Jan 08 2015

Conversations With a Wonderful Client

Sometimes you just get lucky. I get lucky quite a bit with my wonderful clients. As a wrap up to some work last year, Simone Staiger of CIAT and I decided to do a little text based conversational reflection on the work we did. This is posted at Conversations with Nancy White around the implementation of CIAT’s internal communications strategy and reposted here for sharing!

Conversations with Nancy White around the implementation of CIAT’s internal communications strategy

Nancy, when I contacted you at the beginning of 2014, I was looking for support, through regular conversations (monthly one hour Skype calls), to discuss, and evaluate the implementation of CIAT’s internal communications strategy.

NancyWhat a treat! Wow, that you will a) take the time for reflective and action oriented conversations and, b) pay me for it is WONDERFUL. I love working with you, Simone. This reaffirms my belief that there is tremendous value in working with wonderful people and cultivating those relationships beyond the formality of contracted work. I know some would say this isn’t very smart, but I think friendship adds to a working relationships – as long as we can stay open and frank with each other. We do a good job of that!

SimoneThe strategy intends to increasingly create spaces for dialogue among staff, foster team work & learning in teams, and communicate consistently to create among all staff a better understanding of key developments in CIAT’s work and institutional environment. The document was the result of a series of analysis and exercises to identify the real underlying issues that need to be worked on and to lift internal communications up to a level that goes beyond improving instruments and media.

This theme of “space” and “spaces” is showing up in many places in my work. Is this something real, or am I just paying attention differently. People seem more time-pressed, hurried and stressed. The focus on getting tasks done, hitting one’s list of deliverables and “efficiency” seems to becoming a “false god.” So this idea of creating space for dialog is a good way to test if paying attention to hearing, listening, and understanding – particularly around shared goals and issues – can be of benefit. Intuitively I believe it is, but taking a more analytical stance is useful.

CIAT’s communications and knowledge management team in collaboration with Human Resources Management had identified a whole series of products and activities that could bring us closer to our objectives. What we did not do is to identify a series of indicators – qualitative or quantitative – that could help us evaluate progress, and which we are deeply missing now.

Simone, you asked me hard questions about monitoring and evaluation that help that stance. I appreciate being pushed in this direction. I am paying close attention to how these indicators can not only help us understand if we are meeting our intentions and goals, but if they can also help us identify what to “stop doing” to make space for the stuff that really matters. We talk about this, but how to we discern and validate these choices beyond a guess – or simply losing what we cannot make time for.

For one example, it was extremely easy to come up and finalize, with your help, a set of indicators that will help us in 2016 to measure progress on the effects of our new intranet, to be launched End of January. How easy it is to go through an exercise like this, when you talk about a concrete product and its usage!

Just nodding about the difference between talking about something generically, and talking about it in a specific, concrete context!

In my initial talks with you I was interested in ways to increase knowledge sharing between different stakeholder groups within CIAT: Management Team – The program and theme leaders, which represent around 12 staff – The 80 or so who I call the influential people, some being real opinion leaders – All CIAT staff. It seemed to me that we needed to create effective bridges to connect those four “populations”. How can we involve different stakeholder groups, and create incentivize for engagement? Well that is a very general and tough question, which in addition is not new but still so unresolved… In the conversations with you we explored many possibilities, and interventions at different levels – individual, groups or teams, all staff – and through different means: pilot projects, personalized team discussions, or institutional campaigns.

Reflecting back on this, I have to revisit one of my “now that I’m over 50 years old curmudgeon” opinions. I am interested in early adopters. I am VERY interested in second wave adopters. And I will not waste time on resistors. Is this an effective strategy in organizations? If we think of the “80 or so” as early adopters or leading edge second wave adopters, I don’t think we can consider everyone else as resistors. But I suspect there are informal leaders whose resistance can affect the rest of the early adopters. AND, it is important to not confound resistors from people who see the world differently and have useful dissenting views that can help us learn and grow. What differentiates these two types of people? If we could figure this out, we might be able to more generatively interact with those innovative thinkers who we might otherwise miss and misinterpret simply as resistors. Your question, Simone, about how to move past those 80 people has resonated with me since you mentioned it.

