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    1999 Foresight Gathering Leaping the Abyss - Contents

Foresight "Group Genius" Weekend

Leaping the Abyss:

Putting Group Genius to Work

Chapter Thirteen

Giving Up the Illusion of Control:

Fear, Frustration, and Other Forms of Loathing


When you as a new DesignShop participant also happen to be the leader of an organization or group back home, you eventually start to think, "We should have one of theseI should sponsor one of these." You begin to play out the scenario, and about ten seconds later a powerful feeling hits you in the gut. We know, because we felt it-sponsor fear.

Perhaps the role most important to the success of a DesignShop event is the sponsor. The sponsor represents the organization undertaking the task. He or she makes the decision to embark on the process, sets the challenge(s) to be addressed, and must work in advance with the facilitators and knowledge workers to specify needs, problems, and objectives so that the process is tailored to support the defined goal.

Leaders like to think they have control over what is going on in their organizations. Of course, this isn't true at all. Organizations are seething masses of conflicting goals and plans pursued by dozens or hundreds or thousands of uncontrollable individuals, most of whose primary agendas have nothing to do with the health of the organization itself. As the saying goes, what is amazing is not how well the bear dances-what's amazing is that the bear dances at all.

So the appearance of control is always an illusion. But the DesignShop process rubs your nose in this fact. Because you are tapping into the unknown or underappreciated skills of your teammates, and because time is compressed, completely unexpected things can happen fast. Of course, that is why these events are held in the first place-if you knew in advance what the outcome would be, you wouldn't need to go through the process to find out.

Despite the ever-present forces of chaos in their organizations, leaders are good at maintaining some level of control, or at least some appearance of control. That is how they became leaders. The DesignShop process requires that they relinquish that-a skill which has been key to their success. How do they feel about that? Nervous. Stressed-out. Scared.

To explore the effects of these emotions, we went to the staff, who see it all the time. Jon Foley: "As you're doing a DesignShop session, the outcome evolves. If you start the event saying, 'this is what the outcome should be,' you have lost the benefit, lost what you could get out of it."

Bryan Coffman: "There is a philosophical threat in that there is no rank here: the structure is loose and the agenda evolves, as opposed to when you all sit around a table and the biggest blowhard gets to talk all of the time. It's also different from having a facilitator who goes around the table getting a 'chip' from everybody, like you are in kindergarten. There is a big philosophical threat inherent in the design of a DesignShop event-inherent in the philosophy."

Frances Gillard: "If you as a sponsor send your staff to a DesignShop session, you had better be there. You either have to be there or, when they get back, you'll find they have moved on to thinking that you may not understand."

Some leaders find the thought of not being in direct control of the process so threatening that they choose not to have their organization take part in it at all.

Bryan: "Even if you are at the DesignShop session, you can still lose control. You can really hate it, and that is one reason some leaders never do it again. Often, the ones who cannot handle the thought of losing control do not even make it to the first day. They wind up canceling the DesignShop event before it starts."

Perhaps the word "fear" sounds a little melodramatic. But when you have seen the energy and speed of action at one of these events, and picture your organization undergoing that, it is scary. Remember that entire departments and divisions can be created and wiped out at these events. Corporate plans and goals can entirely change. The word fear sounds accurate to us, and also to Jon Foley when he remembers his first time as the sponsor of a DesignShop event:

I was the sponsor of an important DesignShop session which was supposed to start on a Tuesday. The most difficult time for me was on Sunday afternoon:

I'm sitting in front of the computer. Everyone else working on the event has gone out on a break-it's time to get some lunch. But I'm on a roll and I don't want to lose the energy, so I'm working on one of the exercises, and all of the sudden I froze up in fear. I wanted to call my boss and say, "I don't want to do this. We will not be ready by Tuesday morning, I want to call it off on Monday morning. I just want you to know that I'm going to do that-I have the authority to do that, I'm going to do it."

But before I made the call I realized something. I had been on a high ropes course in which I had to face a situation that brought out physical fear. When it hit, I literally had to do one thing at a time. Move this hand three inches that way. Move this foot three inches that way. Turn my head. Move this hip. It was how I got through my fear up there until I could get fluid and start doing things.

And I recognized that this feeling that hit me was the same fear-based adrenaline surge that I remembered from the high ropes course. So I did the same thing: ask myself what's the next word I'm going to type, and I would type that word. It took about ten minutes, then I was through it. I blasted through it and was on track again. But I had to face it totally alone. It was the only lonely thing I had to do.

Matt explains, "That fear is natural and not wrong. It should not be avoided. As a facilitator, I feel it all of the time."

Like entering the military or going skydiving, there are two traditional ways in which someone becomes a sponsor: by volunteering, or by being drafted.

Bryan: "Usually a personal friend of the company's president says, 'Look, this is the weirdest thing. It is very strange. It is not always fun, but you should try it.' So they do."

