Connection before Content.
This was one of the phrases Bill Brewer of Designed Learning used in his presentation on “6 Conversations that Matter” at Franklin University in Columbus, Ohio on February 8. So what does Bill mean, and why does connection matter?
Have you ever been thrust into a meeting, event, or workshop and expected to get to work right away with the others in the room? How easy or difficult is that for you? Personally, I find it difficult to take on meaty and significant topics without really knowing where my counterparts stand or what it important to them. This is the concept behind connection before content. At the simplest level, it is why many meetings begin with some type of ice breaker. Facilitators are trying to help participants establish a connection with one another so that they may more easily begin working towards the purpose of their gathering.
Establishing connection is important not only in single, isolated events but also in working on complex change initiatives. In their book Whole Scale Change: Unleashing the Magic in Organizations, Dannemiller Tyson Associates talk about “creating a common database.” Their argument is that a body of people cannot begin to mobilize for large-scale change until everyone sees and values others’ views and starts to combine those with their own perspectives. This “grounding” in perspectives, if you will, helps create trust among people being asked to work together but it also provides data from which to begin working. Often the data is in the form of dissatisfaction with the current state. From an appreciative inquiry perspective, the connection can happen by getting people to express their hopes and wishes for the future. In his book, 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni very clearly articulates this reality by showing how connection is foundational to a team or group moving forward, because it begins to build trust.
Although I know and understand this principle, I recently facilitated an intervention with a client whereby the connection among all participants did not fully occur. One of my lessons from this experience is that you can’t rush the process of connection. If you do, one or more of the following is bound to happen:
- The group will produce less significant or less meaningful dialogue and action planning
- The group will “go through the motions” of the meeting agenda but will be less committed to the purpose of their gathering
- Individuals will be less likely to open up, take risks, and push one another on the tasks at hand
- The group will regress and need to form a connection before feeling confident on moving forward
Here are some ideas for how to help a group establish connection at the beginning of an important project, change initiative, or strategic retreat:
- Utilize Pre-Work. Have participants complete pre-work and come to the meeting ready to discuss what the reading and/or assignments meant to them, how they are important to the project, and questions that they stimulate for the group
- Table Buzz. Have participants listen to their leadership explain the purpose of the meeting. Then participants will discuss in small groups what they heard, what their reactions are, and what questions they have. Leadership will lead a question and answer session.
- Meeting Norms. Have participants offer up the ground rules they will agree to abide by during their time together. This builds accountability and commitment because participants are creating the norms by which they agree to work together.
- Intimate Interviews. Have people in the room pair up and interview each other around key provocative questions. Dannemiller Tyson Associates has an exercise called Mads-Sads-Glads where people express how they feel related to the current state of the organization. From an appreciative inquiry perspective, the concept is similar. Pairs will conduct interviews and then synthesize the results of interviews around what people value about the present state and what they hope for in the future.
I welcome any other ideas about how people have helped facilitate connection before content. Please feel free to post a comment or suggestion!