Getting Clear (or not) and Exerting Power (or not)

My first inclination was to name this entry “Failing at Homework,” but I stopped myself because I’ve just read Eugene’s piece about power dynamics and just watched Amy Cuddy’s TED talk, and they both remind me of how I disempower myself before anybody else can even take a stab at it.

My plan this week was to determine how I wanted to contribute to the project at hand, and not wait for my role to be completely dictated by someone else. As Eugene pointed out to me, the first step was to get clear with myself what I want my role to be, and – sure enough – I never got there. In the meantime, the universe decided to pitch in; a critical person on the project is very ill and unable to continue working on it, and my efforts are more necessary than ever. Not that this defines exactly what I’ll do, which is still fuzzy, but it ensures my participation. I’ve had so much competing work thrown at me recently that I wasn’t even taking that for granted.

So what’s my barrier to deciding what I’d like to do and requesting it? Why do I have such trouble exerting power? It sounds like the beginning of a long therapy session, but no doubt it has to do with gender dynamics, childhood upbringing, fear of failure, and karmic lessons. I’m tempted to start faking it, as Amy Cuddy suggests, but I also fear becoming obnoxious. I guess I associate power with strident, cocky, unlikeable people. Surely there are exceptions, but now I realize that there’s not much I admire about the exertion of power.

Perhaps there’s a quiet, gentle power that would be more my style than what I’m envisioning, and perhaps that’s what I need to explore. The type exerted in Twelve Angry Men is certainly not it!

Practicing Silence

When reflecting on power dynamics last week, one thing that stuck out for me was the power of silence.  I sometimes find myself in situations where people move into group think too quickly and we don’t get to hear the diversity of opinions in the room.  I’ve seen the power of silence to get people centered in their OWN thought/opinion before entering into group discussion.  Turning to your neighbor to discuss before entering the group can have the same impact.

The challenge is that I am a space-filler.  I don’t like awkward silences and I tend to keep talking if no one else steps in right away, sometimes even half-answering my question to others before I give them a chance to speak.  So my practice this week was to give time for reflection and to be comfortable with silence.

This was hard.  I am on a LOT of conference calls (7 in this last week!) and I’m all business – we have a lot to do, we’re all busy, if there’s silence I think of it as wasted time and I just hop in and drive the conversation forward.  There were a few moments of serious antsy-ness, where I decided to sit back and let someone else be first to answer or comment, let someone else volunteer first.  To be honest, I don’t feel that by holding back, I really changed the dynamic in a positive way.  I like that I drive things forward and I think people have come to expect it from me.  Along the lines of the David Kantor framework Eugene mentioned, I have a role that I play in the groups I work with often.  I often see the path or the direction early and I like that I play that role.  This is one of my strengths and it felt awkward to shy away from it.

That said, I can DEFINITELY also see where the role I take on could be unhelpful.  Just because it didn’t happen this week, I’ve caught myself in the past blabbing when I don’t have any special insight to share or adding preamble and context just because a question might be difficult.

Overall, it’s a great thing to be aware of – both as a strength and as something to watch out for.  And given that I know this about myself, it’s good to be intentional about silence, especially when I’m in a group (having patience and giving time for slower cookers to reflect and bring their best without me setting the frame) or one-on-one when I really need to understand or make room for another perspective.

Last, the practice this week made me realize how darn fast I’m trying to move at the moment – efficiency is queen in my world as a new-ish mom with limited time leading a bunch of projects at once.  I couldn’t leave time for silence because I just didn’t have that time!  It would be good for me to keep practicing this and testing that theory… is the way I jump in actually moving things along faster or could another approach achieve the same or better outcomes?

Observations on Power Dynamics

Last week’s workout was about group dynamics and about power. I was particularly excited about this workout because, to me, the essence of group work is about 1. being intentional about the work you’re trying to accomplish; and 2. finding ways to maximize the power of the group as a whole. Shifting groups requires understanding the existing power dynamics (many of which are invisible), and skillfully finding ways to guide them.

