Technology should make things easier, not harder. Or, in cases where things get harder, they should also get more interesting/necessary… not just complexity for the sake of complexity. As a spreadsheet magician/surgeon/evangelist, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to facilitate change management, capacity building, solutions. It’s my job to hold in balance these concepts that my mentor Morgan first taught me… “think about when to facilitate and when to difficultate.” This promptly blew my damn mind – I’ve never stopped thinking about it, and it’s been YEARS. Today, I want to share two facilitation approaches that I’ve used in recent community meetings and why spreadsheet practitioners might want to think outside the … cell. In some cases these techniques can help a group slow down and take it easy. On the other hand, they might help us do the difficult work of root cause analysis. Facility? Difficulty? Pick your poison. Either way, it’s going to be an interesting ride!

I also want to acknowledge Matthew Armstead, who’s social media posts about facilitation techniques have pushed me to sharpen my approach and inspired me to share what’s been working here in the blogosphere. You can join me and follow along with her brilliant insights here.

A picture is worth a thousand words

A few weeks ago, I hosted a database leadership committee meeting with a community organization where I’ve been doing pro-bono database support with a team of brilliantly dedicated volunteers. I knew that we were each coming into the meeting with (1) a huge range of exposure to the new database system and (2) a cargo ship’s worth of emotional baggage about this project. This implementation was bumpy and under-resourced and some aspects of the technology don’t work as smoothly as we need them to. Sound familiar? There are still big questions that need to be figured out, and a lot of valid frustration about the project’s timeline and setbacks. Can you relate?

I brought the following prompt to start the meeting: “Draw a picture of our current database and how you feel about it.” I handed out paper, crayons, and markers and gave everyone 5 minutes. After the predictable groans (you want me to be creative?! i’m not a good artist!), committee members got to work. Then, we each had a chance to share our drawings.

I’m not going to share them here, because of privacy and context and all that, but I still want to take you through the journey, so I’m going to include two examples (pulled from the web) that remind me of pictures/insights that we drew together.

One person drew a picture of the database on one side of the paper and their body way on the other side. They spoke to feeling isolated, confused, distant from the database and plead for more training. They also spoke to feeling that the database was so complicated as to be inhospitable, not intuitive. I think the cactus symbolizes this well! Every time you get close to it, you get a poke! And the window shows the feeling of a barrier between people and technology (another person drew a giant wall in her picture) and suggested building a bridge over the wall, or a window, or a door to connect with the information on the other side.

In my research for this post, I found a brilliant project where someone went on a, “personal journey of finding my inside and outside worlds through daily drawings of objects that represent my feelings.” What a cool project! I picked this image because it did such a good job showing the range of experiences and feelings that we may have, and how they overlap, such as “stressed and productive” being multiple flavors on the same pizza! They also conveyed the different arenas of “the world inside and the world outside.” This definitely relates to a theme from our meeting – there’s a world and a logic inside of the database, (not necessarily a logic that makes sense on the surface to us humanitarians!) a separate world of impressions, stories, and frustrations among of the leadership team itself, and then the whole, complex world of the full organization that we are trying to serve and represent in the “cloud.” This image (and others in the artists’ portfolio) further reinforced the importance of talking about feelings and giving them a wide berth. Feelings and technology are intertwined and we can’t just ignore them!

Hot take: Technology can on one hand cause feelings of worthlessness AND on the other hand sooth/distract/numb us from social alienation. Mic drop!

My invitation: Talk about feelings openly to support culture change with data projects. If we don’t create space for feelings, they’ll be expressed a different (less productive?) way. This isn’t about tone policing, but rather tapping into the power and honesty of our lived experiences and needs with technology so that we can empower ourselves to keep moving forward, and apply what we’re learning in real time.

My advice: Don’t be afraid to explore alternative or unexpected mediums! When I’m designing spreadsheet systems, or custom reports, or lots of things, I’ll often start off with drawing (or ask my conversation partner to draw their ideas). The innovation in this scenario (for me) was applying the drawing technique that works so well during the “brainstorming phase” to the “reflection and learning” phase of a project.

What I learned: My group came up with powerful and raw metaphors that were only available because we slowed down to draw and reflect. Also, each person was able to think about the big picture (not just their one annoying pet peeve) which made our check-in more holistic and less complainy/whack-a-mole-y. The prompt invited each person to reflect on their relationship with the database system rather than whether it was working properly or not. This makes me optimistic about our ability to grow/adapt toward a more rewarding data experience.

If you try this technique with your community or staff, I’d love to hear about it! Drop me a line or comment on the post!

Stay grounded

Last night, I had the honor of facilitating a portion of the general meeting for my main squeeze org, the Earth Quaker Action Team. We’re midstream through an ambitious and visionary campaign to transform the public energy utility industry in Philadelphia, calling for 20% locally generated solar power by 2025, with priority focus on building solar arrays in high unemployment areas in the company’s service area.

