ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition — May 2003

In This Issue
Seeing Groups–
and the World–
in a New Way
AQP’s National Team Excellence Awards Diary
Ask the PowerPhrase® Expert
Looking Toward the Future



AQP Connections
Articles in Brief
News Bites
What’s Up?
Out of Context
Book Nook

May 2003 News for a Change—Home Page

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Seeing Groups–and the World–in a New Way

In the recent issue of The Journal for Quality and Participation we launched a quarterly series on coaching and counseling. This month we’re focusing on working with groups, a topic that relates to the daily work of many of AQP’s members.

At first glance, this may seem like an area that’s been revisited many times in past issues of NFC and JQP, but we think the following discussion with Jim Rough, author of Society’s Breakthrough! Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People, may offer some new insights.

NFC: Please describe what you’re trying to accomplish through your writing and work—in no more than two sentences.

Rough: I’m on a quest to help people solve the really BIG issues in their organizations and in society through creativity and collaboration. I’ve discovered new ways to do this in both small groups and large systems of people, and I want to get the word out.

You advocate the use of what is termed “dynamic facilitation” to help a small group achieve breakthrough solutions. What are the key elements of dynamic facilitation, and what are the most important skills for its performance?

Rough: Most meetings aim for logical, orderly progress toward preset goals. One result of this orientation is that really big issues are often avoided because from the standpoint of reason, these seem unsolvable. Dynamic facilitation (DF) works differently, going with the flow rather than maintaining control, aiming to maximize the possibility for breakthroughs.

One key is that the facilitator assures that people are talking about something they really care about, whether it seems solvable or not. Another key, especially early on, is to help people speak from their passion about the topic, from the heart not the head. The dynamic facilitator relies on energy, even seemingly negative energy, for the group agenda. Each spontaneous comment is treated as a valuable contribution to the group, and each speaker is protected from judgment.

Probably the most important skill for the dynamic facilitator is to trust this process, that when people work together on an issue they care about and when they stay creative, breakthroughs will happen.

A Bit More About “Tobe”

This short story from Jim Rough’s book sheds some light on the concept of “tobe.” Imagine that you’re observing a car trip where the driver and passengers aren’t sure if they’re lost…

“Prior to stopping the car, there were two choices: Keep going or turn around. Stopping the car was a third choice. And from this decision everything changed.

It wasn’t solving the problem, but the problem got solved anyway. This third choice is an easy one to forget. There is no adequate word for it, so I call it a tobe (rhymes with robe) for ‘Time Out: BE.’ It is choosing to enter the ‘zone of transformation,’ where new options can emerge or where we might more fully become ourselves. In many ways, it is the ultimate choice. Shakespeare’s Hamlet asks, ‘To be, or not to be? That is the question.’ Selecting the tobe is choosing ‘to be,’ while picking one of the two apparent choices is choosing ‘not to be,’ which, for our society, can turn out to be suicidal.

A tobe is a ‘time out’ from trying to make things happen and, instead, making space for self-organizing change. We let go of control, create a safe space, and trust that something new will emerge. It might begin as silence. Or a prayerful attitude. Or it could be transformational talking. But in any case, this third choice is letting go of trying to control things and attending to what is, in a deep and heartfelt way.

It can feel risky. It is stepping outside of the Box system we are in and trusting that Real Life has something to offer.” (pp. 194-5)

What do you mean by the word “tobe” and of what value is it to a team working to solve a problem or address an issue?

Rough: The word “tobe” was coined from two sources, “Time Out: BE” and “TO BE or not to be.” To choose “to be” means choosing this special kind of time out on a regular basis. It’s stepping outside of the regular “transactional” world to take a few moments with others in a “transformational” setting.

Regular staff meetings are usually information-sharing sessions where small issues are discussed and short-term decisions made. These meetings could be tobes where people stop, check inside themselves for what’s really important, and talk in a heartfelt way, seeking breakthroughs. It’s a process of thinking that I call choice-creating instead of decision-making or problem-solving.

