The Human Dynamics of Navigating Decision Making Dilemmas

The belief that there is a straight line between a problem and its solution is flawed and it is so often what gets us into trouble in seeking solutions to problems our organization, community or team face or decisions that need to be made.  It is what causes us angst when we think decision making discussions should be straightforward instead of the nuanced or circular discussions they often turn out to be, driven by agendas and dynamics that are not clear or made visible for the whole group – part of the shadow of a group dynamic.

Plan-reality

Increasing complexity in fast paced worlds often leaves us wanting for good decision making processes – especially when we are pressed for immediate action and results.  Key decisions taken by one individual – even one expected to make a decision – often fall short because one person does not always have the full picture or meets resistance by people who feel imposed upon. Collective decision making often misses the mark if dissension, debate or strong personalities dominate the process which often means some people just give up and the loudest voices dominate so the collective wisdom in the group is not given voice.

Problem solving and decision making is a task – a task carried out by humans and subject to human dynamics – just like every other endeavour we undertake. Understanding human dynamics goes a long way toward navigating decision making dilemmas unlike those magic bullet decision making algorithms which, surprisingly, don’t seem to exist.

All of these queries resulted in Shape Shift Strategies putting together a one day offering on Navigating Decision Making Dilemmas using a few simple Practices and Patterns from The Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter to better understand human dynamics and what it takes to cultivate the creativity and emergence that leads to effective decision making – one day of in-depth discussion and exploration that leaves participants from a variety of backgrounds with wide array of decision making dilemmas in a reflective thoughtful space around what they need to shift in their meeting process or dynamics to generate more of the results they are seeking.

With the increasing prominence of participatory and collaborative leadership ideologies and practices, there is a growing tension around decision making processes because of a misunderstanding that all decisions need to be made collectively.  When this slows decision making progress to a halt, there is a frustration and impatience that often causes those “in charge” to then circumvent the decision making conversations and make the decision unilaterally, effectively shutting down the desire for a team or community to engage in discussions that are not honoured.

It is folly to imagine that all decisions can or should be made collectively. What are the decisions that would most benefit from all voices? And then, who will make the ultimate decision – the group or the leader or some other individual – and is this clear at the outset of the conversation to everyone involved in the conversation? Is the conversation for clearly identified for input or decision making? Many teams and organizations run into problems because they have no agreed upon decision making process that they use consistently.

Do you know what the key decisions are that when you make them collectively you gain the greatest engagement and commitment of your team, organization or community? Is it clear when individuals – either leaders, managers, bosses or individuals responsible for their own work area or focus – are responsible for making their own decisions? Are they supported in decision making – no matter where they stand in the organizational or team hierarchy? For those decisions that will most benefit from the collective wisdom of the group, are the conditions for creating generative spaces understood?

04 - Day One Fredericton Jan 2013

In creating generative space some things to consider are how to invite and welcome multiple world views in the conversation, the use and understanding of simple but powerful patterns like the divergence-emergence-convergence framework for understanding basic human behaviour in decision making processes and polarity management for discerning whether you are dealing with a decision to be made or a polarity to be managed – meaning there is an upside and a downside to polar opposites (like collective decision making or individual decision making).  Being aware of up and down sides invites greater intentionality into the decision making processes and resulting actions.

Divergence-Convergence Diagram_000001

While the path for those decisions that most benefit from the collective wisdom is not always – or usually – a straight line path, generative conversations mean that we take all the ideas that come out in the divergent phase of the process – ideas individuals have brought in with them and put them in the soup of murkiness that shows up in the groan zone. When we can use ideas to spark new ideas, and build on existing ideas to generate new thinking, this is when innovative ideas begin to spark, ideas no one brought in with them that can take our decisions to a whole new level while also increasing the coherence of a team, group or organization.  It can be win-win-win all around but it takes patience, discernment and requires the leadership skills necessary to navigate that place between chaos and order. What new ways of thinking and being are needed now for you and your organization to navigate your decision making dilemmas?

