Go Slow To Go Fast Later

collaborationSay your organization or client needs to bring together multiple stakeholder views. As the facilitator, your fundamental challenge working with diverse boundaries and perspectives will be how to overcome partial views arising from different disciplines, departments, sectors, and participant diversity. This takes time.

When designing meetings and sessions around complex topics, adopt conversation and dialogic methods that foster respectful communication and collective learning across the boundaries of:

  • Different (and partial) knowledge bases/perspectives.
  • Different cultures, beliefs, values and acceptable practices and behaviours.
  • Different vocabulary, language, and meaning / interpretation of ideas and facts.
  • Non-existent or inadequate links/ connections between units, divisions, groups, organizations.

Whereas the convenor will often be under enormous pressure to make decisions and act fast, the reality is that diverse stakeholders are unlikely to support a chosen path of action without their full participation, mutual understanding, and inclusive solutions. When engaging across diverse perspectives, go slow at first to build common ground and a shared based of information. Invest in fostering trust-based relationships from which innovative and supported solutions can emerge and be implemented.

Just starting out? These courses will enhance your facilitation confidence and empower you with solid foundational skills:  The Confident Facilitator; The Skillful Facilitator.

Collaboration Beats Smarts

Thanks to Tree Breesen for flagging this important story:

As facilitators, our job is often to assist teams of people to work together to address complex issues and to solve problems. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that collaborative groups with equal participation among all of the group members (rather than having a few subject matter experts dominating), resulted in a higher collective level of group intelligence. To produce better results, they concluded, a group needed to consider multiple perspectives; the individual intelligence of group members was unrelated to the outcome.

Implications for Facilitation: When designing meetings/work sessions, ensure that targeted session norms stress equal participation. Adopt facilitation methods and processes that enable every participant to contribute their unique perspective.

Another surprising finding was that the more females, the higher the group intelligence! They attributed this not so much to gender, as to a quality of social sensitivity that women on average have more of than men.

Implication for Facilitation: As possible, help clients to bring together diverse teams representative of multiple perspectives, including gender. If that is not possible, design processes that will ensure the issue / problem is considered from a diversity of perspectives (e.g., assign different ‘hats’ to different people or tables; then look for a balanced and integrated solution).

Read/listen to the full story….

Power of Collaboration & Facilitation

Rosemary Cairns on the IAF listserve brought this fascinating TED video to my attention: Build a tower/Build a team

Tom Wujec presents some surprisingly deep research into the “marshmallow problem” — a simple team-building exercise that involves dry spaghetti, one yard of tape and a marshmallow. Who can build the tallest tower with these ingredients? And why does a surprising group always beat the average?

It is well worth watching, especially for its findings about the value of facilitation in solving the problem when a collaborative task is required. For the actual exercise, see: The Marshmallow Challenge website.

Leadership in a Complex World

Love this quote:

“In this day and age, when problems are increasingly complex and there are no simple answers, and no simple cause and effect – how stressful for leaders to pretend that they have the answer. A life-affirming leader is one who knows how to rely on and use the intelligence that exists everywhere in the community, the company, school, or organization. Such leaders act as stewards of other people’s creativity and intelligence. Today’s leader needs to be one who convenes people, who convenes diversity, who convenes all viewpoints in processes where our intelligence can come forth. These kinds of leaders do not give us the answers; rather they help gather us so that we can discover the answers together.”

– Margaret Wheatley, author, Leadership and the New Science

Engaging Groups Around Solving Tough Organizational Problems

Yesterday in conversation with a client who leads Six Sigma projects to enhance operational excellence in his organization, a moment of clarity emerged around a distinction that is not always apparent on what is needed for successful implementation. (The Six Sigma methodology is a proven and rigorous approach for systematically identifying problems, examining root causes, generating possible solutions, and eventually selecting the best according to objective criteria.) Essentially, the insight boils down to this:

  • Six Sigma processes are appropriate for studying and analyzing processes and systems. Underlying this methodology is the assumption that: 1) operational and production processes can be viewed from a problem-solving lens; 2 the problem though complicated, can ultimately be known; 3) through appropriate analysis and study, the problem can be solved, i.e., a ‘right’ answer can be found; and 4) a good implementation plan can then eventually be designed and implemented. Most Six Sigma teams devote the bulk of their attention and energy on getting this right.
  • Organizational change and transformation processes are based on different assumptions: 1) organizations and people are systems; 2) systems are complex and therefore are inherent unknowable; 3) complex issues and systems cannot be solved; at best they can be aligned with a common direction and purpose; 4) successful implementation in a system requires the alignment of individual and collective, as well as personal and organizational/community systems and structures. Even if the Six Sigma gets a 100% correct answer to the problem, implementation may not succeed unless conscious attention is also placed in parallel during the project on engaging the people within the organization for alignment with the eventual change.
  • Conversational methods are uniquely suited to help people grapple with the complexity of the need and implications of change, to understand and embrace diverse points of view, and to gradually gain a larger system’s perspective. Such methods are also effective in drawing out insights, generating creative ideas, and obtaining contributions from the people affected by the change that the Six Sigma team can incorporate or address in such a way that it may make a big difference in the eventual acceptance of the proposed changes. Adding conversational methods to the Six Sigma toolkit, and learning how to attend to the dimension of change from start to end can go a long way to enhance the eventual success of a Six Sigma project.

Starting With Engagement Purpose

I have been a long-standing member of the International Association of Facilitators, and enjoy the benefits of the Group Facilitation Forum. This morning, I contributed to a thread related to my previous blog post on Stakeholder Engagement and Purpose. One of the contributors, Penny Walker from England, had offered this distinction which was very helpful to the IAF thread on Deliberative Events:

  • Broadly, the market research gang are interested in understanding the group so that they (the consultant / client) can better design the product / service / policy and better communicate it to people once it’s been designed.
  • The participation & involvement gang are interested in helping the group to develop its understanding, share perspectives, air differences and find ways forward, so that they (consultant / client AND stakeholders/public) can jointly design the product / service / policy and better implement it.

(Here is my posted response) This thread underlines the vital importance of understanding one’s broad purpose for engaging stakeholders, and then adopting the appropriate method to support it. Our sister organizations, the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation in the USA, and the Canadian Community for Dialogue and Deliberation have been examining these issues for some time. Building on their work, I have developed a table that may further contribute to this conversation, see Best Methods for Engagement.

Following Penny’s categorization:

  • The “market research gang” as she refers to them, often have as their purposes for engagement: to tell their story and to obtain input. Certain methods are more appropriate here such as Focus Groups, Town Hall Meetings, Open Houses, Public Hearings, Surveys, Websites. The methods that fall under these forms of engagement in general tend to be one-way and to some extent can be viewed as initially transactional in that they mainly serve the convening organization, though ultimately, the resulting products, services, policies should be better, if in fact, they have listened well.
  • The purposes informing why the “participation/involvement gang” may engage stakeholders (including citizens) are various, from building awareness and trust, learning together to build common ground, resolving conflict, collaborating, and working together over time. The methods that may be appropriate here are quite numerous and diverse. For example, the 21st Century Town Hall meeting that Gary spoke of is appropriate when input from large groups of people is desired to help formulate and decide upon the best course of action. Methods such as World Cafe, Open Space, Appreciative Inquiry, Charettes, Future Search and so on, are all exceptional in the results they can produce when chosen with care to serve the purpose, context and needs of the engagement.

A high degree of transparency about engagement purpose, how the results will be used, and whom they will serve is vital in my view to the success of any of these endeavours. As facilitators, the more we know about how various methods serve different engagement purposes, the more helpful we can be in assisting our clients create appropriate expectations with participants, and also in understanding the role that we may be called upon to play.

Two useful additional resources on this topic of engagement purpose may be found at:

Finally, for anyone interested in learning many of these engagement methods, including when and how to apply them for better outcomes, please visit Facilitating Wise Action for Lasting Impact: Engaging Groups in Meaningful Conversation Around Complex Issues for an upcoming learning intensive in January, 2009.

Learning Community

Just finished co-leading an intense, transformative, and profoundly satisfying 3-day program for advanced practitioners (The Inspired Facilitator: Achieving Mastery Engaging Organizations and Communities) at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver. We came together initially a group of strangers willing to be vulnerable and learn together in public, and quickly gelled into a powerful learning community. This poem by StarHawk describes some of the energy of that circle.

