Thursday, May 11, 2017

Groundhog Day in Plenary

I had a phone conversation with a good friend the other day, who needed someone to vent with about a frustrating experience she'd recently had as an outside facilitator.

The group had been struggling with a delicate issue that brought out the more strident and challenging sides of a handful of members and my friend dutifully guided them safely through the thorny thicket of their reactivity. While that's a bread and butter experience for a professional facilitator (you could handle three meetings like that every week and not run out of work before Christmas), in this case her teeth were grinding because she'd worked with that group previously, and it was frustrating to realize that the same people were reprising their same roles as petulant adolescents. Though the specifics had shifted, the dynamics had not. Ugh! It was the intentional community version of Groundhog Day!

While it's often exhilarating for a professional to help a group navigate a mess that they're uncertain how to handle on their own, singing the same refrain a second time is rather like bringing wilted flowers to the altar. What was inspiring the first time was somewhat depressing when the dynamics were on play repeat. What's the point? Is the group learning? While repeat customers are a delight; repeat dynamics not so much.

So why was the needle skipping back to the beginning?

Though I can't be certain, I can speculate on some likely possibilities. Here are four:

o  Change Is Hard
The most obvious explanation is that pointing out ineffective patterned behavior is the easy part. Shifting it is the hard part. Under stress (as in when we're triggered) we overwhelmingly tend to fall back on our reptile brain and slip into grooved behavior. It takes conscious effort to shift a pattern, and there are few among us who can experience a single different outcome and then successfully break a mold that has been relied on for decades.

While it would be nice if it were otherwise, it often takes several exposures to the "lesson" before it's incorporated.

o  Ineffective Pedagogy
Maybe the path through the jungle was insufficiently mapped. Just because the theory is clear to the teacher doesn't mean the explanation was clear to the student.

Demonstrating is only part of teaching. Often people need to do a thing themselves (under supervision) before the lesson can be ingrained in their body. If it's only in their head, it may not be accessible in the dynamic moment. It depends on how people learn.

I know people who can see a thing done once and are immediately willing to jump in and try it themselves, but they're the exception. Most people prefer multiple exposures before venturing into new behavior.

o  Compromised Neutrality
Maybe the group's facilitators (the people you're especially trying to pass along knowledge to) were triggered by the dynamic, or hooked on the topic. Once your neutrality is blown you're effectively disqualified as an arbiter of delicate dynamics. Thus, it's possible that there was no one behind the wheel (in the way of an authorized internal facilitator) to step in and take control when things went south. Perhaps they could have handled different configurations of dysfunctional dynamics, just not that configuration.

o  Steep Power Gradient
Sometimes it's too daunting to call particular, powerful individuals on their behavior. Maybe they're thick-skinned, maybe they're too well loved, maybe their health is questionable, maybe they have a reputation for lashing out when asked to cease and desist. There can be any number of reasons why otherwise well-informed and well-intentioned facilitators hesitate to act when certain individuals are misbehaving.

It can take major league chutzpah to confront powerful people.

• • •
Undoubtedly it's hard to watch a group fall back into unproductive patterns—especially after you'd worked so hard to help them out of the pit. Yet beating yourself (or the client) up because they weren't able to successfully turn it around after one successful counter example, won't help. Change is hard.

Along these lines I try to remember that life's lessons are mandatory, but the learning is optional. The fact that people don't learn a lesson the first time they're exposed to it can be discouraging, but who's perfect? The other side of the coin is that the same people responded well (again) when my friend guided them a second time. Maybe the third time will go better.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Putting on My Socks One at a Time

The other day I got out of bed and starting putting on my socks.

While that's a rather mundane morning operation, I paused to reflect on how that wasn't so only 15 months ago…

Though there is a tendency for the things we commit to routine to drop below the radar of our consciousness, they can suddenly pop out in sharp relief when that routine is suspended.

After a long life of mostly robust health (it didn't hurt living a homestead lifestyle on an organic farm for 40 years, eating the food we grew), I developed a persistent back pain starting in the fall of 2014, when I used poor technique loading the back of a pickup with heavy boxes in the rain. From that point forward, my routine was interrupted, and I went through long stretches of bed rest in an effort to recover. (I recall being in too much pain to carve the turkey at Thanksgiving; I just wanted to be horizontal, and there is nothing routine about my skipping Thanksgiving dinner.)