Navigating Decision Making Dilemmas

The increasing complexity of our environments – at work, in community and at home, time crunches and decision making pressures often leave us wanting for good decision making processes – especially when pressed for immediate action and results.  Key decisions taken by one individual – even one expected to make a decision – often fall short because one person does not always have the full picture or the decision meets resistance because people impacted were not involved in the decision making process. Collective decision making often misses the mark if dissension, debate or strong personalities dominate the process (meaning some people just give up or give in) and when it seems to take too much time we hit the panic button and believe any decision will do.  Yet how often are decisions revisited because not enough time was invested in the exploration of options or in creating the generative conditions for conversations that lead to eliciting the collective wisdom and intelligence inherent in any group? Or because leadership under the pressure of chaos or uncertainty turned into the heavier hand of trying to manage the situation?

There are some simple patterns and practices available through the Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter that offer us windows into understanding the human dynamics alive in any group and particularly groups or teams seeking direction or guidance through decision making.

In May 2014, Shape Shift Strategies will be offering a one day workshop in Moncton (May 8) and in Charlottetown (May 15) to explore effective decision making practices.  The emphasis will be on the human dynamic conditions that lead more often to generative conversations and wiser decision making.  We will dive more deeply into the practical application of worldview, powerful questions and divergence/convergence in ways that support collective decision making in teams, organizations, communities and maybe even families.

WorldView hand drawn

Divergence-Convergence Diagram_000001

Information and registration details for both Moncton and Charlottetown are available through Eventbrite. Join us if you can.  Ask how you can bring this one day workshop to your team or organization.

Slowing Down to Go Fast

Our world moves so fast we all want it done now, or yesterday – whatever “it” is. The paradox is, we don’t have time to go fast anymore. But it’s not just about slowing down. It’s slowing down, adding in intentionality, purposefulness and patterns of movement – often non-linear and iterative – to take us to places we’ve never been before but that we’ve dreamed and know have to be possible. We want to get to this new place but we keep repeating the patterns that have never gotten us there before – Einstein’s definition of insanity.

Add into the mix, the complexity of today’s challenges generally means it is not a straight path from A to B and even if it is, your destination is probably somewhere else.

What does slowing down mean?  One is taking the time to acquire new lenses with which to view the challenges and complexity we face.  Another is learning how to use conversational methodologies well – tuned into purpose and intention as a guiding principle for how to design, enter and engage the questions of most relevance to what’s needed now – in growing learning, tackling innovation or bridging organizational divides.  It is not simply a learning and development opportunity.  It can be a formidable strategy to grow an organization, engage a challenge, conceive of innovative processes and/or products that serve the mission or mandate of your organization – as you already know.

These things are all possible using the principles and practices alive in Art of Hosting practices and frameworks.  Art of Hosting is not just a training.  Seasoned practitioners use it in consulting work all over the world – in every sector, for small and large initiatives, to launch new organizations and teams and to shift whole systems.  It is not just theory.  It is today’s complex challenges made real.  And it takes time.

For the training work we do, we often get asked about three days.  When money is no issue the larger question that looms is, “Is it worth three days of my time?”  Well, that depends.  On how aware you are of the value of slowing down to go fast – slowing down to allow insight to percolate, new perspectives to digest into new approaches and new strategies to emerge in animated and reflective conversation with other bright lights called to gather together in three days.  Because there are an amazing number of bright lights who show up for any training – of all ages, backgrounds and perspectives.

The beauty of being in 3 days or more with the same group of people is it invites the pattern of divergence-groan zone/emergence-convergence to show up.  There are many times when I’ve been asked at the end of day 2 of a three day training how is it going?  If I write that story, it is a very different story of what emerges because even subtle things shift and change in one more overnight or one more conversation evoked through a powerful question.  There is something in a three day pattern that lets us sense more fully into what our questions are, explore them in the company of others also asking powerful questions, seeing not just synergy but emergence – where we all gain something that no one person brought into the room, and we begin to imagine, often with extensive detail, how we will use what we’ve learned when we go back to work.

Not everything needs to slow down of course.  Not everything needs three days.  Some need less.  Many need more. But we refuse to take the time – we believe we don’t have the time, other things are more pressing, we will get too far behind – lots of limiting beliefs we carry individually and collectively.   But what about the things that do need three days and maybe longer? Percolation does.  New perspectives often do.  Imagining – really imagining the new – does.  Shifting paradigms does.

