Here’s some timely advice on working across difference. Sometimes the hardest cuts to bear are from the very people we view as being ‘on the same side’; non-profit blogger Vu Le offers some powerful medicine for prevention and healing. Source: 7 agreements for productive conversations during difficult times
Check out this great article by Jodie Tonita on the role of trust in movements for social change. She explains why trust is key for effective collaboration, and how to intentionally cultivate trust among individuals and organizations. http://bit.ly/yes-trust
I’ve been working with a few organizational clients recently who are struggling to perform at their individual and collective best, due to deeper issues with trust. When people don’t trust one another, collaboration, quite simply, simply takes longer. Or doesn’t occur at all. Without trust, people are less likely to assume good intentions, to the point where they might even approach each interaction ‘pre-loaded’ to assume the worst in others – and it can take extensive time and energy to unpack and adjust those assumptions. High levels of trust, on the other hand, allow individuals and groups to move quickly during periods of stress or rapid change, without wasting energy on speculation, translation or missed signals. As the Center for Social Transformation’s Director Jodie Tonita explains, the same dynamics play out at the movement level. Read her excellent article on the role of trust in movements for social change. She explains why trust is key for effective collaboration, and how to intentionally cultivate trust among individuals and organizations. http://bit.ly/yes-trust
Most of us working on social change are experts at criticism. The problem is when it becomes an unconscious habit in individuals and across entire teams. “Yes! And…” is a classic, fun improv theatre exercise that interrupts this “culture of critique” and helps groups become more adept at embracing new, creative ideas.
“I can’t believe how hard this is!” exclaimed Vince. “It took all my self-control to not to say “yes, BUT!” The group of civil rights activists, many of them trained attorneys, laughed knowingly. Several had just the same experience. We were sitting in a sunny boardroom in Los Angeles yesterday, debriefing a short exercise we’d just run called “Yes, And…”. If you’re familiar with improvisational theatre or comedy, you’ll know that it’s a powerful training tool, while being highly entertaining in its own right. “Yes! And…” is also one of the most effective, simple exercises I know to help leaders and groups disrupt long-held habits of negative collective thinking in order to generate a more creative, innovative flow of ideas.
The Culture of Critique
Most of us working on social change are experts at criticism. This is particularly true for those of us with academic training, or whose work is focused on advocacy or legal strategies. Through our work as change agents, we learn to finely hone our abilities to rebutt, refuke, counter, critique, denounce and generally point out the shortcomings of other peoples’ ideas. We become so skilled, in fact, that many of our critical tendencies become habits – unconscious, almost knee-jerk reactions to the world around us. And those habits get expressed internally, interpersonally, within organizations and across entire movements. Together, they form what I call a “culture of critique”.
Is criticism necessarily a bad thing? Of course not. The critical, free-thinking minds and imaginations of human beings are among our greatest gifts. Those gifts make it possible to talk about risks, to fight oppression, to influence human systems and behaviours so that we are more just, equitable, collectively intelligent and compassionate.
Criticism has its place. The problem is when it becomes an unconscious habit. It becomes even more of a problem when that habit starts getting routinely expressed across entire cultures.
When critique gets in the way of social change
In fact, the more we aspire to working collaboratively across difference as leaders and movements, the more the “culture of critique” becomes a liability. And it can impede collaborative leadership in several ways:
- Debate vs. dialogue: Instead of dialogue, we automatically veer toward debate. In conversation, we stop listening, often too soon. The energy becomes more focused on ‘who’s right’ than ‘how can we best move forward’.
- Missing the full picture”: As Steven Covey says in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the best leaders “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. If we’re immersed in a “culture of critique”, our unconscious habit will be to counter before hearing, or understanding, the full story of another person’s perspective, missing out on important pieces of the whole truth. That means we also miss out on the full spectrum of potential opportunities to move past sticking points into new solutions.
- Weaker relationships: In the contracted mental and emotional state of “critique”, our focus stayed narrowly confined to our own perspectives, and fails to account for the truths of others. We become less compassionate, less empathetic. The result? Weaker, less trusting partnerships with others.
