Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Paradox of Collaboration

The most critical competition we face is not between one person and another, or between teams, businesses, corporations, states, nations, regions, or religions. Rather, the most critical competition we face is between our constructive human tendency to care for the world and improve our collective lot, and our destructive tendency to exploit the world and dominate each other. Morally, we are at our best when we collaborate for the good of all. Practically, we are at our best when we collaborate to compete. That is the critical paradox of collaboration.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Improving Interdisciplinary Collaboration - A Hollywood Example



Science on FIRE—Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research and Education, a  symposium sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), recognized that “interdisciplinary research will have to be taken to new levels to address exceedingly difficult challenges” because the demands of complex problems require that experts from different disciplines and backgrounds have to work together, share and integrate information, and develop and test solutions that none of them alone could imagine. And as I noted in Creating a Culture of Collaboration, collaboration is seen as the way to address complex problems, add value, and achieve desired outcomes in fields as diverse as business, science, recreation, health care, social work, engineering, governance, and libraries.

If interdisciplinary collaboration is so important, then we should know how to improve it, and we should have a way a measuring it so we can know if it's getting better or worse.

This was the subject of another AAAS workshop, Interdisciplinary Collaboration in Innovative Science & Engineering Fields. The workshop report noted that in addition to measuring the outcomes of interdisciplinary collaboration we should look at process measures.

Indeed, I have found subjective process measures to be useful. Laura Bronstein's Index of Interdisciplinary Collaboration* uses a 42 item questionnaire to measure five components that give useful feedback to the members of an interdisciplinary team:
  • Collective ownership of goals
  • Interdependence
  • Flexibility
  • Collaborative activities
  • Reflection on process
When I use the Index of Interdisciplinary Collaboration with a group, I usually ask them to complete the questionnaire in advance. When I present the results, I talk about the five components and illustrate them by showing video clips of a highly successful interdisciplinary team: the band of thieves in the 2003 film, The Italian Job. It's a fun way to learn about and reflect on what contributes to successful interdisciplinary collaboration.

If you are interested you can download a handout that briefly describes the five components, shows the questionnaire items for each, and lists the specific video clips I use from The Italian Job. If you would like more information, please let me know.

* Bronstein, L. R. (2002). Index of interdisciplinary collaboration. Social Work Research, 26 (2), 113-126.
   Bronstein, L. R. (2003). A model for interdisciplinary collaboration. Social Work, 48 (3), 297-306.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Future of Facilitation

Michael Wilkinson asked me for some comments about the future of facilitation. He’s going to present a keynote at the upcoming Southeast Regional Facilitation Conference entitled, “Facilitation: What's Next?” He offered the following for starters:
Facilitation as an industry has perhaps moved from infancy to adolescence. Where are we today and what might this industry look like 10 years from now? And more importantly, what might we do as facilitators to make our future and to be prepared for it?
My first reaction was to the word industry, so I looked up a definition at merriam-webster.com. The early uses of the term include, “diligence in an employment or pursuit; especially: steady or habitual effort” and “systematic labor especially for some useful purpose or the creation of something of value.” So in that sense I can understand facilitation as an industry, although I’m not entirely comfortable characterizing it that way because of the more contemporary meanings of industry, “a distinct group of productive or profit-making enterprises (the banking industry)” and “manufacturing activity as a whole (the nation's industry).”

Enough quibbling about whether facilitation is an industry. Or perhaps not. If facilitation is an industry, then perhaps some lessons from industry will apply.

The Fan Belt Lesson. When I was a kid, electric motors were big and external to the thing they were powering. In Neiderstien’s Restaurant, a neighborhood restaurant where I grew up, the place was cooled by a series of ceiling-mounted fans, spaced throughout the restaurant. Each fan had a pulley mounted on its shaft. Off to the side was a single electric motor with a pulley on its shaft. A long belt – a fan belt – made a circuit through all of the pulleys. When the electric motor was turned on, it turned the belt through the circuit of pulleys and all the fans rotated in unison. Today, every fan has its own motor. Heck, my cell phone has its own electric motor! (That’s what makes it vibrate.)

Perhaps this will be the future of the facilitation industry. Instead of facilitation performed by a central pool of experts, facilitation will be integrated permanently into every group. (Of course, this is already true to some degree, since many facilitators are members of the team or group rather than central-pool specialists.) If so, then there might be more demand for training in collaboration and facilitation than for facilitating meetings.

The Whitworth Lesson. Another possible lesson from industry can be taken from the Whitworth thread. Prior to its specification (in 1841), every industry and manufacturer had its own system of threads for screws, bolts, and nuts, and they were incompatible. That is, if your wagon was held together by bolts, and one of the bolts fell off, you had to replace it by finding a matching carriage bolt of the same manufacturer. A stove bolt simply would not do. After the Whitworth Standard was adopted, any bolt of the same Whitworth specification would do the job.

