THE BIG PICTURE
Breathing Life into Our Organizations
by Susan Kelly
Process Intelligence is about Engaging People and Designing and Facilitating for Success. It is about knowing what it takes to engage people and then creating conditions that support and catalyze successful collaboration. It’s about designing and facilitating processes, systems and structures that are easily understood and that work.
A big part of engaging people means creating conditions for people to express themselves, be themselves and contribute in natural ways. The hopeful result is that individual and collective potentials are more easily released and able to blossom. This is beautifully stated by Robert H. Lengel and Richard L. Daft in their book, Fusion Leadership:
“The development of human subtle forces and ingenuity means treating people the way you would a flower in your garden. The potential is contained in the flower, which blossoms, not because you direct it to, but because you release its potential by providing positive conditions of light, water, temperature, fertilizer and soil.”
Unless we just stay on our cell phones or computers, we have to meet with other people in ‘real time’. Many of those meetings are check-ins with a regular group; many are formal - board meetings as an example; some are presentations; some are retreats where we plan and strategize; some are designed to achieve team building, some are weekly or monthly meetings,
Whatever the reason for getting together, it should involve Agenda design, Facilitation considerations and Space planning, all conditions for releasing potential.
In the organizational big picture view, meetings are not just discreet events; they also are touch points in a continuum of time over the life of the organization and its development. Meetings are where people come together. They should be enjoyable and productive or else, what’s the point? But you say, we have so many of them, and most of them are a waste of time.
We probably wouldn’t need to have so many meetings if we held the ones we did have with a little more thought and care. Meetings are valuable opportunities where people have carved out time to get together. The opportunity is squandered when people hold thoughtless meetings.
Many times, meetings are unnecessary. Sometimes we have to go just because the boss said so. A lot of times the wrong people are there. Or, people who should be there, aren’t.
Many times, meetings are merely transactional, one person imparting information to others, while people could have gotten the information a number of other ways that would not cut into their time.
Sometimes people attend meetings to make sure they don’t miss anything. This speaks volumes about trust and communication, or lack of it, throughout the organization.
The question is: How can we change our meetings from thoughtless meetings to transformational meetings? How can we transform dreary, sterile, uncomfortable environments, adjust meeting tone and behavior and open the door to include as many voices as possible?
WHAT WOULD HELP OUR MEETINGS
Help everyone see the whole system we are working in so that we can effectively connect collective efforts from our meetings to real life after a meeting. And, in the process, help people feel safe and valued for their contribution when it is made.
People need to be invited to a meeting. Their time should be respected. They need to understand why they should attend and what is expected of them. Also, if needed, how they should prepare.
The people who will be attending need to be clear on the desired outcomes of the meeting.
I’ve observed that people appreciate, that during the meeting, hierarchy is suspended; and a tone is set that says, in essence, all people are seen as a potential contributor, so are not disregarded.
People also appreciate when the meeting is relaxed and informal. This does not mean less serious or necessarily less structured. There is a time for presentation, but when people are trying to be creative together, relaxed conditions are more conducive to helping this happen.
Also, people like to interact and contribute during a meeting, not sit like bumps on a log and listen to someone else dominate
Thinking about respecting people’s human needs should be factored in, such as nourishment and bio breaks and pausing to take a breath and refresh rather than pushing forward when energy is low. It doesn’t take long to ‘boot back up’ physically and mentally after a small break, but there is danger in ramming through without pause. Not only do you pass a point of diminishing returns, but also, you play havoc with your stress levels and your adrenal glands.
There is a respect of people’s schedules because we begin and end on time. What time we do spend together is spent wisely.
Everyone, participant and host alike, has a part in making a meeting work. The meeting leader/host creates an environment and an agenda based on shared desired goals for the session. The participants have the responsibility for the outcomes of the meeting and their participation in the process.
I talk more about this later when I talk about Process Facilitation.
When people walk away from a good meeting that satisfied them, they feel it was worth their time. They feel energized to go to the next step, individually and collectively.
I talk more later about the elements of creating spaces where meetings take place, but for now, this is a good succinct list of considerations:
Comfortable furniture, well arranged
Appropriate room size
Good light, hopefully natural
Adequate wall space (for capturing and posting ideas
A touch of nature
Inviting, Colorful, Alive
This is about meetings where things are more complex than
the every Monday quickie meeting for the department, as an example. This is a meeting that is probably at least two hours, half days, full days or multiple days where a variety of people are involved in carrying out an agenda.
