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Decision Making
  • Where Are the Ground Rules When We Need Them?

    It is more and more common that when groups are forming, they create ground rules as guides for productive behavior. Many ground rules are similar: Start on time, end on time, disagree respectfully, don't interrupt each other, listen deeply, stay on topics, no attribution of who said what, etc. Some groups have just a few and others have a long list.

    What happens to the list of ground rules after that first meeting? Usually the ground rules are buried in the meeting notes never to be seen again. They are not too useful in that state.

    I like to have the ground rules on a piece of battered flip chart paper that I bring to every meeting I facilitate with the group. (I have often forgotten to bring the ground rules and then regretted not having them.)  If people start interrupting each other or getting off track, I can use the ground rules we created together to help people adjust their behavior. I can just go and stand by the list and sometimes that's enough to make people aware of behavior that is not what the group hopes for. I sometimes remind groups of the ground rules which can easily be forgotten in the heat of a discussion. Sometimes I ask the group frankly: "We have a ground rule that we are not observing. Do we want to change it or get rid of it?" 

    It is a delicate balance between coming off as a jerk and being a gentle shepherd of the process. That's why it's so important that the group create its own ground rules. As a group facilitator or leader, you are helping them observe their own rules, not yours.

    Every group violates its own ground rules sooner or later. We are all human beings. The point is that when we do slip up, we apologize, correct ourselves and keep going forward. The healthier the group, the greater the likelihood individuals will self-correct when their ground rules are violated.

    One group at Maricopa Community Colleges has its ground rules printed on the back of members' name tents, so they are always in close sight. A group at Madison College has its ground rules posted in its conference room. Another option is to have the ground rules at the bottom of every agenda.

    Ground rules can be a useful guide to shaping group norms and behavior, but only when they are in plain sight.

  • Until We Get Our Act Together?

    It’s an old fashioned approach to think we have to know all the answers before we are willing to communicate with clients, colleagues, customers or stakeholders. Inviting them to contribute to solutions is respectful and appreciative. This open approach is also very likely to shed useful light on the problem itself.

     

    “We can’t say anything until we get our act together!” This is repeated countless times every day by leaders facing complex problems. Whether it’s a manufacturer dealing with a mechanical failure, or an agency installing a new system, or a college creating intellectual property guidelines, the underlying issue is the same-Leaders usually don’t want to discuss problems publicly until they have the answers figured out.

    This reluctance to openly discuss situations that are not yet resolved is a carryover from patriarchal, authoritarian command and control systems. We are accustomed to that way of doing things-the people on top figure it out and then tell everyone else. Our underlying fear as individual leaders is that we will be seen as less than competent if we discuss an issue without knowing how we are going to resolve it.

    Ten Questions to Ask
    It’s an old fashioned approach to think we have to know all the answers before we are willing to communicate with clients, colleagues, customers or stakeholders. Inviting them to contribute to solutions is respectful and appreciative. This open approach is also very likely to shed useful light on the problem itself.

    Here are ten questions to shape a discussion around any problem for which we don’t yet have answers. Questions 1-5 are those we provide answers for and questions 6-10 are those we ask of stakeholders.

    1. What do we know about the current situation?

    2. What are the questions? What is it that we don’t know yet, but will need to find out?

    3. What are the barriers and bottlenecks we know of so far?

    4. What information is lacking?

    5. What will we do to fill the information gap?

    6. What are some ideas for addressing the issues, barriers, and information gaps?

    7. Where could we find models for benchmarking?

    8. What additional partners might make sense?

    9. What are possible unintended consequences or connections we should think about now?

    10. Who would be willing to work with us on this issue?

    If you are uncomfortable with standing in front of your clients, customers, stakeholders, employees without the answers in your back pocket, be open about that too. You can say, “I usually like to have everything figured out before coming before you, but this issue/problem will be best solved if we put our heads together on it.”

    We don’t need to have all the answers, but we do need to let people know what the timeline is and how we will ultimately develop the solution.

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  • Be A Better Leader—Take Notes!

    The most powerful leadership strategies are also the most simple. Here is one of those simple things: Take notes!  If you have time to make a grocery list, you have time to jot down a few things you noticed today.