Today, we have the International Association of Facilitators’ “Certified Professional Facilitator,” Institute of Cultural Affairs’ “Certified ToP Facilitator,” International Institute for Facilitation’s “Certified Master Facilitator,” and others of various types and levels. Perhaps we have begun to standardize facilitation and the future will present us with interchangeable facilitators that reliably meet the same standards. However, there might be some undesirable consequences – reduced experimentation and innovation, greater difficulty for beginners to gain experience, disenfranchisement of those who can’t afford to become certified.

The Willys Lesson. My Father had a Jeep Station Wagon made by Willys-Overland Motors, once the second-largest American automobile manufacturer. Like many American automobile companies it was bought and sold and is no more, although its legacy lives on in the Chrysler Jeep Wrangler, Cherokee, etc. Of the more than a thousand automobile manufacturers and brands, relatively few exist today.

Perhaps that is what lies in the future of facilitation – more companies providing more varieties and brands of facilitation. The second edition of The Change Handbook (Holman, Devane, and Cady, 2007) describes more than 60 methods for whole system change, up from 18 in the first edition. The IAF Methods Database has 548 “methods for creating, leading and following up group meetings.” On the other hand, the Pattern Language for Group Process seeks “activities or qualities that repeat across many of those processes … commonalities that cross boundaries of method.” So perhaps over the next ten years we should be working toward a deeper understanding of the many methods, processes, tools, and techniques that will enable us to organize them in a coherent and parsimonious framework.

The Definition Lesson. Industry has difficulty agreeing on definitions, everything from “safe and effective” to “energy efficient” and “organic.” Wikipedia has a “disambiguation” page for facilitation that differentiates how the term is used in business, neuroscience, ecology, psychotherapy, education, adoptions, communication disorders, and illegal human trafficking. “Facilitation” can be an ambiguous term, “group facilitation” perhaps less so, but even this term can carry different meanings.

Perhaps in the future we will share the same distinctions between facilitation of group learning, decision making, and development, and between support groups, focus groups, and work groups. Or perhaps we will find another word or phrase to describe what we do or squeeze video-clip explanations on the backs of our holographic business cards.

I think I have pushed the “what can we learn from industry” metaphor far enough for now.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Advice for Helping Difficult Groups with Consensus


My colleague Lander Stoddard will be leading a session on consensus at the upcoming Southeast Regional Facilitation Conference. In preparation, he circulated the following question:
What are your top three things for helping difficult groups with consensus?
Here is the response I sent him.


1. Don't presume that you can't reach consensus.

Years ago I facilitated a group of about 35 people who were convened to talk about the future of the Adirondack Mountain region in New York. About half of them were oriented toward economic development, the other half toward environmental quality. Most of them already knew each other, and knew of their established positions and disagreements.

Part way through the meeting I sensed that they presumed – at a fundamental level – that they would not be able to agree on anything. I was desperate to open up the possibility that they might be able to agree on something. I said something like this:

“It seems to me that you think you know each other well enough to know that you won't be able to agree on anything. Maybe you're right. But we've had this sort of problem before. We had this sort of a problem in Philadelphia when we wrote the Declaration of Independence, but then we worked it out and on July 4th 1776 it was agreed on by an assembly of people in a room, just like we are. And we had this sort of a problem when we wrote the Constitution, but then finally, on September 17th 1787, it was agreed on by a bunch of people in a room just like us. Who knows? Who can say? Maybe this is the day and this is the place when we can agree on something about the Adirondacks. Is anyone willing to give it a try?”

They did, and over the next day produced a long list of consensus recommendations. Fundamental to it was the suspension of belief that they couldn't.

2. Don't presume that you already understand.

At another meeting I facilitated – involving about two dozen senior and mid-level policy makers from different departments in a regulatory organization – I heard the phrase “order of precedence” during a discussion of an important issue. I said to the group, “It's not clear to me what you mean by ‘order of precendece,’ but so long as it's clear to you all, there's no need to explain it to me.” They assured me that they all understood what it meant, and eager to get on with their discussion, they continued.

A while later, “order of precedence” seemed to take on an important role in the conversation. I interrupted again to ask, “OK, ‘order of precedence’ seems to be a significant factor. I don't understand it myself, but so long as you all understand it there's no need to take time out to explain it just for my benefit.” Again, they assured me that they all understood it.

As the conversation became prolonged, there seemed to be some kind of disconnect. I interrupted again and said, “I'm having difficulty making sense out of how things some of you are saying relate to things others of you are saying, and ‘order of precedence’ seems to be an important element. Now I know that you all know what ‘order of precedence’ means, but for my benefit it would be helpful if you could explain it to me.”

One of the participants, who had broad responsibility in the organization, generously offered, “When a company is bankrupt or liquidated, their assets are distributed to pay off the various creditors. We have to decide which creditors should receive payments first, and how much they should receive. That's the ‘Order of precedence.’”