While I didn't split much wood in the winter of 2014-15, I was mostly able to manage the pain with OTC doses of ibuprofen, and things gradually got better. I returned to work (traveling across the country) and resumed my busy life as a community networker and process consultant. But I wasn't really better. My back still hurt and I had to be increasingly careful how much weight I put in my suitcase. For the first time in my life I started being picky about where I slept. If the bed was too low (like a futon on the floor) it was an ordeal getting up and I was susceptible to muscle clenching in my lower back whenever I needed to get up in the night to pee. No fun!

Finally my body broke down again. I was visiting my son, Ceilee, and my grandkids (Taivyn and Connor) in Los Angeles in December 2015 when my back clenched up again and I was bed ridden for a couple days. I recovered sufficiently from that to travel (by bus, no less) to Las Vegas and see my daughter, Jo and son-in-law, Peter, for a few days over Christmas. Though still in pain, I was semi-ambulatory and managed to take a red eye to Minnesota to be with my new partner, Susan, in Duluth for a week straddling New Year's.

I can still recall how excruciating it was walking to the gate in McCarran around midnight, and then repeating the process fours later when I landed at dawn in Minneapolis. I felt like shit. By the time I arrived in Duluth (via a shuttle van), I was a wreck. Susan put me to bed (it was all I could do to climb the stairs) and once she tucked me in I barely left it.

After five weeks of feeding me in bed Susan decided enough was enough (duh), and took me to the ER at St Luke's Hospital. Not having ever been seriously sick before I didn't have a frame of reference to understand how stupid I was, trying to heal myself with bed rest and ibuprofen. Although I knew that pain is Nature's way of telling you that something's wrong, I essentially had the ringer off and the messages kept going to voice mail—which I then erased without checking.

As you can imagine, my daily routine started breaking down in Los Angeles when my back pain returned with a vengeance. From that point on, it was an exceptional day when I was feeling frisky enough for a shower. By the time I got to Duluth and Susan poured me into bed it was uncomfortable to even lie on my side.

I recall waiting to be seen at St Luke's Emergency Room and hardly being able to tolerate the pain of sitting up—my back hurt that much. Finally, I got into a bed and the doctors started looking me over. From there, things went fast. They gave me oxycontin for my pain and it disappeared! Of course, it was being masked, not cured, but I was grateful nonetheless. After a few hours of blood work they determined that I had enough problems to admit me to the hospital:

•  Multiple myeloma—a cancer of the blood where the bone marrow produces an over-abundance of unhelpful plasma cells instead of the red and white corpuscles called for in the instructions.

•  Kidneys that were near failure, operating at only 20% capacity because of the strain they were under attempting to dispose of all the unwanted plasma cells.

•  Skeleton thinning. A common byproduct of my cancer is calcium leaching and the doctors were quite concerned that I might break something.

•  Three collapsed vertebrae (probably related to the skeletal thinning), which coincided with the epicenter of my back pain. While my spinal cord was not at risk (there was no imminent threat of paralysis), I will never build another cistern or fell another tree.

Well, no wonder I wasn't feeling so good! I spent the next 19 days in the hospital, during which they worked diligently to support and strengthen my kidneys, to contain and drive back the cancer, and to manage my pain. While all of this was accomplished (hurray!), I was in an opioid fog. I think there was a point where I was getting as much as 60 mg of oxycontin twice a day and I was pretty weak and loopy.

To be clear, I'm not criticizing my doctor's choices in how they medicated me (I don't know enough to have an opinion about that); I'm only reporting that I don't remember much. I was (I discovered later) pretty close to death, and by the time I got out of the hospital I had lost a lot of weight and muscle tone. It was an ordeal just getting out of bed to pee.

While Susan tried taking care of me at home when I got discharged from the hospital (Feb 19), that proved too much. I was still fuzzy brained, and weak as a kitten. Fortunately, we got sage counsel from a home healthcare nurse, and my medical insurance was robust enough to pony up for a stay in an assisted care facility. Thus I moved into Ecumen Lakeshore Feb 26-March 19, for short-stay rehabilitation, which turned out to be exactly what I needed.
In particular, it was at Ecumen that I started reclaiming control of my life. When I was at St Luke's I just fell into the back seat and let them take the wheel; now it was time to climb back into the driver's seat.

