Interview with Tom Romito, Facilitator. This interview was recorded February 9, 2015 at The Cleveland Botanical Garden, 11030 East Blvd., Cleveland, Ohio.
Helping Organizations Grow [00:39:18]
I’m Tom Romito. I have no claim to fame. I’m just a regular guy!
Like most people, I’ve reinvented myself at least half a dozen times in my life: musician, athlete, journalist, soldier, bureaucrat, facilitator, healer. Well, I’ve finally figured out what I want to be. I want to be a better human being!
You see, many organizations struggle trying to achieve their goals. They struggle because they feel their efforts are fragmented and unfocused. Why is that? Well, think about it! They don’t have much money, their leaders are tired, and they have no plan for the future. Like you and me, they’re just trying to understand how they got to where they are now and where to go from here. I believe they would make a change if they just knew how!
Reader, please think out of the box with me here. What do you think it would take for the world to heal? The last 100 years have been a blood bath. I believe that people have the power to heal each other.
Now, I’m neither religious nor spiritual. I’m more of a mystic. I practice the healing art of Reiki. Many reiki masters like me take part in a monthly ritual called World Peace Card Meditation. The renowned reiki teacher William Rand pioneered this ritual. On the same day and time, we circle the globe with reiki energy. This creates a continuous band of healing around all nations.
Can you imagine what the future of the world would be like if more people did this? To quote John Lennon, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.”
So, you might say, “What else are you doing, Tom, toward this end?”
I also work with organizations to help them create their own brand. Every organization has a story to tell that explains its reason for being. They just have to turn it into action. Here’s an example of what I mean:
In 2007, I facilitated a strategic planning process for the Autism Society of Greater Cleveland. I asked them why they wanted to do strategic planning. They said, “It’s mandatory! Our constituents are our children with autism and their families. We have to discover a way to build quality of life for them.” That intention enabled them to develop core strategies to achieve their goal. I’m proud to say that they’re still using these strategies to this day!
I started facilitating in 1991. At that time, I was a civilian employee of the United States Coast Guard in Cleveland, Ohio. The Coast Guard decided to hold a conference of Coast Guard units throughout the Great Lakes. This conference was going to require a cadre of facilitators to manage input from the people attending the conference. The Coast Guard sought out people on the Cleveland staff to take on the job of serving as facilitators, in addition to their regular duties. I was one of ten people who accepted the challenge.
We spent two weeks in Washington, D.C. undergoing training with a consulting firm called Organizational Dynamics, Inc. There we learned the mechanics of facilitation. When we returned to Cleveland, we planned our role for the first conference.
About 100 Coast Guard men and women from around the Great Lakes attended the conference. We assembled them in small groups of people who represented search and rescue stations, aids to navigation teams, and Coast Guard cutters. Then we gathered input from these groups using questions we had designed to learn their concerns about the support they were getting from the Coast Guard. During my tenure with the Coast Guard, I facilitated many other workgroups, including human relations councils, civilian employee meetings, and departmental meetings.
I discovered my true niche when one of my Coast Guard colleagues said to me, “When you’re facilitating, you’re in your element.” It just seemed so natural for me to stand in front of groups of people, bring forth what they were thinking, and organize it on flip chart paper before their very eyes.
All three approaches are similar in that they achieve the same outcome. They differ in that I can tailor them to help organizations with different needs.
I divide everyone in the organization into four groups and direct them to congregate in separate areas. I assign two groups the question, “In order to become the organization that you want to be, what do you need to do that you’re not doing now?” I tell them to generate ideas called vision items. I assign the other two groups the question,” In order to become the organization that you want to be, what do you need to do differently from what you’re doing now?” I tell them to generate ideas called changes. The groups generate as many vision items and changes as possible in 30 minutes.
All four groups reassemble and report back to the whole group their top three vision priorities and change priorities. With my help they consolidate their priorities into one list.
Finally, with my help, the whole group develops an action plan to implement their priorities. The action plan includes what they are going to do, who is going to do it, and when they are going to do it. Someone commits to championing each action item.
I facilitated the Minority Health Roundtable of Greater Cleveland this way. I ran into one of the roundtable members years later who said they were so excited about that experience that they were still talking about it! They had become a team!
- STORE: Tom Romito, Facilitator: Helping Organizations Grow PDF
One by one, we examine the agenda items and I capture the relevant content on my flip charts. Almost immediately, action items begin to emerge. I transfer them to an action plan template showing What, Who, and When for each action item. The What defines the action. Who and When assign accountability. Later, I follow through by sending the action plan to the group leader electronically.