     

    The most powerful leadership strategies are also the most simple. Here is one of those simple things: Take notes! John Aleckson, CEO of Web Courseworks, writes about taking notes throughout the year and compiling a “Victory Log” to share with the team at the end of the year. Besides victories, your notes will include things that didn’t work, reactions you didn’t expect, things you want to try in the future, and equally as important, how you felt about these things. Whether in a tiny spiral notebook or bound book or electronic file, your notes are a goldmine of information, especially if you look back on them over time.

    If you want to dig deeper, your notes can be your vehicle for double loop learning as described by Argyris. If you are double loop learning, some of the questions you will ask yourself are, “What are the assumptions that underlie my actions? What’s the theory we have in our heads that is directing our actions? How are our theories holding up?” In single loop learning, according to Argyris, we simply ask ourselves, “What happened?” without looking much deeper.

    It is very likely that you will see patterns in your notes—people who consistently behave in a certain way, targets that regularly get missed, questions that come up again and again, people who deliver wow results every time. Our lives are so full, that if we don’t attempt to capture these things, they slip away. So your notes can be both a personal learning tool and a way to keep track of victories so you can celebrate them. But of course, you don’t have to wait till the end of the year to celebrate your team’s achievements. People need all the encouragement they can get.

    Be protective of your notes too, so you can be perfectly honest. You can figure out what this means.

    One of the leadership practices we cultivate at our annual Women’s Executive Retreat is journaling. If you have time to make a grocery list, you have time to jot down a few things you noticed today. 

    Do you take daily or weekly notes or keep a journal? What does it do for you? What impact has it had on you as an individual or a leader? Please share your experiences.

  • How Is Collaboration Going?

    Thanks to the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, you can measure for free how well collaboration is going.

     

    It is increasingly important that agencies and institutions collaborate with one another, both to stretch financial resources further and to provide the best services. Duplicative services or processes hostile toward other organizations are too costly for today’s shrinking finances and expanding human needs. Collaboration has become a watchword in human services and education. Even in the for-profit world, suppliers who formerly competed ferociously with each other, are working together in new ways.

    So although organizations are attempting to collaborate more than ever, there is still some fuzziness about what collaboration might really mean. People use the terms cooperate, coordinate, and collaborate interchangeably. The Amherst H. Wilder Foundation classic Collaboration Handbook: Creating, Sustaining and Enjoying the Journey by Michael Winer and Karen Ray (1994) distinguishes between cooperation, coordination, and collaboration. The authors describe a continuum of increasing intensity and risk-sharing that begins with cooperation, moves to coordination, and approaches collaboration.

    Cooperation is short-term and informal and involves mostly sharing of information and virtually no risk. Coordination is a more formal relationship focused on a specific aim and requires some division of roles and responsibilities and some increased risk. Collaboration is a long-term relationship with much planning and communication, new structures for making decisions, and full commitment to a common aim. Both the risks and rewards are fully shared. (Winer and Ray credit Sharon L. Kagan, Teachers College, Columbia University for this model.)

    The idea of a continuum has helped me see that while some clients need to establish true collaboration, others can provide better services simply by better coordination. But it’s always worth the discussion to intentionally decided where we need to be on the continuum.

    For organizations that need to establish or shore up collaborative relationships, the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation has created a free on-line “Collaboration Factors Inventory” at http://wilderresearch.org/tools/cfi/index.php/. The questions are research-based and the score indicates areas in need of strengthening such as communication, role clarity, communication, funding, mutual respect, community support, and the like. There are even open-ended questions for comments. The free inventory may also be taken by everyone in the collaborative if one person registers the group and sends out a link. This is a fantatastic tool for stengthening collaboration. Kudos to the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation for making it available to all of us!

  • Three Secrets to Implementing Your Strategic Plan

    I have facilitated close to 200 strategic planning processes. Here are three secrets for a successful strategic planning process. Also you can join me for a webinar “Successfully Implementing Your Strategic Plan” on Thursday, June 17, 12:00-1:15 p.m. CDT. The Magna Publications program is aimed at higher education, but the techniques are applicable to any organization.

    1. Keep the planning committee small—9-12 people. Have multiple opportunities for many people to have input into the process—focus groups, world cafes, surveys, listening sessions, surveys, and the like. A small committee has at least three benefits. First, it is more feasible to get people together with a smaller committee. Second, a group size of 9-12 people has been shown to be more productive than larger or small groups. Finally, a smaller group can analyze data from the stakeholders and make some strategic choices more readily than a larger group. A larger group is more likely to be comfortable with not making clear choices. And strategic planning is about making informed choices.

