In a previous post, Women in Leadership: Not Just Long Overdue but in the Nick of Time, I mentioned that I recently saw Dr. Ed Schein speak. Dr. Schein, in my view, is one of the founding fathers of OD and it is still inspiring to hear him talk.
During the talk, Ed mentioned his involvement in early T-Groups. There are probably not many on LinkedIn with any experience in T-groups so permit me a brief aside. I have excerpted and condensed information in the T-group entry on Wikipedia into this paragraph:
A T-group or training group (sometimes also referred to as sensitivity training group, human relations training group or encounter group) is a form of group training where 8-15 participants learn about themselves (and about small group processes in general) through their interaction with each other. A T-group meeting does not have an explicit agenda, structure, or express goal. Under the guidance of a facilitator, the participants are encouraged to share emotional reactions (such as, for example, anger, fear, warmth, or envy) that arise in response to their fellow participants' actions and statements. The emphasis is on sharing emotions, as opposed to judgments or conclusions. In this way, T-group participants can learn how their words and actions trigger emotional responses in the people they communicate with.
Though it is hard to imagine today, many major corporations used to run sessions like these all the time in the 60s, 70s and into the early 80s. Though powerful versions of T-groups are still around…Peter Senge’s dialogue groups and Arnold Mindell’s WorldWork seminars are examples…neither are significant parts of the corporate landscape.
Dr. Schein was describing his experience in one of these T-groups. After 20 minutes of sitting around not doing anything productive and with frustrations mounting, someone stood up and said, “What the hell are we supposed to be doing here?” The facilitator replied, “Well that’s up to us isn’t it?” And eventually the group started to get some traction, an agenda formed, and the group started to learn something about group process as well as themselves.
Schein made an obvious point, but it struck me. He said the so called facilitator had no idea where the session was going to end up. How could he or she? Every person is different. Every group is different. Every process is different. For some there are great insights. For others, it was nothing but a waste of time. Each time the group creates the experience.
I found myself thinking of the children’s story, Stone Soup.
In a time of war, a few soldiers from another country come to a small village. The soldiers asked for food, but the villagers were unwilling to share any of their food stores with the hungry strangers. The soldiers then asked if they could borrow a large pot. The suspicious villagers said, “If you don’t have any food, what are you going to make in the pot?” The soldiers said, “We are going to make stone soup for everyone.” The soldiers went to a stream, filled the pot with water, dropped a large stone in it, and placed it over a fire. Some of the villagers become curious about what they are doing and gather round. While the “soup” is still heating up, one soldier says, “As good as it is, a little bit of garnish would make it even better.” One villager hears this and thinks what harm would it be to add a little of the parsley I have and runs to fetch it. Though still a bit hesitant about these soldiers and what they are up to, another villager decides she does not mind parting with a few carrots to help them out, so that gets added to the soup. Another villager walks by, hears about the stone soup and sees the carrots and parsley and says, “Wouldn’t this be better with a few potatoes?” “As good as this soup is,” the soldiers say, “some potatoes would make it even better.” “I have some lamb. Would that help?” says another villager. “Why yes that would make it even more interesting,” say the soldiers. More and more villagers walk by each asking about and adding another ingredient. Finally, a thick, rich, delicious pot of soup was enjoyed by all.
T-groups were a cornerstone of early OD work and, in some ways, they are a fractal of all OD work. Whether it is team building, Future Search, a visioning workshop, or Change Management…just like the soldiers, you have no idea what you will end up with. You have a general direction and a bunch of techniques, a diverse group of people with different agendas and you just push play. You don’t know if or when the problem will be solved and you don’t know what the final deliverable will look like.
You could let this depress you or you could let it lead you to approach your work with less hubris and a humble, service orientation. In this way you help the group create what the collective is able to create and not some preconceived image in the facilitator’s mind of “how these things are supposed to go.”
Sometimes you end up with a satisfying soup. Sometimes you eat boiled rocks with parsley, at least at first.
But in time, with continued eyes-wide-open assessment, courageous conversations, and effective problem solving tools, people come to see that more is needed and more is possible. Stances soften. Common ground is discovered. People find ways to lend their shoulders to the wheel. The broth thickens.
All good things in all good time. Not facilitator time. Group time.