Wednesday, May 29, 2013

In Bridge as in Life

In the arcane world of duplicate bridge* there is an adage that if your opponents never make the contracts you double, you are aren't doubling enough.

* [Duplicate is one of my favorite recreational pastimes—there's something deliciously weird about being at a major tournament where you're in a hotel ballroom for three hours straight with hundreds of card tables chock-a-block with players and no one is speaking above a whisper.]

The operational principle here has an analog in cooperative group dynamics: if you're never sporting any arrows in your chest, you're probably being too wimpy. Mind you, I'm not advocating assholery—there's plenty enough of that without my being a cheerleader for it. Rather, I'm talking about having the courage to speak up when someone does something than seems off in the context of a group you're both in.

While it's no doubt worthwhile learning how to voice feedback in ways that are less likely to be provocative, there are no guarantees. At the end of the day, if you're regularly speaking up, then you're occasionally triggering reaction. It goes with the territory.

To be sure, there are number of ways that giving feedback can land awkwardly:

1. You may have misunderstood what happened
Perceptions, amazingly enough, are not the same as reality. While I think reactions are a decent motivation for speaking up, it can be embarrassing when you got it wrong, and you're reaction is out of line.

2. You may not know the full context
Even when there's no discrepancy about what happened, or what was intended, you may not know enough of the background or the specifics of the situation to understand the choices being made and what they mean to the key players. Maybe you only heard or saw part of the exchange. Simply put, your reaction may be out to lunch and not helpful. At a minimum, it'll be irrelevant; at worst, it can be trigger a secondary first that's more dangerous than the one you thought you were putting out.

3. Your group may not have any agreements—or even understandings—about acceptable ways to deliver feedback or to work constructively with tension
As a consequence you're on your own when speaking up. The default for most of us is to deliver feedback as we would want it to be given to us, which, unfortunately, may have no bearing whatsoever to how the other person prefers to receive it. In short, it's a crap shoot and good intentions alone will not necessarily see you safely across No Man's Land.

4. You may get creamed for calling someone out
Voicing critical concerns can result in your being the target of backlash criticism ("How dare you question what I did?"), even if there are agreements in place that what you did is "supposed to be OK." In all probability, the theory about how your group wants to support feedback was developed while people we're responding from their mammalian brain; the reaction comes from a dynamic moment that is being processed by their reptilian fight-or-flight brain. Uh oh.

One of the key measures of a group's maturity is the environment it creates for constructive feedback. When people get punished for speaking up, it's a bad sign. When there's curiosity in the presence of upset, that's gold.

• • •
One of the trickiest dynamics is when there's legitimacy to the concern yet rawness to its expression. Often, upset with the transmission will obscure the substance of the concern. Not only are you at risk of obscuring an examination of what happened, but you'll have to negotiate outrage at the way it was expressed. Not pretty.

In such a dynamic, you'll likely have a multi-car accident and it can be awkward knowing where to start and a challenge keeping the focus in one spot long enough to ease tension there before the second intrudes upon the first. Here's how it works: Let's say Jesse is upset with something that Kim did (or didn't do) and that upset leaks into the way Jesse gives feedback to Kim. Now, in addition to Jesse's original upset, you also have Kim irked with how Jesse delivered the news. What to do?

Pick one of the two (probably whichever seems the most upsetting) and work that through before getting to the other one, promising all parties that everyone will get a turn being heard and having their concerns addressed. Hint: In the example above, if you start by focusing on the aggressive way that Jesse gave feedback (Kim's reaction), you'd likely begin by hearing from Kim about how the feedback landed, which would not be comments about the behavior that triggered Jesse; it would be about how Kim felt attacked by Jesse. Then, when you asked what Jesse heard, you'd be looking for a reflection, not why the forcefulness of the criticism (an attack) was justified by Kim's original behavior. In short, you need to keep the focus on one thing a time, and not let the examination devolve into a ping pong match, where the protagonists are exchanging salvos instead of information.

It can be done! Really.
• • •
I find it amusing that one of the key skills in making cooperative dynamics work is being able to bridge to those sitting across the table from you when the stakes have been doubled by distress, and that I occasionally find inspiration for cooperative dynamics that crosses over from doubling at the bridge table. It's a funny how inspiration works sometimes.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Good, the Wet, and the Unplumbed

In the next day or two I had been hoping to do some trench work out back of Ma'ikwe's house, to repair a leaky water line from our newly constructed cistern. Ma'ikwe was going to scare up a couple of strong backs to help with the digging and I was going to handle the plumbing. We were thinking the whole affair might be managed in half a day (providing only that we successfully aggregated all the replacement parts needed to effect the repair).

But those plans got washed away yesterday as northeast Missouri was blessed with 3.3 inches of liquid sunshine. It's hard to believe we had a drought last year.

(When I was just a sprat, I spent many summers between ages 8-16 at a boys camp in northern Minnesota. It's where I learned wilderness canoeing and how to tie a tautline hitch—both of which have stayed with me for decades. The camp director, Doug Bobo, used to tell parents with a straight face, "It never rains at Camp Easton… occasionally we get some liquid sunshine; but it never rains.")

While the rain was poorly timed for next week's trench welfare, at Sandhill we were more fortunate. We hit the weather perfectly for transplanting our sorghum seedlings. Starting Thursday morning we were able to get all 100 flats in the ground by Friday afternoon—mere hours before the rain arrived. Whew! 

