Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ideas Free to a Good Home

I have spent hours in the last few weeks trawling through handwritten notes in my In-box diligently taking out the ideas, potential next actions, and possible "to dos" in there. Apparently I am my most prolific at ideas generation when I am sitting in meetings or presentations (shouldn't I be listening?) Then I end up with pages of notes, filled with little boxes of ideas that are eagerly expecting to be cared for and considered.

David Allen in his GTD system has designed a clever way to manage them, in a Someday/Maybe list, or Incubate list, which provides a placeholder and a way to scan these random thoughts regularly (e.g. in the weekly review process) for a quick decision on whether there are any ideas there whose time has come. However, I now have a very long list of these, and am still not sure how to take care of them.

I wonder if I should instead try to get comfortable with notion of information (and ideas potentially) being a flow rather than a stock. This has been a theme at the annual Educa Online conferences and a vibrant discussion within the web 2.0 knowledge management set. Maybe instead of fastidiously trying to capture and keep all these ideas, I should just have them and let them go out there into the world, or better find them a good home. (Lizzie suggests I publish my Someday/Maybe List on the blog, maybe I will in 2009, what better home could there be?)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Practice Note: Helping Performance Assessments Be About Both Individual and Team Learning

It is that time of year - time for reflection on many levels, not least in the form of ... Performance Assessments. These two words elicit all kinds of emotions in managers and their teams. If we want those emotions to include curiosity, discovery, courage, appreciation, compassion, inspiration, pride, and respect, how might we structure these annual opportunities to help them achieve this and produce real learning about not only the individual's, but also the team's work?

We have tried a couple of different things over the last two years to build on the traditional process that each team member follows which includes, a) filling in her/his own Performance Assessment form, b) discussing it individually in a meeting with the line manager, c) making any tweaks, and then, d) submitting it. This year we decided to experiment with a way to run these to see if we could get into some even deeper learning both for the individuals and the team.

We all started by filling in our forms individually, then we took a 2 hour time block and structured it like this:

  • (60 min) Assessment Form Carousel: The team is seated together around a table, each with their own completed Assessment Form and a different colour pen or marker. To start, every member passes his/her form to the left. The new recipient reads the form through and in their own colour marker, makes comments, asks questions, fills in gaps, adds examples, challenges points/marks (whether they think they are too high or too low), etc. After 5-7 minutes (depending on how long the form is), every one passes this form again to the left. The process is repeated with people adding, commenting, etc. as it goes around he group. The Carousel continues until each person gets back their own Assessment Form. The group takes a few minutes to read through the many coloured comments. Then there is about 10 minutes of open discussion, questions, and so on about what people read and are noticing.

  • (60 min) 360 Degree Inquiry: The Carousel provides a good reminder for everyone about what people's goals and achievements were for the year. In this next stage of the Assessment, each person gets to ask for some additional personalised feedback of their choice. To begin, every person thinks about one question on which he/she would like to ask the group for feedback (2 minutes). Then a volunteer goes first and asks his/her question to the group. Again the group can reflect for a moment, and then when they are ready give their responses in random order, with a total of about 5-7 minutes of comments. During the feedback, the person receiving it should listen, take some notes (because you simply do not remember what people said afterwards, or you vastly reframe/paraphrase it), and don't enter into a discussion at that point. If after everyone has given their feedback the receiver wants to make a few comments they can do so. Then you move to the next person, and next, until each team member has received the feedback from everyone on the question of their choice.

  • Revision: The final step for each individual is to look again at their Performance Assessment form, and consider how it might be changed to reflect some of this learning, then it goes to the line manager in a 1:1 for final discussion and sign-off.

It is worth mentioning that allowing people to ask their own question is a great way to create a challenge-by-choice environment for people to participate in such an exercise. The Carousel will have given general feedback on the annual personal goals; the 360 degree question however, allows people to focus their inquiry on a particular project or some behaviour they have been working on. They can choose to explore with the group some areas of improvement, or to ask only for warm fuzzies, affirmations - whatever people want at that moment. My question for example was, "If I could work on 1 or 2 areas for improvement as a manager next year, what would they be from your perspective?" I held my breath. And then as expected from my team I got some incredibly considered, thoughtful and useful responses. Even surprising. And they were appreciative, honest and meant with good will and good intent - I could tell - and I really valued what, in the hustle of an office environment, may often be a very rare opportunity for this kind of sharing.

