Below you will find an translation in English of one of my most successful business cases, published in the book ‘Lösungen auf der Spur; Wirkungsvoll führen dank Lösungsfokus‘ from author Dominik Godat
The book focuses on SF leadership. SF means Solution Focused. An approach in which you focus on ‘what works well’ instead of exploring the cause of problems (‘problem talk’). Read more about SF.
Marel Stork Poultry Processing, global provider of advanced equipment, systems and services to poultry and further processing industries. (Company size in 2013: Worldwide #4000. The Netherlands #800 employees)
From 2007 until 2012 I was in charge of an in-company facilitators team, a so-called train-the-trainer concept. We invited voluntary employees who wanted to be facilitators of meetings within the company, for an average investment of 5 hours per week. This was on top of their daily operational job within the company.
Purpose: Create more useful meetings (and subsequently better cooperation and better use of the potential possibilities).
Means: Have meetings observed by an outsider (the facilitator) who ‘mirrors’ on problem talk.
The desired situation
We started with a group of 25 people to create a desired situation. What would be different in a couple of years? What kind of behavior in meetings would we observe by that time? How would our business client notice the difference?
Experimenting in small steps
In practice the job of a facilitator was to mirror the participant’s behavior and applaud SF talk. This meant observing the behavior in the meeting, giving feedback without interpreting the behavior and asking SF questions to enhance awareness of the effect of specific behavior.
Over the years the desired future we had created at the start remained a powerful attractive road sign along the way. The ‘how to do this’ was a more continuous challenge. For the team as a whole and for each facilitator personally this was a development process. The meetings we had as a facilitator team were the breeding ground for exploring possibilities. As a leader I continuously pictured this challenge of letting emerge and enfold whatever proved useful along the way, by just seeing it as an experiment.
In this context a main challenge in the facilitator team, in myself and in the teams we facilitated, appeared to be the (apparent) contradiction between structural – and non-structural processes. We had to gain confidence in the process of release the tendency to create rules and structures. I experienced that what worked best was to mention this tension whenever it occurred. And then ask the question how we could use both qualities of the wanting-to-structure-part and the trusting-the-flow-part.
Over the years the effect of observing and “mirroring” meetings by facilitators was amazing:
- More awareness of ego behavior and problem talk
- More issues are discussed openly in between employees and within the company as a whole
- More support for decisions, because more decisions were made by the team as a whole
- A better use of everyone’s qualities. For example:
- In many meetings nowadays one of the team members will in turn chair the meeting, instead of the leader always ‘having to do this since that is considered to be part of his position’
- More preparations for the following meeting by an individual or a subgroup to accelerate processes
- Producing agenda, minutes and action plans in a more useful way
- More experiments with different ways of holding a meeting, like standing at a high table instead of sitting down, changing sitting positions to create another dynamic or sitting in a circle without a table in between the participants
- More experiments with different forms of meeting, like inviting management or people from other departments to join dialogues about cooperation or specific topics, doing a workshop organized by one of the team members or visiting another department to learn more about what it is they do.
And very importantly, the personal development of the facilitators in this train-the-trainers concept was huge. Since an observer is only able to mirror ‘objectively’ if he is aware of his own norms, values and interpretations, we – as a team – invested most of the time in sharing success stories, personal reflection and exploring together what worked well as a facilitator.
Last but not least, due to the facilitators mutually sharing their experiences and their presence in meetings which they normally would not attend, more knowledge was ‘absorbed’. This was helpful to let slowly vanish the borders in between departments, management and the production floor.
