‘Interpersonal Leadership Styles’ Assessment for High Functioning, Collaborative Teams

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ILS teaches how to ‘flex’ for different styles

“Wow,” said Robert, looking over at me with a big smile. “They are REALLY loving this!”  Robert Gass, master facilitator and co-founder of the Rockwood Leadership Institute, sat beside co-trainer Gibran Rivera and I in the sunlit meeting room at Devil’s Thumb Ranch, high in the mountains of Colorado. The three of us were watching our hilarious, brilliant colleague, Jose Acevedo, exuberantly leading a group of 24 leaders through a half-day training on Interpersonal Leadership Styles. It is one of the most popular modules in Rockwood’s year-long Leading from the Inside Out program for national non-profit leaders.  Four groups of participants were clustered around flipcharts in in each corner of the room. The energy of each group was remarkably different: some were laughing and punching one another on the shoulders, others were fiercely debating, some pondering silently and gently offering suggestions to one another, as they reflected on their different working styles.  And they were, indeed, loving it.

In fact, I have heard back now from dozens of leaders about the power and impact of having gone through a team-wide training in Interpersonal Leadership styles. Why? People walk away with a keener sense of their blind spots and their strengths as leaders – and of their team-mates’. Rather than feeling judged for those differences, or limited by narrow definitions (something I had feared), it turns out that participants become vastly more appreciative, not just tolerant, of one another’s differences.

The ability to work across difference and to harvest the gifts those differences bring is an essential skill for today’s leaders.  Leaders simply must become adept at recognizing and working with not only differences of power and rank as expressed through race, sexual orientation, class, and ability, but differences in style.  Interpersonal Leadership Styles, or ILS, is an accessible tool that supports this kind of learning. And it offers immediate take-aways in terms of how to flex, even in periods of stress, to make the most of one anothers’ unique perspectives.

Interpersonal Leadership Styles is one of several typologies over the past several decades based on the work of Jung and others, to help map out the different leadership styles individuals tend to bring to their teams. Other typologies you may have heard of include Myers-Briggs, Colby, or DISC. It turns out they are all based on largely the same body of Jungian-based social science research – just packaged differently. But the concept isn’t new. In fact, the Chinese first invented work-related typologies over 4,000 years ago, to help assign civil servants to appropriate roles based on their unique styles and aptitudes.

I and most of my other fellow leadership trainers at Rockwood chose to get certified in ILS because, compared to other systems, we found it simpler to grasp and apply immediately. Most of the sessions I facilitate are between 2.5 and 3 hours, although full-day versions are also offered by many of Stratton Consultants’ licensees.  And while at first I resisted pursuing certification in any such system, I became convinced after repeatedly observing the power of teams who embrace their stylistic differences.

For more information about ILS, contact Stratton Consulting.

Communicating with your Virtual Team, Part 2: Facilitating Conference Calls

Some of us feel like we spend half our lives in meetings – mostly by conference call. Here are a few tips to make the time snappy and productive.

Last week I facilitated a short planning session by phone for a virtual team. In the brief post-meeting evaluation, I was struck with how happy the group was about such commonplace meeting format. It got me reflecting on a couple of best practices I use as a facilitator to make the most of conference calls:

1. Do a POP: as with any meeting, clarify the Purpose, Outcome and THEN the Process before calling the meeting, and at the beginning of the call. For example:

  • Is the PURPOSE of the call to plan an upcoming strategy session with the whole board – or just to share information?
  • Is the desired OUTCOME to make a clear decision, or simply some shared context across a group that will be planning together in the future?  

Then clarify the PROCESS, especially:

  • What prep is needed? Is there any pre-reading that needs to be circulated in advance? 
  • How long do you have for the total call?
  • What are the priority agenda items?
  • How much time will each topic need?
  • Who is facilitating? Presenting?
  • Who’s taking notes, and how will these be distributed
  • Who’s on the call?

2. Practice “Conocimiento: Always start with a brief check-in.  As my Rockwood co-trainer Michael Bell continually reminds me, “go slow to go fast.”  It’s not just a lovely thing to do: at the end of the day, teams that have taken the time to build trusting human relationships tend to function more efficiently and creatively,  especially during times of crisis, stress or when rapid-response is called for.  So take just a few minutes, even on a conference call, to share appreciations and see how everyone’s doing. One great simple question to ask is, “where are you right now – what are you looking at?”  When we engage our mind’s eye in seeing our fellow callers, it brings us that much closer together, even as disembodied beings.

