Managing the Panic Moment

I’ve been reflecting on the design process we’ve all been in together and on the unique complexity of this upcoming meeting. I’ve been thinking about how I’ve been handling the complexity, and I’m wondering how you all have been handling it too.

On the one hand, I was heartened by the checkouts from all of you on the Design Team call today, and how a number of you expressed confidence. On the other hand, I know that it’s been a rocky, intense journey and that the stakes feel very high, especially post-election. These leaders are trusting us to help them manage the complexity of what they’re trying to achieve. That trust is a large burden, and I am so impressed and appreciative of how well you all have been handling it.

As I think I’ve told all of you many times before, there is always a panic moment before these kinds of participatory, emergent meetings. Everyone has them, and it’s totally understandable, because in the absence of certainty, you are reliant on faith. That’s a hard sell, especially when you have limited experience with these types of gatherings — or worse, bad experiences.

Part of the role of a good consultant / facilitator is to guide the participants through that pre-meeting panic moment. But another role is to manage that panic moment yourself, because if you’re being honest with yourself, you should be freaking out also! In fact, if you weren’t freaking out, I would question whether or not you were thinking things through rigorously enough.

I get nervous before every meeting, and I have at least one panic moment as part of every design process. I’ve already had a few for this one. I was talking about this with my sister over dinner tonight, and I said, “Do you know how I manage it?”

She responded, “Yeah, you do that Jack Donaghy thing, right?”

For those of you who are not 30 Rock fans, this is what she is referring to:

I do in fact have a Jack Donaghy-style psych up routine, which is a crucial part of my pre-meeting ritual. But that’s not how I handle the panic moment in the design process. I handle the panic moment in the design process by remembering what I learned from one of my mentors, Gail Taylor:

The success and failure of the meeting does not depend on you. You are simply part of the system, and the whole system is holding the space, not just you.

I want you all to remember this. We are lucky to have a strong team, from Miles River to the Design Team, and that alone gives me comfort about our meeting. But even this group of 11 people is not responsible for the success and failure of the meeting. Everybody in the room is part of the system. Everybody in the room is bringing their own special wisdom and will be helping hold the space.

We design with this assumption in mind. We trust the intelligence of the participants. Most importantly, we trust in the strength of our relationships, which creates resiliency. Failure is simply part of good process, not something to avoid at all costs.

When I remember this, my panic subsides, and my faith is restored. I hope you all remember this and believe this in your bones, and I hope it helps you too.


What the Heck is a “Container”?!

On our call with @jodie, @idelisse, and @alison yesterday, I raised a design challenge that I was pondering about the makeup of the folks who will be in the room in November (2:1 ratio of Wye members to invited guests). I figured we’d all quickly acknowledge it, say a few words about it, then move on. To my surprise and frustration, we ended up spending the rest of the call on it. Afterward, Alison and I debriefed, which helped me get clearer about what I was trying to say and perhaps why the conversation went the way it did.

Even before the election, we knew that two things would be hard about the upcoming meeting:

  1. Shifting focus and attention away from the short-term and toward the long-term
  2. Having enough of a “process” conversation to ensure success after this meeting

The election results make both of these things harder. Two of our Design Team members have shown leadership with the full Wye group about maintaining focus on the long-term at our meeting. This is not a new stance among Wye, and their alignment around this following the March meeting is the reason why we’ve been doing what we’ve been doing this past year. I feel pretty good about getting the Wye folks somewhat aligned around this before the meeting.

I don’t feel as good about this with the invited guests. They haven’t been part of this group in the past, they don’t have that history, and they are likely coming to the meeting to be with a group of their peers at a time of distress and need, not to help Wye in particular figure out what it wants to be and do in the next year and beyond.

We need to do our best to make sure the guests are clear about what will be happening at the November meeting. Even with that, their tolerance for talking about process more granularly will be lower than everyone else’s for the reasons stated above. That’s the point I was trying to make yesterday.

I think part of the reason our conversation yesterday was so difficult was that we are not on the same page about what a “process” conversation needs to be and why, and what “two-feet in” looks like.

