Artful Participation and the link with the Prime Directive

Written by , in category Engaging Workshops & Meetings

11 May 2016

I recently attended a 3 day class on Sociocracy 3.0 (S3) by James Priest and Liliana David. This pattern language, based on Sociocratic and Agile principles, radically challenges a number of behaviours we see in companies and collaborative structures. 

One of the recurring questions throughout the training was: “How do you make sure everyone is heard in the decision making patterns described in S3?”. The answer seems very simple: Artful Participation (and an observant facilitator).

Artful Participation

Artful Participation in S3 is described as asking yourself the following question before you act in a conversation: 

“Is my behavior in the moment the greatest contribution I can make to the effectiveness of this collaboration?”

It’s similar to asking yourself the question wether you have invited the right people to a meeting, or wether you yourself should be in the meeting you have been invited to. Is your behaviour or input the greatest contribution to the effectiveness of what’s going on? Are you taking responsibility for your actions and interventions in this particular collaboration, or would you be able to spend your energy more effectively at another moment in time or a different setting? Are you not drowning the opinion of others by making too much noise? Or should you speak up more in order to contribute more effectively?

It seems simple, but really artfully participating in a conversation has a profound impact on yourself, on decisions made during the session and on the feeling of accountability of both yourself and the other attendees. 

Thinking about this concept it strikes me as extremely simple to think of, and extremely hard to actually bring into practice. We are so often surrounded by stressful situations, the gravity of decisions to be made, or the sheer pressure of getting things done, that we forget to think about the simple truth of wether we are really contributing and making sure all concerns and objections of everyone, including ourselves, can be heard calmly and serenely, and may be acted upon before a decision is reached. When we’re constantly in the panic zone of the Covey Matrix (urgency) we tend to forget to analyse our on the spot behaviour, putting out the immediate small fire, ignoring the burning bushes we leave behind.

This made me think of the better known concept in the Agile world, used for the stage setting of retrospective meetings: The Prime Directive.

Prime Directive

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

The purpose of the Prime Directive is to assure that a retrospective has the right culture to make it a positive and result oriented event. But in some circumstances having the Prime Directive even posted up in plain view, the retrospective goes bad.

There seems to be an element missing. The Prime Directive seems to somehow give you “carte blanche” on your accountability to certain degree, but what about the artful participation of yourself and the team during the period you’re doing the retrospective about. Did we really do the best job we could? Did we artfully participate in the work, conversation or decision making process? Are we not actually staying stuck in justification

The Prime Directive avoids the state of blame to be prevalent during a retrospective, but opens the door to a state of justification and obligation. How can we get past this and into taking up actual responsibility?

Linking the pieces of the puzzle towards a Safe Environment

So I came to an almost too simple conclusion: by linking Artful Participation to the Prime Directive, the circle of responsibility can be closed: the Artful Participation Prime Directive. Maybe something like this?

“I commit to acting in such a way that my behavior in the moment is the greatest contribution I can make to the effectiveness of a collaboration. When practicing this, I can make sure that during evaluation, regardless of what I discover, we truly understand that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available and the situation at hand.”

This combination of mindset and behaviour is a wonderful step towards nurturing a Safe Environment towards all people who enter into a collaboration with each other, freeing space for concerns, objections and fully utilizing the benefits of the combined intelligence of a group of people. It allows for the more introverted people to feel safe enough and get the space to contribute evenly to the collaboration, and more powerful people get the feeling they’re actually getting more information and being listend to in turn.

It’s not easy to achieve, it requires a change in mindset, and practice makes perfect. A good facilitator (or Scrummaster in the case of an agile team) should be vigilant and bring the attendees back to the issues at hand and remind them to artfully participate and beware of the Prime Directive. 

But when you get there, the pieces of all of those puzzles seem to start fitting together. And that’s a wonderful thing to look forward to.


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