willing to surrender individual choice to the wisdom/authority of another.
• • •
Though I'm not confident that I've captured them all, this is a reasonably comprehensive list. As I reflect on it, it's pretty amazing that all of these elements can be folded into strong and healthy communities. But they can with sufficient attention to bridging and understanding the different lenses through which people in each category are experiencing life.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Red in Tooth and Claw Hammer: an Evening in Toronto

Last week I was visiting my sister and brother-in-law, Al & Dan Cooke. Though their permanent residence is the Chicago suburb of La Grange, Dan works for BMO (Bank of Montreal) and has been temporarily on assignment near the mother ship in Toronto. (Yes, it's a bit odd that the Bank of Montreal is headquartered in Toronto, but you have to take into account that Toronto is the unquestioned financial capital of our northern neighbor and everyone wants to be where the action is—which, in the case of Toronto, will take on added meaning as you read further.)

While I've happily visited Al & Dan in La Grange on any number of occasions, it was handy to catch them in Toronto last week as I was in Ontario to work with a trio of forming communities in Guelph, and then attend the June 23-26 conference (in Kitchener) being produced by the Tamarack Institute, Community: Programs and Policies.

First, though, I enjoyed three days with family, a highlight of which was this moment Thursday evening:

This image was captured at the bar of La Société (an up-scale French restaurant in the tony Yorkville district, within easy walking distance of Al & Dan's condo), just after we'd been served our first dozen raw oysters and cold crab claws. The picture evoked for me this quatrain from Tennyson's In Memoriam:

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed

It is, after all, in my nature to love seafood and we were fairly ravenous by the time we'd gotten to the restaurant. To be fair though, in the image, running top to bottom, I appear as tooth, red, and claw, or guy in red about to sink his teeth into claws. Think of it as poetic license.

In any event the restaurant was offering oysters and crab claws at the come-on price of $1 a pop, 5-7 pm on Thursdays, and there was flat out no way that Al & I were going to pass that up. It happens that neither of our partners (Dan and Ma'ikwe) care a fig for raw oysters, but Ma'ikwe was in Missouri and Dan was in misery (attending a dinner following the annual golf outing that he sponsors with lukewarm enthusiasm as a legacy from the guy he replaced at BMO). With our steak and potato partners not on the scene, there was a clear path for Al & me to indulge in La Société's largesse. So we did.

After moving into the main dining room for our entrée, it wasn't an hour later that the cast and crew of The Property Brothers was seated next to us, directly in Al's field of vision. While this collection of animated thirtysomethings just seemed like enthusiastic diners to me (oysters and crab claws could get anyone in a good mood), Al was wowed. As I learned in situ (or at least in my seat), The Property Brothers is a Canadian reality TV show that's hot right now on the Home and Garden channel (which, by the way, I didn't know existed—I last lived with a television in 1972, and I'm overwhelmed by the blizzard of options just a click away on your remote).

In the show, and in life, Drew Scott is a real estate agent and his twin brother Jonathan is a contractor. Their gig is buying run-down fixer-uppers and turning them into dream homes for their clients—all within a tight budget and a tight timeline. Drew wheels and deals to buy the property for a song, after which Jonathan performs his magic with circular saws and claw hammers. Who knew? (I certainly didn't.) But hey, even television stars have to eat somewhere.

While we thought that would be the extent of the evening's entertainment, we were wrong. Walking home we came to the intersection of Yorkville & Bay, only to discover that it had been cordoned off to vehicular traffic and been re-signed as "Maiden & Pearl." Hmm. It turned out they were prepping to shoot an outdoor street scene for Pixels, a full-length movie featuring Adam Sandler and Peter Dinklage that's expected to be released next year. As I understand it, the movie is based on the award-winning animated 2010 short film of the same name directed by Patrick Jean, with the dystopian premise of New York being invaded by rogue 8-bit arcade video games (think Space Invaders, Tetris, and Pac-Man run amok).

It was surreal walking through the set, where for three blocks all the cars had New York plates, the directional kiosk offered a map of lower Manhattan, and the urban bike rack was sponsored by Citibank (as it is in New York) instead of Telus (as they are in Toronto).

