Sometimes you do something for the umpteenth time without giving it too much thought. And then some insight hits you. Well, anyway that is what happened to me in Bangladesh recently. The day after a rather full meeting day I asked the group to write down what they remembered from the day before. Discussions, topics, ideas – anything that would pop up. They divided into three groups, and each group developed a tree with branches, twigs and leaves representing their memories.
I cannot say how often I have done this exercise with a group. Many, many times. And of course I continue using it because there is always something interesting that comes to the fore when looking at the different trees depicting the same day in the minds of different people. Because the memories show what made an impression – what is considered important, new, exciting or shocking. And they show how information and impressions are processed.
What was different this time is that the group divided itself more or less according to their positions in the organisation. And that became very visible in their products. One tree showed a management approach to the issues discussed and included not only what was actually talked about but also things that could or should be done as a result of the discussions. Another tree was made by the television production team – a creative team with people that are focused on relations and visualising information. This, too, was obvious from the tree. It was the only tree that contained a reference to feelings and it focused on the impact of the discussions. The third tree was made by the executive producer and clearly showed the meticulous way he works and his focus on planning. He remembered all discussions in chronological order and thus his tree showed the day before as a step by step process.
Usually I work with mixed groups and then again mix the groups that create a joint tree, so I never had the opportunity before to see three different parts of one organisation visualised by their memories of the day before. And to see so clearly the differences in thinking, feeling and acting between people with completely different positions in one NGO.
It was quite mesmerising – until the moment when one group started to lecture the other about what should or should not be in their tree. (I suppose you can guess which group criticised which other group). And then I woke up and knew why it would not necessarily be a good idea to continue forming groups for the tree exercise according to ‘organisational department’ unless your second agenda is to actually do something about the dynamics between the departments and the different people. Which was not really part of my assignment in this case.
The insight I referred to above was thus that possibly unwittingly I had been organising this exercise in the right way for my assignments so far. And that if I would have an assigment focusing on organisational culture in one NGO I might tweak the groups according to department to let the participants themselves show what they are good at, what their focus is and what the differences are between the different departments and the people in them.