Riding the Opioid Tiger
There have been two tracks in particular that I want to shine the light on. The first has been my journey with opioids—which is all the more interesting in that there are rising concerns these days about opioid abuse, and even some emerging evidence that they may not be as helpful in pain management as once thought.

After a certain amount of chaos in my early days at St Luke's, my doctors dialed back my oxycontin intake to two 30 mg pills daily—a level at which I had no trouble tolerating the pain. Yet it wasn't until my stay at Ecumen that I started getting serious traction on regaining my cognitive ability—a process that mostly proceeded subconsciously.

I started doing the NYT daily crossword again with Susan, I read more, and slowly the fog lifted. (I am in total awe of what the human brain can acclimate to.) I'm still scratching my head about how my brain—which was completely woozled by oxycontin at the outset—figured out how to benefit from the pain suppression and at the same time make steady progress in recovering cognitive function. Wow!

When I was at the Mayo Clinic in the summer, the doctor overseeing my care there (Frances Buadi) decided to cut my oxycontin back to 20 mg twice a day, and I had no trouble with the lower dosage. Already then! I was at that level for six months and then my Duluth oncologist (Humam Alkaied) halved the dosage to 10 mg twice daily. I still did fine.

It's been an interesting dance. On the one hand, I want to be totally off opioids (I'm concerned about the possibility of addiction); on the other, I like not being in pain. This month, with Alaied's encouragement, I've been experimenting with going off oxycontin all together. Instead, I've been given a PRN (use as needed) prescription for 5 mg tablets of oxycodone (which is just as potent as oxycontin, but quicker acting) with the idea that I can use them if the pain gets to be too much. Kind of a safety net. Since taking my last oxycontin April 25 (13 days ago) I've only taken oxycodone four times, the last pill five days ago.

Because I don't want pain to compromise my ability as a professional facilitator and teacher (and I know that oxycodone doesn't interfere with my cognitive ability) I'm traveling with a supply of oxycodone tablets. But maybe I'm done. I still have back pain, but I've adapted to it and it no longer gets in the way. If I can manage all that without opioids—which is what appears to be happening without any horrendous withdrawal symptoms—hallelujah!

Reclaiming My Routines
My second track toward recovery has been reestablishing my routines. It's been a matter of starting simple and working up from there:

At Ecumen this translated to:
—Using a walker instead of a wheelchair
—Strengthening my legs on a stationary bicycle
—Getting out of bed each morning and dressing myself before Susan visited with coffee and the Minneapolis StarTribune

It turned out that the trickiest part of getting dressed was putting on my socks—something I'd more or less taken for granted since I was three. Bending over meant stretching my tender back and moving muscles that had gotten lazy. It was humbling, but gradually it got easier.

A month later, I had graduated from Ecumen and was (gratefully) back home with Susan. Then my goals ramped up a bit:

—Get up every day, and work in a chair (rather than bed)
—Manage my own pill regimen
—Stop using the walker to get around
—Make the coffee
—Put away the dishes
After my stem cell transplant last summer, we bumped it up again:

—Cook breakfast M-F (the days when Susan goes to work)
—Start driving myself to the hospital for infusion therapy, and to the store for groceries
—Be the backup dog walker
—Take turns cooking dinner

This summer I may even do a spot of gardening and canning. Susan has wisely encouraged me to make steady progress in reclaiming my routine, and it's definitely helped with my morale. If you start acting like a normal person, before you know it you start being one. Today I put on my socks one at a time—just like a normal person—and smile.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Committee Fatigue: on You, on Me, or Ennui?

As a cooperative group process consultant, I work with committees all the time—or at least I encounter their spoor. While a decent number function well enough, it's relatively rare to discover unalloyed successes. The majority of committees, unfortunately, are either limping along or dead in the water. Why is that so common?

There's a significant difference between knowing that you need a committee, and knowing how to set one up well. By "committee" I'm referring to any subgroup of the whole that has two or more members and is asked to handle certain tasks on the group's behalf. (Don't get hung up on the name—task force, team, board, council, brain trust, etc—they're all essentially committees, and what I have to say here applies to them.)

In honor of the fifth day of the fifth month (happy Cinco de Mayo!—OK, I didn't get this posted until the 7th; consider it poetic license) I'm going to describe five ways that committees tend to stumble.