When we give ourselves permission to slow down we also invite ourselves to be surprised by what emerges and how fast things move with new clarity.  It is a wise investment of time and necessary for those of us imagining how to shift the shape of the worlds we touch.

Explaining Art of Hosting for Beginner’s Wanting to Know What It Is

Every place we go has its own tone, texture and timing.  It is part of what makes Art of Hosting – or in the case of California in August 2012, the Art of Participatory Leadership and Social Innovation – so hard to define. “We” being whatever configuration of hosting and calling team has coalesced around an identified need or opportunity.  Every training is different because every place is different, every group that responds to the call is unique.

People who are just coming across Art of Hosting want to know, what is it?  One way to think of it is, at its core, a set of patterns and practices that help us be successful in complex circumstances.  Developing skill in using these patterns and practices is particularly helpful now at a time when long term strategic planning doesn’t work anymore (if it ever did) because we don’t know and can’t predict what ten, five or even two years down the road will look like.  One thing many of us have a growing awareness of is that what has worked in the past – strategies, practices, principles – doesn’t seem to work anymore – if it ever did.

The world is providing us with increasing complexity – in the environments in which we operate, our communities and in our organizations, especially as things seem to move faster and faster.  Social innovation is a response to this increasing complexity.  Rigid protocols have limited application in complexity.  Complexity calls for a different set of leadership skills – skills that tune in and are responsive to emergent circumstances.  Complex systems share behaviours that cannot be explained by their parts.  This requires a different set of frameworks to see and understand it.  In the Art of Participatory Leadership we draw on world view, chaordic path, divergence/convergence, the 2 loops of systems change, theory U and other frameworks as lenses through which to think about complexity and social innovation.  Social innovation looks for an alignment of circumstances that makes action possible – the relationship among elements.

One of the names we use for this type of experiential learning is the Art of Participatory Leadership because it also calls forth a new set of leadership skills required to deal with complexity and social innovation, quite different from how we think about traditional leadership.  Participatory leadership focuses on participation and engagement strategies, knowing from experience there is wisdom and knowledge that exists within a group, a team, an organization, a system.  When we make it visible in a group, it moves into the realm of collective wisdom, knowledge and understanding leading to a different kind of action and ultimately different results.

Participatory leadership  connects well in high pressure situations. Some of its core characteristics are curiosity or non-judgement, staying in the space of not knowing, generosity or openness, a belief that conversations matter and that good conversation leads to wise action.

It is not a quick fix or a magic bullet for problems that have existed and have been evolving over long periods of time.  However, there are often very immediate results for individuals as they examine and reflect on their own leadership practices.  This is also why we encourage teams to participate so they have a new common language and are more able to hold each other accountable to create a path of behaviour change and organization practices that will be sustainable.

A core element of the Art of Participatory Leadership is for each of us to deepen our own capacity to effect transformation – in ourselves and in a complex world.

Where have these practices and patterns been used? In community, private sector, academia, healthcare, and educational settings as well as social change efforts around the world.  The stories are only just beginning to be documented because many of us have been deep in the work rather than the writing about the work.  Stories are alive in Nova Scotia, Ohio, Minnesota, Europe and Brazil and many, many more places.

Art of Hosting is also a global self-organizing community of practitioners who use these integrated participative change processes, methods, maps, and planning tools (like circle practice, appreciative inquiry, world cafe and open space technology) to engage groups and teams in meaningful conversation, deliberate collaboration, and group-supported action for the common good.

The hosting and calling team for this first Art of Participatory Leadership and Social Innovation in California: myself, Jerry Nagel, Ann Badillo, Sherri CannonDana Pearlman and Mia Pond will weave stories of where this work is alive in the world into these three days of co-created emergent design and process – a little taste of what we do in the world and what is possible.

Navigating the Groan Zone is an Art

For a such a simple little concept, the divergence-emergence-convergence model we use in the Art of Hosting sure packs a punch.  It is a simple teach that can be done in 10 minutes – or longer – if time, space and the opportunity to engage others in the conversation allows.  It sheds light on design process, the groan zone and people’s experience.  Navigating the groan zone is an art form that often arises out of our ability to host ourselves well.  Stories from a recent Art of Hosting training a bit later in this post.  First a bit about the model.

