One Path to Better Decision-Making

Once in an NPR interview about a budget deal, former senator Bill Bradley reminded us of the most important rule for debate and decision-making: you have to agree on the principles which the ultimate decision should reflect.

Without agreement on principles, you just debate your respective positions.
Without a shared vision and strategy, you just argue about tactics.

Individuals in staff meetings or discussions on a volunteer committee or board too often spend needless attention and energy trying to reach a decision because they lack a shared understanding of (and commitment to) common principles that the decision must reflect. So instead of thinking and working together, they merely report out their respective positions and debate the merits of them.

Think of it in terms of an outline for a term paper: you decide on the major points associated with the Roman numerals in your outline before you begin evaluating what goes with the lower case a and b.

The more important or difficult the decision, the more we must invest upfront in developing a shared set of principles or criteria that can inform the final decision and that our ultimate choice should reflect.

When disagreement over the specifics starts to surface, we can always drop back to where we last had significant agreement to restart the negotiations or deliberations instead of growing increasingly divided by (and entrenched in defending) the specifics of our differences. 

Getting agreement on principles won't necessarily be easy, but without that shared understanding you'll frequently find it quite challenging to get agreement on the specifics.

Think Outside the Building, Not Just the Box

People looking to innovate have long been admonished to think outside the box.  

It's good advice so long as one remembers that over time every fresh perspective or new way of thinking becomes a new box from which you must escape.

Harvard Business School professor and bestselling author Rosabeth Moss Kanter wants us to do more.  She suggests we need to think outside our building full of boxes, somewhat echoing Peter Drucker's concept of the "meaningful outside."  Kanter says:
"To foster innovation and transformation, leaders should focus on impact, not inputs. They should identify unsolved problems, map the wider system influencing results, and determine weak links to strengthen or gaps to fill. But to do all that effectively, they must first jump out of the box and leave the building."
Operationalizing this simple, but powerful philosophy means: 
  • looking to other industries and professions for innovations you might apply in your own work;
  • exploring partnerships and collaborations with organizations beyond your normal default options;
  • engaging in creative problem-solving with individuals from outside your organization;
  • viewing everyone who engages in work similar to yours as competition and not just those who share your same title or product line;
  • looking to unlikely sources for inspiration and insight; and
  • taking regular field trips into other environments and engaging in deep observation of what is done and how it is accomplished.
I periodically engage in my own outside the building excursion recently when I do a week of "temp work" for an association, residing and working in their headquarters for five days. 

Re-immersing myself in the daily 8-5 routine, participating in and facilitating team meetings, holding office hours and consulting with individuals, doing project work, presenting non-mandatory staff training sessions, coaching individuals on how to handle situations, and being a guest at all staff and volunteer gatherings expose me again to the routines and rituals of another organization's culture.  

I come away with dozens of observations—some tactical and some strategic—about organizational change, learning, and group dynamics. All of my future speaking and facilitation efforts are richer because of this "Consultant-in-Residence" experience.

Leaving the building by default forces us to leave our boxes.  So get up from your desk and go outside (or even online to new destinations).  The impact you need to consider and the information and insight you need might very well be there.

Tips for Facilitating Conversation About Big Ideas and Innovations

I love to facilitate conversations and sessions that explore big ideas and possible innovations.  Reflecting on previous efforts I designed and led reminded me of some common sense tips about what they require.  The list below is not all-inclusive, but highlights some of the core considerations.

Image source unknown.
1. Determine the right time and environment. Participants need the right mental and physical space to think differently and more expansively.  Block sufficient time and create an environment conducive to sharing ideas, sketching possibilities, and that honors both introverted and extroverted processes and contributions:  Intimate and flexible space; flipcharts, whiteboards, or walls covered with IdeaPaint; food, music, and props to sustain the energy; modeling clay and other prototyping supplies.

2. Articulate the purpose and define success. Skeptics and fans alike need to understand just what the conversation is intended to produce in order to contribute appropriately.  It's hard to do the what if you don't understand the why.  Clarify the problem to be solved and/or the opportunity to be leveraged.

3. Put the conversation in context. Don't make innovation something that occurs outside of your organization's regular efforts.  Connect conversations about ideas and innovations to your ongoing development of programs and services and incorporate these discussions into your regular planning routines.

4. Leverage pre-work. To stimulate everyone's best thinking, provide core background information and a few compelling questions in advance that session participants can mull over. While some people think fast in the moment, others contribute best when they have had time on their own to reflect.  Design for both as best as you can both before and during the actual session.

5. Clarify the terms and process to be used. People need to understand the rules of
engagement, whatever they are determined to be, as well as terms likely to be thrown about including creativity, innovation, value, et al.

6. Create, critique, construct. Remember these three types of thinking (usually attributed to Edward deBono) and make sure your process addresses them in this order:
  • Expansive, divergent thinking exploring what's desirable and/or possible; 
  • Convergent, narrowing thinking selecting which ideas to advance using shared criteria for evaluation all the possibilities; and
  • Getting in action and determining and constructing rapid prototypes to test the chosen ideas with actual users.
7. Facilitate assertively when needed. What I routinely witness when facilitating ideation and innovation conversations is that participants too quickly abandon the stated process and move straight to problem-solving and implementation.  Don't let that happen.  Ensure people dwell longer in possibilities and more expansive thinking. Clarify upfront with participants that you will be assertive in not letting them step too quickly into critical thinking.

