This excerpt from What Matters at Work seems to add nicely to previous discussions about conflict, collaborative negotiation, and decision-making. I hope you find it useful to read — then give it a try!

A key challenge occurs when we are invited to engage in longer planning, policy-making, or conflict negotiation processes without being adequately prepared to do so. One important contribution that you can make as a member of a group considering such efforts is to help group members first clarify What Matters, by identifying those things that reflect their values, Intentions, and expectations of one another in their work together. A simple process that we have utilized with great success is the “Outcomes Identification Exercise.” I initially came across a variant of this activity in the Pfeiffer group facilitation Annual in 1987, and we have adapted it to work with dozens of work units, community groups, and leadership teams preparing for strategic planning. 

It is often useful at times of conflict and struggle, where there is a desire to move forward with planning or change efforts that have been stymied by relationships that have run aground. By clarifying the desired outcomes each participant seeks from work, and then noticing and affirming ways current efforts contribute to such intentions, members begin to learn (or re-learn) things about one another that can transform their energy and commitment. Once again, by focusing on strengths and assets within the group, the stage is set for important work that has otherwise eluded them. 

Process Overview

(Note: While this is primarily designed for a group sitting together in the same room, it is easily adapted to a virtual platform that allows for small group breakout discussions)

Facilitator’s Opening Statement: 

“A key challenge facing people who need to work through conflicts together is a lack of clarity about what they need. Their expectations regarding how those needs are met, and the relative priority of these expectations, is at the heart of this exercise. By clarifying desired outcomes from their work together, participants can begin to build an agenda that addresses those needs in practice.”

Step 1: Silent Brainstorming 

Individually, each participant should ‘brainstorm’ a list of responses to the following question: “What outcomes do I desire from my workplace?” 

An alternative question may be: “What expectations do I have from my work with my co-workers?” 

Take 5 minutes of quiet time to write down as many answers as possible to the focus question.

Step 2: Nominal Group Sharing

Going around the circle, each group* member should identify one desired outcome to share with others. The facilitator should record these responses on flip chart paper. Go around the circle a couple of times… if a ‘desired outcome’ has been previously stated, participants are encouraged to identify other items from their personal lists. People may “pass,” if preferred. After completing 2-3 turns around the group, the facilitator should ask members to review the flip chart list and identify any other items from their personal lists that they now feel are important to add to the group list.

*At the end of this step, the group’s list should contain 12-15 items. This assumes 5-7 members per group; if working with a larger group, it is advisable to break into subgroups.

Step 3: Hear What Has Been Noticed

Elicit feedback from group members regarding the characteristics of the desired outcomes they now observe. Ask them (if not otherwise noted) to notice the relatively significant role of procedural and relational needs (See Lesson 21) identified in these lists. [If you have a few sub-groups, it may be helpful to have people ‘wander around’ and view the other lists before making these comments.]

Step 4: Affirm What Matters

Ask each person to reflect upon the group list that has been generated, as well as their personal lists. Then ask each group member to take 3 minutes to compose two statements:

   A: “One desired outcome I am working to achieve is _____________.”
This is very important to our work group because _____________.”

   B: “I know that (someone else in the group or work team) is working to achieve (another desired outcome). This is very important to our work group because _____________.” 

Encourage group members to elaborate fully with these statements. Then, when all are ready, have people share them with one another, each in turn around the table.

*Again, small groups may be desirable. However, there is tremendous power in the experience of hearing people share these statements within the larger group. The facilitator should determine which approach is best in this situation. 

Step 5: From Ideas to Action(Optional

Building an action agenda often flows from the listing of desired outcomes in Step 3. You may return to this list and ask participants to identify [with check marks or colored dots] the “top 3” items on the collective list that should now be acted upon by the group. After people are polled in this manner, the group should identify those priority items that now appear to be meaningful and actionable for the group, and set aside time to address those items in the best possible way.

NOTE: Since this exercise may be used as a training exercise, moving ahead to problem-solving may not be appropriate within this meeting. On other occasions, however, it is a natural next step.

Challenge: Use the “Outcomes Identification Exercise

WHO: Solo/Group        

WHY: To apply this process to a meaningful issue. 