An example of this is an organization in Cleveland called theBrooklyn Centre Naturalists. A strategic doer named Gloria Ferris leads this group. Their goal is to get residents and businesses involved in protecting wildlife, plants, and trees in order to help revitalize their community. I’ve been facilitating their annual action-planning update for seven years. Each year, they become more focused on achieving their goal.
I have found that many groups use the terms of strategic planning interchangeably, and I think this is detrimental to building consensus on anything. The terms I’m talking about are goal, barrier, mission, vision, strategy, objective, and action. When I engage a group in strategic planning, I make sure that we’re the same page about what these words mean.
Recently, I visited Mitchell’s Ice Cream Cleveland store and noticed a poster on the wall. It said, quote, “Our single goal is to make the best ice cream you’ve ever tasted,” unquote. This organization knows why it exists!
- Next, we create a statement of the organization’s mission. The mission is what it does. Then we create a statement of the organization’s vision. This is how it sees itself in an ideal world.
- Next, we develop a plan to gather information from people outside the organization who have an interest in it. Allison and Kaye call them external stakeholders. For example, they may be customers, suppliers, or public officials. This information helps to develop potential strategies for removing the barriers that impede the organization from achieving its goal. I guide the group toward conducting interviews, focus groups and surveys in order to collect this information.
- Once we have executed the information-gathering plan, I condense all of this information into a S.W.O.T. matrix that lays out the stakeholders’ perspectives of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses, opportunities available to it, and threats it is facing. Using breakout groups, we watch potential strategies emerge that will enable the organization to break down the barriers that impede it from achieve its goal. At this point, the group participants are working hard.
- Then, we condense all of the potential strategies into three to five core strategies. These are statements that describe what the organization needs to do to achieve its goal. All other potential strategies that don’t make it as core strategies become objectives that support the core strategies.
- Next, we move into the action-planning step. If people were working hard before, they’re really working hard now. As with team building and action planning, someone has to take responsibility for doing each action. Otherwise, everyone is accountable. That means no one is accountable, and nothing is going to get done!
- Finally, I draft a strategic planning document that captures all of these steps. Then I deliver the document to the organizational leader.
Here’s an example of an organization I worked with where I employed all three of my core practices. This group had an interesting history. On the southern shore of Lake Erie, there are man-made extensions of the shoreline jutting out into the lake called Contained Disposal Facilities. By 2000, one of them was full of dredge from the Cuyahoga River and it had become overgrown with vegetation. Many conservation groups rallied around the cause of preserving this site from further dumping or development. They wanted it to become a nature preserve. They were totally unorganized and unfocused. I worked with them on team building and got them to achieve consensus on what they wanted to do. They were amazed that I got such a large and diverse group of people to agree on anything!
Eventually, they decided to call themselves the Environmental Education Collaborative. I facilitated an action-planning process to help them further focus their efforts. The collaborative finally asked me to facilitate a strategic planning process to help it decide its future. One of the core strategies it developed was to disband if it ever achieved its goal of preserving the site. Then, in 2012, the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority opened the site to the public as a preserve. The collaborative realized it had achieved its goal and disbanded. So this organization not only achieved its goal, but worked itself out of a job! I believe this is the ultimate goal of any non-profit organization.
You see, many groups waste time because they can’t agree on anything. I help them overcome that problem by raising questions that don’t have hard and firm answers. I demonstrate this behavior for two reasons. First, it gets people to focus on what they’re saying. Second, it encourages them to ask each other the same questions I ask.
Let’s say that someone has just stated an opinion. I may ask, “What led you to have that point of view?” Or, “How did you arrive at that conclusion?” When someone uses an unfamiliar word, I might ask, “When you use that term, what are you saying?” If the group seems stuck, I might ask, “What do we agree on, and what do we disagree on?”
In one workshop I facilitated, a group member made a statement, and someone else asked, “Why do you feel that way?” This is exactly the behavior I try to foster. It’s not as commonplace as you might think. Many groups will let anything pass because they just want the meeting to end!
Peter Senge explains systems thinking. He says that the forces organizations face are interrelated. They are not mutually exclusive. So you can’t deal with them in a linear fashion or one at a time. You have to see how they intersect to create a problem and ultimately solve it.
