Thursday, November 11, 2004

Knowing What’s Right

Sponsors often come to me with a prepared agenda and say, “Here. Facilitate this!”

It isn’t easy to coach event sponsors on what their role is – refining desired outcomes, preparing the inputs – and what my role is – drawing up the map and blazing the trail. After all, they’re paying and, anyway, they’ve held dozens of events just like this one and they know what they want.

So when they hand me their own draft agenda, I take a deep breath and listen very carefully as they walk me through their ideas. I assume that at some level they must have a good reason for constructing the event as they do, and I rack my brain trying to identify what that reason might be. And if I can’t discern what they are after, I simply ask.

“Why do we need this particular presentation (or, more likely, cascade of consecutive powerpoint presentations)?” I might ask. “What information do the participants need in order to do the work we’re asking of them?”

Bit by bit, I manage to build an understanding of what the sponsor is really after, while assembling the ammunition I need to propose a more suitable alternative agenda. Good bedside manner, along with the judicious offering of very sexy alternative modules (simulations, scenarios, and the like) can usually win a recess until the next meeting when I can propose my own alternative.

(At this point, I should say that if an architect designing a house for me were to try this same stunt, I would fire him or her on the spot. So forgive my arrogance in knowing what my sponsors need better than they do, as well as my hypocrisy in not taking my own medicine.)

But what happens when the sponsor insists on a structure or even a single module that is simply wrong? One that will move the event in the wrong direction or even undermine the sponsor’s own position? I think there are two possible approaches:

My first approach is to express my doubts without proposing any alternatives. I save the discussion of my proposed solution until we are in my environment and therefore playing by my rules. Reviewing the entire event the evening before, briefly reiterating the doubt I had expressed earlier, I present my alternative version in context and simply hope for the best. This almost always works. When the sponsor-imposed draft reflects a broader failure in the overall structure of the event, a sponsor session in the environment, at least a week before the session is called for.

But what if they dig their heels in and insist on doing the wrong thing? When I’m faced with doing the wrong thing, with delivering a module or an entire event that I don’t believe in, and I can’t back out, I take the Irving Berlin approach: I face the music and dance. I become my sponsor. I try as hard as I can to believe what my sponsor believes and never let on that I have doubts.

Is this hypocritical? Is this dishonest? I don’t think so. I think that we often ask our sponsors to believe in us, to trust us to take them somewhere that they might not comfortable with and that they might not even understand. And when they ask the same of us, it is only fair to oblige. Trust that only runs one way is a con job.

Facing the music and dancing doesn’t always work. I have had modules and even events blow up in my face because I was unable to change my sponsor’s mind and was forced to play along. But I’m convinced that the failure would have been much worse had I expressed my doubts and undermined my trust in my sponsor.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Being Listened To

Perhaps the greatest service a facilitator can provide is creating a space where people can be listened to. Really listened to.

I am increasingly struck by the frustration and even desperation felt by a majority of my participants and how often this hopelessness is caused by the apparent deafness of others. Our Take-a-Panel exercises help to surface ideas that might otherwise remain submerged, but its value is much greater than mere ‘data collection’. Offering the opportunity to a single person – much less 50 – to reflect for half and hour about the future and then share these reflections with a random handful of colleagues for five minutes without interruption, is something close to miraculous.

So many details of what we do represent listening: scribing, documenting, video, the arrangement of chairs, synthesis conversation, etc., but nothing works better than actually listening. And nothing is more difficult.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Scoping the Event

I recently received a facilitator report from a colleague who had enormous difficulty delivering the event that his sponsors and their client wanted. The fact that he was unable to organize more than cursory sponsor meetings was at the core of his difficulty.

His troubles came to mind today during a series of interviews with client executives to prepare for a Sponsor Meeting in ten days. This is a large event – 50 participants for three days – for a service company emerging from several years of disastrous performance. They have a new leadership team, a clumsy structure (imposed from abroad), and a desperate desire to accomplish a turnaround without a clear idea of how to identify and implement concrete change.

The event objectives that emerged from our first Sponsor Meeting were terribly vague:
• Mobilize key actors for the re-launch of the go-to-market strategy
• Assign roles and responsibilities within the organization for obtaining profitable revenues.