8. Let user behavior be a catalyst. Thomas Stat, formerly with IDEO's Chicago office,
reminds us that innovation often begins with behavior, not pre-determined ideas.  If you carefully observe member or customer behavior without judgment and with deep empathy (try this IDEO exercise on Creating Empathy Maps), the rich story their actions tell will instruct you on where innovation may be needed.

9. Use disruptive premises to evoke creative possibilities. Once you've identified the opportunity areas to pursue, use disruptive hypotheses or unreasonable provocations as suggested by Luke Williams in his book Disrupt. Ensure the questions posed for exploration are "beautiful" as Warren Berger defines in his book A More Beautiful Question Doing so will help shift the subsequent creative thinking away from the traditional solutions and into potentially more inventive and interesting areas.

10. Introduce cross-disciplinary ideas and thinking.  Chances are others may already have generated ideas or solutions that you could adopt in principle and/or adapt in practice.  Solicit insights and resources (and challenge participants to do the same) drawn from outside the organization, profession, or industry.

11. Listen for concepts behind ideas.  No matter how assertively you facilitate the process, our inner critics emerge too quickly in the discussions.  When you hear people reacting negatively about a specific idea (example: there should be set office hours), identify its underlying concept (example: flexible work schedules) and ask what other ideas people might that relate to it. This keeps the creative energy moving forward and is a technique called Concept Fan by Edward DeBono. Watch a short Prezi on the concept fan process.

12. Identify opportunities to experiment.  Seeking small wins (James Kouzes and Barry Posner).  Try stuff to learn what works (Jim Collins).  Making little bets (Peter Sims).  Normal innovations, not just blockbusters (Rosabeth Moss Kanter). Name your innovation guru and each has his or her own way of trying to quickly get us in action and in the process of discovery.  Instead of trying to 100% plan our way to success, we need to move quickly from planning to playing with some of the possibilities we have identified.

13. Your choice. What is a relevant principle or practice your experience suggests should be added to this list?


Looking for sample outlines and activities to facilitating big conversations about ideas and innovations?  This PDF contains dozens that I created for ASAE's InnovationTalks. 

Contact me here if I can design and facilitate an ideation/innovation session for your org (or help you design and prepare to facilitate one yourself). 

This is an update of an earlier post.  

Does Your Member Get a Member Campaign Leverage Intrinsic Motivation?

I received a Member Get a Member pitch in the mail yesterday, exhorting me to get people to join one of my professional associations.  

Doing so would register me to win prizes and have my named added to the Wall of Recruiters.  Not a single line of text used any appeal other than the competitive aspect of participating in the campaign and the possibility of extrinsic rewards.

It didn't speak to me at all.

That's not to say that the chance of winning prizes or being honored as one of the top recruiters wouldn't attract others.  But too often we appeal only to the competitive motivator and forget an equally powerful enticement for many others: making a contribution.

I'm not particularly excited about chalking up new members for fame and prizes, but I do believe in sharing with others the value I've received from belonging to this particular association and my pride in the professionalism it champions.  

I also care about growing its community of professionals to increase our collective impact on the profession and those we serve.  And I always want to help attract people with whom I can learn, create, and collaborate.

ASAE's Decision to Join revealed that
prospects often join associations not only for the tangible benefits offered, but for the intangible rewards of being part of the community. Why would the same not hold true for members asked to help grow the association's ranks?

By not attempting to tap into that intrinsic motivation, this association lost out in two ways: (1) it did not get me to engage in any new member recruitment, and (2) it failed to remind me of why I am still a member myself.

Instead its marketing efforts left me feeling as if I was being solicited to turn into a late-night pitchman on QVC, hawking that extra special value deal, but only if you respond in the next two hours.  I doubt ... at least I hope ... that's not what was intended.

Offense Doesn't Have to Be Offensive

Recently I facilitated or participated in discussions that were unnecessarily challenging because of communication choices individuals made, ones that simply do not work.  I rarely find that ...
  • Talking more loudly results in more listening;
  • Repeating your points more agitatedly elicits a different response;
  • Sighing indignantly ignites agreement; or
  • Interrupting others gets their attention.
While a monologue can make an enjoyable night of theatre, it isn't the best way to have great conversation.  We need more dialogue, the four tenets of which were outlined so concisely by William Isaacs in his book, Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together.

Listening: “To listen together is to learn to be a part of a larger whole—the voice and meaning emerging not only from me, but from all of us.”

Respecting: “An atmosphere of respect encourages people to look for the sense in what others are saying and thinking. To respect is to listen for the coherence in others’ views, even when we find what they are saying unacceptable.”

Suspending: “Suspension means that we neither suppress what we think nor advocate it with unilateral conviction. … We simply acknowledge and observe our thoughts and feelings as they arise without feeling compelled to act on them.”