No, we didn't see the stars for this production; just their spoor. Yet it was somehow the perfect ending to a magical evening where we manifested the following trifecta, any one of which would have made last Thursday memorable:
o  Delicious seafood with my sister at fire sale prices.
o  Sitting next to glitterati at dinner (which started a stream of consciousness that extended all the way from Lord Tennyson to reality TV—talk about seven league boots).
o  A stroll through a live movie set where a portion of the largest city in Canada was masquerading as a portion of the largest city in the US. Where else but in the topsy turvy of Hollywood can that possibly make sense?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Baseline Decisions for Groups Using Consensus

Debby Sugarman (Brandywine MD) is one of the more accomplished students who has taken my two-year facilitation training. She recently conducted a half-day introduction to consensus and facilitation for a forming group in Maryland, and—as all good students will do—came up with some handouts of her own, including a list of 10 process decisions that consensus groups should make, preferably before they need to apply the answers.

With Debby's permission I'm showcasing her list here, accompanied by my annotations.

1.  Who is eligible to participate in consensus? Who can block consensus? 
First of all, note that these are two separate questions and may have different answers. The first could be as restrictive as everyone who's a member of the group, or as relaxed as everyone in the room. However, the second question should be answered much more deliberately and will probably be restricted to full members. (It generally doesn't make sense to give apprentices full use of the power tools until after some training and vetting.)

Note that embedded in these questions is clarity about other questions, including: a) how members are selected; b) how many categories of membership your group has and how decision-making rights vary by category; and c) the group's openness to new people in the room (which may be selective, depending on what you're discussing).

Also, you might be more open to non-member participation if you believe you've done a thorough job of spelling out what kind of behavior is appropriate from non-members. How interested are you in giving them a chance to add their two cents on the topics, either because they might have useful perspectives, or because it's a clever way to screen them for membership?

2.  Do you want a formal call for consensus? If so how?

It may seem a trivial matter how you know where everyone stands at the point of testing for approval, yet it can get tricky. Does silence equal assent? Or is it better that everyone is expected to give some definitive indication (thumbs up, displaying a green card, vocalizing "yes" or "aye"—I knew an artist collective once that relied on a pirate "argh" to indicate assent)?

The point is that it's better to have something deliberate and definitive as a guard against someone saying later that their opinion was never solicited, or that they didn't realize that there had been a call for consensus.

3.  How many stand asides are OK?

This is a fairly nuanced question. The way most people conceive of it, with consensus you have three options for how you respond when asked for your position about a proposal at the point of decision: agree, stand aside, or block.

You might think of it as green light, yellow light, and red. This question, essentially, is how many yellow lights can you tolerate and still feel safe proceeding. In consensus theory there is no definitive answer and that's why Debby is posing the question.

Some groups have a rule of thumb that says so many stand asides is equivalent to a block, but I prefer something more situational. First, I think you want a norm where the group is sure that it knows what the stand aside is based on (which gives you the opportunity to clear up misunderstandings, or to see if minor tweaks can resolve the concerns). Second, I think you need to assess the number of stand asides relative to:

o  Group size (three stand asides has a different meaning in a group of 60 than in a group of eight).
o  The importance or centrality of the person standing aside in relation to implementation of the agreement (agreeing to a new financial reporting system may not be so prudent if the stand aside is the group accountant).
o  Whether the reasons for standing aside are different or the same (if they're all the same it's probably less problematic than if the reasons are all different—which suggests improperly chewed input: if you swallow prematurely it may lead to indigestion).

Let me walk you through an illustrative example of this last point. Suppose the proposal under consideration is serving locally raised, organic turkeys (bought from Farmer Jones down the road) as one of the main dishes for the annual Thanksgiving feast. Long-time member Dale stands aside as a vegan, as he's done every year. He objects to eating meat personally, yet knows that the group has no agreements about diet and that some members eat meat. 

Now suppose there are two new members in the group, Chris and Adrian. 

Variation #1: Suppose Chris and Adrian are also vegans and stand aside for the same reason as Dale. This is essentially the same situation as last year, excepting that there are three vegans now instead of one. The vegans will not be asked to cook the turkey, carve the turkey, or serve the turkey, and they knew when they joined the group that meat eating was allowed at group functions.

Variation #2: Suppose instead that Chris stands aside because she questions the way Farmer Jones raises turkeys. Yes, they're local but they're confined to a small caged area and always on concrete. The turkeys rarely see the light of day, and Chris is queasy about eating "sweat shop" turkey. Suppose further that Adrian is uneasy because Farmer Jones has been raising poultry for 25 years and has always been conventional until last year, when he suddenly claimed to be organic. Farmer Jones has a local reputation for being a shrewd trader always on the lookout for an advantage and Adrian wonders about taking his word for not using growth hormones, medicated feed, or corn that's been grown with the aid of anhydrous ammonia.

