Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Keeping One’s Distance

I’ve lived in seven different cities in my life. After a few months living in a new city, there’s a moment when its geography gels in my head. From that moment on, I’m not a stranger there anymore and there’s no going back.

With clients, the same moment arrives sooner or later and it is a problem. We learn our way around the corridors of their culture and we greet friendly faces at the coffee machine. We lose our objectivity, we stop asking the stupid question, we mistake our knowledge for understanding. We can be of use so long as we don’t understand anything. It is precisely our struggle to understand that helps our clients to turn their insight back onto themselves.

Yesterday, I found myself, together with a new colleague, a novice, working with a client to design a second event. We held a first event two months ago and I learned a great deal about the subject matter (development of 12-year scenarios on how the global financial architecture might evolve). Our second event is in less than two months and we jumped head-first into the design process, discussing objectives and outcomes and trying to figure out how to best make use of material that they had prepared.

There had been some tension between me and this client during the previous event and I wanted to be particularly accommodating. I knew where he wanted the project to go and I saw my job as helping him get there as effectively as possible. I’m a facilitator, after all.

Yet there was something deeply wrong with the objectives he laid out for us. They simply didn’t add up. My colleague, who is new to this area, saw the incongruity at once, a mis-match between mission and strategy that is so much more evident from a slight distance than from the inside. And in no time I had moved sufficiently inside my client’s organization and structure that I missed it.

At another event a year ago (same client, related topic) I attempted to scribe a discussion hidden behind a wall while my colleague scribed the same discussion in view of the client. The highly technical topic (investment barriers) was entirely new to her: plenty of jargon and references to obscure names and events. Yes, she has artistic talent and technical drafting skill that I utterly lack. Yet in this case she chose not to use these tools. She worked with one hand figuratively tied behind her back.

Her result was so thoroughly superior to mine that I have not stopped asking myself whether I even know how to listen. Of course, we can attribute most of her superior performance to years of practice, but I’m convinced that part of her success was due to her ignorance of the topic, not in spite of it.

As facilitators, we are not our client’s colleagues. There is so much we will never see or understand about our clients and their business, but the few things we can help them see more clearly are only visible to us because we are strangers. That distance is one of the most valuable tools we possess.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Innovating the Synthesis Conversation

We just finished a fantastic two-day-and-a-bit DesignShop for 56 participants overlooking the Saronic Gulf in Greece. At the post-event Sponsor Meeting the CEO, though extremely happy with the outcomes and the process, said how much he hated the synthesis conversation. Since the topic of our event was Innovation, Collaboration, and Customer Centricity, it seems that we have some re-thinking to do. I happen to think that the conversation was successful – the participants got what they needed from it and, though I can’t prove it, I believe that the results would have been superficial had we avoided it. Nevertheless, his unhappiness merits serious attention; not just for this client, but in general.

At our last event two months ago the synthesis conversation, for only the second time in my career as a facilitator, failed. The Chairman (boss of yesterday’s CEO), despite coaching and assurances, stood up five minutes in and hijacked the discussion. We recovered, sort of, but the experience was unpleasant. Preparing for this event, the sponsors pleaded not to have one and I offered to try a different approach – to stay outside of the circle and to drive the conversation by suggesting pre-selected buckets of work and using their reaction to drive the discussion.

That’s exactly how I did it and though there was room for improvement (perhaps we should have set the chairs in a tight arc rather than a circle) we had great participation, genuinely substantive discussion, sincerity, and, I thought, the seeds of intent. The rest of the Act day was outstanding, full of energy, outstanding quantity and quality of work, recognized insights, and an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction and achievement on the part of virtually all the participants, including the sponsors.

Although this is one of the best sponsor teams I have ever worked with, one of the sponsors stands head and shoulders above the others in his thoughtfulness, intelligence, and his sincere effort to (successfully!) understand what it is we do and why we do it. This sponsor’s observations on the success and the importance of the synthesis conversation were right on target. Nevertheless, the CEO insisted and therefore I insist on re-thinking the formula we tend to follow.

(I often find that CEOs in particular love the synthesis conversation. They tell me that they hear things they’ve never heard before. This CEO, on the other hand, is so much more plugged in to his people, so much more approachable, that he would be much less likely to need this open channel.)

Prior to the First Draft module, I sent the participants outdoors to tables with snacks and drinks, but with virtually no assignment. I merely asked them to discuss our themes and to discuss barriers and enablers. In case it helped them structure their discussion, I showed them the Creative Process Model, but didn’t insist they use it. Most importantly, I didn’t ask them to produce anything or even to conclude anything. Their task was merely to talk and, more importantly, to listen. The First Draft itself was outstanding and I believe that this semi-Synthesis module accounted for at least part of this success.

I understand that some of my colleagues (Kenneth? Fons?) starts the synthesis conversation by asking “What is the work we have to do today?” as do I, but then leaves them to their own devices. I don’t think that, from a participant’s perspective, this is fundamentally different from my more hands-on approach. I suspect that this approach is even ‘heavier’ than mine, though it might produce even a greater sense of ownership and intent. It is precisely this heaviness that my CEO wants to avoid. The pre- First Draft chat (we called it Coffee House and served them drinks and sweets at their tables, which we set up outdoors) was a study in lightness. Could that be the direction to look? Could we innovate by doing less? Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma suggests that stripping things away is usually a good way to innovate.

