Straying Off Point

Meeting Best Practices #1 and #2:    (N3K)

  1. Have a goal    (N3L)
  2. Have an agenda    (N3M)

The meeting facilitator’s challenge is to keep the group on point and to finish the meeting on time. That’s where the agenda comes in.    (N3N)

Here’s the problem: What if the agenda is wrong?    (N3O)

We decide to the best of our abilities what the agenda should be, based not only on the goal but on the makeup and state of the group. The latter factor tends to be the trouble-maker. Everyone may agree that the goal of a meeting is to come up with an action plan that everyone stands behind, but what if the people in the room all speak different languages or have different understandings of the problem? You have no chance of creating that action plan without Shared Understanding and Shared Language, and so an agenda focused entirely on making a plan is doomed to failure.    (N3P)

The challenge is knowing your group well enough to make these decisions. That’s why I often say that good design is more crucial to a meeting’s success than good facilitation, because you are tackling these questions before you even step into the meeting.    (N3Q)

What happens if the goal shifts? This happens often when the problem is complex enough. Everyone agrees before the meeting on what the problem is, then in the course of collectively drafting a solution, you suddenly realize that you don’t understand the problem after all. Now the facilitator’s role is critical, because he or she needs to decide whether to stick with the agenda or revise it on the fly.    (N3R)

The reality is that agendas are important, but they need to be fluid. As a facilitator, you need to reserve the right to stray off point if you feel like the situation merits it. This is one reason that I feel so strongly in hiding the agenda, especially with the kind of highly emergent meetings that I usually design. People tend to cling to the agenda like a life-preserver rather than risk swimming into the unknown, which is certainly scarier, but is often necessary. It’s better to trust the facilitator to stay on point and stray off point when the situation merits it.    (N3S)

This is also why I like Dialogue Mapping so much as a facilitation technique. With Dialogue Mapping, the emergent structure of the conversation along with the key underlying questions are explicit and apparent to all of the participants, so that you can effectively leverage the Collective Intelligence of the group rather than rely on the facilitator to be the sole driver.    (N3T)

Productivity, Working Big, and Spatial Awareness

My colleague, Jeff Shults, has a saying: “Work big.” Jeff is a space guru, as many of you who have participated in a Blue Oxen Associates workshop know, as most of my events have been at his different spaces. The most glaring feature of his space are the huge, movable work walls.    (MQE)

Working big is important even when we’re working small — at our desks in front of our computers, for example. I’ve cited speculation and a study on the productivity gains from using larger screens. I recently ran across Clive Thompson‘s New York Times magazine article that cited a similar study by Mary Czerwinski at Microsoft.    (MQF)

On the bigger screen, people completed the tasks at least 10 percent more quickly – and some as much as 44 percent more quickly. They were also more likely to remember the seven-digit number, which showed that the multitasking was clearly less taxing on their brains. Some of the volunteers were so enthralled with the huge screen that they begged to take it home. In two decades of research, Czerwinski had never seen a single tweak to a computer system so significantly improve a user’s productivity.    (MQG)

Thompson makes a key point in his article: Productivity in an interrupt-driven world seems to be closely related to our ability to switch and remember different contexts. Bigger screens allow you to take advantage of spatial awareness to switch and remember different contexts.    (MQH)

There’s a corollary to this regarding complex problems. I’m convinced that the primary value of graphical facilitation is not the Visual Language used to capture ideas, but the relationship created between ideas and space. In other words, you’ll remember the discussion around an idea better if you remember that it was the conversation that was captured on the lower right hand side of the screen or wall. This belief has greatly eased my stress when Dialogue Mapping, as ultimately, I see my task as building spatial memory.    (MQI)

That’s not to say that Visual Language isn’t important. It is, and fortunately, there’s a fantastic community of folks who are exploring it. The better news is that many of these folks will be converging in San Francisco on January 27-29, 2008 for the VizThink conference.    (MQJ)