While the flats all have the same outer dimensions, they have different numbers of cells: some have 200 (10x20) and others have 242 (11x22). Either way, it was a lot of sorghum seedlings—perhaps 22,000—enough to plant about two acres, not quite half our average crop. It takes a five-person crew to transplant sorghum and it's one my favorite agricultural jobs, in part because it takes a five-person crew. That is, it has to be done cooperatively, as a group.

One person drives the tractor (being careful to keep the rows straight and properly spaced). The other four are riding on the transplanter, which is an ingenious ground-driven device that allows the crew to put in two rows of 4-6 inch high plants with a near-perfect stand in about five minutes per 100 yards. Even though the tractor is just puttering along in low gear, it's a beautiful sight to look up at the end of a pass and see a long line of upright green seedlings where there had been just bare field minutes ago.

The four people on the transplanter are assigned two per row, with each pair alternately placing seedlings into the rubber grips of a revolving wheel that, in sequence:
o  Receives plants
o  Clamps them
o  Opens a furrow in the ground
o  Releases the plant into the ground
o  Allows a squirt of water into the furrow
o  Pushes the furrow closed, tamping the soil against the plant
o  Comes around for another pass

There are six rubber grips on the wheel, which means that six seedlings are planted every revolution. It's a pretty trippy implement that we only use once a year.

The reason we do a substantial portion of our sorghum crop as transplants (rather than direct seeding, which is far less work) is that we're organic and it can be very difficult maintaining weed control in the row. All farmers rely on cultivators to kill weeds between the rows; but that doesn't touch the weeds that grow in the row with your crop. While conventional farmers mainly rely on herbicides, we have only three choices: a) rotary hoeing; b) hand weeding; or c) transplanting.

Option A is running a mechanical device with curved metals spikes over the rows at moderately high speed, such that it disturbs the top inch or so of soil but no deeper. If you time it just right the deeper sorghum roots will survive what is lethal to foxtail—our biggest weed problem. At least that's the theory. For this to be effective, there is a narrow window where the weeds are vulnerable and the sorghum is not. If the fields are too wet to cultivate during that window, you won't kill the weeds.

Option B is something we'd rather not do, but occasionally need to if we're going to have a decent crop. There's been many an August over the years where community crews will go out to the fields at first light to hoe in the rows for a couple of hours, before the summer sun drives us from the fields.

Option C is the payoff for all the extra labor devoted to planting the seedling trays and riding the transplanter. When you insert 4-6 inch high plants into a bare field, the weeds can never catch up to the head start given the sorghum plants and we needn't worry about weeding in the row.

All of that said, we don't do our entire sorghum crop as transplants, because we don't want to put that much investment in a system we only use once a year, and occasionally the weather conditions are such that the direct sown crops outperform the transplants. Think of it as hedging.

Now if I can only get the mud to dry out in Ma'ikwe's backyard, I'll be all set. 

(Farming is highly weather dependent, and the weather is highly undependable, which leads to almost unlimited opportunities for humility—and frustration if you're under the illusion that you're in control. While farmers often complain about rain inconveniencing their outdoor work plans, they know better than to complain too loudly—just try living without it.)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Working a Hairy Eyeball

Recently I was facilitating for a group that I've worked with a number of times—a community that was familiar with a lot of my thinking (as well as my penchant for graphic metaphors). While I was being given background on a complicated topic, one long-term member confided, "You know, it'll be one of those hairy eyeball topics."

Momentarily bewildered by that phrase, I paused. Then I laughed. "Actually," I said, "I think you mean it's a hair ball, which is bad enough."

The biggest challenge with complex topics is not knowing where to start (almost anything can work); nor is it figuring out the best way to subdivide the topic into digestible chunks (there are often a number of productive ways to slice and dice big things into manageable yet meaningful flllets. The hard part is holding clearly the ways each subtopic relates to others and having the discipline to keep the group focused on one at a time.

The challenge is the lure of interrelationship—the ways that the answer to one subtopic almost always impacts how you answer others, and it's damn hard—especially when you're first getting under way and don't have answers to many other subtopics to guide you—to resist the temptation to jump to another, related topic before completing the one you're on. What I urge groups is that they assume for the time being that they have an answer they'll like to related questions—they just don't know yet what it is.

Using this approach you can productively chip away at an iceberg. Eventually all you'll have left is a pile of ice cubes, with which to cool your celebratory drinks at having completed the Herculean task of cleansing of the Augean Stables. (How's that for a mixed metaphor?)

Another big benefit of this divide-and-conquer approach is that it generates momentum, which is important to group morale. That is, when your bites are smaller, they're easier to chew and swallow, and each one gives the group a discrete experience of progress. You can check something off your To Do List and actually observe the number of remaining topics diminish.

Here are a couple of traps:
o  Some people don't enjoy being narrowly focused on one subtopic. They find it inhibits flow and stifles creativity. 

While there's no doubt some truth to that claim, all too often "free range" equates to "free of product." That is, when a group is all over the place—even when no one is off topic (which isn't that high a bar when the topic is broad)—it can be the very devil figuring out what to do with stream of consciousness input. While flow and creativity are valuable commodities, they don't guarantee success per se. 

