Time, the ever-present elephant in the room of our meetings (1/4)

Time, the ultimate obsession of human beings, is nearly the only variable we have no control on whatsoever, and the measure that separates us from the end of our existence.

Time
Time, the big obsession of our lives and meetings (Photo credit: CathRedfern / FlickR)

Time is not only a reason for existential angst at the macro level of our life. It also creeps into our meetings and interactions in a myriad of significant ways:

  • In how we obsess about time generally and the overall conduct of the meeting
  • In the expectations we have about what it takes to realistically achieve an objective in a given amount of time
  • In how we are respecting people’s time and finishing every segment of interactions on time or not
  • In the pacing we use to interact with each other
  • In how people are monopolising the conversation and depriving others of air…time
  • In how much (or rather how little) we should focus on passing information – which can easily be done asynchronously and individually – as opposed to conversing together, which asynchronously can’t be done with quite the same effects as face-to-face interactions
  • In our tolerance to go further than business-as-usual or not
  • In how we manage our energy in our collaboration and interactions
  • In how we create space for meta reflections, sharing our feelings, disclosing our private conversation etc.

These manifestations of time in our interactions have a major influence on the quality of our interactions and what we can expect out of them.

So, what have I learned about time in our interactions?

It’s such a big topic that I’ll split it up in several posts, to explore in four breaths:

  1. Time as a driver of our process design
  2. Time as the comfortable space to reveal ourselves
  3. Time as the uncomfortable measure accompanying our collective groaning
  4. Time as an adjective of our interactions, to be thought again radically (towards…?)

Time as driver of our process design

Time is one of the finite resources in our gatherings. When designing a conversation or event, it is one of the hard variables that requires us to think carefully about what is possible and what is not.

And as this quote illustrates, we do not make a particularly rational use of time when thinking about what is possible.

Like so many things in our human beings’ existence, we want to bend time to our desire, control it and manipulate it, fit it in our mental boxes so it can be dealt with neatly and efficiently, dare I say ‘pperfectly’. And here our first lessons about time emerge.

Meaningful interactions take time, and so do our deepest outcome desires

What can realistically be achieved in the space of two hours? One day? Three days? Four sessions over one month?

Even if we ‘just’ wanted to devise a strategic plan, review a programme, brainstorm around a topic, imagine a future together, we have to be realistic as to what can be achieved in the artificial setting of a gathering. What’s more, when we superimpose an objective of getting people to know themselves and to get to know the others and acknowledge their differences and commonalities, ie. when we are also working on the relationships and on achieving trust between people, we have to be even more humble about the baby steps can that be achieved.

Human interactions are characterised by all the quirks that play out at the interplay between our ideas, our feelings, our inclinations, values, our language, our habits, our self-consciousness, our degree of empathy, our understanding of group dynamics etc. etc. Do we seriously take all of this for granted? Are we back to the hypothesis of homo economicus who deals with life with the rational precision of a robot? When you think about how feelings shape even (vividly) our memory of things, let’s realise that we are dealing with homo sentiens and one homo sentiens is complex enough, let alone a whole group of us trying to get somewhere together.

We have wild dreams about solving the world, finding quick and durable solutions. So when will we learn that these objectives are inseparable from the relationships that contribute to these outcomes? In ‘real life’ we don’t (or hardly ever) become friends for life in just one moment spent together. Developing relationships takes care and momentum.

Our impatience to achieve our most deeply desired outcomes is a reflection of our core misunderstanding of human dynamics, and of how real time plays out at a completely different pace to what we hope.

Humility is the key here… And breaking down our outcomes into achievable steps. Better two small and concrete steps forward that will effectively be taken than 10 big leaps that will remain another abandoned intention on the way to hell.

Time is hidden in many aspects of our interactions, and remains a blind spot

Interestingly, even when at a strategic level we may have accounted sufficient and realistic time for specific conversations and desired outcomes, we may remain blind, in our process design, to the time-crunching quirks of interactions… which comprise, for instance:

  • Making sure that everyone is around before you can start an activity with the group
  • What it takes to frame, explain, introduce activities
  • The problems that happen with technical interferences (internet connection going down or slowly, a program with a glitch etc.)
  • The time to transition from one activity to the next, from one speaker to the next, from one (physical or virtual breakout) set-up to the next
  • The time it takes on average for someone to express themselves in front of a plenary group
  • The time it takes to get responses to questions in plenary, and the domino effect it has on inviting other contributions

Are we seriously thinking about all these chronophage activities in our design? Do we then have an even more realistic sense of how much real time we have on our hands? Or do we simply assume that a 60-minute segment means 60 minutes of productive time, when in reality it’s probably closer to 50 minutes, or even (much) less…

Time is not the measure of choice to manage group interactions

Unlike (some) children, adults want to finish a task that is given to them. Finishing on time per se is not the ultimate goal to cherish for a group, unless you are just illustrating a point and not exploring an issue ‘for real’. It’s better to come to the bottom of things, and get the group to feel (at least somewhat) complete than to manage only by time.

And I know, sometimes our participants seem perfectly happy to just finish an exercise on time rather than to go on and follow the logic until the end. But is that not a case of intellectual laziness or simply checking out from the overall interaction, settling for ‘business as usual’ or whatever point some people have decided (“I don’t care, this is not for me anyway”)?

So here is another assumption to seriously shake off: managing by time is not respectful of peoples’ intelligence, capacities and desires. It just gives the epidermic sensation of release and of having ticked the box. But meaningful relationship-building and developing sustainable solutions is no box-ticking or back-patting exercise. It is raw, it is rough, it is intense, and it takes whatever time it has to take, because it’s meeting people where they are, not where they should be.

