Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Looking Backward at Planning

This week I had a rare opportunity--a chance to look back at a planning process, ten years old, where I was a participant. It was a great chance to ponder what makes a planning process work, what might slow it down, and what outcomes, other than those intended, it might have.

Ten years ago, I served as a parent participant in a process called a search conference for my local rural school district. I knew at the time, but had forgotten, that the facilitator of the conference was writing her dissertation on the process. Coincidentally, I came into contact with her and she shared a copy of the dissertation with me.

A search conference is a formal process that brings together a large number of community participants to envision a future for an organization and begin steps to achieving that future. There were sixty or so of us, that cold weekend in February, 1999. We met for 2 1/2 days at the school, many of us not well-known to each other and attempted to craft a vision for the school district my daughter attended.

What did I learn looking backwards?

How difficult it always is to bring all the right people to the table
By right people I mean everyone who has a stake in the outcome of the plan. In this case, the team lacked teachers from higher grade levels and parents and community members that represented different economic levels. I see that now in my own work as organizations struggle to put together focus groups or seek out new board members different than themselves. It tells me, more than ever, that we need to make renewed efforts to represent our communities.

The use of silence
One activity that weekend was for everyone, in silence, to group activities underneath a common set of goals. Everyone began with ten or so strips with a single activity listed on it; all at once, and in silence, we placed them where they thought they belonged, but could continue to move ours, and others, until we felt all were in the right place. I'm a talker, so silence isn't my first option, but I remember this as an intensely focused and thoughtful silence, with all participating. Interesting to learn that this was an add-on to the process, as facilitators felt a different approach was needed.

The importance of leadership
At the time, the school district had an energetic new superintendent who soon departed for a different district. Not surprisingly, the follow-up process lost steam under an interim superintendent and a fast approaching financial crisis. Even when a new superintendent arrived, the process had irretrievably faltered and was never returned to. Could a dynamic leader have made a difference? Perhaps.

Change scares people
Much of my work is about encouraging organizations to think about new ways of working, of reaching people, of interpreting their collections or engaging their communities. Reading this was a bracing reminder that for many people, change is scary, not exciting and that I need to find new ways to articulate the meaning and importance of change.

Consensus doesn't mean success
A central idea in the dissertation was that a planning process like this, which is focused on reaching consensus, may not result in real change because it doesn't provide the real time and space to work out critical issues. In other words, that consensus is reached because people don't want to disagree publicly, but those disagreements still simmer and in the long run, make the plan's success impossible.

I'm not for planning meetings as shouting matches, but perhaps a little more work to bring those disagreements to the fore, encouraging planning participants to fully articulate those concerns. I've been in some meetings recently where disagreements were plentiful and although it's an exhausting time, it's been clear in all the cases that these disagreements are long-standing among board members, but never discussed. So, let's discuss.

Lifelong learning
Perhaps most importantly, reading the dissertation gave me a look back at ten years of learning: my personal life as a parent, PTA president and general school activist, and my professional life working with organizations to encourage new learning. At the same time, I realize how much I learn from each of my consultancies and how much there still is to be learned. I eagerly anticipate a continuation of the long and winding path of my own learning.

Top: snow footprints by gamezero Below: path in Dover by tethairwen
Both via morguefile


Lauren said...

Thanks Linda,

That was a great post. The things that strike me most are that:

1. We do need to make sure that every stakeholder group is represented (but even then, do we really have a full array of opinions and ideas? Never, really...

2. That people often tend to agree in order to make peace reign - or the meeting to end - or whatever....

3. Change is scary - some people love change, but some resist it to the end. Both viewpoints have value. How do we decide which is "right"? We often decide, I think based on the fact that the changed idea is always at least somewhat least we know what we are getting if we stay the same.


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