Where Are We Now?

creative tensionAnalyzing the Current Situation*

Creative tension is a key concept that informs the Insight phase of our model of Strategic Planning, and goes like this: “Successful change is the result of seeking to resolve the creative tension that arises from simultaneously:

  1. Holding a clear-eyed and honest observation of current reality (where things are now )
  2. Remaining steadfastly committed to a clear and compelling future vision (where we want things to be), i.e., refusing to settle for less than what we want, despite reality.” Continue reading “Where Are We Now?”

Making Room for Strategic Reflection & Dialogue

Thanks to Ken Homer for flagging this article: Making Room for Reflection is a Strategic Imperative.

The key message: “…21st century advantage is about doing meaningful stuff that matters the most,…so doing more of the same won’t get you there…. We’ll have to invest not just in action, but in deep, sustained, prolonged reflection.”

The implication for facilitators is that we can add significant value to senior management groups, Executive teams, Boards, and project teams by introducing and helping instill a practice of ongoing reflective dialogue.

Canada’s World Dialogues

Last year, I had the priviledge of being part of a fabulous national team of professional facilitators who co-facilitated a series of regional dialogues held across Canada as part of Canada’s World 3-year consultation process into the role that Canadians want our country to play in the world in the 21st Century. Through dialogue, Canada’s World engaged Canadians in a great conversation about our role in the world. The dialogue process brought Canadians together to discuss their visions for Canadian foreign policy and for Canada as an important actor on the world stage. Using the perspectives and ideas heard in the dialogue sessions, Canada’s World is putting Canada Back on the Map and sharing a new story about a bolder, more responsible Canada in the world. The reports on the session results, including the wealth of dialogue resources used, are available at Canada’s World Results.

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.

Stakeholder Engagement Methods & Purpose

Stakeholder engagement is a new competency area that many organizations are realizing they need to acquire in today’s connected, aware, and sophisticated world of networks and relationships.

  • Yesterday I had a long conversation with a program manager in an oil and gas company who is trained as an engineer, yet is routined called upon to mediate and facilitate multi-stakeholder meetings who have a multiplicity of interests and needs. He was exploring whether our upcoming program, Facilitating Wise Action: Engaging Groups in Meaningful Conversations Around Complex Issues, might provide him with useful tools. He asked me, “How do you turn these meetings where everyone is focused on their own WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) into a more productive conversation where we can also talk about what we have in common. For example, sometimes we should be asking, what are we all going to do together to leave something behind in situations where we all realize we can’t continue to do what we’ve all been doing? How do we get business, government and NGO’s to be willing to innovate, risk and do something different together?”
  • Two weeks ago, I spent a morning with some 40 members of a parks consultation community of practice interested in learning how Appreciative Inquiry might be an appropriate engagement method for their various stakeholder meetings.
  • A few months ago, a colleague in a large resource company commented to me that the time their senior Executive Team devotes to stakeholder issues now often overshadows all other priorities, which is in stark contrast to the way things were a few years ago. He attributed this to the much smaller world we live in, the rise of stakeholder awareness, sophistication and activism, and the increasing expectation by people generally to be consulted and involved on issues that affect them, not only by their governments, but also by businesses and social profit agencies. We were exploring how their company might develop a more effective strategy for building long-term, trust-based stakeholder relationships.

In all of these cases, a key part of my message has been the importance of knowing one’s broad purpose for engaging stakeholders, and then adopting the appropriate method to support it. As illustrated in the above table, if the starting purpose is to provide information, tell your story, obtain input and undertake some type of market research (all one-way or to some extent transactional forms of engagement), then certain methods are appropriate. If the reason for engaging is to build awareness and trust, learn together, build common ground, resolve conflict, collaborate and work together over time, then other methods will be more effective.

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

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

Dialogue – Do’s & Don’ts


What are the keys to enhancing the effectiveness, outcomes and impact of our Dialogue and Deliberation practice, no matter what the methodology, scale and approach adopted?

