Moving Forward, Looking Back

It’s a new year, and as the old one closes, so do a number of chapters that have remained open — their endings not fully written — for quite some time now. It is an interesting feeling finally putting those to bed.

Possibly the most significant closing is the completion of my thesis, which has been my nearly-full-time-focus for much of the last year. It is done, it is submitted, and it is something that I am quite happy with. That I am content with it is modestly surprising in itself. I had reached a point where the criteria for success were to get something ‘good enough’ to a point of being ‘done.’ Fortunately, the quality of my research participants and the stories they shared with me prevented that from actually occurring. While I have yet to receive formal feedback, my personal assessment is that the results are both ‘pretty good’ and ‘really interesting.’

I will expand in more detail on the findings in the coming days, weeks and months. To share a brief summary, however, the results of my research provide some interesting insights into what it takes to get effective decisions made in an organization, and the answers are both intriguing and not as straightforward as many might think. There are, in fact, two answers: there is a path through the process, and there is a path around the process. Which path to take depends upon a number of factors, but more importantly both paths in many organizations are often overgrown and seldom-travelled.

The fact that the paths to getting effective decisions made are not often being utilized says something about the quality of decisions that many of us are encountering. Sadly, many decisions seem to be the result of inertia, indifference, intransigence or ego. In a time of increasing complexity and uncertainty, better decisions are critical. And yet we seem to be avoiding doing what it takes to develop and make those decisions.

The need for better decisions, and the lack of effective understanding of the decision making process that appears to exist in many organizations, leads me to begin to focus on “what’s next.” A lifetime of consulting, reading, speaking and writing seems to have brought me to an interesting crossroads of sorts. A general journey along a substantial thoroughfare labelled ‘project management,’ with more than a few tangential detours down seemingly promising laneways, alleys and garden paths, has led me here. Moving forward from here, however, involves a fairly significant change in direction.

One of the things I have come to appreciate is that there are things we can do, and things we can do well, and things that we are exceptional at (even though to us they feel like the most natural thing in the world). For me, that’s facilitation. I can consult, I can lead, I can manage, I can teach and I can even find my way around the innards of a server, a network or a computer program (but please don’t tell anyone that). The fact that those things are possible are possibly the reason for as many tangents as I have taken. But what I do really, really well is facilitate.

Facilitating is a strange beast unto itself though. For many, facilitation is about guiding a group to where you know they need to go. Or about leading them to the answer that you have already predetermined. The kind of facilitation I am talking about is where you have a complex, difficult and intransigent problem that you need to work through, where the solution is not obvious. In fact, there may be several viable (and not so viable) strategies available and decisions on offer. Where you need the perspective, talents and knowledge of many people to come together to solve the problem (one of whom very often isn’t actually the facilitator).

Facilitation in this context is about listening at a profound level, about reflecting back what you have heard, about providing a process and being a sounding board and serving as a guide to the journey. It is about being the person that keeps in mind the destination, so that the people in the room don’t lose sight of their goal and go off pursuing their own tangents. It is about having confidence without ego: you need to believe in your own skills to guide the group to a solution, but you don’t own the solution. In fact, when the group arrives at the solution it will be entirely theirs and have very little to do with being yours at all. Knowing that, and not just accepting but embracing that, is what is required to be successful in this sort of facilitation. Without you the journey would be harder, but the journey and the destination both belong to them.

The interesting thing about facilitation of this sort is that it is an awfully difficult thing to explain, and an even harder thing to sell. You can’t just hang out a shingle and say, “Hire me to help your people solve sticky, difficult complex problems by using the expertise, knowledge and insight that they already have.” And yet, that’s exactly what you are doing. If they didn’t have the knowledge, the process would go nowhere. Without process, however, nowhere is often exactly where you wind up going. Facilitation provides the process and perspective necessary to not just solve the problem but to test out its viability, relevance and value. It can be a small investment for a pretty substantial return.

Difficult to sell or not, this is now the road I am choosing and the journey that I am following, and the challenge that I am taking on. It should be a fascinating journey regardless, and it is one that I am actually quite excited about.

So… if you have a complex, awkward, uncertain and yet urgent problem that you need solving, please consider hiring me to help guide your people through figuring it out. I promise that the experience will be worthwhile.

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