How do you learn to do that? You guessed it — practice. It’s the only way. Power dynamics are complex and multilayered, with many potential touchpoints. Most of us are already attuned to certain kinds of power dynamics. However, broadening that frame and finding ways to guide those dynamics in the moment can only happen with practice.

We started the workout by reflecting on times when we ourselves felt powerful. I wanted participants to understand their own relationship to power, both to find practices for enhancing their own sense of power and also to understand the biases of their lenses.

Coincidentally, my friend, Amy Wu, shared Amy Cuddy’s TED talk with me yesterday. It’s a simple yet insightful explanation of how our physical posture biologically affects how powerful we feel:

One other interesting observation from last week’s workout were my bootcampers’ reactions to a scene from 12 Angry Men, the classic Henry Fonda movie about a jury deliberating on the guilt of a teenager on trial for murdering his father. I asked them a number of questions about the dynamics they saw in the scene, then I asked if the dynamic was healthy. The response was unilaterally no.

I disagreed with that assessment. There were definitely some unhealthy micro-dynamics in that scene, but as a whole, it amounted to a healthy, if delicate balance. (Of course, that’s the point of the movie, which masterfully, yet subtly celebrates this country’s tradition of our right to be judged by a jury of our peers.)

I thought it was interesting that my bootcampers — all of whom are women — reacted so negatively to this scene of 12, well, angry men interacting, whereas I — a man — saw something very different. It once again speaks to the importance of understanding your own lens in how you interpret the dynamics in a room, and the difficulty of knowing what’s healthy and valuable for any particular group.

Some Principles for Collective Visioning

The goal of my focus project is: To co-create a vision with my grantees and a funder partner that takes our collective work together to the next level. Ultimately, I hope to develop a new investment strategy for my program based on that united field-funder vision.

So for homework, I asked three people the following questions:

What is the best experience you have had getting multiple organizations to work together on a common vision (or project)?  What made it great?

I had some great diversity in my group of three outstanding women – one was an environmental activist, another a consultant running a broad multi-state reproductive justice initiative, and the last helped a large network of California schools develop common reform principles and a shared learning culture over a period of 6 years.  The last person happens to be my accomplished mother-in-law : )

As I think about my own attempt to get my grantees to work more closely on a shared vision, several important reflections came up:

  1. People need to feel a sense of ownership over both the process to get to the vision and the content of the vision.  They need to come in at a point where things aren’t already baked.  One person said they didn’t invite partners to a “pre-determined outcome” but rather asked people to co-create something that everyone could get excited about.
  2. The impetus of all the groups coming together was a set of shared values – they all really cared  about what they were doing and could align on values, even if not on exact policies or workplans right from the start.  One person mentioned how critical this values alignment has been in the face of conflict or challenge to keep the group together.
  3. At the same time, collective planning processes only get you so far.  One person noted how important it was to take the values, principles, and brainstorms of a broader group and have someone step up and lead by putting a plan on paper and getting people to react to it.  Trying to write the plan collectively was frustrating and catered to the lowest common denominator.
  4. In the 6-year process, there was a LOT of evaluation, feedback loops, and learning opportunities and people were encouraged to take things out of weekend retreats, go back to their work environments and try things out, then return to the group and share what worked but also what didn’t.  This created an important culture of learning critical to the project’s success.  To encourage learning, group work was very well documented so that participants could keep building on progress, and keep tweaking their vision, goals, and practice.

Points 1-3 I have thought about before and it was great to be reminded of them right at the start of my own project.  Point 4 is something I haven’t spent much time thinking about and I think it’s absolutely crucial to my success (it’s also very resonant with the principles of Bootcamp!).  To accomplish my goal, people will have to change the way they work and change takes time and it takes practice.  It made me realize just how long and involved this process will be and that a 2-day retreat could be a great kick-off, but to accomplish the goal, we will need a community of practice that is constantly experimenting, trying new things, and coming back to the group to process, learn from each other, and design the next experiment.  This requires a lot of time, commitment, and passion for what we’re doing. We’ll have to see if that appetite really exists.

