Monday, May 18, 2020

Of life and human process labs!

“Life seems to have become a human process lab on a cosmic scale”, I blurted out during a recent conversation with a friend. This conversation happened in the context of the environment of uncertainty that all of us are grappling with currently. Since, both my friend and I have a process work/ human process lab background, this comment appeared to have communicated 'something'.

Later, I started to wonder why I made such a statement and what exactly it meant. In a way, this is a strange statement. One of the key features of the current environment is 'social distancing' whereas in a human process lab one spends about 40 hours over 5 days with a group of 10-12 'strangers' sitting in a small meeting room. 

When I persisted with this question for a while, three 'answers' emerged. One similarity was in terms of the uncertainty/unpredictability and the lack of structure/direction involved.  The second similarity was in terms of the transformation potential. It is said that transformation potential of human process labs is comparable to that of very stressful life events. Also, this learning/transformation is something that one has to derive by oneself though the facilitators and the group are 'there with you'. Of course, this 'transformation' need not necessarily turn out to be 'easy' or even 'pleasant'  for the participants. 

The third similarity was in terms of the importance of the focus on 'here and now'. While 'here and now' (which is emphasized in a human process lab) has always been the most 'real' aspect of life in general, the unpredictability and uncertainty about the future generated by current crisis environment has made the 'here and now' focus even more important. So, the statement I made on the similarity between the current environment and the human process labs might not be so strange! Yes, under normal circumstances, it would have been much more appropriate to say that the lab is a microcosm of the world (or life), and not the other way around. 

As enough and more has already been written about the current crisis/environment, in this post let's focus on taking a closer look at the human process labs and the potential they have to trigger insights and transformation. We will also explore the thorny issue of taking the learning from the lab to the real world. 

The origin of human process labs is often traced back to the workshops conducted by Kurt Lewin post World War II, the 'encounter groups' of Carl Rogers (to facilitate authentic encounter between people to promote personal growth) and the Sensitivity Training Groups (T-Groups) of  the National Training Laboratories (NTL) in USA. So, various factors, including the need to help individuals to deal effectively with post war stress/tensions, the desire to facilitate authentic human interactions and the Human Potential Movement influenced the origin and development of the underlying concept. In India, currently Indian Society for Applied Behavioral Sciences(ISABS) and Sumedhas Academy for Human Context (Sumedhas) are the prominent organizations that organize these labs - in various hues and shades. In this discussion, we will focus mostly on the so called 'basic' versions of the human process lab (that focus on intra-personal and interpersonal awareness and sensitivity) and not on 'meta-labs' (that builds on basic labs to explore deeper aspects of group dynamics and process work). 

As we have seen earlier, human process labs are typically so called 'stranger groups' or 'encounter groups' where one is likely to spend about 40 hours over 5 days with a group of 10-12 'strangers'  sitting in a small meeting room. The organizers try to ensure that people who have known each other before/the people who are working in the same organization are not part of the same lab group. While the group typically involves two facilitators, they are very different from the facilitators that one sees in training programs (where the facilitator structures the agenda/ interaction and ensures that a predefined learning content is delivered). Especially in the initial stages of a process lab, the facilitators are unlikely to do any visible 'facilitating'. 

This unstructured situation prompts the participants to make attempts to structure it and in that process project themselves into that attempt. This, in turn, prompts reactions from the other participants and gets the group interaction going. This is most important, as human process labs use the processing of the 'here and now' (shared) group experience and the flow of feelings and behaviors in the group as the primary tool  for learning with each group member being a resource. 

The main role of the facilitators is to create/manage the learning environment (to hold the learning space) and to  help the participants to be in the 'here and now'. Extensive storytelling about past events in the life of the participants are discouraged (as those past events are not in the shared experience of the group) and the participant is encouraged to focus on how that past event is impacting the 'here and now' of the participant (which is available to the group). The focus is on authentic sharing of emotions and not on deriving conclusions/making judgments. A lot of focus is placed on helping the participants to focus on and magnify their feelings and to break down composite emotions (or 'vague sense of discomfort') to concrete feelings. 