3. Use frequent “rounds”, and call people out. In a face-to-face meeting, facilitators are trained to do the opposite – we avoid calling on people by name, because it could force some to participate in a large group when they’re not ready or willing; it can be pushy or disrespectful. But on conference calls, I can’t read the body language of people wanting to speak. If I simply ask “what does everyone think”, we risk:

  • Vast, excruciatingly long silences
  • Only hearing from the same 2 brave and hasty souls who happen to jump in really fast each time a question is called
  • Repeatedly having two or more people tripping over one another as they jump in at the same time.

So I keep the list of participants in front of me and simply do ‘rounds’ – calling the name of each person on the call in order.  This is especially important when we’re capturing decisions.

4. Stay abreast of the tech: Technology to facilitate interaction for remote groups is quickly becoming effective and affordable. More groups and trainers I know are now experimenting with Maestro or similar systems aimed at maximizing group participation in a strictly auditory environment (i.e., you can do small group breakouts AND still wear your pajamas!).  They not only allow up to dozens of participants to call in to one central line from anywhere in the world, but people can ‘raise their hands’ to ask questions or offer comments, with the moderator tracking it all on a web-based dashboard. Participants can also be broken out into small groups for more intimate discussion, with auditory facilitators supporting the conversations or ‘lurking’ until needed.  Of course, people can be looking at shared documents at the same time, even using simple web-based collaborative platforms like Google Drive, that allow multiple viewers to edit the same document in real time, with colour-coding or other visual cues indicating who is making what changes.

5. Commit to continual learning:  Even if you don’t have time to do a brief evaluation at the end of every meeting, commit to doing it after every two to three calls.  Honest, direct, kind feedback is the only way individuals and teams can learn about what to keep doing or do more of, and what to avoid, in order to maximize their future performance.  At the end of the day, social change leaders are aiming for results – and a continual practice of giving and receiving skillful feedback can help us achieve more powerful results with less effort in the long run.

For other great tips on virtual teams, see:  http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2013/04/how_to_avoid_virtual_miscommun.html  and

http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/03/how_to_conduct_a_virtual_meeti.html

Communicating with your Virtual Team, Part 1

Here are a few of my best tips and practices for communicating across virtual teams: when to use email, phone, videoconference and precious face-time to maximize relationships, power and results.

Last week I was in New York co-facilitating a training session on communications in the context of teams, partnership and collaboration. One of our participants raised a familiar question: what do you do when your team is “virtual”?  In fact, either due to budget constraints or concern about their carbon footprint, non-profits are increasingly communicating remotely – and some tips and best practices are floating to the top. Here are just a few:

Face to face: This is still the gold standard of all communication. And, until we’re all sporting our own personalized holoprojectors, this isn’t likely to change. Research shows that more than half of all human communication is conveyed through body language; another third is conveyed through tone. The key for virtual teams is to carefully maximize precious face-time: make it count.  Choose face-to-face meetings for building relationships and  anything requiring creativity, synergy, complex decision-making, any sort of visual planning or strategizing and especially for ‘courageous conversations’ (a ‘courageous conversation’ is one where “opinions vary, stakes are high, and emotions run strong”).  For things like basic information-sharing, use well-crafted, pre-circulated briefing notes, webinars, written communication, conference calls – but save your costly face to face time for the high-octane, high priority work that can’t get done well through any other format.

Phone: I confess: when a conversation could get a bit complicated, sometimes my Inner Coward would rather hit the keyboard than risk the more intimate, two-way and possibly lengthier mode of communicating in real-time. Sadly, that ‘safety’ is an illusion. Courageous or complicated conversations often get messier – which gets MORE time-consuming and complicated, not less – due to the sheer limitations of text-only communications. So pick up the damned phone, already!

Better yet: use Skype video or Facetime.  At least then you can benefit from at least choppy and partly pixelated facial expressions to go along with the full range of vocal tone.  In fact, all of my current coaching clients live in other cities – so all of our sessions are by skype video or phone.  This honestly feels almost as impactful as face-to-face – as long as I use the following practices:

  • Make sure I’m in a comfortable, quiet place
  • Turn off all unnecessary devices and monitors. Let’s face it, most of us are completely ADHD now with our devices – so I chooseto get rid of the temptation altogether.
  • If I need my laptop for note-taking, I at least turn off all other programs and close all tabs – again, removing the temptation to get distracted by the endless flow of incoming messages
  • Minimize all visual stimulation (no TV in the background or staring out my window at the unfolding dramas of the street below…)
  • Stay present. Of course, this is really what it’s all about. I strive to practice using the ‘muscle of my attention’, over and over, to come back to the present moment and make the most of our time together as disembodied beings. It makes a MASSIVE difference.