Even though I enjoy a good relationship with these client sponsors, I am guaranteed three days in hell if I fail to come up with more convincing, and more concrete objectives. So I have the client’s agreement to interview ten top people plus two people lower down prior to our next Sponsor Meeting. The purpose of these interviews is two-fold: First, I am soliciting their help in figuring out what these two generic objectives might mean in their context. Second, and more important, I am looking for specific problems to solve, issues whose resolution will provide a concrete manifestation of the meaning of these objectives.

I call these solutions “Outcomes” and they differ from “Objectives” insofar as event participants should go home after three days with a high level of certainty that outcomes have been achieved. As for the objectives, it may take months to know whether they have been achieved (when Henry Kissinger asked Chou En-lai his take on the French Revolution, the Chinese premier, who had lived several years in France, replied, “It’s too early to tell”). The sponsors must be confident that the outcomes you jointly identify prior to the event (and which largely determine the event’s design) make sense to them as key indicators and drivers of the event’s desired objectives.

So with only these two anemic objectives to guide my work, I began my interviews today. I spent 45 minutes with each of two executives and managed to identify four concrete potential outcomes:
• Resource planning model
• Protocols and tools for re-use of sales and delivery materials (knowledge management)
• Re-define role of project managers
• Define the role of strategic marketing with regard to Sales, Delivery, and product/service development.

My objective, after 12 such interviews, is to have 20 solid ideas for event outcomes. At our next Sponsor Meeting, we will discuss and prioritize them and highlight 6-8 themes (the number of break-outs I can expect on the final day of the event) which will form the basis of my event design.

I already feel I’m off to a good start and the time I’m investing in this scoping exercise will be paid back many times over in the event itself.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Convergence on Act Day

I am busy phoning the participants of a recent event (I have so far managed to interview 14 of them at length) and am surprised how many of them said that they personally found the event outstanding but they felt their colleagues didn’t feel the same. This is the logical equivalent of all the children of Lake Wobegon being above average. I think the explanation for this paradox can be found in a lack of convergence among the participants.

Of the various causes for the client ‘high’ at the end of a successful event, one of the more rational and thus manageable cause is a sense of convergence. Of course, not all participants agree with all the work done, but convergence doesn’t mean consensus, much less unanimity. Convergence means that people start to move toward a common space. It is that sense of movement that generates a feeling of satisfaction and sometimes, breakthrough.

Convergence begins with Scan and the development of shared language. It is also a principal benefit of multiple iterations (apart from improving the quality of work).

The two key moments for achieving convergence are, I believe, synthesis and Act check-in. Synthesis is obvious: Those participants who actively participate in the discussion stake out their territory, thus making it safe to begin their journey towards other positions. Less obvious is the Act check-in. We often do quick standing check-ins in order to save time. Often, this is adequate. Sometimes we need drawn out presentations to allow debate and disagreement. Apart from time management, the key factor in determining what kind of check-in to have ought to be
a) the need for convergence (a function of the parallel or modular nature of the work buckets) and
b) the level of convergence already achieved.

In this event, we had an outstanding Scan and Focus, one of the best I’ve been involved in in recent years. But the Act failed to come together and the enormous steps the participants made in Scan and Focus failed to compensate for the lack of sense of achievement in Act caused by a lack of convergence. Each Act team did an outstanding job, but they felt that they didn’t deliver as a unified team.

Of the various facilitation errors (most events can survive dozens of facilitation errors) my fatal mistake was abandoning the check-in, at the request of the client sponsor who felt that the teams were working too well to be interrupted. Not only would that check-in have added a useful iteration to each team’s work and added a sense of competition between teams, but most importantly, it would have offered the opportunity for each team to see how its work fit into the big picture. Without the check-in, there was no sense of big picture and thus no great sense of achievement at the end of the event.

Paradoxically, had I held a check-in, it would have been a quick standing check-in, which would probably not have been sufficient to create convergence.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Whose Document Is It Anyway?

