Process Progress

Perhaps no word elicits groans more quickly than “process.”  In community planning and environmental planning, process is often equated with long, slow, cumbersome, and costly activities. This is only fair, as we have all been involved in a planning process that was somehow painful. In a recent city meeting, the word “process” was used 16 times, each time to describe something that was not done, was now late, or had become otherwise problematic.

Why does process get a black eye? Process itself is not the problem, bad process is the problem. However, good process, the foundation of good thinking, often goes unnoticed and unheralded. Process is the fundamental feature of structured thinking, project management, and orderly social progress. Have you heard of the Socratic Method? It is a critical thought method dating back to Socrates and it undergirds several modern facilitation techniques. Two generations after Socrates, Aristotle advanced his own process of inquiry, deconstructing and dividing information into its parts by asking: “What is it? What is it good for? How do I know?” Aristotle’s thought process has fundamentally influenced western progress for over 2,300 years now.

In late 2012, Logan Simpson began providing facilitation services for the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, a very diverse collaborative group in a high-stakes community planning environment. The group had exhausted several facilitators and due to the complexity of issues, faced fresh challenges every month. The combination of personalities, interests, and history resulted in multiple and critical breakdowns. But now the group is clicking, producing, and performing well. What has changed? The answer would be good process.

We observed the group during my first meeting. We could see that the members had tasks, assignments, roles, and a chartered mission. It was immediately clear that these were diverse and intelligent professionals. However, the group’s interaction lacked key fundamentals: the agenda had no stated objectives, no action item and assignment structure, and no framework for short- or long-term goal management. This left the group in a perpetual state of “storming” but not “norming and performing” because the group lacked a progress-oriented process that would encourage focused thinking and achievement of defined goals.

Carefully and quietly, without using the word process, we updated our method of interaction to lean toward progress. Whenever we get lost in a monologue, we point at a written objective and course correct. Whenever we close or open a meeting, we focus on the action items. Each month we chip away at the goals we developed together in a planning session. All of this is rooted in sound process… but none of it feels heavy or psychologically draining.

Whether it is for community or environmental planning, the science of moving forward with group initiatives is based in executing a great process. The art of developing consensus is ensuring it doesn’t feel like a process.