Site-Based Decision-Making

Chapter 10 - Rehearsal: Learning and Practicing

Group Problem-Solving, Negotiating,
Planning and Consulting Skills

Once the school council is elected or appointed, it is essential that the group participate in a series of team-building exercises prior to exercising responsibility with regard to critical planning issues. Even if the members of the group have a long history of group problem-solving, even if they are emerging from a culture which has prized collaboration and they can deliver a toolkit of skills and values developed prior to site-based management, the new council is still a team without a history, a team without a culture.

The first step is to get acquainted and establish group norms -- values which will govern future decision-making and increase the likelihood that process will be productive and outcomes will be impressive.

Where does the school council begin with the challenge of learning the key group process skills?

The best way to begin is "in retreat" for several days either during the year or in the summer. The most effective training programs launched thus far begin with a minimum of three days of intense team-building.* If at all possible, it pays to leave town and check into some kind of overnight facility which will permit informal socialization during the hours outside the actual training. Sometimes this contact is an essential part of consolidating what has been learned in the structured sessions as people let down their hair a bit and discuss what has happened during the simulations and practice sessions.

This practioner's guide is meant to suggest several sources which might prove useful to a district in setting up its own training program. It is by no means necessary to bring in outside trainers in order to achieve good results. To the contrary, trainers from within the district probably have an advantage, expecially if they are well respected.

Before the team begins wrestling with instructional issues -- what might be called the educational menu -- an issue to be addressed later -- the priority is the team-building agenda.

There are five main goals of this early training:

1) Everyone on the team should understand the same basic model of group problem-solving, a rational sequence of steps to be taken in considering and acting upon problems;

2) Everyone should be aware of group behaviors which undermine the effectiveness of meetings as well as behaviors which support progress;

3) Everyone should have a toolkit of negotiating and consensus-building skills which will help the group focus on finding "the common ground;"

4) Everyone should understand the planning process well enough to translate goals and aspirations into action plans;

5) Everyone should understand how they must go about checking with and representing the people they represent.

It will take a good three days to learn these models on a basic, introductory level, and it must be stressed that the learning will be incomplete because it is not possible to pack enough quality practice time into those three days. There will be too much material to absorb too quickly, but it will provide a good base -- a base to which the team members may return over and over as they work together in the succeeding months and years.

The key ingredient in the training is guided practice. It is not enough to spend the time listening to the theory of how to run good meetings. The participants must "get their feet wet" and actually try out the skills being showcased. Their ability to apply the skills may be shakey at first, but kt is important to make one's first efforts in relatively safe settings where the results of error don't amount to much.

The Synectics group in Cambridge provides one of the best models for problem solving. Videos available from Coronet are a good introduction to the model, and the guides provide good practice situations for the group to test the model. Human Synergistics has a series of problem-solving scenarios which are also effective as a group which has crashed in a rain forest must decide how to handle the crisis.

In each case the team must learn that rational decision-making should begin with some careful defining of the problem facing the group. All too often groups end up attending to symptoms or the wrong problem altogether. We have a cultural tendency to jump to solutions and skip the problem-identification stage. The group must learn to clarify both the problem and the group's goal(s) early in the problem-solving process so that there is congruence between the efforts of all involved.

Many groups mishandle the jungle survival challenge the first time because they never quite get around to defining a clear objective. Those who wish to stay with the plane argue for keeping certain objects while those who wish to head through the jungle argue for others. Without agreement on goals, both groups may be right for their own goal but wrong for the team effort.

Having settled upon a clear definition of the problem and a clear sense of purpose, the group must turn to the generation of possible solutions in a true brain-storming mode. Here the group must honor the rule that new ideas are meant to be listed without negative comments or else the production will be severely limited by the group's fear. The group must learn to unlock the "mental locks" described by Von Oesch as major impediments blocking the innovative potential of groups.*

Once a good menu of options has been generated, the group turns to critical anaylsis and research. "What more do we need to know about these proposals in order to setvle upon the best one?"

Criteria must be established to guide the choice. "What is it we care about? What would make a good outcome here? How do we test the options? What information do we need to gather?"

Testing options requires forecasting skill. "What are the likely benefits and costs of each option? What's the best that could happen? What's the worst that could happen? What is the probability of various outcomes?"

At this point, the problem-solving module begins to cross into the planning module as the group must wrestle with implementation issues.

"How do get there from here? What strategies are most likely to deliver hte outcomes we seek? What are the potential obstacles? What resources can we bring to bear to make this option a success? Has it been tried before? What can we learn from those previous trials?"

These kinds of rational decision-making models help enormously with the challenge of building consensus because they clarify the basis for a wise decision by flushing values out into the open during the criteria stating phase. Nevertheles, despite all the best intentions in the world, well meaning groups will still find themselves in conflict after all the careful research and planning.

"Getting provides an excellent basis for "win--win" conflict resolution. The key to the model is the replacement of positional bargaining with principled negotiations which emphasize understanding and trying to satisfy each other's interests in ways that everybody comes out a winner and nobody loses very much that matters. The model stresses the importance of empathy and understanding, both of which can only be established through deliberate communication toward those ends.

As the three days proceed, the modules should flow pretty much seamlessly from one to another as the skills and attitudes supporting success with one add to the effectiveness of the group in each succeeding challenge and model. The group should begin to sense a crescendo, a mounting effectiveness as problems are presented and the group begins to establish a rhythm and some harmony. Good behaviors become "second nature."

How is the group meant to conduct these sessions? Good meeting behavior is a module which flows naturally from the others. Jove Books * identifies basic procedures to deliver effective and efficient meetings, a model which naturally lends itself to more practice as each group confronts yet another interesting challenge and applies the facilitator/recorder system.

The consultant issue is a difficult one to practice because it necessarily involves people back in the school community who are not present at the retreat. The best we can do is simulate the consultative process within the larger retreat group with exercises which demonstrate the dangerous consequences of ignoring the people one represents. These exercise are best followed by ones which support and reinforce appropriate behaviors which will transfer well back to the school community settings.

One school council was surprised during the first two months of school to learn that they were responsible for deciding how to spend $50,000 prior to receiving any training in group process. The team rapidly fell into wrangling and discord. Rehearsal -- practice in safe settings -- is a fundamental element in successful implementation of site-based management, one that can be ignored only at considerable risk.

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Copyrighted 1991 by Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.