Balance leadership and process

I’m in a conference call with an executive director and board president. Several months earlier, their organization had embarked on a general planning process that has now become bogged down in procedural confusion.Here is some of what I heard:

  • The committee began its work with four meetings of “environmental scanning” – including interviewing people in the community and reviewing various United Way and governmental needs assessments.
  • The committee devoted four more meetings towards listing the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats, core competencies, and trends.
  • Next up was a long meeting on vision and mission. The meeting ended in frustration around perceived “word-smithing”.

His question to me: “What do we do now? “We’ve got stacks of information, and have had good discussions. But people are now really confused as to where this is going.”


Consider just a few of the elements within another organization’s experience with planning:

  • The group pre-agreed on simple and binding voting methods for the various required decisions. Consensus remained a positive value, but was not seen as absolutely necessary.
  • Early in the process, the group inventoried the priority outcomes and goals brought by participants to the table. The group almost immediately moved to a focus on ideas for the future.
  • The executive director was authorized to organize, analyze, and distill the early list of outcomes into a framework and to propose the path for attending to each important item.
  • Each committee meeting focussed on a different outcome or goal. The group agreed that the agency’s available resources allowed only one meeting for each of the emergent seven major goals.
  • The executive director was authorized to prepare draft plan language that fleshed out each of the outcomes during the interim period between meetings.
  • Small amounts of data and information were provided during the process. The committee generally relied on the collective judgment of its members

The risks of overdoing participation:

At a very coarse level, let’s imagine two general situations for which group process might be profitably employed:

  1. General and broad strategic planning efforts to create strategy across all areas of organizational life. “What are our crucial few strategic directions for the next few years?”
  2. Specific situations requiring specific decisions. “Do we conduct the capital campaign?” “Do we expand services into the suburban cities?”

In my experience, organizations have come to over-emphasize the value of group process and participation within both of these categories.

Instead of carefully assessing the conditions under which a group might add value to mission-based outcomes, staff and board leadership find themselves in an immediate and un-scrutinizing rush to identify stakeholders and to build committees that are “representative.”

Then, in the name of process and participation, leaders back off from being direct with proposals and recommendations. They over-estimate the value of external data and information. Problems begin to emerge:

  • The committee takes on questions that are far too ambiguous and broad to address effectively. Frustration mounts.
  • The committee feels compelled to become educated, and the education process becomes never ending. Precious time is used to a) generate lists (strengths, weaknesses, trends, etc.), b) review non-meaningful external data and studies, and c) listen to community experts who often seem to speak in platitudes.
  • Participants become so oriented to data and information that they have increasing difficulty having opinions. The capacity to make proposals and recommendations is whittled away as people become more and more analytically scrutinizing.
  • The committee’s work begins to require more resources than the organization has for the effort.
  • The committee finds itself without procedures that would allow it to narrow its scope, to prioritize, and to make decisions.
  • The committee process itself starts to appear to some as a means to avoid action and decision.

A skepticism about group process:

I’ve designed and facilitated over 3,000 meetings for every kind of organization, and generally love my work. I’m committed to methods that further participants’ sense of ownership and commitment. And I believe strongly in the creativity that groups can generate.

But unless I’m careful, various “processes” can easily conflict with the most important outcome of all – enhancing the lives of the people the organization is in the business to serve.

Hence, an irony. As a process consultant, I find that my most important role in the beginning of many consulting engagements is helping to limit process.

Here’s why: The costs of participatory decision-making processes can easily outweigh two key benefits of using a group. These benefits are as follows:

  • Increasing participant commitment and buy-in
  • Creating higher quality decisions that serve the mission

All process must serve the mission. The “product” must be much more than the “process”.

“Facilitative” leadership still means leading!

The alternative: A more directive leadership. Organizations need leaders who are “out front”, who are leading, framing issues, creating and testing proposals.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating an outmoded “strong leaders” approach that expects leaders to fix all problems and eliminate all risk. This doesn’t work, for the following reasons.

  • Board members, volunteers, and senior staff may then be allowed to avoid their own appropriate responsibilities.
  • Ambiguity and chaos are part of learning and change, and people have to confront the fact that there are no easy answers to the major questions they face. For many of the big issues, no one is there to “fix” it.

This is a hard message to articulate when considering current management theories and practices. We’re surrounded by ideas about:
A) the importance of making organizations more democratic
B) the need to create ownership and commitment throughout the organization, and…
C) leaders not necessarily being those in authority

And it’s true. Leadership can come from many directions. People from throughout the organization – whether mid-level staff, board members, or volunteers – can be effective in leading towards specific changes and new initiatives.

Yet successful strategic management in this day and age still requires the exercise of appropriate, conventional top-down persuasion, authority, and power. Organizations that:
A) serve their missions, and…
B) have a positive working environment always have effective, directive individuals at the top of the hierarchy.

Conversely, democratized organizations that generally attempt to generate their strategic direction by committee experience a lot of failure.

Optimal roles for leaders, optimal roles for groups:

Leadership has the critical “framing” role. Leaders must know when and how a group can add value.

Situation #1: At points in an organization’s life, it is the right action for leaders to hand very open questions about general or specific strategic direction to a group. In these situations, a judgment is made: An appropriately focused group will achieve more powerful results than any individual.

However, more democratic efforts require careful methods:

  • The leader should be prepared with a design that generally relies first on accessing the rich, impressionistic data about strategy and direction found in the heads of the participants. Leaders need to push participants to quickly play the role of social entrepreneurs who bring strategy, ideas, and proposals to the table.
  • Early efforts should allow the group to quickly identify and prioritize the crucial, short list of desired outcomes.
  • More rationalized data gathering and research should be in service of these directions created by the group.
  • Decision rules and simple operating procedures must be negotiated up front. Sooner or later, the group will want to see itself making decisions. It is important to create agreement on the procedural rules before engaging in the actual content of the discussions.

Remember: As a group gains more authority, leaders exercise less conventional control. In fact, the results of meaningful group work are always to some degree emergent.

Situation #2: The leader takes a much more directive approach to a group’s work. Strategy is congealing in this person’s mind, and he or she needs to work with a group to begin transferring ownership and knowledge of the idea, or proposal, or initiative.

This approach involves providing draft concepts, alternatives, proposals, and various working propositions that arrive at the group’s table “well-formed” and directional. In this case the group is served by a different form of leadership.

The balance of leadership and group process rests on two big assumptions:

  1. Assumption #1: Leaders must be politically astute. They must accurately “read” the internal and external political environment within which the organization operates to insure that any design is accepted by others within the organization. Movement forward requires:
    • Leaders who understand that most major, emerging strategic issues cannot rely on pre-existing agency policy to suggest direction.
    • Leaders who understand that establishing directions requires a great deal of negotiation, persuasion, and education.
    • Leaders who skillfully represent stakeholder interests within the content of their proposals.
  2. Assumption #2: Trust is a vital ingredient within the leadership equation. Organizations with people who trust each other are far more efficient. Trust allows individuals from throughout the organization to rely on – and use – the knowledge and wisdom of others.

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