- Shutting down good ideas: When others experience critique, they more likely to shut down before their own ideas can fully blossom. Worse, people can become habituated to ‘playing it safe’. They become more likely to avoid sharing risky, innovative ideas that might get shot down as being ‘inappropriate’, ‘stupid’, or befall the idea-purgatory of ‘we already tried that.’
What’s more, all of these effects are compounded when those modeling a habit of criticism hold more institutional, positional, cultural or personal power.
Practicing the “Yes! And…” exercise
As facilitators and leaders, we know that both a desire to do things differently, and a commitment to practice, can help replace less helpful habits with new ones. One of the simplest, easiest exercises I know of as a facilitator is “Yes, And…”. It’s also a terrific energizer, as the results are often hilarious. At its heart, “Yes, And” is about fully accepting whatever someone else shares with you – and then building upon it. Here’s one approach to leading it:
- Form pairs. One person is the A, the other the B
- A starts by stating something about themselves or the other person… it can be anything at all. If it’s provocative, all the better.
- B responds with “Yes! And….”, adding to the statement
- A responds with “Yes! And…” and continues building on what B just said
- Run the exercise for 3-5 minutes, depending on the energy in the room
- Debrief as a large group
Watch out for any urge to counter your partner’s statement, either overtly or through sarcasm. Just keep building. Really, genuinely work with what you’re given!
Here’s an example my colleague Michael practiced with me this week. He was wicked, and we ended up laughing so hard we could barely breath. Here’s how it started:
Michael: So… I hear you’ve become a corporate weapons manufacturer! [I gasp inwardly]
Me: [gulping] Yes, and…. I’m really excited about the opportunity to become an internal agent for positive change in the industry!!
Michael: Yes, and… since I know it’s going to be challenging, I have some relaxation techniques I can recommend!
Me: Yes, and… I’m definitely looking forward to us using them together, since I know you’ve just been hired into the same weapons research division as me!”
Michael: [eyes widening] Yes! And….
And so on. Of course, it can be a lot more serious and “real” than that. The point is to practice disrupting the habit of critical thinking, and building up the habit of embracing and adding to others’ ideas, no matter how weird those ideas may feel.
Want to see a real-time example? Check out this improv theatre training video by Avish Parashar and Fred Gleek.
Applying “Yes! And…” over time
There are two keys to this being really effective in the long-run.
Debrief well: at least for the first time working with a group, make sure there’s enough time to really debrief what it’s like. Where was it hard? In what ways? Did it get easier? How did it feel? What did people notice?
Practice it often. “Yes! And..” is a short, useful energizer in it’s own right, especially during meetings after lunch or when group energy is low. It’s also extremely useful as a “drill” to use before, say, a strategy session, or any kind of collective brainstorm involving at least two people.
Last month a good friend called me up in a bit of a panic. “I’m chairing another citizen’s meeting next week”, she said, “but I’m afraid it’s going to go like all the others: we’re going to generate a big laundry list of tactics, drink a lot of bad coffee, eat too many cookies and go home feeling dissatisfied. And bloated. We’re thinking too small. We need a vision!” So we talked about the different ways she could lead her folks into bolder, more inspiring territory through a visioning process.
There are many ways to facilitate a group of people through a visioning process. Most of them are rich, often profound and always creative. The essential process is about marrying imagination and strategy – taking intuitive, creative and informed leaps into a possible, aspirational future.
One of the most powerful approaches is a “guided visualization”. I have led dozens of groups through guided visualizations as part of a visioning process over the past decade. Inspired by Inc. magazine’s list of “14 questions you need to ask when crafting a vision for your businesses success”, here’s the list that I implicitly use. These can be adjusted for individuals, small business or non-profits. In practice, I develop a script tailored to the unique needs and assets of each client group, but it usually contains these elements.
- Time frame… 3-5 years? 10 years? Collins and Porras, in Built to Last, recommend 10-30 years. Notions of “purpose” and “core ideology” are more long-term; visions change relatively more quickly to reflect the changing internal and external dynamics of organizations.