Step 1: Identify a group of colleagues that wants (or needs) to engage in a meaningful problem-solving process. This may be due to workplace challenges or difficulties, or it may come from a genuinely positive desire to improve their work together. Set aside 90m for this conversation and facilitate the steps of the process outlined above – you can do this!

Step 2: Follow the steps outlined above.  

Step 3: Later, (a) journal your insights and questions, then (b) discuss with a Coach or Mentor (perhaps someone engaging in this Journey with you) the power of the process and the results of the experience, and (c) reflect upon your own Values and Intentions and how they align with doing this work for you. 

“Jammin”: Fast-Paced Idea-Generation in a Playful Space

I love “Jammin.” To me, it’s far more than a facilitation tool or a cool group activity. It’s an example of what can emerge from truly playful collaboration in a Community of Practice (or in any work environment that promotes flexible, creative thinking). Here’s the back story: 

I have previously written about UW-MANIAC, the Madison Area Network for Innovation and Collaboration. One morning, I received an email from my friend, Darin Eich, who was on layover in Europe after doing some consulting. He had witnessed a neat idea-generation, consulting process in San Francisco that he was now mulling further, and he wondered if we could convene a meeting of the MANIAC Design Team to discuss it. He would be back in Madison by 3pm that afternoon – might we pull whoever could make it together to talk over coffee? I wrote back that I could meet him and I’d put out the word to the others, and we gathered at the Lakeside Coffee House later that afternoon. Though Darin was tired after traveling, he enthusiastically shared his idea: Let’s do some fast-paced “speed dating” for ideas that could foster innovation. We all added our own ingredients and in the end came up with “Jammin,” as well as a more deliberative companion called, “Studio Time” that we would pilot two weeks later. We promoted the session to the UW-MANIAC network and 25 people showed up for the first Jammin’ session.

From those half-baked beginnings, there have been dozens of “Jammin” sessions involving a few thousand people. It has been used at conferences, orientations for new faculty, and as the innovation incubator for which it was initially intended. “Studio Time” was a short-lived experiment, though the more deliberative aspect of such an offering promoted deepening ideas, so innovations prompted at a “Jammin” session could be more fully developed and planned. While there are variants on the theme, here is the core process:

  1. “Play Before Work”:  Form a circle for quick introductions. In rapid-fire fashion, introduce yourself and identify one thing you really enjoy for fun. This light introduction gets people used to the pace of the session. (Variant: add an Improv, “Yes, And…”) structure to the question if it is a small group of people familiar to one another, such as a work team) (<10m)
  2. “Create Your Elevator Speech”: What is the issue for which you seek advice? Prepare to share it concisely in one minute, as if you met the person on an elevator. (<5m)
  3. “Jammin” Triads”: In groups of three, each person takes <1m to share the Elevator Speech, followed by 2m to seek consultation and advice from the other two people. Each member of the triad takes a turn (~10m). 
  4. “Shuffle to a New Consultation”: We re-sort everyone so they get a second round of consultations with new people. We actually accelerate the time frame, allowing 2m per person. (total time = 6m) This step can be repeated a 3rd time. 
  5. “Synthesis/ Check Out”: Take a few minutes to sort through ideas you may have gained. What did you learn about your idea that improves it? What resources were identified that you can check into later? In the larger group, there is a brief “check out” around the circle. 

That’s it. The basic “Jammin” format takes less than an hour. In larger groups, we have had people seated at “Home Tables” where they can develop the initial “Elevator Speech” and try it out before going into the “Jammin” rounds. They return to the “nest” for the final synthesis and check out. We have also done a variation where participants form two concentric circles and are paired off for the consultations, moving to their left each round to meet 4-5 people. It all works…

“Jammin” in Action

Why does “Jammin” matter? Frequently in our organizations, we stop innovative opportunities by overthinking the process. We inhibit ourselves by expecting everything to be carefully planned before sharing our initial ideas, thus stifling the associative thinking that can result from saying things aloud and getting others to build on the first iteration. We need to “ideate” — what many of us naturally call “brainstorming” — and then we need to prototype some of the promising options that emerge. We also need to remain in the divergent phase a bit longer so we can entertain thoughts that are truly “outside the box” before moving towards convergence and final decisions. “Jammin” lets us do these things energetically, efficiently, and with purpose.