Email: Email is the main way more people over 20 years old communicate. It’s super-efficient, easy to copy and forward to others, easy to include links to further information…  It’s also tricky,  especially for more complex or ‘difficult’ conversations. Did that exclamation mark convey happy tail-wagging enthusiasm – or is the writer shouting at me? Was that period at the end of the sentence a calm, gentle downtone – or an abrupt, sardonic hiss? For any complicated conversations, avoid email. It’s really a last resort, with the greatest potential to create misunderstandings and time-consuming messes that then have to be cleaned up.

For everyday email, please, here are a few basic practices to minimize digital clutter and spare your colleagues the torture of endless unnecessary email threads:

  1. Don’t squander the CC field. Make sure anyone who MUST be copied is – and not one person more
  2. Pause before blithely pounding on the “reply all” key: Really. Does EVERYONE need to know that yes, you liked the article or no, you can’t make the meeting?
  3. POP it: clarify your desired purpose and outcome in the subject line. Is your email for information only? Urgent action? Calendarizing? Feedback? Decision? Start doing this – and better yet, get your whole team to adopt the practice – and you will be an Email Efficiency hero, I promise. It’s smart, helps others focus on what’s important and yields faster results for everyone.
  4. Use “priority flags’ sparingly. Otherwise, you risk sounding endlessly hysterical. Just as bad, you’ll be seen as the kid who ‘cried wolf’ once too often, and everyone will start ignoring your flags anyways.

Beyond the message box: Facilitating an “oppositional role-play”

Whether developing a “message box” or dealing with internal strategy debates, social change advocates sometimes have difficulty truly understanding the ‘other side’. There’s a fine line between a healthy diversity of views, and out-and-out, ego-based positioning. As facilitators, there are a number of techniques we can use to help loosen those deeply oppositional patterns. One of them is through role-playing. Here, I share a short case study of an ‘oppositional role-play’ I’ve used with a few groups to help go beyond entrenched viewpoints so that more meaningful listening and understanding – and sometimes surprising new solutions – can be achieved.

In last week’s post about developing a campaign message box, I described how often social change advocates have difficulty truly understanding the ‘other side’. Without that understanding, it is hard to effectively inoculate against or counter the arguments of opponents.  But even more importantly, being so stubbornly entrenched in our own positions makes it difficult to move forward toward lasting, shared solutions. And of course, sometimes the ‘other side’ is us: opposing points of view exist within healthy, smart teams. This is a very good thing – otherwise we risk the dull homogeneity and conformity of ‘groupthink’, and all the blind spots and lack of creativity it engenders.  But there is a fine line between a healthy diversity of views, and out-and-out, ego-based positioning.  As facilitators, there are a number of techniques we can use to help loosen those deeply oppositional patterns. One of them is through role-playing.

Earlier this Spring I was facilitating a planning retreat with a coalition of non-profit leaders embroiled in a difficult strategy debate. It was after lunch; people were sleepy, those hideous fluorescent lights were flickering ever so slightly, the arguments were repetitive, and a couple of people were starting to emotionally check out. At this point, the group was ‘looping’: repeating the same arguments and counter-arguments, talking at (versus with) one another and not really getting anywhere.

As I watched, it became clear that one particularly passionate member – let’s call him Jim – wasn’t really listening or responding to the other side in the debate. So I asked if he’d be willing to do a brief role-play – in reverse. In other words, I asked Jim to suspend his own position for a few minutes to role-play the perspectives and messages of his ‘opponents’ within the group. Another volunteer – who disagreed with him pretty vehemently – gamely stepped in to represent Jim’s real arguments. Immediately, the group perked up (was there just the faintest touch of Gladiator in the room?!).

