Facilitation, Objectivity, Worldviews, Innovation and Coping with Complex Problems

chairsI‘m on my way from San Jose to Vancouver and thence to Bowen Island for a course on The Art of Hosting (a collection of event facilitation and problem-solving methodologies). Despite the fact that Open Space, one of those methodologies, makes enormous conceptual sense, and should work brilliantly as a means to help a large, diverse group of people address complex problems, I’ve been disappointed with the Open Space sessions I’ve participated in. They were full of optimism and possibility, but somehow the collective wisdom of these ‘crowds’ just never really emerged.

It’s tempting to blame this on the facilitators, but with a couple of exceptions the facilitation of these sessions was done brilliantly. It’s equally tempting to blame it on the audience, saying they weren’t the right people, or lacked some of the critical capacities needed by the collective group for breakthrough thinking, or fell victim to groupthink, or weren’t engaged, or lacked energy. Open Space has a rule that “whoever comes are the right people” but also asserts the importance of a well-crafted invitation and getting that invitation out to the people you hope to draw to the event.

So it was interesting to hear Dave Snowden say the other day that self-managed facilitation events like Open Space “punish mavericks” — their ideas are usually too complex or too difficult to grasp or too difficult to articulate clearly, and therefore get ignored or even ridiculed. Could this be the problem with these methods? I’ve had several experiences where the most brilliant ideas I heard at an event were not even recorded in the official or unofficial record of the event. I’ve even used mindmaps, displayed at the front of the event or breakout room, to record what I’ve heard being said, only to be challenged by those who ‘heard’ something completely different.

I’m always surprised at the response to my own ideas at such events. Half the time they are simply not heard, because the group has preconceptions of what the event or outcomes would or should be, and my ideas just didn’t fit with them, and so were considered ‘out of scope’ or even ‘out of order’. The other half the time they are embraced with such zeal (one of my distinctive competencies is my ability to imagine possibilities that others don’t seem to be able to come up with) that I feel guilty for having hijacked the process and ‘bullied’ the group into adopting my solution without thinking it through adequately and without properly making it theirs. This is not a robust innovation process.

Or does the problem perhaps lie in the very nature and premise of facilitation — the belief that the facilitator can really remain objective and avoid steering the supposedly self-managed group in a direction that betrays the facilitator’s bias (or the facilitator’s sponsor’s bias)? Can we really be objective, or does our presence as part of the event inevitably colour it? Just as the observer’s very presence is said to affect quantum outcomes, does the facilitator’s very presence affect the event outcomes? Some of the most popular current research and analysis methodologies stress the importance of being ‘fact-based’ or ‘evidence-based’ — euphemisms for ‘objective’ — but the world’s best researchers will tell you the defining characteristic of world-class research is asking the right (sometimes ‘naive’) questions, and such questions are inevitably provocative and subjective.

There are some (a growing number, it appears) who believe that it is impossible to be objective, and that all news and information is inherently biased, not least by the selection of precisely what information, and details, to report and to not report. George Lakoff’s work tells us that we see and interpret everything through a personal worldview that colours what we accept and how we react to it. Perhaps, these objectivity-deniers might argue, the so-called facilitators should just present their own (or their sponsors’) context and hypotheses, as a ‘straw man’, and let the participants start with those, and alter or challenge them as they deem appropriate.

When I start to ‘redesign’ such methodologies to try to accommodate these objections, the most experienced practitioners tend to shout foul, arguing that these methodologies have been honed to be functional yet as simple as possible from years of practice and experience, and if they don’t work perhaps a different methodology should be used rather than adulterating an established methodology.

But I can’t resist tinkering nevertheless. Here are some early thoughts on things that I think might make a methodology like Open Space work better:

  1. In accordance with Snowden’s complexity model, set the initial conditions for the event, and interject attractors (things that encourage certain desired, productive behaviours) and barriers (that discourage other, counterproductive behaviours) at appropriate times to ‘manage’ the initial and emerging direction of the event without interfering with the actual content — the ideas, knowledge, insights, perspectives and intentions that come out. If you’re going to do this, however, you have to, as facilitator, be open to challenges that your initial boundaries and subsequent interventions help rather than hinder the process. So much for the pretence of objectivity.
  2. Constantly adjust the balance and volume of critical thinkers versus creative thinkers. The best facilitated events I’ve participated in have got this balance just right, but it’s tough to sustain. Think orchestra conductor rather than improviser — an approach that these days is unfashionable.
  3. As a corollary to the above, actively squelch the bullies and manipulators, and draw out the wallflowers. At the same time, when groupthink emerges rather than consensus, call it for what it is.
  4. Allow time — set expectations and objectives at a level modest enough that sufficient time is available for new ideas to emerge and be articulated, for people to think and reflect, for new information and ideas to sink in. This is a horrifically difficult task in today’s time-starved attention-deficit society. I don’t know how you solve this — maybe events need to have a series of sessions spread over weeks or months with some momentum-sustaining and reflection and rethinking time in between, to provide enough time for real ideation and understanding and meaningful intention to emerge.
  5. Teach participants the capacities they need to be productive participants in this type of event. Ideally in advance, have self-directed learning events and resources available to learn and practice holding oneself open, letting go, brainstorming, creativity, imagination and innovation skills and processes, and consensus-building and conflict resolution. Reinforce this learning by pulling participants clearly lacking these skills aside for some just-in-time one-on-one instruction.

