Facilitation: Its Changing Face

The role of the facilitator has changed significantly in the last few years. Today’s patterns of engagement, teaching and learning, problem solving, and forecasting require us to learn to facilitate or help to facilitate conversations. Whether you are a leader or a participant, read on to learn how Adaptive Action becomes a facilitator’s best tool to work with complex human systems.

It's about what the players are doing. My job is to facilitate that. My job is to put them in positions to succeed. My job is to listen to their ideas . . . My job is to help them grow.
Nick Nurse
Coach, Toronto Raptors Basketball

In my career, I have often taken on the job of “facilitator.” Early on, the term “facilitator” was used for people who supported strategic planning sessions, coordinated and led large-group decision making, and helped groups negotiate conflict and problem solving. More recently, however, I have begun to explore a broader definition of facilitation. Wikipedia.org, offers a definition of facilitation that reflects this broader view: A facilitator is someone who engages in facilitation—any activity that makes a social process easy or easier. A facilitator often helps a group of people to understand their common objectives and assists them to plan how to achieve these objectives . . . (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facilitator).

In human systems dynamics (HSD), we think of facilitation even more broadly. We define “facilitator” as: Anyone who helps individuals and groups to do the work they have to do.  In today’s world, we know that the quality of our work depends on how well we engage in Adaptive Action. Adaptive Action is an iterative cycle of three steps. First, we ask WHAT? do we see in the dynamics of the world arounds us? Second, we ask, SO WHAT? sense can we make of what we see? Finally, we ask, NOW WHAT? shall we do to get our work.

Given this broader view, in a complex human system, the role of the facilitator has expanded. Anyone who works with individuals or groups to get work done is a facilitator. The dominant tool for getting work done is Adaptive Action, so the best tool of the facilitator is the Adaptive Action cycle.

Whether you lead or just participate in meetings, you can use what you know about the system to navigate the challenges and tasks that you face. As the leader, you frame agendas to: 1) Ask What? to explore the current patterns you see; 2) Ask SO WHAT? as you consider implications, opportunities and barriers in your current situation; 3) Ask NOW WHAT? to find your next wise action. If you are not leading the meeting, you can still help focus and move the group forward by standing in those three questions.

You can use Adaptive Action to facilitate more formal, large-group events. The cycle of WHAT?, SO WHAT?, and NOW WHAT?, is useful in developing a vision, planning to achieve that vision, or negotiating differences and decision making along the way. Use the questions to frame the exploration. WHAT? currently exists? WHAT? is possible for the future system? SO WHAT? are the implications, opportunities, and barriers in those patterns? SO WHAT? is possible? NOW WHAT? actions will best move you forward? NOW WHAT? actions will take you into the vision you created together?
NOW WHAT? will you do?

Adaptive Action is useful, even as you engage in formal or informal conversations you might have with friends, family, colleagues, and others. Use an organized approach to facilitate clear connections between what you see and what you want (WHAT?), what you think about what you see (SO WHAT?), and what you want to do next (NOW WHAT?). That helps others participate in the arc of your reasoning. They can see how your questions shape the conversation. They can ask questions of their own. They understand your rationale and proposed actions, and can have input into those decisions.

Finally, you can use Adaptive Action to facilitate ongoing cycles of feedback and performance assessment with people you supervise. WHAT? do they want in their futures?  WHAT? do you see in their performance? WHAT? will help them be successful? SO WHAT? do those patterns of aspiration and reality mean in this person’s career and day-to-day work? SO WHAT? does that require of you, as their supervisor?  NOW WHAT? are the employee’s next steps? NOW WHAT? can you do to help move them forward?

How often do you engage in these kinds of conversations? Do they seem to spin off into disjointed discussion that doesn’t move you forward? Do you get bogged down into the details so that you really never get anything done? Do you get off topic and forget what you were doing? Do you feel stuck in the same old challenges, not being able to see your way to new options or opportunities? Adaptive Action can help you make sense of the work to be done and find a path for at least the next wise action—then the next and the next and the next . . .

In HSD we have tools that help at every stage of the cycle. They can help you see what’s currently going on. They can help you make sense of the data and information you collect. The HSD-based tools can help you find your own next wise action, both as a facilitator and as a member of a larger conversation. If you want to know more about those tools and this approach to facilitating, join Judy Oakden and me in our next Adaptive Action Lab, “Explore the Changing Face and Function of Facilitation in Complex Landscapes” on March 23 and 26, 4p - 7p (CDT), which is March 24 and 27, 10a - 1p (NZDT) in New Zealand, which is Judy’s home. Click HERE for more information about this Adaptive Action Lab. Click HERE for information of other opportunities to learn practical ways to use HSD.

In the meantime, be in touch! Let us know your questions and insights so we can share them with others!


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