From across the room came a somber voice. “That's not quite how it works. The ‘order of precedence’ is established in law and ultimately decided by the court. We have little to say about it.”

There was a long silence as half the room reckoned with this difference in meaning. When the conversation resumed, the issue was quickly resolved.

A common barrier to understanding is the assumption that “I already understand.” As a facilitator, my understanding may have no purpose except that it might be a vehicle for the group's understanding.

3. Exact wording matters

At a recent meeting with 16 people, each representing a different organization, there seemed to be easy (and unexpected) agreement on some important issues. We wrote a series of statements to capture the agreement. As you might expect, it took several iterations, late into that evening and again the following morning, before everyone could fully agree.

There were many difficult wording decisions, and there was one that the group kept revisiting. Several seemingly innocuous options were offerred: people/ citizens/ residents/ agencies/ not-for-profits/ entities. It wasn't until each of these alternatives was discussed, and the reasons for and against understood by all, that the group was able to agree on “individuals and organizations.”

In other situations I have marveled to see opposition changed to support as a result of a subtle word change. In one such case, a single person refused to lend their support to a proposal. The other members of the group asked questions and gradually came to understand the person's concerns. After about 20 minutes of talk and a lengthy silence someone proposed changing the word “happen” to “happened.” This recognized that something happened in the past, but didn't necessarily continue. That small change – and the understanding behind it – won the person's support.

To paraphrase John Dewey (My Pedagogic Creed), “Through the responses which others make to [our own words we] come to know what these mean in social terms.”


On further reflection I might choose a different “top three,” but this seems a reasonable start.

How would you respond?

Monday, August 1, 2011

My Name is Sandy Schuman and I Am a Group Facilitator

One of the challenges I’ve had is explaining to groups what I do as a group facilitator – how my role differs from theirs, and what they can expect. In the early part of my career, introducing myself as a facilitator had almost no value – people hadn’t heard the term and didn’t know what to make of it. These days, most people have not only heard the term, but they have been “facilitated” – and the experience has not always positive. So it’s still useful to explain my role as group facilitator, and not take a long time doing it. What follows is a generalized version of my introduction.
My name is Sandy Schuman and I am a group facilitator. My expertise is in how groups work and how to help groups work together more effectively. I'm not here because I have special knowledge regarding (the subject matter of this meeting) or because I know the workings of your organization(s), but even if I did, that's not my job today. My job is to focus on the process aspects of today's work, while yours is to apply your knowledge of the issue(s) and organization(s) to (the purpose or task at hand).
I would like to form a partnership with you for the course of this (meeting or project). I would like to rely on you for your knowledge about the (issues at hand) and about your organization(s) (and other organizations that might be involved). I would like you to rely on me for my expertise in collaborative problem solving and decision making and how we can work together effectively to address (the issues you face).
I would like permission to exercise some process leadership to help move things along, but I want to stay on my “side” of the room. (I draw an imaginary line across the room, between me from the group.) I would like to take some intiative regarding process issues, but I don't want to cross the line and directly address content issues; that's your side of the room. That's the “dark side of group facilitation,” and if you see me crossing that line I want you to call me on it, because I really don't want to be there.
On the other hand, you are welcome to come over on my side of the line any time you want. If you have a question about why we're doing something a certain way, or if you have an idea that might work better, please say so. I will be glad to explain the reasoning behind my process choices, and welcome the opportunity to learn of your ideas The choice of processes is yours, and indeed, so is your choice of facilitators, and whether or not you have a facilitator at all.
Shall we give this a try? Any questions about my role? Do you have any questions or comments before we take a look at a proposed agenda? ...
How’s that sound to you?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Advice for Establishing Priorities

The “ committee on staff retention” was charged with studying the issues and making recommendations to the senior management team. What follows is an excerpt from a series of emails with the chair of the committee in which I offered some advice on working with this group. This particular exchange focused on how the committee could select its top priorities from among all of the recommendations developed by its sub-groups.


The chair’s email:

I'd like your advice on how to proceed with my committee on staff retention. I'm trying to push the work along and produce a list of recommendations and priorities.

The homework assignment from the last meeting is for each of the subgroups to finish their drafts and build a list of recommendations. Also, each individual is to bring a list of recommendations.

For the next meeting, I would like to bring together all of the recommendations and vote on the top priorities. As a process, I was thinking of asking the subgroups and individuals to submit their lists ahead of time. We could combine these lists in advance and then, at the meeting, use a computer projector to view the results on a screen. We would then use the meeting to revise and finalize our priority recommendations. I haven't figured out the logistics of this yet but it sure seems we'd save a ton of time if we had the lists already combined at the beginning of the meeting. Then we could let folks pick their top three short-term recommendations and their top three long-term recommendations.

What do you recommend we do here? What do you think about asking for the lists ahead of time? Revising during the meeting? Asking for top three short-term and top three long-term recommendations? Did I make any mistakes here? Did I forget anything?


