All posts by Maria

What is Decision Making?

Every day we each make hundreds, maybe even thousands of decisions. Most of our decisions are tiny, almost unnoticeable moments that pass by without notice. We decide whether to get out of bed or hit the Snooze button on the alarm. We choose khakis or blue trousers to wear to work. We select the donut with pink sprinkles over the plain glazed. Most of the time we aren’t even aware that we have made a choice.

That may be okay for small choices, but decision making is a vital part of the change process. Unless we plan to just hang around while life happens to us and our organizations, at some point we will have to make decisions about out future actions

When I sat down to really dissect what decision making looks like, I realized that it is much more complex than it seems I went looking around the ‘net and in business management books and found many tools and techniques for making decisions. This suggests that making decisions is actually quite difficult for most people, despite it being a common activity.

There are many, many definitions of decision making. The common elements that make up a decision among the definitions I have seen seem to be:

  • Conscious Thought. Decision making has to include conscious thought. This rules out actions done through habit or instinct. Breathing isn’t really a choice. In some cases, taking addictive drugs is no longer a choice.
  • Two or More Possible Actions. If you only have one option, you can’t actually make a decision. Ford offered the Model T in “any color you want, as long as it’s black.” There were no other options, so the buyer had no real choice of color.
  • Moment of Selection. For a real decision to be made, you have to select from the possible options. Note that this selection may mean doing nothing or choosing not to decide. However, the absence of action is still a choice. For example, I can choose to ignore my phone – that is a decision in which I make a choice to not take action.

To sum all of these elements up, it seems that Decision Making = Thought + Possible Actions + Active Selection.

Rock Paper Scissors

Rock, Paper, Scissors

One of the obstacles to making good decisions seems to be the overabundance of information and possible choices currently available to us. Other people have written extensively about the tyranny of choice,  the concept that we have so many choices available to us now that we get overwhelmed just buying soap. In many cases we seek out much more information than is needed to make a choice and we end up paralyzed.

For those of us who tend to suffer from analysis paralysis, I have good news. It really doesn’t matter what you decide!

The key to being happy with a decision is to remain committed to the decision that you’ve made and realize that it leads down a road that is just as good as any other. This is easier said than done, especially in business where you might meet resistance at the slightest hint that a decision isn’t working. However, movement in any direction will lead to more and better feedback than just standing still and planning to plan.

Key to Change
As you can see, making decisions is one of the key steps in a change process.

My assignment to you is to take one day this week to practice making as many conscious decisions as possible. When you finish your day, make sure to come back and tell us all about it in the comments!

Caught in the Consumerism Trap? Here’s How to Change Your Behavior

Saturdays are Personal Change Day at In addition to my work with organizations, I am very interested in personal development and personal change management.  Once a week I will post an article or links about the fine art of making changes in our personal lives. Have a topic you’d like me to cover? Leave a comment on this post.

Have you ever gone shopping just because you’re bored? Do you have a closet full of perfectly good clothes and “nothing to wear?” You may be caught in consumerism. The good news is that there is a logical explanation – and a way to change. The best news is, it won’t cost you a dime ;)

Humans Crave Change
In the change management field there are volumes written about resistance to change. You would think that humans are hard-wired to dig our heels in and refuse all types of change in all circumstances. This is far from the truth.

The human brain actually seeks novelty. It stimulates all kinds of happy-making chemicals in our brain (things like dopamine and endorphins). We will do a lot of things to boost our levels of these chemicals. Some of them are pretty crazy (such as jumping out of perfectly good airplanes). Others seems normal on the surface, like buying a new pair of jeans, even though you already have 4 or 5 pairs. Over the course of a human life, this translates into a lot of potentially interesting experiences and piles and piles of new stuff.

