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The ABC(-M) Of Workshop Design

The ABC(-M) Of Workshop Design

| On 02, Feb 2020

Darrell Mann

Most times people tell us they ‘get’ something, it means they don’t. I hear the word all the time with S-Curves. Everyone, it seems, these days ‘gets’ the theory, but the moment they’re put in a situation where they have to relate the fundamental dynamics of the curve to their own context, I see they don’t get it at all. Now that the ABC model of human emotions is getting more broadly known, I’m beginning to see that it fits into exactly the same mis-match situation. People think they ‘get it’ – to the extent, recently, that I could see a roomful of people collectively raising their eyes to the ceiling the moment the ABC slide went up on the screen. The group had asked me to help them to better engage with their (internal) customers. If I generalize their situation to something that perhaps everyone that might read the SI ezine might be able to connect with, their job was to convince a bunch of people that TRIZ would help them to solve some of the problems they were struggling with.

In my generalized version of this scenario, there are typically two groups of people that need to be thought about when designing any kind of problem-solving intervention: the people asking us to come and help (usually ‘the managers’) and then the people that would subsequently be involved in working through the problem (the ‘workers’). The two need to be addressed separately. Both, ultimately, need to be in the right mindset if anything productive is to emerge from the engagement.

Here, meanwhile, back in the real world, is what I tend to here from people who spend some or all of their working lives facilitating TRIZ (or similar) problem-solving sessions:

“they called me in, but we didn’t make any progress, because it seemed like people didn’t want to get to an answer.”

“as usual, the person that spoke the loudest got their way, even though their answer wasn’t the best.”

“the group were pleasant enough, but they treated me like an outsider, even though we all work for the same company.”

“some of the participants seemed very dis-engaged from the process.”

“they were expecting a ‘wow’ solution, but only gave me an hour to deliver it, and so, surprise, surprise, the session was deemed only a partial success when the eventual answer seemed ‘obvious’.”

“what some people found to be ‘wow’ others in the room felt the opposite.”

“people seemed very reluctant to get ‘out of the box’, so the answers were all ones they felt they’d seen before.”

“They weren’t ready. I don’t think we’ll be invited back there again.”

All this from people that would nod sagely and tell me they understood the ABC-M model. Yes, they knew the model, but then hadn’t thought to apply it to actually thinking about the sessions they were expected to run successfully. That phenomenon probably merits an article in its own right. Except it will end up being virtually the same as this one. With the exact same conclusion: if you want to run successful workshops, think about and plan for the directions the ABC-M model tells us are inevitable in any human being involved in those workshops.

So, let’s actually try and apply the model to the two parts of the workshop design story. First up, the manager. This is the person that has heard about the capabilities that TRIZ brings – in theory at least – and has made some kind of a connection to the problem they are responsible for solving. Chances are they don’t know much about the actual methodology. Chances are, too, that they’re only tempted to call in someone from ‘outside’ the team is because they’ve crossed some kind of desperation threshold: their team has been working on the problem for some time and doesn’t appear to be making any headway.

What is the ABC-M mind-state of this manager right now?
Probably something like this:

Autonomy-wise, the manager is likely to be feeling reasonably positive since they’ve been the one requesting that you go and visit them, and they’re likely to be sitting in an environment they are comfortable with. Plus, of course, they have the authority to end the meeting any time they see fit, irrespective of whether we’ve achieved our goals as facilitators.

How they feel about Belonging is a bit more difficult to generalize. In theory, we all work for the same company. In practice, however, they’ve invited an ‘outsider’ into their tribe. The fact that it’s their invitation helps, but, as yet, they probably don’t know whether we’re going to be a good ‘fit’ with their tribe.

The first real challenge for the would-be facilitator is the Competence factor. Here the strong likelihood is the manager is in the negative-Competence domain. Not only do they have a problem they don’t know how to solve, but they don’t actually understand what we’re bringing to them either. Plus, of course, there’s always the possibility that their boss is going to hear about this meeting and its aftermath, in which case, they will need to be able to say something that makes them at least sound competent. Even if its an excuse as to why they chose not to proceed with the session, or why it didn’t deliver the desired result.

Finally comes the Meaning element of the ABC-M model. Its tempting to put this one to one side, but when it comes to workshop design, the smart money is on including it. That said, the initial Meaning setting for the manager is likely to be in the negative. Mainly because the problem they’re failing to solve is important enough for them to have contemplated bringing in outsiders like us to come and help them with.

