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Facilitation
  • 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.

  • World Cafe Magic for Involving People

    The World Café is a technique for really engaging people in questions and issues that matter to them. It combines doodling or drawing on the table followed by discussion and the opportunity to move to a different table with a different question and another round of writing, drawing and discussion.

    You know the scenario. An all-hands meeting is called to discuss the strategic plan or a topic that everyone should know about. The leader dutifully shows a PowerPoint and asks if there are any questions. After a few seconds of thudding silence, someone makes a comment or asks a question. The vast majority of people do not participate. These kinds of meetings are a waste of everyone’s time.

    I have been having great success with the World Café as a technique for really engaging people in issues that matter to them and to their organizations. In the World Café, participants sit at tables that are covered with paper. They are invited to write or draw their answers to a focus question which is posted on the table. A “table host” invites people to share their responses. Everyone listens for themes or connections. After 15-30 minutes (depending on the questions) people move to a different table with a different question posted on it. The table host remains.

    In this second round, the table host makes sure everyone introduces themselves and participants look at what the prior group wrote or drew on the table. Additions, arrows, comments, are added and the conversation continues.

    A third round usually occurs which is similar to round two except that participants help the table host prepare a list of themes and also identify any clear differences of opinion. Each table host reports out on themes heard in a 3-minute summary.

    I have used the World Café for strategic planning, asking questions such as, “What changes are occurring outside of our organization that we need to be aware of as we plan for the future?” or “What are some ways we can harness the energy of social networking technologies in our work?”

    I like to make the atmosphere as café-like as possible with coffee mugs for markers, vases of silk flowers, colorful place mats and restaurant menu-holders for the focus question. Of course, French café music is playing as people walk in.

    The World Café has much to recommend it. First, it is a friendly conversation. The questions themselves are interesting. Full participation is built in. Everyone’s point of view is welcomed, regardless of job title or demographic. Different modalities are tapped into—writing, drawing, speaking, listening. Participants are asked to synthesize and look for patterns which requires higher order thinking than just generating ideas.

    Sometimes the drawings left on the tables are zany. Sometimes they are just stick figures and sometimes the artwork is breathtaking. The words and artwork can be photographed and made into a montage that makes a great cover for a report of the event. I have designed and facilitated half a dozen World Café events in the past six months and people uniformly seem to enjoy the experience. One of seven design principles for the World Café is that people should have fun.

    The World Café is the 1995 creation of a global interdisciplinary group known as the Intellectual Capital Pioneers. “Awakening and engaging collective intelligence through conversations about questions that matter” is the motto. Juanita Brown and David Isaacs have written a comprehensive “how-to” book covering the seven design principles and more. The World Café: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter (Berrett-Koehler, 2005). The helpful (and artful) web site is http://www.theworldcafe.com/.

    I really like the World Café approach because everyone has a chance to be part of the conversation. Viewpoints that would never see the light of day in an unstructured meeting are aired and discussed. Points of agreement are found where people thought there were none. Participants leave the meeting better educated in the issues, knowing more people in their workplace, and better able to execute organizational strategies because they have a deeper understanding of what they mean. And there’s nothing like shared meaning to inspire people to do their best work. ***

    World Cafe Table Setting

  • 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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  • 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/.

  • Operating Principles Can Build Trust In An Organization

    Creating a set of operating principles for how employees will behave towards each other and those they serve can be the foundation on which a more cohesive, trusting and trustworthy workplace culture can be created. And although giants like Google and Whole Foods Market have created operating principles, no group is too small or too large to take this step. As my article for Leadership Strategies, Inc. emphasizes, operating principles only have power if everyone from the CEO to the newest employee is expected to follow them.

    See Build Trust with Operating Principles at Leadership Strategies, Inc.

  • 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?