On the other hand, this is such a fundamentally healthy organization – and so unusual in its sanity – that intent isn’t to be found in looking each other in the eye and finally feel that they are being listened to. It can be found in the work itself.

Though I disagree with the CEO’s conviction that the Synthesis Conversation was un-necessary, indeed, damaging, I am forced to see it is a formulaic approach that needs to be innovated. We do it this way because it tends to work. But that’s not a good enough reason. I’m sure we can do better.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Scripting the Founding Myth

Every great undertaking has its founding myth: the abduction of Helen, the Long March, two guys in a garage…. The undertakings we are midwives for are usually more prosaic than the Trojan War, but their need for a founding myth is nearly as great.

For example, five years ago, we facilitated an event to launch the strategic change program of a United Nations agency focused on rural poverty. Though that project has ended, people at this agency still refer to ‘the spirit of Milan’ when they want their colleagues to display collegial behavior. Fifty people working with us for three days in Milan has become the founding myth of all subsequent cross-agency initiatives.

A year ago, we facilitated eighty people for three days in Edinburgh to bring together disparate leasing activities of a major bank. Now that they have a shared destiny, they continue to refer to our work together as the starting point of their new business. A single black & white board illustrating the final report out of this event is the first thing one sees on the wall when entering the headquarters of this new business line.

Anyone who has heard Frances describe the funeral of old-style industrial relations on a US military installation and the birth of a new collaborative culture in its place knows what our role is in scripting the founding myth.

For me, the difference between a good event and a great event hangs on two variables:
1. Were we as a krew firing on all cylinders? Did we create something we never imagined we were capable of?


2. Did the participants create their myth? Do they have a story to tell throughout the life of their undertaking. Be it a new business or merely a complex project.

And since my ambition is to deliver great events, time after time, I sometimes fall into the trap of trying to sell the founding-myth type of event when all that’s wanted is help in untangling a complex problem. The market may be pulling us to scale our work down (and this might event be the key to our survival, cf., Clayton Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma). For me, though, the motivation comes from trying to scale it up, from taking a run-of-the-mill merger and making its protagonists the actors in a new myth.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Fishing for Feedback

The ‘Freakonomics’ column in last Sunday’s Times recounted Anders Ericsson’s studies of the importance of practice and discipline in the development of expertise:

…Ericsson has noted that most doctors actually perform worse the longer they are out of medical school. Surgeons, however, are an exception. That's because they are constantly exposed to two key elements of deliberate practice: immediate feedback and specific goal-setting.

The same is not true for, say, a mammographer. When a doctor reads a mammogram, she doesn't know for certain if there is breast cancer or not. She will be able to know only weeks later, from a biopsy, or years later, when no cancer develops. Without meaningful feedback, a doctor's ability actually deteriorates over time.

What sort of feedback do we get on the effectiveness of our work? Other than the ego-boosting endorphin-soaked gratitude we receive while the participants file out, we rarely receive reasoned feedback – the kind that can help us determine what really works and what doesn’t.

In our old model as sub-contractors to consultants, we never really know what happens and, more importantly, what, if anything, we did to make it happen. But once we shift from selling events to delivering solutions, we stay involved after the event and become active players in implementing for results. Then we can more dispassionately enquire about impact and, better yet, make our own observations.

I have recently facilitated a series of small events for a small United Nations agency. Each event is, in a sense, a follow-up to the previous ones and I spend a significant amount of time in their offices between these events on design issues and other discussions. Earlier in this project, I had a small team on site for six weeks facilitating a shifting team of their people in the design of a strategy and operating model.

Having been involved in the nuts and bolts of their work, I now have the tools to assess the outcomes of my events and a sufficiently robust relationship to discuss successes and failures with the client.

So what feedback do I receive? The good news is that, unlike virtually every initiative that this agency undertakes, staff and executive enthusiasm for the projects we are involved in actually grows over time. The bad news is that the more concrete aspects of our outputs undergo radical surgery in the days and weeks following our work together.

I’m taking this feedback on board to beef up the focus aspects of our work. This ought to measurably improve the quality of our outcomes. So maybe it is good news after all.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Trial by Ordeal

Accused witches were sometimes tried by being held under water. If they survived, they were presumably guilty of witchcraft and consequently were burned at the stake. If they drowned, their soul was proven pure, and they were given a Christian burial. Our participants go through a similar experience.

We have our own facilitation ordeals: crunch moments, difficult transitions, a hairy synthesis conversation, an obstreperous participant (or sponsor!). But we more-or-less know what to expect and take these ordeals in stride. Our participants don’t have it so easy.

If you have ever participated in one of our events (I have participated in about a dozen) you would know the excruciating anxiety of being thrown into a small team with people you don’t know (or worse, with people you do know) and being presented with an ambiguous assignment whose apparent relation to the task at hand is at best tenuous. You don’t know what to do, how to behave, what is expected, how others perceive you…. Participating in our events, particularly during Scan, can be horribly angst-ridden. This is both necessary and good.