1. Right Relationship Between Plenary and Committee
There are three principal ways that committees get in trouble in this regard:

—A weakly defined committee/plenary boundary 
It can be a major headache if it's unclear what work should be handled by plenary and what work should be handled by the committee. Perhaps the mandate, which lays out the committee's duties and authority, is unclear (see point 2 below for more on this). Perhaps the plenary is inconsistent about how it interprets the mandate: sometimes asking the committee to do things, then other times handling the same things themselves. It can be crazy making.

Ambiguity about responsibilities leaves the committee guessing about how to serve the plenary well, making it susceptible to being accused of exceeding its authority (we didn't ask you to do that!) or of neglecting its responsibility (we've been waiting for your work; why aren't you done yet?). This can be very anxiety producing for the committee. Not only can ambiguity about expectations undercut the sense of satisfaction that people get from serving on the committee, it can undermine the quality of the product that comes back. Yuck.

—Low trust in the committee's skill or judgment
When care is not exercised in placing the right people on the committee (or perhaps the right mix of people) the result can be fractious. It can show up as poor morale (little or no camaraderie) and an inability to get the work done. See point 3 below for thoughts about how to avoid this trap.

—Poor discipline about respecting the committee/plenary boundary
Even if the boundary is spelled out, it only works if the plenary respects it. If the plenary is not conscious about the boundary, it can easily slip into working at a level of detail that should have been given to the committee. Every time the plenary does this (or overhauls work that was within the committee's purview to handle) it undermines the committee. 

(Sometimes this happens because the plenary is frustrated by a lack of product and goes overboard for the sheer joy of getting something done, instead of relying on its committee structure to finish up. However, if you want solid work from your committees, then plenaries need to be disciplined about not jumping the fence and grazing in the committee's pasture.)

2. Rigorous Mandates
Way too often, once plenaries decide to hand off a chunk of work to a committee they can be in such a hurry to wrap up and move onto the next agenda item, that they rush their work. Unfortunately, this is false economy. Sloppy mandates lead to sloppy work, and the moment of committee creation (or adjustment) is a time to slow down—to make sure you get it right.

For a complete layout of my thinking about how to craft solid mandates, I refer readers to Consensus from Soup to Nuts from March 20, 2010. In section F of that blog I present a laundry list of questions. While all won't apply in all situations, if you walk through them whenever you strike a committee (or adjust the mandate of an existing one), the answers should result in a comprehensive mandate every time.

3. Selection of Committee Members
In the majority of cases, the groups I work with rely overwhelmingly on a show of hands to decide who will staff a committee. While quick, that's about the only positive thing you can say about it.

If results matter (and they should), then I urge groups to be much more deliberate about the selection of committee members—especially when high trust is called for.

—Establishing Desirable Qualities
The first step I'd take is having a conversation about the qualities wanted in people serving on the committee. This can include familiarity with the technical aspects of the work being overseen (such as a handyman serving on the Maintenance Committee), interpersonal skills, reliability, easy-going nature… all manner of things.

Hint: When developing a list of selection criteria, there is an important nuance about qualities that you want all committee members to have (such as a basic understanding of accounting principles for sitting on the Finance Committee), and those that you only need some committee members to possess (perhaps facility with html if you serve on the team that manages the group's website).

Note: It can often be good for the plenary to select the committee's convener, so that you'll get someone with the right qualities (these may be somewhat different than the qualities wanted from regular committee members—for example, a greater emphasis may be placed on the convener being a good administrator, a prompt communicator, or discreet with sensitive information). 

I recommend that the group develop a written standard for what it wants from people serving in the capacity of convener, adjusting it as needed for specific committees.