Evolutionary Leadership Workshop: Final Exercise

For the last exercise of my guest stint at Alexander Laszlo and Kathia Laszlo‘s Evolutionary Leadership class a few weeks ago, I decided to have the group come up with a working definition of “collaboration,” as well as thoughts on patterns of and metrics for effective collaboration. If this sounds boringly familiar to regular readers of this blog, it should. This conceptual framework is fundamental to everything I do, and I spend a lot of time thinking, writing, and leading workshops about it.    (MMQ)

It was all par for the course for me, except I only had 90 minutes. The way I usually approach this in my workshops is to start with storytelling, model the collaborative experience, then have the participants synthesize the framework themselves based on their own learning. We didn’t have time for that. I thought about giving up and doing a traditional lecture, and if I had had slightly less time (say, an hour), I probably would have. But, that would have been extremely lame, and I wanted to see if I could pull off something interesting in 90 minutes.    (MMR)

What I decided to do in the end was create a makeshift anthropology experiment, with the students acting as both the subjects and the anthropologists. I divided the class into four teams. The first three teams would spend half an hour working on the same problem: Define collaboration. However, each team would have different process and tool constraints. The fourth team would observe the other three working.    (MMS)

The three teams were Team Nike, Team Wiki, and Team Taylor. Team Nike’s constraints were simple: It had none. I gave them the challenge without guidance or constraints, and it was up to them to figure out how to go about solving the problem. Their task was to just do it.    (MMT)

Team Wiki was divided into three subteams. They were allowed to interact as much as they wanted and however they wanted with their subteams, but they were not allowed to verbally communicate between subteams. There was a laptop projected in the middle of the room running a text editor. The team’s final product would be whatever was written on the text editor at the end of their time. Only one group could be at the keyboard at a time, and they could write whatever they wanted on the editor.    (MMU)

https://i1.wp.com/farm2.static.flickr.com/1390/1424241488_9de86fefbb_m.jpg?w=700 https://i1.wp.com/farm2.static.flickr.com/1142/1423359835_cad0b5609b_m.jpg?w=700    (MMV)

The final team, Team Taylor, was given a process similar to one I’ve used in many other workshops. They initially broke up into small groups and shared personal experiences with great collaboration. They then regrouped and worked through a series of “Is it Collaboration?” scenarios. Finally, they were given the final exercise and asked to put together a definition given their previous work. (They were named after Blue Oxen advisor Gail Taylor and her husband, Matt Taylor, who were my advanced introduction to workshop designs like these.)    (MMW)

Why this breakdown? I really wanted the students to think carefully about their experiences collaborating with each other as much as the content of the exercise itself. By having three processes going simultaneously, it was clear that the compare-and-contrast would be an important element in this exercise. By having full-fledged observation teams, this process discussion would be a major part of the report-out as well as the resulting work products.    (MMX)

I think the exercise worked moderately well. The participants seemed to enjoy the process, and the comments in the debrief were excellent. The timing was predictably tight, and there were some aspects of the exercise that could have been tightened up some. The most frustrating omission for me was the lack of a collective synthesis process, but I knew that would be the case from the start.    (MMY)

I was most curious to see what Team Nike would do, since they had the least constraints. Both the team itself and its observers noted that initially, there was a lot of talking past each other. I think that’s very natural for large groups that are new to each other, especially when under time constraints. I observed something similar during the Hidden Connections breakout I participated in earlier in the day, and we all saw this during the group counting exercise as well.    (MMZ)

There are several ways to counter this phenomenon. The method most people tend to default to is “stronger facilitation” — having a designated facilitator maintain tight control over the process. There’s a time and a place for this, but I think the resulting order is largely artificial, and that the group will likely fail the Squirm Test. If you do have a designated facilitator, one simple technique that is remarkably effective and underutilized is to simply ask the group to listen to and respect their peers. We saw this work with the group counting exercise, and I’ve seen it work again and again in other meeting contexts.    (MN0)