The health of a group also depends on respecting their time

All of that said, we cannot get completely oblivious to the personal time that people are dedicating for interactions. Going over that time significantly, repeatedly, and/or without giving them a choice, is not respectful of the gift of their presence. Ditto for all these interactions where basic needs (food, drinks, bio-breaks, need to take a full break) are ignored for the pretentious sake of the greater good. But a hungry person is not a rational being. A thirsty fellow is not a happy participant. Someone who badly needs to go to the toilet is no longer capable of working in the service of the group, and someone with their head rammed in with information cannot take it any longer.

We simply need to respect the breaks and closing times agreed, generally, and keep our realism in what can be done outside of these boundaries.

Respecting peoples’ biological needs is a requirement, not a variable that can be messed around with. Productive time is all that happens between those ‘biological adjustments’.

So for that matter, an event I attended once (as a participant documenting sessions) where people were sent to lunch past 3pm after a slow and evidently painful death by Powerpoint (with very little or no time left for something as dry and as timidly participatory as a Q&A session) is a caricatural example of what not to do.

Time, in process design, is a measure of our outlook to either control or to embrace the world around us

Whose time are we actually accounting for? In many cases, it’s the sand timer that is playing out in the head of the sponsor or organiser, not of the contributors (participants)…

Time is a measure of our impatience and of our self-centredness. Instead, we would be much better off happily embracing time as the landscape running behind a genuine encounter with ourselves and with others, where we are, where they are, not where we should be. That outlook determines our capacity to cope with time early on in the process, and that’s not the end of story about time, only the beginning…

I’ll unpack the next level of the sand timer in the next blog post.

For now though, let’s ponder this humbling quote from one of my favourite jazz trumpet players…

(certainly not my favourite tune performed by Miles, but here you go, on par with the theme…)

What it means to be a facilitator – The dawn of ‘Facilitators unplugged’ chats?

Nadia and I recently gave a training course on (online) facilitation to a networked organisation operating in the water sector. The training itself was really interesting as an experience, to the participants, but also definitely to us both. Every group is different and the pacing, content, facilitation, engagement always works slightly differently with any new group or setting.

As we went through four different sessions addressing ‘facilitation basics’, ‘group dynamics 101’, ‘participation formats and structures’ and ‘collective decision-making’, we had fascinating conversations with the contributors (as Nadia rightly insists we should call ‘participants’).

UNPLUGGED
Is this the dawn of ‘facilitators UNPLUGGED’? (photo credit: M Fisher / FlickR)

Many questions that emerged are facilitation evergreens, the same issues that keep reappearing:

  • What is facilitation?
  • What are the trademarks of a good facilitator?
  • Should a facilitator be neutral or not, and knowledgeable with the topic or not?
  • How do you build and cultivate engagement?
  • Why bring in a facilitator?
  • What does it mean, in the room/zoom, to be the facilitator?
  • How to apply your facilitation skills with confidence, in the face of power, cynicism, your own inexperience etc.?
  • etc….

We addressed these questions in the sessions, but usually time was short for a fuller conversation (the training consisted of four sessions of 1.5h so it was a very light training, more like an introduction).

And so the idea came to us to address these questions in our own way. In so doing this ‘Facilitators Unplugged‘ conversation came off the ground… Our own private corner to have an off-the-record, heart-to-heart and reflexive conversation between two friends that happen to love their facilitative practice and experiences with many groups.

Our conversation was fun, easy, relaxing and interesting. And it was also helpful for us (to clarify our thoughts and pick each other’s brain), for the contributors of our recent training, and hopefully for quite a few other people. Including you, reading this blog. Knowledge SHARING is power, as testified by this quote:

“The traditional assumption that ‘knowledge is power’ and is used for personal gain is being subsumed by the notion that knowledge is an expression of the shared responsibilities for the collective well-being of humanity and the planet as a whole.”

Jeremy Rifkin

So here’s this video conversation, with the timeline of our questions to ourselves and each other, in the first comment…

…and this might indeed be just the dawn of more such conversations among us. Because it was too enjoyable to not do it again.

Let us know what you think – whether it’s worth another episode or we should call it a nice experiment 😉

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Enjoy a simpler life with ‘Min Specs’, the “Marie Kondo of Liberating Structures”

Aah… What delight there is in simplicity!

And yet it’s the most difficult thing, isn’t it?

To quote a few very well-known voices from the past:

“The art of publicity is a puzzle of complexity”

(Doug Horton)

“To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose. To throw away what you no longer need is neither wasteful nor shameful.”

(Marie Kondo)

So yes, there’s that: all that clutter that stands in the way. And while Marie Kondo has made it her mission to physically declutter your house, another tiny revolution in the making is there at your doorstep to de-clutter pretty much any area of your work, or life even. And it’s all there, unpretentious, ridiculously easy to understand, and ready for the plucking and enjoying. Its intriguing name is ‘Min Specs’.

What is ‘Min Specs’ and how does it work?

Minimum Specifications is one of the original 33 Liberating Structures and it offers a wonderful way through complexity: keep it simple stupid, declutter away, focus on your non-negotiables!

How does it work?

Whether you work alone or in groups, the idea is the same: with Min Specs, you look at one ‘thing’ (an issue, an object, a service, a concept) and first list the ‘maximum specifications’, ie. all the features – or specifications / specs – that in the ideal world you’d love to see being part of that thing.

Whether it’s technical specifications for a piece of software or manufactured good, conditions for a project (or team, or trip etc.), characteristics you’re looking for in a job, or principles for pretty much anything, Min Specs always starts with that big listing.

And then comes the piece of magic that is actually one of the deep lenses of Liberating Structures: get rid of whatever stands in the way of what you really need.

So the second step of Min Specs, once you’ve worked your way through your big list, is to go through that list again and relentlessly inspect every item you have on your max specs and wonder: “If I violate/don’t keep this particular item (or ‘spec’), will I/we still achieve the overall goal?”. If you answer yes to any of these specs, they should disappear from your list.

Whatever is left is your set of essentials, ie. your list of Min Specs, the few (ideally 3 to 5) non-negotiable specs that really have to be present.