The most common benefit of attending a human process lab is greater awareness and a more nuanced understanding of one's emotions, in addition to insights on how one's actions impact others and how one is impacted by actions of others. These insights typically come as a series of small epiphanies that add up and not as one 'big bang' realization. In a way, the other participants and the facilitators act as mirrors that enable the participant to see oneself and one's actions more clearly (especially around one's 'blind-spots'). The lab also provides a supportive environment to try out new behaviors based on the insights and awareness mentioned above. So, the lab enables one to get in touch with one's feelings and to express one feelings/behave in an authentic and open manner. 

Different people experience the human process labs differently. Some find it to be highly stressful, some find it to be deeply liberating, and some find it to be a bit of both. A human process lab is essentially an invitation (and not a compulsion) to explore and experiment. In general, the more (of yourself) you invest in the lab, the more you get back. Also, while the labs often trigger insights, what to do with those insights is entirely up to the participant. The insight is the easier part and integrating that insight into one's life is the harder part. This is especially significant because these insights, might not necessarily be 'pleasant' ones. In a way, it is like what happens in psychotherapy;  making the unconscious conscious is just the beginning. One of the risks with human process labs is that they might not provide a sense of 'closure'  to the participant and this can be quite disconcerting. 

'Outsiders' often associate the lab experience with a lot of crying. While some people do cry for some time in the lab, crying is not the main point. When someone expresses strong emotions, tears sometimes come along with it. While crying can be cathartic, crying as an end in itself (or as an attention seeking behavior) is not something that the human process labs encourage. 'Empathy without collusion' is one of the key principles for the interaction in a lab. 

Another comment that is often made by 'outsiders' is that the typical five-day duration of the human process labs is too much or even unnecessary.  While each lab has its own course of evolution over the five days, it is usually observed that most of the significant learning and insights happen during the last two days. It takes time for people to tune into the lab process and for the lab process to gather momentum. Since the labs use the shared experience of the participants in the lab as the raw material and each participant as a resource, it is very much logical that it takes time to 'develop' these resources. Attempting a lab with too short a duration risks trivializing the underlying principles of human process labs.  

Some people do find the supportive environment of the lab 'intoxicating', 'seductive' or even 'addiction-forming'. It is true that the level of emotional openness and emotional support found in the human process labs is found only in very close relationships in real life. Yes, this can lead some of the lab participants (in a Pavlovian/classical conditioning way) to believe that they are in love with another participant in the lab (or that another participant is in love with them). In general, human process labs do help in some sort of emotional detoxification, and hence attending labs periodically can indeed be a rational decision!

While the human process labs do increase emotional literacy and provide insight on the impact of one's behavior on others (and how one is impacted by the behaviors of others), it is often very challenging for the participants to take the learning from the lab to 'real life' (e.g. to one's family and to one's workplace) where the supportive environment ('shared space') of the lab is missing. 

The significant others in family and work (who haven't gone through a 'human process lab experience) might not be able to relate to the level of emotional intensity and openness that the participant might have carried forward from the lab environment. They might even consider such emotional intensity/behavior inappropriate/dysfunctional in the work/family context. In a way, a relationship is like an equation and if the lab abruptly changes one  side of the equation, it can destabilize the equilibrium in the relationship (which can be very unsettling for the other person who hasn't gone through the lab experience). Fortunately or unfortunately, this 'post lab high' experienced by the participants usually lasts only for a week or two!

While there are labs that are designed for couples (that one can attend along with one's spouse), the same can't be extended to the organization context. In a way, such attempts to extend the lab's scope goes against the basic assumption that the human process labs are 'stranger groups' who learn together and go back to their different worlds after the lab. If that assumption is violated, it can pose very serious challenges to the effective functioning of the lab (e.g. by introducing power structures into the lab interaction, creating concerns about possible retaliation after the participants go back to the real life etc.). 

The human process labs can also give insights on how groups function/on group dynamics. One of my key insights from the human process labs that I attended was that so much processing can be done with so little data.  However, we must remember that the dynamics of an 'intact group' (e.g. a work team in an organization) can be significantly different as compared to that of a 'stranger group' (because for an 'intact' group, there is a shared past and future in addition to the 'here and now' of the lab). So the insights that one gained from the lab on group dynamics might not translate easily to the workplace context. Also, as we have seen above,  running human process labs for work groups/teams in organizations becomes a very challenging  as they are not 'stranger'  groups.

