Structured Spontaneity: The Key To A Low-Risk Three Ring Circus

A few weeks ago I spent a long, power-packed day at a conference center in Arlington, VA, with the boards of two nonprofit corporations – the International and American Associations for Dental Research – their CEO, Chris Fox, and Chris’s top lieutenants.  Over the course  of 10 hours, we brainstormed preliminary vision statements for the two associations, identified and discussed several strategic issues they were facing, and also considered ways we could strengthen the two boards’ governing role, structure, and processes.  We’re now in the process of following through on what appears – to judge from participants’ feedback and our notes from the session – to have been a really productive, enjoyable, and energizing day together.

When you think about so many volunteer leaders and executives spending so much time together in the same room, it might sound pretty risky – like a three-ring circus with so many moving parts that it could easily break down in squabbling, or worse.  As the facilitator of this, and many other similar, “retreats,” I can tell you that I do treat them as high-stakes/high-risk events.  But I’ve learned that if you employ an approach that I call “structured spontaneity” you can keep the risk minimal while producing really powerful results, in terms of satisfying participants and generating impressive content that you can use in following through.

So what is “structured spontaneity”?  In a nutshell, it means coming up with ways to get people to participate actively in a process, freely sharing and discussing ideas and questioning each other, with enough structure that the process is highly unlikely to break down.  You can apply the approach in various ways, but what we did in Arlington was to divide everyone into 7 breakout groups led by board members – 4 groups meeting concurrently in the first round and 3 in the second.  Each group was given a very specific set of tasks and instructions on how to accomplish each task.  For example, a group in the first round focused on brainstorming an “impact vision” by completing the sentence, “As a result of carrying out our mission……..”  A group in the second round identified practical ways to keep the working relationship between the boards and their CEO, Chris Fox, close, positive and productive over the long run.  After each round, the breakout groups assembled back in the main meeting room to report on what they had done and take questions from their colleagues.  By the way, the 7 board members who agreed to be breakout group leaders received a special orientation on how to run their groups a week or so before the retreat.

So we achieved structured spontaneity by using breakout groups to do well-defined tasks. We also created more structure by formally establishing rules of the game for the breakouts. For example, we agreed that the process would be free-flowing, with no right or wrong points, and we took pressure off by not requiring groups to reach formal consensus or do any kind of prioritizing.  Another factor kept the risk to a minimum.  The 7 very influential board members who led the groups became strong investors in the process, and their ownership definitely helped keep so many moving parts running without any serious glitches..

I’d like to hear about techniques you’ve used to get leaders in your organization involved in productive brainstorming with minimal risk.

Doug Eadie