At first, it was painful to watch. Jim had a strong self-image as being a great listener, open to new ideas and largely free from ego-attachment to his positions. In fact, many of us feel that way about ourselves; yet when it comes to issues we care passionately about, virtually all of us could use a little work and support in the ‘deep listening’ department.  Mere seconds into the role-play, it became apparent that Jim wasn’t really getting the opposing arguments at all, despite having heard many of them for weeks.  He was barely able to articulate them. Even when he did, he could barely do so without sneering!

“Come on, Jim”, I urged him, “make us believe!! Convince us! Say it like you really mean it!!”   He chuckled sheepishly,  took a deep breath, and tried again. After a while – egged on with some friendly heckling from the sidelines – he began to really fill the shoes of the other side – to really start embodying (and therefore understanding more deeply) a perspective that was very different from his own.

As soon as each side relinquished their stubborn grasp on entrenched positions, things got interesting. The tenor in the room changed noticeably – and a longstanding ‘energetic’ (and intellectual) log-jam finally broke.  At this point, egos were set aside so that each party was truly listening to the other.

The concept of ‘deep listening’ to resolve conflicts isn’t new. As author Steven Covey urges,  “seek first to understand, then to be understood”.  Only then is an authentic collaborative solution – or at the very least, a more thoughtful solution – truly possible. Role-plays offer a chance to really work this concept, forcing us to go beyond a surface understanding of very different positions so that we may fully embody and deeply understand them. At the very least, if we are still simply countering those positions, we will be far more convincing and effective. At the same time, deep understanding allows us to go beyond the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ framing of the message box to hold more complexity, and possibly discover new creative solutions to tired, rigid perspectives.

Authentic facilitation: Two upcoming trainings June 10-11 in Toronto

Anima Leadership is offering two 1-day facilitation trainings, June 10 and 11th, at Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation.

Anima Leadership, one of Canada’s most insightful, intelligent and experienced transformational leadership teams, is offering two back-to-back facilitation trainings at Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation. Authentic Facilitation 1: Learning to facilitate with presence of ease is on June 10th, followed by Authentic Facilitation 2: Learning to sit in the fire of conflict on June 11th. Check here for registration and details.

Briefing notes: Making Face-to-face meetings count with solid preparation

I just got off the phone with one of my coalition clients, as we committed to planning our next meeting together well in advance. There is nothing like well-organized face-to-face meetings for collaborating, bonding and pooling a group’s collective brain-trust and creativity. But as we all know, meetings can have a Dark Side. If done poorly, meetings can suck a group’s life force; I swear they can! And they can squander money. Consider a two-day meeting of 15 non-profit members, each receiving a salary equivalent of about  $25/hour. It costs a whopping $6,000 for their time, and that’s before even considering food, travel costs, facilitation fees and venue rental.

Solid preparation is one of the keys to ensuring that that $6,000 of face-time is invested well. That means doing as much pre-thinking about the meeting overall, and specific topics within it, as possible. Anything that could just as easily be addressed via email, should be.

Obviously a well-designed agenda is the first step to making the most of valuable face-time.  For larger group meetings, when there isn’t time or budget to contact each participant individually, I often use an on-line survey, like SurveyMonkey, to get a sense of agenda priorities across the whole group.

And I always have the client group do a quick P.O.P., clarifying the Purpose, desired Outcome and best Process, both for the overall meeting, and for each agenda topic.

Another key tool I’ve been working with for several coalition clients is the classic Briefing Note. If you do government relations, the concept will be familiar: it’s a tightly-written 1-2 page document aimed at bringing extremely busy decision-makers up to speed on an issue quickly. A briefing note typically includes key background facts, analysis, options – with well-considered risks and benefits for each – and recommendations. A decent template for writing government-focus briefing notes – for example, the format a Ministerial Assistant might use when informing a Cabinet Minister about essential elements and possible responses to an issue – can be found here; just check one of the “background” buttons to download a sample.

Briefing notes are also useful for extremely busy non-profit or coalition members. When well-crafted briefing notes are circulated (and of course, read) in advance, they allow groups to skip past the preliminaries or simple updates – which can easily be done via email – so they can dive right to the heart of a meaty agenda topic fairly quickly.

The concept is pretty straightforward, but here are a couple of structures that I’ve seen work well for teams and coalitions:

 

1. Briefing notes for decision

Topic: include the topic, date, authors’ name

Purpose:  “For Decision” (ie the group will need to consider the issues raised in the note, in addition to others that may arise, then make a decision about how to proceed)

Background: (include a summary of key facts, including main actors, major events/activities to date, analysis, public opinion data, highlights of media coverage and framing to date, etc)

Options: 2-5 possible courses of action, including a brief assessment of the pros and cons for each.

