Can Groups Be Taught to Resolve Their Own Inadequacies?

social fluency
Our hosts during my vacation this past weekend in McKenzie Bridge, OR were Charlene and Galen Phipps. Charlene, it turns out, is a facilitator with an interest in complex adaptive systems, and specifically the issue of how an understanding of social complexity can be applied to improving group functionality.

Those familiar with this blog know the fundamental factors that differentiate complex from merely complicated systems. Mechanistic, complicated systems (like an automobile) have many moving parts, but they can be fully identified and understood with study and effort. By contrast, complex systems (like the world’s climatic system, or a community) are never completely knowable. They have too many variables to ever fully map, and the n-to-n connection between those variables is too manifold and nuanced to fully appreciate. Further, in complex systems, causality is never determinable; one can never separate cause and effect. So while a dysfunctional automobile can be ‘fixed’ by assessing the cause or causes of the dysfunction, we can never hope to do this with the world’s climate, or with community interactions or other social systems.

Nature’s way of ‘dealing’ with complexity is to make these complex systems self-managing. A balance is found, and as the infinite number of variables constantly and inevitably change, the entire system itself collectively seeks and finds a new balance, a new equilibrium. The physical and social systems of our world are complex because, in Darwinian terms, they work. They are less brittle than simple and complicated systems — cars break down much more easily and frequently than ecosystems and societies. If an ecosystem has a quintillion components, it makes far more sense to have all these components working collectively to resolve their problems (the resolution is then said to ’emerge’), than expecting a single superior intelligence, or even a single species, to try to manage the system and impose ‘solutions’ on it.

In her work, Charlene summarizes the work of many social complexity pioneers and then presents what she calls the Discovery Model, which recognizes that groups learn and perform optimally when the people, the environment and the capacity for self-organization are in sync, and when information, interaction, and adaptability are present and working to enable the group to continuously transform itself into one sustainably suited to dealing with the issues of the moment. The facilitator’s role in this dynamic is to open up, unblock, encourage and enable the group to be fully functional. S/he does this through coaching, inviting, drawing out, connecting, challenging, articulating, and building personal and group capacities.

This is a huge task, and while I do agree that the role of a skilled and present facilitator is essential to effective group function, it’s my belief that this is largely because we have been indoctrinated to believe that mechanistic, complicated problem-solving is the answer to every situation (hence organizational hierarchies, and the simplistic and dysfunctional decision-making methodologies that have prevailed throughout our civilization), so we have never properly learned (as I believe indigenous and non-human societies do from birth) to self-manage, to allow resolutions to emerge naturally.

Reading Charlene’s work and talking with her got me thinking about the model of social fluency that Chris Lott and I co-developed, which is illustrated above. Here’s a brief re-cap of what it says:

Our ability to impart social value to others is a function of (a) our knowledge,  (b) our thinking competency (critical, creative and imaginative), (c) our communication skills (conversation, presentation and demonstration), and (d) our ability to integrate these three things.

This ability to integrate these three things gives rise to (i) insight, ideas and new perspectives (thinking competency applied to knowledge), (ii) reportage and stories (communication skills applied to knowledge), (iii) rhetoric and provocation (articulation of one’s thinking), and (iv) art (in its broadest sense, the re-presentation of reality). We are all artists, performers, when we have the stage in a social circle. This aspect of the social fluency model is from the perspective of the actor (presenter, demonstrator, creator, artist), and is shown in black in the model above.

The corresponding elements of social fluency from the perspective of the re-actor (audience, listener, student, learner) shown in red brackets in the model above,  are as follows:

Our ability to derive social value from others (i.e. to learn) is a function of (a’) our openness to others’ knowledge and ideas, (b’) our learning competency (ability to learn), (c’) our attention skills, and (d’) our ability to integrate these three things.

This ability to integrate these three things gives rise to (i’) understanding (openness and competency to learn new ideas and knowledge), (ii’) appreciation (openness and attention to new ideas and knowledge), (iii’) self-change (attention/awareness of change opportunities and the learning competency to apply them), and (iv’) improvisation (the real-ization of learning).

Again, this ability to integrate is social fluency. We exhibit social fluency inter-act-ively, as actors (though art/presentation) and as re-actors (through improvisation/attention).

Just as individuals’ social fluency is a function of these capacities, so is that of groups. The best facilitators have the awareness and skills to recognize the capacities and incapacities of the people in a group s/he is facilitating, and those of the collective group.