Voicing: “Speaking our voice has to do with revealing what is true for each of us, regardless of all the other influences that might be brought to bear on us.”

We live in a world where the answers to our challenges increasingly are not obvious.  Thinking better together requires that we slow down our conversations in order to let different perspectives be respectfully voiced and thoughtfully considered.  Only then might our listening lead to learning.

Quotes from “The Art of Dialogic Leadership”, by William Isaacs, The Systems Thinker, February 1999

A Takeaway on What You Give Away

Some organizations give away content,
hoping it gets you to join their community.

Some organizations give access to their community,
hoping you then purchase content.

Either could work, but doing both at the same time rarely will.

And it may very well be that neither your content nor your community as separate items is where your real value can be found.

Rather it may be in their intersection ... in the conversation your community has about your content and the new content that is created as a result.  

I wouldn't advise giving that away.

I would accelerate it and amplify it with great intention.

Toward Less Painful Panels

I recently attended a panel discussion that could have been a much more powerful learning experience.  An inadequate session design and a limiting room set shackled the interesting panelists.  Panels are always tricky, but they are a staple of industry conferences, so it is high time we made them more compelling. 

How Panels Commonly Unfold
Marketing for most panel discussions highlights the topic, maybe the questions that will be explored, and the panelists who will speak.  The actual programs usually begin with logistics announcements, promotional info, and introductions of each panelist.  At the program I recently attended this ate up 20% of the session time block: unacceptable.

A moderator then poses a question and often each panelist responds.  Better moderators help connect individual responses and/or offer some thoughtful follow-up questions or comments.  This is repeated numerous times for the bulk of the program and then the floor is opened for Q&A. Generally only a handful of people in the room get to pose a question.  

In this framework, I feel lucky as a participant if I get 2-3 insights to take away when much more is possible in a 90-minute session.  Plus the format is repetitive and flat, leaving audience members sitting passively for far too long and then only giving a few individuals a chance to pose questions.

What Panels Could (Should) Be

As a learner I want to hear the equivalent of content concentrate not diluted generalities ... insightful and provocative comments from a diverse (that's a key word) mix of panelist perspectives and experience a lively conversation among audience members and the panelists.  Ideally it feels free-flowing instead of the slow staccato rhythm many panels engender.  

Much can be improved in moderator and panelists prep.  While Guy Kawasaki and others have offered great tips on being a better panelist, we really need to rethink the conditions in which panelists and audience members are placed.  Otherwise we are just making the best of a less than ideal situation. 

We must better equip the audience to engage and interact. 

Get likely attendees in the conversation sooner by having panelists share some of their ideas/content  (1) in the marketing materials, and (2) in a panel preview.  By including a key insight or assertion from each panelist in the marketing material, you can arouse more interest (and probably attendance) than just the usual listing of names and titles.  It promotes a flavor of the conversation that might unfold instead of just the credentials of those conversing.

A panel preview should then be shared fairly close to the panel date, offering each panelist an expanded—though still concise—platform to share more views.  The preview could be a short YouTube video, a few slides with synched audio, a couple of social share, or a PDF file with brief written commentary.  The goal is to seed the conversation in advance so that it can begin immediately when the program starts.

Participants should Tweet or submit questions and reactions based on this advance sharing of content.  The panel I attended said no one did so for their discussion, but I cannot find anywhere that we were invited to contribute ... not in the marketing and not in my confirmation, two places where that invitation should be prominently displayed.  

Questions and comments could again be collected on-site using social media or being written on index cards.  Heck, let's have people write them on sheets of paper, crumple them up, and then throw them at panelists to get the energy level higher in the room.  Whatever it takes.  Let's get as many voices into the conversation even if they are "voiced" by the moderator on behalf of the participants. 

We have to design the format and the room for conversation not exposition.

Panel room sets are as predictable and outdated as wood paneling in your basement.  Both need to be replaced and refreshed.  Straight-line seating on risers immediately leads to personal pontification delivered from one to the masses.  And when you are a panelist on a stage, it's difficult to connect with people seated parallel to you, individuals you can't even look at directly.
  • Let's try setting a room fishbowl with the panelists in a center circle, facing each other in a conversational boxing ring.  Include extra chairs among the panelists that audience members can claim to briefly join the conversation.   
  • How about a fashion show set with panelists roaming the runway sharing their viewpoints with each other and the participants?
  • Maybe mimic the House of Commons environment and have panelists take center stage on all four sides, facing each other and surrounded by audience members. 
  • Or let them really get on their soapbox and stand on soapboxes stationed among the audience members and recalling the town criers of yore. 
  • If you must use a traditional room set, at least launch the program with each panelist using Pecha Kucha or an Ignite format to introduce all of their thinking ideas in 6 minutes or less and then open the floor for facilitated conversation.
When I attend a panel, I come to learn from the experts, not just listen to them.  It's time we design for an engaging conversation, one that our current mindset and room set rarely allow.

P.S.  About panelist intros.  I don't want to listen to them voice basic biographical info that I could be given in writing or that could be displayed on the screen.  Let them share something personal, something that allows us to connect to them as people instead of their resumes.

This is an update of an earlier post.