    2. Use the data. I am continually surprised at the low levels of awareness people often have about what is really going on in many organizations. So often there are pat answers for questions that are not at all supported by data. Common knowledge is notoriously unreliable, so it is essential that a group charged with planning the future of an organization be supported with current data. It is usually not enough to “talk at” the planning committee with the data. The group needs to do something with the data—discuss what it means, compare to other groups, make sense of it.

    A technique I use is to provide various reports to the planning group and ask them in small groups to analyze and then share with the larger group what it all means. (An example of data might be a recent employee survey or a report on gains and losses.) Such activities make the information much more real for the planners.

    3. Assign a “point person” for every priority. Every priority or major goal in the plan must have the name of a point person assigned to it. The role of the point person is not to do all the work, but to ensure that the priority is moving forward as planned. The point person:
    * Is the one to go to with ideas
    * Connects people who are working on similar efforts
    * Helps get the priority moving if it gets stuck
    * Reports on progress at least annually.

    What makes the point person role unique is the fact that one individual is the custodian of a priority or goal even though he or she probably does not have functional authority over all the players. Typically an institutional priority (E.g. expand technology support for learning, serve new groups, provide new offerings) are cross-functional and probably cannot be achieved by one unit. Hence the need for a point person to unify the effort across the organization.

    For more information, see http://kathleenparis.com/home/main/strategic-planning/.

  • Reviewer Focuses on Interdependence

    In his review of Staying Healthy in Sick Organizations: The Clover Practice™,  UK Consultant Philip Whiteley seized on “Declare Your Interdependence.”

     

    He says, “When I reached the third of the three principles…I thought I had mis-read. Where I expected to read ‘declare your independence’, it runs: ‘declare your inter-dependence’ (my emphasis). This was the first indication that something original is going on. I rather tire of ‘how to’ books that place too much of a burden on the individual to sort out their workplace context. But she strikes the right balance, warning individuals against victimhood, and blaming the context for lack of effort to achieve.”

    Whiteley says he uses the book as a guide in negotiating and contracting with people he doesn’t know well and recommends it for anyone “charting difficult waters” at work. In addition to these practical uses, Whitely says the book’s focus on teamwork and interdependence has deeper implications for organizational design and philosophy. “I’m aware that a few organizations, Nokia, Southwest Airlines, WL Gore, for example, have broken out of this and embraced much more teamwork. The next step is to start to encourage shareholders and others to look at companies through this prism, rather than stick to the mono-culture of the quarterly report.”

    See the full review at http://felipewh.wordpress.com.

    Whiteley is the author of How to Manage in a Flat World: 10 Strategies to Get Connected to Your Team Wherever They Are.

  • Planning Ahead for Difficult Meetings

    Have a difficult meeting coming up? Here are 16 questions to ask yourself as you prepare.

    Successful meetings, especially those that are potentially difficult or high stakes, require advance planning and preparation. Following is a list of questions to think through before the meeting begins.

    1. Are the purposes and expected product(s) of the meeting crystal clear?
    2. Is the agenda “actionable” In other words, are the items written as verbs—decide, review, recommend, discuss, select?
    3. Is the room arrangement optimal for the work at hand?
    4. Are the right people included?
    5. Are ground rules agreed upon?
    6. Is it clear up front how the final decision(s) will be made (consensus, voting, secret ballot, etc.)?
    7. Are planning and decision-making tools used (affinity process, dots, criteria matrix, etc.)?
    8. Has the group identified the characteristics of a good decision (least expensive, reaches a particular group, reflects our values, etc.)?
    9. Are basic meeting roles shared (leader, facilitator, scribe, timekeeper)?
    10. Is a neutral outside facilitator used for highly emotional discussions or decisions?
    11. Is time allotted for silent independent writing before group discussion?
    12. For large groups, is discussion begin first in smaller groups, then the larger body?
    13. Are appreciative questions posed (What has gone well? What do we want to continue doing? What values do we want to hold onto as we move forward?)?
    14. Have processes been built in to ensure that everyone can participate (round robin responses, 3 x 5 cards, interviews in pairs, World Cafe)?
    15. Have we tapped into the power of the visual (discussion questions posted on wall or screen, voting with dots, data displayed graphically)?
    16. Have we discussed security?

    Finally, if you walk into a meeting and there is no agenda prepared, suggest that one be created on the spot. At least one organization I know of has empowered any employee to decline or even walk out of a meeting that has no agenda. Who has time to waste?