Last along these lines, I loved this quote: “the lightbulb doesn’t have to turn on for everybody at the same time”.  The process has to allow space for people to “get the bug” for this work on their own timeline.  And what better way to get people bought in than by seeing positive real-world results when they experiment with some of the principles the group is devising together.

Homework #2: Stories about changing perceptions

After a week of being far too busy and having my homework plans go out the window, I was finally able to ask a couple of people the following two questions:

  • What was the best experience you had making a shift in someone’s perception?
  • Why was it so great?

The first story revolved around my friend’s daughter coming home from grade school and announcing that she hated all boys.  Through a gentle exchange, pointing out flaws in this assertion, my friend saw her daughter soften her stance, which was never again repeated. In essence, the exchange went something like this:

“I don’t think you hate all boys, because your father and your brother are boys, and you love them.”
“Well, I hate all of them except for Dad and Nate.”
“OK. And didn’t you mention there was that one boy in your class who was kind of nice?”
“Oh, yeah. Well, he’s different. I don’t hate him.”
“And aren’t there a few girls in your class you don’t care for?”
“That’s right!”
“Do you think it might work better to just consider people on a case-by-case basis, rather than deciding based on whether they’re a boy or a girl?”
“Hmm. Maybe.”

The second story revolved around a homophobic aunt who came to town for a visit with my friend’s mother.  While the two sisters were visiting, my friend held a party that was also attended by a gay couple with whom she is very close.  On the flight home, the aunt asked her sister whether she thought the two men were gay. The sister said that she knew for a fact that they were, and went on to explain that she didn’t even give it a second thought anymore, given that they are such good friends and practically a part of the family. As she talked, she saw the aunt’s face soften, and could practically watch the wheels turning in her head as she considered this attitude.

The thread that I perceived in both these stories was that in the case of prejudice, meeting and knowing people in the suspect category makes all the difference in perception. Once you realize that the nice gay couple is really just a nice couple, period – or that when you think it through, you do know some boys who don’t smell bad and act like jerks, you can begin shifting from a hard stance to a more nuanced perspective.

Taking a Step Back: A Framework for Optimizing Team Meetings

By Lauren Rodriguez

My project for Changemaker Boot camp is focused on improving  weekly staff meetings and optimizing our team process. Working at a learning community focused on transforming the way leadership leadership development, work is convinced, evaluated and conducted,  it can be tough to balance the staff brainstorming sessions with having a space to take care of staff business and organizational content.

Naturally, the stakeholders in  my project are my awesome team members. Since we are a small team, I was able to  interview  each member (Deborah, Miriam, Eleanor, Natalia in that order ) and get their feedback in order to create a framework around optimizing team meetings.

The question I asked the staff was, “What’s been your best experience in an LLC staff meeting where you felt the value of the team was best optimized”. I asked staff follow up questions to really probe their examples.

I tackled the analysis section by writing out key words or phrases mentioned in each of the interviews onto post- it notes and then clustered them into themes (just like in our class).  


And what emerged were three distinct but intertwining categories or processes that contributed to staff meetings with optimal levels of staff preparation : pre-conditions,  preparation and execution/goal setting.

1. Pre-conditions or Teamwork prep

This seemed to be a very important part of successful staff meetings.  Many staff members mentioned pre-conditons as essential. I think this is also an interesting issue since most of our staff is fairly new- hired within the last year or less. Staff identified areas in which they felt were needed to be in place and continuously worked on in order to carry out the work on a deeper level and solidify our collaboration as a team.

Some of these preconditions included:

  • The importance of trust and trust building

  • Compassion

  • The acceptance of our humanity

  • The creation of safe environments

  • Openness and and voice

  • Appreciation

  • A design thinking atmosphere

  • Trial and error accepted

An interesting theme here is that the staff is open to trial and error, testing ideas and bringing a design thinking mindset to staff meetings. This innovative mindset is combined with the need to create a safe space that foster other preconditions such as, trust, compassion and openness.  As one staff member said, “Each of us should feel solid, that our piece is valuable and valid”. In order to marry an environment of innovation and trust, these important components helped me to realize that we need more team building as a staff as we try to break new ground in staff meetings.