What I mostly took away from the conversations, as well as from previous explorations, is strongly related to something that Peter Senge insisted on in a leadership course I took with him in 2013: The need to go away from symptomatic solutions to fix an issue or solve a problem quickly, and to shift towards fundamental solutions that for sure take longer, and have a delay in having an impact, but produce longer-term lasting positive effects.

What I build on to your reflection, Simone, is that people are always part of fundamental solutions, so maybe we need to consider how we are or might be understanding, relating to and interacting with people?

Now: there are many, many tools and methods out there to facilitate deeper thinking in groups and organizations that help to identify the roots of a problem and design fundamental solutions. You pointed to a series of tools and emerging perspectives and possibly “Liberating Structures” is one of those emerging pools of possibilities to “include and unleash everyone”.

Learning more about and practicing Liberating Structures was a strong thread for me in 2014 and will continue this year. One fundamental lesson is that as a facilitator, I need to have a diverse range of approaches, I must understand why I choose any one at any one time, and that there is potency in how we sequence and combine ways of engaging and interacting. So LS is helping me become a more conscious facilitator. When I take this in context of the type of facilitation training and capacity development I see in organizations like the CGIAR and others, it reminds me that we must always be leveling up. Yes, we start at the mechanical stage, but if we don’t build towards better understanding of those mechanism, and towards being able to “read” a room full of people and adjust (plan and then be prepared to improvise), we are not moving the facilitation practice deeper and forward. So for 2015, I want to challenge my own ideas of how to support facilitation capacity development in myself and others, for just the kinds of challenges you face, Simone.

One thing that helped us go into that direction is to work increasingly at the team level. It is probably a useful consideration to identify when you actually have to include everyone (meaning the whole organization), which leads too often at CIAT to intensive information diffusion that convince some and are rejected by others, and when it is appropriate to do so at a team or group level, trying to have inclusive dialogues. The socialization of the CIAT strategy with 20 teams and almost 300 staff was certainly a time consuming exercise, but probably the most meaningful, trust-building and symptomatic-looking one.

This focus on teams resonates with me, and then leads to the next challenge: the fact that so many of these teams are distributed under the CRP structure of the CGIAR, and that many people have “multiple bosses.” They have their geographically situated managers. They have their distributed managers, many times people outside of their own center. I wonder how the CGIAR is paying attention to this power issue, and what they are or might do with it. Things could fracture around “loyalty lines” of many sorts. Moving towards a truly networked way of working presents many challenges for established institutions.

You and I also discussed the possibility to use the new corporate values which have been developed in a very inclusive process, as a means of achieving integration, dialogue and team cohesion. The Human Resources Management Team with whom we have regular conversations and undertake joined actions believes a lot in the “value approach” based on strong support of a united Management. My concern is the danger of getting into the lecturer mode and not to find the right tone to feel staff comfortable and available to discuss required attitude changes.

This is something else I’ve been learning about from other Liberating Structures practitioners. The values themselves are not much, in reality. It is how they are lived within the work we do. So I suspect we can’t just preach them, as you noted, Simone. Instead we need to examine our work through the lenses of our values. There was a very interesting thread on KM4Dev in late 2014 asking about this (https://dgroups.org/groups/km4dev-l/discussions/4db7bb98). Two particular Liberating Structures might be useful: Integrated-Autonomy (http://www.liberatingstructures.com/29-integrated-autonomy/) and Generative Relationships STAR (http://www.liberatingstructures.com/26-generative-relationships-st/) .

After one year of using the strategy as a guide when it comes to decide what we do and how, I take way the following: We are on the right track. We know what fundamental situations need to be improved or resolved, but we can only be successful if internal communications is aligned and – more importantly- involved with ongoing organizational changes, if we find the right solutions for the different situations / target groups and if we receive increased support that allows us to avoid symptomatic quick fixes.

I might offer a slightly different perspective, Simone. It may not always be about alignment, per se, but clarity of what alignment means (shared goals) and what it means when we are not in alignment. What we do depends on this kind of clarity. Lack of alignment is not always about “you and I need to agree.” It can also point us to something emergent that may offer us new insight. But if we aren’t aware of this misalignment, we never get to that generative conversation.

Yes, Nancy. Thanks for this important different perspective. I agree now that I read my point again, that your take on it is so important for CIAT. We must be able to make the different views, motivations, and strategies of and within our research areas more explicit and use it increasingly as an opportunity to expand, grow and learn.

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