In retrospect, there were a few other things I found might be useful to consider when using such a process, largely related to the overall context:

1) Timing is important - these things take time and rushing can affect the atmosphere and dynamic. Timing is also important vis-a-vis when people are leaving for holidays, and other events around this the group unforming. It is always an intense experience to give and receive feedback, and it needs some individual time for assimilation of the information and respite time, followed by some community time afterwards for re-entry into the normally less intimate workplace environment. So early in the day, rather than late in the day seemed to be better, so people don't leave straight away, but have the chance to talk further, even 1:1 as they consider and think about how to apply what they heard.

2) Venue is important. We started our feedback in our office around a round table. We put a sign on our door that basically said "Team Performance Assessment in Progress - see you later". We were uninterrupted at that point. However, we then went out to a team lunch and continued the final 360 degrees at lunch, and it was not as easy to recreate the familiar, gentle atmosphere we had had in our own office. Continuity and calm are good for this kind of reflection.

3) Intentions are important. Performance Assessments can provide a valuable tool for team, as well as individual learning, when there is the genuine intention of being helpful and caring and when the focus is on giving feedback as a gift.

Last week in our Beyond Facilitation course we ended with a thoughtful quote from Moms Mabely, "If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got." I guess this is true for both individuals and teams. Performance Assessments can help us think about what we might do differently.

Friday, December 12, 2008

What Did You Say? Building a Group's Capacity to Deal with its Own Issues

During this week's workshop (see previous post) we have been acting as Developmental Facilitators, that is facilitators who have as one of their main goals building the group's capacity to deal with its own issues. As such, the interventions made are aimed at helping the group deal with task and maintenance (group dynamic) issues. These interventions are often made in the form of declarative statements rather than questions, so that the group does not necessarily feel the need to answer to the facilitator, thus drawing him/her into their discussion. But rather considering the interjection and then deciding together if they want to act on it or not (apparently 50% of the time, these interventions are appropriate and useful to the group.)

I captured a number of good intervention statements made this week during our work and thought it would be useful to post them...Imagine that you are with a group that is working on an important project, and you have someone sitting with you observing your work, and they say the following, what would you do?

  • You might find it useful to summarise the objectives and outcomes you expect from this meeting.
  • I see a difference among team members in engagement and ownership of the results of this workshop.
  • Everyone's putting out ideas, but no one is linking them together.
  • You stated your set of objectives at the beginning of the meeting. Are the behaviours we are seeing going to help you get there, or will they get in the way?
  • It seems that you need your team's support to make this project work. You might want to find out what support they need from you to participate.
  • You sound defensive to me. You might consider how your own attitude about the proposed change is filtering down to your team.
  • This specific issue seems to be coming up repeatedly and may signal some underlying concerns. If you ignore them now, will you really be able to function effectively as a group on other tasks?
  • A moment ago the group decided to go in this direction and you agreed. Are you going to reverse that decision now, and if so what's the implication for what you want to get done today?
  • You might want to change chairs and paraphrase what you heard the other person saying.
  • There's clearly a lot of emotion in the room.
  • I sense some fear in the group around dealing openly with interpersonal issues and wonder if that is blocking progress on the task in this group.
  • When you speak to each other rather than me (the facilitator) I notice that you have more clarity on the task.

These kinds of statements are interesting to keep in mind to tickle the memory about different ways to intervene in groups. They go from safe to very risky and always need to be chosen and crafted thoughtfully. Having said that, these kinds of interventions can be useful whether you are a facilitator, leader or team member - anyone interested in getting a group to think about how it is working and what the members could consider to help them move to a higher level of awareness and performance.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Practicing Creating Conflict

How counterintuitive is that? Practicing how you can create conflict in a group process? Most people, and certainly most facilitators, go to great lengths to avoid conflict, seeing it as counterproductive to achieving some task.

Just imagine for a moment that exactly the opposite was true...

This week we are holding a workshop called "Beyond Facilitation: Intervention Skills for Strengthening Groups and Teams." This is our second year to hold an adapted version of a Group Process Consultation training workshop. I wrote about the first one held last year at our institution in a post called "You have the right to remain silent".

