Vacations: Productively exploring compromise

During the planning of a workshop, you might discover one of the challenges to overcome is a group struggling to compromise. They recognise there is a shared issue, but cannot agree on the best way forward.

This ‘intractability’ means that the group might:

  • Argue without any resolution, or
  • Agree at a superficial level, often on some very high-level principal (e.g. “We should always act in the best interests of the customer and the company”), or
  • Make agreements they have no intention of executing.

Before the group can productively design their way to agreement and alignment, they can benefit from exploring how to compromise.

The ‘Vacations’ exercise is a way to do precisely that. It puts participants into a situation where they express a strongly-held position and then asks them to compromise. It works in three parts:

  • An individual exercise
  • A team exercise
  • A facilitated debrief

Part 1: Individual exercise

In the first part of this activity, I ask each participant to think about their ‘dream vacation’. They write down or draw a mind map, which details what that vacation would be. This includes things like:

  • Where will you go?
  • Who are your travel partners?
  • How will you get there?
  • What will you do when you get there?
  • When will you go?
  • How much will it cost?

I want the participants to be big and bold in their visions, but I also add one constraint – they cannot be away for more than 8 weeks (including travel time).

The combination of the cost question (which they can research) and the constraint help anchor their dream vacation to the real world. It makes it feel real. The more time you can give to this activity, the more productive the rest of the exercise will be. You want people to feel emotionally invested in this vacation.

Part 2: Design a team vacation

The next part of the assignment is about ramping up the constraint and forcing the compromise. Teams are formed, and they are given the following additional limitations:

  • You are travelling with the people in this team
  • You have a budget of $2,000 per person*
  • You will be travelling on specific dates (I usually pick ten days in the next few months)

* – choose an amount that is possible, but challenging

I give them 30 minutes to build this new ‘dream’ vacation.

This is a high energy exercise that starts with a lot of groaning. There is lots of laughter and fun as they try to maximise their much smaller budget while also deciding which parts of their ‘dream’ they are willing to give up.

I ask them again to document what they’ve decided and then re-gather the group into a plenary for a debrief.

Part 3 - Debrief

Some of the questions I might ask in a debrief are:

How did it feel to move from the individual vacation to the shared vacation?

What I’m trying to tease out here is those first moments of the team forming.

Each person has given some thought to their perfect trip, and now they have had all sorts of additional constraints and compromises put on them. They no longer have a choice about who they are going with, when they are going, or how much they can spend.

I want to find out who found that experience annoying or disappointing, or frustrating. This first question is an exploration of the participants’ reaction to not getting their way. I want to know what that is like.

The real question here, the one I’m not asking, is whether anyone will admit they were annoyed, or frustrated when they had to plan the joint vacation? Can they show that in front of this group? The first step towards shifting those positions is finding ways to productively, and safely, show frustration.

Another question to ask might be:

How happy are you with the final vacation plan vs the original?

This question is about whether the group can find peace with a decision even if it wasn’t what they originally wanted. Some of the things you might hear are along the lines of:

It wasn’t what I originally wanted, but it’s still a great vacation

That answer is useful to explore. Who else feels that way? Who doesn’t? Who doesn’t feel that way but is saying they’re happy with it because they want to maintain group cohesion?

Some other questions to consider are:

  • How did your team reach consensus? Did you argue? Did you vote? Did someone decide for you? Why?
  • How did you use research? Did you guess? Did you make up numbers of how much things cost?

Every question can reveal interesting dynamics within the group. It can surface where power sits. I encourage you to pay close attention during the debrief and to follow interesting threads. Write your own questions as well. There is richness in this conversation if you work at it.

At some point, you need to bring the conversation back to this group’s real work. We can’t stay in the metaphorical forever.

The most straightforward question to ask here is:

What can we take from this experience back into what we’re trying to achieve in this session?

What you’ll hear in the answers is the aspiration the group is setting for itself. They will share how they want to conduct themselves. You’ll hear things like:

Let’s get all our opinions out on the table first

We need to remind ourselves that the answer may not be the first one we’d choose, but it’s still a good answer

During the entire debrief capture the highlights of the conversation in a way that is visible to the participant group. This could be on a Flipchart or a whiteboard. Whichever you choose, it’s a good artefact to have in the space for the remainder of the session.

The ‘debrief scribe’ acts as a reminder of both what the group wants to be and also that it is possible for them to both build good outcomes and compromise at the same time.

Closing thoughts

Vacations, like many ‘experiential’ activities, allows the group to explore a serious topic while maintaining psychological safety.

The exercise gently guides each person through creating a desired outcome, then forcing them to shift from that ‘ideal’ state into some form of ‘compromised’ solution. Through the facilitated debrief, the group gets to explore what that experience feels like and how they managed to both find a way to ‘be ok’ with the compromise while exploring the art of compromising.

Although this exercise looks very much like an ‘icebreaker’ or ‘team building’ activity, it is far more than that. It forces a group to explore the nature and mechanics of compromise. It sets up the genuine issues the group will need to compromise on in the remainder of the workshop.

Using assignments to guide work