My response:

Your ideas are all good. Here are some additional thoughts.

In general, it's unlikely that everyone will do their homework. I've worked for groups that had a very strong “we always do our homework on time” culture, but this is unusual. So be prepared at the meeting to supplement the list of recommendations that were received in advance.

Review and clarify the list of recommendations. This will be the first time everyone is seeing all the recommendations, so you should review them. Further, as written, the recommendations may not be self-evidently clear (even though they were perfectly clear to their authors). To select the “ top three,” each person has to first understand each recommendation. Before voting, ask everyone to examine the complete list of recommendations and ask clarifying questions. A thorough way to do this is to read out loud each recommendation, one at a time, and ask if there are any questions. In addition, ask if there is any disagreement. That is, there might be some objection or reservation about a recommendation, which is a more fundamental issue than its priority.

Conduct preliminary vote. It should be clear why you are asking them to prioritize the recommendations, and how that prioritization will be used. For example, it could be that you're going to include only the top priority recommendations in the report, or it could be that you'll include all of them in the report, presented in priority order, or the executive summary could highlight only the “ Top X Recommendations,” or it could be that you'll highlight the top recommendations in each category.

In selecting the “top three” there's a tendency for people to pick recommendations that were developed by their subgroup, so it's useful to acknowledge this potential bias and ask people to overcome it. Some specific mechanisms you could use are: asking them to pick a number of recommendations that is larger than the number of recommendations they offered, asking them to select no more than X recommendations from their own group's list, or asking them to omit their own group's list altogether and select the highest priorities only from the other groups' lists.

Discuss and clarify the results. After the “ top three” selection, have a thorough discussion and clarification of the results. This is useful, even though you did the previous clarification task. There's nothing like seeing the results of a vote to stimulate questions. Ask people to explain why they voted for things that got low votes. (The one person who voted for something may be the only one who really understands it, and after hearing that explanation, others may choose to switch their votes.) Give people the opportunity to “ lobby” for a particular recommendation, explaining its importance. As group members clarify the recommendations and provide additional information, change or supplement the wording.

Conduct a second vote. As a result of the preceding discussion, it is likely that some people will see the priorities differently and their votes will change. From the start, the group should understand that there will be a preliminary vote, discussion and sharing of additional information, and then a second vote. This is useful because it reduces the attachment that people have to the first vote and makes it easier for them to remain open-minded and change their vote the second time. Once this vote is completed, check to find out if everyone is satisfied that this represents the group's collective sense of the priorities, or if anyone needs something to be changed so that they can genuinely say these are the group's priorities.

Figure out the next steps. It's likely that there are other issues you will have to address, such as exactly how these recommendations will be presented in the report and who will prepare the narrative, and which information should go in the executive summary, body of the report, and appendices. Here are a couple of possible follow-ups.

Ideally, the recommendations should be structured in comparable and complete ways. You can try to get everyone to use the same structure as they initially develop the recommendations in their sub-groups. See an example for providing guidance below. If the recommendations are not complete or consistent, you can fix this during the meeting or afterwards.

There may not be agreement on what are the “ short” and “ long” term recommendations. Be prepared for someone to identify this issue, but you might not need to address it unless it comes up. One option is to fix this afterwards. If there is disagreement on which issues are short- and long-term, you can temporarily treat the task as “identifying the top six issues” and sort out the long and short-term ones later.

Explain your process before it starts. Here's my example for an agenda. I think it is valuable to review this at the start so people have an idea of what you've planned and can make suggestions to improve the process.
  1. Review and clarify the list of recommendations.
  2. Supplement the list with additions.
  3. Conduct a preliminary vote.
  4. Discuss and clarify the results.
  5. Conduct a second vote.
  6. Identify remaining issues and next steps.
As for developing recommendations, here are two slides that I often use to help steer groups toward developing useful recommendations and presenting them in a consistent manner. I don’t know if this particular set of guidelines is right on target for your committee, but I think a clear set of guidelines – and a couple of examples – is very useful.
And here’s a structure that you could use for presenting recommendations. I think it is easier for the reader if all of the recommendations follow the same logic. Given the nature of your committee’s charge, it might not be appropriate to include all of the details suggested by this form. For example, it might be useful to use who to name an organizational unit, but not a specific individual, and it might be premature to specify when, although if there are timing or dependency issues, they could be taken into account.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Better Decisions or Winning the Argument: What is the Purpose of Reasoning?

The “argumentative theory of reasoning” suggests that our human capacity for reasoning has not evolved to find the truth, the most accurate answer, or the best decision. Rather, it proposes that the purpose of reasoning is to win arguments.

