Complex facilitation

January 8, 2021

Lucas benjamin wQLAGv4 OYs unsplashI always have mixed feelings when I finish a Christmas blog series.  There is a rhythm to writing to a plan but it can also be a burden and you feel you are missing key subjects.  Whatever I took a day off and decided to summarise here some of the work I am doing on our Wiki.  As I have previously said we are moving all of our methods into that wiki and will release it under a creative commons license.  Anyone interested who has Wikimedia skills please get in touch!

My priority today was to get a body of material from various documents and slide sets into the entry for Complex Facilitation.   One of the reasons for the wiki is to prevent the creep of material as people copy copies of material over multiple events.  So the wiki provides a single source of authority that can be dynamically maintained.

Facilitation has always been important for me and it’s not just a question of how to do it well, it’s also a question of power.  Back in the DataSicences Genus programme we put a lot of effort into Joint Application Design (JAD) workshops, the point I which I also did some experimentation with Soft Systems approaches.   Then when IBM took us over Tony and I were sent on the IBM facilitation course in order to be assimilated and were basically taught to control the outcome and not let any participant anywhere near a flip chart or a pen.   Then they also took up open space and I saw significant issues around the way in the Law of Two Feet could be used to manipulate a group by anyone who didn’t care about the outcome as long as they looked good.  Mavericks tended to be punished and for me, that was an error.  There was also a strong ideological overlay over the types of behaviour permitted.  Oh and by the way, in my experience most people involved in Agile don’t actually do Open Space, instead, they have a highly structured set of sprints that leave no time for novelty to emerge.  Facilitators with gongs need to be controlled and God help us, when they get Talking Sticks they need talking to.   Open Space is a technique, not a framework and it can be very useful, but from my perspective, it wasn’t going to create enough stress (which is beneficial in moderation and force out innovation

We are often defined by our bad experiences but even before IBM, I’d always seen the role of a facilitator as that of allowing people’s voices to emerge without influencing content.  To indicate how paranoid I have been about this a lot of the early work was done in Denmark so I could facilitate in English but the participants would speak in Danish.  Given my lack of knowledge of that language, it forced me to create methods that managed process but not content.

Now some people get complex facilitation but a lot don’t. The content issue is the key one, if you want to get involved in that or even to listen to it then there is a problem.  When I do large group facilitation (several hundred people) I try and run the thing from a balcony so I can see the pattern but not directly engage; in large events, you are directing other facilitators and that can be done remotely.

There are some general principles of such facilitation and I won’t list them all in this post but have picked out seven:

  1. The facilitator should not engage with the content in any way, they are there to manage a process not to be an expert or to demonstrate intentionally or otherwise exercise authority or influence over the outcome.  To have a light footprint is a minimum, no footprint is the goal
  2. You never spell out a lesson, let alone tell people in advance what the learning objective is, you enable the group to discover things for themselves and that discovery does not have to be articulated per see. That means you never comment on individual behavior or express any opinion as to what it should be. No examples should ever be given unless they are so different that they can not be copied.
  3. Methods are designed to change interactions, not to change people. They may of course change but that is their affair, not yours!
  4. All complex facilitation is about avoiding premature convergence to a solution or solutions, breaking up groups and recombining them is one way, focusing on techniques such as constraint mapping rather than problem/solution identification is another
  5. Parallel processes should generally start with groups maximised for groupthink, then when the silent listening process is engaged people will see more contrast in the results
  6. Keep everyone in one room if at all possible, then you can sense the overall pattern of interaction
  7. Never, ever comment on people’s motivations or behaviour, change the interactions instead. A classic case of this is getting groups to nominate people to a ‘special’ group as a way to get the opinionated bastards to nominate themselves and give other people a chance to speak.

In general, everything takes place in parallel with three key questions as the groups rotate in reporting.

  1. What was the same?
  2. What was different?
  3. What really surprised you?

We don’t use reporting back to the group one by one but send a spokesperson from each table to the next to present what they come up with.  After they finish they are not allowed to say anything, and they may not be questioned, but their audience discusses what they said.  You rotate around all groups using this approach – it’s called Silent Listening.  The lack of interaction is deliberate as it makes for better assimilation of the whole, rather than simply jumping on the first good idea

There is more on complex facilitation in the Cynefin book for those interested and this is a core part of our training.  For the record, it is different from Open Space, but that is a post for another day.

We have also been adapting these techniques for virtual engagements, as has everyone else I imagine.  That material will go into the Wiki


The banner picture was just too good not to use given that there is some implied criticism here of more controlling approaches to facilitation is by www_slon_pics from Pixabay

Opening picture as a representative of patterns and emergence is by Lucas Benjamin on Unsplash



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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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