However, the real white-knuckle road to being a sponsor is when your boss drafts you for the role.

Todd Johnston: "When your boss has ordered you to sponsor a DesignShop event, you feel enormous pressure-like it is all on your back. First, you are stepping into an environment that is unfamiliar. Second, there is real or perceived pressure from the boss, who tells you to deliver certain output. Meanwhile, the boss isn't going to come to the DesignShop event. They just want to see the results."

Long before the participants show up at a DesignShop session, the sponsor is on site for the "sponsor meeting," in which goals are set, and then the walk-through, at which the staff lays out the sequence of exercises and experiences custom-tailored for this event.

Frances gives an example of how this process typically goes:

We had a sponsor from the Air Force, Colonel Tom, a bright guy with his own set of very definite ideas. He came in with an agenda for the sponsor meeting, and said, "We are going to do such-and-such at the DesignShop session."

The sponsor meeting and the walk-through were done in the DesignShop environment, not done in a standard office. In a DesignShop environment, we can give the sponsor a sample of the different kind of process that we are proposing. In a standard office environment, we wouldn't be able to show them any examples. How would a sponsor be able to understand and agree to something he had never experienced? Col. Tom was convinced to give it a shot.

As a frequent facilitator, Bryan has had to hold the hands of many nervous sponsors:

During the walk-through, first-time sponsors will try to steer the agenda so they reach a certain comfort level. What they do not realize at first is that by trying to manipulate or steer that agenda, they are in fact ensuring that they will not get the results they need. They learn that quickly. Working with a first-time sponsor is often one of the really challenging aspects of the facilitator and staff roles-to give them a comfort level without interfering with the process. There are not many sponsors who are not nervous the day before their first DesignShop event.

During the DesignShop session, the sponsor is there at all times-excited, nervous, surprised, anxious, trying to remember to breathe. These are all the same emotions that an expectant father has once Lamaze training has ended and now he's in the delivery room doing The Real Thing. If you're not extremely nervous, so it is said, you don't understand the process.

Because they are leaders, sponsors tend to be highly action-oriented, with a strong drive to make decisions and develop specific plans. Therefore, they tend to have trouble during the early Scan phases of the process-it seems too unfocused, too unrelated.

Chip elaborates: "First-time sponsors may feel that they have put their career on the line for something they have not yet learned to trust. Their angst level is usually highest at the end of the Scan day, when it will appear that no useful work has been accomplished.

Think about meetings where the group floundered around for a long time, finally came up with some options, and then had a very productive last half hour. This is Scan/Focus/Act. Or have you ever had to write an article, and you studied, made a few outlines, and then you're in the shower and suddenly the answer was in front of you and you just had to write it down? The 'writing it down' is the Act. The key point is-we all go through this, we just don't usually have a way of thinking about it. You can't shortcut straight to Act."

Gunner sees common reactions following a similar timetable:

By the end of the second day, they are going around whispering, "This is a waste of time and I am never doing one of these again." Then about halfway through the third day, when the plan starts coming together, they are saying, "This is the most wonderful thing that has ever happened-can we have another one when we develop the plan to a certain point?"

Potential sponsors need to ponder this: You will be creating a bunch of change agents in your organization. They will make things different. If you don't want people doing this, then don't implement the process. Without it, your organization will not do as well as it could-it may even die. But if you give your people this exposure to enhanced creativity and productivity, and then thwart it, they will be frustrated and the best ones may leave.

To the extent that you want people to show initiative and creativity, you have to let go of control. Matt tells the story of Henry Ford's response to a young engineer's offer to resign after he made a $1 million mistake. Ford said, "You can't leave; I just spent $1 million on your education." He believed the payoff was there. Mistakes cost money, but the alternative is more expensive. Sometimes it hurts, but command-and-control management hurts more.

Pulling all this together, we can come up with a few "Operating Rules for Sponsors":


Beyond Sponsor Fear:

Sponsor Confidence and Participant Discomfort

The most experienced sponsor at the Wharton event was Col. Bill. He has long ago left sponsor fear behind and moved to the next phase-confidence that the process works, combined with a bit of amusement at how it affects some participants:

There are the people who do not believe in what they call "touchy-feely." They want to blow all of this away and have the standard situation where they have an agenda, they will listen for 15 minutes, and then the colonel will make a decision. At the start, they thought that was how the F-15 program was going to work. And occasionally I do make decisions that only I can make. But for the most part, they have found out they really are empowered to make decisions.

The touchy-feely stuff takes the classic "Type A" personalities and blows them apart. I love watching them react. Look at the videos and watch their faces get red. You can tell what is going on. There ought to be a medical warning on DesignShops, especially for Type A's. I tell them, "We might as well draw the chalk outline on the floor now, because I'm telling you that you will work for 12 hours and decide you accomplished nothing. You are going to feel bored beyond belief and bang your head against the wall in your room, thinking you have wasted 12 hours and could have been filling out reports or watching your contract or whatever. Instead you have been in here playing with toys and talking about the universe in the year 2025, when you cannot figure out Saturday."

