No, I didn’t run off and join the circus—but I’ve learned how to use some familiar tools in new ways.
Planning and evaluation are often what makes our phone ring and our inboxes light up. A group of talented but overextended staff realize they need to be more strategic with their resources, and are looking for an effective way to make collaborative decisions that can propel them forward. When they call on us, they are usually needing facilitation: the heart of my practice, the skill that has created the most success for my clients.
Even as planning and evaluation methods and best practices continue to evolve, no one toolkit—no matter how well-equipped and up-to-date—can address all of my clients’ unique and subtle needs. The journey to a five-year-plan can be just as critical as the plan itself, in terms of building relationships and sustainable systems that the stakeholders can trust as much as the actions they are planning for. Barriers to effective collaboration can be difficult to see clearly from within the organization, let alone address, without a set of objective eyes brought in from the outside.
You might say 2014 was the year of pachyderms. An example:
One organization hired us to facilitate a day of data gathering for long-term strategic planning, but—looming throughout the room—the future of the organization itself was in question. Much of the staff, and the organization’s fiscal home, could be different by the time the strategic plan is actually rolled out. There were open and not so open hostilities. How could I engage everyone at the table? How could I deliver value? One participant wondered aloud why she should be interested in this process if she wouldn’t be around much longer.
To open the meeting, I had each person stand and give their name, role in the organization, and favorite movie or song from childhood. This simple ice breaker took them back to a simpler time. It highlighted commonalities and differences in a way that allowed me to gauge the relationships in the room as we started staring down the elephant.
It set the stage to engage them in an Appreciative Inquiry (blog post coming soon) exercise that generated important input on the strengths of the organization, while acknowledging the uncertain future. It also shifted the tone from fear of job loss to a collective commitment to advocate for the organization’s best possible future.
I am a facilitator by nature, and I care about how collaborative efforts are sustained over time. So when I have stakeholders in a room, many of the activities I initiate have two aims. The first is to achieve the concrete result/outcome, and the second is to build relationships of trust and respect that will endure the test of time and struggle.
Over the next few months we will discuss some of the ways we facilitate effective group engagement and decision-making:
- Getting people into the right mindset
- Designing agendas to avoid derails
- Methods for resolving conflict in the planning process
- Virtual facilitation breakthroughs
Your thoughts on these and other potential subjects are welcomed and appreciated.