Environmental Factor, August 2011, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
NIEHS takes next step in strategic planning
By Eddy Ball
The seating arrangements in the cavernous open space helped promote a sense of equality among participants, by stripping them of furniture, such as desks and tables that can separate people and confer rank. Organizers deliberately omitted titles and academic degrees from nametags for the event. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Shown in one of her many hats, Birnbaum told the audience, “We want you all to think big, be bold, and be active to help us identify the innovative elements that will provide guidance to the Institute over the next five years.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Williams worked the plenary circle as she explained the Open Space process and the rules that would govern the three days of discovery and consensus-seeking. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Break out groups performed the nuts and bolts work of finding common ground and building a one-NIEHS perspective to integrate a wide range of agendas. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
NIEHS kicked off an intensive three-day stakeholder community workshop at 1:00 p.m. July 12 at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel and Imperial Conference Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C. More than 170 NIEHS employees, grantees, and scientists from academia, industry, other NIH institutes and centers, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as representatives of community groups with an interest in environmental science and public health, gathered to help shape the NIEHS Strategic Plan(https://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/strategicplan/index.cfm) for 2012-2017.
The setting was a massive room at the Sheraton, where the diverse group of attendees began their work seated in a large plenary circle. Along one side of the long room was an agenda wall, with six sets of boards for posting topics participants were passionate about for the future direction of NIEHS. On opposite sides of the common circle were smaller circles where participants convened in groups to discuss and debate more than 100 topics.
NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., set the tone of the workshop with her welcome.
Using a bit of dramatic presentation to focus participants on the greater good, rather than individual interests and goals, Birnbaum put on and removed a series of interesting looking hats as she said, “There're just different hats, hats we need to make sure we all take off,” in the interest of envisioning future directions for the Institute from the perspective of one NIEHS. “The concept of one NIEHS means that all individual components interact with each other to carry out our central mission over the next five years ... [because] you're all a part of NIEHS.”
Facilitator Birgitt Williams of Dalar International Consultancy asked participants to check their sense of rank and hierarchy, along with their hats, at the door and engage one another with a sense of respect for the legitimacy of other opinions and other perspectives. Williams explained the four principles of the modified Open Space Technology(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Space_Technology) format: whoever comes to the discussion are the right people; whenever the discourse starts, it's the right time; whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened; and, when it's over, it's over - and its corollary, when it's not, it isn't.
Order emerges from apparent chaos
For some, the Open Space method seemed like a prescription for chaos, but early in the series of six group break out sessions and discussions over refreshments and meals, it was clear that the process was working, as proposed topics began to address the larger issue of how a united NIEHS can move environmental health forward.
As one of their final activities on July 14, participants took the five stickers they were given for voting and selected from among 12 strategic plan goals, the ones they thought most important to include in the final Strategic Plan.
An inclusive and transparent step toward the Strategic Plan
As the votes were tabulated, participants gathered for the final time in their plenary circle. They passed a microphone around the circle and people who felt moved to comment were encouraged to express their sentiments. Several of the speakers thanked Birnbaum and NIEHS Deputy Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D., for the opportunity to participate. Others thanked NIEHS for a transparent and inclusive experience that gave people who had never met in person before an opportunity to discover common ground.
Birnbaum brought out her guitar and closed the event with a song she wrote about the workshop, sung to the tune of Joan Baez's 1969 Woodstock rendition of “Joe Hill.” It was a fun ending to an intense and highly productive endeavor.
In October, a smaller group of stakeholders will meet to review all the workshop reports, along with all the ideas submitted through the website, to determine specific goals that will make up the new NIEHS strategic plan. Stay tuned for more updates and opportunities to provide comment.