Divergence-Emergence-Convergence – a simple model with an interesting challenge

The divergent phase of this model is akin to brainstorming.  We want as many ideas as possible to emerge so we can later select the best ones to develop further.  It has much broader application than brainstorming though.  It is about expansion.  It is where ideas are generated, information is collected,  issues or challenges are sensed into to gain more insight or shift perspective or simply where we holding open the space for possibilities to enter in.  It is not a time for evaluation.  We don’t need to know what we will do with the information.  We don’t even need to know whether the information is ultimately useful while we are in the divergent phase of the learning, the work, the project.

As we begin to feel overloaded, overwhelmed or uncomfortable, or we begin to question “the process”, or the leaders or hosts of the process, or we are just tired and grumbly, we are desiring understanding and often looking for convergence.  What does it all mean?  What should we do now?  When can we be done?  All questions that indicate we are near or in the groan zone.

In an effort to avoid discomfort, end discussion, or just get to the end now, we are often tempted to circumnavigate the groan zone by picking an idea, or a solution prematurely – any reasonably good one will do – and developing it into “the answer”.

Some things happen when we do this.  One is that we may miss the truly important things.  By prematurely closing a conversation, the essence or pattern of it often comes back.  We think we made a decision but the decision is questioned and we end up in a new round of conversation about things we thought were settled, growing frustration and dissatisfaction later on.  Staying with the discomfort just a bit longer might emerge a different idea or opportunity or a new understanding of where are at and why. What if we became curious about where we are instead of wanting to shut it down?  What might then emerge?  What if we ask the question, what else is going on here?  What is underneath the conversation, the unrest?

Navigating the groan zone is an art of discernment in many ways.  It is also a skill we can develop.  I recently had someone send me a note, asking me how a training was going.  The note arrived exactly in the groan zone at the end of day 2.  I thought about replying and knew it was just impossible to explain succinctly where we were in our process – unsettled, a bit disconnected as a group, unclear about what all was bubbling.  Sure enough, the next day things flowed together, the group became more cohesive and new possibilities emerged.  I had a new story to share about the groan zone and the importance of staying in it in our processes, not prematurely attempting to assess the success or failure of a conversation, a training or a process. We don’t just need to stay tuned to the groan zone, we need to be alert for convergence and good timing of it.

A couple of stories about the groan zone from recent hosting experiences.  These two stories come from the first AoH training for Rio de Janeiro in Brazil at the end of April 2012.  Two of my co-hosts (on a team of nine) were Jerry Nagel from the US and Maria Barretto from Brazil.

The first story is from the hosting/calling team.  We met, as is normal practice, the day before for our check-in and design process for the training that was in front of us.  In the couple of weeks just before the training, it filled so rapidly most of us had no idea we had reached our capacity of about 50 people in the lovely retreat centre we were at near Petropolis.  Even in this last night before we were to begin, people were sending emails saying they wanted to attend.  In the normal flux of what happens leading up to a training, some people were appearing, some were saying they couldn’t come and we were left trying to figure out what to do.  We had five people  on a waiting list.  There were two possibilities: begin the list for the next Rio AoH or refer them to an AoH that was to happen in Sao Paulo a few weeks later.  We circled around a decision several times, even as we tried to move on, but never landed.  We were clearly in the groan zone.  Maria was the first one to suggest this conversation was not about numbers, there was something deeper that maybe we needed to become curious about and pay attention to.

After two hours we agreed as a team that we would just say yes.  Full invitational energy.  You want to come?  If you can still come we will figure out how to make room.  Calls went out to the five people, three of whom showed up the next morning, two of whom had a 7 hour drive to make it happen.  What was our conversation about?  Letting go.  Inviting.  Trusting.  When we entered full invitation, we passed through the groan zone as a hosting team.  Something shifted for us. Beyond the decision itself. Into the collective space of being a team.