Recommendation: proposed course of action, and the rationale

2. Briefing notes for information/updates

Topic: include the topic, date, authors’ name

Purpose:  “For Information”

Background: include a summary of key facts, new/emerging trends, new analysis, etc

Activities: clarify key activities to date as they relate to the overall strategy

Results: clarify the outcomes and results to date based on the activities

Outstanding questions: here’s where the group can get important ‘heads-up’ about unclear issues

Next steps: note upcoming decision points, key actions/events others may need to be aware of

Briefing notes can be used for other purposes as well. I’ve worked with groups that use them to prepare their colleagues for a brainstorm or idea-generating session: sometimes a smaller team just really needs a larger pool of creative thinkers to ensure they have a robust pool of ideas and strategies.  Then those ideas can later be explored and tested outside of the meeting. These kinds of creative sessions can be really invigorating for a team, too – a stimulating shift from more business-like or process-focused topics.

I’ve also seen briefing notes used to shape the way a group provides face-to-face feedback on a key strategy or funding proposal. This can be helpful when real dialogue is needed, so that trade-offs can be explored in more depth. Circulating a proposal to a series of individuals via email or googledocs just won’t allow for that kind of synergistic, collective reflection and discussion.

Well-crafted briefing notes require a fair bit of work and discipline on the part of the presenter. They also require discipline on the part of participants – who need to commit to reading them in advance. But over and over I’ve seen individual and collective thinking sharpened considerably with this kind of pre-work, allowing groups to do what they do best – think creatively, dig deep, explore trade-offs and shared values, and find collective solutions to complex problems.

Flying up a storm: Offsetting GHG emissions for traveling change-makers

The good news: I’m lucky enough to work with amazing clients all over the continent who change the world on a daily basis. And I’m one of those freaky people that actually love travel, airports and all – which is good, since most training and facilitation requires face-time. The bad news: While I’m off helping others ‘save the world’, I’m also helping pump tonnes of nasty fossil fuel emissions into our beleaguered atmosphere.

Oh, the irony. Especially on Earth Day!

Nowadays, many airlines offer ‘offsetting’ options for a small donation when you purchase your ticket. But I admit, I’m skeptical. Are they investing in companies that plant trees for biofuel – but only after clear-cutting entire stands of 300-year old cedars? In other words, are the projects actually not resulting in “additional” CO2 reductions? Or are they contributing to other negative non-carbon impacts, like investing in run-of-river hydro-electric projects that produce ‘green energy’ by trashing salmon spawning streams, or that undercut the conservation-economy efforts of First Nations in their territories?

It all comes down to trusting the offsetting supplier or broker. So, I asked another frequent-flyer, longtime business leader and environmental activist Joel Solomon, of Renewal Partners what he does.  He suggested “Offsetters”, a Canadian organization with 25 staff based out of Vancouver. According to their site, they have one of the lowest overhead rates in the industry. As well, they say they’re “verified by third parties as generating additional, permanent reductions in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.”

So I checked out their handy calculator, and learned that, on a recent trip from Vancouver to Philadelphia and back, I alone was responsible for spewing another 1.8917 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. Tonnes, people!  Blerg!  But wait – for $47.29 I can invest in permanent, additional CO2 reductions that will counter most of that, and alleviate at least some of my chronic guilt.

Now, not for one minute do I believe that we can, or should, buy our way out of our collective planet-trashing lifestyles. But, until we can all sit together as faux-embodied beings, reading one another’s body language and doing our small-group breakouts in Star Trek’s much-awaited Holadeck, supporting Offsetters, or something like it (BTW, recommendations welcome!) looks like the best interim solution for frequent travelers like me. It’s certainly better than doing nothing at all.

Facilitation, tricky language and racial justice

What does it mean to be a white facilitator wanting to actively support racial justice, and what Martin Luther King described as “Beloved Community”?  And specifically, how might that intention be reflected in the subtle use of language when facilitating or training? Looking back on two recent experiences as a facilitator working with diverse social justice participants in the U.S., this question has me flummoxed. Let me share two stories (actually, two stories-within-stories).