Somewhere, there are people
to whom we can speak with passion
without having the words catch in our throats.
Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us,
eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us
whenever we come into our power.
Community means strength that joins our strength
to do the work that needs to be done.
Arms to hold us when we falter.
A circle of healing. A circle of friends.
Someplace where
we can be free.”

–StarHawk, Dreaming in the Dark

Key Questions in Large System Change Solutions

I love technology! I had been taking Otto Scharmer’s online Presencing course with some 125+ folks from all over the world (a most worthwhile course by the way that I highly recommend!), and had not been able to complete the last couple of classes. So I just signed in yesterday, and there was Otto, as vital and interesting as the morning he originally taped the lectures live.

The fourth class topic is about the right-hand side of the U-curve, and prototyping, or how to put vision and intention on its feet with experiments that would allow an exploration of the future by doing. Otto shared seven great questions to ask in order to sort out which of the many possible ideas/solutions to prototype. I share them here, because I believe they have applicability not only in this type of situation, but also for just about any type of implementation planning. Here they are, with the source fully acknowledged as: Otto Scharmer, Presencing Global Classroom, Session No. 4, Prototyping, Weekly Thursday Sessions, March 20-April 17, 2008.

  1. Relevant: Does it matter to the key stakeholders involved?
  2. Revolutionary: can it change the system – the structure that created the problem in the first place?
  3. Rapid: can you do it quickly?
  4. Rough: can you do it small scale? Is it doable and doesn’t cost millions? Can you pull off in a couple of weeks or months?
  5. Right: have you got the right dimensions? Does the microcosm mirror the whole? Do you see in the experiment the core issue that really underlies the fundamental situation you are wishing to address?
  6. Relationally effective: are you leveraging the existing networks and competencies? When you deal with a number of other organizations and players, you want to come up with something where you can leverage the existing competencies in the network, and doing so will give you a jumpstart in addressing the challenge.
  7. Replicable: can you scale it up? Could this go viral?

Collaboration As A Living Emergent Co-Creative Process

Two quotes came across my field of vision today, both speaking to the art of working in groups in a living, present, emergent way, mirroring some of my own thinking over the past few years.

“One primary qualification for guiding others in a living process is less on what we know and more upon our capacity for holding presence with the unknown; that is, to be curious and open to whatever is emerging in our awareness that appears to be fuzzy, ambiguous or unclear. This capacity for sense making is amplified when we are together and diminished when we are apart. There is a power that comes to us when we meet as an ‘ensemble’ where, for a moment, we forget ourselves and work for the benefit of the larger whole. Creating spaces for exploring what we do not yet know, spaces where we can be present to what is unformed and incomplete, sets in motion a process of unfolding order, a practice which has always been familiar for the artist but unfamiliar to others whose have been educated into a more parts-based mentality that is common in the industrial world. Once this living process is initiated, it will follow along the trajectory of its own unfolding potential—one that is natural, organic and unrepeatable—and which reflects the expression of wholeness as it appears to us in that particular moment.” — Michael Jones, Roots of Aliveness, Fieldnotes

“Humans in relationship with each other are, after all, living systems, and as such even a group of two people can be an incredibly complex system, bouncing between high degrees of chaos and order. So there is nothing whatsoever mechanical about human beings, and therefore any approach to working with humans – and life in general, is by definition a living systems approach….And so I am led instead to think about the attributes of living systems so that I might better understand effective ways of working with people.” Chris Corrigan, Parking Lot

Chris and Michael’s words echo the thinking I have done with my colleague Ann Svendsen as we’ve developed our Co-Creative Multi-Stakeholder Engagement model, which is grounded in a living systems view, and suggests that new ways of thinking, leading and engaging are required for innovative outcomes. Some of the characteristics from living systems that are important include:

New Ways of Thinking

  • Systemic. A shift in thinking from a mechanistic consideration of separate parts to the relationships and dynamics of the functioning whole.
  • Network-Based. Recognition of networks as the fundamental pattern of all living systems, and of human networks as complex adaptive systems. A ‘community’ is created over time around shared purpose, language and meaning , and the development of shared values, reciprocity and mutual trust in the longer term from being and doing together.
  • Holistic. An integrative mindset where the aim is to evolve the whole system while allowing each “part” to retain its unique core identity and purpose.
  • Sustainable. A focus on the social, environmental and economic considerations and impacts in both the short and long term.
  • Inclusive. Engagement of all relevant and affected members of the system, rather than just those stakeholders who meet the test of credibility, influence and urgency. The organizing assumption is that there is strength and innovative potential in diversity.