Although there was no designated facilitator for Team Nike, a few individuals stepped up to take on that role. There was no decision-making process up-front. One student simply started acting as the facilitator, and the others followed. (Leadership is action.) Another student started taking notes and often validated what other people said, which helped slow down the discussion and validated individual participation. This is an outstanding example of the artifact playing a strong, facilitative role, a premise underlying patterns such as Shared Display and processes such as Dialogue Mapping.    (MN1)

At one point, Alexander Laszlo, who was participating in Team Nike, approached me and asked, “Can we collaborate with other groups?” I laughed and said, “You can do anything that wasn’t expressly forbidden.” Because of the time constraints, Team Nike didn’t end up pursuing this, but I was glad they had this insight in the first place. It’s always one of my favorite moments when somebody realizes, “Is there any reason why we couldn’t collaborate with others?” It often takes surprisingly long for someone to figure this out, even at workshops where collaboration is one of the stated goals. It’s a sign of how culturally engrained it is for us not to collaborate with each other.    (MN2)

In my opinion, strong design is much more powerful than strong facilitation, and those were principles I hoped would emerge when comparing Team Wiki and Team Taylor’s processes with Team Nike’s. Two design constraints all three teams shared were a concrete goal and a time constraint. Nothing motivates a group to collaborate more effectively than a sense of urgency, and both of these constraints help to create that urgency. One of the most important elements of Blue Oxen‘s definition of collaboration is the notion that the goal is bounded — that it has both a beginning and an end. If there’s an end, then the goal is measurable, and you can have a time constraint. None of the teams identified this in their definitions of collaboration, although I’d be willing to bet that it would have emerged if we had more time.    (MN3)

Another useful design constraint is the power of small groups. Conversation flowed better within both Team Wiki and Team Taylor, and that flow carried over when Team Taylor got together as a large group. It’s a simple principle, and yet it’s also vastly underutilized.    (MN4)

Besides being broken into small groups, Team Wiki’s major design constraint was the use of a Shared Display as a medium for both creating their deliverable and communicating between the group. My goal was to simulate a Wiki-like collaborative pattern in a very short timespan. Given my well-known love of Wikis, I enjoyed watching this group the most. The content itself evolved predictably in a way that was reminiscent of Wikis, starting with a straw man of content, some side conversations in the document itself, and plenty of refactoring. The group dynamic, however, was anything but predictable. One group went directly to the laptop and started working. Another group saw this, realized only one group could type at a time, and decided that it would spend most of its time talking amongst themselves. Throughout the half hour, two groups regular switched off on the laptop while the third group didn’t participate until the very end. The last few minutes was mostly frantic typing while everyone else stood around and watched.    (MN5)

Several people noted the challenge of having only a single keyboard, and expressed curiosity about the possibility of having multiple people work simultaneously. We could have accomplished that a number of ways, the best of which would have been to use a real-time collaborative editor such as Gobby or SynchroEdit. However, the point of this exercise was to simulate asysnchronous collaboration. I think this was an exercise that would have benefited from a bit more time.    (MN6)

Two interesting things emerged from Team Taylor, one which I expected and one which I didn’t even notice until the team itself pointed it out. At one point, the team observed that two people were monopolizing the conversation, and that they were both men, even though the majority of the group comprised of women. This observation was complicated by the fact that the observation team — in this case, all men — were sitting with the group in a circle rather than outside of the group. As a result, it was hard to say whether this was indeed a gender dynamic, or whether the two who spoke the most just happened to be the biggest talkers in the group. Nevertheless, the awareness of the gender dynamic was an important one that a lot of facilitators — especially males — miss.    (MN7)

