Trusting the Process

Kevin Gerdes

Gerdes_Photo1Gathering with a Purpose

Twenty-two strangers, invited to participate in a daylong workshop organized by an unknown representative from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs, anxiously awaited the opening comments by their host. Though representing diverse experiences and occupations, all were connected to the topic of public service to aging and/or visually impaired. There were representatives from multiple state and nonprofit agencies; some were employed in private companies; some were from academia; others were community activists; some were educated in design and unfamiliar with issues faced by elderly or visually impaired populations; and some were clients of the state agency that currently delivers services to elderly visually impaired: State Services for the Blind (SSB). This group of strangers respectfully earned the collective title of “Redesign Team.”

After grabbing a cup of coffee, a muffin, and fruit from the reception room’s back table, the strangers sat on living room-style chairs and loveseats that offered comfort and warmth to the mid-April Minnesota snowstorm that threatened many of their afternoon commutes home. But they were drawn to participate by a projected problem that intersected their daily lives as service providers, activists, and clients/future clients: “The anticipated continued growth of elderly individuals in Minnesota with vision loss will exceed the current capacity of SSB’s Senior Services Unit (SSU) to serve their needs.”

Though this problem was the impetus for the study, the purpose for today’s event was much more focused and limited in scope: “To seek a deeper and broader understanding of the challenges and possibilities for supporting the independent living needs of older individuals who are visually impaired.”

For the experienced SSB members who worked in this field of service delivery, most with 35+ years of service each, this purpose statement fell short of their expectations for the workshop—they wanted to advance far beyond understanding. They understood the issue, were intimately familiar with it, and looked anxious to move into solution-oriented discussions. The majority of the Redesign Team, however, needed time to better understand the issue and the service needs of clients, as well as the ancillary topics surrounding this issue with regards to how this agency intersects with the sector or field where redesign team members operate on a daily basis.

Host Team

Planning for the day’s activities was guided by a “host team” of individuals that included the Principal Investigator (PI) and Research Fellow for the project, and members of the University’s Art of Hosting community of practitioners. All were trained in The Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter (hereafter referred to as “Art of Hosting”), but we were each assuming particular roles. Some helped facilitate the activities, which allowed the PI and Research Fellow to engage with Redesign Team members in workshop activities. The team knew there would be different levels of understanding among workshop participants and made plans to “hold” this tension to allow time for the group to come together with a common understanding.

The Host Team helped the SSB develop communications messaging themes that would be valuable to achieving our stated goal for the day: deeper understanding of the problem. The Host team helped craft some opening comments that emphasized that we are all equals today—all experts who bring different pieces of information to the group. Participants were assured that there were no preconceived notions of how to address the problem; that we will all figure it out together. Finally, they cautioned that the process may become messy as we venture deeper into understanding and awareness of differences. It would be important for the team to demonstrate this commitment as the day’s activities unfolded.

Opening Circle

To kick off the day’s activities, all 21 members assembled in a circle. A member of the host team invited each participant to introduce themselves and present an item that they always carry with them—sharing its significance and creating some interpersonal connection between members of the group. This style of check-in stimulates engagement, participation, and connectedness among group members.

To help the team understand the over-arching process for how the day was intended to unfold, and to shape an expectation for outcomes of the day’s activities, another host team member conducted a short “mini-teach” on the divergence/convergence process—emphasizing the importance of divergence in today’s workshop. While many would be tempted to begin the convergence towards a solution to the troubling problem, the message of the “mini-teach” was to emphasize the importance of holding the tension. Recognizing that many are uncomfortable with the tension of uncertainty regarding outcomes, a deep understanding is critical to identifying viable solutions.

With half of the morning already consumed with introductions and the “mini-teach,” the schedule indicated it was time to take a break. Some who were anxious to “dive into” the meat of the subject matter were tempted to forego the 15-minute break. With the snowstorm brewing outside, it seemed logical that we might shorten the break to get ahead of schedule and create opportunity for an earlier afternoon release, but the hosts actually announced a longer break since we were ahead of schedule. The engaging conversations and laughing that occurred during the break confirmed the importance of this break, and provided evidence that the group of strangers were making important connections that would be important for the redesign team’s activities.