It goes almost without saying that most of the media that we consume is designed to encourage us to consume more and more products and stimulate all those brain chemicals. According to the marketing group Yankelovich, the average person (I refuse to call people “consumers”) in the United States in 2005 was exposed to 3,500 to 5000 marketing messages per day. This is up from 500 to 2000 in the 1970s. This is great news for marketers, but it may be making junkies of us all.

Focus on What You’ve Got

My point in writing about consumerism is because I believe that it induces a mindset of lack, rather than of abundance.  The entire basis of advertisements a closet full of clothes but nothing to wear and marketing is to get you to want what you don’t have. This is particularly damaging to people in developed countries because most of us have more than enough resources available to us to live a materially comfortable life. At the very least, most of us are doing okay on the lowest level of Maslow’s hierarchy. With sufficient food, shelter, clothing, and even safety, there isn’t a whole lot more that we have to have to free up enough psychological attention to ascend the additional levels of the pyramid such as Love and Self Esteem.

Now, I’m just as guilty of focusing on getting stuff as most people. I have a long list of vacations I want to take, restaurants I want to try, wine I want to drink, and shiny gadgets I want to own. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to realize that taking up mindspace with thoughts like that can distract me from what I really want, which is to add value to the world while growing as a person. If I pay attention to my surroundings, I realize that the obstacles preventing me from doing this have nothing to do with possessions and credit card charges. I have all the material possessions I need to create the life I want!

This is an incredibly freeing thought, and it’s the first step I’ve taken down the road to creating an abundance mindset. For those unfamiliar with this concept, the abundance mindset refers to knowing that you have every thing you need available to you in some form or another. Some of the explanations I’ve read get a little New Age-y for my liking, but it all boils down to having the inner confidence to know that through creativity, work and an expectation that your needs will be met, you can achieve whatever you desire.

It is a huge advantage in life to have an abundance mindset because it keeps you focused on finding ways to use what is available to you to solve any problems you may have. For example, I used to get a little freaked out every time something went wrong with my car. I do a LOT of driving and not having a car available is a big disruption. With an abundance mindset, I can realize all of the resources available to me to take care of anything that might go wrong. I can borrow a car from someone, telecommute until my car gets fixed, search the Internet for quick repairs to keep the car moving until I can get it properly serviced, etc. There are many solutions available, so I just don’t have to worry about it anymore.

Buy Nothing Today

So, how can you practice abundance thinking in your daily life?

Just… don’t… buy… it

Try to go 24 hours straight without buying anything – no groceries, no coffee, no gasoline. Nothing. If this sounds like an insurmountable challenge, here are a few tips to getting through the day.

  • Practice creative meal combinations. Unless you literally have no food in your home, you can get through a day without buying groceries. Even if you have to eat pancakes and green beans for dinner, you’ll be okay.
  • Entertain yourself with things you’ve already got. How many unread books, unbeaten video games, and unwatched DVD’s do you have floating around? Dig in the drawers and closets to see what you can turn up.
  • Invite friends over. Finish up the odds and ends of your beverage cabinet instead of stocking up on more mixers.
  • If your gas tank is on “E” think of other ways to get through the day without filling up or paying bus fare. Can you put off errands? Could you trade a ride for another service? Is your old bicycle still working?

The common theme running through all of these suggestions is to focus on what you have, rather than what you lack. If you practice this skill enough, you will become more creative and probably more aware of everything that is available to you. You may even end up with more money in your bank account AND a happier and more fulfilled life!

Facilitation Series: All the Posts

I ended up writing six posts in my Facilitation series. Here they are, in chronological order.

What is Facilitation?

What Does a Facilitator Do?

Prepare for a Facilitation in Three Steps

What Happens During a Facilitation?

The Report: How Does a Facilitation End?

 Facilitation: The Good, Bad and Ugly

I hope you’ve enjoyed the series. If I’ve missed anything or you would like to see follow up posts on certain issues, let me know in the comments below this post.

Facilitation: The Good, Bad and Ugly

This is Part 6 of a short series on facilitation and its uses in organizations. To read the entire series from the beginning, start at the bottom of the Facilitation page of this site.