Let’s take a moment to return to the idea of “Studio Time,” which didn’t continue beyond the initial trials of Jammin’ sessions. I remain a believer in the intention of Studio Time: We need spaces to safely marinate ideas, talk about them with trusted friends and colleagues, and get others’ perspectives on how they land in the world. All too often, we lack that in our own departments or even our companies. But thinking more about Communities of Practice (as we discussed two weeks ago) and how they support learning, perhaps this is where Studio Time has its greatest potential. I also think the GROW Model of peer coaching that was presented in What Matters at Work offers an easy way for people to gather in a Studio space to offer that support and feedback… let’s just keep marinating here and see what might be promising. 

Exercise: Facilitate a “Jammin” Session

Try it out! Gather a group of at least a dozen people, more if you have the opportunity. Then follow the steps outlined above. The process can be readily adapted to online meetings, just using the breakout room capacities of the platform. You can reinforce the learning with a virtual whiteboard, as well, so people can share their insights in real time, then do a “Gallery Walk” check out that identifies those key ideas they’ve noticed. It’s fast-paced, energizing, and worthwhile. Let me know what you think.

~ Harry

Facing this Overwhelming Moment

It’s hard to know where to begin, it feels so overwhelming:

A global pandemic has infected 6.5 million people across the world and shows no signs of abating as it now attacks some of the poorest countries on Earth. COVID-19 has killed nearly 400,000 people including an unfathomable 108,000 in the US, the wealthiest nation on earth, all in less than six months;

Hundreds of millions across the world are sinking deeper into poverty as unemployment escalates, even in the strongest economies on the planet, with frightening growth of food insecurity and wealth disparities, both in the developing world and in wealthy nations;

Wars, political oppression, and the dangers facing refugees were already at ominous levels even before the COVID-19 reality deepened their despair. But situations across the world threaten to escalate these challenges (look at Bangladesh, Syria, and Hong Kong, for example) and exacerbate political instability;

The brutal death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has sparked civil unrest across the US and protests around the world. His death has served as a tipping point for the expression of pent up anger and despair, both by black Americans and by tens of thousands of others seeking significant reforms in police behavior and criminal justice, as well as addressing other core issues of racial and ethnic inequality.

The President of the US responds to all of these crises with self-absorbed delusions of his skills, autocratic escalation of the conflicts, and inept, incompetent leadership enabled by meek sycophants; this combination worsens so many of these challenges and threatens those institutions available to address them. Trump’s inability and unwillingness to express empathy or to summon any effort to bring people together has now once again laid bare — as if it still needed to be demonstrated — the bankruptcy of his pledge to serve the people of the United States and, by its role, the leadership of the free world.

The world is in an unprecedented place

What do we do with such a moment? What is possible as a leader in the face of such an overwhelming constellation of factors? What might any of us do, beyond deciding whether to protest in the streets to show our outrage or otherwise demonstrate support to those who do so in peace? “I am just one person,” I say to myself. But, as one connected to so many others, I have an opportunity and responsibility to offer what I am able to share. We already know so much of the answer, if we look inside our hearts and use our intelligence in service to our values:

George Floyd called with his final words, “I Can’t Breathe!” We who are still fortunate to breathe must do so — deeply — and listen fully and patiently to one another. We must wade into the difficult conversations, uncomfortable though they may be, and try to understand the larger stories here. We must engage in a range of spaces, both familiar and new, including a range of voices that can inform our prior assumptions about what is Truth and what are important ways to improve the world.

“Get your knee off our necks,” is a description of the black experience in America (with much justifiable concern here in Canada and elsewhere). It is much more than a phrase: It is a deep expression of daily experience, one that may only mildly intersect with my own. I need to understand the stories that are constant in the lives of those who live in constant danger, whether as people of color, or those facing discrimination as LGBTQ, as persons with disabilities, as those facing ethnic and religious discrimination. Those with power and privilege have an obligation to hear these stories and to act responsibly based upon what is learned. This is not a new lesson. It is merely a lesson amplified in this overwhelming moment.

