Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Day is a Thousand Social Contracts

Many years ago I was a part of a distributed project team designing a workshop that combined teambuilding, with systems thinking and sustainable development. It was lead by Dennis Meadows, one of my mentors, and at one early point in our process where we were taking on individual roles and responsibilties, he asked us to distinguish between "wish to do" and "will do". At that time, I am not sure I fully appreciated his request. It really does have to do with teamwork and the systems in which we work.

Committing yourself to do something already demonstrates good intent and some level of trust on your part, however, actually delivering on your commitment starts to build it within the team. Social contracts, the promises we make to others every day, when they are honoured (as the norm) help to build trust around us and creates an environment which supports achievement, where we might be able to take some risk and try new and innovative things. The inverse is also true, non-delivery on commitments starts to chip it away. One way to build trust is to be clear about the difference between what you want to do/intend to do/hope you have time to do and what you will do. And then to absolutely do it.

This question of trust building is not just about being nice. It is also about getting things done. When I trust you to do something, I am taking risk to build my productivity and outputs on the inputs of others. The quality of my work and effectively my reputation, then becomes more collectively based on the contributions of many other people. In order to do this I need to trust that others will honour their commitments to me, so that I can do a good job. The alternative to this is that I base my outputs solely on my own work (or that of an immediate team that I control with financial or other strong incentives like performance assessments) . What more might I accomplish if I opened myself to the diverse inputs and talents of a much larger "team"?

The theory in teambuilding is that a high performing team (trust comes in here) can accomplish things that it is difficult or impossible for an individual to do alone. In systems, one goal is to find the interrelationships that already exist and leverage those in order to help achieve a much larger collective goal. And to get people to work beyond their immediate functional units (sometimes called "silos") takes trust. One place to start building trust is making good on social contracts so people can count on you. It is also about knowing when to say "I can't do this right now"; which of course is another essential team skill (for some an even harder one).

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It Takes A Village...

I have just had a heartening experience in my office. As it is the holiday season I thought I would share it on this blog. We have an incredibly complex internal knowledge management system for recording our programme plans, budget etc. as many large international organizations do. Not being someone who is gifted in using IT programmes (thankfully blogging is so easy), on Monday a call to send in my 2008 workplan created a wave of psychic angst. It was complete already, but produced in a simple table format in Word (which worked for me), how now to get it into the bigger complex internal system full of spreadsheets and quadrenniel results? So I tried myself, found the guidelines, asked my immediate colleagues, with no success and a mounting feeling of frustration and powerlessness. So I sent out an email to my colleagues, a "plea" as one called it, for some peer learning on how this works (I am still new and my unit is new here).

Wow, what a response! I was so happy to have my first email response back within minutes, and then during the day more and more people offered to help, to give me some advice, to show me their own workplans, to share their tips to make the process, which is admittedly complicated, easier to navigate. These are incredibly busy people anyways, and this is the last week before the long holiday period, everyone is madly rushing to finish off things; still I got so many offers for help that I want to acknowledge that indeed it takes a village, or at least a community of colleagues, to sort out a new staff member. At least this community is willing to do it. You just need to ask; we should ask more.

I was interested to see what wikipedia said about that phrase, "It takes a village..." and here is what I got, I have adapted it here for my own purposes (e.g. replaced "children" with "staff members", "adults" for "managers", and "nation" for "organization", etc. - interesting results...)

Staff members are not rugged individualists. They depend on managers they know and on hundreds more who make decisions every day that affect their well-being. All of us, whether we acknowledge it or not, are responsible for deciding whether our colleagues are brought up in an organization that doesn't just espouse team values but values teams and staff members.

I am well on my way to completing my workplan now, thanks to my colleagues and their willingness to provide some informal, peer learning to someone in need. And I will be actively looking for an opportunity to reciprocate in the New Year...

Monday, December 10, 2007

How (Not) to Have a Terrible Meeting

Setting group norms for a meeting that everyone can help to uphold can be challenging. We have all done those exercises at the onset to establish the rules that we want people to follow in order to have a productive meeting. Here are two alternatives to this straight-forward activity that might give the conversation more life. The second one comes directly from our "Beyond Facilitation" workshop last week.

First, using the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) approach, you can ask people what kind of "Freedoms" they would like to have, rather than rules or things that people should not do (rules are made to be broken, after all). For example, "Don't be late" turns into the freedom to be on time, etc.

Second, you could set up an activity to identify "How to have a terrible meeting" (AI practitioners close your eyes...) You can ask the participants at the onset to think of all the things that they see at meetings that lead to poor or weak outcomes. List those on a flipchart, have a laugh, and then number them and post them in a obvious place in the room. During the workshop, whenever someone or the group does one of those things, notice it by number, "I think we might be doing number 5 here: not listening, what can we do about that?" That might help the participants take the responsibility to ensure that you actually don't have a terrible meeting.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

You Have the Right to Remain Silent

This week we are hosting a 5-day workshop, "Beyond Facilitation: Intervention Skills for Strengthening Groups and Teams". We have 19 people here from within our institution and other facilitators working around the world, from the UK to Zambia. We are using Group Process Consultation (GPC) as our foundation for learning more about how we can help teams be as highly performing as they want to be.

I have written a few posts about GPC from a previous worksop I took earlier this year which describe this approach, No Hiding Behind Our Desks and Understanding What We are Bringing to the Party. This time however, it feels different. It's not a different trainer, we are working again with Chuck Phillips, who is one of the founders of this approach and has been working with groups on it for three decades. It is not the content; I thought it was perfect the way it was (one day shorter) for my colleagues and the other facilitators. I think it is about the participants. The participants at the NTL course that I attended last April were all private sector OD/HR people and very much "people-people". This time however, we have a greater mix. There are plenty of "people gathers" - people who are high on the FIRO-B (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation–Behavior) instrument's Inclusion and Affection continuum, and this time we also have some people for whom the touchy feely parts of group work give little energy or motivation.

This group I found much more representative of the diversity and complexity of real life teams, and as such provided an additional layer of learning for me. As a facilitator, and someone who is sensitive to participation and inclusion in groups, my tendancy is to get fixated on someone who is not speaking, not sharing, not participating - assigning that behaviour to discontent in the group - and then do everything I can to get that person involved. But one of these more reflective colleagues noted today that sometimes he just does not want to talk, or doesn't have anything particular to add to the conversation at that moment. If the facilitator jumps on him for not talking, that will probably irritate him enough to keep him from talking in the future. That is learning for me, people have differing needs for inclusion in a group, both expressed and desired. It doesn't necessarily mean that they are not engaged or contributing, it just means that they don't feel the need to talk all the time to do so (like me).