February 22, 2018

The Benefit of the Doubt

I find myself increasingly disillusioned by what passes for political discourse nowadays.

Instead of trying to engage in genuine dialogue with others, too many individuals seem content to engage in caustic monologues that speak only to themselves.  Read the comments section on just about any online site and you'll find the equivalent of adolescent name-calling culminating in verbal fisticuffs.  It feels as if we are engaged in an interpersonal nuclear arms race whose ultimate escalated conclusion is the permanent destruction of basic human values like respect and understanding.

It's time for some detente.

When people think of giving the benefit of the doubt, they tend to think of it as being generous towards others.  "Yeah, I didn't think she was really right on this one, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt."

The real benefit of the doubt is when we afford it to ourselves, when we embrace the fact that our hardened certainty that surely must be universal truth is in reality anything but.  When doing so becomes a habit, our curiosity seems to increase and we become more interested in, and capable of, entertaining signals and information that do not fit the neat pattern we have created for the world.  If we can place our own truths on trial and look for reasonable doubt in their complete validity, we may avoid conviction for our possible narrow-mindedness.

Doing so is difficult because we find comfort in certainty, but it can be a false companion as portrayed so eloquently in John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize winning play, Doubt.  I'll never forget this closing scene in the film version starring Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius.

If we never allow ourselves to have doubts, if we're unwilling to explore and entertain other possibilities, we become rhetorical robots, simply repeating our stalwart positions without advancing understanding.  Talking points replace thoughtful exchanges.  Instead of looking for new information, we gleefully trumpet even the slightest signs that validate our preordained world view.

When I encounter a position very different from my own on an issue I have found "Help me understand where you're coming from" to be a very useful response.  While I don't always find my mind changed, I do always find it expanded.  And isn't that what's it is all about?  As Meg Wheatley so eloquently says in her book Turning to One Another, "We don’t have to let go of what we believe, but we do need to be curious about what someone else believes.”

So the next time you most feel compelled to shout "You are so wrong" you might instead whisper to yourself "Maybe I'm not right" and continue the conversation from that position.  By giving yourself the benefit of the doubt you will undoubtedly benefit.

February 15, 2018

Don't Cut Off the Caring

"The time has come. The young generation always comes up and beats the older generation. It's how life is."
—Marta Karolyi

Despite the fact that the elders may be able to extend their athletic prowess and dominance longer, at some point they will be defeated. Records will fall. Champions will retire. Legends will become memories.

It is the way.

Now if only everyone involved in volunteer leadership positions could understand that this circle of life also applies to them, things might run a bit more smoothly.

I often find myself facilitating strategic conversations about how organizations can help people "let go" of their positions when their term of office has concluded. The new leadership sometimes sees the "old guard" clinging to their past power and responsibilities as potential interference. And without a doubt, some individuals do not know how to exit the stage gracefully.

But I'm beginning to think the more powerful question is not one focused on letting go, but one that explores leveraging and redirecting: How can we now leverage and redirect the talent, knowledge, caring, and commitment of individuals no longer holding significant leadership positions in our organization?

Instead of talking about how to rid themselves of these people, organizations should focus on how to retain the best of what they can bring to their community. It yields a much richer and more respectful conversation.

While one's capacity to compete might diminish over time, one's capacity to care does not necessarily decline. It is why we see former champions serving as coaches and commentators. They still believe in and care about their sport, but they have selected news ways to contribute to it and to grow with it.

Let's rethink and reconfigure our organizations and communities to create opportunities for as many individuals as possible to act on their caring. Doing so will strengthen our capacity to do good things, as well as strengthen individuals' connections to each other and the work of the organization. How can that be a bad thing?

February 5, 2018

You Have to Invest to Get a Return

We don't have enough time.
I don't think we have the resources.

These are the increasingly common cries I hear from individuals and groups make about changes they want to make in their organization's culture or on a specific project, or when talking about new initiatives to explore.