What is most meaningful in this phrase to those facing such racism? How might those of more privileged backgrounds understand it in a valuable and valued way? The racial injustices awakened in this moment are deep-seeded and complex, and our complicity in their perpetuation invites us all to examine choices in our lives we may prefer not to explore. But they are at the heart of so much polarization that separates us from one another and which reflects the vast differences in our experiences, and cannot be ignored.

This is a political moment, to be sure, but it is also a moment to engage in each sphere of our society: These conversations must happen in our workplaces, making space for staff to examine policies and practices that systematically exclude and harm people of color, as well as other marginalized groups — whether by intention or not — and understand one another’s experiences in a fragmented and polarized society. These conversations must happen in our communities, examining the ways long-standing disparities are causing disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color, as well as to understand the real costs and impacts of the economic upheaval that cuts across society. And these conversations must happen in our families, so we may understand one another’s experiences, fears, hopes, and priorities. To reinforce the key point: This is a time to deeply listen to one another, using the breath we are fortunate to possess in service to that conversation

But there must also be concrete actions that truly make a difference in our organizations, with serious and sustained follow-through. We must reexamine our Values and Intentions, a reaffirmation of What Matters, and a commitment to practices that align with what we learn as a result. In our workplaces, this may well mean discomfort and upheaval: Well, that upheaval is already occurring — What better opportunity is there for us to reinvent our ways of working together? The greater context of our work is forever changed. Many of our customers and clients now have vastly changed their needs and priorities these past few months, haven’t they? The opportunity for innovation and experimentation is greater in such times, if we dare to grasp it

Organizations have an opportunity to review the entire terrain of communication, decision-making, conflict resolution, and other processes and work to promote authentic collaboration, genuine inclusion, and sustained day-to-day respect. New project teams can be created (or existing ones can be repurposed) to engage in such work, and they need to pull together disparate threads to build coherent, integrated policies and programs. This is far greater than considering, “Do we continue to work remotely?” This is an opportunity to thoroughly examination of who we are, how we work, and how we serve a greater purpose. 

While going through this reinvention, we must never lose sight of the distress of the present moment: Many have lost jobs and are living at the edge of their resources. Many have lost family members to the pandemic or its related fallout, often isolated from loved ones and unable to grieve properly. Many of us face daily dangers going to work, whether at health care settings, serving first responder roles, or working in warehouses and grocery stores. Many of us have lost a life we took for granted only a few months ago, connecting with friends, family, colleagues, and clients in ways that are now unsafe to do. All of us face continuous stress factors that have come from separation from families and friends, protection of our health, and uncertainties around when this health crisis may end. 

We must seek ways to connect and reflect, then to develop new ways of working together, and integrating loose threads into the whole cloth of innovation. As discussed in last week’s post, Communities of Practice can serve as critical spaces for such experimentation, as they are safe spaces that facilitate sharing across organizations and perspectives. CoP’s are uniquely positioned to serve such a learning purpose during this pandemic. When we are able to process our sense of loss, uncertainty, and anger, we can then open ourselves to embrace the fragility of this moment and make critical connections. We are not alone

There are other strategies to be sure. As leaders, we must listen to those we serve and understand how best to lead them as a result. If we approach this overwhelming situation with compassion, generosity, humility, and integrity, we can get through this and emerge better as a result. Facing this overwhelming moment can be frightening, but if we may transform it into a chance to breathe fully in this present moment together, this crisis may become a gift. 

Let us pray we have the wisdom to do so.