Better, in my view, is that you offer a clear construct (a defined non-trivial subtopic) in which flow and creativity can flourish—gently, yet firmly, redirecting folks who start coloring outside the lines.

o  Some are consistently lured by the idea of prospecting for the mother lode: a unified field theory that will be a simple solution to the complex issue at hand. The idea is that sitting with the gestalt of the whole issue (and not limiting the conversation to fragments) will allow for a breakthrough understanding that will elegantly resolve the whole mess in a single stroke of brilliancy.

Because this strategy is occasionally successful—perhaps just enough to reinforce the desire to search for the Holy Grail each time—it can be difficult to get some members to give it up. It can have the addictive quality of buying lottery tickets: once you've managed to win once, it can be borderline irresistible not plopping down a couple bucks every time you're at the gas station.

The nuance here is knowing when a topic is complex enough that the piecemeal approach is a surer bet. The main clue here is the number of pieces. Simply put, the more interesting components (ones for which there is not an obvious and overwhelming group preference) there are to the consideration, the less likely it is that the group can weave a pleasing tapestry with all skeins on the loom at once.

• • •
At the end, after all the threads have been addressed as subtopics, you have to see if it all hangs together well. It's not uncommon that there's some tailoring needed at this stage, to make sure you have a suit that fits handsomely. But don't be daunted. It's almost always the case that last minute rehemming (and hawing) entails less shock than discovering at the prom that your new suit of clothes doesn't include pants—or enough fabric to cover your hairy eyeball.

[For more on this topic, see my blog of Sept 23, 2008, Untangling Hair Balls.]

Monday, May 20, 2013

Community Leadership and Lessons from the Hive

In order for honeybees to survive cold winters, the workers surround the queen in a ball, conserving heat by dense packing. When the bees on the outside of the ball get cold, they rotate positions with those on the inside, so that all can survive. Although operating on a different time scale, healthy communities are rather like healthy hives.

If you conceive of a community as a living organism there is a core of committed individuals that collectively comprise the heart, and I want to write about the relationship of the heart to the whole, and what it takes to maintain a vibrant heart.

In a healthy beehive there is exactly one queen at the center. If there are ever two they will fight until one dies or is driven out. If a hive loses its queen it will try to make a new one (by feeding larva royal jelly); if the larva are too advanced to make this adjustment, the hive will die—unless the apiarist is able to requeen it in time.

Communities, however, are more nuanced on the matter of leadership. To be sure, some have a single charismatic and inspirational leader, a la the beehive. While there is definitely trickiness in such groups to pulling off leadership succession without loss of vitality or dynamism—partly because strong queens tend to suppress the development of queen-like qualities among worker bees—it can be done if the reigning queen has sufficient awareness of the need to groom a successor, and there is enough quality material to work with among the disciples.

While the charismatic leader model is historically the most stable and long-lived in the sweep of the Communities Movement—think Oneida (John Humphrey Noyes), the Shakers (Anna Lee), and even Kerista (Jud Jerome)—most groups listed in FIC's Communities Directory today make decisions collectively, depending on the group's wisdom, rather than on the wisdom of any single individual. This model (which is almost the exact opposite of the charismatic leader model) relates to the beehive in that there is a cadre of members who hold the leadership center, and in a healthy group the composition of the cadre rotates over time.

Further, it is the responsibility of those in the heart to judiciously invite the outer bees into the center, rather than expecting them to fight their way in, or to wait until the inner bees die off. Thus, a healthy heart will not only pump a steady supply of nourishing blood to the entire corpus of the group, it will offer a permeable membrane such that there is a clear pathway by which newbies (new bees) are able to become the heart.

Like with a hive, in a healthy community every bee need not be highly skilled, fully integrated into the group's culture, or equally capable of leadership—they just need enough members with those qualities to establish a strong enough flywheel that the rest of the hive is pulled along. The leadership cadre, or heart of the group, needs to consistently articulate the community's common values and be walking their talk—incorporating those values into their everyday lives. The core sets a tone. If the note sounded is clear and melodious, harmony ensues, creativity flourishes, and joy abounds. Friction leads to compassion and resolution; rather than brittleness and divisiveness. Newer folks will respond to the positive modeling like, well, a bee to nectar.

The key here is that in a healthy hive the core bees take the initiative in welcoming the outer bees into the opportunity to serve in the core—not to be drones (or clones), but to make their own choices about what frequency to buzz at and what flowers to frequent in service to the hive. 

In community, it behooves us to be all we can bee.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Group Works: History and Context

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:

1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith

In the Context segment there are eight cards. The keystone pattern in this segment is labeled History and Context, so that's where I'll begin. Here is the image and text from that card:  

History and Context hugely influence how the rest of the patterns are invoked. Pay attention to why things are the way they are and what the people coming expect. Tune in to discern when to respect the existing culture vs. when it benefits to stretch toward something new.

People see reality through the lens of their experience. If the topics to be addressed have had a rocky history, then loins will be girded when revisiting them. If the group has not had success dealing with distress, than you can expect there to be tension whenever there is tension.

