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.