Time and money – the impossible balance

I recently did a short unpaid session on “team-building” or “how to be a good coop member” type of thing for a small animal rescue charity. I’d been asked by a friend who volunteers there to help with some staff issues, and she felt that a day spending time on their working relationships would be beneficial. I had a phone meeting with the woman who runs the charity and is overall manager, who gave me a picture of a group “who would rather set each other up to fail than help each other”, didn’t take a pride on their work and were not team players. We agreed that we needed to develop trust, appreciation, understanding and support for each other, with some communication awareness added in.  I developed a 4 hour session with activities and times for reflection to cover all of those elements.

One of these activities was the Chairs Game, where each person is given a different instruction about what to do with a set of chairs and they have to work together as a group to fulfil all of these instructions without showing them to others, or fail. They completed it beautifully in ten minutes, through making suggestions “How about we move the chairs over there?” ” I’m sitting down, why don’t you all join me?”, listening to each other, compromising “I’d prefer it if the chairs were more like this”, being thoughtful and observant. It was the last exercise of the session and quite a challenging one, but I had not expected it to go quite so smoothly. They laughed and joked and admitted to a great sense of achievement, though one of them was a bit worried she’d been “too bossy” which was contradicted by others  – “No you made suggestions and we did it as it might have got us somewhere, and it did!”

Observing this and other moments during the session I felt that this was not at all a dysfunctional team. Communication issues and lack of clarity about who was doing what, which were causing stress and feelings of being ignored or undervalued, emerged. As so often, there were also issues of power and rank at play, and by accepting the original assessment and request without question I had become complicit in the structure. What I should have done is spent time observing the situation and also insisted that everyone be involved in the training session, as everyone is part of the team. But if a client has decided what it is they want (and are paying you to do), can the trainer/facilitator refuse to do that and offer to do something else which will be much more relevant and effective and will really change things – will be a catalytic intervention?

I’ve been in discussion with another client recently about some work which, when we started talking, was one thing and an hour later had turned into something else completely as we dissected the reasons behind the request. The more time we can spend talking with clients, finding out exactly what is needed, not what they think is needed, the better and more satisfying the work we do and the more substantial the changes we help to make. But time is money and of course money seems to be more important – a quick fix is what is often looked for. If we say, “But you will actually get greater quality and a better outcome if we spend more time talking with you and others, and really the session should be a full day not a few hours”,  people may think we’re just trying to get paid more. Yes and no – we want above all to do a good job, to make real change, to be effective. We can, and often, do it with less time and for less money but the risk is that it will be neither satisfying for the facilitator, nor, in the end, valuable for the client. As a coop which works with small coops, community and grassroots groups we also want to be able to offer our time for what is affordable, to give top quality for less than we need to charge. Last year our income was half what it had been the previous year, as funding and “luxuries” such as training and facilitation are cut. Do we cut our costs and cut down the time and effort we spend on each client’s project? Do we hang on to delivering quality work for a decent wage? Answers please…