When I walk into a room to work with a team, I come from a certain point of view, and I run events under certain assumptions. I thought it might be handy to walk through some of them, for those who’ve never been through an engagement with our team.

First: the people. I make two assumptions. One, I presume that each individual gets up in the morning expecting, hoping, to do good work. I’m not naive enough to presume everyone is, but you’re presumed to be a positive force until you prove otherwise. Two, I presume that the system as a whole is highly intelligent. Even when they “fail” or reach sub-optimal results, I presume that, if I engage with them and enable them to engage with one another appropriately, the system will perform better than any individual would.

With those thoughts in place, I greet a room of happy, smiling people (we always make sure there is plenty of coffee – I’m sure that helps!)

Typically, I will let the host, who is either my key client or their executive sponsor, be the first person to speak. It is their event, they are paying for the food, the experience, the outcome – thus it is imperative that they, and not I, take the position of the host. Once the host has thanked everyone for coming and outlined their hopes for the outcome, I kick off the day by outlining four thoughts, all of which are usually printed on large posters on the wall. They are:

  • The Principles
  • Caretaking
  • Time and Space
  • Being Prepared to Be Surprised

The Principles

There are six Principles, many of which are derived from Open Space Technology. We’ve tweaked the words over the years, but the essence hasn’t changed.

  1. Whoever shows up are the right people. Whether we issue an open invitation to the world, or request the presence of a pre-selected few, those who are there are the only ones who will be able to make a difference, at that event, towards that end. Nowadays, “showing up” can also be done via twitter, but that’s another blog post. And by the way, “showing up” requires more than a physical presence. Particularly with small teams, if one or a few are distracted for any reason, the outcome can be profoundly affected.
  2. Everyone present is a participant. There are no wallflowers at our event. Whether you feel as though you are central to the initiative or not, your participation is expected. Even when someone comes to audit our event, entirely without subject matter expertise, I will expect them to listen, to learn, and to contribute where and as they are able – sometimes an “honest broker” providing a test function is absolutely invaluable.
  3. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have. We will invest the time that we have made available, we will work with passion and responsibility, and what we come out with at the end of the event will be the only thing that could have happened, given the process we went through. There’s no time for second-guessing or regrets.
  4. Leaders with passion and who take responsibility are the path to useful action. It doesn’t matter where you sit in the organization – it matters whether you care, and whether you stand up, take responsibility to do specific tasks, and then follow through. Without action, we may become a more cohesive team through the course of an event, but something has to get DONE for anything to change.
  5. Taking risks, clearing issues and solving problems is part of what needs to be done. There is no magic; there is a ton of sweat, and a thousand niggling details. And there will be challenges, problems and obstacles. All need to be dealt with, one at a time as they arise, in order to change a system. It’s not easy work! If it were easy, you wouldn’t have engaged us – you would have just done it.
  6. Take time to think. Act on Insight. Most of us don’t have enough time in our day jobs to reflect. At an event, that time is purposefully designed into the process. Take advantage of it. Listen to one another, and listen to the system. And mention to someone any insight that happens to come to you.

Caretaking

  1. To always be in a place where I am either learning or contributing. Our events often have a lot of surface-level chaos. With small groups, there are often three separate discussions ongoing concurrently. With larger groups, we’ve had upwards of 300 people in over 20 concurrent discussions. At a typical meeting, you sit at a boardroom table all day, living through many meaningless presentations, depending on your areas of personal interest. In our events, we challenge participants to either be learning (listening) or contributing (drawing, speaking, whatever) at all times.
  2. To attend to my personal needs. We seldom take bio breaks, because it destroys the continuity of a conversation. We instruct people that, for the duration of the event, they have the complete freedom to come and go as they please. We inform them that there will be a natural ebb and flow of people in various conversations across the duration of the event, and that here, it’s not rude to get up (discretely) and walk out in the middle of a conversation. We instruct people to do what they need to do to meet their needs. Call home, check their email – whatever. The reason for this is that if someone is waiting for a call from the sitter, they won’t be paying attention. They won’t be able to “show up” until they attend to their personal needs. Some of those people opt to take a vacation day…and it’s great to let them have it. First, we know that they weren’t engaged, and that’s good information to have, and second, they won’t slow down those of us who really want to do good work. So it’s win-win when 3% of the attendees go for a washroom break and never come back.
  3. To listen to others and to the system as a whole. A very good friend once explained this point by stating that “There’s a fundamental difference between listening and waiting your turn to speak. Please do the former whenever possible.” And in every stakeholder group, there is a small subset who do a wonderful job of synthesizing what the entire system is saying. Being inside, they can invariably represent it back to the system more comprehensively, and with more clarity, than one of our Leads ever could. We actively seek out those who can hear the system as a whole, and who can speak about it back to the system.
  4. To contribute to an environment that people wish to be part of. Being respectful of time and space, being kind and courteous, cleaning up after yourself and generally leaving each place better than you find it, all of these are ways to optimize the experience and the outcome for everyone involved. It’s also basic human kindness.

Time and Space

  1. Create the space needed to do the work. We tell attendees not to build an island of “stuff” around themselves – to leave coats, bags, etc. in purpose-designed locations. We recreate rooms several times over the course of an event, moving hundreds of chairs to create workspaces so that teams can do what they need to do. We’ve had breakout groups take over lobbies, cafeterias, and other public spaces, pulling together chairs and tables and sitting in groups on the floor if necessary, so that they can attend to the work at hand.
  2. Whenever it starts is the right time. Sometimes the 08:30 session starts at 08:33. It can drive the schedule-driven few to distraction, but as a facilitator, we are trained to watch the energy of the system. There is a natural time for everything to start, when everyone is appropriately settled and ready to get on to the next task. Our events are not rigidly run by the clock (excepting that we always respect end times, because everyone has a life outside the event).
  3. It takes the time it takes. Sometimes a particular portion of the event takes twice or three times the intended amount of time. Sometimes less than half. That’s fine. One of the reason we stick to event strategies rather than agendas is that we have a process through which we take teams, leading toward an outcome. If the team is doing useful work in one portion of the day, it would be fundamentally counter-productive to shut down a conversation just because a clock said so. Time, to us, is not a rule – it is another form of information.
  4. When it is over, it is over. Move on. Some conversations are scheduled for 90 minutes, and the decision is reached in ten. You’re done. Capture the notes, understand what’s next, then move on. Many two hour meetings should be over in twenty minutes because everything to be discussed has been discussed. If you start churning, you’re done. Go to a place where you are learning or contributing (see Caretaking). It’s over. Move on.

Be Prepared to Be Surprised

There’s likely a more accurate way of saying this bit, because some people align “surprise” with “magic” – but it’s more about expecting the unexpected; a more positive restatement of Murphy’s Law. Sometimes wonderful things occur that you weren’t expecting. Sometimes disappointing things happen. As facilitators, we show up with a complex toolkit that enables us, most days, to always be prepared for an event that takes a sudden left-hand turn. If that’s what the group needs to do, we follow the wisdom of the group. Being prepared to be surprised also asks each participant to be open to change. For change to occur, each member of the group may be required to undergo some amount of personal change – in their beliefs about what’s most important, or in their daily tasks, or in some other way. Being basically creatures of habit, most of us don’t particularly like change when it affects us personally. So this statement asks everyone to be prepared for something to be a little bit (or a lot) different.