See how stand asides for three different reasons feels more substantive than three stand asides for the same reason?

4.  Is there a group responsibility to a person who stands aside? If so, what?

This pairs with the implied question, "What are the responsibilities of the person standing aside to help the group resolve their concerns?"

—For the person standing aside in relation to the group
They should articulate to the group the basis for their choice, which may include why it's a stand aside instead of a block. In general, stand asides fall into one of two types: a) the person has personal objections that are not linked to group values (and thus, it's inappropriate to block); or b) they're not sure what they think, yet don't want to hold the group up to sort it out (probably because they had a known opportunity to do their homework yet didn't complete it).

They also have a more subtle responsibility to truly let it go if the group proceeds to make a decision. If they hector the group later with I-told-you-so energy, it will not go well.

—For the group in relation to the person standing aside
o  To slow things down to make sure they understand the basis for the stand aside.
o  To consider carefully whether they want to proceed with a decision despite the stand aside.
o  To make clear what responsibilities the people standing aside will have in implementing or abiding by the agreement if it is made.

5.  What are your group's values? (to be used in case of a block)

It's certainly important and valuable to have explicit group values—and not just so that you can dust them off when you encounter blocks (which should happen rarely).

Knowing group values is important both for group identity (who are you and what do you stand for; why would someone want to join you?) and because it should be the well you drink from on a regular basis when determining what needs to be taken into account when responding to an issue or an opportunity. Hint: In a healthy consensus group at least half of plenary time should be taken up with questions of how to sensitively apply group values to the topics at hand.

What underlays Debby's question is that it's important that consensus groups define: a) the grounds for a legitimate block; b) the process by which the group will validate a block; and c) the process by which it will constructively respond to a validated block. On the question of legitimacy, I strongly recommend that the test be that the proposal contradicts or runs afoul of an existing group agreement or violates a common value—and you have to know what those values are in order to use them as a screen.

6.  Are there any individual concerns that are appropriate to be considered as part of a block (for example in the case of a group who lives together whose decisions affect the personal lives of the members)

I believe what is meant here is whether the group has any obligation to validate personal concerns that are not also group concerns when it comes to blocking. If personal concerns (of any stripe) are congruent with group values then there is no question. The interesting case is when a proposal that is otherwise deemed good for the group adversely affects one or more members of the group on a personal level. 

My intuition on this is to develop a norm that you'll determine of how much to take that into account on a case-by-case basis, trying your best to accommodate individual needs as they arise, but not promising to do so.

7.  What are the responsibilities of the blocker to the rest of the process?

This one is paired with "What are the responsibilities of the group in the event of a block?" and is analogous to Question 4, so I'll respond in like manner:

—For the blocker in relation to the group
o  To explain to plenary the basis for their block and why that's legitimate (see my comments under Question 5).
o  To show up for a good faith effort to resolve the concerns so the proposal can move forward (perhaps in a modified form). Hint: The blocker should recognize that their right to block and have their concerns treated respectfully is paired with the responsibility to listen to the needs and thinking of others in the group (if you're pounding your shoe on the table insisting that you be heard while not showing the slightest interest in the views of others, it will be a train wreck).

—For the group in relation to the blocker
o  To listen with patience and grace to the blocker's concerns.
o  To expeditiously, yet sensitively determine whether the block is valid.
o  To work with the blocker in good faith in an effort to resolve the concerns to everyone satisfaction, recognizing that the proposal may need to be laid down if the block is validated and not resolved.

8.  How will you deal with personal conflict or strong emotion in a meeting?
Conflict almost always contains a non-trivial emotional component, but the reverse does not obtain. So I'll start with the strong feelings.

This is huge, and far more commonly encountered than blocks. For the most part we (cooperative groups in Western society) have an unconscious model of meetings being an arena where matters are examined and responses developed based on rational discourse. While I believe thinking to be an excellent tool, it ain't the only one in the drawer and it's not necessarily every member's sharpest tool. What about emotional or intuitive knowing (for that matter, what about spiritual or kinesthetic knowing)?

For this question I'll limit my response to feelings. Not only do they contain energy (a good thing if harnessed—there's no rule that says meetings have to be dispassionate or emotionally flat) and information (some people "know" a thing more surely emotionally than rationally; why not take advantage of that?), but you can't keep them out of the room anyway. You might as well come to an understanding about how to work with them constructively, rather than hold your breath and hope they'll mostly leave you alone.  