There are two components of a “process” conversation:

  • Roadmap — the mechanics of what will happen, when, and how
  • Container — the “space” and agreed-upon norms in which we’ll have this conversation

Creating a “container” for a face-to-face meeting or for a process that is meeting-oriented is relatively straightforward, because most people have a clear, visceral understanding about the different aspects of the container. The most obvious component is the actual physical space, which people can see and touch.

The harder aspect of container-building has to do with agreements for how the group will behave. These tend to be hard regardless of whether the group is in a face-to-face meeting or not, although in a face-to-face context, it’s more easily understandable and enforceable, because the behavior is transparent to the entire group and there is usually facilitation, which means that the feedback cycles are more or less immediate.

For example, we ran into this challenge with the Future Forward process we did with Ev last year when we discussed the working agreement for transparency at the kickoff meeting for the meeting itself. In theory, that should have been straightforward — the proposed agreement fulfilled the need the participants described — but it was an emotional issue, and we needed to slow down to work it out. Discussing it for the six-month process as a whole was even harder, but because we took the time to work it out when we were all together, we were able to come to agreement fairly quickly are do our work successfully.

These kinds of conversations are laborious, and they suck, but they are necessary, especially for asynchronous processes and especially when they constitute a significant shift in culture for the group. Because of the trust in the room, we could propose something at a high-level and possibly skate by, but as soon as people start experiencing the ramifications, they will start questioning the container.

This exact scenario happened with STP a few months into the experiments process, when Alison and I announced that we were going to make our Facebook group published. We had agreed on this months earlier, but the reality of it triggered a much different response in the moment, and we had to work through it.

If we want our container to be resilient, we need folks in Wye River not only to go along with our suggestions, but to be advocating themselves for them. That means they have to understand them deeply and sit with them.

The specific challenges we’ll have will be around questions of transparency, roles, and permeability. The complexity and abstractness of these challenges was what was making our November design challenging pre-election, but they will be even more challenging now, especially with the high ratio of guests (who won’t have the same context and motivation to be in this more “process-y” conversation) to Wye members. That’s all that I was trying to say yesterday.

Idelisse brought up a good point yesterday that I want to address. Decision-making / governance is another one of those “container” issues that are very challenging to work out. The network principle I abide by to help with this is, “Avoid group decision-making.” You can generally avoid most governance issues when the group is small and trust is high. But the questions we’re wanting to work through around transparency, roles, and permeability are necessary, and we need this core group to be on the same page from the beginning.


North Stars and Stretching the Visioning Rubber Band

Wanted to share a few thoughts about visioning, offer some resources, and make some suggestions.

@idelisse and I talked a few weeks ago about “terminology trauma.” We all have it. Someone uses a word, we have bad experiences with how that word is practiced, and so we flag it and sometimes are even triggered by it. In this case, the word I’m referring to is “visioning.” As always, if Miles River is experiencing terminology trauma about something, it’s a good test case for us, because Wye River will likely have it even worse.

Just to repeat what I said on our November 3 call, I don’t think we should do a visioning exercise at our November meeting. But I want us to build on the exercise we did last March. And if folks approve the POP, then we’ll be doing even more visioning next year. So we need to get very clear about what we’re talking about when we talk about “visioning.”

First and foremost, I’d highly encourage all of you to read (or re-read) my blog post about rubber bands and visioning. We may want to consider sending it as part of our pre-reads.

It’s relevant, because it speaks to why designing our November meeting has been so hard. It’s not simply a matter of tackling topics one-by-one. It’s doing it in a way that folks are experiencing the effect of the rubber band.

(As a sidenote, we may also want to consider bringing rubber bands this year to reinforce the metaphor.)

This morning, Susannah Fox shared a really great example of what a clear vision + North Star looks like.


It reminded me of something Susannah posted a few years ago that also was a great example of a clear vision. Check out the cartoon in this post.


When you have an artifact that represents a clear vision and north star that the group itself arrived at together and own, then it is tremendously powerful and catalyzing. That, ultimately, is where we want to get to with this group next year. As a path to that, I want to take their work from March and start offering possible artifacts that might help them get there.

One way possibly to do this (and Ide, I would love it if you played with this idea) would be to create a physical visioning space in our room in November. What would it look like to physically transform a corner of that space to represent some of the vision that folks put out last March? How might we do it? Would love to hear people’s ideas!