My days are filled with communication distractions. Like many of you, I’m bombarded by messages via email, text, and phone. Even spoken conversations are often focused on a quick exchange of information before moving on to the next scheduled thing.
These experiences have motivated me to dig deeper for a better way of engaging with others: In a world full of noise, how do we invite meaningful conversations, the conversations that matter? And the follow-up question: Why are these types of conversations important? For human connection? For getting things done? For leading through social complexity?
I think the answers to the latter is yes, yes, and yes.
When the City of Fargo decided to replace an old tank with a new water tower in north Fargo, it hoped the tower would serve as more than mere infrastructure. It also wanted the structure to serve as a canvas for public art.
The goal was to support community-based design, something created with people rather than for them. During a competitive process, the city’s Arts and Culture Commission selected Reach Partners to facilitate the community outreach component of the project. Black Ink Creative Partners was selected to render the design.
If you feel overwhelmed by decision-making, you’re not alone.
Each adult makes nearly 35,000 conscious decisions each day, according to various researchers. Some decisions – like where to purchase your morning coffee – only impact us personally. Decisions in the workplace, however, can create a ripple effect for employees, teams, organizations, and others.
Knowing that, it’s tempting to assume that more people should be involved in making decisions. After all, more heads are better than one, right?
The pandemic has taught us, over and over, that virtual meetings and gatherings can actually be productive, rich with human connection. We’ve also learned that meaningful virtual connections are not certain. Rather it takes intention for it to be possible.
If you’ve followed us for any length of time, you know our mantra: Intention starts with purpose. (I know. We say it all the time, (specifically here and here), but it’s true. Really.)
Do you want a meaningful virtual meeting? Start with these tips:
Whenever we plan an event, an in-depth meeting, a social gathering, or virtual experience Reach Partners will always argue for the same thing. Every time.
This thing is the most important detail for every planned interaction. It is the life blood of our work and what drives us to do better every day. Most importantly it’s the power, the energy that fuels the work at hand.
How do you tap into this energy? How do you make it work for you? Draw the right audience? Craft the right marketing activities? Align stakeholders? Create value?
You start by defining purpose.
Every milestone deserves a good celebration.
For its 20th anniversary, Aldevron wanted to host a party for employees and their families after its annual all-staff meeting.
But the Fargo company’s staff were stretched to meet the daily demands of a quickly growing firm in the biotech field. To throw the fun celebration they imagined without adding pressure on full-time employees, they needed additional support.
Ellen Shafer, senior director of marketing and communications, contacted Reach Partners about two months before the event.
“She needed someone she could trust to handle the details,” says Rachel Asleson, co-owner of Reach Partners.
Staff had already identified the framework for the celebration – an open-house picnic with family-friendly activities. Reach Partners managed the details of the day.
We established the best way to layout the elements and served as a liaison between the event vendors – audio-visual professionals, caterers, entertainers, etc. – and Aldevron staff. We identified vendors, managed the contracts, and confirmed everything was set up as planned. If a contractor had questions or needs on the day of the event, we served as the point of contact.
We also established a process for tracking RSVPs.
While we hovered in the background, the work we did ensured that the day’s activities rolled smoothly. More than 275 people attended.
“Thank you for jumping in on such short notice, working with me and the team, and helping with all details to make a great event,” Ellen wrote to us afterwards. “Your management of the day gave me the peace of mind to take care of what I needed to take care of.”
A year later we received the best compliment of all – a request to help again with the all-employee picnic. This time the celebration coincided with a ground-breaking event for Aldevron’s newest facility in Fargo.
We are always grateful when we can help our partners focus on the daily demands of their work while we take care of the details that make one-time or occasional events run smoothly.
What We Delivered:
In our work, we get some interesting requests.
One of the most memorable came from a client who regularly produces commercials. One afternoon we received a panicked call from the project manager overseeing an upcoming shoot.
The team had written the script, cast the talent, and ordered the props. The production team was scheduled and ready to go.
There was one problem. Because of unexpected circumstances, a major element of the set was missing: the walls.
The phone conversation went something like this:
“We need materials for interior walls, plus the wall constructed and installed at the set by eight a.m.”
“Give me 20 minutes, and I’ll call you back,” said Anita.
Within 10 minutes, Anita identified a solution. She found a builder and confirmed materials, building plans, and delivery. Less than 36 hours later, the set walls were delivered and assembled.