Of course, it may not be perfect and the practice might show some gaps and improvables, but at least you’ve got a nimble plan to get going with, and that makes it easier to review too.

How does Min Specs work deeply on you?

Try using Min Specs a few times, and you’ll notice the DNA of that single structure is slowly seeping into you. Indeed, like its dedicated mushroom illustration, Min Specs grows in the dark and keeps on replicating itself in every department of your work and life, because it’s that essential.

And you may start seeing really endless applications for it.

I’ve used it myself e.g. to:

  • Decide what are ways for me and some colleagues to work together and respect each other in that collaboration;
  • Structure a report with the most essential chapters/sections;
  • Organise the types of notes (content, process, follow up etc.) I want to keep track of during a meeting;
  • Decide what to keep and what to chuck away on my desk to have an inspiring desk and office (so the real Marie Kondo);
  • Filter out the points that should be part of every ongoing check-in meeting within a client organisation;
  • Think about how I want to spend every single day of my life, following a few simple principles;
  • Look at essential aspects that I want to guarantee for the education of my children, together with my ex-wife;
  • Develop my absolute bucket list of countries that one day I would like to visit…

So as you can see the possibilities are rather open, or even endless…

And then Min Specs stops being just a ‘structure’ and it starts being almost a principle of life. Min Specs almost becomes one of your own life’s Min Specs.

And as happens so often, you also start seeing feedback loops and reverberating effects of the LS repertoire. The Min Specs spirit is nested within Ecocycle Planning and within 9 Whys, it’s meshed in with WINFY or 25/10 Crowdsourcing, and it finds natural connections with e.g. Wicked Questions, What So What Now What etc.

So here’s an invitation to explore this little, simple, yet deep and powerful structure to start decluttering your life and work.

And in the process we can give a bow out to Marie Kondo for helping us appreciate what we’ve known all along:

…that Less is More…

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Read other posts about Liberating Structures on this blog, including a set of posts about ‘Structuring our liberation (LS under the lens)

How to gain confidence as a facilitator?

Learning the 1000 dances of facilitation is one thing. Tricks, tools, tried and true, yeah alright (<< blasé >>)!

But what happens then?

When you’re back from your facilitation training and you’re not sure how to apply what you’ve just learned?

When you are the only one that knows this new language, these concepts, approaches, tools etc.

When you’re up against a cynical crowd that doesn’t take a young, female, black facilitator (or any combination outside of the grey-haired white privileged man) seriously?

When you feel your reality is very far away from the unicorn universe of your facilitators’ bubble, full of happily hopping fluffy bunnies that experiment ad vitam eternam…

Confidence
Indeed, where can you find the confidence to develop your plans A and B? (photo credit: Gerriet / FlickR)

Yeah, what then? What is some no-nonsense advice to build your confidence as an aspiring facilitator?

And before that: What happens when you lack self-confidence?

Well, you may fumble, flop, fail… that’s all part of the game, and that means that you’ve tried things out 🙂

What’s more problematic is when this lack of confidence means that others don’t take you seriously and don’t allow you to establish the most perfect setup for yourself to succeed. And if because of that you don’t stand for your principles, you let some foundations of your work go down the drain. The devil is in the detail and the colours and passion of your dance are revealed in these details that you bring to the mix. You need to keep these alive, and thus to be confident enough to stand your ground on what you know works and allows you to perform the best dance possible in service of another group.

Never let things slip away into someone else’s rabbit hole.

Of course, very often you need to compromise on your way of working with those of the client, but if you feel you’re no longer doing something you’re at least a little comfortable with, if it all feels like someone else’s dance, then you’ve lost that opportunity to make your colours come to life in service of others, and it’s time to change your game plan.

So what can we do to build that confidence?

We brushed on this important topic in a recent facilitation training course. And coming to think of it on the spot – I expect there will be more blogging matters emerging from this training by the way – it boils down to a few elements that almost mimic the project management cycle of Plan > Do > Observe > Analyse.

In this case it’s: Mindset > Practice > Individual and collective reflection > Mindset again.

Let’s dive into these options to build your confidence, which may happen at design (strategic facilitation) stage or at ‘tactical facilitation’ stage ie. in the room, whether real or virtual…

The mindset

Reflect on who you are, what you bring, what you believe your role is to be, what it entails and what not: The closer you are from your inner convictions, beliefs, values etc. the more confident you will be about your approach also

Embrace a ‘quick and dirty’ mindset: don’t strive for perfection, remember that it’s better to fail fast and to pick yourself up, and that perfection is usually unattainable. Instead, remember also that people see much less about the details than you yourself do (no reason to become complacent however). Agile is all about quick & dirty. Liberating Structures would suggest to “Fail forward”.

Confront your fears: What are the fears you have about yourself and about the situation in which you will land? Are your fears justified? Is there a chance that a ‘tiny demons‘ session might shake off your fears and help you see that you can tame them? Fear has as much hold on things as we give it. It may not be a luxury to focus on exorcising these fears first?

Start small: Develop your skillset in safe-fail environments. Try out your facilitative work with your immediate team, network etc. so you see what works and what not. They will be forgiving and you’ll get your work under your skin.

Bring ethics on your side: raise all the delicate questions about politics, participation, representation, diversity, power, decision-making, consequences, whose agenda, whose benefits, whose work etc. When you stand on the right and righteous side of things, very little stands across from you… But keep checking with others that you are not blind to certain issues (as Haemin Sumin would encourage us):

We must cultivate all three intelligences for our overall health: critical intelligence, emotional intelligence and spiritual intelligence. If one falls to the wayside, it slows the growth of the other two:

If you have developed critical intelligence but have neglected emotional intelligence, then you may not be sensitive to the suffering of others.

If you have developed emotional intelligence but have neglected spiritual intelligence, then you may lose hope after seeing the world’s suffering.

If you have developed spiritual intelligence but have neglected critical intelligence, then you may fall victim to the abuse of a cult.

