Groups often fear working on a consensus basis because they are afraid of the time it will take to make a decision. They are afraid of being caught in a spiral of discussion, more discussion and yet more discussion and no resolution. They may be afraid of this because they may assume that everyone has to be 100% behind a decision for the group to move ahead.
When a group is considering an issue, ideally there is a discussion that considers a wide range of options. Then the discussion comes to a clear end point with a decision. Once a decision is made the group moves to action. This image illustrates this ideal.
Americans tend to be quite action oriented and in our culture we can get impatient easily, wanting to jump to a decision. And thus more frequently it feels like this:
Part of the group thinks a decision has been made and others thinks the item is still up for discussion. And still others may not be clear what decision is on the table.
Once the group is clear about what they are deciding, a useful tool for testing the level of agreement is the consensus continuum.
Applying the continuum
I was part of a board that used this continuum when it was deliberating about a very challenging situation. There was no good solution to the high stakes problem we were facing. There were only several bad choices to choose from. Which bad choice was better than the other? We deliberated for a long time. Deliberation happened over multiple meetings, over multiple weeks. Ultimately we were able to make a decision that everyone in the group could live with even if it was not their preferred option by using this tool.
How many people you need to have in the 1-3 zone will depend on how high stakes a decision it is. Using this as a check in can move along even decisions that may seem like they are low stakes but are taking a long time. You may find it is higher stakes for some in the group.
Making time for process
Groups often want to jump to action and resist taking time on ‘process’ issues. Being clear about how the group makes decisions is a core process issue that rarely gets discussed. Taking the time can actually save the group both time and angst in the long run.
Have a group that needs help with how they are working together? Reach out for a coaching session.
A Buddhist monk, a leftist guerrilla warrior and a technology executive walk into a bar called Changes. “Ah the nature of change,” the monk says, “the world is always in flux, permanence is an illusion and attachment to permanence is the cause of suffering.” The leftist guerrilla replies, “But Mao said there must be a great leap forward.” The tech executive says, “Fast Company says change is happening faster than ever and we must always be the next big thing.” The bartender shrugs her shoulders and asks how each of them is planning to pay for their beers. “Everyone with ATM money again?” she says, “Go somewhere else to make your change.”
Can you manage change?
Sorry for the poor attempt at humor. People talk about change management and say that that is what they do. But can you really manage change? I believe you can be intentional about moving toward change. Yet saying you are managing change gives an illusion of control that I do not think is real in dynamic human systems. Organizations are human systems and are describes as “intelligent, creative, adaptive, self-organizing, [and] meaning-seeking” as Meg Wheatley described. While you can force change on people, I do not believe you can force people to change.
There typically is a spark that initiates the change. This could come from outside the organization – a crisis, a major shift in the market, a new mandate or regulation. Or it could come from inside the organization in the form of a vision championed by either formal leaders or through a bottom up effort of informal leaders.
Focusing the effort
When done well, the organization will take advantage of the spark by being intentional in focusing the change effort. Is the organization ready to change and makes the best of the challenge or opportunity? How will leaders choose to invest the time, energy and resources into envisioning and implementing change? What new structures need to be created to support the desired change going forward?
Creating organizational change intentionally means taking time to thoughtfully design and engage in meaningful dialogue. Does the past need to be mourned before a new beginning can be imagined? Is the environment safe enough for people to bring their whole selves to the endeavor? If not, what will increase those conditions of safety?
Systems of support
Once the change is implemented –whether it is new goals and aspirations envisioned in a strategic plan or implementing a new technology system or building a new program – ensuring you have systems in place to support the new change and allow it to take hold is key. Identifying, harnessing and sharing stories of success can be a powerful way to help the change stick.
What change are you trying to make in 2020? Let's talk about them
Those of us in social change and knowledge work spend a lot of time in meetings. Too few meetings optimize the contribution of everyone who is participating. Undoubtedly you have sat in meetings in which you wondered why the group was having it and why you were there.
A first step and very practical approach to improving meetings is to start with answering why you are having the meeting in the first place. I covered some of those basics here and have a handy worksheet to plan better meetings.
Yet most of what I covered in those posts and worksheet were the cognitive tasks you need to think through when planning: the why, who and how.
Beyond the Cognitive
:I was at a training led by Cocreative Consulting recently during which they introduced another way to think about meetings which I appreciated. They named four agendas (besides people’s personal agendas :) that engage the whole person in a meeting. They are:
Aligning – Connecting – Learning – Making
Aligning – This agenda engages the spirit and your intentions. Is the ‘why’ clear? Has the group aligned around a goal or shift they are trying to create?
Connecting – This agenda engages the heart. This is the agenda that too often in our action oriented culture we ignore. It can get dismissed as too “touchy feely.” Yet without trust, groups do not work at their highest potential. What element of connecting people to each other could you build into your next meeting? Remembering to do a check in and check out is a way to build this into your meeting. Asking each participant to answer a simple question that goes beyond basic introductions is another way. How do you help people share with other to build connection and connect to the people impacted by the work?