As for any storybook hero, a journey demands some element of potential danger and personal risk. Otherwise, the sense of arrival is hollow. We don’t need to build extra pain or peril into our events – there’s plenty already – but we do need to be aware of how difficult this all is for our victi… ‘eh …participants.

Aristotle describes the emotional cleansing achieved through tragic theatre as catharsis. (The word itself refers to the relief one feels after shitting.) Though our events don’t need to be tragic, we do try to accompany our participants through an ordeal to help them see a different world on the other side.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Re-mixing the Magic

I’m listening to the Neptune’s re-mix of the Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil. For the fourth time in a row, my fingers sore with air-guitar blisters.

This is a re-mix with a light touch. It adds very few new riffs and it takes away some of what we’re accustomed to: trading acoustic for electric guitar in the “Just as every cop is a criminal…” phrase; the four-beat pause before “Pleased to meet you.”

We tend to use the same modules in event after event, re-ordering them perhaps, but rarely re-mixing them – we pimp the script without really making it new. But if we think back to those events when we really did create magic, we remember that we made it new. We re-mixed the modules we’ve used before (and since) and created something entirely new.

The newness doesn’t spring fully-formed from the modules themselves, it descends from the overall event design and theme. We don’t create great modules, we create great events and the modules hang off of them. We design the event around an idea, a metaphor, a theme that has meaning for us insofar as it reflects our understanding of the client’s challenge. The participants themselves don’t even have to understand the theme for it to work, and we can even get the theme wrong. What matters more is the coherence and single-mindedness with which we use the theme to shape the event – not just the graphics and the environment, but the writing of every single module, the individual transitions and how they flow through the arc of the event.

Several years ago, we held a large event to develop the three-year strategy of a major university. I frequently remember the enormity of our ambition and the coherence of our execution. It is one of the two or three events we are proudest of. Our theme happened to be The Ideal City and, though not perfect, we managed to weave together a design, environment, shaped experience (e.g., a visit to Augustine’s baptismal font), music, knowledge, and individual modules that collectively pulled them from their world and substituted it with a new one from which they could see their own more clearly. The way we-reworked familiar modules, and dreamed up a few new ones, was all conditioned by a cohesive vision of the entire event and how the participants would voyage through it.

This past week’s event week was different. We ran a good event. One of the factors that kept it from being a great event was Just-in-Time design and writing. We only designed and wrote each day at the very end of the previous day’s work. While the JIT approach helped us adapt to whatever new came up during the day, it deprived the individual modules of the coherence that building an event top-down provides. Each module should contain a germ of the entire event’s design and theme. But if the whole event only emerges one day at a time, the individual modules are sterile. You can pimp them up, but you can’t re-mix them with any coherence.

There are risks when pre-designing and pre-writing the events. First, you may become too attached to your creation and resist flexing, re-writing, or re-designing when the need arises. Second, you may exclude the rest of the facilitation team from the design and writing process. Both of these risks are serious. The first risk is easier to manage than the second: Simply promise yourself and your team that nothing is sacred and that at least one module will be trashed each day, no matter how perfect. The second is more serious and I have only come up with partial solutions. I will address these in another blog. Maybe.

The great events happen when we create the new and re-mix the old with a single vision – a vision that will show the participant’s their world in a new light and at the same time let the facilitation team learn new entirely new ways of using familiar tools.

The Neptunes Sympathy re-mix is great because the original is great. It is great because the additions and subtractions to it are perfectly executed and add a melancholy closing that changes its meaning. But most of all, it is great because it doesn’t let us take anything for granted. I’m listening to the original, un-mixed version now, still picking my air guitar. And the song is new again – nothing old, nothing expected. Magic!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Blogs I Haven’t Written

When I joined my neighborhood gym after a particularly caloric Christmas, I intended to go 2-3 times per week. Thirteen months later, I maintain these excellent intentions.

While the daily flashes of profound insight I counted on to fill this blog when I started it 19 months ago have not flown quite as freely as I had expected, they do in fact arrive slightly more frequently than the great silences between my posts might suggest. I’ve been working much too hard for the past several months and have been even less prolific, blog-wise, than even my most patient readers had come to expect.

So in the spirit of “the dog ate my homework”, I list for you the blogs I had wanted to write in the past several months and simply never got around to:

  • Really Small Events
    What are the particular challenges of facilitating groups of fewer than 15 people?

  • Facing Failure
    Three hours before the end of a two-day event and no solution in sight.

  • When it Really Hums
    What is actually going on when, about an hour after Synthesis, I say to myself, “We have lift-off!”

  • Keeping My Mouth Shut
    Resisting the urge to help.

  • Keeping Their Mouths Shut
    How sponsors can inhibit honesty, and what to do about it.

  • Facilitating Large Discussions
    Different models for involving large groups of people in a genuine conversation.

  • Model Talk Model
    I help people design models for a living. And I need some new models myself.

  • Becoming a Know-it-all
    Not wasting what we learn.

  • Organizing for Change
    The one theme every event has in common.

Whether committing this list to print makes me more likely to ever reflect on these themes again remains to be seen.