These types of requests are rare, but at Reach Partners we embrace the challenge of making the seemingly impossible become possible. In particular, we are thrilled when we can connect the right people at the right time to get a project done.
We can do this because we have good connections – a short list of go-to people whom will take our calls any time of day. These people have been in the trenches with us before and know how to work with us. We can skip formalities and focus quickly on what needs to be done.
Everybody needs these types of relationships – vendors, subcontractors, and amazingly talented people who can save your butt (and project!) when the unexpected pops up.
For many clients, Reach Partners is on that short list – mostly because we have those connections that can solve seemingly impossible problems. We recognize that these relationships and connections are among our most valuable resources.
Do you have a short list of go-to folks whom you rely on professionally and personally? Whom do you call when you needed promotional items ordered yesterday? Or your hair stylist moves to Texas?
If you don’t have a short list of go-to connections, now is the time to start developing one. Form a close relationship with a lawyer, editor, fix-it gal, restauranteur, graphic designer, printer, massage therapist, yogi, accountant, cook, talent agent, writer.
There’s no end to the skillsets and networking – the value – that these connections can bring to your work and life.
When it comes to designing and planning events, it’s important to tap your creativity.
That was the case when we worked with Sanford Health and its partners – LifeSource, Dakota Lions Sight & Health, and Minnesota Lions Eye Bank. They wanted to honor the people who gave eyes, organs, and tissues during the 15 years the health system has done transplants.
The group designed and installed a Wall of Donor Heroes to honor living donors and those whose death extended someone else’s life.
But they needed some help when it came time to plan a reception to accompany the reveal of the wall to donors, donor families, and recipients.
The group of stakeholders included partners from throughout the community. The group led by Sanford Health’s marketing office was passionate about the project and had lots of ideas, but struggled to bring them to fruition.
“They were thinking about all of the necessary details, but they were trying to answer all the questions at the same time and became overwhelmed. That made it hard to move forward,” says Rachel Asleson, co-owner of Reach Partners.
Complicating the planning process, Sanford’s point person for the project was leaving and other Sanford team members were focused on the upcoming opening of a new hospital.
Sanford Health asked Reach Partners to step in and help shape a gathering filled with the dignity that donors and surviving families deserved. Reach Partners then guided the group to plan and execute the details in a timely, organized way.
Rachel worked with the project group to create an intentional event that celebrated new life while honoring the individuals who had passed away.
Before she came on board, some details had been predetermined. The reveal was scheduled for April, National Donate Life month. The group also wanted the reception to be held near the Wall of Donor Heroes at the Sanford Health Broadway Medical Center in Fargo.
These decisions brought with them some event challenges. The weather in mid-April is unpredictable, meaning that the event would largely have to be planned for an inside space. The lobby around the Wall of Donor Heroes, however, was not big enough to hold the number of guests the group wanted to invite.
To solve the problem, Reach Partners recommended a rolling program conducted during a two-hour reception. Guests were invited to wander through three levels of the lobby.
Instead of one long program, speakers presented short messages throughout the evening. This allowed attendees to come and go as they needed. During the presentations, those in attendance could easily gather and stand near the Donor Wall. Screens also were strategically placed so that guests could see a live-stream of speakers without being near the wall.
“Rachel did an awesome job wrangling this event,” says Brian Fuder of Dakota Lions Sight & Health. “I am truly impressed with her abilities. Reach Partners is a solution provider!”
The event was well-received and, more importantly, appropriately honored organ and tissue donors. More than 500 individuals attended the event.
We can do more together than alone.
It’s true, but hard enough when individuals want to work together. Those challenges multiply when organizations with different motivations want to collaborate. Even actions like identifying goals and determining how to share resources can be complex.
Organizations may agree that a partnership will lead to good outcomes and stronger relationships, but they also may be overwhelmed and uncertain about how to get there.
Rarely is there a one-size-fits-all approach to facilitating these partnerships. Yet there are two valuable elements to keep in mind when gathering people with different perspectives who want achieve a common vision: stability and communication.
Create a system of stability
It doesn’t sound sexy at all, but stability has the power to ensure that completed collaborative work doesn’t get undone.
It starts by building trust among group members. Trust is supported by guidelines of conduct (e.g. be respectful, show up on time, listen carefully, and participate) and guidelines for meetings and communications (e.g. limit discussion via email thread, keep to an agenda during face to face meetings, promptly distribute supporting materials).
Dale Carnegie once said that “people support the world they help create.” You want members to add their voices and share their expertise; it’s why they’re a partner. Building trust gives diverse members of a group ownership to keep specific details, items, and issues moving forward.