Tale of the Bus-Stop Crack Addict
Last February I was in the hills of California co-facilitating a leadership training with an incredibly inspiring multi-racial group of participants. We were teaching a skill called ‘meshing’ to help leaders stay centered and resourceful in the face of aggression or hostility from others.  To illustrate, I described an early evening last summer in Vancouver, when my two boys and I were waiting at a bus stop in the downtown east side – one of the lowest-income neighbourhoods in Canada.  A young, powerfully-built man walked up and started hassling my teenaged step-son. The man was high, red-eyed, agitated and extremely aggressive, jerkily swinging his fists as though he were about to strike. Like many of our street homeless, he was probably mentally ill. I stepped up between them, actively ‘meshing’, grounding my energy and  started calmly talking with him while the boys watched nervously. By the time our bus arrived, he’d calmed right down. As we stepped aboard, he clutched my shoulder and said in an almost pleading voice, “I’m not such a bad guy you know.”

Later on, a Vanessa*, a brilliant young African-American participant, shared that while the story was a good illustration of meshing, it also reinforced the stereotype of black men as violent and drug-addicted.

I was startled. Not for one second did it occur to me to mention his race. And, as I’d recounted the tale, I saw the man’s white face, curly reddish hair and blue eyes ringed with red as vividly in my mind’s eye as if he’d been standing right in front of me. To the extent I thought of it at all, I implicitly assumed that everyone saw the same thing.

Was I being naïve? Obtuse? ‘Colour-blind’?  Well, in a way, yes.  I was unaware of what author Drew Weston describes as the unconscious ‘networks of associations’ the story may have triggered for the participants. In Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, a neighbourhood I’d worked on the edge of for 12 years, the vast majority of street homeless and drug-addicted people are white or aboriginal. As a Western Canadian, I simply have not been inundated with the kind of relentless media portrayal of black men as violent criminals that Americans are subjected to every day. As a result, I don’t automatically picture black men when I hear stories about street crime. I picture white men.

My take-away from Vanessa’s feedback? Don’t risk leaving my participants to ‘fill in the blanks’ with their own racial stereotypes or unconscious networks of associations. Recognize that, as another African-American woman  noted in a training this past weekend, “it’s always in the room. Race is always the first thing people notice.”  So name it – use a quick adverb: “white”, “black” (especially in Canada), “African-American”, “woman of colour”,  and so on. In the last few months, mindful of this lesson, I’ve started doing exactly this, usually as a quick aside in the process of sharing longer stories. As part of this effort, I try to interrupt the often unconscious assumption that ‘whiteness’ is normal (and everything else is exotic).

Tale of Two Hunky Candidates
But wait – is this always the way to go? Consider Story Number Two. This past weekend I was facilitating a fantastic group of multi-racial, progressive political and policy leaders in Philadelphia. At one point we were talking about the classic “message box” used in most political campaigns to clarify the central message and differentiate between two candidates. I was recounting an electoral race I’d been involved in where the two candidates were seen by the media as being virtually identical in several ways. “They both rode their bikes everywhere and advocated for sustainable transportation,” I explained. “They were both successful business leaders, middle-upper class, and both were athletic, environmentally progressive, white and good-looking.”

Afterward, Joan*, one of the participants asked if we could speak privately in a break. “Suzanne,” she said, “I’m curious. Why did you mention their race at all? And why did you describe them as ‘good-looking whites’?” There was a lot to unpack in those two simple questions, as we discovered.  First, from her perspective – and she was a white woman married to an African-American – it was klunky and unnecessary of me to mention that they were white at all. Secondly, she felt I was playing into racial bias by implying that white men were generally better-looking. Whoah! How did I imply that?  Who even thinks that? Again, I found myself blind to the automatic assumptions or networks of associations of at least some of my participants might have.

Once gain, I found myself back squarely in the “flummoxed” box.

After I’d explained the crack-addict story that had led me to start noting race, Joan suggested that next time I might consider separating adjectives like “white” and “good-looking” in time and space – maybe slip another adjective in between them – to ensure the people don’t fill-in-the-associations. It’s another idea I’ll add to my growing ‘language toolbox’ when it feels appropriate.

