Image via WikipediaSometime in the mid-1980s three gentlemen sat down in a room in Southern California and held a "facilitated session" to design a new product they were looking at. Each of the gentlemen in the room had had success designing similar products in the past and it was felt that combining the expertise of all three of them would result in a world beating product. They were correct - the product they designed went on to become one of the bestselling products in its market. But we'll cover that in more detail later.
Recently a document has been released which details conversations that took place in that room in California back in the mid-1980s. Having read the document I was pleasantly surprised at how similar their session turned out to a standard process facilitation session, of which I have run many. Of the three people in the room one was quite obviously "the leader". He had very firm ideas about how he wanted the product developed but, at the same time, he was willing to listen to the views of the other to gentlemen in the room. Of the other two gentlemen in the room, one of them was obviously very experienced in his particular field of endeavour. The other one had a very particular skill which, though not apparent in the end product, was actually a key component of the process.
The three gentlemen in the room were: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Larry Kasdan. The product they were creating was "Raiders of the Lost Ark". I fully recommend any movie buff to spend a couple of hours reading through the 126 page document to understand the thought process that goes behind creating a blockbuster movie. It is very enlightening.
But that isn't the point of the post. What I want to talk about in this post is the process of facilitating a session such as this. I'll do this by making reference to certain incidents which occurred during the story conference for "Raiders of the Lost Ark".
George Lucas, the boss, had decided in his own mind that he was going to make a movie which was based on the old 1930s republican serials. He wanted a sympathetic hero, lots of action, and cliffhangers every ten minutes or so. Stephen Spielberg, the wunderkind director coming off Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was anxious to make sure that the movie have lots of visual appeal for the audience. Lawrence Kasdan, the writer, was interested in producing a screenplay which had good characters, good plotting, and would make a good movie. In theory the three individuals in the room had everything needed to create one of the highest gross movies of all time. This, indeed, is exactly what they did.
Reading the transcript of the session it is obvious that Lucas is driving the process. He has gone into the session with an almost fully formed idea about the story and the various plot points. Spielberg spends most of the first third of the session listening, with only the occasional clarifying question. Kasdan says very little. However, once the overall plot is laid out (a plot which will subsequently change very little) both Spielberg and Kasdan start to interject their own thoughts and comments into the narrative. Lucas, anxious to keep his vision intact, does initially responded with counter arguments, if only to later realise that the expertise of the other gentlemen in the room is improving the end product whilst still adhering to his initial vision and concept.
What is also interesting to observe is a few of the cycles that the group go around. One of the discussions concerns "the girl" (who later turns out to be Marion Blackwood in the movie) and how she should be portrayed. She was initially identified as being a "double agent" and everybody agreed that this was a good idea. But, as the discussions developed, she moved away from being a spy and more towards being the genuine love interest. This parallels the kind of discussions a lot of groups have during process facilitation session's where an understanding is reached about the function of a particular activity or task within a process, only for this understanding to be changed at a later point when further information comes to light.
Another interesting phenomena from the session was the introduction of plot points which would not used at this point but were recycled later. An example of this is the love interest being a spy, as mentioned above. This plot device was used in the sequel to the movie "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom". During process facilitation sessions it often happens that somebody will throw something into the mix which appears to be relevant to the conversation, and can be pursued by the participants for quite a while, before the group comes to the realisation that this is not a relevant topic of discussion and it gets shelved. However, the mere fact that this has been discussed does raise the profile of a particular activity, and identifies the fact that it can't be ignored and has to be placed somewhere within a process flow - even if that is not the process flow currently under discussion.
Now let's try reconcile his back to standard process facilitation criteria. If you read my post on facilitating a process session, I make reference to a number of key criteria: Get the right people in the room: Go around in circles: Capture everything. From the three paragraphs above you can see that in this particular instance the right people were put into the room (Lucas, Spielberg, Kasdan), they did go around in circles (the discussion of the girl), and they did capture everything (the mere fact that this document exists as a reference indicates that everything was captured, and was later used in the subsequent movie to identify some of the set pieces that appeared there). In addition to that I talk about taking a lot of time, and it is obvious from reading the discussion (which was transcribed from a number of audio cassettes) that the three individuals concerned were in no hurry to rush to a conclusion.
I also talk about making sure you understand terminology. There are several occasions in the conversation when Kasdan and Spielberg ask for clarification from Lucas about phrases or terminology that he has used. A lot of this surrounds the actual Ark of the Covanant itself, where Lucas has obviously done some research and knows more about the mythology of the Ark than the other two gentlemen in the room.
So, my question to you, is: if the three of the greatest filmmakers in the world use process facilitation techniques to create a blockbuster movie, why don't you use them to help define your processes?
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