In “Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth” (New York Times, June 14, 2011), Patricia Cohen provides a brief overview of the theory. Among other observations, the article notes:
Groups are more likely than individuals to come up with better results … because they will be exposed to the best arguments. … [T]he arguing and assessment skills employed by groups make democratic debate the best form of government for evolutionary reasons, regardless of philosophical or moral rationales. … [R]easoned discussion works best in smaller, cooperative environments rather than in … adversarial system[s], in which partisans seek to score political advantage rather than arrive at consensus.
The full article is worthwhile. It reviews research on reasoning, inference making, argumentation, group reasoning, the confirmation bias, belief formation and perseverance, and decision making. Overall it supports the case for small-group decision making.

Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory,” by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 57-74, April 2011.

The commentaries that accompany the article – some supportive and some counter – are extremely valuable. Those interested in dialogue and deliberation should look in particular at “Deliberative democracy and epistemic humility” by Kevin Chien-Chang Wu (pp. 93-94).

Sunday, June 5, 2011

When to Use an Outside Facilitator

A “frequently asked question” from people who work with groups and teams is, “When should we bring in an outside facilitator instead of someone within the organization?” Several years ago, as part of a book chapter on the role of group facilitation, I wrote a brief assessment guide for this question. It has turned out to be one of my most reprinted articles. If you would like a copy of my recent revision, which appears in Working with Difficult Groups, you can download here.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

My Commencement Speech at Mentor University

I heard a number of commencement speeches this graduation season, some good and some – well – they should have been shorter. Reflecting on them I wondered, what makes a good commencement speech, and what would I say if I were asked to be a commencement speaker?

Below is my response, in the form of my speech to the 2011 graduating class at Mentor University. Mentor University is not at real university, but that’s OK, because this isn’t a real commencement speech.

I rise to the podium and proceed as follows:

A good commencement speech should be:

  • Wise – providing useful advice and insights into the future;
  • Entertaining – to amuse the spirits of graduates, family, and friends; and
  • Short – it's hot, it’s stuffy, there is impending rain, and all anyone really wants is to see their graduate get his or her diploma and then go out to eat.
While I aspire to be wise and entertaining, my children have advised me to be short. As I heard Dean Frank Thompson say, “There is no such thing as a bad, short speech.” So I have three things I want to say.
  1. Keep learning
  2. Appreciate feedback
  3. Ask good questions

Here’s the first: Keep Learning.

Now that your schooling is completed, you are prepared to learn. When you learned to drive a car, you first obtained a learner’s permit and then a driver’s license. But the real development of your driving skills, the continuing process of mastering those skills, began after you received that license. So it is with the diploma you receive today – treat it as a license to learn.

To stretch this analogy further, you did not learn to drive alone. At first you had a teacher, but then, license in hand, you were alone behind the wheel. You learned from other drivers. You learned habits from them – ways of interacting – safe and courteous habits, we hope, but also perhaps, ones less so. So too in the world of work. You will learn from others. Be conscious of what you learn and whose habits you acquire. Learn what is right and good.

Here’s the second: Appreciate Feedback.

At the foundation of your continuing education and personal growth is the feedback – positive and negative – that you can receive from those who are close to you. Encourage and benefit from it. Think of it this way – if I hadn't asked my kids for feedback on this presentation, you'd be hearing a longer speech.

And the third: Ask Good Questions.

Whether at a job interview, on the job, or in a meeting, ask good questions. The key to asking good questions is listening. Listen to what others say, and ask about what they meant; clarify before you evaluate. As Moses Maimonides said, “Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not understand.’” People learn more about you from the questions you ask than from the answers you give.

I said I would say three things. I said them. I'm done.

The audience bursts into delighted and rambunctious applause.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Advice for Building a Collaborative

I received an email from a woman who had written a grant proposal to expand an existing program. The funding agency referred her to me. At the risk of this sounding like an advice column, here is an excerpt.
Through the process of applying for the grant, I became interested in opening up the decision making that we do, and otherwise improving our group process to broaden the base of support – and I don't mean only financially. We‘re really seeing a need for it – this is the type of program that we feel can be so very beneficial for a community, and we'd love to see it grow and spread and we'd love to find ways we can facilitate that. We have put tons of time into it, and realize that we simply can't keep it up ourselves – we need to bring others in somehow. We‘re right now in the thick of getting going for this year‘s program. I'd really like to concentrate on the above. Do you have any advice for us?

I'd be glad to help out.

Here are some preliminary suggestions for building a collaborative. I think it is useful to distinguish convening a group (as in getting the group together) from facilitating a group (as in facilitating a meeting). In the convening stage, which is the stage I think you're at now, it's useful to think about four things.

1. Meaning. People will get involved in your collaborative if it has meaning to them. A statement of purpose is useful. Think about creating one as a vehicle for engaging others and inviting them into the collaborative. Be willing to accept their comments and revise the “purpose” accordingly.

2. Understanding. It is important for the participating individuals and organizations to understand each other – their purposes, how they work, their short- and long-term needs, their understanding of important issues and problems. And to have genuine understandings replace misconceptions and presumptions

3. Choices. You mentioned that you want to “open up the decision making that we do.” It might be useful to make a list of the decisions you‘re making, especially those that have an impact on the purpose. Again, think about this as a vehicle for engaging others and inviting them into the collaborative.