And my increasingly frequent response (after offering some empathy for their plight) is one simple question: Do you envision that changing anytime soon? The answer is generally no.

So people have great aspirations.  But since they don't have the resources to do everything they envision, they opt to do nothing, leaving them feeling frustrated.

I get it. I really do.
I often feel the same way.

But here's the simple truth: we have to make in investment if we hope to get any sort of return. 
Doing nothing yields nothing.

Financial planners have long advocated the power of dollar-cost averaging: making consistent purchases of stock or bonds regardless of marketing conditions.  Over time, the average of those routine incremental investments often produce healthy returns.

But we want to time the market, buying low and selling high, both in financial terms and in change management.

It rarely works.

So here are two powerful change management investment questions we all need to ask routinely:
  1. What is the most significant step forward we can make right now with the limited resources we have available? 
  2. What are micro shifts in behavior, culture, process, etc. we can make right now that slowly will start to contribute to a different workplace and different ways of doing things?
You have to get in action if you want a piece of the action.
Start doing something, anything.
Start doing it right now.

February 1, 2018

Managing for More than the Moment

Retailers have long understood the value of samples and two-fers.

When Procter and Gamble was introducing their home dry cleaning product, Dryel, they shipped free samples to thousands of sorority houses, a target market they perceived as a natural fit for the new product. Visit any Sam's Club or Costco on a Saturday and you can essentially eat a complete meal if you accept samples given at the end of almost every aisle. On the two-fer side, don’t be surprised if that cleaning product you just bought at Target has a sample of another product shrink-wrapped in with the item you purchased. 

Both of these marketing approaches relate to a simple concept: when you have others' attention, imbue it with meaning beyond just that moment. 

In our time-pressed and attention-starved world, organizations would be wise to extend this concept deeper into their products, services, and communications mix. The possibilities are endless. 
  • A board or staff meeting could also include a needs assessment component by having participants work the phones and call members or customers randomly to solicit their ideas and feedback. 
  • By getting answers to a few simple questions that could be used to guide future offerings, a membership application or renewal form also becomes a marketing research tool. 
  • An evaluation form volunteers use to offer feedback on their experiences also becomes a referral tool if it solicits the names of individuals they suggest contacting about getting involved. 
  • Highlighting an organizations accomplishments to the membership renewal invoice may help renew not only membership, but also pride, loyalty, and perceived value of belonging. 
  • A workshop evaluation form becomes a marketing tool by offering a discount to a future program if registration is completed at that very moment.
In terms of sampling, we could learn from the example of many software or online service providers. It is not unusual for either to offer a 30-day free trial at the end of which your credit card will automatically be charged the full product price unless you cancel in advance. The key is to get the actual registration and purchase decision made upfront as a part of committing to try the product, not making people register and buy at the end of their trial period. That approach is far less likely to lead to new sales or memberships. 

We need to become more adept at maximizing and leveraging the attention of our information-weary target audiences any time we get individuals to take notice. Expanding an initial action or commitment on their part into additional choices can deepen the relationship we have with them over time when it provides something of value.

To put this into practice in your organization, the next time you plan a meeting or event or design a response or order form, consider how you might use the moment to deliver more value and/or elicit more commitment or action in support of your organization’s goals and objectives.

January 26, 2018

Isn't That Special?

I generally trust restaurant servers to steer me in the right direction, so I had no problem last night explaining that I couldn't decide between the special and the chopped salad.

"So here's the thing," the server said.  Today's special is a great value for the price and it's really good.  But even though you can get it every day, the chopped vegetarian salad is really, really good.  I mean, it is really special. So if it was me, I'd forget what's on special and order the thing that is really special."

I ordered the salad.

"You chose well," said my server with a bit of a smug grin on his face.

Here's the thing.  While value shoppers will always be looking to get a good special, a good deal, it commoditizes what we do.

