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Informal and Formal Have to Work TOGETHER

Wednesday, June 23, 2021 8:00 AM | Jennifer Miller (Administrator)

Long ago, my graduate work focused on helping groups that needed to work together to find a way to agree and move forward. An often-used example is the university that wants to build a new dorm next to a neighborhood organization that feels encroached upon. The city's zoning board gets drawn into the fray....

Another example is the manufacturer that needs engineering, marketing, sales and finance to get in alignment so that a new to the world product can come to the market.

An important insight for organized discernment and decision-making like this - especially within and in between organizations is that both formal and informal  process need attention. 

  • Formal - Organized and scheduled activity that does and then governs the work among people appointed to their roles and responsibilities.
  • Informal - the conversations in the parking lots,  homes, group chats, serendipitous encounters, and diners--often after formal meetings take place, and often between a mixture of people whose voices were minor in any formal process with people who were not even in the meetings.

When I wrote a training manual for the discernment methods that grew from my research, and then began facilitating training workshops across Canada and the U.S., I often said "There will always be informal and formal dynamics when we have important decisions to make. The trick is to have the informal inform the formal ahead of time." If we attend to the informal ahead of time we gain insight, alignment and ownership for what we decide to do. Otherwise, the informal dynamics breed undermining, resistance and passive aggression among those not asked, drawn out, or heard and understood.

Let's say we've mastered this soft power approach to build agreement as we build organizations, make decisions, and foster movements and a heart for the world to flourish. We would be naive to believe our listening thoroughly ahead of time clears the field from all resistance.

  • Even when a normally cynical person is surprised by an honest and consistent leadership group that seeks input to inform and plan, and then actually warms up and participates, their long-used muscles to complain and resist may well kick in again after the fact.
  • Other players or dynamics usually emerge even after we were so thorough in our attempt to get broad alignment and ownership.
  • We should be prepared for cynical behaviors, even among those who stand most to benefit and may originally have been the most vocal champions.
  • We need to understand that all of the good that could have come might not come as quickly as we prefer because others will decide not to participate.
  • We must learn that an imperfect step on a longer journey and with fewer companions is far better than expecting a perfect community of perfect democracy in every organization that touches us.

Acting nimbly, kindly, and persistently, freely brings a tempering to us, along with a burnished wisdom, rather than the impotence of escaping to seeming safety by powering up in order to bully others, to hide, or to cast blame. It brings needed conversations into a safe light where we all can participate, rather than prompting us to whisper behind our hands and in dark corners.

As Process Consultants, what changes for us if we come to building Client Agreements expecting informal dynamics as a normal part of the process rather than being surprised by them? What if our iterative questions used in designing a process with a client helped to build the client's awareness of the need to incorporate dissent rather than alienate it? What would it look like if our awareness of our own capacity for healthy and unhealthy dissenting behaviors informed our consulting technique?

- mark l vincent

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