Hint: Condescension and eye rolling in the presence of emotional outbursts are seldom effective responses. I suggest leaning into the feelings to understand their meaning. Not only will it help you keep the emotive person in the conversation, but you might learn something relevant to the topic at hand.

Similarly, groups stand to benefit mightily from an agreement about how to work constructively with conflict (which I define as at least two points of view with at least one person experiencing non-trivial emotional reaction). Caution: It is not enough to have an agreement on the books, you need to have the in-house skill to be able facilitate conflict in the dynamic moment (by whatever menu of choices you agree to), and you need to have an agreement about the conditions under which you'll work a conflict in plenary (instead of outside of plenary). 

Plenary time is expensive and you want to use it wisely. That said, there are times when working a conflict in the whole group is the right choice and it will serve you well to identify what those times might be ahead of need. 

9.  What does your group want out of the minutes?
While the obvious minimal answer is a clear record of decisions (indexed for reasonable access), it's more than that. For instance, minutes can be an invaluable aid when deciding whether to reconsider an old topic. If you don't have a record of the points considered when the policy was originally made—which is much more than just the conclusion—it's damn hard to know whether someone has enough new thinking to justify a reexamination.

When work is lost we are often condemned to repeat it, and that's a drag. Further, how can you expect new members to get up to speed about why you do what you do, when there are no accessible records of how you got there?

That said, you don't need court transcripts. Verbatim records are almost certainly overkill, not to mention exhausting to take and tiring to read. You want a cogent summary of relevant points, with tasks and decisions clearly marked. Hint: It's almost always helpful to organize comments by topic rather than by chronology. Two years from now you may want to know how Evan responded to Jesse's point about affordability, but you won't give a shit which was stated first or that there was a break in between. Your prime directive as a notetaker is what is the group likely to want to know down the road.

Caution: A nuance here is whether (or under what circumstances) you want minutes to include attribution. Sometimes it makes all the difference in the world knowing who said a thing and you don't want to arbitrarily wipe that out with a no attribution rule.

10. Where should minutes be kept?

The point here is knowing where they are (in a three-ring binder, on Mikey's laptop, under Aunt Ruth's bed, on a bulletin board in the common house, in the cloud?) so that there's easy access and everyone can reasonably be held to a standard of having read them. Fortunately, in this electronic age, minutes have never been easier to take, correct, disseminate, archive, and index. You just have to be disciplined enough to take advantage of the tools.

Hint: If your group struggles to find quality notetakers, consider asking facilitators in training to take a turn in the barrel. Quickly and accurately distilling the essence of what people say is a facilitative skill as well as a notetaking skill. While the the former offers summaries orally and the latter in writing, it's the same skill.

• • •
Thanks, Debby. That was fun!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Farm Fresh Country Breakfast

Tucked up in the hills and hollers of western NC, I enjoyed one of the most all-around satisfying breakfasts I've ever had. Let me tell you about it.

I just wrapped up a five-day visit to Asheville NC where I was seeing friends and doing some marketing while I was on the East Coast. I stayed with long-time friend, Terry O'Keefe, with whom I'm cooking up a business plan for a partnership to assist community businesses and economic development.

On Saturday Terry O'Keefe and I got together with his friend, Jim, (who owns a trailer park just down the road from where Terry used to live in Weaverville, on the north side of town) and we had breakfast up valley from there near the thriving rural metropolis of Barnardsville (pop 1700).

Here's what stood out about my experience:

o  Locavore heaven
The menu featured fresh, organic, local ingredients—just like home! Portions were generous, but not gargantuan. At the end customers were satisfied, not stuffed. This can be a fine line, but they hit it right.

o  Conversationally appropriate
There was a guy with a guitar singing original songs right next to the coffee bar. Though he had an amplifier, but he didn't play so loudly that it interfered with conversation (there are any number of dining venues I know that could stand to absorb that lesson in acoustical moderation).

o  Simple but good
The food was cooked to order from a menu of four options (the operational principle here is: keep it simple and do it well). I chose French toast with a side of pork sausage, but I don't think you could go wrong—everyone was loving their selections. The coffee was excellent. (While that may seem a minor achievement, it absolutely amazes me how many dining establishments serve stale, burnt, or weak coffee. What are they thinking?)

o  Simple technology
The whole operation was contained in an uninsulated three-sided outbuilding with a dirt floor. The "bathroom" was a one-holer next to the parking lot. After placing your order, the cashier carefully writes your first name and order on a slip of paper attached to a clothes pin. Customers were then instructed to walk their order over to the grill (15 feet away) where you placed it next in line on a table so the cook wouldn't get confused. When your order was up someone would holler out your name and you'd come collect your plate. An elegant system that kept extraneous wait staff to a minimum.