Team Taylor didn’t do a particularly good job at the stated exercise, but one participant observed that if they had five more minutes, they would have done an amazing job. I believe this, and I think the resulting definition would have scored the highest on the Squirm Test. The reason for that was that their process was optimized for building Shared Language and trust. The personal storytelling was especially important for trust-building. When you have both of these in great amounts, the actual collaboration is far more effective. Truthfully, they were also hamstrung by the fact that I didn’t tell them what their actual goal was until the final ten minutes of their exercise. That would have been an appropriate thing to do if they had much more time, but given the time constraints, it probably would have been more fair to tell them the exercise ahead of time. I agonized over this when designing the exercise, and I chose not to tell them the exercise in advance because I was afraid the urgency of the deadline might cause them to skip through the first two exercises.    (MN8)

Finally, a word on the actual definitions. I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by any of the definitions, again largely due to the time constraints. I was more interested in the group learning. However, I thought all three definitions were pretty good, and I was impressed by the context and the patterns that emerged: the importance of trust, communication, and Shared Language, for example. I also saw something that I’ve seen with other folks and with other definitions. Everyone tried to define “effective collaboration,” when in fact, the exercise called for simply defining “collaboration.” I think it helps to separate the two. Ineffective collaboration is still collaboration. There is something cognitively liberating about separating the question of whether or not you are collaborating from whether or not you are collaborating effectively.    (MN9)

I was very impressed by the quality of the group, and I had a blast working with them. I recommend folks interested in learning more about collaboration, systems thinking, and leadership in a business context to check out the Presidio School program, and in particular, to take a look at the various classes that the Laszlos teach.    (MNA)

February 2007 Update

A month has passed, and the blog has been silent, but the brain has not. Time to start dumping again. But before I begin, a quick synopsis:    (LR8)

  • The month started off inauspiciously, with a catastrophic system failure that occurred over the holidays. Quite the story. I hope to tell it someday.    (LR9)
  • Last year, I joined the board of the Leadership Learning Community (LLC). It was an unusual move on my part, since I was also in the process of clearing commitments off my list in order to focus more on my higher-level goals. In the midst of saying no to many, many people, I found myself saying yes to LLC. We had our first 2007 board meeting earlier this month, and I participated in their subsequent learning circles. Let’s just say I have no regrets. A week with these folks generated enough thoughts to fill a thousand blog posts.    (LRA)
  • This past week, I co-facilitated a three day Lunar Dust Workshop for NASA, using Dialogue Mapping and Compendium. It was an unbelievable experience, also worth a thousand blog posts. For now, check out some pictures.    (LRB)
  • For the past few months, I’ve been actively involved with a project called Grantsfire. The project’s goal is modest: Make foundations and nonprofits more transparent and collaborative. How? For starters, by getting foundations to publish their grants as microformats. I’ve hinted about the project before, and I’ll have much more to say soon.    (LRC)
  • For the past year, I’ve been helping reinvent Identity Commons. Again, I haven’t blogged much about it, but I’ve certainly talked a lot about it. Not only are we playing an important role in the increasingly hot Internet identity space, we’re also embodying a lot of important ideas about facilitating networks and catalyzing collaboration.    (LRD)

In addition to a flood of blog posts, other things to look forward to this month include:    (LRE)

Recent Dialog Mapping Lessons

On the HyperScope mailing list, Jeff Conklin recently asked how we were using Compendium for the project. We’ve been using it for the design phase of the project, walking through scenarios, capturing requirements, and developing specifications. I started the process by developing a template for the project — loosely based on previous projects — and by seeding the map with content from asynchronous sources.    (KFU)

I first presented the map at our weekly face-to-face meeting two weeks ago, and it’s continued to be the centerpiece for our discussions ever since. Other than the initial seeding and nightly refactoring, all of the content was generated during these group meetings. After each refactoring, I would post new versions of the map to the web.    (KFV)

Now that we’ve basically completed the scoping process, I’m going to convert the map into a design document (on Augment!). Compendium isn’t scheduled to make a reappearance at our meetings anytime soon, but you can be sure that if the need arises, I won’t hesitate to break it out.    (KFW)

