I am on my way back from Kyrgyzstan where I facilitated a 3-day conference. Kyrgyzstan (for those of you who don’t know) is a former Soviet Republic in Central Asia. Hence, it’s one of those countries where the state ruled and intervened in all aspects of individual lives of its citizens. And though the Soviet system broke down 25 years ago, this interventionism is still visible everywhere.
With interventionism came victims. Many victims.
An example: a lady running a craft shop in the capital Bishkek was explaining that when the Soviets forced every one to settle in apartments (the Kyrgyz are nomadic people) the craft of creating ornamental felt carpets for their yurts got lost. In their new dwellings there was no place for something typically Kyrgyz (of course not). This lady was now restoring old carpets, gathering the stories that were explaining the lost meaning of the symbols and signs on the carpets.
Everywhere I saw state interventionism at the expense of the people, their history and their traditions: megalomaniac urban planning, endless hallways in the hotel I was staying in, a (Kyrgyz) driver (Russian speaking) that had never learned the language of his parents. In former Soviet States the side effects of central planning can’t be missed.
As a group leader I am inherently soviet
As I was facilitating a 3-day conference with participants from the region, I was continuously reminded of these side effects. By definition, a facilitator is someone who intervenes in a group process. So yes, there are side effects to my interventions.
To keep groups ‘on track’, I am guilty of cutting off discussions, stopping the flow of ideas, breaking trust that has delicately been built during the process. And that for the sake of the process I designed when preparing the conference.
The 50 participants were working in small groups as I was walking around and noticed that they were somewhat slow in getting to the next stage of the plan-making process. I was getting worried… we would never be able to get to the expected results in time. But seeing the participants working as they did, I was reluctant to intervene. The participants were having great focused discussions and were using their time to connect and understand the problem at hand.
Fight the urge to be soviet…
Fighting with the urge to intervene, I was reminded of Antifragile by Nicholas Taleb. He shows that time increases volatility and that volatility is good for antifragile systems. Antifragile systems are systems that thrive and become stronger when the environment gets volatile. As opposed to fragile systems, who break down when the environment gets rough.
As a facilitator I translated that in: the stronger the group, the better it will cope with the running time and increasing volatility and pressure. The stronger in the end their plan will be. If I am too soviet, then I will make strong groups fragile.
So I decided just to give them the remaining time frame (‘you have 1 hour left’) and see what they would come up with. Seeing that the groups were connecting deeply they surely would be able to come up with strong next steps.
Two groups were energized by the news I was giving them. They had been organising their work themselves and they felt empowered.
But intervene when the group is fragile
The third group, however, struggled and energy levels dropped at every moment I was giving them the remaining time left. The group was continuously entangled in internal power struggles. For me it was a sign of a fragile group at work. I intervened more and more, hoping to increase their volatility. If the group does not work then you may as well let it go bust!
In the end the group acknowledged their plan was not a good at all. That was a big victory for them (and a small one for me), because now they experienced the source of their problem.
For me, as a leader of the conference, I was clearly reminded that interventions mess things up. With most groups that’s often not a good idea; most of them are strong and now how to move forward. But sometimes groups are fragile and then it’s good to mess things up.
Do you know, as a leader, when to be soviet?
So the trick is to intervene only in the rare moments when needed. Do you know, as a leader, when to be soviet?