Friday 26 October 2018

Sticking to the Process

I am reflecting this week on a very difficult project that is just coming towards a successful conclusion: helping a team address a long-running and toxic conflict.  For a brief description of how we used an implicit ManyStory approach, see my post on the Shifting Stories blog.

In this post I want to reflect on something else: how having good frameworks or maps of the process, and then sticking to them, has been instrumental in addressing this complex issue.  

The first problem was that the client (the senior manager who called us in) seemed to want a magic solution. ‘Just get them together and sort it out.’ That rang alarm bells, because this conflict had been running for over a year, and if it had been that simple, I am sure that the client could have done this for himself.

So I picked up my copy of Flawless Consulting, and reminded myself of some of Peter Block’s wise advice.  And having the confidence that engenders (and not just because it makes sense, but because whenever I’ve used his approach in the past, it has always delivered) and also the confidence of being at a stage in my business life when I am quite happy to say no to a client who refuses to allow me work in a way that will get the best result, I was fairly robust. That is, I insisted on proper diagnostic work before proceeding. 

The client was not happy: his (understandable) concern was that by asking people about the issue, we would be bringing it to their attention, when they might not have been aware of it. However, my instinct was that if it had been running for as long as he told us, and with the toxicity he’d also mentioned, then there was nobody in contact with the team who would be unaware of it.  And so it proved.
Then we had the report-writing to do. Again, I was very mindful of Peter Block, and we wrote a report designed to tell the truth (as we had understood it from the diagnostic interviews and meetings) and present a clear and simple picture of what was happening.

Again, the client was surprised, and was concerned that our truth-telling would serve only to exacerbate the problem, by inflaming the passions of some of those involved. To some extent he was right: some of the protagonists were upset and angered by what we reported. But we spoke with them – and equally importantly listened to them. And what we gained through this was that all involved recognised that we were being honest: right or wrong, we were telling it how we saw it, and were neither blaming nor excusing; and above all not concealing or denying anything.  I believe that was critical in winning their trust, which was essential for the next stage.

Me with Nancy
on the occasion of my qualifying as a
Time to Think Coach
For the meetings, I had two frameworks in mind. One was Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment, and in particular her ten components: 
  • Attention
  • Equality
  • Ease
  • Appreciation
  • Encouragement
  • Feelings
  • Information
  • Diversity
  • Incisive Questions
  • Place

--> (See here for a fuller explanation of these). We used these as the ground rules for our meetings/workshops with the protagonists in the conflict. Our clear presentation of these, and the reason we thought that they were important, and then our consistency in running the workshops in accordance with them, using structures (rounds, paired thinking etc) that supported them, and holding all participants to them, helped create the safety needed for some honest conversations and reflections. And of course, it was the honesty of the conversations, and the fact that all were committed to listening with full attention to everybody else's contributions, that really started to shift things.

The other framework I had in mind was the ManyStory approach, as described in my book Shifting Stories. I have written how that implicitly shaped the whole process on the Shifting Stories blog. Here I will simply note that having the framework in mind provided me with an overall route map to follow, whilst still allowing the conversations during the workshops to flow where they needed to.

So the conclusion I am drawing (and as so often with blogging, it is really about writing a memo to myself) is the value and importance of (well-chosen, appropriate) frameworks to help us to navigate complexity, deal with challenges, and deliver results, whilst maintaining a high level of openness and responsiveness, which is a sine qua non of this type of work.

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