Overall, then, at least two, and quite likely three of the four ABC-M elements is sitting in the negative. Which means our immediate challenge as prospective outside assistance providers is to make sure that when we’ve finished the meeting, all four have moved in the right direction. Simply knowing that should be half of the solution. Knowing what we need to do specifically to ensure that happens is going to require some more thought. And, as much as possible, some understanding of who the manager is as an individual. And the details of the problem.

What we ought to do at this stage is construct an Outcome Map to help us to understand what outcomes the manager is wanting. Something like this:

The specifics will depend on those characteristics ultimately, but what we can say with a high degree of certainty is the following:

  • We, as prospective facilitators, acknowledge that we’re entering ‘their’ territory as a privileged guest
  • We demonstrate that we are from the same macro-level tribe, and that the problem represents a ‘common enemy’. If we can find other ‘common enemies’ this too will be helpful.
  • Better yet, from the Belonging perspective, we can find and connect to someone that the manager knows and respects (homework required!) – a common friend.
  • We emphasise that we’re not their to replace the skills of the manager or their team, and that what we bring is the knowledge to make bridges to other domains where we might, together, find insights that will help solve the problem
  • We are able to provide some kind of context-relevant demonstration of our ability to do this. This is where we need to connect to the JP Morgan aphorism, ‘a person makes a decision for two reasons: the good one and the real one’. We need to provide tangible ‘good’ reasons that we/TRIZ will be able to help. I usually try and do this by spending a few minutes thinking about the problem and putting together a mini-case study showing how the situation is similar to a more extreme problem in another domain, and how problem-solvers in that domain have successfully prevailed. All the time I’m doing this, I need to walk a bit of a tightrope in that not only am I trying to demonstrate that we will deliver a tangible success, but also that all the time, we’re making sure the manager understands what we’re talking about and thus feels Competent. The ideal we’re aiming for is some kind of a ‘wow’ insight that not only makes the manager feel immediately comfortable, but also that they feel comfortable enough to be able to explain it to their boss should the need arise.

So much for convincing the manager. Assuming we’ve been able to do that, next up comes the more difficult job of getting the manager’s team on board and working with us rather than against us. Almost inevitably this is going to mean some kind of a contradiction is going to need solving. We ought to be able to see this vividly when we plot the ABC story for a typical individual in the team:

The only safe assumption when it comes to the team we’re going to be working with is that all four of the ABC-M elements are going to be negative when we all get together for our first workshop:

Autonomy: ‘people love change, they hate being changed’ – if nothing else, the fact that their manager has inflicted this workshop on them means that participants feel like they are not in control of whatever is about to happen to them.

Belonging: the fact that their manager has inflicted us onto them, almost by definition makes us a double unwelcome intrusion: not only are we outsiders, but we’re outsiders imposed upon the tribe by a higher-level outsider.

Competence: by bringing in a group of outsiders that, by definition, don’t possess the domain knowledge present within the team, a clear message is being sent: because your domain knowledge has proved to be inadequate, it’s time to bring in a group of people with some very different skills. Ergo, the team is feeling incompetent. Twice over. Their domain knowledge is ‘useless’ and they’re about to have some mysterious new stuff they’ve never seen before imposed upon them.

Meaning: a bit more difficult to gauge specifically, but in general, what we can say about any kind of hierarchical organisation is that the lower we go, the less likely it will be that people feel that what they’re doing is meaningful. Or, put another way, workers often feel like the work they’re given to do is more often than not meaningless: in this scenario it is likely to be something like, ‘you’re stuck so let’s try an experiment with this bunch of outsiders that will probably come to nothing.’

0 for 4 doesn’t make for good odds for any kind of facilitation team. Again, however, what we know is that if we’re to achieve any kind of positive outcomes at the end of the session (or cluster of sessions) is that we will need to move the four intangibles so that they are all in the positive. How we achieve this will again depend a lot on the specific context of the problem and the team we’re working with. Awareness of the problem helps, but is probably less than half of the solution this time. If we are to find the solutions we need, they are likely to include aspects of these generic solution strategies:

  • Let participants know what is going to happen. If possible, give them the option of leaving if they don’t think they are using their time productively
  • Incorporate subtle signals that everyone is on the same team (logos on slides, handouts, etc)
  • Before the session, try and establish who the informal inflencers in the team might be and ask for a pre-meeting with them to get their perspective on the ‘lay of the land’.
  • Ideally, try and find some local common-ground (e.g. football team, music, etc) and possibly – if you’re feeling brave – some kind of common enemy… something to align people towards a common purpose.
  • Let people know that this is not ‘business as usual’ and that what might sometimes feel chaotic or inefficient is part of the process… wherever possible try and relate to circumstances that everyone will at some time experienced (this is why Dave Snowden’s children’s party story is such a powerful and widely used one).
  • Emphasise that the domain knowledge of the participants is a crucial part of the process and that a successful outcome will only come through the deployment of that domain knowledge
  • Any outsider is subject to ‘well, they would say that wouldn’t they’ scrutiny. Never underestimate the ability of an audience to pick up on what they will perceive as our biases. Never try and justify TRIZ or another other tool… no matter how factually correct we might be, the perception any human has when an outsider says something positive about what they’re then seen to be trying to sell does not go down well. It’s okay to say, ‘I believe…’ so long as it is swiftly followed by a statement like, ‘…but I’m not here to try and convince you…’ Better yet, add something like, ‘if you spot something you don’t agree with, I’d love to know about it’. People will only actually ever say anything once they know you’re in the same (Belonging) tribe, so ideally, you seek to achieve a positive ‘B’ outcome before you push the ‘-C’ story too far.
  • Again, per the JP Morgan aphorism, sooner or later your positive intangibles strategy is also going to have to be complemented with a positive tangible contribution. Problem solvers love solving problems, so ‘telling’ people the answer to a problem is rarely going to work. Or rather, it might work tangibly, but because we’ve taken away the best part of someone’s job, intangibly it almost definitely won’t work after we’ve left the room. No matter how good the solution suggestion might have been, in other words, it is going to be rejected. When people have been working unfruitfully on a problem for a long time before you arrived on the scene, the last thing they want is some no-knowledge smart-arse telling them the answer. What they will definitely thank you for, however, is an insight that re-directs their attention to a better definition of the problem, or to an alternative strategy for attacking the problem. In this regard, getting people to focus on solving-the-contradiction is one of the safest TRIZ facilitator bets, since most people have experienced years of being told that the only way to ‘solve’ contradictions is to make trade-offs. (NB Redefining the problem might well win you friends with the team, but at the potential risk of now alienating their manager – see the Short Thort at the end of this edition of the ezine – and, if nothing else, that may well end up being the biggest contradiction we as facilitators have to manage – the problem definition from the manager probably was wrong. Because they too don’t understand the importance of solving contradictions.)
  • Meaning-wise, the closest I’ve ever come to a sure-fire bet has been to work towards a goal that by the end of the session participants will have a story they will want to tell their friends and family about. If I’ve been feeling very brave, I’ve openly declared this objective to the group somewhere near the beginning of the session. People love telling stories, and for the most part, the stories we have to tell our family at the end of a long day at work are non-existent (‘same as yesterday’).

None of this is easy. But at least knowing that our job is to achieve two lots of positively directed ABC-M trajectories and making sure our contradiction-radar is switched on and looking for contradiction solving opportunities – both in the problem and with the team – and we stand a pretty good chance of achieving what we’re expected to achieve. Far greater in fact than the domain experts we’re coming in to help. Which ultimately means that our biggest intangible-driven success factor is the confidence that our knowledge of ABC-M and contradiction-solving puts us at an enormous advantage over everyone else.

That said, it is still early days for a lot of TRIZ/innovation facilitation teams, and so there is unlikely to be a big list of past successes that can be deployed with either managers or prospective teams we might be facilitating. If the list exists, our job will be a lot easier. If it doesn’t, our primary job as a facilitation team is to build it. That might mean cherry-picking projects that we do and don’t take on. Saying no to a manager that has called you in to do something with them is never going to be an easy task. It is, however, a very necessary one when it comes to doing anything in the innovation arena. Like anywhere in life, bad news travels about seven times faster than good news. Fail with a problem solving session and you make it seven times more difficult to convince the next manager you can help them. If you work through your workshop design and conclude that you won’t be able to achieve the manager and team ABC-M-positive double, my very strong advice to you will be that you politely decline to take on the session. Or, better yet, explain to the manager why you think it won’t work and (ABC-M heading in the right direction) enlist their help in creating a context whereby you have the best chance of getting Autonomy, Belonging, Competence and Meaning to be positive for every stakeholder and prospective participant.