Chaos as accelerator

The other day I moderated a workshop. Topic was to define the strategic direction of newly identified business options, as well as define tactics for an operational approach. For more than 9 months already this business was under discussion without substantial progress, and now a sense of urgency made all of us aware that we needed to do something differently.

People from various functional departments and locations came together for this all-day session. My task was to guide these colleagues through a process that would deliver tangible results. I shouldn’t get involved content-wise, but I must admit it helped me to know some of the backgrounds.

All these people had worked under high pressure on all kinds of subjects, each separately being very important. Despite their busy agendas these people also helped each other, giving support and answering questions when needed. But there’s a moment when it all grows over us. Little delays, minor frustrations, incomplete deliveries… A feeling that effectiveness and efficiency are not ideal anymore.

At the start of the workshop, I presented the team this observation, recognizing the┬átireless efforts, but still…

“Looking as an observer, taking my balcony moment, I notice all we did so far looks a bit chaotic. It’s time to align and agree how to go ahead!”

Before I explain the process I followed, starting with this confrontation, let me summarize the day by saying it was very successful event, exceeded expectations of some participants, and we even used less time as originally planned. Of course we had an agenda. People prepare themselves for a day of discussions by looking at the topics, listed on the agenda. So here’s my first tip:

1 – Use the agenda to bias the participants. Focus their thoughts and feed their expectations by the wording, the time assigned, and the order of the topics. Define the question to be answered as clear as possible.

Although in business meetings everything should be discussed fact based, and only with business goals in mind, there’ll always be emotions involved. In particular after some time without making big steps, these emotions tend to color the view on opportunities, threats, ways of working and so forth. Usually one deals with these emotions when they pop-up, but that also means distracting interruptions. So I confronted the team, allowing the emotions to get to the surface as soon as possible. It takes a bit of time at the start, but it pays back later on! The next thing I asked every participant to share what we should DO and what we should AVOID during the workshop. That way the emotions┬ápositively turn into desired behavior. The team came up with statements like:

  • Let’s align and agree on concrete things
  • Be open for painful discussions
  • Share the bottlenecks that you experience
  • Put everything open on the table
  • Listen to each other
  • Avoid a defensive mode

All this sounds trivial. But it’s essential to look each other in the eyes while saying it, expressing positive hope for good joint outcomes.

2 – Give the emotional part of a meeting time to come out as early as possible, and openly shared with the entire team. This makes participants feel connected with each other.

Next we started the meeting with some presentations.
To me it was clear that these presentations, given the way we started, would never meet their assigned time slots. That’s okay, as long as we’ll address all topics. As moderator I showed flexibility, allowing for deviations and team interactions. Participants usually copy the behavior of the moderator, so they also had a much more flexible attitude towards the required compromises. Now, even though we let out the emotions at the beginning of the session, every workshop has a lowest of expectations moment. That’s essential, as from there a positive flow can start. I choose to let the chaos appear in the discussions, the same way I described at the start. So after a few hours emotional statements came up again, but now from the heart, based on true commitments. That is the moment when most moderators want to take control, guide the team away from that negative feeling. I pulled back, made sure lunch was served, and invited everyone to have informal exchange around the topics that mattered to them.

3 – Let people jointly experience how to help each other. Allow for self-healing power in the team.

Needless to say that the afternoon started pretty good with aligned ideas on what options to pursue. The team grows stronger because things become clearer and more tangible. When the collective mood is strong enough, it’s important to realize that nothing actually changed yet! If we stop at this point in the process, in a few days the situation would be back to where it was a week before. So it’s time to make changes, sacrifice things, set priorities.

4 – When the team is strongest, work tenacious on the required changes, opening up the road to new solutions. Now it’s time te be fact-based and concrete. The positive energy helps participants to accept things they wouldn’t before.

As a next step, when all conditions are set, make the real plan. There’s a short-term plan (to make sure people stay with the agreed course) and a longer term schedule (showing the direction you’re heading, including the expectations from other stakeholders). Now it is important to create the action list and set the goals to aim for. As the team just came out of the more confronting part of implementing changes, they’re eager to make these tangible.

5 – Ensure planned actions, clear timelines, and identified action owners. This includes a review process to check follow-up.

At this point in time, all participants are happy that the workshop is almost over. Don’t underestimate the mental energy it takes engage in such a process! Nevertheless the good outcome must be “burned” in their memory, so they look back with a positive feeling and later remember what is possible. So ask for feedback, let everyone say a word about the experience and the results. This is a cool-down moment before going back to normal life!

6 – Finish the process with another shared moment. Let every participant express his/her perception on what happened during this workshop. This is the moment where the re-energized team is really confirmed.


This process can also be described in other terms, like information sharing, evaluation and decision-making. I think various models are possible, and it’s the task of a moderator to play with all these ingredients to put the best possible menu on the table. Key learning for me is that small scaled chaos in an organization is not bad. It’s the best opportunity for achieving good results in the future!

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