Let's assume that when government consults that they intend to find out what is going on and how to make it better. This is not always the correct assumption but let's give people the benefit of the doubt.
Remember that the key to getting the best answers is to work very hard at finding the best questions.
The key to finding the best questions is to find the best context.The way of finding the best context is to find it as a group. No one of us is smart enough to know how best to work through complex problems.
OK so what does this mean in practice Rob - get real will you! All right, let me put some flesh on these two points with a case study:
At the end of 2005 NPR could see that the business model for public radio was in jeopardy. Until the advent of the web it was simply this. In each community was a local station. It had a protected area and a protected place on the dial. It bought a special product, programs, from central producers such as NPR that could only be heard in their locale on their terms. The stations then went out to their listeners who had no alternative and asked them to contribute because if they did not, they would lose their program.
Everyone in public radio could see that as the web grow more powerful that all the assumptions behind this model would collapse. At some time in the future all the good content would be available any time and any place on the web. The local monopoly on region and dial would be lost and hence the economics.
How might this play out? What time did the system have? Would NPR cut and run and go direct leaving the stations to rot? What could be done?
Fear was rampant. No one trusted NPR. NPR thought it ought to support the stations but did not know in 2005 whether this was only a good intention or a reality. Small stations did not trust large one. Other producers did not trust NPR of other producers.
So what to do? Typically a government consultation process would have gone around the country and heard all the points of view and tried to make sense of it or worse tried to find a compromise. The result would have been that all the fears and local positions would have become entrenched and the system would have splintered. See how this can happen with say beef and hog producers? See how this is happening with Child Care Providers!
Instead a very different process was undertaken. A process whose intent was to bring the system together while it discerned what was true rather than fight over position.
NPR instead designed a process that would enable over 1,000 people in the system from the 300 stations, other producers and over 300 of their own staff to explore the underlying trends that affected them all.
Meeting in small groups all over the US, everyone explored from multiple perspectives all the forces that were confronting them. Then they all worked again to define what might be the 2-3 best ways of getting out of trouble and finding a new way of being. Out of all these meetings, a pattern emerged. Not a compromise, a pattern. Not a consensus but an agreement! Over 1,000 people developed a common view of their world and a common set of principles for how best to then deal with it. They knew that these were right because in separate meetings without prior knowledge, the same patterns kept re-appearing.
How did we do this? We set up a game. People love games and people give up their office persona in games. People learn from games. Games are fun! If you care to know in detail what we did this link will tell you.
This is a process called "emergence". Emergence is when the same pattern appears all the time. It is not based on negotiation but on common experience. It can therefore be trusted. As a result, NPR learned that its best interests were not to cut and to run but to work with the system. Most stations could see that this was no longer a "position" but a fact. Here is a comment in the Pub Radio Trade Magazine the Current made just as the process was ending:
The end of NPR’s New Realities planning project is in sight, which must come as a relief to the network brass who have crisscrossed the country for months, talking with hundreds of constituents about the future of public radio.
Participants say New Realities ranks among public radio’s most ambitious and inclusive strategic planning exercises — focused, productive and well-organized.
By the end of April, NPR will have held six two-day meetings, each with 30 to 60 station leaders and other stakeholders, to consider the future of media and how NPR and public radio stations will fit into the lives of listeners. They have often ended up in close agreement about their mission, says Dana Davis Rehm, NPR’s v.p. of member and station services and a leader of the New Realities process.
Trust is much better - not perfection - but much better and a schism was avoided. A common language has evolved. Alliances have formed - work is getting done - lessons are being shared.
So from my own experience of facilitating this very large process - what would I do if I was responsible for helping the government do the best job possible for our young children as they look at the Child Care Facilities Act?
Context is everything - you can't start with a solution - you have to discover the system and the forces in play. You cant tell people what this is - they have to have a process that enables them to talk it through so that they "discover it".
You have to find the best questions - best being questions that open up the perspectives not close them down
You have to design for allowing the truth to emerge naturally rather than to force an answer.
Think of what might happen if we approached our challenges in Agriculture this way? Or what about the Child Care Facilities Act?
If we went down this road we could take the fear and the position out of the process and find ways of helping us all.
But as long as we stay on the surface, as long as we pit one interest against another, we will have a mess.
Here is what we did in detail - as you read this - imagine your issue being dealt with like this
So how did we find a way to help all those in Public Radio find the answers to finding a path through the chaos that is media today?
We used play. We designed the core of the process as a game.
Imagine - You are a station leader, an NPR executive, a NPR Board Member or a person closely connected to Public Radio. You would be invited to a 2 day meeting in your part of America ( We held these all over the country) from October 2005 to May 2006. 240 NPR staffers went through the process in an internal version of the Game. Nearly 1,000 people were involved by the end.
Some of you, and all the NPR executives, would be interviewed prior to the meeting where you would tell me what you thought was really going on. By the end of the work we had over 100 of these interviews all written up in story format and posted on the project Intranet - so the individual opinion of many was there for all to see. No one could join the Intranet until that had finished their meeting. So all the interviews were "cold" in that they could not be influenced by others.