The real opportunity is creating everyday items that in and of themselves are so full of value that they are experienced as special by whomever purchases and uses them.

And it can be as simple as asking "What are we going to do to make this effort extra special?" for all of our work.

So when it comes to specials, what's your choice going to be for your work and the value you create?  

Excellent.  You chose well.

January 24, 2018

The World Wants You

We were about halfway through the program on facilitation skills. Participants were practicing the core skills we had explored by facilitating various small group conversations. As I observed one very earnest young man in action, I kept feeling his efforts lacked authenticity. The questions he used and the gestures he made were too studied, too rehearsed, too textbook.  

During the debriefing, I asked him to talk about how he felt he had done during his practice time. Brimming with enthusiasm, he spoke with great pride about how he had incorporated many of the techniques and mannerisms he had seen his mentors use when leading groups. It became clear to me that the discomfort I felt while observing him was because his facilitation was not of his own doing. Rather it consisted of loose-knit ”impersonations” of the mentors he apparently channeled during his practice time.  

I began to gently probe his thinking about effective facilitation, his own communication style, and his own beliefs about what gifts he could offer to a group when serving as its facilitator. Though my questioning was non-judgmental, it was not completely comfortable for the young man. Getting inside his own head when it came to the topic was not something he had spent much time doing.

After our conversation, I asked him to demonstrate some of the thinking he had just shared in another round of role rehearsals. Somewhat hesitantly, he agreed. His initial efforts were less polished than in the first round and were offered more tentatively. But as the discussion progressed, you could slowly see a more natural rhythm being established. The young man’s confidence increased, and when it did, he actually became a bit more reserved, more trusting of the group to continue on without his every intervention. 

This young man’s experience is one that we have all probably had numerous times. In our effort to honor what we have learned from those we admire—our mentors and role models—we sometimes try on or appropriate their speech, their actions, their thoughts, and then proffer them somewhat as our own. This right-hearted, but wrong-headed, approach causes our efforts to feel hollow when introduced into our relationships. 

This situation reminds me of a vocal master class that the legendary singer Barbara Cook taught at the Kennedy Center.  One of the many epiphanies she offered resonates so deeply with me: “It’s so hard to believe that what the world wants is us. It’s hard to believe, whatever you’re doing, that you’re enough. We are all, always, enough." 

Without a doubt, we should reflect on (and learn from) the wisdom of our friends, family, colleagues, and mentors. But ultimately, we have to find our own voices as individuals, as facilitators, as leaders. And perhaps the best way to find our own voice is simply to let our voice speak, to listen to it with great intention, and to make as much meaning of it as we are equipped to do at any particular point in our lives.

That will be enough because we are each enough.  As Cook so eloquently noted in her master class:

“To be as authentic as we know how to be at the moment, so that we can be more and more present in what we do. The more we can do that, the safer we are. The problem is it feels most dangerous … But this very thing that seems dangerous is where safety lies.”

January 19, 2018

Simple Questions as Conversation Catalysts

About once a week, I tweet a current favorite question for use as a meeting icebreaker/conversation catalyst.  I find having a supply of these on hand makes it easier for me to introduce one when doing so is the right call in a meeting or conversation.

Too often, we make breaking the ice too complicated. While longer community-building activities or icebreakers are valuable, they are not the only option available to us.  Leaders and facilitators always need to be thinking about how to strengthen connections among participants in ways that honor their needs and the time available. We are trying to help reveal the positions and perspectives people bring to a conversation. 

While I continue to work on a short book/manifesto on this topic, I have shared below 50+ simple questions you can immediately use as conversation catalysts in your own efforts.  Some are relatively all-purpose, low-risk, and can be used simply to get people sharing. Others are more specific and can be drawn on more purposefully to help achieve a meetings objectives. 

This list is by no means exhaustive, so consider crafting your own conversation catalysts. In doing so, this summary of Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question (PDF) may be helpful.