- Stories….. Start with a specific time and place, specific characters, and a setting… Where are you, in your mind’s eye? Put yourself in the picture! As I described in an earlier post about stories, scan your senses: lights, temperature, movement of the air, sound, smells… Who is there? What’s happening? This will get you into the story in a deeply personal way, unleashing more of your own creative, imaginative power.
- Major accomplishments: What are you most proud of? Get emotional, personal and specific. What are your top 1-3 major accomplishments or “big wins”? Imagine there was a feature article about your success. What did the headlines say? What difference did this make in the world?
- Breakthroughs: In the past X years, what is the most significant breakthrough that launched the organization into a whole new level of wild success? How? What happened? Who helped make it happen? What was different?
- People you serve: Whose lives is your work touching? Who are you serving? How exactly are they engaging with you? Zero in on one or two ‘representative’ individuals… Why are they choosing to engage with your messages, services or products? What’s in it for them?
- Allies: Are there new or unusual allies that contributed to your success as an organization? As an individual?
- Your niche: Notice other groups similar to your own… How is yours specifically unique and different?
- No-go zones: What are some services or approaches that your organization does NOT offer or do?
- Internal collaboration: How are people working together internally? What is the feeling/tone of that work? How are teams working with one another ‘across silos’? What’s new and different? Why is it working so well? What are the specific structures and practices that are making this new level of collaboration so successful?
- People in the organization: Who is working in the organization – what do they look like, demographically? What is the collective culture like? What practices or group norms do you notice?
- Leadership: Who is leading the organization? How are they leading? What’s it like? Is it different? If so, how?
- Resources: What kind of abundance is the organization enjoying? What does that look like, specifically?
- Geographic scope: Where are you working, and not working – are there specific communities? Regions? How focused are you?
- What else… What else do you notice that’s different, or the same, in this successful, deeply satisfying future?
Afterword: So I whipped up a script based pretty well on all these questions and emailed it off to my friend, and she used it to lead the group through a closed-eye visualization process. She did an amazing job – it was by all accounts a fantastic success. After the visualization, she helped everyone share their individual insights and arrive at a few core themes that resonated for the whole group. They left feeling energized, inspired, and aligned around a whole new level of collective work. And it’s entirely possible that they didn’t scarf down quite so many cookies.
Way back in September 1996, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras wrote a seminal article in HBR about successful organizational visions, and followed that with the now-classic book, Built to Last. Their ideas on visioning galvanized a wave of enthusiasm across the whole organizational development sector that continues to this day. I still absolutely love the clarity and power of their framework, and continue to use it often to inform my own organizational consulting practice. It goes like this:
- Purpose: An organizational vision is grounded in a deep sense of purpose. Purpose is essentially permanent; it could easily ensure for 50 or more years. Purpose is never achieved – it is an overall direction. Yet it is still clear. An organization with a strong, clear purpose would literally walk away from markets, customers or (in the case of non-profits), funders, rather than compromise its purpose.
- Values: Like purpose, core values are enduring. They don’t change, even during market shifts. What are the principles that guide your organization’s choices and behaviours? I’ve worked with several organizations that begin with long virtual “shopping lists” of core values (several have had 14 or more). But once we explore what the values might mean in terms of actual behaviours and decision-making, the lists get much shorter; Collins and Porras suggest that no more than 3-5 is ideal. Would your organization be willing to walk away from a foundation grant or major project if it meant compromising a particular core value? Take “transparency” as a core value. How is it reflected in practice? Budgeting, for example, could be completely open and transparent. That’s the case with Zingerman’s Delis; they are one of the few organizations in the world to use Open Book Finance. Staff are involved at every level of budgeting, from forecasting to implementation and tracking. Out of respect for privacy, individual salaries the only data not shared with staff.
- BHAG: what is your Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal? In the 1960s, NASA’s was to “put a man on the moon.” Once they accomplished that, the BHAG needed to change. BHAGS are bold and somewhat long-term, but they are not permanent – they are concrete, major milestones achieved while on the path of purpose.
- Vivid narrative description: Finally, what’s the story of your preferred future? John Kotter, author of Leading Change, suggests that the vision should vivid, repeatable, and possible to convey in no more than 5 minutes.