2. Preparation

Various levels of preparation was a major theme that staff mentioned. Some phrases included:

  • Having materials planned

  • Being prepared

  • Mapping it out

  • Being intentional about the meeting

  • Bringing in guest speakers/ outside experience when necessary

An interesting observation during the staff interviews was that each shared similar examples of meetings that worked best for them. But what was common about each example was having good preparation materials in place. Whether it be tools, exercises or bringing in someone from outside to further staff thought, planning was essential element to successful meetings


3. Execution/ Goal Setting

  • Clear outcomes for meetings

  • Strategic agendas

  • Voices are valued

  • Team is engaged and participates

  • Follow up and next steps

Being strategic about the goals of meeting and just as strategic about the products or follow up of that meeting were also a big theme. Testing approaches and really implementing design thinking was goal that as a staff we would like to move forward on.

Final Comments:

What I learned from the exercise is that as someone so wisely said in one of the interviews, “Good meetings really take a lot of prep work”. But maybe preparation work doesn’t just mean preparing for the team meetings. That maybe, by prep work, we have to take a step back before just the staff meetings and be really intentional around team building because we have new staff. We have started this kind out work with a recent staff retreat and other small lunch outings etc. But I think we have to be very intentional about building our relationships with one another. The idea of team relationship building really expanded my own framework about how to optimize team meetings.

Closing questions: What were successful elements of a team meeting that you have been part of? What are some good team building exercises or activities that have worked for you?


Equity- vs. Strength-Based Facilitation

I had a great aha at Bootcamp last week that I wanted to share.  We were discussing group dynamics, different learning styles, and facilitation and Eugene mentioned something about the potential flaws of facilitation that strives for equity.  Often, facilitators feel they need to be equitable in who gets “floor time” and so they might try to draw “slow cookers” out in ways that can make them uncomfortable.  Slow cookers by nature need to process before jumping in to group dialogue.  By calling on them, you may get uncooked ideas and make people feel more self-conscious and cause them to further retreat.

This method is also not playing to the strengths of the group – some people are fast responders and/or need to process out loud.  Their verbal processing can help slow cookers in their silent pursuit.  I’m an out-loud processor and I tend to jump in quickly and speak often.  I’m self-conscious about this and sometimes intentionally sit back to make room for others.  This is very important at times.  But our discussion made me also understand this as a strength.  By doing what I feel comfortable doing – jumping right in – I make room for people who need to process more slowly.  I can help set a framework and a slow cooker can come in and add critical insight later in the conversation.  Both approaches are helpful in different ways.

Of course, there are times when people dominate the conversation and facilitators should shut that down and look for places where someone is trying to speak and is interrupted or can’t get in.  At the same time, needing to hear from everyone could be inappropriate and forced.  AND there are probably times when slow cookers DON’T need to hear out-loud-processors talk, talk, talk, but actually need silent reflection to formulate their thoughts.

I was thinking about this in the context of my organization’s board meetings and it made me realize that board and staff could use some skill-building in this arena.  But taking the lessons from Changemaker Bootcamp, perhaps rather than bringing in an expert, we could do an exercise where as a group we come up with best practices for facilitation – using our own wisdom and past experience as a guide, and determining a framework for what works best for our group.

Progress Report on the Changemaker Bootcamp Experiment

I wrote a detailed post on my personal blog yesterday about Changemaker Bootcamp. In it, I detail my motivations for starting Changemaker Bootcamp, my process for carrying out this experiment, and finally, how things have progressed.

In my post, I make a concerted point about doing this experiment out in the open before it’s “ready.” I love being able to point people to this website to give them a flavor of what’s happening, and I’m surprised by how many people have been staying engaged with this experiment via this openness. I especially appreciate all of my bootcampers, who have been great about blogging as part of their experience. It adds a richness to the learning-in-open, and it helps build valuable muscle around working transparently.

We’re already a third of the way through this second bootcamp. The first two sessions were largely a repeat of the first two I did at the first bootcamp, with different participants, a larger group, and some tweaks here and there. The next three weeks will look markedly different from the last bootcamp, as I’ll be experimenting with different workouts and taking advantage of the larger group. Looking forward to sharing!

