Friday, July 8, 2011

The transformative power of lists

Yes, I appreciate the irony of the title I've assigned to this post. Perhaps a more accurate revision would be this: "the transformative power of list making."

Last week, as I created notes from the flip chart sheets of a session that I facilitated for a local board, I recalled the vivid conversation about mission that those sheets represented. What I remember most was a member's statement about being able to look back on the product of our work - particularly the list of tangible ways the organization delivers value to our community - and realizing that it was a long one.

This individual saw a visual representation of the work that this small board has accomplished and that it continues to provide in the community. It was an affirmation that, even as the organization emerged from recent challenges, it managed to provide something real and valuable. It also advanced its mission. Sometimes, that is very hard to see from the middle.

Flip chart lists are a staple in my work with boards because, more often than not, important insights arise in group reflection. At the end of discussions like the one our local board had last week, the chance to step back, take a breath and absorb visually what that reflection produced facilitates a transformative moment for many members.

I wrote earlier this summer about a similar kind of experience, when I asked another local board to list community partners and other sources of organizational support. They already were in list-making mode (this took place somewhere in the middle of our retreat), but what emerged in this particular assignment was remarkable. The energy shifted, the list grew to cover multiple sheets, the names flew faster than I could write, and board members (and their executive director) were able to see that they were entering a fundraising challenge with an already strong foundation.

Neither the notes created nor the flip chart sheets themselves come anywhere near capturing adequately the individual and group insights that emerged last week. Neither board members nor I can predict exactly how that expanded, collective understanding will impact future decisions and focus. But in the simple process of listing, especially listing their assets and accomplishments, their perspective shifted.

Too often, board agendas focus on "issues" and "challenges." What would happen if we took some time out regularly to list their strengths and accomplishments or, better yet, to discuss ways to build from them? What list would spark generative thinking and shift their frame of reference from needs to assets?

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