Celebrating Communities of Practice

This week, my colleague Darin Eich and I had the privilege of hosting a webinar that examined how Communities of Practice help us focus on What Matters at Work. We were joined by an amazing group of people from diverse fields and backgrounds, excitedly exploring ways CoP’s can serve our organizations in these turbulent times. In that spirit, I share this excerpt from my recent book, celebrating this important approach to learning. – Harry

Communities of Practice (CoP’s) are peer-organized, self-directed learning groups that bring together those who share an interest across an organization (or beyond such boundaries). CoP’s build collaborative skills and knowledge-sharing based upon trust and cohesiveness, and do so in remarkably cost-effective ways. Not only are they intrinsically powerful and beneficial to their members, but CoP’s build relationships among diverse constituencies and world views. I’ve been fortunate to work with many CoP’s over the past twenty years, and they are truly central to the practices we are discussing here. Foremost among theorists and writers in this area is Etienne Wenger,  who has identified three core elements of these types of learning communities: 

Domain: This is the area of focus or the core challenge that members are seeking to address through their learning and meeting together.

Community: This relates to the relationship building, trust development, communication practices and identity transformation that occurs within the CoP.

Practice: This is how the CoP enhances the skills and knowledge of members so they can test and apply what they have learned to the practical challenges of their work. 

All CoP’s need to pay attention to domain, community, and practice elements in order to sustain themselves and offer contributions to the organizations in which they are embedded. Paradoxically, such attention needs to start with Community, as the trust developed among members is fundamental to a willingness to define a meaningful set of Practice opportunities within a well-defined Domain. Members bring real challenges, taking the risk to be vulnerable regarding what they don’t understand or what frightens them, and then generously offer practical strategies to safely address those issues. CoP’s are also excellent spaces for sharing recent learning, as we have previously mentioned; sharing conference materials and connections, teaching key lessons from workshops attended, testing new language for policies, etc. These ideas all gain a receptive audience that gives needed critique before taking them further into implementation. 

While management may play a catalyzing role in convening a CoP, the energy for sustaining it must come from its members. This poses a natural tension, as management understandably seeks to align the agenda and activities of staff with the goals and mission of the company, and some activities within a CoP may not necessarily come together in that manner. This is where strong communication is required between CoP leadership and formal leadership, supporting staff participation while not directing it. There are tangible ways management can express this support without undermining the independence and self-determination of the CoP: Staff often need explicit statements of support for CoP participation from their supervisors, and need channels to convey learning back to colleagues in team meetings to validate such participation and maximize its benefits. 

In my experience, management can also facilitate broader communication of ideas and concerns that emerge from CoP meetings: Central leadership can provide for the occasional financial needs of CoP groups as they engage in programs that benefit members or communicate their learning across the organization. While such needs are modest, the symbolic and tangible value of support can come at critical times.

The HR-Communities of Practice Office at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (A Success Story)

I had the privilege of serving as founding Director of an innovative office that continues to develop creative leadership and skills development using a CoP approach. In the follow-up to a fundamental redesign of the Human Resources system at the University of Wisconsin, the HR-CoP Office was established. Its charge was to facilitate the training required to shift from a highly centralized, transactional approach to HR to one that is highly decentralized and relational in nature, all while nearly 700 HR and Payroll professionals at the University continued to assure that everyone received their paychecks, benefits, and accurate resolution of the varied technical challenges faced on a daily basis.

We adopted a unique community of practice approach because the new system required development of trusting, transparent, and honest relationships in a manner that had not generally existed. We also knew that many of the key members of the HR community needed to play leadership roles in gaining the engagement of colleagues, both within HR and in many other key administration sectors of this vast bureaucracy. Through the excellent work of Sarah Carroll and Joshua Schwab, the HR-CoP office quickly developed a wide array of learning experiences, both online and face-to-face, all within a creative competency-based model that Sarah crafted in consultation with the HR community. These included mastery of the required technical knowledge, to be sure, but also the important interpersonal skills needed in this new approach. Competencies were articulated in change management, collaboration, communication, ethics and integrity, problem-solving, and technical competencies, all grounded in competency in diversity and inclusion that serves as fundamental to the entire enterprise. 

Over the past four years, several hundred staff have now successfully engaged in this effort, participating in Learning Cohorts that meet for several months to learn how to apply these competencies to their work. The approach is illustrated by this Passport, demonstrating the learner’s journey through various levels of knowledge and skill in each competency area. In addition, HR-CoP staff support others across campus as they convene learning communities that address timely policy challenges and facilitate knowledge transfer across the organization. It is a true collaboration in process and substance. 

