Facilitating Complex Sessions

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Seeking to become a more agile and professional facilitator? 

Perhaps you are assisting a group over time to resolve issues, generate new directions, improve team performance or develop innovative solutions. What can you expect as you scope out and design more complex facilitated sessions?

MORE COMPLEXITY:  Usually a greater diversity of perspectives and views must be considered, balanced and reconciled, before it is possible to generate consensus and commitment. You’ll need to design processes to build mutual understanding between partial views.

HIGHER STAKES: The outcomes of such meetings matter to the organization’s goals. Success is important, and so is the downside of not succeeding. Make sure your pre-session scoping is rigorous and involves more than just your client.

DESIGN MATTERS: Your facilitation must rely on a thoughtful process to help the group achieve desired outcomes. It is essential for you to have the right process framework to follow, and to know where you are in the process. There is a sequence to what questions must be answered before other work can be tackled.  Professional facilitators invest as much as 2-4 hours in design work for every hour of facilitated group process.

LONGER MEETINGS: As a result of all the above, more time is needed to achieve desired outcomes, extending to several days, and sometimes weeks and months.  Having an expanded facilitation toolkit is essential to your nimbleness and ability to keep sessions productive, and participants engaged and energized.

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.

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?

Collective Learning & Co-Creative Engagement

“None of us is as smart as all of us. …the problems we face are too complex to be solved by any one person or any one discipline. Our only chance is to bring people together from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines who can refract a problem through the prism of complementary minds allied in common purpose.”

Whether our quest is to solve complex social issues and wicked environmental problems, or our need is to create sustainable value in partnership with the entire value chain of suppliers, employees and customers, Collective Learning is an essential process for integrating and aligning diverse perspectives and knowledge. Over the past 25-30 years, our collective grasp of the interconnectedness of economic, environmental and social systems has risen greatly. We increasingly recognize that more synergistic, innovative and sustainable solutions can ultimately be developed when the collective intelligence and multiple perspective of many minds is focused together.

Collective Learning occurs though group conversations around questions that matter. Such conversations can take place either through one-time, multiple or ongoing activities involving in-person meetings or workshops, online- or tele- conferencing, or multiple engagement processes involving a combination of all of these. The goal of Collective Learning in an organizational or community group is to increase the collective knowledge, understanding, and capacity of members around the issue, such that independent individual action and decisions, as well as any collective action, can be aligned with the system’s interests.

Collective learning involves thinking and reflecting together about complex issues in order to generate new insights and possibilities. Such thinking must rise above the lowest common denominator of understanding often associated with debate to tap the full potential of collective intelligence and wisdom in the group.

Read the full paper I wrote in 2006 about Collective Learning and Co-Creative Engagement including such topics as:

  • Collective Learning Antecedants
  • The Art and Practice of Collective Learning
  • Collective Learning Questions & Practices
  • Co-Creative Engagement Methods

Convening Strategic Conversations Around Emerging Crises

Tom Atlee of The Co-Intelligence Institute and his daughter Jennifer Atlee, have initiated a very interesting conversation through the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation listserve on how to convene strategic conversations around emerging social and environmental crises to enhance how consciously our societies evolve, even as: 1)impacts arise faster than our understanding; 2) action lags behind understanding; and 3) time to think about issues — and resources to address them — decline as disasters increase. “How, they ask, “do we rapidly evolve models of inquiry to meet demands of the time?” or, from an evolutionary perspective “How can we enhance the potential evolutionary power and wisdom of conversation in times of crisis and catastrophe?” This conversation is worth following, and will hopefully lead to some tangible action on the part of the dialogue and deliberation, Nexus for Change, Art of Hosting, and 0ther related communities.

Adam Kahane – Facing Complex Issues

As an organizer of the 2007 C2D2 Vancouver Nov. 12-14 conference – Facing Complex Issues Together, I wasn’t sure how much inspiration and new insights I would be able to take away. To my delight, two opportunities presented themselves for me to interact with and learn from Adam Kahane. Here are some of the ‘golden nuggets’ I retained from his talks:

  • Sun Tze in The Art of War teaches the importance of solving tough problems without destorying the system, or ‘taking whole’.
  • Co-creating a better future requires both love and power. Love is the act of listening from a place of deep attending, compassion, and empathy – as if what is being spoken is sacred. Power is the capacity to achieve purpose and to act together. The most important outcome of a multi-stakeholder meeting then, is for people to find and commit to what they have energy and will to act upon together. (For an in-depth elaboration of his new thinking representing the last 15 years of his work, replete with case examples, see Adam’s article, The Language of Power and the Language of Love, in Fieldnotes.)
  • Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., “Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change. … What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
  • We can deceive ourselves with easy answers such as, “we’re sure this is doing some good”, “talk is work”, and delay taking action until later when we hope all will see what we need to do. As long as we’re not acting, says Adam, then we can imagine that we are in agreement. It is not until we actually start to ‘do something’ to transform and change current reality that we can actually determine whether there is in fact sufficient will to act. Action is the litmus test of whether we’ve had “good talk”. The imperative then, especially in the face of complex issues like climate change where Mother Nature (and not humanity) is in charge, is to act together much sooner, learning by doing and by prototyping, in an ongoing process of action and response.
  • The important questions to guide how we design our work in facing complex issues include: 1) How can we work systemically, generatively and participatively? 2) How can we move from downloading (what we know); debating (our positions) to reflective dialogue and presencing for real learning and understanding? 3) How can we put our purposes together first then decide on our ideas for acting together? 4) How can we become bilingual in the language of love and power?