We have a lot of structures and practices that support this work, and my job was to train our volunteers on a new role called the Noticer, who’s job is to reflect on group patterns and dynamics and help us examine assumptions and biases, interrupt racism, and notice actions/behaviors that don’t align with our goals/values. Some recent examples include: noticing a pattern of interrupting, being overly-friendly with police, and men neglecting to clean up the snack table. These patterns stick out to me because I want to work to shift them, but there are also patterns that may be value neutral (like, not good or bad!) but still useful to observe. One example could be, hosting regular meetings on weeknight evenings. Or not sharing virtual calendar invites! (Some groups I’m part of are extremely copious about this… others would find it heinously obtrusive and presumptuous!).

I designed a 10 minute activity that helped our group get grounded and open ourselves up for keen awareness of patterns/dynamics. First, I shared 3 quotes that provide different frames for this work. I asked volunteers to read them aloud; one volunteer was moved to tears during quote #2. I worked in advance to select quotes that move from the concrete to the abstract.

(1) Working group members then led a reflection on what faithfulness requires of us and how we can see and name patterns of oppression. We defined patterns of oppression as learned behaviors and ways of being that seek to diminish the humanity of different groups of people. We are taught these patterns, explicitly and implicitly, throughout our lives. While we have often been conditioned to these patterns, when we can name and recognize them, we can interrupt them by acting in ways different to how we have been conditioned and in ways that seek to affirm the humanity of each person.

New England Yearly Meeting, excerpt from

(2) When the struggles of this time threaten my desire to be alive, or my revolutionary hope, or even the peace available in a moment, I know the medicine is to seek the beauty, the signs of life and miracle, of divine intention, which, when I look, are flooding my senses, humbling my comprehension, inviting me back to awe.

adrienne maree brown, from her blog

(3) It doesn’t have to be blue iris, it can be weeds in a vacant lot.

Just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate.

This isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks. A silence in which another voice may speak.

Mary Oliver, from “Praying”

Then, I offered a grounding exercise that I adapted from New England Yearly Meeting. I passed out little slips of paper with this series of 10 questions. I prompted beginners to focus on the Mindfulness prompts column and people looking to develop intermediate/advanced skills to challenge themselves with the Noticing prompts column. I really think the two are overlapping and the ideal scenario is to sample from both of them!

Mindfulness promptsNoticing prompts
I feel…A pattern I recognize is…
I see…I see us using power to…
I hear…I am confused because…
I know…The deeper call I hear is…
I wonder…In this moment, I hear G-d inviting us to…

We gave folks time to pick a few questions and reflect with their neighbor (a sort of “pair/share”) and then moved ahead with the meeting. At the end of the 2 hour meeting, after an ambitious agenda of campaign debriefing and updates, we brought our pairs back together to share their Noticings and reflections before saying “goodnight” and heading out into the world.

Why am I sharing this activity on my blog? Well, it’s MY blog so technically I can share whatever I want! But really, I wanted to share this because every unhealthy pattern, contradiction, or oppression that is baked into an organization’s culture is usually present in their data model in one way or another. So I think these types of practices belong in a blog that is dedicated to the intersection of social justice and spreadsheets.

Sometime these cultural patterns emerge in questions of access (who should log into the system? which data should be available to each person?); training (who is eligible for deep dive professional development? does the organization value learning?); governance (who’s ideas get prioritized?); knowledge (who is considered an expert? has anyone asked the “lowest level” people who do the most manual data entry about their needs and opinions?); team dynamics (are meetings interrupty? do women and People of Color speak up? is banter/sarcasm considered funny or mean?); project management (timing/sense of urgency, accountability for goals); dignity (valuing each person’s ideas and full humanity).

I also want to compile some of these facilitation techniques so that they can be shared, adapted, reconfigured, challenged, and hopefully grow throughout my broader communities.

Lastly, on a more personal note, I think that these two facilitation techniques demonstrate a larger area of growth that I’ve been trying to tackle… and I know I’m not alone. Defensiveness/judgement are two qualities that I struggle with in bringing my full self to my data projects. Limiting beliefs about what I think is possible, or what my community of database users are “up for” reveal more about my assumptions and less about our shared potential. Pushback, denial, and resistance to change (all normal parts of being introduced to new things) can conjure up defensiveness in me as I try to “show off” my/my team’s hard work rather than listen openly to concerns and feedback. Of course, the new thing isn’t new to me anymore! Creating group activities that prioritize space for reflection, and building our(my) own capacity for humility/groundedness/awareness of patterns will serve our work in the long term, while reducing exasperation and burn out in the mean time. Who’s with me?

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