Letting go of the traditional way of leading and facilitating a team
My personal purpose was to have facilitators experience the power of SF in leading teams and facilitating meetings. In general, when we started the project, most facilitators had traditional expectations about the way to have, chair and facilitate a meeting. This was also true for our clients in the meetings which we facilitated. Moreover, our client sometimes wanted the facilitator to come up with a solution or expected him or her to solve the problem. Traditional expectations I encountered:
- People expect a clear purpose set by the management
- People expect a business plan and a precise timeline
- People expect that you know what is best for them
Dealing with this by being an example as a leader
Being open and SF
As a facilitator team, we had different kinds of meetings; individual coaching, intervision, dialogue, operational meetings and training. During these meetings my favorite question was “What can I, as a project leader, do differently in this meeting next time? It is scary to me, because what will people say? Will they criticize my behavior?” Yes, people did sometimes criticize the facilitator’s reaction, because we, as human beings in this western culture, had been taught to look for the irregularities, the things that did not work in a meeting. If this was the case, my next question would be: “What can I do instead?” or ”What can I do differently to make it more productive?” Since I was open and explorative about my own qualities, pitfalls and fears, the team achieved a level of personal development and team development more easily.
To focus more on the team process, I would use questions such as: “What did we do that worked really well? What can we do next in addition to what we have already done, to make this an even more powerful project?”
The feedback I received was mainly focused on not having a strict policy, not having concrete Critical Success Indicators or not wanting to do research into the reasons for meetings not going well. I did not always find it easy to explain that I did not see the use for that. I knew that experiencing the positive effect of SF behavior is the best way for people to develop a better understanding. I strongly believed in the attractive power of our desired future, the focus on small steps and building the bridge while walking on it. For me this was the most powerful way to make progress. By the way, how was I to measure personal development or effective meetings? If I would have wanted to, I could have spent a lot of time on making schedules, excel sheets, measure instruments, diagrams, etcetera.
We talked about it and the only thing I experienced was a confirmation that the essential issues came on the table without the need of the written word. I was aware of the pitfall of my strong belief in this organic approach. I could miss opportunities by not acknowledging useful tips out of an allergic reaction. Maybe we did miss opportunities, we probably did, but I also know that we achieved more as a team now, by just doing what worked at a certain moment instead of remaining on the surface more by the seduction of the traditional way of leading a team.
Over the years, facilitators would leave the facilitator team and new ones would join. Some were active, some were less so, some would stay for a short while, some stuck to the team all the way and are even still facilitating meetings today. As a leader I did not condemn this. Every contribution, even if it was just one meeting, was useful in its way.
Encouraging SF talk
The facilitator team developed a checklist to improve their own facilitating skills. As a reminder to observe meetings in a SF way we used the next observation questions:
- Is the team focused on the perfect future instead of focusing on problems in the past?
- Are they looking for resources supporting their way up to the goal?
- What kind of qualities do you recognise in the team or in specific persons?
- What kind of behavior influences the process positively?
- Do they phrases in a positive sense?
- Do they give each other positive feedback and compliments?
Company beliefs supporting the flow
I experienced a positive influence to encourage an SF approach from the strongly tangible beliefs of the founder and the CEO of the company. Most of the facilitators experienced a pressure to overrule the responsibility of facilitating a meeting by the urge of having to do their daily operational business responsibilities. The fear to receive a more negative appraisal at the end of the year from their operational leader was present. Another challenge for some facilitators was the incomprehension they experienced from their direct colleagues for being a facilitator.
At the start in 2007 the facilitator team, together with the general management, decided not to make the use of facilitators within the company compulsory. Fortunately there was no need to use the power of power. We used the power of the beliefs of the CEO and the founder of the company:
- A strong believe in awakening more potential by giving people freedom and responsibility, by letting emerge leadership instead of appointing people and by trusting an organic approach instead of overruling issues from ‘above’
- A strong believe to always invest in the development of people, even in economic difficult times
What I learned
- The beliefs of the general management are essential
- Authenticity and personal reflection on my (fear-driven) behavior and sharing my thoughts and doubts with the team enhanced the cohesion enormously
- Sharing success stories within the whole organization is very powerful
- To live the rule: ‘Everything that happens is OK’ was helpful to find a variety of useful tools. It was more helpful than sticking to a fixed approach
- Just the mere presence of an outsider, even if he or she did not yet fully know what to do as a facilitator, was useful to increase awareness of behavior within a team