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.

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