The Value in 'Plain Vanilla' Methods
Updated: Jul 5, 2018
Marisa Guerin PhD – May 23, 2018
For many years, one of my areas of expertise has been group process methods. It imagine it was fairly inevitable – I was the oldest child in a family of 10 people, and some or other group dynamic was a daily experience.
Like many of my colleagues, I’m trained in the use of a wide variety of techniques – icebreakers to help new groups make social connections, self-disclosure activities that deepen team members’ knowledge of one another, instruments that describe various styles of work and learning, methods of engaging large numbers of people in planning, etc. Often, these processes have a brand name or methodological label, such as Appreciative Inquiry, Future Search, World Café, Theory-U, Contemplative Dialogue, Six Thinking Hats, Dyadic Encounter, Adventure Learning, Role Biography, Six Sigma, Strategy Mapping, and on and on.
If you’ve been following my blog posts lately, you may remember that I made a strong point that the primary task of a group is the ‘North Star’ for orienting their activities, and that processes that focus on relationships in themselves, rather than how they support the task, are to be avoided. In this current blog post, however, I do make the assumption that there is a valid purpose for a group process of some kind, in the service of the primary task.
But even so, I wish to suggest that leaders and facilitators be prepared to put the brakes on the use of specialized techniques, at least once in a while, in favor of what I call “plain vanilla” processes.
Why? What does that mean? And what does that accomplish?
Here’s my thinking on these questions.
Process techniques – especially cool, creative, fun, or intense ones – have a seductive effect on the meeting planner or facilitator. If an interesting technique is newly-mastered, we may be prone to the behavior aptly described in the saying “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Or, if a certain way of structuring a dialogue is associated with normative values about how people “should” interact (especially in religious or value-driven settings), we may be prone to a form of political correctness in meeting design by relying on that specific process approach, to the exclusion of other options.
Another reason to be wary of idealized, special techniques is that they can be used as a social defense against the anxiety stimulated by the underlying problem that must be addressed. For example, if the group that will meet is known to be seriously conflicted about how to address their task, then the meeting leader may be tempted to hold tightly to a strict process agenda that will control the risk that disruptive conflict might emerge. Instead of examining their respective views and coming to a workable resolution, the group may spend the time putting dots on charts or over-analyzing data or moving frenetically through steps that move too fast to permit the un-glamorous work of thinking, listening, respectfully agreeing or disagreeing, and finding common ground.
Even something as benign as a PowerPoint presentation can serve as such a protective device, as on the occasions when a mammoth deck of slides is imposed as a pre-emptive maneuver to forestall challenges or to deny the complexity and ambiguity of the issues.
Group process techniques are seductive in these ways because they can foster the comforting illusion that the method itself can and will achieve the purpose of the meeting – instead of the more realistic view that the method is just one way to help the people to achieve their purpose. If the group members or the group leaders are anxious about whether they can accomplish their mission, they may be tempted to hang their trust on a process that is considered cutting edge, creative, or transformative by people who know about such things. The idealized technique becomes the object into which is projected the hope and confidence that, in truth, belongs to the people and their leaders.
The use of a preferred technique turns something uncertain into something more predictable, even if the reason for the gathering is to deal with matters that are anything but.(*Recommended book below.)
Let me offer a couple examples of what I am describing.
I recently experienced the mismatch of technique and purpose as a member of a group whose mission called for deep and thoughtful engagement on complex issues, over a series of meetings. Each session was begun with some creative and animating icebreaker-type activity. However, more often than not, the icebreaker methodology enforced a superficiality that came from attempting to follow the directions required for the particular exercise, which did not always relate well to the purpose of the gathering. On those occasions the techniques blocked, rather than facilitated, meaningful engagement on the primary task. Since this process problem only applied to the first part of the meetings that were otherwise fine, it wasn’t a fatal flaw – but it did represent a missed opportunity for inviting a more genuine form of exploration that the group was quite able and willing to do. How did that happen, in an otherwise well-designed and managed experience?
