During the 2013 Leopold Leadership training we learned many leadership skills and techniques for organizing consensus from groups with competing stakeholders. Last month I was able to use one of these techniques in a real-world situation, and wanted to share my experience with you!
The situation was the semiannual meeting of the Governing Council of the Central and Northern California Ocean Observing System (CeNCOOS: http://www.cencoos.org/) (one of three west coast portions of of the NOAA US Integrated Ocean Observing System program). The goal was to achieve consensus on only four activities to define as the organization’s overarching priorities for the years to come. I am the chair of the governing council (http://www.cencoos.org/sections/about/gov_council.shtml), and have been heavily involved over the past year doing strategic planning and writing a formal decision-making framework, mission and vision statement. We academics don’t usually get a lot of practice with these kinds of skills and I was a little nervous about this!
I decided to try out the “Think-Pair-Share” technique introduced at the Leopold training by Peter Redstone and Martin Bloxham of Barefoot Thinking Ltd. This took some planning. It is not something you can just slip casually into a meeting. I started with an explanation of what we were going to do and a description of how it would work, a reassurance that everyone would have their voices heard this way, and a description of the desired end point. I also had help from the CeNCOOS director’s staff. Aric Bickell, the program manager, has had some facilitator training and he was on board with helping me organize this. We met at least a week before the meeting to visualize how we could make this work and to make sure we had the proper items (well, remember all that means is a bunch of sticky-pads, some pens, and a good flip chart or white board!).
With this particular group of highly opinionated and outspoken academics, business owners, and nonprofit leaders, typically these conversations veer towards the loudest voices in the room. And my experience with this and other scientist-led boards is that everyone wants to talk, and the topics can veer off and bifurcate endlessly. So I wasn’t sure that we would ever be able to achieve consensus. Nor was I confident that folks would be amenable to being led down the kind of structured conversational path that “think-pair-share” requires. But wow! It worked amazingly well. Everyone was enthusiastic and engaged, everyone felt their voices were heard, and people were happy to realize how much overlap there was in opinions. We were able to narrow down to four overarching priorities fairly quickly because we had so many pieces of thoughts in common on all our little sticky notes. This was a real breakthrough for this group — we can often talk for hours and not make much progress. It felt collaborative, in a working-for-the-good-of-the-organization type way rather than the advocating-for-my-own-interest-group type of way that often characterizes the representation on these kinds of councils (we are broken into research, non-profit, business, education, government agency categories, and many of the board members also have professional programs that do funded work with CeNCOOS, so definitely there are some conflicts of interest). People commented to me afterwards that they felt they had a better chance to speak their opinion they are accustomed to, and everyone was happy with the speed of the process.
Thanks again Martin and Peter for your excellent training! I don’t think I can use this for everyday scenarios like faculty meetings and such. It takes too much ahead-of-time planning. But for big meetings where a group faces a looming decision I think it is wonderful.
Does anyone else have experience with a similar situation? Any feedback on what worked for you and what did not?