Sometimes change (in formats, facilitation style, setting, time of day, etc.) will help a group open up to new possibilities—while the past is prologue, it need not be fate. Sometimes change will be unsettling, and you can ask the group to swallow too many new things at once. You must gauge the group's range and resilience. Does it slant more toward risk tolerant or risk averse? Sometimes the group will be ready for a change out of frustration (we've been stuck for a while; what have we got to lose?); sometimes the group will open up to experimenting from a sense of security (we trust our base and the strength of our connections; if this doesn't work we can always return to what has served us well in the past). More, you need to be sensitive to how you are perceived by the group and its willingness to trust you. 

The image that accompanies this pattern is evocative. Where one remembers flood, another—perhaps someone who has never known high water—sees only dry ground. Neither is wrong, yet it may require a strong construct to bridge the swirling eddies that separate these realities. Unexamined, imagine how differently these two people would respond to a proposal to purchase a boat? What would be prudent to one would be paranoid to the other.

Context comes in many flavors. Let's walk down the aisles of your local Context Mart and peek at what's on the shelves:

o  Relationship to Cooperative Culture
In the mainstream culture, meetings are a civilized battle (at least they're civilized most of the time; sometimes they're vicious). The dominant society is competitive, hierarchic, and adversarial. If you're operating in a cooperative group, there is an attempt being made to turn those things around—to think and act collaboratively instead of competitively; to be curious when people disagree with you, rather than combative. While the cooperative theory isn't that hard to lay out, it ain't easy undoing a lifetime of conditioning and living up to cooperative ideals in the dynamic moment—especially if it's about something close to the bone. 

Hardest of all to navigate is the situation where Person A is being enthusiastically cooperative and Person B is being defensively reactive. On the one hand, you want to honor B's viewpoint and make sure the train doesn't pull out of the station with them still standing on the platform. On the other, you want to object to their uncooperative energy and reestablish a collegial and creative atmosphere to continue the examination. 
o  Relationship to Meetings
As a professional facilitator, I believe that practicing one's craft is an important step in getting better. When I work with students learning this skill I urge them to be brave and volunteer often to run meetings, so that they'll get this practice. I tell them, "Hey, the bar is really low. Most meetings are just awful and you almost can't help but offer a better experience, even if you're just a beginner. While your performance may have been only so-so, most participants will think it was fine."

For the most part, people in Western society think of meetings as a necessary evil, as something you try to survive—certainly not something to look forward to. Even if your cooperative group is trying to do better in this regard, you need to be aware of the possibility that meeting participants are at different places along the journey to rehabilitating meetings as an opportunity for celebration, connection, and collaboration.

If one participant dreads meetings, while another squirms in their seat in anticipation, you have a decided gap in context that you'll need to navigate.

o  Relationship to the Topic
Not everyone identifies as a stakeholder on every issue (thank God), and people tend to behave differently based on how much they care about the outcome. More nuanced still, people will behave differently based on whether prior engagements with that topic have gone well (by their lights) or gone poorly. If it went well last time, then it will probably be smooth sailing again. If it was tough sledding last time, then it will likely be a slog.

Unconsciously, we tend to expect that future engagements on a given topic will be a continuation of past engagements. While that may not be good thinking, it's human nature, and we're better prepared for meetings when we have a sense of participants' personal history with the topics queued up for consideration. It's especially useful to know if there's been what Yoda might describe as "a disturbance in the Force."

o  Relationship to Other Stakeholders
Sometimes the trickiest dynamics are not the identification and balancing of values underlying positions, but the damaged connections and/or low trust between the people active in the consideration. 

This can play out in a number of ways:
Personality clash, where one person's behavior is found irritating, independently of what they're saying.
Unresolved tension, where an unhealed prior hurt leaks into the current situation.
Poor track record, where there is skepticism about the reliability of a person's commitments to a project because they've flaked out or under-performed in the past.
History of selfishness, where there is low trust in the speaker's ability to think in terms of what's best for the whole.
Power imbalances, where there is a reaction to strong statements from someone too new to the group to have established credentials. Or, going in the other direction, a reaction to a well-established member who appears to expect deference by virtue of their years in service, rather than because of the strength of their thinking.

o  Relationship to the Facilitator
While the ideal facilitator for cooperative meetings is skilled, neutral on the topics, and well prepared, sometimes you have to settle for less than that. Participants can have doubts about the facilitator in any of these respects and that perception can undermine the facilitator's effectiveness just as surely as their making poor choices.

o  Relationship to the Setting
The size and shape of the room; lighting; time of day; quality, variety, and arrangement of seating; acoustics; and presence or lack of visual aids all have an impact on the atmosphere and energy of the meeting. Good facilitators give conscious thought to these factors in setting things up to create an environment congruent with the kind of meeting desired, and in a way known to be conducive to productive engagement based on knowledge of the group. (Heart sharing tends to go better in the evening, with the chairs in a circle and soft lighting. Business meetings typically benefit from a morning slot, with good natural lighting, and the chairs arranged to focus attention on a projector screen, flip chart, or easel.)

o  Relationship to the Format
Even though people always bring their emotional and intuitive selves to meetings (just try checking them at the door and see how that goes), that part of our humanness is not always welcome. Lacking agreement about whether to work emotionally at all—and most groups do not have explicit agreements about this—there will be predictable tension between the "Product People" who believe that meetings should be principally focused on addressing issues and solving problems, and the "Process People" who believe that meetings should only proceed in ways that enhance relationships among members.

