Ask Better Questions

Definition of charente from a meeting in which all stakeholder in a project attempt to resolve conflicts and map solutions

I recently had the opportunity to participate in Association Charrette, a project of Vista Cova, facilitated by Lowell Apelbaum. Most commonly used in design focused industries (architecture, urban planning, landscaping), charrettes

“…serve as a way of quickly generating a design solution while integrating the aptitudes and interests of a diverse group of people. The general idea of a charrette is to create an innovative atmosphere in which a diverse group of stakeholders can collaborate to ‘generate visions for the future’.” (Wikipedia)

In its Association Charrette form, it’s kind of a cross between an un-conference and a retreat. The community of roughly 20 association professionals that forms for the event chooses the topics, and, as Lowell constructs it, the goal is not to solve the problems, but to frame the issues through multiple rounds of extended questioning. Which, as you might imagine, can be a bit frustrating for people who are generally paid to identify and solve problems, but it’s a useful exercise to undergo, to suspend the need for an answer and just stay with the process of questioning for an entire weekend. Also, as Lowell observed, the first questions you ask are often not the most insightful ones – it takes time to get beyond the obvious questions and get to those that will inspire new ways of thinking.

The issues this particular Charrette community chose:

  • Trust, within the context of the well-documented loss of trust in institutions and expertise, and how that might impact associations
  • Community and belonging, and associations’ role (or not!) in creating them
  • Structure
  • Emerging tech, particularly AI (in light of the recent advances demonstrated by ChatGPT and the attention being paid to them)

Again, the point wasn’t to try to answer or solve or fix any of these things, but to think through the kinds of questions we need to be considering as an industry as these forces impact us, our members, their customers, and the professions or industries we serve.

One thing that was new since the last time I was able to participate in Charrette was a “Mastermind group-lite” session on Saturday night. Each participant had the opportunity to submit a vexing problem (professional or personal) that was affecting her individually (NOT her organization) and then get 15 minutes to be the focus of the attention and ideas of four other participants.

If you’ve not had the opportunity to be a part of a Mastermind group, I highly recommend it. When I first launched Spark more than ten years ago, I was fortunate to be invited to participate in a Mastermind group, and it was invaluable.

What is a Mastermind group? It’s a group of 4-6 people who provide peer mentoring to each other about whatever the group forms to address. (In our case, it was how to be successful as a solo woman consultant in the association industry, but it can be about anything you want to learn or improve.)

You commit to meeting with each other regularly, and in each meeting, each participant “checks in,” and then the bulk of the meeting is focused on one person and her challenges (where obviously, you rotate who is the focus). The other participants provide concrete, actionable advice based on their experience.

It requires vulnerability – if you just want to pretend that everything is AWESOME all the time, Mastermind is not for you – the ability to take in advice that might challenge you or make you uncomfortable, the willingness to act on that advice and report back honestly about what happened, and the generosity to be the giver of advice and focused attention (rather than the receiver) next time around.