Being a Professional Sounding Board

Today I met with Rob to discuss findings from the interviews and my draft report, but that’s not exactly what we accomplished. Instead he walked in, sat down, and said I just need to talk through some things. We ended up talking about all sorts of components of the organization, some related to my project and others more tangential. I provided a few insights here and there, and definitely kept his processing, venting, and thinking moving forward with a couple hopefully well-timed questions. People sometimes scoff at those organizations that provide their CEOs with an external leadership consultant, but after this lunch date, I get it. People in positions of power need safe, neutral, but not totally indifferent spaces to just talk things through, and, to use Sam Kaner’s term, have a thinking buddy. I’m definitely not a Catholic, but being in this role of hearing someone out, gives me an appreciation of the confessional. If kings of old had priests, maybe today’s leaders have consultants. Whether or not that analogy holds up, I’m glad I was able to provide the space that he needed that day for talking things through, even if we didn’t get to our original agenda.

Post-script: In searching for an image to accompany this post I found out that the original use of the term “sounding board” was not the bridge of a guitar or other string instrument as I thought, but actually the hanging structure above a church’s pulpit that was designed to project the speaker’s voice out to the congregation. Perhaps my religious comparisons were not so far afield.

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PWS Agenda Design, Part I: Thinking Buddies in Action

With nearly 30 interviews under our belt and a two-hour leadership conflict coaching session, Lysbeth and I launched into agenda planning on Friday night before our big community healing conversation on Saturday. Now neither of us are the type of to do the bulk of our planning the night before, but given less than three weeks time to do case development and that day being the first day we had been on campus and met anyone in person, we didn’t have a ton of other choices. We ended up planning until nearly 2 a.m.—my hotel room where we were working probably looked the oddest slumber party of all time with charts, slicky notes, sticky notes, and various print outs from case development stuck all over the room.

Our planning time together proved to be a really enjoyable collaboration. Coming off of Sam Kaner’s workshop and the use of thinking buddies, we very much made good thinking buddies for each other as we both took turns playing out different approaches and working through various activity ideas. I was amazed with how much Lysbeth let me take the lead in the agenda creation itself. The three main activities we did all came from me: initial question activity to both guide our time and evaluate our progress; an around-the-room historical timeline made up of sticky notes; and a pair story-sharing activity called “blank paper photograph.”

Of course, Lysbeth’s true art form is the incredible work she is able to do in open dialogue and circle time, so we integrated this throughout the agenda, especially in the middle and end when we knew that the groan zone would be happening and that to move into a convergent space we would need for everyone to hear each other. We also integrated activities because we wanted to “mix things up” for this group who culturally can overly rely on circle work and blatant consensus-building. Both of these approaches, while really valuable, can if over-used or used in a mixed cultural group be to the detriment of different learning styles, silencing of voices during prolonged conflict, and can be marginalizing to parents, board members, and administrative staff who are perhaps not as bought into the Waldorf way of processing information as the Waldorf-trained teachers (which I had heard from some individuals during case development. (Although, after the event, we actually heard from some of those most acculturated teachers that it was nice to have such an interactive agenda that brought people’s voices out in different ways).

Since I’m writing this after the facilitation, I can say that not only did this mixing up of different strategies work well for the participants, but the mixing up of our very different approaches worked well for us too. I might not have gotten to see her “do her thing” (consensus building through dialogue circles, such as befits her Quaker background), but I did get to see how “my thing” (small group, activity-based work) could be expanded and integrated into other practices. It was also just so much fun to have such a willing collaborator and thinking buddy, it makes me very much miss Carrie Bennett (Learning Through Differences, LLC) and it makes me want to find a business partner should I ever launch a private practice.

Exploring Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration with My Idols

Dreams really do come true! This week I had the incredible opportunity to fly to San Francisco for a training with my facilitation idols Sam Kaner and Nelli Noakes of the firm Community at Work. Sam is the author of my facilitation bible, which literally sits on my table at all times, The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making. I have used this book to design virtually every facilitation I have ever done and have taught from it for undergraduate and graduate classes across multiple departments. Nelli was my first real facilitation instructor, having been brought up by former CRES Director Tim Hicks back in spring 2014. To say the least, this was probably the most influential 20 hours of my education. Thus spending four days in the company of these two, and a dozen engaging, high-level change agents from across the country (albeit mainly the Bay area), was an experience I never thought I’d get to have.

This training, “Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration: Strategies, Design Principles, and Best Practices,” covered a lot of ground. Although the first day included a lot of material I am already familiar with (the Groan Zone, participation formats, active listening, and asking questions), the next three days were dedicated to looking at multi-stakeholder collaboration in ways I’ve either never thought of before or have never been able to adequately articulate.

At the crux of the training was a graphical language to understand the design and evolution of collaborative efforts. Various colored dots, arrows, and brackets symbolize the different working dynamics of these groups and can be ordered to be representative, if not perfectly descriptive, of most any multi-stakeholder effort. Like designing a single facilitated event, this language has helped me to appreciate the design nature of long-term efforts. I will be really interested to see how I can apply this language and approach to some of the collaborative efforts I am a part of, especially the newly launched Aquatic Hub. I worry that this language will not align with their interests and habits of design thinking. Sam and Nelli’s clients come to them because they are seeking this level of work, my clients come to me because they don’t know how to run a single meeting. In terms of the “Architecture of Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration,” this is a very low bar (level 2 to be precise) for expectations and also a relatively weak foundation for long-term, high impact efforts.

One of my final big take-aways from this training is the value of a “thinking buddy.” Throughout the training we would be paired up with thinking buddies, whose job it was to purely help us do our best thinking. I have long adopted Sam’s definition of a facilitator being someone who helps a group of people to do their best thinking, but I have not applied that concept to a single individual with such intention. During one of the activities, I was paired up with someone who I really enjoyed working with, we just clicked. When Sam went to change our thinking buddies for the second part of that activity, I protested and asked to stay with my current partner. He called me out and said that, while not uncommon, this suggests deeper issues of distrust in others and in terms of collaboration can be harmful because it leads essentially to cliques that don’t support the multi-stakeholder nature of this work. He was right, my next thinking partner did a great job of helping me think. This was an especially eye-opening partnership given how different our cultural backgrounds were (Silicon Valley ivy league vs. Willamette Valley goat farmer), which helped me to remember that all people, when given the chance, can connect and support one another no matter (and maybe even because of) differences.