Sitka Center for Art and Ecology is a small non-profit that operates classes and a residency program on the Oregon coast. It’s located in an ecologically sensitive and important biodiverse area. It’s a very special place.
I was lucky enough to be invited to a three week artist’s residency. As part of the program, each resident does a community service project. Mine was working with the staff of five on team building.
What if they have already done VisualsSpeak?
The executive director, Jalene Case, has been a VisualsSpeak customer for years. Her team has played with the pictures before. As a matter of fact just a week before I arrived, the same team had done the two most common team building exercises. First they selected images and shared stories to describe what each of them brought to the team. Then they did the same with their visions for Sitka.
They had recently used images to deepen two conversations. That didn’t mean I couldn’t use images to deepen a different conversation.
What if they don’t have problems?
This organization has the usual challenges of a small non-profit, but has a solid foundation. The team gets along and functions well. This was not a request to fix something broken. Rather it was a request to enhance performance, prevent problems, and reinforce what is good.
Without a problem to fix, it was even more important to get clear on what the desired outcomes were. The main challenge was that it is a small organization where each person had a lot on their plates and it was right before the busy season begins. I had a conversation ahead of time with the leader, then opened the day with asking each person what would have to happen over the day for each of them to feel the day had not been a waste of time.
The main thing they wanted was to get to know each other better, especially regarding the person who had joined the staff six months before. They were hoping to feel they got something worthwhile for the investment of time. Not sure they totally believed that was possible. One thing I do is ask that each person participates by first writing a paper on whatever topic they choose. You learn a tremendous amount from this exercise. You also see who may need help writing a paper, and who is willing to help them do it.
The Morning Session
I knew this was a team with the basics of good communication and trust. They wanted to know each other better. So I decided to have them focus on creating images about their whole lives, rather than just work. I gave them each an Exploring New Options deck to create two images, one of the present and one of what they want in the future.
Before they shared the stories, I talked about the core visual language each one of them displayed in the way they arranged the images. In general, the more structured images are the people who tend to be more structured and analytical in their thinking. The less structured images are those who tend to be more big picture thinkers.
To make this applicable, I talked about where each person seemed to fall, and asked if the rest of the team found that to be true. People recognized themselves and each other. Then we talked, given that understanding, about how they might best divide tasks and frame communication for each other. In other words how to leverage those differences.
Interacting with the Stories
When it came time to listen to the stories of each person, I took an active role. Rather than just allow the person to share the initial story, I asked deepening questions. I used cues in the arrangement, like what was in the center, to guide my inquiry. I asked how things might apply. I asked to hear more about dreams. I didn’t pry, rather offered ways they could share a bit more if they wanted to. They did.
People don’t always share everything right off. Often because they don’t think of it right away. It can be helpful to have a curious witness asking for clarification.
The Afternoon Session
Using the Pictures to Frame a Conversation
I started the afternoon using the ImageSet to get each person to make an image about “What Makes Sitka Sparkle?”. I knew “sparkle” was how they described the special quality they strive to create for the staff, board, residents, guests and visitors. We talked about the little touches, the magic of the physical place, the relationships that make it all possible.
Once they were grounded in what makes the place special, I told them we were going to pretend we got a message that we had four hours before a big wildfire would arrive. What would they do?
We spent the rest of the afternoon working on an emergency plan. Here is why:
- It’s something they’ve worked on some, but it kept getting put off in the presence of more pressing duties
- It gave us another context to look at how they worked together
- It gave them something valuable at the end of the day
We were able to not only achieve everyone’s expectations, but exceed them. At the end of the day there were task lists, commitments, promises to go home and talk about emergencies with family, and a better understanding of each other.
Tips for Working With Groups Again
- Bring new information to the table
- Use different prompts or questions than before
- Interact with participants to help draw them out
- Make sure you are doing something of value to THEM