I recently facilitated an incredible two-day Advance (another name for a retreat) for the Trevor Project, the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and
suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth. As an organization, Trevor Project has grown dramatically in the last few years of its 15 year history and now has 40+ staff working from Los Angeles, New York and Washington D.C.
As I reflect on my time serving Trevor staff for this Advance focused on culture change, the following stands out for me:
Changing Norms: Every organization develops its own culture. A reflection of this culture are the norms that develop (often unspoken – I recommend reading Organizational Culture and Leadership by Ed Schein). These norms guide behavior. After we spent time building relationships and reflecting on the organization on the first day, we worked to uncover the norms within the organization using an exercise I first experienced in my graduate school program. Starting with each individual writing down norms, I worked to build consensus on a set of four norms that staff identified that they collectively want to change. On the second day, I gave them the space to develop, discuss and ultimately reach a new set of norms they want to strive for. I made sure we had time to discuss what actions they’ll take to ensure these new norms become reality. This exercise proved very powerful in that it provided a space for a culture change within an organization.
Mapping Structure/Processes: It’s one thing to talk about an organization’s culture in the abstract sitting down around a U-shaped table. A powerful alternative is to use the open space within the U to physically map the organization’s structure and give participants the space to make observations. We did this and then added another illuminating layer that brought their processes to life: I led them in a real word scenario that connected the entire organizational structure together through an exercise in communication. This too served as case study that led to deep insight. Both structure and processes are two key ingredients to an overall organizational design (another good read: Designing Organizations by Jay Galbraith…see the STAR model) and these ultimately generate an organization’s culture. Note that the photo I included here isn’t a picture of the mapping structure/process because I wasn’t able to take a picture of it while it was happening. This photo is from a fun, spontaneous relationship building exercise I led on day one). For other process suggestions, see my post I wrote listing 15 options.
Group Formation: Throughout the two days, I did my usual mix of time for individual reflection, small group work and large group dialog. This time, I was more intentional about group formation thanks to my grad program where we have explored these dynamics in intimate detail (which can be it’s own challenge…who should I be in a small group with? Who decides? Etc.). Throughout the two days, I encouraged people to form small groups with people they didn’t know as well. During other times, I decided what small groups to combine based on who I thought would be good to mix. Finally, at the end, I asked the group to self select into four groups using two criteria: I gave the space to choose what topic they wanted to work on but also requested their be diversity of perspective within each group (seniority + department). I asked the group to ensure there was balance and this generated its own very engaging discussion, which I facilitated.
Prefered Gender Pronouns (PGP’s): This was my first experience where as part of the introductions, everyone identified their Prefered Gender Pronouns (PGP’s). For me, it was “he” and “his”. Everyone shared how they wanted to be identified. It served as an educational experience for me and I did my best to respect requests made in my role as a facilitator. What I most liked about the activity is it provided a space for me to actively test my own assumptions.
Closings (1st photo in this blog is my view from the closing on the second day): In talking about changing an organizational culture, I closed each day with asking each participant to reflect on their own individual power for changing culture and implementing new norms. This recognized that everyone within an organizational system has power to influence that system, whatever it may be. On the final day, I added another layer to closing a retreat, something I have never done: I closed it with a short poem. Surprisingly for me, it was a more emotional experience that I imagined it would be (such is the power of poetry!) and staff joked “You’ve been Trevored!” or something like that. Trevor is about creating safe spaces for the youth they serve to authentically be themselves. I’m grateful because this Advance gave me the space to change myself in addition to giving me the opportunity to serve an entire organization as they change their own culture.