Taking the Plunge, Fishbowl Style

An email arrived from a leader who had connected with me a little while ago looking for some guidance on a new process she wanted to try with her team. The event was today and this was what she shared:

Oh my goodness. What an amazing experience. We had such great participation from the team…..almost everybody jumped in at some point…and the conversation was so positive and solution oriented. I was pleasantly surprised. I was worried it might become a *&#@fest. There were a few things that surfaced that were a bit of a surprise, and are clearly an undercurrent to be explored further, but the discussion today has opened the door a crack and now we just need to take the opportunity to throw it wide open and tackle it. My hope was that we would not only find solutions from the conversation, but would also build some rapport within the team that was sorely lacking. We definitely achieved both objectives today.

It was her preparation work that helped the success of the meeting. She had a core planning team comprised of different levels of staff from the team – it wasn't just her and the other manager. She invited the team well by talking about the upcoming meeting, encouraging people in lots of one-off conversations to be vulnerable, be courageous, to bring their ideas with them (invitation is a process). We talked about how she wasn't planning a meeting, she was planning a harvest, and what that harvest might be. In addition for harvesting for emerging leaders she gave some structure to a scribe role and included time for a gallery walk and sticky dot to indicate what ideas had resonance with the team. She wondered if the group would open up – apparently they are very very very quiet when together. We talked about how sometimes allowing a couple of minutes for private journalling and reflection before moving into dialogue can help. I also suggested that she introduce some agreements (the three practices from PeerSpirit Circle) to help the group meet well:  listen with attention, speak with intention, and contribute to the well-being of the whole. In her role as facilitator on the rim the agreements would give her neutral territory to call for a pause in the discussion should it be needed e.g. “I've asked us to pause for a moment as I've noticed we've stopped listening to each other with attention.”

The process she used was an open fishbowl. It is a great process that invites participatory leadership as people step in to contribute something that matters to the whole group, instead of her holding court as the manager in a traditional meeting agenda. She gave the group just enough structure to feel supported; no structure makes people feel too loosey-goosey and unsafe, and yet not too much structure that they felt controlled.

If the space had been too tightly controlled it's unlikely that the “undercurrent” would have peeked above the surface. She might have been too focussed on executing her agenda and wouldn't have noticed it. I think this is one of the real gems of her insights; there is more going on beneath the surface.

It takes courage for a leader to take the plunge into a participatory style of leadership, and to welcome what's underneath in service of helping the whole team succeed. It's leading in complexity. There isn't a right answer but together we'll figure it out. Cheers to this leader who has invited her team to step forward together to discover what emerges.