While these two views are not inherently inimical, and can learn to play nice together, you can usually witness a manifestation of the awkwardness between them whenever there is a request to have a sharing circle, where people are given the opportunity to use valuable plenary time to speak from their heart, perhaps to clear the air or to establish the breadth of the environment in which an issue will be considered. It is expressly not a time for problem solving. What may be pejoratively styled as woo-woo navel gazing by the Product folks may be considered the gem of the meeting by the Process contingent, and this conextual gap will need careful navigation.

o  Relationship to Speaking in Group
If you take into account that many fear public speaking more than death, it's hardly surprising that in any normal group you'll have members who find it awkward to state their views in front of everyone. What's show time for some is no-go time for those whose tongues are frozen with fear. Thus, you need to think about how to make input giving more accessible. (Small group breakouts can help, as can a culture of responding first with what you like about hat was just said, rather than with "but… ")

o  Relationship to Stamina and How Long the Group's Been Sitting
There's an art to managing the group energy and sequencing agenda items such that the heavy lifting (when the need for high focus and resiliency is greatest) is attempted when the group's energy tank is closer to F, rather than edging toward E. 

Most people need blood flowing to their brain to do their best thinking (duh), and that translates into avoiding heavy agenda right after a meal (when blood is otherwise busy in the stomach) and getting traction on tough topics within 30 minutes of people sitting down. By and large it's unproductive to ask a group to sit longer than 90 minutes without a break or a movement exercise, so a good facilitator won't open up a large can of complication unless there's enough of the 90 minutes left to get the worms back in the can, or at least well tagged and into holding pens before it's time for a break.
• • •
As you can see, context and history have a lot to say about what gets said and how it's heard. Flying blind, or worse, simply assuming that others will relate to topics and the meeting environment in the same way that you do, is sure to lead to unpleasant surprises. There might be a flash flood coming at you out of a clear blue sky.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mail Dominant Behavior

Last Thursday I finally made the switch to my spiffy new MacBook Pro Retina laptop. It's now five days later, I'm still trying to iron out all the wrinkles adjusting to my new email program—Mail (which comes bundled with Apple computers). Maybe I should call it "Male" for stubbornness.

As I disclosed March 12 (Operating at the Edge of My Technological Tether), I've had to let go of my beloved Eudora, the only email program I'd ever used (but which is now no longer supported and can't be run on my new machine) and the move has been klunky at best.

o  While I was able to import all my old email files (great), I lost any reference as to which ones had been read and responded to (not so great). 

o  All the email that I ever authored (which is about half of my records—the other portion being emails sent to me) has been time stamped as of the day of the transfer, May 9. It's an absolute bitch losing any ability to sort my work over the last 14 years by date.

o  About 50 emails that I recently disposed of from my In Box (representing the last couple days of work before the transfer), suddenly relocated back in my In Box, as if the last few days were caught in some Groundhog Day time warp, giving me the unwanted opportunity to refile them. Although I didn't see an image of Bill Murray, I saw plenty of other things I'd already seen plenty of times. Ugh.

o  I have not yet figured out a way to keep two files open and visible on my screen at the same time. While that may not seem so problematic, here's the deal:
—It's common for me to realize in the midst of composing one message that I also need to send another and it's convenient to pause temporarily to take care of that late-breaking need without losing my place with the first one. 
—I have developed a management style where I'll start an email that I don't have time to finish and then leave it open—to immediately capture the gist of the point I want to make and to help me remember to get back to it, as open files are easier to keep in view.
—It's often helpful when cranking out a bunch of personalized emails that rely on the same basic text to: a) queue up a copy of the master; b) go to a different window to record that that individual was notified; c) copy the email address of the next person in line; and d) go back to the master message and tweak it appropriately for the new recipient. I need three documents visible on my screen to pull that maneuver off expeditiously.

o  Mail has a Draft folder, a Sent folder, and an Outbox. Eudora only has an Outbox, but there was a way to mark emails as to whether they were if draft form, queued to be sent, or actually sent. While I don't reckon either system is better than the other, Mail has this annoying habit of keeping a copy in Draft for a while even after it's been Sent. More than once now I've moved both the Draft copy and the Sent copy into storage, only to discover that I now had (unwanted) duplicates. Sigh, another victim of the Sorcerer's Apprentice.

o  I have no idea (yet) where attachments that have been sent to me are stored. Sometimes I can remember that a document exists as an attachment but not the date that it was sent. Knowing where attachments live on my computer is fairly useful. With Eudora I knew where that was, but my clever new computer is playing a coy game of Hide the File. (Who's in charge here, anyway?)

o  At first I couldn't figure out how to change my signature (at the bottom of emails). Now I can't figure out how to have one appear as a default, instead of requiring a cut and paste each time. I had as much fun with cut and paste to last a lifetime when I was five; at 63 I have no urge to relive kindergarten unneccessarily.

o  My first full day using Mail I tried to send a reminder and a draft agenda for an important conference call scheduled for later that day. When the time came, almost no one showed up on the call because I relied mostly on listserves to get the word out and the server had bounced my messages because I didn't look like me. Grr.  

Fortunately I have friends (notably Rachel & Tony at Dancing Rabbit) for whom this stuff isn't all that difficult and who are willing to patiently hold my hand while I experience email growing pains. While it seems a stretch at this point to project that I'll come to love Mail, my more modest goal right now is simply to be able to play nice together.