4. Relationships. Whose involvement would help accomplish the purpose? For whom would this collaborative be meaningful? Whose expertise and perspective would be valuable in making those decisions? What role would it be useful for them to play in the collaborative?

Meaning is what we want.
Understanding is what we need.
Choices are what we make.
Relationships are what we have.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Where is the Front of the Room

I try to keep up with the discussions on the Internet related to groups, facilitation, and collaboration. One of them is the Professional Facilitators Network on LinkedIn. Of the various topics in that group, I was surprised that the one generating the most responses is When a meeting room has no windows ...

Should I be surprised? In this technological age, should the presence or lack of windows in a meeting room draw so much interest?

At other times, amidst discussions of the best meeting-support software and the best computer projector, I have typically argued that the most important technology for the group is the meeting room. And it is often the least flexible and the most overlooked.

Recently I conducted one of my two-day group facilitation workshops. In preparation, the facility staff asked how I would like the room set up. I said, “Leave it however it was used by the previous group; we’ll set up the room ourselves.”

At the start of the workshop, the participants arrived to find the room a mess. I said, “As group facilitators, we have to take responsibility for the meeting room arrangements. So let’s figure out how we want to set up the room for ourselves.” After some discussion about how many tables we needed the group started to create a “U” shape with the open end towards the projection screen.

“Wait, ” I said. “Where is the front of the room? ”

After some puzzled looks, I explained that I found this a useful way to think about where to show the information that is presented and collected during the meeting and how to position the participants so they can see that information and see and hear each other. Ideally, we would
  • minimize the physical distance between each person and every other person,
  • enable each person to make eye contact with every other person without having to reposition themselves (which means sitting in curved lines is better than straight lines and round tables are better than rectangular ones), and
  • do the same for each person and the information that is displayed.
For this workshop we would be using both the computer projector, which was mounted in the ceiling facing a screen at the narrow end of the room, and a large number of flip chart pages that would be best displayed on the only large section of unobstructed wall on the long side of the room. We prepared the wall with several blank sheets of flip-chart paper and positioned the tables in an L-shape so the participants could see both the wall and the projection screen. In a sense we set up the room with two “fronts,” and would alternate between them, making the best of the meeting space at hand.

As Patricia Tuecke concluded in her chapter, “The Architecture of Participation, ” in The IAF Handbook of Group Facilitation , “Space arrangements … can bring a vibrant energy, wholeness, and balance into group deliberations and dialogue by honoring all participants, making it easy for them to hear and see everything, and not letting one position adversely dominate the discussion.”

Selecting and adapting the meeting space is fundamental to effective communication and building interpersonal relationships. What is your approach?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

To Share, Perchance to Merge

From the halls of governments addressing shrinking revenues, to the sanctuaries of religious organizations coping with declining congregations, sharing resources and merging organizations is on the agenda.

A colleague from New York’s Oswego County used to joke that the contiguous villages of Sandy Creek and Lacona had not merged because “We could never agree on which volunteer fire company would be named Fire Company Number 1.” While affectionately trivializing the reasons for maintaining the independence of these two small villages this quip reveals an underlying truth: we are often separated by our shared identity.

The more similar we are, the more we strive to distinguish ourselves. Small differences can be magnified and even divide us. Think sibling rivalry; family feud.

Differentiation enables organizations to diversify, specialize, pursue focused aims, develop tailored approaches, and be held intimately accountable by their membership or constituency.

Maintaining multiple organizations with similar or overlapping functions, even though each serves a legitimate special purpose, can be costly. In earlier times, when the costs of transportation and communication were high, geographic distance itself justified multiple organizations or service centers. This is the likely reason why Oswego County has two county seats. Given this area’s history of impassible snowfalls, the 45 mile trip from Redfield to the City of Oswego would be a burden to anyone conducting official county business or making a court appearance, justifying a second county seat in the Village of Pulaski.*

However, geography no longer separates us as it used to. Transportation (by modern highways, roads, and vehicles) and communication (by cell phone, email, instant messaging, websites, and video) link us together in ways that have outstripped our physical and organizational arrangements. Rather than maintaining separate resources – physical, human, and information – for each existing organization, it’s time to reconsider these arrangements in light of modern technology. President Obama recognized this in his State of the Union message when he noted, “the last major reorganization of the government happened in the age of black and white TV.” It’s time to consider arrangements that in the past were not economical or simply not possible.

Perhaps most important is to consider the impact of information technology. It has largely replaced paper-based communication and recordkeeping, and has reduced our need to travel given the availability of audio and video communication, pod casts and web conferences. No longer is travel necessary to work or conduct business with someone.

