Designing the Destination: 2 Hours to a Vision and Mission for Our Center


Pitch and Post worked well for generating the vision and mission for our new food systems center.

In my last post, I described how I used Think-Pair-Share in a 2-hour meeting to build trust and momentum among faculty who are creating a center on food systems at Arizona State University. In our second meeting (also 2 hours) we modified several tools introduced by Barefoot at the Leopold Leadership training last June to create vision and mission statements. Here’s what we did.

Meeting 2: Creating a collaboration space to draft vision and mission statements

At Meeting 2 we had some of the same faculty (veterans from Meeting 1) and a group of faculty who could not attend the initial meeting (rookies). In hindsight it would have been nice to redo the Think-Pair-Share exercise by pairing veterans and rookies and having the veterans “swear in” the rookies to the group. Note to self for next time.

The goal of Meeting 2 was to brainstorm a vision, and if time permitted, a mission for the center. To brainstorm the vision statement, we used a version of “Pitch and Post.” We divided the large group into subgroups of four and tasked each one to come up with a two-sentence vision statement for the food systems center. Each subgroup appointed a delegate who pitched the idea to the larger group. The other participants wrote their reactions on post-its and posted them on the written (paper or tablet) vision statement. Each subgroup took the feedback, synthesized it, and redrafted their vision statements. We then reran the Pitch and Post a second time. In the end we derived three very solid vision statements.

After this vision exercise, I charged the group with brainstorming a mission that would achieve the vision. We did this as a snowball activity. Pairs discussed and synthesized their top three activities that would achieve the center mission. These ranged from more organization to writing collaborative research proposals to funding conferences led by graduate students to changing the metrics for P&T evaluation to rewarding engagement and the translation of research into action. The pairs then paired up into groups of four and honed and culled until they had a set of their top three activities. Then we did this as a large group. In the end I left the meeting with a short list of top 12 most desired activities for the food systems center.

By the end, I had new insights about managing large faculty meetings.

Most important do’s and don’ts:

  • Don’t be afraid to deviate from the script: Think-Pair-Share and other Barefoot activities can be mixed and matched, co-opted for other purposes, and redesigned.
  • Make room for movement: Switch between pairs and groups of four midway through the meeting, or better, make the group reorganize into 2-3 different groups of four to discuss focus questions. Getting up and moving keeps interest levels up.
  • Appoint assistant coaches to help design and execute the meetings: The coaches were valuable notetakers and guidance counselors to faculty through the meeting process. Their participation led to better outcomes.
  • Don’t forget the food: Eating together builds community. Design these sorts of meetings at lunchtime and feed participants well.
  • Don’t fear execution imprecision: The second round of Pitch and Post in Meeting 2 was actually a complete accident (unplanned) but hitting the clutch and shifting gears on the fly paid off.
  • Don’t try to do too many games in one meeting: Explaining game rules and getting participants in the groove takes precious time and may ultimately get in the way of getting work done.
  • Don’t go in blind: Have a ballpark idea of your desired outcome — e.g., what that vision and mission should look like. Design your destination, be flexible, and prepare to listen in order to lead more effectively.

Share your best tips for leading faculty meetings in the comments below.

John Sabo, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is Associate Professor in the School of Life Sciences, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Director of Research Development at the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. Follow him on Twitter @jlsaboASU.

Breaking Ice and Controlling the Mike: How I Got a Faculty Brainstorm to Work


In addition to meeting design, good food was essential to the success of our meeting.

One of the most daunting leadership roles I have recently confronted is directing large groups of faculty to brainstorm. Here is the situation in a nutshell. Arizona State University has deep talent across a broad range of disciplines in food systems research. My task was to organize this talent, build a team and design a campus center that better reflected how the whole of this talent was much more compelling than the sum of its talented parts.

To do this I invited a group of 12-18 faculty to sit down for two separate two-hour sessions and brainstorm to build this center from scratch. I was skeptical that the large group would produce results, especially in only two hours. I have been to too many bad organizational meetings where introductions take half or more of the precious meeting time. I knew I had to borrow some newly learned skills from the Barefoot part of our Leopold Leadership training last June. But which ones? And more importantly, would my adaptations go down in flames and hinder rather than propell the brainstorming process?

Here is what I rolled out from the Barefoot toolkit to pull this off:

Staffing and design

To help design and run the meeting, I created a coaching staff consisting of a postdoc with PhD-level experience in food systems; a proposal writer and business development specialist; and a contracts specialist with experience running large grants for multidisciplinary teams in the sustainable agriculture research space. This team was pivotal. We met three times and co-designed the content of the brainstorming meetings. My coaching staff designed a 5-minute survey to quickly synthesize faculty perceptions of: a) their own research in food systems; and b) the areas of food systems they thought ASU was strong in. We used the differences (contrasts) between the two sets of responses as a springboard for discussion.

Meeting 1: Introducing the idea of the center and building the team

The first meeting was attended by nearly 18 faculty, a few postdocs and a few graduate students. The participants represented ASU’s four valleywide campuses, so some of them commuted to make the meeting. The group was very diverse — from Justice Studies to Engineering, from Law to Biosciences, and everything in between. I knew I had to honor the value of faculty time — I had two hours of their day to work with and I had to make the best of it.

