Tuesday, November 21, 2017

How do you run a meaningful and effective consultation?

It is now quite common for university management and funding agencies to run "consultations" where they interact with members of the "community" and "stakeholders". An example, I recently attended at my university was one concerning the university developing a "Mental Health Strategy".
Some departments run "retreats" for staff members with similar aims.
For reasons I describe below, I think such events vary greatly in their value and effectiveness.

I write this because I would like to hear from readers what they think are important ingredients for an effective and meaningful consultation.

My interest is partly because my wife and I were asked by a NGO and a philanthropic organisation to facilitate several consultations with a view to future grant-making initiatives.
My literature search for "best practises" did not yield much.
But here are two resources we did find helpful.

How Employees Shaped Strategy at the New York Public Library
[Published in the Harvard Business Review]

Appreciative Inquiry

Both of these focus on finding a balance between "bottom-up" rather than a "top-down" approach.
They focus on positive things that may be already happening and building on them rather than focussing on problems.

A while ago I heard a talk by a faculty member who previously was Chief of Staff for a state Governor. He mentioned that one of worst things he had to do in that role was to run community "consultations" about "proposed" new government initiatives and policies. Unfortunately, the government had already made a decision but was merely conducting these events to give the appearance of consulting people who would be affected. A sad thing is that some would consider that Governor was one of the best that the state has had.

In a blog post, Best practice of top academic departments, Rohan Pitchford from the ANU School of Economics laments that in Australian universities
Over the last 15-20 years academic school meetings have gone from rambling and unstructured brawls to dull “executive infomercials”. The former led to marathon meetings. The current model has led to a middle-management culture that often does not take advantage of the very valuable specialists skills of talented, highly trained (and experienced) scholars in the department. Nor does it allow for reasonable checks and balances on the powers of the executive–something that is vital for the management of any group of academics.
Australian indigenous communities face many challenges. I recently heard one of their leaders say they were so sick of "white fellas" coming and running "consultations" aimed at finding "solutions" to their problems. He said the negative focus was actually dis-empowering the community, sucking away the energy and confidence to address their problems. They needed a more positive approach that focussed on some of the good things that they were doing and how they could build on those.

Here are a few things I have observed.

First, rearrange the furniture. This says a lot about the power  and communication dynamics in the room. A traditional lecture theatre means people can't see each other and that everyone is looking at the "presenter" who has the power and presents pre-packaged solutions. In contrast, a flat floor with groups of people around circular tables which are used for break out discussion groups, suggests something quite different. My wife taught me this. I also heard from Jenny Charteris (who does this for a living) that this is the first lesson of Facilitation 101.
It was interesting that the UQ Mental Health consultation was done in a good room like I describe above and I think this did facilitate more discussion, including after the meeting. I don't know if this was by intent or whether it was just the room that was available.

Second, it is important that people are heard and feel heard.
In many Australian universities, staff surveys have shown that the vast majority of staff say that "senior management does not listen to other staff". I have also seen instances where someone up the front exhibited what seemed "fake empathy". "I hear you, but ...." and later implemented policies that were contrary to what happened at the meeting.

Third, allow plenty of time for discussion, both in small and large groups. It is also to break up the small groups along different demographic lines.

Fourth, interaction both before and after any meeting is valuable. This also means providing different forums and means of communication, from anonymous comments on a website to public discussions with large groups. I thought it was good that for the UQ Mental Health consultation they said they had already run some small focus groups to get ideas.

What do you think are important ingredients for a meaningful and effective consultation?


  1. My academic department (~40 faculty) is in the midst of a strategic planning process, leading to a one day retreat about a month from now. Here is how we are doing it (I am not claiming this is the best way and would welcome feedback):
    - the process is being run by an elected group of 4 faculty, not by the department head (me)
    - the elected group hosted 3 one hour open discussions aimed at developing a consensus on the key issues and listening for new ideas
    - the elected group spent ~3 hours discussing their summary to date with our external advisory board (a very engaged group of alumni typically in leadership positions in their companies)
    - one member of our advisory board with extensive experience in consulting is going to be the facilitator for our retreat
    - the elected faculty group will send a draft consensus report to the faculty before the retreat with the idea that the retreat can mainly focus on tactics (rather than strategy).

    At the conclusion of this process, a typical faculty member will have given about 9-10 hours of time, and the elected group more than double that. My sense is that asking for more time than this is unreasonable.

    Finally, I will advocate for our academic program actual having a meaningful strategic plan. We last did this about 10 years ago, and then plan laid out clear and aggressive goals and some ways to reach those goals. This led to continued changes in our program and ultimately to the goals being reached. It is therefore a good time to revisit this exercise.

    Thanks for reading an unusually long comment.

  2. David, Thanks for another helpful and stimulating comment. It is not too long.

    I think your process looks excellent. I like the way you have delegated this and the involvement of the advisory board.

    Here are my thoughts.

    1. A pre-condition for this work the department must have a culture of collegiality. Otherwise faculty won't engage (commit 10 hours) or accept the outcome.
    Faculty must believe they will be heard, be willing to listen to others with different views, and be willing to compromise. They have to be willing to look beyond their own pet peeves and narrow self interest to work together for the common good.
    Unfortunately, too many departments do not have such a culture of collegiality.

    2. What is the role of the Dean and Provost, with regard to the outcome? How will they support it or undermine it?

    3. What accountability is there in place for the strategic plan to be implemented? In a range of contexts I have seen too many plans that are a mish-mash (dog's breakfast in Aussie lingo!) of a long list of goals, that realistically cannot all be implemented. Or circumstances change (a new Chair or Dean, a budget crisis, ...) and it all goes out the window.

  3. Ross - some quick comments on your very pertinent points. I am fortunate to be in a department that is highly collegial. This does not mean that we always agree with one another, although there is broad agreement on our overall values. The senior administration at my institution is supportive too. It is important that our department's strategic plan aligns with the institution's strategic plan, but that plan is so broad that this alignment is not difficult to achieve.

    Your last point is critical and is the toughest one. In some sense only time will tell! But one of our goals is to have a relatively short plan that is actionable rather than a very long "shopping list" that covers all possible items.

    1. David- thanks for the answers.
      Let me then illustrate how Appreciative Inquiry might work in your case.

      It would highlight several key "assets" that you have
      - collegiality
      - support from the senior administration
      - an engaged advisory group

      A good strategic plan will consider ways to preserve, enhance, and leverage these assets.
      They should not be taken for granted. Any of the three can be easily destroyed, even by one belligerent individual.

      I think this is also where the Chair plays a key role. They need to making sure all these relationships are good and nipping problems in the bud.

      Simple initiatives such a family picnics, regular lunches for faculty, can enhance and build all these strategic relationships.

  4. I like Ross comments:
    A pre-condition for this work the department must have a culture of collegiality. Otherwise faculty won't engage (commit 10 hours) or accept the outcome. Faculty must believe they will be heard, be willing to listen to others with different views, and be willing to compromise.

    Unfortunately, the extreme hierarchical nature of Australian universities often means the "listening" is a one way stream from top to bottom, thereby preventing the "culture of collegiality" from happening.