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October 9, 2013 » 9:51 pm

A Shining Example of Failure, Courage, and Learning

Last year, I co-led a project called the Delta Dialogues, an effort to rebuild trust and shared understanding around critical water issues in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. I’m very proud of that work, and knowing that I would have to let go of this project was one of the things that made leaving Groupaya last year very difficult. However, I also knew that I left the project in the capable hands of Kristin Cobble and Jeff Conklin. Moreover, the success of this project ultimately hinges on the participants themselves, and we had a wonderful core.

From the start, we designed the Dialogues to be a transparent process. We hired my friend, Joe Mathews, to be the storyteller, and we gave him one task: Write what you see. He’s been doing that beautifully from day one, from the monthly blog posts on the Delta Dialogues website to his beautiful narrative in the Phase 1 Final Report.

Tonight, I came across Joe’s latest blog post, a description of last month’s meeting. On the one hand, it was hard to read. It was clearly not a good meeting, and clearly, my old team contributed to that.

On the other hand, I felt very proud. I’m proud of my old team, I’m proud of my old client, the Delta Conservancy, and I’m proud of all of the Delta Dialogues participants for continuing to demonstrate a commitment to transparency. It could not have been easy to experience a meeting like this, and seeing it described in this way for all to see could not have made it feel any better.

However, any attempt to solve a truly meaningful problem is, by nature, complicated and messy. When I see stories like this, I trust that I’m getting an authentic picture of what’s happening, and I also get an opportunity to actually learn from it. That doesn’t happen when you whitewash your story, prioritizing perception over learning. Most of the “failure movement” in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector feels whitewashed to me. We need to see a lot more authentic sharing if we’re going to get better at this kind of work, and I’m proud that my old team is modeling this.

I wrote previously about including a checkbox for failure in your list of success metrics, where I told a story of a failure we had at one of the Delta Dialogues meetings that I facilitated. Honestly, that story is like a badge of honor to me. We failed, because we tried something that was hard, we learned from that experience, and we made things better as a result. I’m betting that this most recent failure will turn out to be the same for the current team.

What can others learn from this particular failure? I’m sure there were a thousand things that could have been better, and I’m sure that Kristin and Jeff have been exhaustive in cataloging all of them. I’m also quite certain that they violated the first rule of Changemaker Bootcamp a thousand times over, and I probably would have done so as well if I were in their shoes. It’s easier to see the bigger picture from the outside. I had two major takeaways.

First, I was struck by the simplicity of Joe’s observation that 40 percent of the participants at this meeting were new. That should have been an immediate red flag, and yet, I can also understand how easy it might have been to miss that.

In Phase One, we brought a wide array of sophisticated tools, and yet, these only contributed in small ways to our success. The vast majority of our success was due to our ability to co-create a safe container with the participants  in which to have a very challenging discussion.

This was less about sophistication and more about effort. We devoted an incredible amount of time discussing this among ourselves and with the participants. We even threw in an additional meeting for free, because we felt it was critical to get right, and we needed more time in order to do so. We spent almost half of our precious time with participants doing site visits, rotating the location of the meetings, and giving participants a chance to viscerally experience each other’s lives and livelihoods. None of these ideas were particularly sophisticated, but the decision to prioritize these things in the face of many other pressures required skill and discipline.

In many ways, the current team was a victim of the original team’s success. Once you successfully create a container, people start taking it for granted, and it’s much harder to prioritize. If I were still leading the project, I don’t know if I would have had the skill and discipline to focus on these things in the face of intense pressure to do otherwise.

But, at the end of the day, facts are facts. Seven out of 17 of the participants that day were new. That’s a very large number. In that situation, you either have to commit time to reinforcing the container (either before or during the meeting), or you have to turn participants away.

Second, Jeff clearly had a bad day. I have worked with many great facilitators, and I have seen several of them have bad days. One of the things I learned from Matt and Gail Taylor was the importance of building a great support team and structure around the facilitators to increase the likelihood of their success. Otherwise, the only way a facilitator can be successful — especially when dealing with a wicked problem and a challenging environment — is by being superhuman.

No one is superhuman. Everybody has bad days, even with a great support structure around them. I think a lot of facilitators forget this, and when they have a bad day, they punish themselves relentlessly. Jeff is one of the truly great facilitators in the world. If he can have a bad day, then anyone can. This stuff is hard. It’s important not to lose sight of that.

The Delta Dialogues participants are committed and resilient. They’ll be back, and the process will get back on track.

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