Conversations For A Change
by Peter Block
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Mission Impossible: The Ultimate Facilitation
“Have you ever put yourself into a business situation that you thought you couldn’t get out of?” asks Caroline Thornton, a professional facilitator from Toronto. She and Erik Lockhart from the Queen’s University Decision Center in Queens, Ontario, wondered if they had done just that in the summer of 1997.
They were contacted in May 1997 by Imperial Oil Ltd. (Esso) in Canada whose Automotive Business Unit—which operates gas stations across the country—was in serious jeopardy after three years of underachieving. Esso leadership wanted the division to conduct an intensive exercise redesign of how they operated, and specifically to cut $10 million from their annual operating budget.
Four and a Half Days or
“We had this huge team of people—65 to 70 total, many of whom were engineers,” Lockhart recalls. Diversity was another issue: the team was from across Canada (both French and English speakers). Some members were new to Esso and others were veterans. The facilitators worked with a leadership team of 16 people to plan the workshop. “Each felt it was his responsibility to design and manage the event,” Thornton remembers. “So we had 16 players, all of whom believed they would be allowed to lead and manage the event.”
“As we went into the session we had an incredibly broad purpose statement,” says Thornton: “Revitalize the Automotive Business Unit.” She adds, with so much at stake and so many weighty factors, “It might give you a clue as to why we thought this might be ‘mission impossible.’”
Lockhart focused on managing the GDSS technology, while Thornton interacted with participants who were addressing many complex issues. Although Lockhart had used this technology more than 400 times, he had never applied it to such a large group. It was a technological challenge, “a wiring nightmare” he recalls, with 10 laptops linked to a central hub at the front of the room where a central screen could display information as it was collected and synthesized.
High Tech Decision
“GDSS points out very quickly where there’s agreement,” says Lockhart. “We were better able to keep a large group like this focused on the task at hand and build consensus, from the tables to the larger group. The system also enables input from each participant, not just those who are comfortable speaking out.”
Day Four, says Thornton, was “a
big deal for us and the team.” They had programmed
in a decision point to check if they were on track or if
they’d need to go back and do more analysis.
Fortunately, they were progressing effectively toward
their goals, so they began to anticipate implementation
and prepare for the final day’s presentation.
Day Five unfolded according to plan. The workshop’s executive sponsor reviewed the financials and key decisions and each geographical division described plans and commitments they had made. On the final day, participants went through another exercise using GDSS, answering the question, “How will this make a difference in your life?” One answered, “I will be able to go home and sleep at night.” The day concluded with a celebration of what had been achieved.
Would You Do It
Thornton and Lockhart extrapolated four principal learnings. First is dealing with exhaustion. “We were typically in the room for 12 hours, a full-time dedicated effort,” says Thornton. “It was an arduous event.” She suggests being well-rested in advance is essential. Second, the facilitators believe the 16-member design leadership team was too large. “Four or five is best,” says Thornton, minimizing the number of people who want input and ownership in the effort.
Third, pay attention to the logistics
of the event. “It’s very tiring to deal with
so many people,” Lockhart observes. “Allow
for plenty of time to set up and look after the
technology,” Thornton adds, “and the
people.” Pay attention to individual needs to keep
everyone on track.
Seventeen months later over 70 percent of the workshop’s recommendations had been implemented. What seemed an impossible mission was deemed a significant success.