In a previous post in this series, Ann Emery asked me to share stories from successful (and not so successful) facilitations that I’ve taken part in.  When I thought about the many meetings I’ve participated in or led, I can only think of one that went kind of wrong (let’s keep the streak alive!), and that had more to do with the dynamics of the organization than the meeting topic or the facilitator. However, there was one that I led that had the potential to go wrong, but ended up going really well.

Here’s the background…

I was hired to help an organization do some planning. We had an initial session where I dutifully helped them write a vision statement, and then we scheduled another meeting to create a long range action plan. I began my background research, and uncovered some problems. Big problems. Going out of business problems!

I realized that long range planning was the last thing the org needed. What they really needed was their board to face up to the situation. I decided that instead of a planning meeting, I was going to confront them with their reality. This could have gone one of two ways:

  1. I get fired.
  2. The participants rise to the challenge.

Fortunately, the latter happened and we had a productive meeting. The org is by no means out of the woods yet, but they have taken some solid steps to define who they are, what they want to do, and how they can go forward in this time of crisis.

Now, it’s your turn to share. Do you have any stories of great or awful facilitators or facilitated meetings? Please disguise identities to protect the guilty, but give us the best (and worst) you’ve got!

photo by: b.frahm

The Report: How Does a Facilitation End?

This is Part 5 of a short series on facilitation and its uses in organizations. To read the entire series from the beginning, start at the bottom of the Facilitation page of this site.

After the meeting is over, you’ve walked off the donuts, and everyone has gone home, a facilitator’s job is not done. He or she is usually responsible for creating a written summary of the meeting. This summary should include:

  1. The initial research to prepare for the meeting
  2. A description of the meeting including date, time, location and participants
  3. The agenda
  4. Major points of discussion, any controversies, and any decisions the group reached
  5. Issues that were tabled for later discussion, with a description of the agreement on follow up
  6. Next steps

If the facilitator is involved in the larger work of the group, he or she may also include recommendations for action or further exploration and study. Ideally, the summary document should be descriptive enough so that every participant can understand their agreements and commitments and the organization can continue to move forward in its work.

What Happens During a Facilitation?

This is Part 4 of a short series on facilitation and its uses in organizations. To read the entire series from the beginning, start at the bottom of the Facilitation page of this site.

If you attend a meeting led by a professional facilitator, he or she is likely there because there is important work to be done. Organizations generally use outside facilitators when they are conducting high level planning, managing change, writing a mission and/or vision statement, or working through a highly charged issue.

The facilitator’s job is to run the meeting in a professional and neutral manner so that the participants can focus on the work at hand. During the meeting, the facilitator will generally do the following:

  1. Set up the room. Before participants arrive, the facilitator will usually arrange the furniture, set up any visual aids such as large notepads, work with catering to arrange food and drinks, and may even set out small toys and games for fiddling.
  2. Introduce the meeting agenda. The facilitator will start the meeting with an explanation of the day’s agenda. He or she may lead an icebreaker or other warm-up activity. There will probably be introductions and a reminder of where restrooms and other necessities are located. When attending a facilitated meeting, come prepared to get up and move, talk, and play along with all manner of activities!
  3. Help the meeting go smoothly. Depending on their level of involvement, the facilitator will be sure to keep the meeting progressing along the agenda, or alter the agenda as issues arise. He or she will help participants have an equal say, defuse emotional situations, summarize progress periodically, and generally be the referee and time keeper. This is the part of facilitating that is more art than science. This part of the job is what makes a facilitator effective or ineffective!
  4. Take notes. The facilitator is responsible for taking notes of the meeting highlights. There are many ways to do this. I’ve seen facilitators bring a colleague to write notes or write notes personally. I’ve also seen video or audio recording, picture taking, and the collection of any sticky notes or other written materials. No matter their method, a facilitator should leave with an accurate and complete record of the meeting and the decisions made.
  5. Verbally summarize the meeting. At the end of the meeting, the facilitator should summarize the events and decisions made throughout the day. Each participant should leave knowing what was accomplished and possibly the next steps in the process.