This question was the focus of the Saturday morning plenary session at the first Canadian Conference on Dialogue and Deliberation in October 2005 in Ottawa Canada. The session was facilitated and designed by myself and Miriam Wyman, with input from Diane Abbey-Livingstone and Ray Gordezky, and Graphic Facilitation provided by Christine Valenza and Sara Waldston (whose image is shown here). The previous blog on the importance of purpose reminded me of this valuable work, and I want to ensure that the results are known and shared broadly. (What follows is extracted from the pdf report I co-authored and can be downloaded by following the link below.)

From the outset, we intended to offer the results of the Dialogue & Deliberation: Principle and Design Do’s and Don’ts plenary results as a ‘work in progress’ for continued refinement by the global D&D community, as part of C2D2’s contribution to the growing body of collective intelligence around D&D practice. After the conference, I compiled and consolidated the data, then met with Jan Elliott and Miriam Wyman by phone several times to further analyze and summarize the raw data into this Summary.

For the most part, we came out of this exercise feeling that indeed there are principles that are inviolate – things that must characterize any dialogue or deliberation process; these actually do underpin our work and guide us in design, implementation and follow-up. These include things like transparency about purpose, accountability, inclusivity, commitment to feedback – what Dr. Peter A. Singer has called “procedural values”. Design relates to aspects of the dialogue or deliberation itself, like matching approach to situation or numbers, ensuring comfortable and conducive physical arrangements, creating guidelines for engagement, etc. In general, design flows from principles, and careful design is essential to ensuring that principles are ‘lived out.’ That is, principles and design are very closely connected and not always easy to distinguish. So we found ourselves moving away from our initial idea of first identifying principles and then talking about design.

I invite you to download and use the Dialogue & Deliberation: Principle and Design Do’s and Don’ts Summary we compiled as a platform for further reflection and conversation.

Clarity of Purpose – Streams of Engagement Framework


In a recent Art of Hosting post, as well as in his blog, my friend and colleague Tenneson Woolf is inquiring into questions that invite real energy and focus into the purpose of a project, especially at the start of community or organizational engagement, and also to guide such initiatives once they are underway to ensure the original intent is not lost. He remarks that often there is a rush to ‘jump in’, overlooking this vital first step, and this may lead to stuckness later on.

When it comes to stressing the importance of being clear on purpose, I love Toke Paludan Moeller’s wonderful quote: “Clarity of purpose is a sweet weapon against confusion”. This reflects my own experience that if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will lead you there, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself lost, confused, frustrated, and de-energized in the process. The single most important task in the initial phase of engagement contracting is to clarify the ‘why’ of coming together, along with the ‘what’ of desired outcomes and deliverables.

In this regard, yet more of my friends have been grappling with the same issue at the National Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation. The result is a wonderful resource developed by Sandy Heierbacher, ED of NCDD (presented in October 2005 with Tonya Gonzalez at Study Circles – now Everday Democracy national conference) and Jan Elliott (presented at the Facing Complex Issues Together Canadian Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation), entitled: NCDD’s Engagement Streams Framework. Intended to assist in the process of clarifying purpose and the alignment of methods to serve that purpose, this free downloadable resource is a series of two charts that categorize the D&D field into four streams based on intention or purpose:

  • Exploration – people learn more about themselves, their community, or an issue – and perhaps also come up with innovative ideas.
  • Conflict Transformation – poor relations or a specific conflict among individuals or groups is tackled.
  • Decision Making – solutions are generated and evaluated, a decision or policy is impacted, and public knowledge of an issue is improved.
  • Collaborative Action – people tackle complex problems and take responsibility for solutions they come up with.

The framework shows which of the most well-known methods (e.g., Cafe, Dialogue, Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space, Study Circles, and so on) have proven themselves effective in which streams. The second chart goes into more detail about 23 dialogue and deliberation methods, and includes information such as group size, meeting type and how participants are selected.

The Streams of Engagement framework was featured in the May 2006 issue of IAP2’s Participation Quarterly publication, was featured in a book published by the United Nations Development Programme called Democratic Dialogue: A Handbook for Practitioners, and is also described in Sandy Heierbacher’s chapter on D&D in the 2nd Edition of The Change Handbook. It has also been used by numerous D&D practitioners to help community leaders and public managers understand their options. The resource can be downloaded free in the following formats as:
  • A 9-page PDF resource
  • A comic graphic representation of the 4 main purposes, and
  • NCDD is in the process of developing a beginner’s toolkit around this.