  1. With what people or in what situations do you most feel the need to censor yourself? Why?
  2. If you were going to write a book, what would it be about?
  3. What is a work of art (movie, performance, book, et al) that you return to regularly? Why?
  4. Tell me about an experience that significantly shaped your beliefs about giving & receiving feedback.
  5.  Fill in the blank. I wish more people supported _________.
  6.  What new law would you like to see passed (or existing law removed) and why?
  7. For what opinion, perspective, or type of person are you most challenged to display empathy? Why might that be?
  8. Tell me about something difficult you figured out on your own how to handle/do.
  9. Tell me about a time when you were surprised to change your mind about something.
  10. How can we create an environment that allows people to BE more of who they are, not just DO more of what we want?
  11. If you could make all your colleagues follow one piece of advice, what would it be and why?
  12. How might we make more progress in the areas that matter most for those who most need it?
  13. When an idea you want to advance meets resistance, how do you typically respond?
  14. What's one thing you really wish our ___ (company, org, neighborhood) would try to make happen?
  15. Tell me about the last time you felt really inspired.
  16. Finish this sentence. I don't think it is fair that ... Follow with everyone discussing fairness and deciding what is just.
  17. What would enable you to exercise more initiative?
  18. How do you decide where to spend the capital of your convictions and commitment?
  19. How do you currently define success? How, if at all, has that changed for you over time and why?
  20. Tell me about the last time you felt "stuck" and what you did to break free.
  21. To whom and what do you hold yourself accountable and why?
  22. When (and/or with whom) are you most generous? Why? When (and/or with whom) are you most selfish? Why?
  23. Tell me about a choice you made whose risk only became apparent in hindsight.
  24. What is the most rewarding recent conversation you had?
  25. What is a small item/detail that matters a great deal to you and why?
  26. What would you need to be more brave where (with whom) you most want to do so?
  27. Tell me about a time that fully engaged your heart, head, and hands, your passion and your talents.
  28. What is an unpopular opinion you hold and how does your perspective differ from others?
  29. If someone asks you to pay/do your fair share, how do you decide what that would include?
  30. What is unnecessarily difficult or complex to do in our organization and how would you simplify it?
  31. What is something you wish you had been told/discovered sooner?
  32. What do we need to learn in our ___ (org or profession)? What do we need to forget?
  33. What's a misperception people might have of you?           
  34. When you discover you need to learn something, how do you most often go about doing so?
  35. Share a ritual you have that helps account for your success.
  36. Confess an unpopular opinion that you hold.
  37. Create a business card with your title for an imaginary business you think should exist.
  38. What advice have you received that you chose to ignore ... and why?
  39. "What sci-fi gadget do you most wish existed in real life?" Courtesy of The Atlantic, 11/15 issue
  40. Who should play you in the movie about your life and why?
  41. When did you last feel like the "other," someone outside the group? What was that like? How did you act?
  42. What do you think you'll need to get better at or learn more about in 2016?
  43. Talk about a time when you were very certain about something, but eventually learned it was not true.
  44. What is something you learned (or relearned) about yourself in the past 3 months?
  45. What do we already know that we could apply better here?
  46. What do you do to help others succeed?
  47. If you could make everyone in your organization read three books, what would they be and why?
  48. How might you (we) be participating in systems or power structures that marginalize others or perpetuate injustice?
  49. To whom are you most accountable and how? 
  50. If you had $10,000 and wanted to do the most good possible with it, how would you spend it?
  51. What does it mean to be a critical thinker and how would you become one on a topic new to you?
  52. What book did you learn the most from this year and what is one takeaway that has had staying power?
  53. Tell me about how you arrived at where you are today.
  54. In what situations do you most feel privileged and how?
  55. What is something that others find risky, but you do not? 
  56. What is a choice you have made that others failed to understand? 
  57. What is something you once could never imagine doing, but yet you subsequently did? What changed?