Even if agendas change on the spot, the quality of a meeting is directly related to the quality of thinking and planning that
goes before it. The best planning gives everyone a common foundation and concept/script to work from, within which they can be flexible according to the needs of the group as a meeting progresses. This allows you to both, control the structure and process, and simultaneously, be open to adapt to whatever emerges naturally in the meeting.
The first things to consider when creating an
The desired outcome(s) of a meeting. This guides everything else in terms of the content and the processes the group will go through, which, in turn, informs who leads or participates in the various segments of the meeting.
The context within which the meeting is held (The Why).
This has implications for how the meeting is framed and what supporting materials are needed.
A sensing of how a particular group of people might respond to the environment, to the processes and to
Who attends (The Who) and how they are invited.
What pre-work may be needed on the part of the participants.
The meeting space (The Where).
The content or topics or areas to be worked on (The What).
The Process(es) – What steps the group will go through to get it done (The How).
What themes or bridges or messages need woven through the fabric of the agenda.
How large scale graphics or other tools can support the process.
What logistical support is needed (including supplies and equipment).
The timing, tasks and persons responsible leading up to a meeting, i.e., the action plan.
These are examples of general principles that are helpful to think about when creating an agenda:
Use processes that help people achieve their desired outcomes. Ask the right questions. Provide the right focus.
Use visual tools that support the processes and people’s thinking in order to optimize the time together, and to provide documentation to work from later when action planning and communicating to others.
Make time for reflection, including how you have worked together and what you have created together. It is really important to have this awareness, especially if you are going to work together as a group again. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, but it serves as a link back and check in as people work together to go to the next step.
Be deliberate, yet flexible enough to adjust the agenda, if necessary, in real time. An agenda is merely a script, but like actors, you have to be ready for any occurrence. What if your co-actor forgets his lines? You have to learn to deal with the emergent. Sometimes it turns out to be better than the script!
Design in dynamic, interactive portions of a meeting. This not only makes a meeting more interesting, it also makes it more productive and inclusive.
A NEW THOUGHT ON PROCESSES
There are many processes groups can use in meetings. In my mind, in general, most of them usually fall into one of two general categories: Strategic or Dialogic.
Strategic processes usually support such things as:
Finding common ground or consensus
These are processes that do especially well with a Graphic Facilitator and a Process Facilitator operating in tandem throughout. The large scale graphics used by Graphic Facilitators allow a group to be productive very quickly and efficiently, a feat that could take hours or days to achieve without visual support. The Process Facilitator helps insure a timely, focused and efficient session.
Dialogic processes generally support:
Exploring important questions and topics
They include such processes as:
The World Café
Small group breakouts
The graphic capture in dialogic processes is sometimes called Harvesting. It’s essentially the same as Graphic Facilitation (Graphic Recording) and is usually done at the end of a process or rounds of a process, to gather together, in one place, the ideas and themes that were generated in the smaller groups. This allows everyone to get a well-rounded picture of what went on in discussions as
SPACE – THE FINAL FRONTIER
Creating spaces for effective meetings is part of Designing and Facilitating for Success. It requires paying attention to everything people will experience in the meeting room from light to food to temperature to how and what furniture is placed around.
I call it the Final Frontier because, often, it is the last thing thought about and the most undervalued part of meetings and collaborative activities. Paying attention to meeting space should be part of the agenda designing process and not just left to meeting planners. Better yet, a representative(s) of the logistics team should be part of the design team so they can best support the effort and contribute from their perspective.
How a meeting space is organized and supplied impacts how people relate to each other, and what they get done.
David Sibbet, graphic facilitation pioneer, says “Some environments serve to make it easier for people to integrate their activities, listen, learn from each other and develop through experience. Other environments make it very difficult. When work environments block channels of interaction, awareness of how thought and action connect are also blocked.”
Meeting space design is guided by:
Principles for creating inviting and engaging environments that best support people working together.
The desired outcomes of a meeting.
The processes and group configurations that are designed into the agenda.
An understanding of how people will move into, through and out of the space at any given time over the course of the meeting.