Type A engineers especially have trouble initially getting used to DesignShops. The only thing worse than a Type A engineer is a lawyer. The worst thing in the world is a Type A lawyer with an engineering degree. That is a horrendous combination. We had a couple of people close to this specification.

Another one of our people once described the participants' reactions to me this way: "We are frustrated because we are constantly circling. Then they throw something unexpected in there. There is no schedule. We do something, and we thought we were going to report-out about it, but we didn't. Then we come back the next morning to something different. They are constantly producing a level of chaos and trial." I said, "Sounds like the real world, doesn't it? Why would you expect this to be any different?"

Overall, I'd say that 90% of the people adjust to it over time.


Process Need Not Be Enjoyable

As you enter a DesignShop environment for the first time, you see the unusual setup, hear the music, and are surprised by the presence of toys. Your first thought is that the process must have, as a primary goal, getting the participants to have a good time. Matt explains that having a good time is not a prerequisite:

How they feel does not matter. Naturally we want them to be relaxed, content, happy, cruising along with a smile on their faces, as much as possible. That is a natural human desire on our part. But if they absolutely hate it, that means nothing to the process. The process doesn't care. The process does not require that they like it. The process requires only that they do the work. Then later they can decide whether they like it or not, based on the results.

Believe me, we have had people who hated DesignShop sessions at first and love them today. That is not our concern. You cannot manage that. There is too much concern for that kind of thing in organizations today-people in the hierarchy are constantly trying to appease their bosses, make their bosses happy. That is a positive feedback loop that is unstable. That is not our goal. We want to make them effective. We want to bring out their genius individually and as a group to break through on an issue that is important.

That is our mission, and our feedback loop is based on what they do productively, not what they say to us. We can take that into account, but we will not modify our process based on it. We modify based on what we see them actually do.


Resistance to the Procedure

The facilitation team has seen participants who have trouble with the process, especially in the first half, before the results start to emerge:

Bryan: "People want to have the standard things: a keynote speaker, a focus group, have people say 'here, do these things,' and walk out with a solution. In this context, the first two days seem like a waste of time."

Frances: "There can be a personality clash where some people don't want to do the Scan phase at all. They just want to get in there and act. A lot of them don't really see the value in the first day or day and a half, because they are not into their comfort zone."

Matt: "So what if it feels funny? You change your habits and what is your body/mind going to tell you? It tells you to change your habits again, and go back to what you are used to."

Pat: "Discomfort is necessary."

Gunner: "You never get any place without it."

Pat: "It is the discomfort you feel from any kind of stress. Any kind of threat will do the same thing to you."

Stress and fear are no strangers to most participants-they have plenty of it back on the job. At Wharton, the Ernst & Young team told us that they "don't have retirement parties from E&Y, they just have lunch for the widows and orphans." Another comment from a participant was that at his company, "Fear permeates. It's fear that won't allow our people to share knowledge in a knowledge base, because knowledge shows that I'm an expert. If I have to ask for information, I am showing weakness."


When Fear Gets Extreme

Elsa Porter tells of a friend whom she convinced to attend a DesignShop event on the topic of energy. He had a strong negative reaction, the strongest one we've heard:

He thought that it was cultish. He thought that it was dangerous. He thought that this was similar to EST in terms of deprivation. You had to work twelve hours, and they got you so tired. He went on and on. What he did physically was to cut himself off-- sat on the outside, walked around during discussions. He was very disruptive in terms of his own behavior.

He and I both belong to the same online discussion network, and he was criticizing it for several weeks afterward, and I was defending it. It was the first time that had occurred to me--how threatening it can be.

An emotional reaction this strong is rare, but facilitators and sponsors should be aware that it can happen. We talked earlier about structured environments ranging from the military to the 1970's proliferation of religious and EST-like groups. If someone has been through a structured environment like that, they will be identifying similarities of structured environments, but not this structure. Any "structured" environment is not this structure, just like any "facilitated" meeting is not providing DesignShop-style faciliation.

A DesignShop session requires a large investment of time and money, and the facilitators need to be prepared to take action to preserve that investment if the process is being disrupted. Upset participants can be taken aside for calming discussion, or in extreme cases can be excused from the process. In the many years that DesignShop events have been held, pulling a participant out of the process has rarely been necessary.