Of course, even if these complications of the facilitator’s role are desirable, there’s a question whether they don’t so complicate that role as torequire a small army of facilitators to manage.

It should be an interesting discussion on Monday and Tuesday. Stay tuned.

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9 Responses to Facilitation, Objectivity, Worldviews, Innovation and Coping with Complex Problems

  1. Dave Snowden says:

    You’re still allowing the facilitator to make the call about people’s participation Dave. Comes back to our discussion last night (remember the three facilitator rule) and the difference between idealistic and naturalising approaches to facilitation. You can modify open space to allow the process of changing interactions to prevent isolation of mavericks and also change the recording process to disintermediate original comments. Will try and blog on that later today. Thanks again for dinner by the way, the conversation and company were outstanding

  2. Dave, I find much to agree with here. I’m relieved to find that Paul Levy and I are not the only Open Space heretics on the planet!I’ve made some comments and suggestions in my blog – three w’s jackmartinleith dot com (why can’t I include a URL? Isn’t that the whole idea of comments)I’m looking forward to reading your report from The Art of Hosting gig. Please send my very best wishes to Chris Corrigan, and to Tim Merry if he’s there too.Warmest,Jack

  3. Hi there. As informally as possible I would first like to say how much I appreciate the literary quality of your blog. Clear, concise and noteworthy information I can actually retain because your thoughts are always so well managed. I agree with what you’ve said today, on many different plains we often tend to branch out in order to ‘orchestrate’. As a creative however, I wonder why not approach the effectiveness of facilitating ‘retention’ as though it were indeed a complicated piece of music? While this may not pertain to the Open Space methodology (I am not well versed in this approach) it does seem that repetition and rhythm both inspire recognition, and sometimes all it takes to send a message is three small ‘notations’…i.e. “come on down” :)

  4. Your experiences are so far away from mine i don’t really know where to start. My experiences of Open Space have generally been fantastic. The ones we have run for clients have had off the charts customer satisfaction, and maverick (god i hate that word now) ideas have always had a hearing.

  5. Hi Dave,Just a thought – how much of the problem is due to the tyranny of an artificial time constraint? In our culture this parameter is such a given (workshop sessions lasting x hours) that we may not even think to challenge and examine it.From what I’ve read – and this may all be a romantic myth – when indigenous cultures approach a community problem they talk about it until everybody gets a hearing and a solution is arrived at that everyone (or at least the community powerbrokers) can live with. It may take hours, or it may take days, but everybody gets heard before a decision is made. It’s a more organic process.Time-constrained sessions favour ideas that can be expressed in pithy sound bites, and people who communicate in this way. Some complex ideas just need a lot more time to be expressed, explored and thought through. Is it possible to arrive at objectivity (or at least group objectivity) before lunch? Can that be achieved in the average morning workshop?

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    These are great points. Thanks everyone. Please note that my 5 points are just ‘thinking out loud’ and not a firm position. I’ll be discussing them, and all your ideas and suggestions, at various points Monday and Tuesday. I’m delighted that some facilitators have such great stories about Open Space. I remain a great believer in it, and hope to soon have some similar stories of my own.

  7. I participated in an OPEN SPACE session yesterday, and rushed off to it before I could add my comments here. Let’s see….. you need to use the wisdom of the crowds to solve complex problems. Crowds = whoever turns up, Solves = actionable insights. I have found that the narrower the complexity the better Open Space “works”. Corporate open space works wonders, the telecoms group I worked for framed goals and strategies in a 50 top manager workshop in one day. And that got implemented with similar days further down in the organisation.But to yesterday… we sat and chatted between lunch and afternoon coffee. I enjoyed it for what it was, it brought together alternative banking practitioners from several countries….My take on it is after running OS meetings myself.. we live in the vice like grip of a complex civilisation hardly ever having understood if the things we are seeing are parts of a system, the effects of that system or indeed a manifestation of our collective beliefs. We sit in a room to tackle the complexity and come out unable to action anything. Were I filthy rich and benefiting from this lack of insight , I would find this hilarious. I’m not and I find it tragic. We as individuals have to find our tribes and extended networks to work within. Then we will see the methods working.

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  9. John Tropea says:

    Your mentioning of worldview crossed paths with something I posted the other day on Deepak Chopra”Two people with different worldviews can see the same fact and give totally divergent interpretations of it, because no fact or event is perceived by itself”http://johntropea.tumblr.com/post/54259953/we-make-choices-its-what-we-choose

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