The value of tobes is immense. When everyone is working creatively together on the big issues, even if it’s only for a short moment every few weeks, little issues take care of themselves. Trust and community are built, and quality becomes the organizational focus. I wrote an article for The Journal for Quality and Participation last spring on how such tobes can transform an organization, (“Using Crisis and Teams to Turn on a System”). One point that illustrates these benefits, which I neglected to say in the article, is that the tobe-taking teams are still in operation—18 years later!

One aspect of dynamic facilitation is described as “the purge.” What is this? Why is it important? How is it accomplished?

Rough: People tend to have an emotional response when facing difficult issues. Often for instance, people will jump to solutions and defend them rather than listening. In traditional meetings, they are encouraged to suppress this response until the problem has been defined—to stay rational. But with DF, we accept and even encourage, this natural response, valuing it, whatever it is.

The dynamic facilitator will try to draw out this initial response, capturing as many details as possible. Once this purge is complete, the person is more able to listen to others and be creative.

What are the four categories of lists that a facilitator should develop during dynamic facilitation? What questions should be used to help assign what is said to a particular list?

Rough: In DF, we use four lists to capture comments: solutions, concerns, data, and problem- statements. The idea is to capture whatever is said, framing each comment as a contribution to group efforts. Rather than just sorting what is said, we use the charts to support the appropriate energy. For instance, at the beginning of a meeting during the purge, it’s too early for brainstorming. At this point, the facilitator does not encourage lots of ideas off the top of the head, but writes each idea that comes up in full sentences and helps people speak from the heart.

Most important is for the facilitator to follow group energy, using questions only to encourage the natural flow. So during purge for instance, you might use the Czar question: “If you were Czar of this place, and you could implement any regulations or even tell people how to feel … what would you do?”

At other times, if the group is feeling blocked by the enormity of an issue, the facilitator might ask “What do we know or think we know about this situation?” Most important is to be on the lookout for shifts of heart or mind. Eventually, a fifth chart captures many of these shifts as decisions.

What is a wisdom council, and how would an organization set about creating one?

Rough: A wisdom council is a way for the people of an organization or large system to empower themselves by structuring a voice of the people. It’s how everyone in a city, public agency, corporation, or professional association can work together on issues, think creatively about them, and reach consensus. It’s a new social invention for establishing democracy and participative management.

There are 12 features to establishing a wisdom council as described in my book, but its essence involves the periodic random selection of 12 or so people from the organization. This small group of people holds a symbolic tobe for the whole organization. The group is dynamically facilitated to determine unanimous statements, which are presented to all. Then everyone has a chance to meet in small groups to consider the statements, or to just talk about them informally between this wisdom council and the next.

With a wisdom council process in place it is possible for a large system of people to reach consensus on a difficult issue in the space of just a few hours. If a wisdom council were implemented as a U.S. Constitutional amendment, it would create an authentic, inclusive, thoughtful voice of “we the people.” It’s a way to safely establish true democracy.

To what extent have wisdom councils been adopted by government and business? With what success?

Rough: A number of wisdom council experiments have been successful in a variety of settings—a high school, among homeless people, in a farm credit bank, at a professional association meeting, in a city, etc. But the complete package with all 12 features is yet to be implemented. A true wisdom council should be chartered by the people. For example, the one in Pleasantville, NY, was at the behest of the town trustees. At their last wisdom council meeting, nine randomly selected people met over a weekend, reached consensus, and presented their results back to the trustees.

Their message was powerful. They said Pleasantville should become more of a real community instead of a bedroom community. The group had three suggested changes with creative ideas and plans around each one. The experiment demonstrated how a creative and thoughtful voice of we the people can be created from a randomly selected group of citizens.

In another experiment currently conducted within the Department of Agriculture of Washington state, employees met and voted to try the wisdom council for one year. At the end of this trial period, which was just completed, the wisdom council suggested expanding the process to include the whole department. This would provide a way for each agricultural inspector, who primarily works alone, to be and feel part of the whole organization. If a reader of this article would like to champion a wisdom council in his or her organization, he/she can contact me for more information.

You use a triangle, box, and circle as metaphors for how a group of people can be structured. Please explain these three models and what they imply for how problems get solved and issues resolved.

