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Skip the preparation?May 30, 2014

Last week, our Integral Facilitator faculty member Rob McNamara shared a provocative perspective on preparation and planning on his blog.

“The most dangerous tool you currently have is the plan you are already holding in your hands. Why? Because the plan makes assumptions that you likely do not question every day. Every day you should be getting out of your plans such that you can adaptively respond to life in creative and innovative ways. Gain more altitude. Get more perspective.”

We wanted to dig into these ideas a bit more from the perspective of facilitation.

Naturally, facilitators have a great deal to keep track of and manage. Surely, planning and preparation is part of being skilled at serving the spoken and unspoken needs of those we’re working with. Yet, when we scratch the surface of our preparation rituals, we can see that there are unexamined habits, fears, attachments, and fixations on how things “should” be that are also driving our instinct to prepare.

Wanting to elaborate these distinctions in the context of facilitation, we asked Rob some questions. Here’s what he had to say:

IF: Are there better and worse ways to plan and prepare?

Rob: Planning with the hope to control outcomes is ill advised in many situations. Facilitators “preparing” with an agenda (seen or hidden) to control outcomes are not effective at eliciting adaptive learning and changes in organizations. When I see people “preparing” in these ways they are often managing anxiety, most notably their own. This kind of preparation often results in less anxiety and more confidence. You can look into their eyes and sense both their certainty, yet they also are fearful of and unprepared for real, sincere, and open-ended human inquiry. Planning has been a strategy to avoid this fear and anxiety no matter how persuasive, strategic, and well thought-out. While this kind of planning is appropriate for someone early on in their career—early, mid, or late twenties—beyond this they are lagging behind where they ought to be functioning professionally.

IF: Is there an approach to preparation and planning that actually supports us to be more available to receive and respond to the rich information of the present moment?

Rob: Yes, and your question is well crafted. It is asking about preparing us to open the aperture of perception such that we get more data flow into our awareness. The more contact the mind is making with the present moment, the more information we have to work from.

To use an analogy here, the average adult nervous system only gets periodic reports. These are sufficient, however the question that is important is the one that asks, “what happens between periodic reports?” If you get a daily report, that’s okay (not ideal), but what if you only get a weekly report, or worse yet, an annual report? The farther out the space between your mind and the report, the less skillful the decision making and behavior in between.

When you plan and get a good sense of the landscape and what you’re going to do, you stop taking in critical information. Instead of your mind being sharply attuned for pattern recognition and greater data flow, you impose your plan onto the facilitation context and the group(s) you are to serve. This is a bad move. You stop receiving periodic reports. Why? Because you’ve already got one, you’ve seen the data, and have made a map that you’re now following.

Good planning paradoxically involves, at least in part, getting out of planning. In other words, opening up the mind to become more responsive to data flows moment-to-moment. Our approach to training and certifying professional Integral Facilitators focuses on preparing them to ride the moment like this. This involves anchoring yourself in what I call a “satellite feed.” You are not stuck in your plans. You are not fixated by your emotions. You are not consumed by pre-existing ideas, strategies and activities to employ. This means your mind is open. The body is relaxed. You are open. The satellite is orbiting the facilitation contexts from high above, enabling you to gather more information and situate these data flows into larger systemic patterns.

If our minds stay open, we can cultivate new, more advanced nervous systems. To complete the analogy, periodic reports become obsolete. Why? Because your mind is getting real-time data every moment. Furthermore, instead of doing planning and then acting, your more complex and developed nervous system can do both simultaneously.

Good planning practices this ability to stay open and responsive, and as a result, data flows are optimized. Planning and strategizing is not decoupled from action. Execution and strategy are integrated. Spend your time here and you’ll be well suited for any situation you find yourself in. It’s a more intelligent and strategic way to plan, as you’re not entirely focused on situational factors but rather the structural capacities of your nervous system. All of this enables us to be more responsive and adaptive. Our decision making can handle more complexity. And, when we look at adaptive learning, culture change, and organizational development, these are skillsets that are required. If you don’t have them, you can’t do the work.

IF: Sometimes the obviousness of our own planning habits can make them challenging to see. What are some practices and approaches for getting more perspective?

Rob: I call it “still point training.” Absolute stillness reveals activity that we simply can’t see, feel and notice when we are in action. It’s like when you sit absolutely still and lay down and completely relax you can sometimes feel your heartbeat. Yet, when you were up and about you couldn’t sense this part of your experience. Stillness of body is the starting point. Stillness of the mind is the second feature. This simple exercise, over time, reveals the activities we need to see as objects, which thus enables us to manage them with greater effectiveness. If we can’t hold them as object they end up managing us—which is not something recommended if you’re interested in furthering your professional development.

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