While conducting human process labs for 'intact teams' in organizations are not advisable, one can definitely leverage some of the elements of the human process lab principles/approaches with appropriate modifications in the organization context to drive participative discovery and non-coercive change. For example, I have leveraged those principles/approaches to help a large group of leaders to do joint exploration and deep soul-searching to crystallize the identity, vision and mission of the organization. I still remember many of those leaders saying that they never had a similar opportunity in their career to have such authentic interactions and open discussion, especially on their fears and on their not so politically correct opinions! Similarly, one can leverage human process lab principles as part of  programs aimed at facilitating effective 'Campus to Corporate' transition. 

The vitality of organizations can be enhanced by the authentic human interactions, joint exploration, creative problem solving, proactive contribution and commitment that approaches based on human process lab principles can facilitate.  Leaders must remember that this is essentially an organic process and hence they have to trust the wisdom of the group and not get too prescriptive about the solution. The paradoxical aspect there is that while such interventions (using human process lab principles) can positively impact the level of trust in the group/organization and the organization culture, the receptivity to such an intervention would depend of the level of trust and the organization culture! 

In  a way, the magic of the lab lies in the 'lab space'. Even for people who participate in the same lab interacting with each other outside the lab space is very different as compared to interacting with each other in the lab space. But, lab do give us hope (and offer a 'proof of concept') that 'authentic human interactions', 'resonance' and 'living life intensely each moment' are indeed possible and that we need not be prisoners of the entrenched patterns of behaving and relating. While the magic can't be  fully replicated outside the lab environment, labs can make us more confident of the human potential and also enable us to be a little bit more aware, sensitive, authentic, creative and alive! This, in turn, can benefit the groups and organizations that we are part of. 

Where does this leave us? To me, developing greater  emotional literacy, self awareness, active non-judgmental listening and inter-personal awareness/sensitivity is definitely a reasonable expectation from the lab. Of course, this would happen only if one makes oneself open and vulnerable during the lab. This implies that people should attend labs only if they are  self-motivated. Organizations nominating/ forcing employees to attend human process labs to correct perceived problems related to self-awareness or inter-personal sensitivity is highly unlikely to work. There is quite a bit of stress and stretch involved in learning through human process labs and  hence an enthusiastic participant with an open mind is an important part of the alchemy of the magic of human process labs!

Any comments/suggestions?


Vivek Kaul said...

Thank you Prasad for a very thoughtful description of the labs and your insights. Have attended some labs in the past (in the Isisd days) and could relate to almost everything you said (including the outsiders view about crying being a ‘requisite’ feature of the lab :)

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you very much Vivek!

Sushanta Banerjee said...

Much said in very few words Prasad.this is an excellent starter,that could be the engine pulling in the cars outlining the use of Process Work for community building, conflict resolution,organisational renewal, authentic visioning (beyond numbers and last years exhortation),organisational innovation etc etc. Your extensive and intensive exposure must surely be filled with nuggets and anecdotes of all varieties of Process Work applications for organisational health and fitness. Covid is surely tilling the soil right now,painful for sure,an entry into an unpredictable and surely very new world,whether brave or otherwise may in fact be hugely amenable to positive influence from skill sets such as yours. Be safe,be well.

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you very much Sushanta. Honored to see your comment. Tilling the soil is great metaphor for what this crisis is doing!

shyleswari said...

Hi Prasad, wonderful threshing of a Lab and it's processes. It's good to see it through your eyes though .
I enjoyed the detailing and robust outlook you gave it .
Perhaps you might want to share it our newsletter

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you very much Shyla. Great to hear from you. Yes, it would be an honor to do so!

Medha said...

Glad to see your comment i read i thought of sharing it with you!

Velu said...