One hypothesis is that planning and running the first segment of each meeting was delegated to a team member who was genuinely excited by the energies of creative icebreaker activities but perhaps without the experience to assess how the overall purpose of each session might best be facilitated by an entry activity that would be well integrated with the rest of the agenda. And yet – it seems to have been a group phenomenon also. After all, the other leaders didn’t override these plans, and participants went along with them, too. We, the group, behaved “as if” we were engaged with our purpose even though, in my judgement, we were actually missing an opportunity to genuinely step into the sensitive exchanges that would more directly serve the mission of the gathering. Energy for a challenging task was unintentionally deflected, rather than being productively harnessed as part of the getting re-connected process.
In another situation, I found myself consulting to a client who had prepared hours of handsome PowerPoint presentation material for a large gathering – so much content that it was doubtful any discussion would ever occur. He couldn’t be persuaded to pare it down. At the mid-point of the meeting, there was a pause to collect and record the questions that were arising in the group, followed by a coffee break.
In a private conversation during the break, I tried yet again to make the point that a more fruitful exchange would occur if he would assure the group of his confidence in the overall plan without covering every minute detail from the slides, and spend more time listening to their concerns. At that point, unable to keep a lid on his high level of stress and anxiety, he finally burst out with the totally honest comment: “But I’m NOT sure this plan is a good one.”
Bingo! That was a very important turning point. With his feelings of anxiety and vulnerability plainly acknowledged, I was able to encourage him to be candid with the group about the good intentions in the plan, but also about the risks that both they and he could see. As he listened and engaged with the group in real time about their actual concerns, the tension level dropped and the meeting became serious, realistic, and fruitful. He was able to recognize that the beautiful slide deck was not going to work as a life raft, and that he could be a more authentic leader if he did the braver thing – to speak, listen, and respond to the group.
“Plain vanilla” is my term for a process that is hardly recognized as anything special by the participants but enables them to better engage with their work and with each other. In the preceding case, the processes of asking for and recording questions, then listening and engaging and promising to follow-up with next steps were the ordinary but appropriate process steps to follow – NOT the anxious stepping through of dozens of PowerPoint slides that sought to convey false certainty.
In the case of the group that gathered to pursue thoughtful and sensitive issues, a more appropriate relationship-building way to begin each session might have involved the “plain vanilla” process of choosing a new partner each time and reflecting together at a deeper level on some aspect of the emerging experience of the group, choosing questions that would lead into the focus for the given session.
When I say “plain vanilla”, I am in no way arguing for “no process is needed”, or “we should wing it”, or “let it emerge from the group”, or any other abdication of responsibility for facilitating the primary task. It takes as much skill and good judgment to facilitate a simple and authentic process for dialogue as it does to manage a more specialized process, and maybe more.
I certainly have had many occasions to use the brand-name processes that I listed at the beginning of this post, when they are the right response to the right need. But in general, I recommend ratcheting down the glamour quotient a bit. If too much attention goes into how special the process is, there is the risk of shifting the burden of success to the activity (and thereby to the facilitator or consultant), instead of keeping a proper balance among the people, their task, and the process that supports the work.
“Plain vanilla” processes imply a certain kind of asceticism, a willingness to make it about the people and their primary task, not about the facilitator, the method, or the jargon.
So, my advice: Don’t be seduced by the latest process innovation and be alert for the use of special techniques as a defensive tactic. And even when brand-name methodologies are clearly the right ones to use for the meeting purpose, keep the focus on the work the group is doing via this process and the contributions that the people in the group are making.
By all means, learn good methods and use them confidently – but keep them in their place as humble servants of the worthy purposes of people in groups!
*Note: In my opinion, the absolutely wisest, most practical book on how to lead meetings without succumbing to the dynamics of anxiety is “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There! Ten Principles for Leading Meetings that Matter” by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, Berrett-Koehler, 2007.