—Selection Process
In deciding who will serve, I recommend against simply asking for raised hands (volunteer roulette). Instead, I suggest the following, which is much more deliberate:

o Post the committee job description and desired qualities for the members who serve on it.

o Ask all group members if they are willing to serve and create a written ballot listing all those who consider themselves qualified, willing, and available.

o In plenary, select an ad hoc Ballot Team (two people?) from among those members who have opted off the ballot. These people will be the only ones seeing the filled-in ballots and must agree to divulge to no one else how people voted.

o Distribute printed ballots to all members, asking them to mark all those whom they find acceptable to serve (people can pick none, all, or anything in between).

o After a set period of time (72 hours?) ballots are due and the Ballot Team tallies them in private.

o After ranking people by the number of votes received, they privately approach people (starting with the top vote-getter and working their way down the list), asking them one at a time if they are willing to serve. As slots are filled, additional people are added only if they are agreeable to those who have already accepted—that way you protect the chemistry of the committee. This process continues until all slots are filled.

o The Ballot Team announces the composition of the team (which does not require plenary ratification), the ballots are destroyed, and the Ballot Team is disbanded.

—Handling Ties
What happens if two or more people have the same number of votes? As this could arise in two forms, I’ll handle them separately:

Case I. Ties that occur when there is room to accept all those who are tied
This situation is fairly easy to deal with. I suggest taking all the nominees who are tied and shop them all together (as a package) with those who received more votes and and have accepted the nomination, if there are any. Thus, suppose you have five slots, the two top vote-getters are Adrian and Chris, and they’ve accepted the appointment. Tied for third are Dale, Jesse and Robin. I would show the list (of Dale, Jesse, and Robin) to Adrian and Chris and see if all three are acceptable from the standpoint of working together. If any are unacceptable they are dropped from the list, and you accept only those among the three with whom Adrian and Chris are OK working with. 

If that completes the slate, great. If not, you continue down your list.
If a tie occurs among the top vote-getters (that is, there are no people already appointed to the committee), then the Ballot Team will meet with all those involved, explain the situation, and ask if they are all willing to serve together. If there are any unresolved concerns about that, people with reservations can decline to serve and the Ballot Team will continue to work down its list.

Case II. Ties that occur when there are fewer available slots than people in the tie
This is more interesting (by which I mean complicated).

I suggest following the same procedure as above with this modification: 

Case IIa. Suppose there are three slots available and Adrian and Chris have already accepted as the top vote-getters. Again, assume that Dale, Jesse and Robin are tied for third. Show the list (of Dale, Jesse, and Robin) to Adrian and Chris and have the two of them collectively select the person they think is the best from among the three from the standpoint of qualifications and a good working relationship. 

Case IIb. Suppose there are three slots and there are five people tied with the most votes, That is, there is no one already on the committee to show the list of ties to. In this instance, I would bring together all five people, tell them they are tied as the top vote-getters and they must decide among them which three will serve on the committee. Again they should do this on the basis of qualifications (established by the plenary) and the desire for a good working relationship among the committee members.

Note: In all cases you want the results to be announced by the Ballot Team after all the behind-the-scenes resolution of ties have been settled. You need not tell the group that there were ties.

—Staggered Terms
When you are empaneling a committee with staggered terms, I suggest proceeding in one of two ways. Let's suppose you have a committee with three seats and you want staggered three-year terms. You could take either of the following two options:

a) Letting the committee decide among themselves how to assign the one-year term, the two-year term, and the three-year term; or

b) Having the top vote-getter be assigned the three-year term, the second top vote-getter assigned the two-year term, and the third place finisher gets the one-year term.
That should just about cover it.

4. Poor Supervision
One of the ways that committees can struggle is that they typically don't commit to the same standard of process that the plenary does. For example, meetings are often not formally facilitated—they are just run by the convener (a person who has typically been selected for their administrative reliability, rather than their process facility). This is economical but not necessarily smart. If you need facilitation (some committees do; some don't) then it's important that it be neutral and that's not likely what you'll get from the convener, who is often a key stakeholder in committee business.

Further, if there's tension among committee members, there may be no one on the committee who has the chops to handle it. Left unaddressed, this can undermine morale and committee effectiveness.

Another angle on this is the potential for committees to become isolated from the rest of the group. Perhaps because of inconsistent (or even nonexistent) notification of when and where committee meetings happen, careless distribution of the meeting minutes (or indifferently captured meeting notes), or reporting on committee activity that is vague, late, or incomplete.

5. Evaluations
The caboose topic for this essay is closing the feedback loop. It is not enough to lay out good principles—from time to time you need to stop and look over what you're doing, it see how well reality is matching up with theory.

I'll refer readers to Evaluations in Cooperative Groups, posted Feb 20, 2012, for a detailed explanation of my thinking about this oft-neglected pillar of sound process.