It’s been my experience that groups are more or less dysfunctional depending on the presence or absence of certain preconditions. The work of Dave Snowden and John Kotter supports this. These necessary preconditions for functional groups include:

  1. a shared purpose;
  2. a shared sense of urgency;
  3. the presence among at least some in the group of each of 12 core capacities (I describe these in my book Finding the Sweet Spot): excellent instincts, critical thinking, imagination, creativity, attention, communication, demonstration, learning, collaboration and self-management skills, and a strong sense of responsibility and of intention;
  4. sufficient information about the subject to have a context for learning and understanding (this is described in James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds); and
  5. a shared passion.

So my sense is that the role of the facilitator in dealing with complex issues should include the following:

Being aware of the presence or absence in the group of the necessary preconditions for a functional group.

Being aware of the presence or absence of social fluency among the members of the group, and of the group collectively, as described in the model above.

Articulating to the group the presence or absence of these preconditions and the elements of social fluency, so that they are aware of their strengths and weaknesses.

Suggesting compensatory ideas and methods (e.g. bringing in people, knowledge or teachers) to strengthen the group.

Most importantly, enabling the group to self-assess these strengths and weaknesses and to self-generate ideas and methods to draw on strengths and alleviate or compensate for weaknesses, to make the group and its members stronger and more competent to address the issues at hand.

I’m not suggesting that competent facilitators don’t do this already, just that there is a tendency for some facilitators to take the inherent problems of missing preconditions and incapacities as a given and hence not explicitly reflect them to the group, and also a tendency to make that the facilitator’s problem rather than the group’s. It seems to me that, while the facilitator may be able to get the group started in this self-assessment and self-management process (i.e. to facilitate it) the process itself should be directed and managed by the group. This is the very essence of managing social complexity.

For example, in my experience dealing with senior executives, they have a propensity (often reinforced by others) to exaggerate their own competencies and knowledge and to be blind to their incapacities and areas of ignorance. In facilitated sessions, they tend to dominate groups of subordinates and rush to conclusions. In such cases I have tried to research their possible and perceived incapacities and areas of ignorance in advance, and pull them aside before the session to urge them to recognize the value of them holding back judgement, listening, and helping draw out the knowledge, perspectives and ideas of others (almost making them quasi-co-facilitators, to disable their dominance, infallability and judgement behaviours). On rare occasions, an executive will even lead off by confessing his/her incapacities and ignorance as a means of leveling the power playing field and eliciting active participation of others. On occasions where the group explicitly acknowledges their strengths and weaknesses, the session can be very productive. A team aware of its individual and collective strengths and weaknesses will generally outperform a team that isn’t.

Likewise, I have found that business groups in particular often suffer from imaginative poverty, and that there is great value in doing some quiet advance brainstorming with creative and imaginative people, and then pre-seeding some provocative and credible ideas to selected group members, so that these ideas emerge as their ideas during the session and not mine as facilitator. Even better, if the group acknowledges this (or any other factor) as a collective incapacity, it can enable them to collectively invest more attention and effort on that area of weakness, or bring in others who have that capacity, or even follow a course of study or practice to acquire that capacity.

Having spent many years in research, I’ve also found that groups tend to think they are more knowledgeable about issues than they really are. In particular, there is a tendency for bad news and information about problems not to be communicated vertically in organizational hierarchies. For that reason it can be helpful to have the organization’s research staff (or group members with that competency) do an ‘environmental scan’ around the issue, and pull together and present an objective and uncensored precis of applicable facts and perceptions.

Of the three sets of elements of social fluency, in my experience the one that is most often lacking in groups I have facilitated is communication/attention skills. Many people come to these sessions with their minds made up, but an inability to articulate the reasons for their belief coherently and compellingly to others (often they don’t particularly care if others understand and share their viewpoint). As a result they may convey their ideas, information and perspectives poorly, or not at all, and disengage and be distracted when others are speaking. There is no simple answer to this significant challenge, but being aware of it, and recognizing it as a challenge explicitly, is a first step. It is then largely up to the group to deal with this, and I have seen groups do so very effectively. There is a technique, for example, of requiring each speaker to summarize the point made by the previous speaker before making their own point. The group can use a ‘talking stick’ to focus attention on the speaker and the importance of courtesy and attentiveness. And if a point is poorly made, asking clarifying questions can help, and can also teach the speaker how to be more coherent and responsive in future. Some facilitators use mindmaps displayed on a screen at the front of the session to ensure the points made are captured coherently and collectively understood.

I know that many readers of this blog are facilitators, and would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on how you have enabled groups suffering from lack of necessary preconditions for effectiveness, or lack of social fluency, or even total dysfunctionality, to become aware of, name, self-manage and resolve these issues themselves. The word facilitator literally means ‘one who makes things easier’. How have you made it easier for groups struggling with incapacities to make it easier for themselves?

Thanks to Charlene for inspiring this post, and to Charlene and Galen for their wonderful hospitality.

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