Nicely written Prasad. Happy to see connect with you after many years. This is a good primer on what happens in a lab. There are many lab variations at advance levels- Bindu, Gender and Identity, Learning Theatre, Symbols, if we look at Sumedhas and many more in other institutions.
One thing I disagree is the broad classification that a lab is not for intact work teams. I accept it may not be tenable in all organizational cultures but it would do wonders for team members to experience each other intensely. There are many possibilities of designing labs for corporates. One example is a visioning exercise designed on process work can have a high long lasting impact. The beauty is, as you mentioned, the design can range between unstructured to semi structured to workshops with micro labs.
Do explore meta labs or advance labs. All the best. Stay safe.

Jayakumar said...

Thanks Prasad for sharing a complete white paper on Human Labs. Going through this is a process by itself in ones life. Needs a lot of preparation to be ready of unlearning a lot of learnings. Not sure how future labs are going to be designed but every crisis brings in a new wave of opportunities

Naresh Pinisetti said...

Dear Prasad,
You have captured the essence of the Human Process Lab effectively in your thought provoking article. The analysis provided by you will help the prospective participants on what to expect from an unstructured Lab. You have also taken me down my memory lane 24 years ago when I attended the Basic as well as the Advanced Human Process Labs, one of which was facilitated by Dr Udai Pareekh. I believe that the Television show ‘Big Boss’ is based on the Human Process Lab model with a virtual facilitator. As you rightly mentioned, a Lab conducted with colleagues and team members in an organisation setting will not be effective. We therefore, experimented with a Lab whenever we had a group of new employees joining us. The results were encouraging and we noticed that the new employees, after having an understanding of the behavioural aspects of the participants, were able to collaborate well with each other at the workplace.

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you very much Jay. I agree. It is a said that we discover certain aspects of ourselves only in the context of certain interactions/situations. So the current, 'once in century'crisis, definitely provides many 'once in a life time' opportunities for transformation!

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you very much Jeyavelu. I agree. My point was just that the standard process lab methodology used for 'stranger groups', would run in to many problems if used for 'intact teams' in business organizations (because of 'lack of clean slate', power structures, risk of ripple effects that might affect future interactions outside the lab etc.). Yes, with appropriate changes and for a receptive target group with high level of trust and the willingness to explore participatively, it can indeed add a lot of value.

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you very much Naresh Sir. Honored to see your comment. The comparison you made with 'Big Boss' is very interesting. It also raises fundamental questions on what happens if we introduce 'competition' (like that would result from having eliminations, only one winner etc.) in a human process lab kind of environment. In a way, these might have similarities with what happens in business organizations! The point you made about using human process lab kind of approach with new employees was an eye opener. It can also be attempted in the case of special groups of new hires like the new batch of management trainees!

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you Medha.

Srividya said...

Hello Sir,

Your blog is a virtual tour to those who haven't experienced Human Process Labs. "Active non-judgmental listening and inter-personal awareness/sensitivity" I often heard these terms from Mr.PM Kumar Sir and Mr. P. Sukumaran sir during my GMR experience. I'm able to better related and experience in practical terms now, on how difficult it is to learn and implement. As you rightly said, it is very difficult to unlearn and relearn. And this journey has to be continuous.

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you very much Srividya.

Anand said...

Good, clear one Prasad. Labs may also explore the post lab integration, wondering why they don't. Also another question that comes to my mind is if labs are about Mindfulness in company.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much Anand. Post lab integration might take a lot of work, that too over a significant period of time and hence it could be outside the scope of the lab. So it is largely left to the participants. One can of course come back to a lab environment! Yes, the 'here and now' focus has similarities with mindfulness - both at the intra-personal level and at the interpersonal level!

Azfar said...

A very good encapsulation of what to expect in a human process lab, Prasad. Have tried this with new employees with encouraging results. Have tried it within organization with existing employees and intact teams with mixed results. It's worked well where participants were open and authentic in their interactions and didn't where done if them weren't.

The other thing that really resonated was the part about getting an epiphany or insight is easier than acting upon it and transforming behavior. I've found that changing the external stimuli - internal feeling relationships is even tougher though more transformative than changing the internal feeling - external action dynamic.

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you Azfar! Honored to see your comment! The point you have mentioned about 'external stimuli - internal feeling' and 'internal feeling - external action' relationships/dynamics is very interesting. May be, we have developed more capability in regulating our actions (because of conditioning, rules etc.) as compared to regulating our feelings (that are internal/private)!