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Warm and fuzzy group hugs

Alright, I'm a cynical, callous guy. That isn't a disqualification for politics- it actually may be a job requirement, but it makes me bristle when I'm confronted with touchy-feely group sessions intended to lubricate us with warm and fuzzy feelings on the way to working as a team.

And that's just where I was, most of Tuesday afternoon and evening, five hours of what was billed as a 'strategic planning session' but was in fact mostly a team-building, self-help psychological exercise intended to make us sing in joyous harmony. The last 30-40 minutes whistled lightly over some strategic planning, interspersed with some pointless phrase-building, but not the nitty gritty of goal setting, just the very broad brush strokes.

In fact, after five hours the bottom line was pretty much: a sustainable community is our top priority. That's one of those slap-yourself-on-the-forehead "doh!" moments. Of course it is: would anyone say an unsustainable community is their strategic goal? Jeez, how long did it take us to get to this point? And how much has it cost to get here?

I should have been smiling because he word sustainable is writ large on my campaign brochure, but in fact I was deeply distressed that it took more than four hours to arrive at this state of the gob-smackingly obvious, and then we ended before we could start with the REAL work: laying out exactly how we accomplish this lofty goal. So for me, the session was five hours of my life I'll never get back and we're no further ahead as a council or a community.

This was the third such session for council, by the way. I managed to avoid the previous two because of complications with work or my vacation. I did speak to a few attendees from the previous two and felt assured I didn't miss anything substantial. But I had assumed that, having gotten all the pop-psych self-flagellation out of the way in the first two sessions, we'd actually get down to the business of planning in the third.

Seems we still had a lot of groupthink to do. About four hours' worth.

Gawds, all those clichés and buzz words made my head spin. I writhe when I have to deal with things like vision statements, branding, team-building exercises and similar bastards of the marketing world. I feel these are all hollow shells, navel-gazing efforts intended to make the session leaders and the attendees feel good, but are little more than smoke and mirrors to outsiders. If a taxpayer asked me about Tuesday's session, "What did you accomplish for my good?" I'd have to reply "Nothing."

The business of government, the work of politics, isn't about generating such vapour. It's about making decisions, and accomplishing tangible and measurable goals. So I'm never going to be the most willing participant in these sessions where it's all about loving thy neighbour. I was a hippy. I was there when this stuff started. I got enough neighbourly love to last me a lifetime back then.

When I worked in the corporate world, I went through several similar sessions, starting way back when with the "In Search of Excellence" workshops in the early 1980s. While I see the use and even the need for coherent teamwork in such a business environment, part of me rebels, and looks upon these sessions as a corporate version of the gestalt therapy session(I did a spate of them in the 70s...).

Or, in my darker moments, as gentrified versions of the Maoist self-criticism sessions. Especially during the 'free for all' moments when we were encouraged to speak freely, express ourselves openly... and wonder if someone was gathering this all up to use against us later. I generally remained silent unless directly questioned at these times. Never know who is storing these unguarded snippets away. Must be my paranoia from reading so much about the Stalinist era. Did I mention how I sometimes feel like Winston Smith? Oh yes, in an earlier entry...

At one point in the session, I had to interrupt. I took exception to the consultant's frequent reference to our group as a sports team. To me, that's an inappropriate metaphor. Sports teams are like party politics: they have a coherent series of goals, share a similar ideology and each have well defined roles. In our municipal politics, we are individuals, elected ostensibly outside party lines, and our conscience and reason are our guides, not some sideline coach or party whip.

We are, in fact, not so much a team, I said, as the liontamer's act in the circus. We have eight individual, unruly and obstreperous big cats, who are barely kept in line because there's a guy with a whip at the head. But jumping through hoops on command isn't teamwork. And those cats have been known to turn on the liontamer and tear him apart.

An early image presented on the screen was a group of whitewater rafters racing through a turbulent river while the guide at the back deftly steers them away from danger. It's a cute, fairy-tale sort of image if you think council is anything like that. It's as real as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

There's no real sense of teamwork here because we weren't elected as a team. Personally, a municipal team at the table is the pig's ear while the individual freethinkers is the silk purse.

Despite what some special interest groups imagined they were getting when they promoted a slate of what they assumed were their pet candidates, they didn't get a team. Personal agendas, private goals, independent visions all come into play to make this more like a nine-person tug-of-war. Sure, sometimes we all tug in the same direction, but that's not necessarily a sign we're a team, merely that we collectively agree at that moment that the direction is the most appropriate.

All the group-think love ins won't make us a team, either. And I worry that should we become one, we'd be little more than mechanical rubber stamps for some person or people with personal agendas and the authority to carry them through.

What we SHOULD have been doing from the start of this session - in fact from the start of session one! - was what we did at the very end of the final session: define mutual goals, pick focal points for community growth and development, and then start laying out the path to get there. But like wanderers in Dante's dark wood, we lost our way. We ended the session at the very point where it was actually starting to achieve something tangible.

So now I have to ask: how much did this cost the taxpayers? Can the costs be justified by measuring them against any empirical results? Or was it just a series of feel-good sessions that happily spun our collective wheels but didn't get us anywhere?

Personally, I feel it was the latter, and I will be even more reluctant to participate in similar sessions in future unless there are well-defined community-related goals set out at the very start. And should I want any more pop-psychology feel-good moments, I'll wander down to the library and pick up the latest Depak Chopra book and read it at home with a glass of wine.

A Man Called Papa
Jul 12 2007 06:44 AM
Fortunately, I decided some time ago that I would no longer comment on your blog. If I hadn’t, I would have been compelled to indicate that I share your eye-rolling every time I hear about one of these sessions in business, politics or any other arena.

I think that it is interesting that you take responsibility on behalf of your generation for all this contrived warmth generation. I am reminded of the comment that you can get a warm feeling by peeing down your leg. Like you, as a contrarian, I question how beneficial and productive all this “teamwork” is.
Ian Chadwick
Jul 18 2007 03:46 PM
I came across this Dilbert stip in one of my collections and thought it was particularly relevant to this blog entry...
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Just change company to town, and thinkers to politicians...
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... and maybe change Viewgraphs to Powerpoint presentations...
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... and golly, it's almost like Scott Adams sat in on our latest strategic planning session!

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