Haemin Sunim

Jog through your plan mentally: Run things through your head, with some help (more about that below) and imagine how your game plan would feel like minute by minute for the people that are going to follow your inspiration – this will give you a reality check of how well-founded your hunch is.

Hypothesise: Always see your facilitation design as a set of assumptions, that you will be unravelling with the team that helps you organise the work – you will learn with them what works and what doesn’t, and this way, progressively you gain confidence in your toolbox, and more importantly, in your art of “supporting everyone to do their best thinking” (as my friends and mentors from Community At Work would say).

The practice

The most obvious answer to gaining confidence, really is: (mindful) practice, practice, practice. 10000 hours of practice (Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers‘ invitation).

Work with a team: This is anyway a great practice (and one of my ten commandments) to build confidence as a group and rely on each other’s complementary creativity, inspiration, energy etc.

In process design, keep being creative, adaptive, and twist things around. This experimentation is also at the source of embracing quick and dirty, failing fast. That creative practice and related mindset will bring you far in earning confidence because you no longer stick to the script but embed it in who you are. So go on, keep it playful. Keep bending new corners!

In the same vein, be the everyday facilitator, practice your facilitation skills and approaches etc. whenever and wherever you can, so you get them under your skin – another commandment of mine ha ha ha 😉 This means trying it out by yourself individually, with a teammate or partner, with your friends, with your family etc.

If the problem of confidence comes from hierarchy (perhaps another post about it later), give and take: give the people that want to see their chips honoured in an honorific position e.g. through a celebrity interview. There you attend to hierarchy and order and formality and convention. And at the same time, you also open the door to trying a bit more engagement etc. (because in this example, celebrity interview also requires engagement away from the formality of plenary sessions)…

My friend Nadia would add to that list: “do some improv theatre” as a great way to build your confidence…

The collective reflection

Keep learning and holding your assumptions in check – that’s the key to improving (and it’s also one of my facilitation commandments), so be humble, try and be a bit scientific about what went well and what not. That rigour in looking at your practice will also give you confidence.

Seek feedback from people you work with / for – find out what your blind spots are and what your unknown known strengths are…

Find a buddy or coach or mentor that can help you build your confidence, that is willing to support you, challenge you, relax you, encourage you, mirroring and explaining yourself to you, praise you etc. This is so so soooo valuable!!! We all rest on the shoulders of our respective giants. And if 15 years of knowledge management practice have taught me something, it is this: nothing beats apprenticeship and joint work to get better at what we do.

So let’s build that confidence then!

In my view, the question of confidence is 60% attitude and 40% practice (including reflection). But we have not much to lose in trying things out, so let’s keep building this. As I know – and here’s one more possible blog post for the future – the source of all ills in the world is lack of self-confidence, and it’s high time we shared our secrets to counter that and reveal our true selves!

What are your other secrets to build your confidence as a facilitator that designs and/or facilitates ‘in the moment’?

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Looking behind the veil – the little nooks and crannies of process literacy

So if process literacy is a crusade to develop everyone’s capacity to use the power of ‘process’ to communicate, collaborate and achieve amazing things together, the obvious next step is to structurally build that capacity through proper training (or ongoing coaching) on facilitation and collaboration etc. But training is not a panacea, it’s not always possible (timing-wise or otherwise), and it comes at a cost. Ditto with coaching.

So what can we do every day to build that process literacy?

The light behind the veil
Revealing the process light behind the veil of our conversations (photo credit: Peter Prehn /FlickR)

It’s simply a case of unveiling the reality of process, revealing the process scaffolding that supports the building of our conversations. And it’s about zooming in on all the little nooks and crannies that help our relations and interactions flourish. And in the process, it’s about whetting the appetite of people for that process literacy, getting them to want to see more and more behind the veil. Getting them to both understand why they might not be comfortable with certain situations, and helping them get more comfortable with slight discomfort. And it’s also about shaking them out of their ‘content’ comfort zone into a process ‘groan zone’ where they feel challenged and invited to think and look differently about themselves, the environment and others.

Just like learning should take place at a slightly uncomfortable junction (I think).

But before embarking on the process literacy crusade and revealing everything all the time, let’s be mindful that not everyone is indeed comfortable and so it takes a multi-tier approach to revealing process.

  • In the words of the Community at Work gang, it’s being aware of and playing with the Influencer-accommodater scale, between teaching or showing process, or letting it unfold by itself without intervening so that the group itself deals with what’s at hand. And even within the same group, it can prove very helpful to switch between both ends of that spectrum over time.
  • And sometimes the best thing is to play this below the radar, for instance in groups that are really uncomfortable in process waters, don’t mention the participation formats you’re using, and certainly don’t overplay the slightly confusing language of e.g. Liberating Structures, it will put them off even more. But get them to experience what is going on, and to reflect on their (process) experience afterwards). Then they usually see the power of process and feel invited to smell its magic again…
  • On the other hand, sometimes it’s helpful to blatantly point out the process that is unfolding, so that the people around you realise that process is everywhere, all the time and sits -partly at least- with everyone.

Here are various other instances of what you can do to reveal the process scaffolding:

  • I already shared some tips in a daily dose of process literacy. Essentially it’s about progressively building up a collage of insights that depict process, relationships, diversity and inclusion, representation, decision making, group dynamics, self as instrument, communication styles etc. all the invisible things that help make relations grow and results flourish.
  • A simple way is to invite as many ‘contributors’ (the wrongly called ‘participants’ as my friend Nadia pointed out in Myriam Hadnes’s podcast Workshops work) to join the daily ‘after action review‘ to check how the day went and what could be done differently. You are then reviewing the process, not revisiting the same conversations…
  • Getting people to play an active role (whether facilitating a breakout room, chart writing or documenting, managing time etc.) because it formally gives them a process role, meaning they’re no longer bound by just the content of conversations. And it’s a sure approach to get them to invest themselves emotionally in the interactions and enjoy themselves even more!
  • Particularly with the people or teams you end up designing processes with, whenever you disagree on a way to do something, see this as an experiment: share your process assumption about how things will pan out if you follow approach A over B, try out in reality and reflect together afterwards on what happened…

Because of their very participatory nature, Liberating Structures are a great way to build that process literacy. But any step back that you take – anything that gets you to focus on the ‘meta’ level – helps everyone see the process scaffolding better, and get intimate with these myriads of nooks and crannies…

Why cultivate everyday process literacy? What’s the result?