Rough: There are three basic ways to structure a large organization or a society. Each type of structure encourages different behaviors and different kinds of thinking, as follows:

  • The “triangle” is hierarchical where everyone orients to one decision maker, like a loyal subject to his king. For people in this structure, loyalty is a prime value, while thinking for yourself is not.
  • In the “box” the ultimate authority is a set of rules, like with most government agencies, or like American society with its constitution. The box structure creates a game mentality, where you are encouraged to compete and win as much as you can within the rules. It encourages entrepreneurial thinking and creativity, but only within pre-set boundaries—not outside the box.
  • The” circle” structure is where the ultimate authority is an ongoing, creative conversation about what is best for everyone. It’s a consensus-based system, where measurable results are not as important as how people feel about things. This structure values individuality,
    creativity, and authenticity.

Many organizations get into trouble because they seek the values of the circle system, like authentic communication, empowered employees, participative leadership, and an orientation to quality, but they seek to achieve it through box methods. They try to adjust the rules of the game, for instance, assuming that what really matters to people can be measured in scorecards or embodied in incentives. Many things do work that way but not what is really important in life.

What do you mean by the term “the game” and what is its typical impact on group dynamics and problem-solving ability? With which organizational model is it associated?

Rough: “The game” is a metaphor for the culture we live in, which arises from the box structure. When society is run by a set of rules like “the rule of law,” a game-like competition will naturally arise.

Over time our game has become a competition with corporations as the main players and with profits as the prime value. It is a value system that determines much of our lives: our education system, our health care system, the kinds of investments we make as a society, and even what we think are personal choices. Consider national politics, too, with its box-like parliamentary procedure and majority-rule voting. These structural elements naturally result in the arguing and double-talk by politicians that is so frustrating to voters. This design does not support people to thoughtfully seek what is best for everyone.

Most of us tend to think that these competitive behaviors are human nature. But actually, the box system emphasizes these behaviors in people. With just a slight change to the underlying structure, people can easily and naturally become more
public-spirited, thoughtful, and collaborative.

What does it take to transform a group from a box to a circle structure?

Rough: A box system is easily and safely transformed into a circle system, without changing any of the box institutions. It’s just a matter of adding regularly scheduled tobes, where the system reflects on itself. This is different from establishing a network of individual tobes or those that happen in small groups. It’s where the whole system regularly meets as a complete entity. The wisdom council is designed for this.

At first, each wisdom council meeting is just an interlude, a break from real life, but after a while, people realize that the game is actually the interlude, and these systemwide tobes are real life. It creates a subtle shift in the bottom line of the organization from values that are measurable, like profits or GNP, to deeper values like trust, service, quality, community, and effectiveness.

You propose a wisdom council as the mechanism for shifting the United States into a more democratic form of government. How would this work? Why would it constitute a breakthrough with respect to society’s larger issues?

Rough: If the wisdom council were implemented as a U.S. Constitutional amendment, it would establish a wise and responsible voice of we the people. Such an amendment is risk free because it leaves the mechanics of our system and its institutions untouched. It just adds a random selection of people every six months or so, who present unanimous statements to the rest of us. This process would grow in importance as everyone learns to trust it and the capability of average citizens.

Apart from being low risk, the benefit potential of this process is immense. Many of today’s most intractable issues are caused by our box system. It’s hard to imagine we would retain the values, which have us spending more money to advertise products to our children than to educate them. This is not to say that competition for profits is bad, just that it cannot be our ultimate value.

If we the people could come back into being, could stop regularly to think about how we are doing as a society, could reach consensus on what we really want and how to get it, then many of today’s problems would disappear.

Actually, I think our situation is more precarious than what I’ve described. The current structure, where we are supposed to maximize our own personal benefit and trust that the public interest will take care of itself, is not sustainable. All of us must become aware and concerned about the public interest. We the people must come into being and accept responsibility for our system. The key is to have a risk-free way to do this. That’s what the citizens’ amendment provides. It adds the simple missing piece to the constitution that tells us how.

JIM ROUGH is a consultant, seminar leader, speaker, and author. (He can be reached at He invented dynamic facilitation ( and the wisdom council, and he co-founded the nonprofit Center for Wise Democratic Processes (


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