The BTP: Confessions and Lessons – Facilitating learning (3)

This post is part of a series on learning from the Big Training Program (BTP) classes.  See the other posts on BTP

Though it’s a bit of a high wire act, we ask people to bring their problems to class.  Hang on for a little geek speak: we do this by bringing the whole system into the room.  Throughout the program, team leaders, subject matter experts and business process owners come to discuss what they do and what it means to the work that participants are responsible for.  We’re building a richer mental model of ways the work fits together.  So when we talk about problem solving, it’s clear that it requires a broad partnership among many people.

We can’t address all the problems people bring to the BTP.  But facilitators like me and my colleague ensure that participants are learning by bringing two important things to light when we talk about their cases.  First, that there is a typical or standard way to address the situations that participants face.   Exceptions lead people to question whether policies and procedures are a reliable source of guidance.  (“Guidance,” incidentally, is how we describe “what we expect you to do” while allowing for the fact that local application may need to be adapted.)  So we like to review the ways that difficult cases are non-standard.A little to the left and a little to the right

Highlighting exceptions shows that the problem is not with the policy, per se, but that the policy doesn’t account for the exception.  This discussion can help cut anxiety about the ambiguity that one-offs can raise.  Wherever possible, we review the way the system of work – inputs, impacts, dependencies, and uses of information – looks like from the perspective of different players in the process to be sure that solving the problem in one department isn’t shifting the problem, amplified, to another one.

Second, we winnow from the discussion those characteristics that make the participants’ situation an exception.  For example, foreign currency denominated awards.  While everyone works hard to ensure that awards are negotiated in US dollars, the Euro or another currency is periodically the negotiated currency instead.   Systems use US dollars, so budget, planning, and forecasting all take on additional complications.  Managing the impact of currency conversion, and even determining a schedule of conversion dates, layer an ever changing administrative burden on to projects, usually the responsibility of the folks in BTP.  Further, because participants work in an environment in which consistency of administrative procedure is very important, they are right to be concerned about “the right way.”

Facilitators are there help identify methods that departments use to address exceptions, the problems that can develop and how to avoid them, and the extent to which administrative consistency is required.  This last learning is often the most important.  Participants interpret from the organization’s high-compliance environment the same standards that are applied to other procedures should be applied here.  We do all we can to clarify the right standards, and the principles that underlie them, and distinguish them from rules that don’t apply in the situations.

We don’t address all the problems that participants bring to class.  We often wonder ourselves whether we have really gotten to the bottom of the issue.  Hovering over discussions is the question, “Shouldn’t there be a comprehensive, centralized solution?”  For the moment, we can only say, “The reason you have so much responsibility for the exceptions is that no one else has all the information to make the decision as well as you.  That is why it is so important to collaborate with partners, who have heard and seen other cases and can help you get the right results.”

A little exasperation at this point sparks some initial ideas about common needs across departments and ideas for a central solution.  Which, for reasons of time, we encourage people to continue later over a beverage of their choice.  But I tell them to make it a stiff one, because they’re embarking on a widespread change effort.