Here are examples of principles to think about when creating meeting spaces:
People tend to respond in-kind to their surroundings. As an example, cramped rooms often result in cramped thinking, while more spacious rooms tend to result in more expansive thinking. (Tiny or cavernous is not good.)
Generally speaking, people usually do their most creative and productive thinking when they are physically comfortable.
People tend to be more creative when the atmosphere is friendly and hospitable, not just physically, but also, where people feel safe to express themselves.
People listen to each other and work together better when they can see each others’ faces.
These are examples of where meeting space design interfaces with logistics:
The furniture in the room (kind and placement)
The wall space (on which to hang paper and completed charts)
Food (in terms of where it is placed and when it is available)
Various rooms to accommodate small groups in longer meetings.
The definition of facilitate from the dictionary is:
“Make easy/easier; make possible;
make smooth/smoother; smooth the way for;
enable, assist, help (along); advance; be a catalyst for.”
Why use a Facilitator?
When people work together frequently, especially if it’s the same people going over familiar material, they don’t need a facilitator; they facilitate themselves.
But there are a lot of other times when people get together that they do need a facilitator, especially when the group is collaborating to work through a process(es) to arrive at desired outcomes.
A lot of times, the meeting Leader will attempt to play the role of Facilitator while simultaneously playing the role of Participant. This can never be optimum, because no one can give 100% to both/multiple roles at the same time. Bringing in a neutral facilitator frees everyone up to participate. For best results, it is always good to have people play only one role at a time.
Having someone play the neutral Facilitator role will move meetings along and get a lot more done. It’s worth it. It’s a definite plus on the cost/benefit scale. Timing will be significantly trimmed down.
A group of people, especially people who have not worked together before or that rarely work together, will naturally begin their conversation in the abstract. Without facilitation, it’s very easy for people to go off on tangents, or get stuck spinning their wheels, or go in circles with redundant thinking, or get caught up in minutiae. Someone needs to move the group back on task and focus in order to move forward in a timely way.
Without guidance, people are likely to stay in the abstract for a while. Operating in the abstract is not efficient or productive when trying to get something done collaboratively. In addition, if there are people of strong opinions present, it is easy, unintentionally, to create a competitive tone or atmosphere, which is not fruitful either.
That’s something else the process facilitator would manage by steering the group away from personalities and back onto content and productive conversation.
The facilitator’s script is the agenda, which should delineate desired outcomes, timing, content and process.
Facilitating is an art (and a science) that can be developed and honed. A great part of the value of having a facilitator is that there is a neutral party present to guide the process. If it’s a free flowing brainstorm, maybe just asking pertinent questions and keeping the conversation alive by calling on people is enough.
If people are working on developing a plan, however, there may be several steps in the process needed before finalizing. This is a much more convergent conversation and a facilitator may need to keep the group more tightly focused on process in order to accomplish what they want to accomplish.
According to a long-time facilitator colleague of mine, facilitation is a paradoxical role. He says that, as a facilitator, you are there and not there, visible and invisible, powerful and power-relinquishing, defined and ambiguous.
He says the most important skills are paying attention, knowing the territory to be traveled, the culture of the group, the environment, and the human heart, yours
Another colleague of mine said you shouldn’t be fearful of facilitating because there are two things that help take the burden off the facilitator, while they address the health of the group:
The first is, “You, as a facilitator, are not responsible for the outcome(s) of a meeting, the group is”.
This is an important point, because I have seen, so many times
in meetings, where the participants come in and expect to have something done to them or for them. They often think of a meeting as someone else’s and feel they have no responsibility other than to show up.
The second is related. “Group members need to own the process as well as the content”.
For example, if a group goes off track from the planned agenda, the facilitator just needs to ‘turn the mirror’ on the group members and ask them what to do. “You said you wanted to do X, but you are doing Y. Where do you want to go in this conversation? If we go with Y, how much time do you want to spend on it?”
In its simplest form, facilitation involves keeping a group on task, on time and finding ways to include as many voices as possible.
The role of process facilitator, however, can be wide and deep. It can involve summarizing along the way to help move the group forward content-wise, process-wise and sometimes, conceptually as well. This is usually done when a facilitator is working with or within a client’s system and understands from a deeper level where the group is going, within a bigger context.