The Passport Documents the Learning Journey
Each Competency Is Defined at Three Levels of Mastery

The sustained commitment of the HR-CoP Office demonstrates how the various skills and strategies we’ve been discussing can be scaled up and implemented while remaining true to Core Values and Intentions. They have created an empowering program that engages hundreds of people, requiring diverse technical knowledge (e.g, benefits, labor relations, recruitment, international visas). HR-CoP utilizes a peer-led educational model that builds upon the Kolb Learning Cycle, development evaluation, and a full commitment to a diverse and inclusive workplace. This approach all occurs within a traditional bureaucracy with strict requirements regarding security, confidentiality, labor contracts, and transactional accuracy, demonstrating how to achieve these technical requirements while valuing trust-based, transparent relationships. 

Exercise: Understand How CoP’s Contribute to Organizational Success

WHO: Solo           

WHY: To improve our understanding of the outcomes of CoP’s by examining empirical evidence and stories from an organization.


Step 1: One way to better understand and appreciate the possibilities associated with starting a CoP is to review this engaging report and presentation by Bethany Laursen from 2015, in which she evaluated the impacts of several CoP’s that I convened at the time: and then search “CoP Impact Evaluation Report.”

Step 2: After doing so, consider your own organization: What possibilities exist to establish or otherwise support a CoP where you work? 

Step 3: Download the free CoP Design Guide created by members of the UW-Madison CoP Network (, then search for “CoP Design Guide” and use it as a resource to guide your efforts. Keep in mind your broader Journey here, your efforts to identify “What Matters’” and the larger context of our learning here.

Sustain Your Creative Spirit by “Orbiting the Giant Hairball”

One of my favorite books is Gordon Mackenzie’s, Orbiting the Giant Hairball (1998). During his 30-year career with Hallmark Cards, Mackenzie discovered ways to retain creativity in the face of the inexorable gravitational pull towards conformity (the “hairball”), and to seek bliss while remaining dedicated to the corporate mission and vision: 

“Orbiting is responsible creativity: vigorously exploring and operating beyond the Hairball of the corporate mindset, beyond “accepted models, patterns, or standards” — all the while remaining connected to the spirit of the corporate mission.” (page 33)

He later quotes Joseph Campbell in service to this definition, offering “…if you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all along, waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living.” Mackenzie says, “Orbiting is following your bliss.”

The ability to derive meaning from work is key to following your bliss. When we clarify our intentions and values, we define the criteria by which bliss has meaning for us. When we are determined to engage in Reflection and Synergy, not merely Task (referring back to Lesson #3 in What Matters at Work), we find our creative energies unleashed so we may be capable of “orbiting,” staying engaged without getting sucked into the Hairball of conformity. Just as importantly, we also do not fly away, escaping to save ourselves by jettisoning our creative talents from our work; all too often, many of us engage in repetitive, energy-depleting tasks at work and save our creative energies for sports, theatre, or other hobbies that occur elsewhere. 

As I look back upon my career, the ability to orbit has been key to my success and sustenance. I have been good at recognizing toxic environments and at assessing whether there was space to make them healthy. I have been capable of injecting creative energy into groups with whom I have worked, whether as a member, team lead, teacher in a course, group facilitator, or as the manager of the organization. In those few instances where I have failed to recognize the sucking, toxic energy of Hairball as quickly, I have also learned how that feels for me (exhausting, depressing, debilitating), for those around me (similar, though sometimes with different experiences of anger and betrayal at me for not protecting them), and for my customers (abandoned, disappointed, withdrawn… sometimes, when I am lucky, honest with their feelings). As Mackenzie notes, the Hairball is not the product of bad people, but a natural consequence of seeking “normal” and protecting those cultural assets we believe should be defended against the threats of creativity. But it is a misplaced loyalty, one that is derived from the assumptions of “pyramid organizations,” a concept we will explore later. 

Exercise: What is your experience with “Orbiting the Giant Hairball?” What has it taught you? How has it informed and revised your telling of the Core Story of your life? Reflect on these questions, then discuss your responses with a trusted Partner… of course, this may need to occur “virtually” these days, but that’s OK.