All of you were asked to do some Homework before the meeting. The Homework was to imagine that you had retired in 20 years into the future and that you were writing to your favorite 9 year granddaughter/neice who had asked you what you had done to make Public radio the great success it was. You were reminded that 9 year old girls had a great bullshit detector and knew the truth when they heard it. So people wrote stories from their heart. Some of the best ideas came from this part of the process when people were freed of their corporate mind. Some of these letters were published as well. The purpose of the process was to engage the heart prior to the meeting and to allow you to jump from today into the future. I think that for some, the letter also showed you what was really important to the future of the country and to the next generation.
So you turn up not knowing much about what you are going to do. All later participants knew was that it was fun.
You find that you have been put into a team. The teams would usually represent:
- Station leaders
- NPR executives
- Eat your Lunch - a group of people funded by Rupert Murdoch to take Public radio's audience from them
- News Listeners
- Music Listeners
The Eat your Lunch team in Philly
You were told that you had 3 tasks. You would have to develop a contextual landscape for your group's perspective of what would happen by 2009. Then you had to develop a 3 point plan for what your team was going to do to ensure that you came out the winner. Finally instead of flip charts or Power Point you would have to present your findings by putting on a 15 minute improv show. You all would then vote for the best team and it would a huge prize - usually a clock!
What we did not tell you was that there was a twist. After you had got comfortable with your team and you had done your best to gain a perspective from that team's point of view on how the world would work, we told you that Pierre Omidyar had just hired you all to find the way for Public radio and you were all then put into new teams. Then the magic would happen.
In the first phase you and your team would have behaved as we are used to. You would have debated your points of view to develop a composite. Now you were in a new team - each person would have to tell, without interruption what you had learned about say the Rupert Murdoch view or the NPR view or the Listener view. You started to listen and to see a much wider perspective. You started to see how complex and diverse the world really was. A many faceted world began to emerge.
Many were nervous about putting on a show. But we were all staggered by the quality of what then happened. Most of the "Plays" got at the essence of key issues. Story and humor were at the core of how the message was put across. Seeing revered leaders making complete fools of themselves was a refreshing way of communicating as well.
Here is Kevin Klose and Dana Rehm in action
More fun! The heart, the mind and the body were involved. There was all the pressure and camaraderie of a public performance. People were very competitive but in a game and not a political way. You were in teams with your real life competitors and you did great work with them.
After the voting, you had one more task - we asked you to stand up in front of all your colleagues and make a wish about what you really wanted to see happen. The overwhelming wish was to get serious about cooperating. You, at a time when your heart was open after performing in public before your peers made a vow.
As you finished your session, you were invited into a private intranet called the Sandbox - developed by partner Jevon MacDonald - where the conversation could continue and where you could find all the opinion of all those that had preceded you. So there was a huge potential iteration from the face to face to the virtual.
This process began with a beta run with the 23 NPR executives quickly followed by a session for the board. We then set out with some experience of how this may play out to the system as a whole. While we traveled the country with a session every few weeks, my partner Kash Birk set up and ran a duplicate process inside NPR. In 6 weeks 240 staff participated. The staff shows were all taped and if you were a participant you will have a copy of your show. Kash produced a document called NPR Unplugged where all the key comments, all unvarnished, of the staff about public radio and NPR are revealed.
In May we had to bring it all together. Our promise to all was that we would not manipulate the process. This left us with no choice but to bet on using Open Space as a process. Fortunately I knew of a person in whom I had the greatest confidence in being able to pull such a meeting with 300 attendees. Johnnie Moore has been a blogging friend for many years but ironically we had never met until after I asked him to help and he had arrived to do the orientation.
None of us other than Johnnie had experienced Open Space before and even Johnnie had not had 300 people before. What happened? In two days there was an unspoken agreement that Public Radio had to come together. Above all, many of the trust issues had been somehow resolved by months of working with each other and seeing the other's point of view.
Our purpose from the outset was to set in train a process where a common language, a common lens and a common vision would "Emerge". Our hope was that trust would build as would a sense of collective urgency. This has all unfolded. We have a huge amount of the record on the record and a lot of what I have been doing since May has been trying to see the patterns more clearly in the material. I have been helped enormously by a great story teller and radio personality, our PEI Jon Stewart, Cynthia Dunsford.
Now the work of deciding what to do has begun in what I now see as an environment of much greater trust and mutual understanding. Many of the questions that were un-answerable at the outset have been answered collectively.
How did we "manage" all of this?
We set out to build a cadre of an ever larger pool of participants. As each session was scheduled, we asked those that had obviously got engaged in prior sessions to join us as facilitators. By the end we had station managers, Staff, NPR execs, NPR board members (one was a key player in every session) all doing the heavy lifting of facilitating the groups.
Our Client, Dana Rehm, has also a wonderful and expanding team that we called the Amigas or later the Omegas as men were added. This was not the kind of assignment where the consultant does all the work. Dana and the Omegas were the heart and soul of the work. This meant that we only used 3 1/2 people from our side for a project of this scale. Consequently New Realities was always owned by our client.
In all of this we were all supported by Kevin Klose President and Ken Stern COO. Imagine how hard it would be for you as a CEO or COO to put your trust into a process that was so open? Without their commitment and trust, we could never have done this. Tim Eby, the Chair of NPR has been the capstone for all the support that was needed for such an open process.
For myself - this has been the assignment of a lifetime. Thank you all.