New Behaviors:

Example of the Venture Capitalist

Far more common than strong negative reactions are strong positive ones, particularly getting positive participation from unexpected sources. Matt remembers betting on such participation, and winning:

Years and years ago, it must have been 1981 or 1982, people came to us and talked about a new company-a spin-out of AT&T. They have this new switching technology and are bringing in all these venture capitalists. There were about 20, because it was too big for any one firm to do. The venture capitalists agreed to hear the proposal together to develop some sort of consortium to fund the company. They asked us to design a process in our first management center in Boulder to facilitate all of this.

They were thinking that this is just a location where they would have a regular facilitated meeting. But we said we would have a process, there would be a brief introduction, and that it would not be a day of present-and-shoot. At that point, when we were sitting around planning the day, one of the young support people was telling me about venture capitalists-that they would not do this. "They do not engage," etc. I responded that, "Scientists, engineers, community developers, teachers, and so on don't do this either, except for the fact that they do this in DesignShop sessions." He said, "I'm telling you that so-and-so (who was sort of the big bull moose of all venture capitalists) will not write on your wall." We made a gentleman's bet. How long do you think it will take? He said, "In the whole twelve hours, you will be lucky if you get him to write on the wall at all."

So we got them together, and I said this was what we were going to do, this was the process, and so on. "Considering investing in this company is a very complex issue. You have all seen the business plan, now we need to get your concerns. Take a marker and write out on the wall what you think is the most important thing you need."

And he takes the pen and walks up to the wall and writes and says, "If you are going to be good, this is what we have to have: etc. etc." I looked in the back of the room and his aide was shaking his head. At the end of the day, the aide came up to me and said, "How did you do that?" "I handed him the pen and told him to go to the wall and write." "Yes. But how did you do that?" I handed him the pen and told him to go up to the wall and write.

The reason that it worked is that we asked him a question in which he was really interested. We gave him the opportunity to do what most of us really like to do, which is to stand up and share what we require. As it turned out, no one had ever asked him that question before-"What is it that you require; what is it you want? Before we start, shouldn't we know?" He wasn't running the meeting. If we had said, "In order to proceed, sir, could you explain..." then he would have run the meeting. Because it was a DesignShop session, we didn't let him run the meeting. We let him set what he could control, which were his criteria.

As for the other venture capitalists, some of them loved it. Some of them were neutral. Some of them were so focused on the deal that they did not really notice the process. They knew something was different. They knew that it worked. We pretty much all agreed that it worked.

Sometimes, it's those who are most opposed at first who are most enthusiastic at the end, as the staffers can testify. Christopher Fuller gives an example: "In Orlando, there was a gentleman who liked to exert control and who liked to stand up and direct the process. The last day, he was the one who shook everyone's hand and said we did the right thing. After being there three days, you learn to work together."

Frances continues: "Usually, the people who come in most vehemently opposed, because they are so bright and have been through so much and know that it is just another seminar, are the ones who come out totally knocked out by the process. They have never experienced anything like it."

A savvy sponsor can prepare his or her people for the process, minimizing resistance and maximizing acceptance up front. Col. Bill tells what he did at AEDC to introduce his people to the idea:

I had to sell the whole process. I had town meetings. I had sessions every six months for an hour-and-a-half.

We asked people to tell co-workers what they saw and felt. They were to be evangelists-talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly. Plus, I got video clips that were really good. I asked for clips of the regular work-level folks telling what they had seen. I had two or three really powerful ones.

One was a guy who had been at AEDC for 25 years. He said, "At first I thought, here is another one of these things that I have to go to, and get another pin to put in the lapel, and sign another thing pledging my life. All the big muckety-mucks in their suits and ties and uniforms will stand up and exhort us to do good work. Then we will go back to the work, and they will go back to their offices and the golf course, and nothing will change. That was not how it worked. Not only were they working with us, they were not wearing suits and ties and uniforms. They were just Joe and John instead of Mister or Colonel They stayed with us and worked the whole time. This is real."

This is a guy who has real credibility with his co-workers saying, "this is real." I used that videotape a lot. For every town meeting I used it.

The lesson from all this is that DesignShop sessions can release a whole gamut of emotions, from fear to exhilaration, just as any other organizational work can. But because they focus on big issues, and do so very quickly, the usual emotions are intensified. Careful preparation by sponsors and facilitators can minimize the negative emotions, enabling more participants to feel the happy excitement of a successful DesignShop process.




1. Continue the practice of recording ideas from this chapter without looking back at it. Record questions that are raised in you as well. After doing this, go back to the chapter and flesh out your notes.

2. What guidelines can you devise to help you sponsor your own dreams and plans? How do you make sure that you can ask the tough questions, search out the bizarre ideas, get the work done, and endure the ambiguity and discomfort that naturally comes with some parts of the creative process? Identify people who can help-how can you engage them to do so? (Look for your own win-win solutions.) Think of ways to give yourself the space and time required to continue the practice of actively scanning as a part of your creative process?

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Leaping the Abyss - Table of Contents


1999 Foresight Gathering

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