A few years ago, I published a case study on Dialogue Mapping that described my early work in this area. I’ve continued to apply a lot of the lessons learned from those very early experiences. Here are some standbyes:    (KFX)

  • Take breaks    (KFY)
  • Avoid Yes No Questions    (KFZ)
  • Multiple maps are your friend. When a map grows too large, (take a break and) make a new one.    (KG0)
  • The map should be another participant in the meeting. The physical location of the map is critical to its success.    (KG1)

Here are some new and old thoughts on Dialogue Mapping based on my most recent experience:    (KG2)

  • The fact that so many early lessons are still relevant should be further encouragement for people to give Dialogue Mapping a try. The first few times I did it, it was hard. Once I took those first lumps, however, I shifted into an expert usage very quickly. Once you’ve gained this experience, the tool is invaluable.    (KG3)
  • In that early paper, an observation I made without comment was that I rarely used Argument nodes (Pros and Cons) in my early maps. Over the past five years of using Compendium, that pattern has held true. However, when I have used Arguments, they tend to be Pros rather than Cons. With the HyperScope map, I used Cons much more frequently. This reflects the circumstances of the project. We’re replicating an existing implementation that all of us agree is fantastic. We also have a very tight schedule. Most of our discussions have centered around implementation difficulty and desired constraints, and so naturally, things tend to be framed as Cons.    (KG4)
  • I think that a low percentage of Argument nodes in a map indicates expert usage. In meetings, Arguments are often a reflection of group politics rather than of logic. Reframing Arguments as Questions and Ideas depoliticizes the discussion.    (KG5)
  • When I first start using Compendium with a group, I never explain the tool. I just use it. People find it very natural to follow (assuming you’ve positioned your Shared Display properly), and they often take ownership of the map very quickly. The one thing I do find myself explaining on occasion is that an Idea is just an Idea. It is not a decision, and its presence indicates no value other than that someone in the group proposed it (which is not to be underestimated).    (KG6)
  • You know the process and tool are working when participants start saying, “Make sure you capture that,” or, “Can you put that there?” It’s a sign that they consider the map a participant and that they are taking ownership over its content. It also makes the facilitator’s job easier.    (KG7)
  • The resulting map is an artifact of the discussion, and as such, it’s more useful for participants than it is for nonparticipants. Folks like the fact that the maps are available, but they don’t recognize the value until I walk through the map with them. More importantly, those who have participated in the meetings (and hence, the map’s development) have found it extremely useful.    (KG8)

Here are some new and old thoughts on Compendium, the tool:    (KG9)

  • Compendium calls Idea nodes “Answers.” I understand the logic behind this, but I think “Idea” is a superior framing. This is partially captured by the fact that the node is represented by a light bulb, but I’d still like to see the name changed back to “Ideas.”    (KGA)
  • I used Decision nodes a lot for this project, which was natural, since this was a scoping exercise. I also made a big show every time I created a Decision node. This shifted us away from discussion mode, which may sound obvious, but it had a powerful effect on group participation. It was a group acknowledgement that we had captured the relevant issues and that we were ready to move on.    (KGB)
  • After the last Compendium workshop, I resolved to add some Visual Modeling techniques to my Compendium usage. I’ve managed to incorporate it a bit in other projects, but it hasn’t been useful at all for this project. I love the idea, but Compendium isn’t optimized enough for this kind of usage for me.    (KGC)
  • Compendium still has some subtle but annoying bugs, mostly related to layout. Michelle Bachler has done a great job of stabilizing and improving the code, but the project could definitely use more development resources.    (KGD)
  • My number one most desired feature: A slider bar that cycles through previous versions of your map. It should work with exported maps too.    (KGE)
  • Speaking of exports, using Compendium to work on the HyperScope really emphasizes the utility of things like granular addressability and applying viewspecs on a single document, features that don’t currently exist in exported maps.    (KGF)