If appropriate, a facilitator can always help the group by connecting or weaving the conversation as it moves along.
Finally, another colleague says: “Facilitation is a form of leadership. Leadership is best when it is in service.”
Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” To me, that’s the only way that leadership can be authentic.
I am extremely privileged to have had opportunities to learn from several very wise leaders over the years. The most significant thing I’ve learned is that leadership is about who you are as a person in relationship to others.
In addition to being authentic and committed and courageous and visionary, here are a few useful things I learned from those leaders about leadership.
One leader in particular taught me that there are only a few major things a leader needs to insure and the rest/the details can fold under this umbrella:
Understand where you are as a company, in relation to the world outside you.
Understand where the organization needs to put its intentions, attention and energy.
Create a learning and capacity building environment that allows the organization to be ready for emerging events.
Allocate resources strategically to assure growth.
From this same leader plus several others, I collated a few principles (or foods for thought) that I learned about:
Understand that change and progress happen in incremental bites and small steps, one community/unit/department/day at a time.
Design for emergence. Plan well and provide supporting infrastructures, while simultaneously, be flexible and improvisational.
Engage stakeholders early on and seek involvement at all levels of the organization.
Appreciate the diversity of people and their different styles of learning and contributing, and respond with acknowledgement and investment.
Create small wins and celebrate regularly.
Focus on the “real” work. Don’t put attention on things that are abstract or irrelevant to your growth and well being, or your mission.
Balance urgency and reflection.
Understand that informal community designated leadership can exist in parallel with, and in support of, formally designated authority or leadership (without anyone losing out).
There is so much to be said about leadership. I saw an interview a while ago with a person from the media and the coach of the world’s best basketball team. The coach’s inspiring words contain a wealth of information to think about. As I was listening to the interview, I typed up notes. I paraphrased and summarized his remarks to the question, “Given your success, how do you describe (your) leadership?” Here they are:
Leadership is about the character of a person. A leader must be fearless and lack self-consciousness. It is skill combined with guts. It’s about not worrying if you make a mistake. It’s accepting failure and not being insecure. You have to be willing to be the goat. You have to go for it. Just go out and play, compete, work and fight.
A leader needs to know what each player needs. That’s how to make the system go forward. It’s about human connection. Motivate by finding what’s important to a person and then connecting emotionally, keeping things interesting and fun and different. You need to connect with real people and their lives. Learn more about them. It matters when you put it together with great talent and hungry people.
Everything is about talent and what you do with it. Help the team through the lows and highs, think long and not short, and zero in on what’s important.
Subjugate your ego to the group while maintaining authority.
You are there and supportive, but sometimes you have to remind people of the goal and steer them back on course. Be natural and come from the heart.
This is a direct quote: “The bottom line is: If everything and everyone is authentic and you trust each other, your results will be good.”
It’s not easy to be a leader. It takes courage to make changes and step out in an ever-changing, ambiguous world where the normal tendency is to hang on to what you know and can control and hold it close to your vest.
Leaders find ways to step into the unknown and learn and embrace new ways of being and acting for a purpose that is bigger than self.
A final word on Leadership: As a leader, if you could read only one book in the next many months, I would recommend reading The Front Porch Revolution: Reclaiming the Time and Space to Slow Down, Talk to Each Other, and Lead in an Over- managed World, by Robert H. Lengel (published in the fall of 2018). Dr. Lengel will open your eyes to a new way of being and leading in our world today.
LETTING GO OF OLD,
Change is not easy for most people. But if you are willing to change, here is what it takes, according to organizational consultant and author, John Adams. Years ago, I drew a series of visuals for him for a keynote presentation he was delivering and one of them was “Essential Qualities for Enduring Habit/Pattern Change”, which I am borrowing here.
He says that the first thing you need is an external wake up call, a reason for making a change.
Next, in order to really change, you need a passionate commitment and conviction that the change is both possible and desirable.
Once you have this, you need clear goals and first steps.
Then you must stay in integrity with your values and purpose, i.e., walk your talk, be true to yourself.
You need an unconditional support base so you have
back-up and are not doing it alone.
You need to install and be committed to maintaining disciplines/structures/mechanisms to ensure repetitions.
Finally, you must operate from your intuition, your faith and your spirit.