Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Unaccustomed Participant

I never knew who this guy was, but even before the meeting started he sought me out. Undoubtedly he had just arrived from the airport for this big meeting we were running for the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the Great Flood of '93, when the Mississippi overflowed its banks for months. He walked right up to me, a mass of curly black hair, green-canvas backpack slung over one shoulder. He extended his hand, not to shake mine, but to push a computer disk in my face. “This is my recommendation,” he said, “I need to print this out.”

I was taken aback. Perhaps he didn't understand how these meetings worked. I explained, “We're not ready for recommendations yet. We have 150 experts coming here from all over the country. This afternoon we'll start our bus tour, visiting various disaster sites to learn the specifics of this situation. Tomorrow we'll return here and split up into eight different work groups, each focusing on a different problem area. The day after we'll develop consensus recommendations. Recommendations before we even get started would be premature.” Frustrated, he turned away.

The participants toured agricultural lands that had been flooded, levies that had been breached, buildings whose ground floors were filled with mud left by receding waters, whole villages that had been submerged. They returned to the Hazard Mitigation Conference with a first-hand understanding of the disaster far deeper than one gained by reading the newspaper or watching television news reports. They set to work in their groups, following the detailed procedure we had laid out for analyzing the problems and developing recommendations. Each group had it own facilitator, and they came to me if they ran into any problems.

It wasn't long before one of the facilitators came to me during a coffee break. “There's one guy in my group who is a real pain,” she said. “He doesn't seem to understand the process; he's very impatient. Could you talk to him? He's that guy over there with the curly black hair and the backpack.”

I talked to him again. I assured him that he would be able to present his recommendation, but that he had to work with the rest of his group. The others were perhaps not as far along in their thinking as he was and he had to work with them. He appeared to calm down.

I heard from that facilitator many times during the conference, sharing with me her frustrations with this participant. Finally, she reported with some relief that the whole group was fed up with this guy's quirky and disruptive behavior, that he was a real – let me say – “unaccustomed participant,” and that they were just ignoring him.

Ultimately each group developed a series of recommendations, posted on the walls of its work area on flip chart paper. In the next stage, each group visited each of the other seven groups. They could comment on the other groups' recommendations and even add new ones if they thought a particular idea had been omitted. It was only at this stage that our “unaccustomed participant” – rejected by his own group, but persistent nonetheless – conformed to our procedure and wrote his recommendation on a sheet of flip chart paper and posted it on the wall with the others.

The final step involved the assessment of priorities. There were a couple of hundred recommendations, and we asked the participants to choose twenty that were most important. Each participant received twenty sticky dots – half-inch self-adhesive paper circles – and they could wander around the conference floor, visiting each group's recommendations, putting a sticky dot on each of the twenty recommendations that they felt were most important.

We counted up the sticky dots and arranged the recommendations in priority order. The participants came together in one large group and reviewed the results – the top recommendations plastered all over the front wall. There was general affirmation that these were the most important recommendations. Various individuals offered summary comments and closing insights. Then everyone went back to the airport, to their home base.

Afterwards, the troubled facilitator with the “unaccustomed participant” approached me. “Did you notice the recommendation at the top of the list, the one with the most votes?” “Yes,” I replied, “it's a great recommendation. It gets to the very heart of the problem; among all the recommendations it's the only one that presents a long-term strategy for the prevention of great floods like this one. That recommendation came from your group, didn't it?” “Yes, and no,” she replied. “That recommendation came from the man with the curly black hair and the backpack.”

© 2000 Sandor Schuman. Permission is granted to use this story so long as the title above is used and attribution is given to the author. For suggestions on how to use stories like this in training workshops, see my post on Stop Action Storytelling.

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