If you’re lucky, you inspire people to know and do more with it. After masterful Sam Kaner delivered his Group Facilitation Skills training at my former employer ILRI, one of the senior scientists there mentioned to him that after going through this course he felt like entirely changing directions in his professional life and dedicating himself to this facilitative domain. So let’s awake and cultivate the blossoming world of process literacy in each other and make magic happen, because it’s there for the taking 😉

Sometimes you also realise that all that investment may not lead directly to a change, but slowly and surely it does. That same institute ILRI invested a lot of money into these group facilitation skill training sessions for instance. For sure many of the trainees actually never put their skills to use, and most of them forgot a lot (if not most) of what the training entailed – the fallacy of training again. Yet, at the institutional level, the whole organisation keeps on valuing such training, and many staff members are process literate enough now that they really value process design and facilitation, and that is a major achievement because it places them in a much better position to combine their staff and partners’ capacities and intentions much more effectively.

By the way, on 9 June, Myriam’s podcast will feature an episode with me in which I’m talking about some of these issues. Follow her podcast here: https://workshops.work/podcast/

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Structuring our liberation (LS under the lens): Integrated autonomy

(It’s been now six years that I’ve been actively and more centrally using Liberating Structures (LS), following three to four years of beating around that bush and borrowing from the LS repertoire haphazardly. Now it is firmly in my practice, and I’ve decided to start another blogging series (Structuring our liberation – LS under the lens), looking at some of the not-so-common structures from the LS repertoire).

Today, I’m focusing on another structure I’ve hardly ever used: Integrated Autonomy.

This is both an excellent way to get my head around it properly, stretch it to imagine how it could be pushed and adapted, and imagine how it might work for groups that don’t share context – because many structures that thrive on shared context are typically sidelined in open workshops and that’s a pity.

What is the purpose of Integrated Autonomy?

Somehow echoing the logic of Wicked Questions, Integrated Autonomy invites teams and groups to ponder this wicked question: “How is it that we can be more integrated and more autonomous at the same time?”. Most organisations tend to either put the focus too much on integrating everyone and everything, or leaving everyone too autonomous.

This LS poses that embracing both aspects is much more conducive to a resilient group and more creative and productive results. It is thus naturally good for exploring strategies, for finding a balance in the way a decentralised organisation is operating, for attending to tensions between two different factions of an organisation etc.

How does it work?

Contributors involved in this LS draw a list of activities that are experiencing tensions between…

  • Integration and autonomy
  • Standardisation and customisation
  • Competition and cooperation

They then choose one of these activities and list down reasons for integration (list A), reasons for autonomy (list C) and identify which activities boost both integration and autonomy (list B).

They get on by pondering what could be done or adapted to move any item from list A or list C to list B.

Read more about this on the LS website.

The whole structure (face-to-face) takes 60-80 minutes to be appplied.

Who could really benefit from this LS?

Any team or organisation that is:

  • Developing a strategy and wants a more robust and resilient approach
  • Decentralised and needs both the headquarters/central agency and decentralised offices to work well together
  • Reviewing its decision-making procedure and wants to offer some level of delegation
  • Encouraging innovation and wants it to potentially emerge from anywhere in the system

As you can see, this is again typically a ‘team LS’, as in “a structure that is particularly designed for teams to operate more successfully”. I offer a few options to stretch it, particularly for groups that don’t share the same context…

What is liberating about it?

The liberating features of Integrated Autonomy

It helps everyone point to and express their boundaries, their needs for freedom and independence, which Dan Pink would describe as one of the three attributes of personal drive in (working) life.

Behind all of this, the ‘Trojan horse’ effect is that it brings people to discuss the very political question of ‘power’ and that in itself might lead to really confusing, annoying, difficult conversations, but necessary and potentially extremely liberating ones, at that!

Integrated Autonomy also encourages open and all-embracing ‘and-and’ (growth) thinking rather than narrow-minded ‘either-or’ (fixed) thinking… Integrated Autonomy is blatantly seeped in the spirit of Wicked Questions.

It is by nature inviting everyone – however close to or far from the centre – to find themselves in the whole system.

It is a creative structure that is requesting contributors to identify strategies that cater for both ends and to think about little twists that push a unidirectional strategy to get bi-dimensional.

Because of its paradoxical nature, Integrated Autonomy is a robust ‘living strategy’. It is not likely to get us to just think and forget about it. It keeps a live focus on the strategy. In that sense it follows the dynamic lens of ‘ecocycle planning‘.

How to stretch the structure further?

A few ideas of how this can be used either differently or slightly beyond its original comfort circles?

Stretch
Stretching the structure to find new angles and uses (photo credit: Steve Snodgrass / FlickR)

In a group that is not a coherent ‘group’ (ie. a composite group of people randomly joining the same session):

  • Integrated Autonomy can be still used to to explore how that group acts as a coherent group for parts of the session (e.g. for debrief), or relies entirely on the individuals (thinking about their own context), and where things come together in between (ie. the breakout groups, )…
  • It can be tested with a fictitious case study of e.g. a large international company that has a global headquarter and some country or regional offices and how the two are operating together. Always a very interesting conversation about power.
  • As usual, it can also be used with individual cases discussed in parallels in pairs or in small groups. However there are generic questions that are worth drawing out (through a Spiral Journal, 10×10 writing or otherwise):
    • Has the balance historically been much more about one side?
    • What can we do to ensure we keep paying attention to both these dimensions?
    • Are we looking at the right two dimensions (perhaps use 9 Whys here to explore more deeply, or indeed Wicked Questions to get to the bottom of the dichotomy here).
    • Who (think Discovery & Action Dialogue and positive deviance) has managed to bring about this type of dual approach very well and what are the factors behind that success?)?

