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Visual Explorer™: December 2009

December 04, 2009

Opportunities to lead and experience full lives: Living the mission at UGARC

What does the mission statement mean to you?
What do you need to do for the mission statement to be fully achieved?
  - framing questions for the UGARC Visual Explorer sessions

Our colleagues at the social services organization Ulster-Greene ARC (UGARC) have been using Visual Explorer™ in a series of creative conversations to build understanding of and commitment to the mission among their 1000+ employees. The method involves gathering about 35 people at a time in three and a half hour sessions, with the Executive Director participating in each one. UGARC has been quite pleased with the process and the outcomes. What they are doing is a fascinating form of leadership, and leadership development. Let's take a closer look.

This post documents the details of the process so others can follow and adapt from it. All you need for the process is a set or two of Visual Explorer images, facilitators, a big enough room, and a worthy mission needing understanding and commitment!

(Thanks to all the fine people at UGARC! Thanks also to Al Selvin at Compendium Institute for helping to birth this process at UGARC; his detailed process notes are invaluable and are linked here.)

Some facts about UGARC, from their website:
We are a not-for-profit agency that serves nearly 2000 people who have developmental delays or disabilities throughout the mid-Hudson and Catskill Mountains (New York state) region. The disabilities include mental retardation, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, to name just a few.

Our vision: The dreams, desires and needs of people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities are realized through innovative services and advocacy.

Our mission: To offer people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities opportunities to live and experience full lives.
This is challenging and rewarding work, and it is not for everyone. It's vital that UGARC engages people explicitly and deeply around their shared direction. The mission is the reward--and if you don't believe that you may be working in the wrong place. UGARC built a wonderful process for this kind of engagement, a conversation using visual images as something in the middle to work with.

  • Staff at all levels will think about the mission with an open mind
  • People from different departments will creatively connect with each other
  • All staff will live the mission
  • 100% engagement in a non-threatening environment
  • More alignment to the mission within and across departments
  • Widespread renewal of passion for the mission
Here's a summary of the process.

Thirty five people at a time gather for three and a half hours in a comfortable place. The Executive Director talks briefly about the mission. People spend five minutes writing their thoughts (privately) about two questions:
1: What does the mission statement mean to you?
2: What do you need to do for the mission statement to be fully achieved?
Each person chooses two images, one for each question, from the Visual Explorer set, browsing all the images laid around the room. Groups of 5-6 sit in circles and share their images and their ideas about the two questions (in a process we call the Star Model, described below.) Then the whole group gets back together and talks about what they learned about the two questions, and how was it talking like that, and they have a good chat about the mission.

This is not complicated nor is it difficult. There are a few tricky aspects and clear instructions, and basic facilitation, are necessary. The script for the process used at UGARC is provided at the bottom of this post.

Here are some interesting observations that Bart Louwagie, their IT Director and a catalyst of this process, shared with me recently.
  • It's non-threatening. There is not much of a chance "to say the wrong thing."
  • 100% participation ensues naturally. It's fun and inviting.
  • The mission is in the foreground
  • Easy and simple, you can do it with your own staff
  • Overall feedback is very positive
  • People talk closely with each other in these sessions on many topics using many stories.
  • It's also a chance to get different departments (who attend together) to get on the same page
  • Now some people are using Visual Explorer in other places like staff meetings, or in their families
The following agenda spells out the process used at UGARC. The details can be adapted of course to fit a variety of objectives and contexts. (Here are slides from one of the sessions, which also produced the "hands on the mission" poster at the top of this post.)

Sample Agenda

8-9: Arrive
- Hand out first handout with the two questions
- Hand out their name tags and a sequential number between 1 and 16
- Hand out the agendas
- Hand out map with assigned areas
- Food-coffee is in multipurpose room.

9-9:15: Introduction, recognition

9:15 Laurie (Executive Director)
- Talk to the mission and the mission statement
- Laurie say that the goal is for us: [COMPLETE]
o All to sign the mission statement with our hand print, which you will do at the end of the session.
o Do a personal commitment by writing to yourself
o We have a FULL day, so stick to time indicated

9: 20 Sue & Bart (Senior leaders)
- Explanation of Visual Explorer with the one sample slide. Model the process.
- You all have a handout with two questions that we would like you to think about and write some initial thoughts down. This is something just for you personally. Spend 5 minutes on both questions.
- Question 1: What does the mission statement mean to you?
- Question 2: What do you need to do for the mission statement to be fully achieved?
  • Look at all the pictures
  • Pick two pictures that talk to you, one for each question. 
  • Please be silent while you choose pictures. 
  • Come back to your seat with the two pictures.
- Talk about time management; why it is important for all to keep track of time so that all have a fair share in the conversation.

- 15 minute walk around with music and pick their pictures and come right back to your seat.

- Short 5 minute break

- Look at the back of your questions form to find the instructions below..
Please be seated in your group by 10:00
A. Please make sure to start this phase on time. Spend 1 min reading the instructions.
B. Question 1 first
1. Person A starts and shows the picture to group and makes sure everyone can see the picture during the conversation. Describe the physical image itself in detail. (1 min)
2. Talk to why you chose that picture, “How does the picture speak to the question about the mission?” (4 min)
3. Then hand the conversation over to another person B in the group who says: “If I had picked this picture (the one of person A) this is what I would have seen…” Allow everyone to answer that same question in turn (1 min each), limit back and forth please.
4. Person A with picture “thank you for your input” (0 min)
5. Next person presents their own picture with process starting on number 1.
C. After half hour total all pictures for 1 question should have been reviewed by the group.
D. When all have done image/question 1, same cycle for image/question 2, go back to B. You should start on question 2 by 10:40
E. Finish group discussion of both questions and be back in main room by 11:20.
That's the agenda that UGARC followed. Of course this can be adapted for other contexts and timeframes.

The experience of the staff at UGARC in doing this exercise has typically been quite positive. Here is a reflection from Don Crespino, Ulster-Greene ARC Vocational Coordinator:
As with most trainings, I entered into the Visual Explorer Training not knowing what to expect. The Visual Explorer session was a rare and enlightening experience in the field of working with individuals with intellectual disabilities. I feel that we as a culture are realizing that more often than not, it is our thinking and approach that greatly hinders us from providing quality services (more than anything else). The Visual Explorer exercise managed to unite different types of people and employees on all levels by getting them to experience universal meanings based on seeing the same thing in all aspects of life. The fact that everyone was able to express themselves in an environment where there were no wrong answers, just interpretations based on a few different photographs and everyone uniquely expressing how they see things like our agencies Mission Statement in them, was so thought provoking towards the right thinking and approach in our field of employment.

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