To do this, I used Think-Pair-Share as an ice breaker. The logic for using this brainstorming tool out of sequence, so to speak, was that I needed to build new relationships — between faculty from different units and campuses — and I needed to take the mike away from the “long talker” during introductions. You know who I am talking about. The goal of the Think-Pair-Share was this: 1) Think about a 1-2 sentence reaction to the survey results, 2) tell your partner your name, unit, research interest and “survey reaction,” and 3) your partner shares that info with the group as a whole which doubles as an introduction.

I have to admit I was nervous. Would this strategy work? When I rolled it out, I could see the disbelief in some of the participants eyes. “Really? You mean I can’t just sit here and peck on my phone while you drone on?” The initial reaction reminded me of suggesting a board game at a boring New Year’s Eve party.

There was hesitation and disbelief, initially. But the best part of this meeting was that almost everyone who was skeptical eventually thoroughly enjoyed the process of meeting a new faculty member and delivered thoughtful, succinct introductions of their partner and the information from the survey. The meeting kicked off with an effervescent start that didn’t quit bubbling through til the end. I had research deans come up to my coaching staff afterwards and tell us that our meeting was one of the best they had attended.

I think the key to success was: a) breaking up the monotony of introductions; b) taking away the mike from the “long talkers;” c) getting a big group to tackle the tasks at hand in pairs; and d) creating collective responsibility for achieving the meeting goals.

This experience taught me a lot about how to manage large faculty meetings effectively. The most important do’s and don’ts:

  • Grassroots is essential: Participants in a successful organizational meeting must feel that they have power to influence the outcomes of the meeting.
  • Break the ice and control the mike: Introductions are a waste of precious time, but breaking the ice is essential. Participants will in most cases follow the meeting rules and behave better when charged with telling the group about someone other than themselves and this will also serve as an ice breaker, saving precious time.
  • Don’t be afraid to deviate from the script: Think-Pair-Share and other Barefoot activities can be mixed and matched, co-opted for other purposes, and redesigned.
  • Don’t forget the food: This was a lunch meeting about food systems, after all. Sharing food is a natural way to build community and trust which will lead to better collaborations.

In my next post, I’ll describe how we built on the trust and momentum built in this first meeting to create a compelling vision and set of goals for our center. What are your best tips for leading faculty meetings? Leave a comment.

John Sabo, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is Associate Professor in the School of Life Sciences, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Director of Research Development at the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. Follow him on Twitter @jlsaboASU.

The Gift of Time: the 10+2 Strategy



Last week while watching Peter Redstone facilitate a webinar on time management, I was reminded of the concept of “thinking time” introduced by Mary Budd Rowe, a visiting professor at Stanford in the 90’s.  She would give a 10-minute presentation and then give students 2 minutes to think—either on their own or in small groups.  She found that it increased the length and appropriateness of students’ responses and it changed the quality of questions asked by the instructor!

Peter stopped in the middle of the webinar and gave everyone 3-4 minutes to think about several questions regarding the challenges we face with time management.  Rather than asking us to think later—or more likely never!—we had time to reflect and write out our priorities.  It struck me as another tip worth sharing besides the ones shown above that Peter shared during the webinar.  Thank you, Peter!

PMI (Plus Minus Interesting) – a variation

Purpose: to describe a simple variation in using PMI (Plus Minus Interesting) suitable for smaller and larger groups. Note: PMI is an Edward de Bono thinking tool which Martin Bloxham and I have used since 2009 in our training sessions with Leopold Fellows.

Description: Recently, I facilitated a 90 minute session for the trustees of a UK environmental charity and representatives of the local government authority. The purpose of the session was to consider a proposed commercial development that was likely to be controversial for trustees. The proposal was described in outline by one of the trustees who then invited questions for information. This took 40 minutes.

Then we did a PMI on the proposal with all 14 people in the room seated at tables laid out in a board room style. I stood at the end with a flipchart.

For many of them, this was their first experience of PMI. Not wanting to have to do a demo first, I explained the process and repeated the rules several times as we went. It was important to keep all the information in the group and to keep the process moving. So, I decided to try running PMI as a ‘go-round’ – ie. a process in which we went around the room in order. I continued it until no-one had anything more to contribute. Anyone could pass at any time. We did OPV (identifying which other points of view to consider) after we had done a first run at the ‘Plusses’.  It took approx 25 minutes to complete the PMI. The group then spent 20 minutes time discussing some of the key points identified.

I had never done a PMI as a go-round before and found it worked very well. It allowed everyone to stay in a single group and to see and hear everything. It kept the process moving at a good pace, gave everyone a voice and also gave people time to think up new ideas in response to earlier ones. Most importantly, it helped the people developing the commercial proposal to have a much better understanding of the key issues perceived by the trustees.

The only problem I encountered was the speed of writing I needed to do at the flipchart to keep up – doing my best to use their own words.

Resources used:  Flipchart and pens 

Other comments:  It would be interesting to hear of other’s experience with PMI/OPV – any lessons learned and variations employed. Martin and I never cease to be amazed at how versatile and powerful is this deceptively simple process. Edward de Bono has described it as the most essential of all his thinking tools.


An Academic Takes Some Leopold Training to the Real World of Management

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: (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 (, 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?