Reflective Listening

Another host team member then introduced our next exercise designed to create a personal connection between every team member with the focus topic for our session: aging and vision loss. Teams of three would be formed, allowing each person to tell a 10-minute story about a personal experience they’ve had with aging and/or visual impairment. While telling the story, the other members would each be listening for something different: emotions and values. The listeners were not allowed to interrupt or ask questions, and if the storyteller paused or felt they were finished, the team was directed to sit in silence until completion of the allotted 10 minutes.

Before breaking into teams of three, one of the experienced SSB staff members raised a concern signaling impatience about how these types of activities would help us achieve our desired outcomes at the end of the daylong workshop. In a very short amount of time, we witnessed the power of story and its ability to connect people at a deep, interpersonal level. Through telling a story to complete strangers, we witnessed some team members become emotional and wipe away tears as they shared their emotions and feelings about aging and visual impairment. It was clear that the stated problem at the center of today’s workshop was more than just an academic challenge requiring a cognitive response; it was now being felt at a deeper, more personal level.

World Café & Harvest

After lunch, we re-convened as a large group into a classroom with tables set up with four chairs each. The host team had organized a World Café exercise with three rounds of discussion focused on three different questions. After providing them with handouts of facts about the vision loss field, demographic trends, and information about SSB services, the team briefly explained how the World Café process would work and the small-group discussions at each table began. After 20 minutes of discussion, where participants were encouraged to contribute verbally and/or in writing on the blank sheet of butcher block paper on each table, the group spent about 15 minutes to Harvest key concepts from the first question: “What stands out to you when looking at these handouts?”

After harvesting key concepts from the first round of discussions, one person was asked to remain at the table and the other participants were allowed to move to a different table and form a new group to discuss the second question: “Given the discussion we have just had, what are we not considering?” The person who remained served as the table host and shared some of the key concepts that had been discussed at this table from the previous group. After this short summary, the group kicked off their discussion for another 20 minutes and, again, the key concepts and ideas were harvested in a large-group setting.

With the wind picking up outside to create a rare April snowstorm, the team remained committed to complete the process, an indication that this style of convening was engaging and meaningful for the participants. The final question provided to be the liveliest topic of the day: “What is the best possible outcome/goal for serving the needs of older individuals with vision loss, given what you now know?” While some in the group felt this should have been defined at the start of the morning session, the harvest from the small-group discussions helped to create a much broader and informed outcome than the research team had previously defined. It was also clear that the rich discussions that took place by a group of individuals who were no longer strangers, but connected at an interpersonal level, could not have occurred at the start of the day’s activities.

Gerdes_Photo2Closing Circle & Assessment

The value of Art of Hosting was reinforced by the day’s activities, and reflected in the richness of the harvest from the final question and the final check-out question that asked each participant to briefly share: “What’s alive for you right now?” This workshop was able to engage each individual in a meaningful process that demonstrated value to each of their diverse voices—limiting the tendencies that can often occur in large group settings by those with greater perceived value because of social or educational status. Participants left at the end of the day feeling like their voice had been heard and that their experience was meaningful—both as a member of a collective and as an individual seeking to grow and contribute to a meaningful cause.

As the SSB and Host Team reviewed the final harvest from the day’s activities, it was clear that the purpose and goal for the day’s gathering had been successfully met: “To seek a deeper and broader understanding of the challenges and possibilities for supporting the independent living needs of older individuals who are visually impaired.” Though the beginning exercises of circle and Reflective Listening may have felt unimportant and distracting to those who were anxious to move into solutions, they proved invaluable in connecting participants with one another. This connection provided a safe environment where individuals felt empowered to participate in meaningful conversations that provided a deeper and broader understanding of the challenges. The individual group members were now invested in the work of the project and felt like they had contributed to shaping the future actions of the research team. Their commitment would be needed for the future phases of this important redesign project and Art of Hosting invited this to happen.

What’s Next?

The day’s activities helped to focus the research team’s efforts for the next few months—to clarify the project problem statement, conditions for the desired outcomes, and, most importantly, build a collaborative team that felt invested in continuing to work as a contributing member on this project. The team received a harvest document within a few weeks of the event and remained engaged through monthly emails. In August 2013 the team will re-assemble to evaluate potential solution options under consideration for recommendation to SSB. The group’s diverse experience and expertise will be extremely valuable in helping to assess the final proposal considerations, and Art of Hosting techniques will once again be at the core of the day’s activities.