Tuesday, January 12, 2016

How My Approach to Clients Has Evolved

I've been a cooperative group process consultant for 28 years. Over that time I've made a number of adjustments to how I approach clients I'm seeing for the first time. While I have an a la carte menu of 12-14 training workshops (which has gradually grown from about three when I first started), most of the time I'm asked to tailor a program to the client. Generally that means there's a specific problem that the community has struggled to successfully address on its own, and there's the desire to learn how to handle that issue better in the future.

There is also a predictable range of support for bringing me in—all the way from yippee! to why do we need him? My liaisons to the group are generally from the yippee! crowd (which means that resistance may be understated) and I can count on the under-enthused to either skip the meetings that I'll facilitate (not infrequently they arrange for an "unavoidable" road trip during my visit) or constituting a skeptical peanut gallery. It goes with the territory.

My job is to arrive, sell myself as someone competent, and pull a rabbit out of the hat—all within 24-48 hours. Over my nearly three decades as an out-of-town gunslinger, I've adjusted my approach in some significant ways, all of which have increased the likelihood of my being effective. Here are half a dozen ways in which I work differently today:

I. I like to watch
It is often highly beneficial to observe a group in action before I start facilitating. While I rarely get the chance to do this (we're paying you to watch?) I can often see details and areas of struggle through observation that the group is not even aware of. Further, it helps me land my points about the theory of how to run good meetings if I can refer to actual, awkward moments while they're still fresh in everyone's mind.

II. I like to interview members up front
It used to be that if I was hired to work Saturday and Sunday that I'd show up Friday evening, and I'd jump into it from a cold start. Not any more. 

I've learned that it's better, if possible, to do considerable spade work before the plenaries begin. Talking with designated liaisons is good, but there's a danger of getting too little breadth of viewpoint relying solely on one or two spokespeople, plus I've discovered that it can help put everyone at ease if I arrive on site a couple days early (say Wednesday evening) for the express purpose of meeting with group members one-on-one or one-on-two for the purpose of their telling me directly what they think I ought to know, and to give them a chance to ask any questions about me. 

Not only do I get a richer picture of what's going on (having heard from many more voices), but the group feels that much more comfortable with me because I've already demonstrated my ability to listen carefully and to understand the complexities of community life. Thus, on Saturday morning I can hit the ground running.

Though I don't generally charge for those extra days, the payoff is huge. What happens in the pre-interviews? I generally ask people to address questions like the following:
o  What’s precious to you about living at community x? 

o  What challenges exist at community x for you, such that if they were resolved it would make your life there measurably better?

o  Is there any kind of support or improvement in community life such that if you got it, you’d be motivated to invest more personal time in the community?

o  What do you want me to know about community x?

o  How do you think we should focus the plenary time?

In all of the above, please be as specific as possible.

III. I try to combine theory and demonstration
Time is always at a premium—there is a definite limit to how many topics on which we can usefully engage. One of the ways I've learned to stretch things is by laying out theory (say of how to work constructively with conflict, or an effective way to manage an issue through plenary), followed immediately by a demonstration of the theory on a live example. That way the group gets both progress on the particular concern, as well as a demonstration of the pattern that they can apply to future concerns of the same ilk.Two for one.

While this approach entails some risk (what if the demonstration doesn't go so well?—it is, after all, unscripted), it's a wonderfully effective way to ground the learning. Groups will tend to remember the example more vividly than the theory.

IV. I write reports
I took me several years to understand that groups typically absorb only about 20% of what they're taught orally. Too much is happening in a tight time frame for all of it to be absorbed. 

This led me to make two important adjustments: 
a) Developing handouts to make plain the theory I want to teach, so that they can be referred to after I'm gone.

b) Writing an extensive report (that I commit to delivering within two weeks of the live work) that provides an overview of what happened, my commentary about what happened, and my observations and recommendations about where the group might usefully work in the work future.

That way, much more of the good that we accomplish has legs.

V. I like to meet with the process folks early and late
If possible I try to meet with the process folks (or facilitation team) of the host group. They are typically the group that will be responsible for making system changes (or at least shepherding the conversations about changes) and my preference is to meet with them both first thing when I arrive on site (so I understand well their needs and how I can best support them) and then again after the plenaries are over so that we can discuss why I made the choices I did and how I can support them carrying on after I depart.

This step makes it much more likely that forward momentum will be sustained.

VI. I will not duck the hard stuff
While there's a fair amount of pressure on me to be effective (the community has invested considerable time and money in working with me, and, understandably, they want value for their investment), I've learned that it's my job to tackle the hard issues, to the extent that the group is willing to go there. Sometimes this means taking the issues to a level of examination that is beyond what was asked of me, but once it's in the room, there you are.

While this doesn't always go well, I feel it's my duty to make an attempt if I can see a constructive angle of approach. One of the mantras I pass along to clients is "Have faith in the process." So this is a matter of integrity and walking my own talk. (Group process work is seldom dull.)

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