Otherwise…

  • It can also be preceded by Wicked Questions and focus on the two paradoxical dimensions of a Wicked Question to follow the same logic of understanding what caters for one end of the wicked question, for the other, and for both ends. For instance ‘how is it that we are seeking to raise grown up and grounded kids that stand on their own while at the same time trying to teach them some important principles of life’: you can then unpack the what part caters for getting them grounded, what part gets them to be taught, and what lies in the middle.
  • Combined with ecocycle planning, it can also give an idea of the activities in the portfolio that matter for the individual, for the organisation or for both at the same time, and can thus provide a sense of prioritisation…
  • If used with a common context group and with both parties present, Integrated Autonomy can lead to a bit of an ‘us vs. them’ dynamics. It could be useful to bring a user experience fishbowl in the mix to really understand the respective perspectives in parallel.

No training workshop I’m planning will tackle this structure soon, but together with a little group we are cooking up some deep dive sessions on rare LS such as this. If you’re interested in joining one on integrated autonomy (or another no-so-common-LS, please leave a comment here 😉

If you’re interested in getting properly introduced to Liberating Structures you can always sign up for the upcoming general immersion workshop in May-June.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear about your own experiences, twists, tips, tactics to use Integrated Autonomy in fun, serious, playful, hopeful, productive, healthy ways 🙂

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My 10 commandments of group facilitation

Principles, principles, principles…

I’m not fond of rules. I don’t like constraints. I do like ‘strange attractors‘ and boundaries that guide our path, whether secretly or overtly.

Principles do that. So I guess I’m a person of principles.

And as I’m pondering this excellent post by my friend Nadia von Holzen on the 10 principles of Liberating Structures (LS), I want to offer, hereby what have become some of my ‘commandments’ of facilitation over the past few years.

Using again this amazing LS body of work and other instrumental sources of inspiration such as Community At Work‘s incredible living legacy, I’m thinking it’s a good moment to offer my 10 commandments of facilitation, based on my own practice and experience.

It’s likely to become a living list which I may update here and there in the future. Though even now this list comprises some fundamentals that I believe prepare someone doing facilitative work to do and be the change they want to see as part of their work…

So here we go…

1. “Stay out of the content, manage the process”

This one doesn’t come from me but from Community At Work’s seminal ‘Group Facilitation Skills‘ training. And it’s pretty fundamental. Not all facilitators are neutral in the content/process dichotomy. Some allow themselves to mingle in the conversation and share their opinion. Others influence the direction of the conversation (even from a process perspective). And yet I can only honour this commandment and recommend it to others, because the role of a facilitator is, to mirror Sam Kaner’s mantra “to help everyone do their best thinking”. Meddling in that process and taking a stand from content perspective means sending mixed signals: you may value certain points of view that are close to your own. Ultimately, it means there is no integrity to expect from the facilitator.

2. Be the one person that works in ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE’s interest

This is perhaps the second commandment from Kaner, Noakes et al.: not only is a facilitator majorly involved in managing the process, but also in nurturing healthy and productive relationships among the contributors present. By focusing on the process and not adopting any bias in any conversation involved, the facilitator can free themselves to pay attention to how everyone is doing, and to protect the safe space and time of everyone to express themselves. This is fundamental, as it goes to the core of what facilitation is about: the practice of skilfully collaborating.

3. Along the way, develop everyone’s process literacy

This one comes much more from my own practice, directly. Now that I’ve started to write about process literacy more centrally it’s only logical that this becomes one of my 10 commandments: As facilitator you (expectedly or arguably) possess a strong process vision, a lot of process knowledge, and have developed critical process skills. All of this is extremely helpful to have. So how about getting every group you work with to benefit from some of that? Make the process scaffolding visible, explain the principles or reasons why you have managed this particular process bit or not. Share your process language and invite others to see the value of this meta-stance. Every individual, every group, every community becomes all the stronger along the way.

4. Whenever you can, involve and co-facilitate with others

Directly in line with the previous principle, seek to work with other co-facilitators, preferably people that are members of the group you’re working with. This way, not only are you sharing a little bit of process literacy with everyone, but you develop – crucially through joint experience with them – a lot of that process literacy with one or a few people that will directly play a co-facilitative role in the process. A great learning and discovery, not just for them but for you too. Still be mindful of the dark side of co-facilitation, but then actively involve others relentlessly, you’re making everyone smarter this way!

5. Do not fall in love with your own interests, desires, hobby horses – it’s not about you but about THEM

It is very tempting, when designing a process, to get attracted to this new participation format you’ve been bound to try out or adapt, or this new visual tool you want to get your head around. Exploring the edges of your repertoire is great, it relates to another commandment below about self improving, but behold this: Is this approach you’re suggesting something your group really needs, or is it something you have suggested to please your curiosity? Very often, groups don’t need the most sophisticated approaches, tools, bells and whistles. Something simple but solid usually does the trick. Use other safe-fail avenues for pushing your limits. When working seriously with a group – especially a group that pays you to do this, honour your commitment to them and keep thinking about what’s in it for them. Time, and time, and time, and time again.

Group facilitation – It should be more than you, in quality and in quantity (photo credit: Mathias Weitbrecht)

6. Remember your inner yoda – embrace your ethical self

When in the room, facilitating, you have no space to colour your statements politically or ethically. But upstream, when designing the process, it’s your every right – and perhaps duty – to follow your own code of ethics. And I’m thinking particularly about how you look at dynamics of inclusion, diversity, representation, transparent decision-making. Is the plan really paying attention to everyone the way it should? Is it complete? Is it doing due diligence? Is it not reinforcing entrenched power patterns, and perhaps even creating a climate of distrust etc.? Be very mindful of how you contribute to a healthy (or not so healthy) environment and dynamics in the groups you work with by not asking some critical questions upfront.