From a consumer perspective, the receipt of many products and services no longer requires the intervention of an intermediary: we are accustomed to self-service. That goes for supermarkets (what customer today, except in an old movie, hands a list of needed goods to a store clerk who then fetches them from behind the counter), gasoline stations (except in New Jersey, where self-service gasoline stations are prohibited), and many government services: from getting a dog license (using a web-based application) to filing federal income taxes (in 2010, nearly 70 percent of the taxpayers, 100 million people, filed with the IRS electronically). Information technology even lets us choose how we obtain those products and services. We have customized self-service.

Deciding if and how we can share resources or merge requires first a willingness to collaborate and suspension of the assumption that it won’t work. Next, it requires information about those organizations and their resources and operations. Again, information shows its central role in how we organize. Information and information technology enable us to manage and use our other resources more effectively, and with greater economy of scale.

* P.S. Don’t think I’m picking on Oswego County. Perhaps the villages of Sandy Creek and Lacona should merge. However, years ago they jointly built a single school building that straddles their shared border. They know how to share resources, and perhaps they can take advantage of new technologies to do that more extensively. And perhaps one of the county seats should be closed, but for a county with a history of heavy snowfalls (for example, in early February 2007, this area received over ten feet of snow) perhaps Oswego’s two county seats are warranted. Ultimately, this is a local decision, but the assumptions of the past should be set aside and replaced by the potential application of current technology, a fresh analysis of the economy of scale, and willingness to seek collaborative advantage.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

“Informed Choice” versus “Participation:” Competing Democratic Values

As a new member of a community organization, I attended my first general membership meeting. Independent of the meeting, a referendum was underway regarding a somewhat controversial proposal. Although the meeting had a specific agenda that did not include the referendum, a number of people expressed dissatisfaction with the referendum process. The next day, I submitted some comments about the discussion of the referendum process and its implications for a revision. Since this situation brings into focus an issue that many organizations face—the competition between the values of “informed choice” and “participation”— I present my comments here without referring to the specific organization involved.

Some thoughts on last night’s meeting

In their comments about the referendum process, a number of speakers cited the Organization’s democratic values. I think it would be helpful to reflect on the particular democratic values in question, and consider them in developing an improved referendum process.

It seemed to me that one of the implicit democratic values was “informed choice,” the idea that each member should make a choice on the proposal, but that choice should be informed by the facts and views of others. Objections to the referendum process seemed to center on the lack of opportunity to exchange information and different points of view regarding the proposal. In short, the referendum process did not adequately support “informed choice.”

Putting “informed choice” into practice presents an important question: How do you know when you have sufficient information? An individual could say, “I have enough information to make a choice; I don’t need any more; I’m ready to vote.” But another person could say, “Wait! Don’t vote yet! You haven’t heard my point of view! I haven’t had the opportunity to influence your choice, and what I have to say is important and no one else has said it.”

At its democratic best, a decision-making process includes an agreed-on method for collectively determining when sufficient information and perspectives have been exchanged and the group is ready to make an informed choice. For example, Roberts Rules of Order includes the motion, “Previous Question” (or “call the question” or “close debate”), which—if passed—closes discussion and brings the main motion to a vote. It requires first that the presiding officer recognize the person “calling the question,” and then that the motion is seconded and then approved by a two-thirds vote. This represents a collective decision that the group is now capable of making an informed choice. Consensus decision-making processes often follow a more stringent practice that requires discussion to continue until every person who has something to say has the opportunity to do so, the equivalent of “Previous Question” with the requirement of a unanimous vote.

Regarding this particular matter, I was puzzled by the Organization’s decision-making process in two instances during the meeting. First, regarding the budget vote, towards the end of the discussion the presiding officer announced that some people had already left the meeting and submitted their ballots (before the question had been called). This provides an example of a process in which individuals can decide for themselves when they have sufficient information, whether or not others feel that they have had the opportunity to inform them. A similar situation occurred during the vote on the proposed change to the policy manual, when the person presenting the proposal asked members to complete their ballots while the discussion was still underway.

These practices were likely driven by another democratic value, “participation.” That is, affording all members the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. Enabling people to vote prior to the end of discussion allows people to vote even if they cannot (or choose not to) stay any longer at the meeting. This value also drives the referendum process. As someone explained at the meeting, the purpose of holding a referendum rather than conducting a regular meeting to decide the issue was to enable more people to participate.

We can view these values—“informed choice” and “participation”—as competing with each other. That is, the more information required, the more time it takes, and the fewer the number of people who are inclined or able to invest that time and participate in making the decision. In reviewing and perhaps revising the referendum policy, the challenge will be to create a process that maximizes and balances the democratic values of “informed choice” and “participation.”

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Schuman's Rules of Problem Solving

When I lead workshops on collaborative problem solving and decision making, I often refer to my “Rules of Problem Solving.” Here they are.

First Rule of Problem Solving: Don't be sure you have the right problem or purpose.

It is often useful to have a clear description of the problem and a statement of the purpose of the project or meeting. But sometimes the originally-stated purpose turns out to be unsatisfactory to some of those who become involved. So it’s important to be ready to modify the problem or purpose to accommodate those perspectives.