o  Environmental sensitivity
While we didn't eat on china, orders arrived on sturdy, unbleached, compostable paper plates, and we were given real silverware, not plastics spoons and forks. Wooden tables were protected with sheets of butcher paper, and "air conditioning" came from not having a door.

o  Wonderful conversation
We happened to sit outside at a picnic table with Anthony and his father Ralph. Anthony (in his 20s) works for Navitat, a nearby venue for zipline adventures, and Ralph is a thoughtful retiree, enjoying quality time with his son on a lovely weekend morning in early summer. We chatted amiably about shoes, and ships, and ceiling wax for about 90 minutes, occasionally delving into the meaning of life and the questionable trends of modern society.

o  Community connections
Bob, the guy manning the coffee station, is just about to move to Earthaven—the 19-year-old ecovillage outside Black Mountain—where he intends to grow shittake mushrooms and produce food via aquaponics. Who knew we'd run into community folks outside Barnardsville?

o  Ephemeral experience
You can enjoy this breakfast any day of the week… as long as it's Saturday. As near as I can tell advertising is solely word of mouth (their website doesn't even hint at it) and they're content to keep it low key and only once a week. Having dropped in on a perfect June morning, with a gentle breeze flowing by the grill, it felt like I'd stumbled onto Brigadoon—the mythical Scottish village that appears only one day every 100 years. Driving away I wondered if I could find my way back without Jim.

• • •
To be sure, an excellent breakfast is a treasure wherever you encounter one, but this was an above and beyond experience in the land above the interstate and beyond the internet. I'm already looking forward to my next visit to western NC where I now know at least one place where I can reliably sit down with real people to enjoy real food and real conversation—at least on Saturday mornings.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Talking to My Laptop

Starting July 2, and continuing every week until Aug 13, I'll be conducting a series of webinars about group dynamics every Wednesday afternoon. (See Laird's Greatest Hits for details.)

On the one hand, I'm thoroughly familiar with the material that I'll be presenting—all of the topics have been selected from workshops that I've delivered multiple times:
July 2: Consensus 101
July 9: Conflict: Fight, Flight, or Opportunity?
July 16: Membership: Questions You Should Have Asked Before Joining
July 23: Participation: Navigating the Swamp of Non-monetary Member Contributions to the Group
July 30: The Essentials of Dynamic Facilitation: How to Get Through the Agenda and Build Energy at the Same Time
Aug 6: Power Dynamics & Leadership in Cooperative Groups
Aug 13: Stump the Chumps: Q&A Session with Laird and Ma'ikwe about Cooperative Group Dynamics

What's different is that I'll be talking to my laptop rather than a roomful of faces, and I wonder how that will go.

As I have two hours set aside for each webinar, I think the time will naturally divide into two segments: 60-75 minutes of presentation, followed by 45-60 minutes of Q&A. The big question mark for me will be operating without the visual cues about how my presentation is landing with the audience (my laptop never smiles or even looks confused). Fortunately, Ma'ikwe will by monitoring comments and questions, funneling them to me as appropriate, so I won't have to be tracking chat boxes or hand waving graphics while working through my presentation outline (whew).

In the next couple weeks I'll prepare by walking through each of my presentations, looking for natural places to pause and ask questions of the audience, so that I'll be better able to gauge how well my points are getting across, adjusting as needed.

While we'll be offering electronic downloads of the webinars for people who miss the live presentations (look for this offering on the Ecovillage Education US website), the people joining us on Wednesday afternoons will get the greatest value, as they'll be able to pose their questions on the spot.

While I love working directly with people in the room, venturing into the electronic future seems inevitable. Not only does this give prospective clients a taste of who I am and what I can deliver, it bridges distance and eliminates commuting. What I'll be offering here is a small taste of the online instructional possibilities being offered by MOOCs: massive open online courses, where many people can get access to information inexpensively, and is already impacting university enrollment.

The difference in this case is that the number of webinar participants will be small enough that each can reasonably expect to get personal questions addressed. If this were being offered to 1000 people at once (in a real MOOC) that wouldn't be the case. While there's no question that being electronically connected is not the same as being in the same room, the exchange requires a much smaller investment of time and money and it's good to be experimenting with this medium. I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes and having some fun with it.

I hope some of you will join us on the 2nd.