Board Leadership: Welcoming the “Groan Zone”

June 1, 2015


I was back in Morristown and Monroe Township last week to facilitate the last workshops of Dodge’s Board Leadership Training Series: Turning Learning Into Action. That’s harder than it sounds, because bringing any learning back to any organization raises the possibility of change — and healthy, normal people resist change.

DG Headshot

Resistance to change is one of the ideas we linger over in this workshop, and I invoke the work of psychologist Robert Evans when I describe the psychological dimensions of change: loss; fear of incompetence; confusion; conflict. No wonder it is such a powerful force.

But many of the “graduates” of the Board Leadership prevail in bringing about change anyway, and I think one of the ways they do it is by helping their board and staff colleagues back home understand an important reality of group process: You have to go through “The Groan Zone” to achieve lasting agreement on a new course of action.

I’ll never forget when I first saw the concept, in Sam Kaner’s brilliant book, Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. He reminds us, with words and drawings, that if you and your colleagues make time for thinking that is actually divergent (commonly referred to as “thinking outside the box”), you will have multiple perspectives and possibilities on the table that will make converging around a single idea a challenge. (You can see “The Groan Zone” drawing here.)

Kaner graphically depicts the territory you need to get through in order to make choices among good options as the Groan Zone, and I consider the concept a gift. What a difference it makes, when you get into this frustrating and sometimes painful part of group process, to be expecting it. Instead of looking around and finding someone to blame for the discomfort, you can think, individually and collectively, “We must be making progress — we’re in the groan zone.”

The best way out of the groan zone is through understanding the strengths and weaknesses of different perspectives sufficiently well that you can create together a new approach that combines the strengths and minimizes the weaknesses of the various perspectives. When this happens, the group can feel practically giddy with pleasure.

Sometimes, though, you can’t reconcile perspectives and find a superior alternative.  Sometimes you just have to choose. And here too, the eventual decision is strengthened because of time in the groan zone. You didn’t rush to judgment; you gave conflicting ideas a fair hearing; you did the best job you could in making a decision, together.

Though Kaner sees the groan zone as a stage in participatory decision-making, I think we can fairly use the concept in the larger arena of change. Life is complicated enough, and the status quo has great appeal: the status quo is who we are; we know how to do it; we’re not confused by new practices; we don’t open the door for conflicts new and old.

But getting through the groan zone of change has a huge pay-off. Do you want a key for turning learning into action?

I think a big part of it is the belief, the faith, that discomfort and even a little disruption – a little groaning — is worth it for mission-driven organizations who want to be better at what they do.

David Grant is the former President and CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.  David includes Sam Kaner’s Facilitator’s Guide on the “Foot-Long Bookshelf” of essential reading at the end of his own recently published book, The Social Profit Handbook: The Essential Guide to Setting Goals, Assessing Outcomes, and Achieving Success for Mission-Driven Organizations (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015).  What would you put on a foot-long bookshelf to help organizations achieve success?