The end of the meeting is often the most crucial part of ensuring the ongoing success of the process. Before dismissal, any disagreements should be settled, or the participants should agree to table those issues. Ideally, everyone should leave feeling that their input was heard and considered and the group made the best choices possible based on the information they had.

Prepare for a Facilitation in Three Steps

This is Part 3 of a series on facilitation and its uses in organizations. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.

Facilitators can come from inside or outside of an organization or group. The key in choosing a facilitator is to select someone with an impartial outlook. In my experience, it is pretty tough to remain detached from a decision-making process if you work with or belong to the group doing the deciding! Because of that, facilitators often volunteer or get hired from outside groups.

A lack of familiarity with the issues being discussed can make for a fresh perspective, but some knowledge is necessary to guide a conversation in a relevant direction. Any facilitator, whether from inside or outside the group, needs to perform three basic tasks to prepare for a productive session.

1) Background Research
If you are not already very familiar with the group and issue you will be facilitating, you will need to do some research. The objective of the research stage is to ensure that you design a facilitation session that addresses the real issue(s) the group is having, and uses structures and methods that are most appropriate to their needs.

There are several ways of gathering the information you will need. The most appropriate methods will depend on the time you have to prepare and the size of the group you are working with. One-on-one interviews work well with smaller groups. Online or written surveys are efficient for large groups. If you have a lot of time available, in-person observation is a good way to get a lot of contextual information, especially if you are working with the group on a process or procedural issue.

2) Agenda Development
The actual agenda for the session will often have to be developed in cooperation with (or at least get the approval of) the team that has scheduled the session. As the facilitator, you should draft an agenda the addresses the issue(s) you identified in the background research step. Depending on the needs of the group, you may schedule ice breakers in the morning, brainstorming during lunch, and an energizer in the afternoon.

After you’ve drafted the agenda, share it with the event organizers and ensure that it works with their own agendas and the time available. Some back and forth may occur and the organizers may request changes. Be accommodating, but don’t let their input bury an issue that you are sure is important to the ultimate resolution of the problem.

3) Physical Space Preparation
The physical space is very important in helping session participants get into the right mindset. As a facilitator, it is your job to arrive at the meeting space early to ensure that: chairs and/or tables are set up in a way that encourages interaction; all the needed supplies are available such as white board markers, flip charts, and post-its; all the AV equipment is working as needed; the temperature is appropriate for the level of activity the session will require; and any other detail that can possibly go wrong is anticipated!

Now that all the background work is complete, the real work fun begins.

My Services on Offer – For Cheap!

First of all, I want to thank everyone who has visited my site this week. It’s been a really great experience to see it go from brand new to gaining a bit of traffic, some RSS feed subscribers, and even a couple of comments! Many thanks to Michelle Rafter and the 2012 WordCount Blogathon for motivating me to get all of this done.

Today I added my first services page, appropriately titled Quick and Dirty Consulting Services. I am offering a very limited number of consulting slots for $49. These slots are for nonprofit staff or volunteers who are doing their own program evaluation and need an experienced set of eyes to guide them. I can’t offer this price for long, so be sure to sign up soon!

If you have any questions about my services or experience, ask in the comments for this post.

Saturday is Personal Change Day: How to Change When You’re Over 30

During the month of May, I am participating in the 2012 WordCount Blogathon. I will be posting every day (I hope!) this month. However, in the future I plan on Saturdays being Personal Change Day. In addition to my work with organizations, I am very interested in personal development and personal change management.  Once a week I will post an article or links about the fine art of making changes in our personal lives. Have a topic you’d like me to cover? Leave a comment on this post.

