GROUP JAZZ: Finding a Pattern Language for Engagement

Nurse Tech, Margie (not her real name), hurried into the patient’s room to check on some monitoring equipment. A sign on the door indicated that standard barrier precautions were required as part of the hospital’s initiative to prevent the transmission of infections.  Although Margie donned a gown she wasn’t wearing gloves.   The Quality Team had a lot of data showing that similar gaps in compliance occurred frequently and they responded with a typical collection       of strategies including; Required training sessions on the protocol checklist, a hospital-wide “glove week” program, and a human resource department (HR) effort to explore ways to incorporate compliance in performance appraisals. 

Unfortunately, these strategies didn’t work because they targeted the wrong problem.  When asked why she didn’t always wear gloves when she should, Margie explained, “I have very small hands and I don’t always find the small size gloves in the drawer.  I can’t use the bigger sizes because I have to be able to feel buttons and dials with my fingers.  When I go into a room where I can’t find my size, I can either go ahead and do what I was going to do anyway – which is what I do – or I could go down the hall to the supply closet (which, by the way, we don’t have a key for so I’d need to find someone with a key first). There might or might not be small size gloves there anyway.  That’s just not practical.”

It turned out Margie’s problem wasn’t that she didn’t know that the patient required precautions (a signage problem) or that she should wear gloves (a training problem) and it wasn’t even that she wasn’t motivated to wear gloves (an HR problem).  The problem was that the gloves weren’t readily available – something they only discovered by engaging Margie, all the other glove wearers, the glove stockers and others on the unit in exploring barriers to having gloves in the right place at the right time.  Everyone needed to be involved in generating possible solutions designed for the specific staffing and layout environment on that unit.

Engagement is the latest hot thing.  Everybody is talking about employee engagement, customer engagement, and stakeholder engagement.   There is increased interest in shifting the focus of organizational meetings from presentation mode to one where attendees get to interact and participate.  Meeting designers draw from an enlarging portfolio of large group methods for these off-sites.  There are numerous examples of how large group designs such as Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space, and Future Search have generated powerful new ideas and had significant impact on organizations—at least for a time. Often, the half-life of the energy and commitment to new ways of being after these events is short when participants return to the default ways of daily interaction.  Changes are not sustained. How can we extend that half-life? How can we make the enlivening experience that characterizes these events available every day? How can we put the power to host and facilitate high engagement in the hands of everyone in the organization?  To facilitate significant, transformative changes in organizations we need to make a profound change in how people interact, not just at off sites and other special occasion meetings, but in the weekly team meetings, the ad hoc design sessions, and problem solving get-togethers that make up daily life in organizations. 

What we need is a pattern language for talking about these engagement methods in ways that are accessible. The liberating structures framework is an attempt to define key elements of that pattern language to make them more explicit. We need to invite everyone to play with those elements and create their own potential solutions whether meetings are large or small, formal or informal, routine or special.

What is a pattern language?

Christopher Alexander (1977) developed the idea of a pattern language to identify patterns that work in social space in the context of architecture and community environments. He and colleagues identified several hundred patterns that apply to relationships among everything from the small reading nook to the design of an entire community. Talking about and using the vocabulary of these patterns allows designers and community members, planners and architects to think and talk about the implications of different choices.

What is our pattern language for engagement? What patterns can we identify that work to support participants in productive conversations about what matters in organizations, to liberate energy, tap into collective wisdom, and unleash the power of self-organization?

Liberating structures are frameworks that make it possible for people and organizations to create, to do new things, to be innovative. These are processes or rules that can be put in place to encourage people to be free, creative, and get results, rather than find themselves oppressed, constrained, confined, or powerless. For things to really change, structural elements need to change, too. Otherwise change is short-lived. Liberating structures are the forms that make it easy for people to be generative together and make a significant impact with their creativity.

The designs that seem to best support the kind of engagement we need and want share a number of key qualities: they are messy and they are complex. The conversations they produce cross boundaries between departments, between roles, between parts of the organization that don’t ordinarily talk to each other. Many are self-organized where order arises out of local interaction. The dialogue feels generative. Yet, at the same time, designs that work have just enough structure to channel the energy and keep things moving and productive. These structures are liberating rather than confining.

Jazz is a good example. Through its underlying structure, people are able to play together. In fact, people who have never seen each other, never before met, can sit down and jam. They can create something that is wonderful. The guidelines of jazz are a collection of principles that give enough structure so that people can create together.

These same principles make possible infinite degrees of freedom. Different saxophone players playing the same piece can come up with totally unique expressions, each time they play it! Yet, you recognize it as this piece rather than that piece. There’s something about it that gives it a persistent identity and there is plenty of room for individual creativity.

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