But is the ‘answer’ clear to me? Not at all. It’s an ongoing dance between being skillful on all the levels any facilitator has to track (agenda, timing, participation, group energy levels) while also being mindful of the subtleties of language and other dynamics connected to racism and privilege. There is often no “right” answer in how to frame issues or use language. But that’s the work, isn’t it? As a facilitator, my goal is to help provide the most supportive, safe space possible for participants to learn and collaborate.  As a woman committed to social justice, I see my job as being awake to the dynamics of power and privilege – to be an effective ally in the collective journey toward beloved community. And I am so damned lucky to be surrounded by generous participants like Vanessa and Joan, and so many of my fellow facilitators and trainers, as I stumble along that path.

(* not their real names)

Facilitation training on the West Coast with Julian Griggs

Master facilitator Julian Griggs is once again offering his widely-acclaimed 5-day intensive training, “The Art and Craft of Facilitation” on spectacular Cortes Island this May 10-14, 2010. Check out Hollyhock for details. This intensive is aimed at “independent facilitators, Executive Directors, managers, project leaders or any participants in collaborative group processes that are looking to enable teams to be effective, and support groups in achieving their full potential.” Julian’s trainings usually sell out – he offers a powerful, transformative approach to facilitation skills-building – so book fast.

Structured Decision-Making: Roadmap to Wise Choices?

As a facilitator, I’m always searching for new approaches to help groups plan strategically and make smart decisions.  One approach I’m currently exploring is “structured decision-making”, or SDM (though somehow that sounds faintly obscene when I say it out loud).

Structured decision-making is a systematic process developed for making wise, transparent decisions in the face of complex issues with diverse stakeholders, high stakes and divergent perspectives.

Example: The Holiday Dilemma
Here’s a super-simple example of how SDM might work, from my friend and colleague Trent Berry. He’s the co-founder of Compass Resource Management,  based out of Vancouver. Compass boasts one of the world’s most masterful teams at designing and facilitating structured decision-making processes for resource and environmental issues.

He explains:  “Imagine you and your spouse want to plan a holiday.  You want to go to Mexico.  They want to go to Hawaii.  How do you resolve the difference?  Well, you start by trying to understand why each other prefers one location or the other.  What are you really trying to achieve.  So, you might point out cost, things to do, safety, etc.  Those are your objectives or interests.  Now rather than just arguing about a location, you can discuss the relative merits of each from the perspective of what you each want to achieve.  doing that you may discover that some of your facts are wrong – e.g., cost.  But you’ll also understand how much importance each of you is placing on different things – e.g., cost vs. safety.  And through the process you may understand each other better and you may actually come up with a third option that meets both of your objectives.  Not always –  but sometimes.  Really, structured decision making is similar to what used to be called ‘interest-based negotiation’.  The only way it may differ is there is the discussion goes beyond two private parties and the focus is on not only understanding interests but also doing a better job of really understanding how different options perform across interests. Its a marriage of science and values.”

The Steps to SDM
In practice, SDM processes can often be described in decision trees or other concept maps.  The basic steps follow, in many ways, a really great government policy briefing note. Here are the steps for a “PrOACT (Problem, Objectives and Measures, Alternatives, Consequences, and Trade-offs” SDM framework (originally outlined in the book “Smart Choices”):

  1. Define the problem
  2. Specify the objectives and measures – including getting agreement on “what matters”, and prioritizing information and assessing uncertainty or risk with different kinds of information
  3. Create imaginative alternatives
  4. Identify the consequences for each
  5. Clarify the trade-offs.

Growing interest in SDM
From Alberta to Australia, the wave of interest in this approach is growing. One major application is for complex resource management issues. Imagine a group of environmental activists, First Nations, oil industry proponents and government staff trying to come to some sort of sound, values-based decision-making around large-scale oil exploration over a relatively intact natural ecosystem. How do you design a dialogue process that isn’t about greenwashing or tokenism and doesn’t suck the life force – not to mention the coffers — of all involved for the next decade?  Past experience has shown that lengthy land-use planning approaches and environmental assessments don’t always yield wise results, and especially not in a timely or cost-effective way.

As Berry explains, “environmental assessments all too often look like a long, expensive shopping list of environmental impacts, with no way to prioritize or sort through them. Structured decision-making starts from a place of shared values – because science can tell us about all the options, but it can’t do a thing about setting priorities or assessing the relative risks among them. Only a clear set of values can do that.”

Beyond Resource issues
SDM is also being used with child welfare workers in California, adult protective services in Michigan  and a host of other agencies.  Check out several other case studies on-line, including several at http://www.structureddecisionmaking.org/applications.htm.

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