An Example: The new Research Director was alarmed at the high overhead costs and low utilization rates of his analytical chemistry laboratories. At a time of tight budgets, this was not sustainable. He hired me to facilitate a Study Team whose purpose—stated in a well-crafted “charge to the study team”—was to “recommend an optimal organization plan.” Armed with this purposeful document I felt confident in my ability to facilitate the group.

At its first meeting, members of the Study Team were outraged! The Director did not understand the particular natures of their laboratories or the conditions under which they operated. After considerable storming, I asked the group to suggest changes to the Director’s “charge to the study team.” They supplemented the above purpose statement to read “recommend an optimal organization plan that takes into account the commonalties as well as the differences among the existing laboratories” and made several other changes to take into account a broader range of issues, such as “how overhead charges and allocations are determined,” and “how decisions should be made regarding which equipment should be purchased.”

Now it seemed we had it right, but as the project proceeded, I kept wondering, do we have the right problem?

Second Rule of Problem Solving: Don't be sure you have the right people.

The people who participate in a collaborative effort make all the difference in its effectiveness. Who should be involved, and how and when they should be involved, are critical questions. If you don’t have the right people, you might not even obtain an adequate understanding of the problem.

An Example: I was asked to facilitate a meeting in a hierarchical organization in which a supervisor and subordinate employee had a longstanding conflict. There were about a dozen people in the room, and we all introduced ourselves. As the facilitator, I restated the organization’s formal ground rules for such meetings and ascertained that everyone understood and agreed to them. We then proceeded to hear from the employee about the nature of the conflict and what she wanted by way of resolution. A number of people asked clarifying questions and contributed supplementary information. After a series of questions to the employee from one particular person, the employee asked that person, “What are you doing here anyway? Are you collecting information to be used in a legal proceeding?” The person denied that was the case (this was not allowed by the organization’s ground rules), but it was only from the ensuing discussion that I came to realize two important things: first, that the person who had been asking questions was a lawyer in the employee relations division, and second, the supervisor who was involved in the conflict was not even present! At this point, the employee and her colleagues left the meeting, but if I had realized that one of the key individuals was not present, I would not have agreed to proceed with the meeting in the first place.

So the meeting was a failure, and made no contribution to improving the workplace relationships. It could have been avoided if I had the presence of mind to ensure that the right people were present.

Third Rule of Problem Solving: Don't be sure you have the right process or method.

When we plan problem-solving and decision-making processes, we have to make assumptions about the nature of the problem and the purpose that the group wants to fulfill. Sometimes the assumptions we make are on the mark, and the plan works effectively. Sometimes we have to change the plan, even drastically, building on what we learned up to that point.

An Example: The purpose of the Railroad Bridge Underclearance Committee was “to determine an appropriate standard for the vertical clearance of highway bridges over railroad lines.” This was important and timely since several major highway construction projects were about to get underway and many highway bridges would be rebuilt. If at any time in the next 75 years they were to be rebuilt to provide the higher clearances that would accommodate new types of rail shipping equipment, now was the time to do it.

As facilitators, we recommended that the Committee use a systematic matrix evaluation method. First, we worked with the Committee to establish a set of evaluation criteria. Second, we asked them to list the alternative clearances—18 feet, 20 feet, 22 feet, etc. Third, we asked them to describe each of the alternatives on each of the criteria. As we worked with these experts through a two-day decision conference it became apparent that this form of analysis was not enough. Indeed, the performance of a particular alternative on a specific criterion varied, depending on the railroad. For example, increasing the clearance to 22 feet on a railroad that ran through a sparsely populated section had little impact on the cost criterion, but a big impact on cost for a railroad that ran through a densely populated area. Towards the end of the conference we shifted to a resource allocation method that looked at the benefits and costs for each of five different railroads, and selected the alternative clearance that provided the highest benefit/cost ratio for each.

While the method we choose is a function of both the people and the purpose, it is useful to consider multiple methods, select the best fit, and still be ready to switch during the meeting if it seems appropriate.

Some additional thoughts.

You don’t know who the right people are until you have the right problem, but then, it’s the people in the room who ultimately define the problem! So the people and the problem define each other in an iterative process. And proposing a process or method often helps to clarify the problem, which in turn helps to clarify which people should be involved. They’re inter-related and inter-dependent.

Lastly, it would be more positive to state these rules in the form, “Be sure …” instead of “Don't be sure…” But it could create a trap. If I am sure that I have the right problem or purpose, the right people, and the right process or method, then I am less open to discovering that I do not have them right. Collaborative problem solving and decision making is sufficiently complex and dynamic that being close-minded about such things can lead to failures. So it’s important to proceed with an open mind and consider that even these fundamental aspects of a collaborative activity might be subject to change.

This article appeared in the IAF Europe Newsletter, February 2011, pp. 22-24.