Today I'm trying figure out if I've got Mail… or Mail's got me.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

39 Steps Toward Community

Today Sandhill Farm is hosting its annual May Day party, marking the anniversary of when the two founding couples (Ed Pultz & Wendy Soderlund, and Ann Shrader & I) first arrived on the property back in the spring of 1974. That's right, Sandhill has finally reached the same age as Jack Benny—39 years old.

Because we tend to give greater homage to the extension of longevity when it reaches decade milestones—"Lordy, lordy look who's forty" will happen next year—I thought it might be nice to give a little love to 39, which doesn't ordinarily get much time in the limelight.

Aside from my quip about Jack Benny's perennial age—a schtick that he milked for decades as a vaudeville comedian with legendary durability—it turns out that there aren't that many well-known references to 39. Luckily, I've never let relative obscurity stand in the way of a good story...

With a little refection, I've come up with three ways to celebrate 39:

1. Gestation
Humans typically take 38-42 weeks to incubate from conception to birth, and 39 weeks is considerate the target minimal length for full-term babies. The idea being that if babies are left in the oven at least that long they are much more likely to be born with fully developed brain, liver, and lung functions—all of which are rather handy.

So, while 13 is often considered unlikely, three times 13 is favorable—at least when it comes to human babies. And, of course, this is '13, so it all comes together.

2. Three Suits
As a road warrior I face a steady diet of logistical challenges. Fortunately, having only three suits in my closet is not one of them. In today's more casual business environment my work as a process consultant and as a nonprofit administrator rarely necessitates that I change out of jeans and knit shirts that don't have tears or holes. As a professional, the point of clothes is to dress well enough that people aren't distracted by what I'm wearing, and in most situations today a dress suit would come across as formal and stuffy—which is not the tone I want to set with clients I'm hoping will open up in my presence.

While my wardrobe isn't challenged by my travel schedule, my card playing is. Duplicate bridge has been one of my favorite recreational pastimes since I took it up a bit more than 13 years ago (there's that number again), and my playing time is frequently interrupted by my travel schedule. While I'm occasionally able to shoehorn some time at an out-of-town bridge club into a free afternoon or evening, mostly I just play when I'm home on Wednesdays (which is when there's a game in Kirksville MO). 

In the context of a deck of cards, you see, three suits equates to 39 cards. While it's generally an advantage to be void in one suit when playing bridge, I don't consider it an advantage at all to have a void of card playing in my weekly routine.

3. Hitchcock 
Growing up in the '50s and '60s, one of the best known film directors of my youth was Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense. Before cranking out such critically acclaimed hits as Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), and Torn Curtain (1966), he did a movie in 1935 called 39 Steps, which took its name from a 1915 espionage novel by John Buchan.

The story hinges on a spy ring in Britain that has 39 components, each ignorant of all but the steps immediately in front of and behind themselves, excepting an idiot savant who doesn't know the import of what he knows, and which the protagonists are ultimately able to get to spill the beans. 

While the plot of the film may be a bit unlikely, a lot of people thought that Sandhill's chances of seeing its 39th birthday were just as unlikely, and here we are.

Though I think that Sandhill's 39th step toward a more cooperative future will be far less nefarious than a spy ring run amok in Britain, I recognize that conservatives may find the association I've posited between Sandhill and Hitchcock more apt. Oh well, it's hard to please everyone. 

As I tend the sweat fire today, reflecting on all we've accomplished over 39 years and enjoying the company and companionship of the scores of friends and neighbors who will help us raise a glass, I promise to let Republican dismay intrude on my enjoyment.

• • •
By the way, Jack Benny died in 1974, which means he took his final curtain call just as Sandhill was getting started. While any putative connection between Benny and Sandhill is rather fanciful (I've never even picked up a violin) it's only appropriate to take this moment to honor him in passing. I'm thinking a Jack & Coke in the early afternoon might be just the ticket.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Group Works: Setting Intention

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 Intention segment there are five cards. The fifth and final pattern in this segment is labeled Setting Intention. Here is the image and text from that card: 
Envision and name what will be done to reach toward or achieve the purpose of the group. Setting intention reminds us of our responsibilities, guiding us to actions that fulfill the reason for which a gathering was called.

The pivotal term here is setting. As the segment is labeled "Intention" and we already covered "Purpose," the focus here is on focusing—making a conscious choice about direction and scope. 

The image conveys a sense of struggle (trudging uphill through the snow with a load on), which may or may not be the case (fortunately, all topics are not such a slog). Much depends on the group's clarity of purpose, a sense of where you are on the topics to be explored, and the discipline of participants to know how to use meeting time well.

The point of making a conscious choice is that you are much more likely to end up where you intend to be. While it's possible that focus can effectively be blinders that cripple creativity and prevent the group from seeing possibilities, solid focus generally helps the group stay on task and increases productivity.

There are two other points to make here: the value of agenda drafters articulating what they're trying to accomplish, and the importance of the facilitator reminding the group what it's doing. 

1. A Clear Agenda
While it's likely that the folks responsible for crafting the agenda have a solid idea about why they've suggested what they've brought forward (at least I hope they do), often that's transmitted to the group in the truncated (and mysterious) form of a single line (sometimes only one or two words), leaving it up to the group to sort out what all lies behind the curtain. In most situations (especially if the group is rather large) it's a better idea to post the draft the agenda accompanied by a paragraph or two laying out the objective and relevant background on each item—rather than surprising folks with that information in the meeting.