And this leads me to the next commandment…

7. Be mindful of who you are – the ‘self as instrument’

The ‘self as instrument’ is again a principle from Community At Work. Know yourself and work with yourself in the room. Know what triggers you both positively and negatively. What is likely to make you over enthusiastic and less risk-savvy, and what will rattle you. Understand the “communication styles that bug you” (C@W, still!) and the ones that you display yourself (with a tinge of TRIZ here). Meditate perhaps, so that your inner eye remains open and alerts you to emotional triggers that affect your judgment and your integrity. The more you know yourself, with all your weaknesses and your strengths, the more you are able to serve others fully and unconditionally.

8. Be the facilitation that you want to see in everything you do

Don’t limit your facilitation practice to the events and collaboration initiatives that you end up working on. Apply it to your life, to your working and wherever desirable your personal relationships. Be supportive, be helpful, listen actively, be mindful of outcomes, be collaborative. When you breathe what you preach, people trust you all the more, because they can see that you walk your talk and respect your work and approach. And bonus, doing so you might even cheekily bring people to taking an extra step of slight discomfort that they might not take otherwise, though that’s matter for another blog post…

9. Self-reflect and self-improve

Maybe it’s the heritage of my knowledge management profile, but I firmly believe that much like a lot of facilitation is getting groups to reflect on everything, you should also reflect on how you’ve been doing this or that, what you did well, what you did unexpectedly, what was good, bad, ugly and lovely in all of that, and what you can do to get it even more right next time around. As the LS gospel goes “Learn by failing forward”. Growth thinking drives the best facilitators, and the pie is always getting bigger. So have your portion now, and then some more! Yummy learning! And at that, you might need the feedback of others to help you cover your blind spots and help you grow, which paves the way for the last, but certainly not the least of these commandments…

10. Work with (many) others, and be grateful!

Facilitating is inherently collective. And it takes many people indeed to go through successful collaboration, even during just the space of an event. So go out there and find your partners in crime. Involve the sponsors, the people in the room. Whether they help design, co-facilitate, document, manage time, manage technical platforms, review the works, the more you involve others, the more active the entire crowd becomes and the more likely they are to invest more of themselves in the time together, and in building quality relationships with each other. Besides, it’s sheer pleasure – well, with some spicy moments ha ha ha. Don’t stop there, thank them, and once again show that collaboration scaffolding: it wouldn’t be possible if all of these people, all of you hadn’t been involved.

It’s a beautiful job to facilitate, and I hope you enjoy these commandments, and perhaps apply some of them or share your own here… What are your 10 commandments of facilitation?

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Structuring our liberation (LS under the lens): Generative Relationships / STAR

It’s been now six years that I’ve been actively and more centrally using Liberating Structures (LS), following three to four years of beating around that bush and borrowing from the LS repertoire haphazardly. Now it is firmly in my practice, and I’ve decided to start another blogging series (Structuring our liberation – LS under the lens), looking at specific structures from the LS repertoire.

Today, I’m getting started with some structures that tend to be used slightly less, among others because they require a shared context. One such structure is: Generative Relationships STAR.

What is the purpose of Generative Relationships / STAR

STAR looks at four characteristics of teams and helps its members assess how well they do on each of these characteristics, so they can identify adjustments for the gaps that they see. The four aspects are:

  • Separateness (and differences): How diverse is the team in its composition
  • Tuning: How well team members manage to listen to and learn with each other
  • Action: How frequently/intensively the team acts together on opportunities and/or innovate
  • Reason/purpose to be together: How clear it is for everyone in the team what the purpose of that team is and are its benefits

How does it work?

Working with a compass map, each team member develops their own version of the compass, then compares it with others and they negotiate how their whole team picture actually looks.

Then they discuss what are the pattern results of their STAR compass mapping in terms of how they work together.

Based on that, they identify some steps to become more functional etc.

Read more about this on the LS website.

The whole structure takes about 20-40 minutes to be worked out.

Who could really benefit from this LS?

Obviously, any team can benefit from this, and teams are the primary locus of this LS. But the STAR logic can be extended to small organisations and networks also. It’s helpful for team members, primarily, but also for managers, for consultants working with that team or group. It’s particularly helpful for groups of people that bring in partners from different organisations, to really understand how they manage to work together and make the partnership a reality.

Also: Particularly helpful for team retreats and capacity development, for interpersonal communication, for identifying the basis for strong collaboration. For weak teams that need to get their act together, and for high-performing teams that want to identify their edges and next focus.

It’s generally useful for anyone wishing to understand group dynamics and team composition better also.

What is liberating about it?

A few features from STAR are quite liberating, even though not uniquely in this LS:

  • The conversation about assessing the team, and collectively negotiating how the team itself operates, looking at the -sometimes wildly- different individual assessments, is always a great opportunity to surface differing perspectives. That conversation is in itself worth more than the eventual result of the negotiation.
  • The creativity that it requires to consider the STAR compass map and characterise the collaboration patterns of that group is great. Hidden patterns are revealed. Alternatively, while the patterns themselves might be recognised, STAR offers a basis to explain the deficiencies/edges of that team.
  • The initial assessment (the teams’ collective STAR compass) paves the way for further, future, deeper explorations of the team dynamics.
  • The compass map points in the direction of either developing the capacities of current team members, or of bringing in people that might stimulate either of these dimensions.

How to stretch the structure further?

While this is meant to be used by groups of people that effectively work as teams, it can also be used alternatively:

It can always be used individually reflecting on our respective teams, and bouncing ideas off with others, possibly preceded by Helping heuristics to offer the most adequate type of support to each other in doing so?

