Six Sigma and more: Circles

David SchwinnThis month, David explores the possibility of “circle” in developing relationships and enhancing Six Sigma efforts.

“From laughing tots in Haitian pre-schools to inner city gang members to top executives in global corporations, people everywhere are gathering in circles. These circles are generating trusting relationships among people with long histories of antagonism; promoting healing among people suffering from physical, mental and emotional illnesses; facilitating change processes in individuals, organizations, communities and societies; and often, simply creating a safe landing space for people to experience the nurturance and fellowship of friends. No matter their stated purpose or composition, these circles are playing a role in replacing dissension with civility, alienation with connection, and despair with possibility. As a transformational force in many cultures, this gathering form has much to teach and contribute.”

Thus begins the opening paragraph of a book-in-progress that grew out of a desire to honor Angeles Arrien. As you may remember, I described her and her work shortly after she passed away in April of last year. When I think of Angie these days, I am reminded of a spirit-filled Tinker Bell. She was this tiny, but brilliant, bright light who brought illumination to all those she touched. But as our little group talked more about Angie, we went back to her primary role with the Fetzer Fellows and Scholars Program as facilitator. She facilitated us in circle. Recognizing that, our book in progress is morphing into a book more about the form she took for meeting with us. We met in circle.

My wife, Carole, and I were first exposed to circle as a gathering form when Meg Wheatley invited us to participate in the redirection of the Berkana Institute at a retreat on Whidbey Island near the coast of Seattle. The circle process involved a fairly large group of people led by Christina Baldwin and her partner, Ann Lynnea. Upon reflection on those days, one obvious thing that Angie, Christina, and Ann all held was a quiet, wise, caring presence. Within Berkana, our circle experience involved both strategic and tactical planning and leadership development. One of Berkana’s initiatives was the Four Directions, an international leadership development process that took place all over the world. It was always done in circle over several days.

One of those leaders, our daughter, Lisa, took that experience to lead her own circles with her colleagues. They were mostly organizational development (OD) professionals. They met in the evening with an informal dinner about once a month. The purpose was to share experiences in the OD world. It always turned out to be more than that. It was a place to share our professional and personal successes and failures. We began to turn from colleagues to friends. After a couple of years, because of the travel schedules of OD professionals and the movement of some away from the southeast Michigan area, we stopped meeting.

Undeterred, Lisa invited a very select smaller group of OD professionals to lunch. These were folks that Carole and I, in particular, have found over the years to be exceptional professionals. We meet periodically over lunch frequently at the Macaroni Grill. We, therefore have come to call ourselves the “Macaronis.” One of the things Christina and Ann taught us was to start with a check-in. Sometimes, that is all we get through, but it is enough. Over the years, we have shared our triumphs, our trials, our pain, and our joy. We are there for one another. We have become family. That is one thing circle can do.

Carole and I have done circle with our biological family and their spouses. This turned out to be a simple way to find out what was really going on with each other. One of our in-laws noted thankfully how rare it was to have those kinds of in-depth family conversations.

Because of much of what Carole and I have done over the years could be called management and leadership training, we have learned to try to honor all the knowledge, wisdom, and experience in the room. Doing that work in circle greatly helps everyone to share what they know. My colleagues and I at Lansing Community College even frequently use circle as a learning form in our classrooms.

I have also used circle as a way to encourage deeper participation in regular business meetings. My experience with most business meetings is that the leader shares information. A few, safe questions are asked and the meeting concludes with many unanswered questions and misunderstandings. Imagine a meeting where everyone is encouraged to share what is going on with themselves. The real issues arise and everyone gets to know more about what is going on and what needs to be going on.

Our amazing friend and colleague, Tom Inui, among other things, the Director of Research at the Indiana University Center for Global Health, tells that health professionals from across the country come to his community to observe his own, special form of circle. They are overwhelmed to watch his group’s process of seemingly undirected conversation for most of the allotted meeting time come to a brilliant conclusion within the last few minutes of the meeting.

Although circle cannot guarantee those kinds of results, the process does always bring people closer together both individually and as a group. It frequently also brings up deep-seated concerns that would not otherwise be apparent. It also encourages deep empathy and creative and heart-felt responses to those organizational and personal concerns. Circle goes beyond most of our meeting forms to positively take us to a deeper emotional and, frequently, spiritual level.

In using circle as a gathering form, it is important that everyone is able to see the face of everyone else. Check in is essential. We need to know where everyone is in their life at the moment the meeting begins. We also need to be able to let go of the issues that keep us from being fully present at the meeting. Beyond that, variation exists. Sometimes:

  • A candle at the center helps us all focus on the whole group.
  • A gathering spot for personal possessions at the center of the circle helps us become more tightly connected.
  • A farewell helps to honor our experience together.
  • Tables are absent to help increase the group’s intimacy.
  • A few rules help guide the conversation. Christina and Ann recommend:
    • We will hold stories or personal material in confidentiality.
    • We listen to each other with compassion and curiosity.
    • We ask for what we need and offer what we can.
    • We agree to employ a group guardian to watch our need, timing, and energy. We agree to pause at a signal, and to call for that signal when we feel the need to pause.

Circle is a powerful form of coming together. It may be too risky for some. I suggest that you try it as an experiment with some volunteers. I think you’ll be surprised at how significantly it improves your Six Sigma effort. As always, I treasure your comments and questions.