New Ways of Leading

  • Voluntary. Stakeholders are free to set their own priorities, and to contribute when and how much they wish. They engaged because they are motivated to do so, rather than ‘compliant’ and forced to participate.
  • Relationship-Focused. Building connections, trust-based relationships, and mutual understanding is essential for effective system-wide action. Relationships between members of a network are dynamic – they grow, change and die out over time.
  • Egalitarian. A co-creative approach is egalitarian where members of a system come together as equals to address shared issues and opportunities. Shared contributions, shared benefits, and respect for the contributions of all are important features of this approach.
  • Common Good Focus – The focus is on seeking a common good and on finding common ground where stakeholders are willing to take action together in ways that integrate perspectives and benefit the whole.

New Ways of Engaging

  • Learning-Focused. Creating opportunities for learning together about the history and points of view of other members, developing shared language, vocabulary, interpretations and mental models are all important aspects of building the will, intent and capacity of diverse networks to act together. Collective learning starts from the assumption that no one organization or individual has all the answers, and that addressing complex issues depends on integrated, innovative solutions co-created from all parts of a system.
  • Authentic and Meaningful Dialogue. Transformative and learning conversations between stakeholders that support genuine interactions and communication are emphasized, rather than debate-based and polarizing appproaches.
  • Self-Organizing. Ultimately, though there is usually a convenor, responsibility and leadership for outcomes is shared; leaders emerge rather than being assigned. This reflects the property of emergent systems to self organize and evolve to higher levels of orders that are both more complex and more capable.

For more information, read: Convening Stakeholder Networks

Enhancing Capacity for Collective Action

Recently, I came across the term “civic agency” which in many ways is closely related to the term “co-creative power” that I’ve coined with my colleague Ann Svendsen. “Civic agency”, according to Harry C. Boyte, the founder and co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship and author of Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life, is “the capacity of human communities and groups to act cooperatively and collectively on common problems across their differences of view. It involves questions of institutional design (that is, how to constitute groups, institutions, and societies for effective and sustainable collective action) as well as individual civic skills. Civic agency can also be understood in cultural terms, as practices, habits, norms, symbols and ways of life that enhance or diminish capacities for collective action.”

The Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute has developed a framework for building civic agency based on their theory of public work, which they define as “a sustained, visible effort by a mix of people that creates things – material or cultural – of lasting civic impact, while developing civic learning and capacity in the process”. The public work framework moves away from the dominant paradigm model of one-way expert interventions, to a citizen-centered approach that taps and develops diverse talents, and also away from the illusion that professionals can – or should – control processes and outcomes. Five key elements that underpin the public work framework include:

  1. Surfacing the irreducible plurality of interests and ways of seeing the world which is part of the human condition, and understanding that at times interests can be integrated while at other times, merely mitigated.
  2. Conceiving of the citizen as a co-creator of a democratic society – a problem-solver and co-producer of public goods, which is a far more robust definition than volunteer, voter, protestor, client, or customer.
  3. Rooting action in the life of places and reconnecting it to mediating local institutions like schools, businesses, congregations, unions, and non-profits with local communities.
  4. Re-conceptualizing the role of professionals from service deliverer and outside expert to collaborator, organizer and catalyst (on tap not on top), and recognizing that knowledge is co-produced by diverse groups, not simply academics, with the purpose of helping to animate the public world, and not mainly securing commercial gain or communicating to other academics.
  5. Shifting the definition of democracy – so that it is not mainly about elections, laws, and institutions but rather about a society, a lived cultural experience; “not just out there in the public sphere”, “but in here, at the very soul of subjectivity,” and re-conceiving government not as prime mover but as catalyst and resource of citizens.