Learning – This agenda engages the head. Before the group jumps into problem-solving, have they clearly defined (and agreed) on the problem they are trying to solve together? Is there a wider more complex landscape that the challenge lies within? How might the group map that system so that they create a shared understanding?
Making – This agenda engages the hands. While traditional meetings often leave this out and end up being a lot of talk – what tangible product could the group produce that would move their work forward? How might you design the meeting so that the time spent together is focused on creating a product together rather than just planning? Is there a way to create a prototype together that brings the group’s ideas to life quickly?
I will be keeping these four agendas in mind as I design meetings in the future.
Need help thinking about how you might apply this to your context? Inquire about a coaching call.
What does all this growth mean for us going forward?
Challenge: An education related organization had accomplished all the key goals in their current strategic plan. Over this period, the organization experienced substantial growth both in the number of clients it was serving as well as the scope of the services they were providing the field. With the increased staff strength, the board had become accustomed to relying on staff for direction and strategic thinking. The organization needed to assess the implications of this growth, ensure that there was alignment of staff and board in order to set direction and clear goals for the next 3-5 years.
Approach: After interviews with each of the board members, and external stakeholder interviews as well as focus groups with staff, I facilitated a one-day retreat with the board and staff leadership. The retreat focused on:
• conducting an environmental scan to identify key trends impacting the organization’s work,
• reviewing the themes from the interviews and focus groups and discuss their implications
• envisioning the organization’s future impact on the field,
• resulting in identifying two to three key strategic goals for the organization.
Results: The organization now has a new strategic plan with clear support from both the board and staff leadership. The process helped the board step into its strategic role. Board meetings now have time dedicated to focusing on strategic questions. Staff leadership was also able to recognize how some of their actions encouraged the board to rely on them. Thus they are now equipped to make different choices moving forward. They can be clearer about what is staff work and what is the board’s responsibility.
Are our board and staff focused on the right things?
Challenge: A local land trust organization had a regular good practice of conducting a board self-assessment each year. Over the past couple years, a few indicators created some concern. The group decided it would benefit from outside facilitation for its annual board staff retreat to dive into the issues raised in the self-assessment, including roles and responsibilities between board and staff.
Approach: In addition to the board self-assessment results, I conducted a survey of staff and board. My goal was to learn about the board’s current concerns and to understand the staff’s perspective on the organization’s current state. During the retreat, after a brief presentation on nonprofit life cycles, the group considered where their organization stood in its development. I then shared the themes from the survey and had the group discuss the implications.
Board and staff learned that they had more in common than they thought on their perspectives of what the organization needed to improve in terms of operations. It also became clear that the board was eager to stay at the governance level and focus on longer-term strategic issues. Through small group work, the groups considered its current initiatives and areas for future development and sketched out next steps. The group then gave each small group feedback.
Results: Through the retreat, the board and staff were able to open up conversations focused on roles and responsibilities that they had had some trepidation about addressing. The conversations revealed more agreement than individuals had expected. The group identified areas for growth and left with increased clarity on roles, goals and next steps.
Here are three books to consider adding to your list:
The Art of Community: Seven Principals for Belonging by Charles H. Vogl
I was intrigued by the book’s subtitle since I am someone who moved a number of times over the course of my growing up. I spent a lot of time chasing that illusive sense of belonging. With the traditional forms of community breaking down and loneliness on the rise, more people are in the business of trying to create community. It could be an online community, a community of practice or a co-working space. Vogl describes the essential elements to build community including creating a boundary, initiations, rituals, symbols. While a bit philosophical, I found the book very accessible, enriched by stories illuminating the principals.
Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up by Jerry Colonna
I heard about this book from an interview that I heard on one of my favorite podcasts, On Being with Krista Tippet. Jerry Colonna is Tippet’s executive coach. His insights on what people bring to their work and leadership from what they learned in childhood and their family of origin were fascinating. Colanna considers growing up part of being an authentic leader, especially identifying and letting go of those “ghosts in the machine” that we learned growing up, drive our behavior but no longer serve us as adults. Learning to sit in discomfort, letting go of our illusion of control, and peeling back the façade of “everything is awesome!” I appreciate his insights into the human condition. Yet I was struck by how like too many other business books the stories he included were from people represented a rarified stratosphere of our society of venture capital and start up CEOs.
The Art of Gathering: How we meet and why it matters by Priya Parker
This book was cited in the Art of Community and since a lot of what I do involves group meetings and gatherings, it caught my interest. What I didn't know is that Parker is a facilitator so the book had particular relevance to my work. Yet the book ranges beyond work focused gatherings and includes what makes a good party or ‘happening’ tick. Like I have advised and then forgotten to follow my own advice, a good gathering/meeting needs a clearly defined purpose. She encourages you ‘not to be a chill host’ and to take leadership of your event, why it is so important to pay attention to meaningful beginnings and endings and how to move the conversation beyond the merely polite to healthy controversy. Whether you would like to make your next get together more meaningful or have an big work gathering to facilitate, you will walk away with a deeper understanding of how to make that happen.
Apparently this summer I am studying the “art” of things – since this shows up in each of these titles.
What’s on your reading list?
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.