I have two firm sponsors toiling away twenty feet from me, re-writing the draft work product, forcing words which were never uttered during the FRO down their client’s throats. Who ‘owns’ this thing anyway? I tend to stick to the following self-defined guidelines:

The journal belongs to us. It is up to us to assure that it is as faithful as possible to what we believe went on during the event. I resist all attempts to interfere with it. Not only is all the content there, but even the look and feel of the web is up to us. I also push as hard as I can for timely distribution to all participants. It is a pact we make with them to listen to them and ensure that their work isn’t lost. Sometimes I make that pact explicit during the event. I then use this declaration in my defence when I am standing before the journal, arms crossed, blocking the way for any interference.

The Work Product, on the other hand, belongs to the Sponsors. I encourage them to edit as much as they want. I only get nervous when the Capgemini sponsors interfere with content without involving the client sponsors. In these cases, I will go over their heads to flag the changes and ensure that they are discussed.

It gets complicated when we have engagement team knowledge worker(s) on the Work Product team, as we tend to do. They feel that they have the right to ‘interpret’ what was said and written in light of their knowledge of the client issues, jargon, and sensitivities. This pressure is difficult to resist, and our principles (if that’s what they are) are difficult to explain. A good consultant feels that he or she ‘owns’ the Executive Summary and will resist the notion that our role is to transmit and not to interpret.

When we make an additional deliverable (video, poster, whatever) I think of it as a gift and don’t solicit any feedback from anybody. In fact, I rarely provide feedback myself, trusting graphics or production or video or whomever to use their best judgement.

Making the Most of Vice: Cell Phones & Cigarettes

Much as Judo uses the opponent's energy to one's own ends, we've been looking at cell phones and cigarettes.

Cell phones: Recently, we've instituted a €10 fine for any cell phone use. The proceeds go to charity. An overwhelming success!

Cigarettes: Knowledge workers who smoke can make great intelligence officers. It is when the participants huddle outside or on the stairs to smoke that they lose their inhibitions. When our knowledge workers return from a cigarette, they always tell me an indiscretion or two they overheard among participants. Great fodder for synthesis conversations!

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Not Enough Time for ACT

I have just sent my participants into buckets of work with about 90 minutes to do their work. They will not make a breakthrough in 90 minutes, but they might have already made their breakthrough, so this time serves merely to formalize and socialize what they have already done. How much time is enough for ACT?

Recently, I have been weak in ACT. I've run outstanding Scan and Focus in recent events, but last week's event in London for a Bank and today's event in Milan for another bank, the ACT has suffered badly.

Last week, I had a client that was very familiar with the ASE and a sponsor team who genuinely co-designs with us. When they said, about 45 minutes into the work buckets, that they would rather circulate through the teams than have a formal check-in, I foolishly acquiesced. As a result, the teams spent more time reporting to them and to each other, moving from break-out to break-out, than they actually did working. The result was that they did outstanding work (perhaps the highest quality work of any client team I have worked with in the ASE) but since they felt (correctly) that they had wasted their time on the final afternoon, they did not appreciate the enormity of what they did. I have subsequently been ringing all the participants and they are only now (a week later) understanding the import of their work.

Today I have a small participant group that needs to take a few simple decisions in order to see the stage, agree the scope and 'non-negotiables' of a larger event next month. They have more-or-less taken those decisions and our objectives have been achieved. The Scan and Focus effectively prepared them for these decisions and the decisions themselves were taken collegiately (the core of their culture) in the synthesis conversation; a first for me. Thus, leaving them very little time to Act does in fact make sense, but it risks depriving them of the feeling of having achieved something important.

The session has gone extremely well, despite the too-short ACT, or perhaps because of it. After all, the purpose of the session was to take a few difficult decisions in order to un-block a complex project. They took those decisions during Focus, ratified them during synthesis, and formalized them during Act. Overall, quite a success.

Quality of Report Outs: SCAN to FOCUS

During the Scan phase, we are more interested in what goes on in the break-outs than we are in the quality of the reports. In fact, we have the teams report mainly so that they synthesize their thoughts, iterate their work, and learn to play by our rules. The challenge comes when we reach Focus and suddenly we care a lot about the quality of report outs. They have gotten away with superficial work until this point, and we are now raising the bar. This requires a change in attitude on the participant's part, an acceptance of responsibility. I try to warn them in setting up the first Focus module (or at least the First Draft module, if I haven't warned them yet) but this is rarely sufficient. When the reports remain superficial, I flag this during Synthesis, but again, they have gotten away with platitudes once too often by then.