Even for impromptu teams (e.g. the group of participants in a public workshop), STAR can be used to reflect on useful variables of a well-functioning team. It could even be done as an exercise to get that impromptu group to understand how they are operating together and to keep that in mind as they further explore their interaction patterns…

The 4 variables of STAR can arguably be replaced by other dimensions of teamwork that matter e.g. their process literacy, their emotional intelligence (which is perhaps one of the elements in tuning), their recognition and pride, their stability as a team etc.

It can be stretched onto families (or even groups of friends) that want to understand how they function with each other.

We will be working with this structure in the upcoming general immersion workshop in May-June by the way.

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Process literacy perks: The participants, as ‘leaders in the shade’

With this new year’s resolution to blog somewhat more than I’ve done in the past four years, one of the biggest and nicest endeavours ahead of me is to finally write a series of posts about ‘process literacy’ – following this seminal post. I’m getting started with this series today, focusing on the benefits of process literacy in relation to different types of people/functions involved in collaboration. In this post I’m exploring the benefits of developing process literacy of (and for) the participants of a meeting or collaboration.

Who benefits the most from process literacy? Of course you might say facilitators and other people who operate most of the time in the ‘process’ realm.

Well, there’s much to say about this, for sure.

Though how about the majority of people that will not end up organising, chairing, let alone facilitating meetings – indeed let’s even just think about meetings here, not even broad collaborative initiatives.

So let’s look at meetings that involve process literate participants.

Cultivate fruitful interactions, collaborations and meetings through making everyone a key actor (Image credit: Atlassian)

You might still wonder: What is the benefit of having participants that have developed strong process literacy when there’s a facilitator taking care of the process, and better still: it’s their job!! – right?

Wrong!

Of course, you can always work with a group that has no understanding of process literacy whatsoever. You don’t NEED it to get where you want. But let’s just say it will take more time…

Let’s examine some benefits of having process literacy as distributed as possible, borne by as many participants as possible:

What becomes possible when process literacy is distributed among participants?

Here are just some very real possibilities…

A handy flowchart (download link here to the left) (image credit: Atlassian)
  • Everyone attends meetings as they know exactly why they attend that meeting (ever seen this handy flow chart about organising a meeting or not, by the way?).
  • They have also a good understanding of the topics and outcomes that are aimed at for this meeting. And if they don’t, they ask questions about it upfront, preventing ill-conceived meetings and inviting the organising team to do a better job at realising why they are organising the meeting themselves.
  • They have realistic expectations about what can be achieved in a meeting and are thus not going to shoot for the moon in a two-hour online meeting (or even an eight-hour face-to-face meeting for that matter).
  • They also clearly understand what is expected of them in terms of dynamics: whether to understand, share ideas, co-create solutions etc. This greatly enhances expectation management for everyone around.
  • They are aware of their own expectations, objectives, communication style, and are capable of factoring this into the group dynamics somehow, instead of focusing on themselves only and letting their emotions rule the game.
  • They create consistent and warm norms that help everyone find their place in the group and contribute, respectfully though potentially in disagreement, and they set examples of behaviours that others can follow to further contribute to this fertile atmosphere of collaboration.
  • They collectively manage time in relation with the overall objectives to accomplish, not just mechanically. And in breakout groups, they are able to keep their eye on the ball of ‘what is it we are trying to accomplish’ rather than just ‘what are we discussing at the moment’.
  • Although they may have some ideas about how to run this or that process, or come up with an alternative way of achieving the objective at hand, they are respectful enough of who’s ‘running the show’ at a given time to make that happen.
  • They really pay attention to each other and to managing relationships, because they understand it’s key to the present and future of that work.
  • On the other hand, if things are going horribly wrong, they will call it out and ask for a serious facelift of the process at hand – even all the way to cancelling or adjourning the meeting.
  • And a real bonus here: You can turn participants into facilitators – whether for break out groups, or even (segments of) plenary sessions.
So what are we waiting for to get into a more process literate collaboration? (image credit: QualitDesign)

…and I can get to think about other benefits still, but you get the gist…

In essence, with process literate participants, you have a group of ‘shadow’ facilitators that understand what it takes to move forward with a complex agenda. They make you that much more likely to achieve the results you set your eyes on. You can count on these ‘leaders in the shade’ to bear the collective process and its integrity every step of the way.

This is of course an idyllic picture, a unicorn in the realm of meetings (sigh…) but it sets a vision for what we should strive for. A bit like communication, process literacy is really everyone’s business, or it should be.

Obviously, the reverse picture of the above is also true, and that’s why there’s a lot of benefits in getting the entire set of participants to develop their process literacy rather than dealing with the ills of process illiteracy…

How to cultivate that process literacy?

Well, that’s my holy grail, and I’m getting started on my quest after some successful but rather random errands in the past.

What is sure, approaches that aim at involving and unleashing everyone, such as Liberating Structures, are key in this endeavour. But many more avenues are worth exploring.

Do you want to join my round table, noble knight of distributed intelligence?

Related stories:

Liberating monitoring evaluation and learning Structures? Two ‘why bother?’ interviews…

Now all posts related to specific (training) events will be posted on my company’s website ‘ProcessChange.net’. Here’s the latest, and it created a lot of fun!

Ewen Le Borgne

If you are a professional working on monitoring, evaluation, learning (MEL), whether in international development cooperation or otherwise, you might be looking for interesting ways to reinvent your profession in a COVID context that has made direct contact exceedingly rare and difficult and has thus made all that good MEL work very challenging… Here’s an interview that might be of interest, with a totally impartial take since it’s myself interviewing myself 😉

And if you want to skip it and directly get your tickets (I warned you arf arf arf), simply click here.

Bonus interview (with a mystery guest) at the bottom!

So you think MEL is in need of reinvention?

Well, I’m not the one saying this, I’m not even a MEL specialist myself (though I used to be). But my friends, former colleagues and the graduates from the last such immersion who operate in this field are…

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