Understanding Complexity

Since last fall, I have been busily engaged with a group of volunteers across the country organizing the next Canadian conference on Dialogue and Deliberation – Facing Complex Issues Together, coming up in Vancouver BC, November 12-14, 2007 (do register if you haven’t yet done so!). Here are some key research pieces I compiled to help us understand complexity.

Adam Kahane, author of Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities identifies three types of complexity: dynamic, social and generative. Dynamic complexity relates to the lags that occur in time and space between the actions taken by organizations (causes) and their consequent social and/or environmental impacts (effects). Social complexity arises from the diversity, multiplicity, and interdependence of stakeholders from different social, economic, political, geographic or other systems. Generative complexity arises from encountering issues, realities, problems and opportunities that have never before been faced by human beings, and where past solutions and methods no longer work or cannot be applied. Adam Kahane will be a guest panelist at C2D2.

Dr. Brenda Zimmerman (co-author of Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed) says that understanding whether an issue is simple, complicated or complex is critically important to how we go about addressing it. Solutions to complex issues require involvement of multiple views to gain as much of the whole picture as possible; dialogue methodologies are very helpful here. At best, it is important to recognize that we will likely only ever arrive at ‘good enough for now’ solutions to complex issues. At any time, dynamic, social or generative sources of complexity may cause today’s solutions to become ineffective or irrelevant. A good example of this is the case of BC’s interior pine forests. Hard-come-by plans to manage the forests sustainably have been dramatically altered by the arrival of the pine beetle due to climate change. The beetles are decimating the pine forests and transforming the landscape, ecology and local economies at a rate beyond anything previously envisaged. Such is the nature of complex issues.

  • Simple – the issue is known; there is certainty of the same outcome every time; e.g., a recipe, a puzzle; an oil change.
  • Complicated – the issue is knowable, even if very difficult technically; there is a high degree of certainty of the outcome; e.g., putting a spaceship on the moon; organizing a Live Aid concert.
  • Complex – issue is unknowable; there is uncertainty as to the outcome; e.g., raising a child, achieving sustainability, reducing world hunger, addressing homelessness, reducing drug use. etc.

(Definitions extracted from Dr. Zimmerman’s PowerPoint presentation, “Complexity, Mental Models and Ecocyle/Panarchy” delivered in Ottawa, 2007.)

There Is No ‘Right’ Answer for a Complex System

E.F. Schumacher, renowned economic thinker and statistician (author of Small Is Beautiful; A Guide for the Perplexed) pointed out that there are two types of problems: those for which there is a right answer (e.g., why is my engine leaking oil?), and those for which there is no one right answer (e.g., why are we running out of oil?). The more we learn about complex issues, the more we understand as Schumacher and Peter Senge (MIT Professor, author or The Fifth Discipline) say that “there is no right answer for a complex system”. To find our way through complexity, we need to be willing to invite, and enter into, learning conversations with a broad diversity of people who each contributes a partial view, from which a wholer view emerges.

Openness and curiosity help us probe beneath familiar assumptions and territory to explore multiple perspectives in the promise of achieving a more expansive view. “This”, says Senge, “is easy to say but extraordinarily difficult to do”. Eventually, the wise path towards greater wholeness requires not only that we open our minds, but also our hearts to see how we, and not just them, are part of the problem. One more thing is need of true leaders, the courage to act upon this broader understanding.

See: Systems Citizenship: The Leadership Mandate for this Millennium, Peter Senge, Reflections.Solonline.org

Advancing Human Capacity to Work Together

Recently I clarified my work purpose with the help of a wonderful coach. It summarizes down to this: To help advance human capacity to work together and co-create a desirable future. My specific contribution is primarily to design, facilitate, and teach about – effective, empowering, and inspiring processes where groups, organizations and communities can discover and take positive action towards wholeness, deeper purpose and possibility.

There are many others in the world with a similar focus and intent. The Collective Wisdom Initiative is just such a virtual community. Their Declaration of Intent states: “We know that people in groups can consciously generate collective wisdom and that individuals can cultivate their capacity to receive, to hear and to amplify wisdom in the communities they are called to serve. By coming together in groups to consciously generate collective wisdom, we believe we have the potential to heal conflicts that seem impossible to heal; embrace with compassion polarities and paradoxes that tear the fabric of our psyches and communities; and cultivate our capacities to love and forgive in groups splintered and polarized. We come together as artists, educators, mystics, practical idealists, scholars, activists, and especially pragmatists, bringing forward some of our own light and seeking to do together what is not possible alone.”

The growing list of dedicated world servers on this site is uplifting, and I am honoured to have my co-authored piece on their website: Co-Creative Power: Engaging Stakeholder Networks for Learning and Innovation.