According to some top scientists, human beings over the age of 30 hardly ever change their lives successfully. In fact, they go on to argue, that it is almost biologically impossible for us to change after we pass our 20′s.

Do you agree with that? Are you willing to accept it – especially if you’ve passed the Big 3-0?

I passed 30 quite some time ago. I say they’re wrong, and I’m going to use their own arguments to explain why, and show you how you can successfully make major changes in your life.

Why is it So Hard to Change?

A recent article in Scientific American (Set in Our Ways: Why Change is So Hard) made the argument that very few people over the age of 30 successfully make changes in their lives. In the research that this article reports on, scientists found that all people become less interested in change as we age. This happens in all cultures, so they believe that there is a biological reason for at least part of this behavior. They also include a few other reasons:

  • Life gets complicated as you get older. Most people over the age of 30 have some large barriers to change such as a spouse, children, a mortgage, a career. Change can threaten some or all of these commitments.
  • Novelty becomes less attractive over time. People get pretty comfortable in their ruts. You know how it is. You come home after a long day at work, flip on the TV like always, eat the same dinner you ate last Tuesday, and go to bed at the same time every night. Even if a behavior isn’t making us happy, we often continue it out of sheer inertia. It takes a lot of energy to change habits, and not many people are willing to put in the effort.
  • Unrealistic expectations for the ripple effects of change. In the article, the author uses the example of a woman wanting to lose 20 pounds so she can meet the perfect partner and live happily ever after. That may be a bit much to expect from a diet!

These are some pretty large barriers to change, but we know that many people make successful changes – no matter how old they are. How do they do it?

What is the Secret to Making Lasting Changes?

This article has a very negative tone to it, but it does sneak in a few helpful suggestions that can help you plan a successful change.

  • Figure out your tolerance for change. Everyone has a different set point for openness to change. If you’re naturally change resistant, you will need to start very small and gradually build up your tolerance. It’s a bit like exercise. Pick the tiniest change you can make, just like you’d pick the lightest dumbbell on the rack.
  • Take it 1 change at a time. In the example above, the woman who wanted to loose weight actually wanted 3 or 4 other things as well – and none of them were related! If you’re just getting started with change, pick one thing to work on. Our example woman could be successful if she decided to loose weight OR started dating to find a partner OR worked on her own internal happiness. She probably won’t succeed if she tries to do all 3 at once.
  • Figure out the real cause and effect relationship. Again picking on our weight loss woman, she is seeing a cause and effect relationship that doesn’t really exist. There is no rule that says you can’t get a partner if you’re 20 pounds overweight. There is also no rule that says you’ll be happy if you find a partner. Unpack your issues and think about why you want to make a particular change. If you don’t have a real desire to do it, or you’re only doing it because you think it will get you what you really want, rethink your strategies and work on the core issue.
  • Start sooner, because later never comes. If it’s inevitable that we become more resistant to change with time, it’s always better to start a change quickly. This gives you more time, and helps you take advantage of all the mental flexibility you have right now, no matter what your age.

I hope this article gives you some idea for starting to improve your life in small, manageable ways. If you have other suggestions, or further questions, leave a comment after this post.

Photo by Nate Brelsford.

What Does a Facilitator Do?

This is Part 2 a short series on facilitation and its uses in organizations. Part 1 describes the nature of facilitation here.

A facilitator is not a part of the decision-making group. He or she is also not the group leader, teacher or trainer. So what is the facilitator’s job?

In a nutshell, the facilitator guides the group through a decision-making process.

From start to finish, the facilitator is responsible for:

  1. Preparing for the session.
  2. Setting the agenda.
  3. Formulating questions for discussion.
  4. Keeping the conversation on track. This includes bringing to the forefront any side conversations, defusing any destructive conflict, and encouraging any constructive conflict.
  5. Taking notes throughout the session.
  6. Bringing the group to a conclusion and/or a resolution to the problem at hand.
  7. Summarizing the session after it is complete and distributing the summary to all participants.