While I'm all in favor of concision, the prime directive here is accurately conveying intention—not a contest to see how you can give the group a decent hint about what will be discussed with the fewest words possible.

2. Posting Road Signs Along the Way
There's a great story about veteran baseball announcer Jon Miller, who distinguished himself as a consummate play-by-play radio broadcaster toiling 14 years for the Baltimore Orioles (1983-96) before returning home to the Bay Area to announce Giants games. When working for the O's he used to keep an egg timer on the counter in front of him, as a reminder to announce the score every time the sand ran out. Even though he was fully absorbed in the game, he knew that: a) there were always people just tuning in who didn't know the score; and b) many who listen on radio are splitting their attention with other things and tend to lose their way without some help from the announcer.

In much the same way that Miller reminds listeners of the score, a good facilitator will periodically remind meeting participants what they're doing. While it probably doesn't need to be repeated every three minutes (the time it takes to soft boil an egg), it's much more helpful you may think, providing participants with regular signposts reminding them what road they're traveling. As a professional facilitator, I regularly take time, a la Miller, to remind groups what we're doing. Think of it as a preemptive strike on off-topic comments.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Springing Back & Forth

I'm in Springfield MO, midway through representing Sandhill Farm at the Baker Creek Spring Planting Festival, held today and tomorrow (that's right, a rare Sunday/Monday gig) at the home of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield MO—about 60 crow miles east of the motel room where I'm typing this blog.

Oddly enough, though I've been a resident of the Show-Me State for 39 years, and Springfield is our third largest city, this is the first time I've ever done more than drive through it at 60 mph. It's 300 miles from home and I hardly ever come this way.

While the calendar says it's May (happy Cinco de Mayo!), the weather was stuck in the 50s today with everyone strolling by our booth in windbreakers, earmuffs, and woolen caps. Friday, for the first time in living memory, they had a May snow shower in Joplin, which is in extreme southwest Missouri. Ufda. Last year it was warmer than this in March, and I have the eerie sensation that the seasons are running backwards.

[While I was only home about 13 hours between my recent East Coast consulting foray and this trip as a purveyor of Sandhill's organic food products, it was long enough to poke around in the woods for two-and-a-half hours wildcrafting morels (I was able to snag nearly three pounds of these delicate little beauties). While spring's emergence seems delayed this year, the mushrooms are making their appearance in line with historical averages. I'm keenly interested to see what's still out there when I return home Wed. I'll be ecstatic if this unseasonably cool weather translates into a prolonged morel season.]

Here in Springfield we've been promised (by the weather gurus) temperatures tomorrow "soaring" into the upper 60s, with occasional glimpses of sunshine. We can hardly wait.

While it's always good for Sandhill to experiment with different fairs to see which ones are good for our product mix, sales were desultory today ($285 in gross intake doesn't justify driving 300 miles one way) and I doubt we'll be back next year. I was persuaded to try this mainly because it was an excuse to hang out with my good friend, Ira Wallace, who I've known since my very first community conference 34 years ago.

Ira was selected as the 2014 recipient of the FIC's Kozeny Communitarian Award, which honors someone's lifetime achievements as a community builder. In addition to peddling sorghum this weekend (and catching up on inter-community gossip), it's my pleasure to spend time collecting sufficient details about Ira's life that I can craft the citation for her award. Some tasks are more pleasurable than others, and this assignment is one I'm genuinely looking forward to.

Among other things, Ira & I have each:
o  Lived in community for about four decades (though never in the same one, we've always lived in secular income-sharing communities that have been affiliated with the Federation of Egalitarian Communities.

o  Been involved deeply in community networking, often enough at the same time.

o  Been entrepreneurial and have helped start successful community businesses.

o  Developed a capacity for public speaking and blogging.

o  Developed a fondness for playing bridge.

[For more on Ira and her amazing life, see this interview from in the current issue of Communities magazine.]

So it's always fun to hang out with Ira an find out what she's been up to. A conversation with her can warm me even on a blustery day when the outdoor temperatures are running well south of our ages. It represents both a springing back (to any number of stimulating conversations we've shared over the years), and a springing ahead where we grizzled community veterans can dispassionately discuss what it will take to replace us, and the key role we can play in greasing the skids for our successors.

It turns out that busy people never really run out of work; we just run out of time.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Playing the Cards You're Dealt

I was recently asked to facilitate a community meeting where there had been a considerable build up of unresolved tension with a long-term member who wasn't living on campus. This member had been asked on short notice to attend a rare mid-week meeting to make some progress on the tensions (with my assistance) and the wheels were put in motion based on his acceptance.
Less than 24 hours before the start of the meeting, however, it was discovered that there had been a major misunderstanding about this person's availability and he couldn't come after all. Oops. I had prepped for a meeting at which we could work on unpacking the backlog of distress based on the expectation that all the key players would be in the room. Suddenly, that meeting was not longer going to be possible. Now what?

• • •
One of my recreational passions is duplicate bridge. While contract bridge is a beautiful and complex card game in its own right, the genius of duplicate is that you score points based on how well you play hands compared with how others play the exact same hands, thus eliminating the vagaries of being dealt good cards. While it's typically more fun to hands with strong cards, there is no inherent disadvantage to picking up a weak hand—because everyone you'll be scored against will play that hand as well.