Stability also highlights the expertise of group members. It provides opportunities for multiple voices to be heard during meetings and supports a group when responsibilities and resources are shared.
A system of stability is built when a group defines the processes and structures for intra-organization and governance. Especially important is how the group decides to resolve differences. This task can become more difficult as the number of members exceed 6 to 8 organizations. At this size, a hierarchical governance structure and an outside firm (like Reach Partners) may be needed to keep the group and its mission stable.
Financial stability becomes important when resources are needed to advance a cause or policy, or required to create an object, event, or process. In these cases, partnerships can help to maximize resources including funds, expertise, and influence. Long-term financial planning is one challenge of nearly all partnerships. For these reason, groups typically look for short-term solutions, for instance leveraging funding sources like grants.
Communication. Communication. Communication.
Communication supports the momentum of the group and creates a case for collaboration.
What is the purpose of the partnership? What are the proposed outcomes? How does each member organization and participant’s actions move toward that purpose? How does that group’s participation move their own business needs? Questions such as these inform communications, align partners, and help to focus internal and external communication.
Communication techniques, such as storytelling, can bring the group back again to the narrative and goals that hold the group together. Taking time to highlight stakeholders’ motivations (a nonprofit’s mission, a business’s goals, an agency’s role) and the benefits they receive by participating can help to keep the group on task.
An experienced facilitator can understand how to navigate the differences between organizations while carefully pointing out the risks of pursuing the goal alone. An experienced facilitator will encourage collaboration, giving organizations both small and large an opportunity to contribute and share their expertise.
Yes, we can do better together than alone. It takes patience; it takes flexibility. In the end, it is well worth the effort.
Examples of how Reach Partners has facilitated partnerships:
One thing is certain when you work on any project: decisions need to be made.
Almost equally certain is that someone will mention the need to build consensus. After all, agreement from more people means better outcomes, right?
Thanks to collective points of view, experiences, and knowledge, a team may be better than any individual at providing different perspectives, brainstorming, and evaluating risks. Yet, group dynamics also can cause errors and indecision, which can affect a project’s schedule, budget, or even overall effectiveness.
Not all groups or decisions benefit from group decision-making. But when group decision-making is needed, consensus is one way to go.
Contrary to common belief, consensus does not mean that everyone agrees. It is not the same as unanimity. Consensus means that everyone in the group agrees that they can support and live with the final decision – even if (especially if!) it is not their first choice.
So, when should you seek consensus?
Your team members trust each other and are committed to the project. Consensus-building is possible among team members who share similar levels of expertise, maturity, and knowledge, especially if they assume equal amounts of risk in the project. The group doesn’t have to agree, but should share the attitude that “we’re all in this together.” If there’s a power imbalance within the group, or there are any number of new members, consensus may not be possible. (It may be more of a consensus arm twist.) You may need to consider different models for decision-making if your project team isn’t cohesive or represents varying levels of experience.
You have a skilled facilitator. Consensus-building does not happen on its own. It requires an experienced individual who manage the conversation and group participation to useful outcomes. It’s helpful if this person is a neutral party. Think of a facilitator as a referee (minus the running) who is guided by practice, reminds everyone of the ground rules and intervenes when someone breaks them. This individual holds the process accountable.
Your facilitator is prepared. Again, consensus-building doesn’t happen on its own. More often than not, the facilitator will need to prepare themselves and the group for consensus-building activities. Prepare a solid agenda, select activities appropriate for the time allowed and the make-up of the group, and get ready for work. Recognize that consensus-building means listening, discussing, and evaluating.
You’ve collected adequate information. Good decisions can’t be made without good information. And, let’s face it, sometimes there’s insufficient information. Consensus works best when the facilitator and/or project manager is able to collect and communicate options or alternatives. Consensus is more likely when data can be gathered so that the group can properly assess project needs, project scope and risks.
Your team has time. If you’re racing against the clock, this is not the time to build group cohesion and work toward consensus. Consensus-building requires time: time to prepare, time to facilitate, time to discuss, time to weigh and eliminate options.
Once you’ve decided that your situation is ideal for consensus-building, the process can still be challenging. Be willing to reach into your toolkit. Use a consensus-building tool to get a team to support a decision:
Building consensus is time-consuming and sometimes uncomfortable, but it’s worth the effort in the right situation.
In what kinds of projects will you try to gain consensus?