Shaking things up at LLC Staff Meetings

My name is Lauren Rodriguez and I work for the Leadership Learning Community in Oakland, where Eugene is our awesome board chair! We are a nonprofit, trying to create a more just and equitable society by changing and challenging the way leadership development is conceived, conducted and evaluated.

I am very excited to be a part of Changemakers Bootcamp because I have been looking for an opportunity to take my own skills to the next level and build my confidence as a young professional of color in the nonprofit world and in the evaluation research field.

My project has already changed from the first meeting with Eugene! I went back to the LLC office to “tell all” about my learnings at boot camp, and after talking with our ED and Managing Director, realized that my efforts might be best used to help make a breakthrough in the ways that staff meetings are conducted. And how we can best utilize staff time together to optimize productivity.

At first I was unsure if I wanted to make this my boot camp project. We discussed that we would get started straight away! That I could really be innovative and experimental with our whole 1.5 hours of staff time.  And then I got really interested…  I reflected on some of the core components of staff meetings –  we always start with a check-in, discussing content, getting caught up on cultivation projects.. I could go on but I am already bored! Why not change up our process to make staff meetings fun and a place to hash out ideas and get creative?

I had so many questions about changing our staff process around meetings and breaking out of our routines. Since we are a small staff (5 total), I think the biggest question for me is, “As a staff, how do we best utilize our time together to reach our organizational goals?”. This is a big question and I think it’s going to take a lot of trial and error and practice- hey aren’t these the central principles in our bootcamp??

To answer this question I realized that I am going to need patience and support of our staff as we try out new approaches and ideas. As of last Friday, I facilitated our first staff meeting, using a new approach and preparing at least one whole day in advance and being mindful of the agenda and time guidelines. As a staff we discussed how we want to use staff time and began to hash out ideas for working as a team together. We tackled 5 Team Agreement Questions that Eugene shared with LLC some time ago and structured our staff time to discuss:  

  • What are my experience with teams?

  • What are my hopes and concerned about this team?

  • How will we manage team meetings?

  • How will we make decisions?

  • How will we work through conflict?

We also discussed what transparency looks like for our organization, what it looks like to each of us. So I do think we accomplished a lot!

This week we are going to address our organizational goals and how each of our individual goals maps out on each of these with a visual exercise. I look forward to building my skills as a facilitator and getting creative together as a team to tackle big ideas and solution.  

I will sign off with a question: What are some of the techniques you have used to best utilize staff time and making breakthroughs as an organization?


Learning from Bootcamp Try #2

Natalie and Lauren Practice

As you can see from Renee and Natalie’s posts, bootcamp is back! This time, I’ve got six great participants, with Anna and Marie returning for another round, and some tweaks based on what I learned from my first try. (My other participants, Lauren and Allison, will introduce themselves on this blog this week. My friend, Amy Luckey, is observing, and she may pop onto this blog with her thoughts as well.)

As before, this is as much bootcamp for me as it is for the other participants. The project I’m bringing to the table, once again, is the bootcamp itself. And the big question on my mind this time around is: How can I leverage the bigger group?

With just two people, it was easy to give my participants lots of individual attention and to customize the workouts. With six very different people, all with different projects and skill levels, that won’t be possible.

However, more people also equals more opportunities. The additional diversity will make things more interesting, and it will also allow me to do things I wasn’t able to do with just two, because it will introduce more complicated group dynamics. I have a “power dynamics” workout for one of the later sessions that I’m super excited about and that I couldn’t do with just two people.

A related, underlying question is: How big of a group can I manage, while keeping the quality of everyone’s experiences very high? I don’t know what the upper limit is, but if I’m disciplined about writing myself out of the design, it will bounded by room size, not by the exercises. I need to leverage space and time to encourage quality interactions, and I need to give them permission and encouragement to facilitate themselves. That, after all, is the point of bootcamp — to give them the opportunity to practice these skills.

Looking forward to learning with this group, and sharing what I learn over the next several weeks!