Thus, to be good at duplicate bridge, you need to excel at playing whatever hand you've been dealt. Interestingly, skill at duplicate bridge is reasonably analogous to skill in facilitation, where, over time, you will be dealt a mixture of strong and weak hands, and the real test is how well you do with what you have—rather than how well you can avoid surprises.

To be sure, when you have a facilitation assignment, it behooves you to do your homework and to create a plan that you think will give the group its best chance for a dynamic and productive meeting. (Sticking with the bridge analogy, planning allows you to stack the deck in favor of a good meeting, and you certainly want to take advantage of that.) That said, it's a myth that you're totally in control, or that good planning is destiny. As happened to me in the opening story, sometimes you get a meeting that's fairly far removed from the one you'd planned for. In such instances, you can complain about your rotten luck… or you can deal with it.

In the situation that inspired this blog, I asked the group what it wanted to do at the start of the session. While clearing up tensions is far and away better done with everyone in the pool, there's still good that can be accomplished with a crucial participant missing.

When there's significant distress associated with an issue, I've learned that it's almost always salutary to try to lean into it rather than away from it as a prelude to problem solving. Here's why:

a) Distress distorts
When you're in the grip of a reaction, there's a strong tendency to filter whatever is said in relation to the triggering events through a negative story that assigns bad intent to the speaking person. Rather than looking for the value in what they said, you look for a nefarious, duplicitous, or divisive motivation. Worse, once you find a way to accomplish that you then use your projection as further evidence to justify the original story. Yuck. This is a poisonous environment that greatly complicates constructive problem solving.  

b) Unresolved tension undermines trust
Responses to group issues depend on trust among members to produce satisfactory results. Brittle decisions (which is what you get when you push ahead without resolving tensions first) tend to lead to lukewarm implementation at best, and sabotaged follow through at worst. While you may think it's quicker to bypass dealing with distress, it's a poor bargain if the problem remains unsolved and you have to come back and do it again. In the end, damage to trust (being confident in everyone acting from good intent and meaning what they say) is very expensive.

c) A guarded attitude kills creativity
In order for collaborative decision-making to blossom, you need to create and maintain an environment of ease and curiosity. That's damn hard to manifest with people simmering, on edge, and suspicious. Instead of out-of-the-box breakthroughs, you stuck-in-the-box tug-of-war dynamics where each side of an issue keeps trying (unsuccessfully) to pull the unconverted over to their side of the line. (Has anyone ever seen that lead to a happy ending?)

[Note that this principle obtains whether you're using consensus or a ouija board, so long as you're intending inclusive and spirit-lifting results.]

For all of these reasons, it's better to tackle the tensions before the issue, and half a loaf is better than none. Thus, at the outset of the meeting, I laid out a summary of the places where the unresolved tensions were adhering and invited the group to spend the first half of the session voicing what's been hard for them about these dynamics—expressly not attempting any problem solving. For the first hour we were simply trying to clear the air. 

While this was intended to be done with the lightning rod person in the room, we went ahead anyway with my having laid out four important caveats at the beginning:
o  I had already sent to the missing member the same summary of the tension points, so he knew what we might be speaking to.

o  I insisted that the group commit to sending to the missing member a summary of what was said, so that people knew that before they spoke, and the  missing person wouldn't be hung out to dry in the agony of imagining the awful things that might have been said out of his hearing.

o  I made it clear that the missing person would undoubtedly have his own things to say about these same dynamics and that it was crucial for everyone to understand that what was said in the meeting would not be the full picture and that there needed to be another opportunity set up for an exchange with the missing person present, if at all possible. 

o  The point of proceeding (even though a key person was missing) was to ease tensions among those present for the purpose of moving into a less charged or spring-loaded environment for sorting out how to respond. It was expressly not for the purpose of faction building or coalescing condemnation of the missing person.

I was pleased that everyone spoke at least once during the opening hour, and we were able to use the second half of the meeting for a productive sorting out of the various threads of the presenting challenge. The quality of the listening was solid throughout (which outcome was significantly enhanced by starting with heart statements rather than head statements) and we were able to end the meeting with having laid out the essential factors that need to be bridged in order to moving forward with all on board: 
—The ways in which the missing member had inadvertently been placed in a role vis-a-vis the group for which he was ill-suited and that wasn't working well for anyone—including the missing person.
—How financial stress, and the disparity of personal finances within the group, both increased pressure on the dynamic and complicated how to navigate a safe passage through the issue.
—What constituted acceptable risk.
—A delineation of the opportunities available if the risk was accepted.
—A counterbalancing enumeration of the ways things could go south if the risk was accepted.
—The impact on the group (& relations with the missing person) if the risk was not accepted.
My fondest hope is that we were able to turn the corner on advocacy at the meeting and be in a sustained environment of moving forward with the sense that all of these considerations are legitimate, and that the prime directive from this point forward is making suggestions that people think could work for everyone.

While it remains to be seen how well that was accomplished, I felt pretty good about our chances to still make a three no trump contract after discovering that we were missing the ace of our longest suit. In meetings, as in life, there are always chances. The challenge is making the best of the ones you have, rather than lamenting that you don't have more.