Blog

Process Improvement
  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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?