Last week I had the pleasure of leading a couple of workshops in which I was working with colleagues to help them redesign the way their teams are organised and operate. The changes are quite significant, which is why I felt it necessary to gather them together in a room for half a day to do so.
Everyone who attended had already been briefed on the rationale behind these changes and had the opportunity to ask questions. I had structured each half-day workshop to be working sessions, where after explaining the basic principles people would get to work.
The first workshop played out pretty much as I had anticipated. We spent a little more time at the start reviewing the rationale for the changes, but that was only to be expected as the ideas were still fresh in peoples’ minds. By the end of the first workshop each person or small team had created the beginnings of an organisation design that they could continue to refine with their colleagues.
The second workshop started quite differently. There were twice as many people in this workshop and a few of them are quite vocal. Quite soon into my introduction people started asking questions about issues that are outside of their control and they believe need to be addressed for the overall objectives to be achievable. These questions were not directly relevant to the objectives of the workshop – specifically because they were outside of the areas that each of these leaders were responsible for. Nevertheless, many people in the room have often been impacted by these issues, which is why they believed they were pertinent.
So, I was in an interesting situation. It was clear to me that I was not going to be able to progress with the workshop as planned until some of the attendees had an opportunity to express their feelings and concerns. If I wasn’t careful the entire workshop could have degenerated into a venting session, which might have helped the attendees feel better (a problem shared is a problem halved) but we wouldn’t have made any progress.
At this point I was reminded of the book Time to Think by Nancy Kline. This book was on my colleague Mandy Chessell’s recommended reading list and I devoured it when I first read it many years ago. The fundamental premise is that for people to be creative you need to give them the space and time to think. The author specifies 10 components for a Thinking Environment:
- Attention Listening with palpable respect and without interruption
- Equality Giving equal turns to think and speak
- Ease Offering freedom from internal urgency
- Incisive Questions Finding and removing untrue assumptions that distort thinking
- Information Supplying the facts and dismantling denial
- Diversity Ensuring divergent thinking and diverse group identities
- Encouragement Giving courage for independent thinking by removing internal competition
- Feelings Allowing sufficient emotional release to restore thinking
- Appreciation Practicing a 5:1 ratio of appreciation to criticism
- Place Creating a physical environment that says to people: “You matter”
I decided to employ many of these techniques to help the team in the room make progress. I made sure that I listened to their concerns – I knew that if they didn’t feel but also believe they were being listened to we would not be able to progress productively. However, I couldn’t just listen and then move on. The reality is that everyone’s concerns were totally valid. They might not apply to everyone in the room, but for each person this was their truth and it was important to them. Therefore, I focussed on giving each person my complete attention, asking questions to clarify their issues and explore what the impact is.
One of the techniques I was taught in an influencing skills course helps me to restrain my initial reaction to what someone says or does. It was recommended that I say to myself: “Hmm – that’s interesting” – as opposed to disagreeing and challenging. I was also encouraged to ask myself: “What would have to be true to cause them to say that?”. This internal dialogue, enabling me to both participate in the conversation and observing it from a 3rd person’s viewpoint are really helpful tools for dealing with confrontation.
I was also careful to contain my own desire to move forward with the objectives of the workshop. If I had displayed any signs of frustration or urgency to move on I would have lost the trust of the participants. I had to be in the moment.
Fortunately, after a couple of hours I judged that the participants felt a lot better having shared their frustrations and concerns. I suggested that we take a break and then get started with the design work that we were gathered to do. Everyone gladly agreed and went off to get a drink. During the break one of the more experienced attendees complimented me on the way I had handled the situation with calm and professionalism. I thanked him for his appreciation and explained that it took several years and a lot of personal development for me to develop such skills and experience.
The rest of the workshop went well. Everyone engaged with the process and by the end of the day had produced designs that they could continue to refine with their colleagues. There was lots of collaboration between people in different teams – sharing ideas and experiences. The mood in the room was positive and productive. And I like to think that I helped to make that happen.
I have more of these workshops to run over the next few weeks, so I was thinking about how to help them run more smoothly. I decided that I will introduce the topic of all the issues people are frustrated with. I will explain that these are being addressed and are not the scope of this workshop. Let’s see if it helps!