The second story – this time from the full group.  Day 3 of a 4 day training.  The morning is all about hosting self – embodiment, art, silence.  Not everyone is comfortable with meeting self.  We decide not do a collective harvest of the experience but to leave it with individuals.  The afternoon is Pro-Action Cafe – one of the best I’ve ever seen as my Brazilian friends take it to new levels, engaging the participants while the conversation/project hosts are reflecting on what they have learned so far.  “What does it feel like to host other people’s dreams?” is the question they ask, a question that touches me heart.

After the proaction cafe, we enter a debriefing space.  It’s been a long day.  First comments are quite positive and excited.  Then there is a shift. The comments and questions that are now coming into the space do not, in my perspective and through translation, seem to reflect the proaction cafe experience.  So, I become curious.  As I pay attention, I begin to wonder, what is the level of discomfort from the morning experience that seems to be bubbling up now?

The day before, Maria taught the divergence-convergence model, speaking about the groan zone.  In this moment, as I listen I know we are in the groan zone.  I listen for an intervention point and take the talking stick – a paint brush from the centre that many who speak are holding as if it is a microphone.  I step into the centre of the circle and begin to walk it.  I say, “Friends, yesterday Maria talked about the groan zone.  Today, now, we are in it.”

Someone says, “So we should be celebrating.”

I chuckle.  “Yes,” I respond, “We should be celebrating.” I pause, “We need to be careful that we do not assume that our individual experience is the experience of the group.  The things that really resonate with me might be the things you are most challenged by and vice versa.  This is an invitation for us to each own our own experience and to become curious.”

From here, I am not really sure where we want or need to go next.  I invite the hosting team into a transparent conversation about how we want to proceed.  There is one more thing we had been planning but we are now into the time for that process.  Things take on a life of their own and we enter into a fishbowl experience.  I’m still not sure how that happens, but we flow with what is emerging in the space.  As a host team we have a little conversation about what will serve best now.  Participants enter the fishbowl and offer their experience and their questions.  One person asks, “Why don’t you, as experts, just tell us what to do now?”  Good question.  We invite it to sit in the room with us til a bit later.

After hearing from more people one clarity emerges for me.  I  want to be sure we honour the stepping in of volunteers to host processes they had never hosted before and I feared itt was being lost in the ripples showing up in this groan zone.  The response to the question of why we didn’t just provide the answers for people?  “Looking for someone to provide the answers is a typical reaction when we are in the groan zone.  Learning to co-sense and co-learn into what is needed next is the learning edge we are all on.  An answer too soon might not be what we need at all.”  People are nodding.

As we have heard the feedback and sensed the room, I suggest maybe we need to wrap up.  One of the desires in the room is to end for the day and dance – beautiful Brazilian circle dance.  Jerry states, with a beautiful level of intensity, “I didn’t come all this way to just stop and dance now.  There is more learning to be offered.”  People around the room nod.  This is another thread very present in our space.  Maria finally suggests we wrap up for dinner and, for those who want to, we will reconvene after dinner to hear stories of where the methodologies have been used and the impact of them.  This is ultimately the path we choose.  Pretty much everyone shows up for the evening of storytelling.  There is a hunger in the room.  It is a good call.

In the middle of the groan zone we modeled how we can hold the intensity of it, offer up various points of view, and maintain integrity and depth of relationship in our field.  We feel the relief in the room and we know the tension we have been holding in this moment.  Many people later thanked us for modeling what we speak about, that it was a powerful moment for them.

The next morning, we know we need to converge well.  We invite triad conversations as a check in.  People are asked to reflect on their greatest learning and how they are going to take their learnings home.  It is a powerful convergence moment as people reflect on their experience and how to apply it.

Convergence is not necessarily something that happens half way through the process as is depicted in the diagram.  More likely it will happen 2/3 or 3/4 of the way through.  And, when we have navigated the groan zone well, it happens swiftly.

In a lot of our planning processes, I will often say they are front end loaded. If we take the time to sense into what is needed, and the time to be in conversations that take time, with the curiosity about why, we create the conditions for “magic” to happen. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a process where “magic” happens when we haven’t had to navigate the groan zone with attunement, patience and awareness.  There are ingredients that lend themselves to magic and navigating the groan zone with presence, patience and attunement are some of them.  It is sometimes the most challenging space we hold, but the rewards are bountiful when we do it well.  And whether we do it well or not, the learning is rich.