Here’s an example of how systems thinking works in my practice. I mentioned earlier that during my strategic planning process, I help a group list barriers that impede it from achieving their goal. Using the barriers themselves, we develop strategies to break them down. Here, the barriers have created the problem, and have also contributed to the solution to remove them. This is systems thinking in action!
I recently came across another concept that supports my practice. It’s called, Managing to Outcomes. Author Mario Morino pioneers this concept in his book “Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity”. The idea is that some organizations want to make a difference, but don’t measure the good they do for those they serve. As a result, they don’t learn and improve what they’re doing.
Tell me, why would any organization not want to measure its own performance? Well, I think that’s because they think that measurement would become another activity, another project. Who’s going to do that? Everyone who has a passion for the organization is already carrying the load. So, collecting data falls by the wayside.
To illustrate this, I’ll tell you a story. An organization I worked with has the goal of educating the public about conservation of the natural world. They conduct activities such as programs and field trips. Ask them how well they do this, and they say, “We’re creating awareness.” Ask them how they know that, and they say, “Because people attend our programs and field trips.” This is circular thinking! It keeps them from improving what they do because they don’t really know how well they’re doing it.
Mario Marino explains that an organization like this could solve the problem by using a logic model. A logic model features objectives, activities, and outcomes. If they went beyond objectives and activities by measuring the outcomes of what they do, they could improve their delivery methods. One way might be to survey people who attend their activities to find out what they think about what they do and how they do it.
I believe they could make Mario Marino’s “leap of reason” if someone would champion outcomes thinking. Once they started doing performance measurement, it would become imbedded in their culture. Then leaders would be able to look at the data and say, “Okay, here’s what we need to do to make a difference.”
All organizations should study their performance in fund raising. They should evaluate the receptiveness of people they make appeals to. They should consistently use traditional methods like annual appeals, fund drives, writing grant proposals, and direct appeals to potentially big donors.
I can help organizations develop a fundraising strategy through team building, action planning, or strategic planning. The approach I use depends on how seasoned and high performing they are.
For instance, when I facilitate a meeting, I start the meeting on time. I respect those who show up on time by starting on time.
When I facilitate group, everyone works. I practice the principle of inclusion. This means I get everyone in the room involved in the discussion. I just draw them out. In my meetings, nothing is free. I keep everyone engaged, alert, and contributing to the result.
My meetings also end on time. When the announced ending time comes, we’re done. That’s because I push the group to complete the work by then.
When I facilitate a focus group, I ask a few questions to get people involved in the conversation. I ask people what they know about the organization. I ask them what it should do for them. I ask them what should be the organization’s highest priority for improving itself. I use this data to help the organization develop strategies for achieving its goal. This occurs during a strategic planning process, as I discussed earlier.
I’ll share more of the information I’ve discussed today with you and organizations that want to grow. You can read white papers I’ve written about all these topics on my web site here.
I was president of the Western Cuyahoga Audubon Society from 2003-2013. During that time, we conducted a five-year survey of breeding birds in the Rocky River valley, part of the Rocky River Reservation in the Cleveland Metroparks. In the fourth year of the project, we needed an infusion of funding to keep it going.
I reached out to several potential big donors. They all denied my appeal. They said our project didn’t rise to the level of their funding priorities. I turned to one more person. This was a woman who had served on several boards I had facilitated over the years. I asked her if she could help us and she said, “Tell me when and how much.” I was astonished, but I knew this never would have happened had I not built a relationship with her and gained her trust.
I use a guideline in my core work. It’s the keyword “SMART.” I learned it from a management coach, Susan Cucuzza. It’s an acronym for a set of metrics every group must observe if it going to achieve its goal. Any action a group undertakes must be Simple, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-based, or “SMART.” The noted 20th century management theorist Peter Drucker gave credence to this guideline in his book entitled, “The Effective Executive.” He wrote, “Unless a decision has degenerated into work, it is not a decision, but at best a good intention. The action to carry it out should be as close as possible to the working level and as simple as possible.”
As I’ve mentioned in this interview, I’ve worked with a number of collaboratives. They typically consist of many organizations with common interests, such as habitat preservation, health care, and community development. They want to build consensus on what they want to achieve. I bring to bear my core work in Team Building, Action Planning, and Strategic Planning to help them do that.
In conclusion, dear reader, please remember that all organizations can grow by building on what they already know. All they have to do is share it and put it into action!
I am grateful to the Institute of Open Economic Networks for this opportunity to share what I care about with you.
Thanks for reading!
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