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I stand in front of 50 people and tell them we will spend two days together to achieve an important change objective. Nevertheless, I have yet to tell them that sometime in the next two days we will be navigating change’s death valley.

The conference room is barely large enough to hold 50 people. The room layout is not ideal. Tables are abutted into long rows making it difficult to move between the rows. I want movement and action, not drowsiness. I ponder how this is going to work.  Otherwise, the room is traditional corporate; carpet, whiteboards, video monitors, and fluorescent ceiling lights. In short, nothing stimulating. I make last-minute room configuration changes to optimize as best I can. Even though I am thinking about the session that will start in a few minutes, I find myself moving chairs and tables. It is good therapy for me to get out of my head.

This is the tech industry and fashion norms don’t vary much; jeans, t-shirts, and hoodies seem to be de rigueur. Except, I want to project a little more of my personal style. After all, I am the facilitator and am probably the oldest person in the room. I like the image of a modern gentleman. Therefore, I step it up a bit: white shirt, tweed blazer with elbow patches (I always get compliments on that), jeans, and leather dress shoes. My feet hurt all the time as a result of 12 cycles of chemo in 2016. Dress shoes take the pain up a notch. I suppose wearing dress shoes and enduring pain is one way I rage at my health journey. I am not finishing my career afraid to stand and facilitate in nice shoes.

Change Inceptions

I facilitate change inceptions; events to initiate a new strategy, project, or initiative. My goal is to align a group of people to an objective they can only achieve, together. We create a common understanding of a problem or need, define candidate solutions, refine our approach into the solution, and build an implementation plan. If you think this is ambitious, layer in a two-day time constraint and you may wonder if I am losing my mind for agreeing to facilitate sessions like this.

Navigating Change’s Death Valley

I tell the team, in the room, we will find change’s death valley – the point where our change objective seems impossible and people question why we even try. Discouragement becomes palpable. Futility seeps into the air. Some brave soul may even counsel us to start over.

Navigating Change’s Death Valley is an inevitable part of an inception. I play many roles as a facilitator:  conversation starter, organizer, taskmaster, entertainer, comedian, encourager, listener, and even disciplinarian. However, no role is more important than quickly generating a sense of trust between individuals, with me, and with the process so the team will persist when trouble arrives.

I issue my death valley warning at the beginning, during the inception ground rules. I want everyone prepared to greet the valley with determination, courage, and humor. Otherwise, the team will be surprised and feel like they failed as a group. I am not entirely selfless on this point. I want to get to the team’s goal as well. Just like any other facilitator, I want the win; that feeling that comes from the team achieving its objective. While a win like this does not sound as impressive as a sports win. You try coaching a team for two full days just to win the game. It can be a tough gig. When the inception is over, I head home happy, and exhausted. I make sure I have a bottle of wine ready to enjoy.

Staying Neutral

Despite my analogy, facilitating is quite different than sports coaching in one key respect; a good facilitator does not join the conversation. I encourage the conversation and keep it going toward the objective. However, even if I know the subject, I try and keep my opinion to myself. This is hard for me. Early in my facilitation experience, I didn’t understand this like I do now. My job is to help others have the right conversations. If I join the conversation, I am taking sides and trust ebbs away. Navigating change’s death valley becomes harder because I’m perceived as less objective.

While I don’t join conversations, I tune in to conversations. When the team lands in the valley, I need to know what prompted the breakdown to craft a breakthrough conversation. Inceptions usually start with enthusiasm and optimism. Heads nod in agreement at stated goals and objectives. Body language projects happiness. Later in the day, or the next day, after digging deeper in the topic, implications surface. Individuals recognize the impending challenge to the status quo, organization, or their job. Body language shifts. I detect physical tension. Resistance flares.

Tense conversation

I help the team circle back to the goals for clarifying conversations, now that implications became clear. We revisit and realign until we detect consensus.

In one inception, a solution implied a software architecture change for people that dedicated years to the current approach. They needed to summon the courage to contemplate a design geared to the future. It was my job to help them creatively process possibilities while not pushing them to the point they stopped listening. I ask questions over and over: “Will this work? Do you agree? What will it take for you to agree?”

Public Commitment

After navigating change’s death valley and exiting with a decision, I ask for visible, public commitment with a physical action like a thumbs-up or even signing a flip chart. I look for signs of conversation withdrawal. Everyone, off the fence; commit to the decision. I remember one case where a financially significant decision had been made and unmade many times over the past year with no corresponding commitment to act. We again cycled through the decision process and wrote the decision on a flip-chart. I asked the team to list implementation risks on a flip chart and then attach green, yellow, or red dots to each risk based on their ability to mitigate the risk. We finished with 7 green dots and two yellows. I posed the question to everyone – are we ready to decide? Yes, came the answer. Now, they all went to the flip chart containing the decision and signed their name. I then snapped a photo of the team standing in the front of the decision, with their signatures. The team never revisited the decision and followed through to implementation.

Image of various thumbs up

These can be breathtaking moments for me. I commit to the team that we will meet our objectives within two or three days. I need their trust and courage. I need my trust and courage. If I hold back, so will the team. Thinking and acting in front of 50 people is scary but also creates an adrenalin rush. Eventually, we pass through the valley. I relax. Everyone relaxes. We know we will get to our objective and the team exudes new-found confidence; a sense of boldness emerges. Progress accelerates.