Playing with creating conflict has become a leitmotiv today, the third of a four-day training course. We started with an organizational simulation called Lego Man. What may look on paper like a simple team building game, actually does a good job of simulating in 90 minutes a full production process, from conception, understanding the task, defining roles and deliverables, creating a strategy for the process and delivery, making some decisions, and then actually assembling the final product (the Lego man) with some standards to adhere to. Interestingly, one of the learning points from this simulation, noted by our lead trainer Chuck Phillips, is that the teams who provoke conflict among their members are the highest performers (measured by time to construct the Lego man).

But what do people think about this notion of precipitating conflict? For the most part, people's immediate assumptions about conflict is that it is bad - that it is fighting, and it's personal, and to be avoided at all cost. Because of this, the standard reaction to mounting conflict is to smooth it over, calm it down, or simply ignore it. Team leaders may do this, team members may do this, and facilitators may do this. Everyone may actively take a part in suppressing conflict. But what that response does, it's suggested, is to rob from a group an opportunity to confront and consider a difference in opinion, approach, or methodology that may in fact be the key to moving successfully to a higher level of performance or understanding.

Of course there are different kinds of conflict. The kind we would want to precipitate would be from bumping up against people's assumptions and ideas. This is where conflict can get a team to a new and different level, test assumptions, create new options, and as a result potentially come up with a faster, more effective result.

So we practiced today some of the skills needed to start an ideas conflict - to keep it from becoming a fight - and then to help the group guide it to that moment where paradigms shift and new possibilities arrive. That is what we have been doing today - our best to not let our working groups stay too polite.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

H.T.H.A F. M.

Appreciative Inquiry must be powerful, it even got veteran facilitator Chuck Philips of Sapience, to change his frame - or maybe it was my complaining about the title of his brainstorming session last year: How to Have a Terrible Meeting (a.k.a. H.T.H.A.T.M. - see my blog post on this at:

This year, for our Beyond Facilitation Workshop, he surprised me by running a new activity called H.T.H.A.F.M. - How to Have a Fantastic Meeting. And you know, it was just as powerful as its alter ego (although maybe less cathartic!) See the rules on last year's blog post, and change as your temperment dictates!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Lizzie and Gillian, C.P.F

Monday was an exhausting day. By the end of it we (and four other candidates) had each undergone two intensive 30-minute interviews, conducted a 30-minute facilitation demonstration (that had to achieve concrete results within that brief time frame), and participated actively in 5 other such demonstration workshops. By the end of that very long day, a team of four assessors took into consideration these elements plus a previously submitted three part, 15-page written application and a preparatory telephone "client" interview and email exchange (with one of our assessors to prepare for our demo), and then decided, based on a set of 18 competencies, if we would become Certified Professional Facilitators (C.P.F.) Whew!

This certification process is conducted by the International Association of Facilitators, a global network of facilitation professionals with national and local chapters worldwide. Their certification programme aims to peer assess and test facilitators' knowledge and experience in both design and delivery of facilitation services, as well as maintaining a professional knowledge base about the field (our blog helped us here). As the basis of this process, IAF has developed as a community their Core Facilitation Competencies that are grouped under headings such as: "Creating Collaborative Client Relationships", "Planning Appropriate Group Processes", and "Creating and Sustaining a Participatory Environment". Within these categories are 18 sub-items such as: demonstrating collaborative values in processes, engaging those with varying and different learning/thinking styles, and recognizing conflict and its role with group learning/maturity, and so on.

And in undergoing this process, we realised that is so challenging to assess these things in general, and in particular in a "laboratory" environment. So much of the work we do is highly contextual, and our practice very individualised, based on hours, days, months of relationship building with our "clients". Whether we sit down when a group works, or lightly participate in a group activity, decide to ignore collegial bantering, or focus on visual rather than analytical tools, there is no clear right or wrong in facilitation. That's what makes certification of his field so challenging, and why this assessment process is so heavy. For 6 facilitator candidates, five peer assessors were needed for a whole day (not to mention preparation and follow-up reporting), working as a group and in pairs to find evidence of all 18 of those competencies, in many different ways and in their many inflections. Thankfully, in the end, these assessors are peers and know very well how challenging it can be to demonstrate in a day, skills that often have taken years to develop.

It was an intense and thought-provoking process, and especially fascinating to understand what this international body finds to be important capabilities for people to have to join their ranks of Certified Professional Facilitators. For us, who use facilitation as one of our learning tools, along with many others, it is nice to know what is at the top of this game for the IAF, and to be acknowledged as a part of that group. We were very happy to pass through. Lizzie and Gillian, C.P.F.