Powerful Facilitation: Two Critical Approaches

In today's world, facilitators work with groups to address issues that are more complex and challenging than ever before. They deal with forces that rock their clients’ worlds. They address the partisan impacts of diversity at local and global scales. Facilitators value the importance of relationships and connections over time, in addition to relying on the notions of cause and effect.

In the face of this complexity, the role of a facilitator shifts. The role is not to guide or lead the group. Nor is it a role of pushing or pointing. It is the facilitator’s task to provide a lens that helps the group see itself and its world more clearly. It is that clearer vision and deeper understanding that can inform the best decisions. It’s the role that can contribute to the most powerful solutions. It can help to resolve negotiations in the most equitable ways.

In my last blog article, I defined three competencies that contribute to powerful facilitation. These competencies help the facilitator deal with the complex challenges of groups. From this perspective, the competencies of the facilitator are to:

A list of competencies can describe what’s needed to do a job. It cannot, however, explain what it takes to accomplish those tasks in human systems. Any list of competencies begs the question, “So how do I do that?”

This list of three competencies begs three questions: 1) How do I stand in inquiry? 2) How do I leverage interdependence between and among the scales of the system? 3) How do I support a group in building the capacity for resilience?

Human systems dynamics (HSD) offers an answer to those questions. It provides two approaches that, when used together, can inform your decisions and actions to step into the critical competencies of facilitation. The two approaches provide the process and content for inquiry. They help you understand and consider the interdependence between and among scales. Together these approaches can help a group take informed and powerful action today and as it moves into the future.

The first approach is Pattern Logic. In her research, Glenda Eoyang identified three conditions that shape patterns of interaction and decision making in all human systems. These conditions become the leverage points for change. Those conditions are:

  • Container (C) – A container holds or constrains the system so that patterns can begin to form. For facilitators, containers can be physical--the room you are in or the group's workplaces, for example. They can be psychological connections, such at affinities among the members or strong personalities who might dominate the group. They can be organizational divisions and connections, such as the departments or segments represented by the participants. In your role as facilitator, the agenda becomes a form of container that helps shape the meeting.
  • Difference (D) – When agents interact in a human system, the differences that make them unique generate tensions. Those tensions, then, provide energy for change across the system. As a facilitator you notice the differences between and among the participants. You listen for where those differences generate tension. You take note of whether that tension is productive for the group, or whether it creates barriers and challenges.
  • Exchanges (E) – Exchanges between and among agents allow for the flow of resources across the system. Types of exchanges can include rules and regulations, sharing of resources, or communications of ideas. In your facilitation, you use exchanges—instructions, interactions, and other connections—to help influence the productivity of the session. You set ground rules, you share information and ask for clarification, and you ask participants to share.

As you facilitate the work of a group, you use your understanding of these conditions to shift patterns of interaction and inform decision making. Additionally, when you engage the members of the group in these discussions, you increase their awareness and abilities to see, understand, and influence patterns on their own. Your activities and engagement help to shape or influence the patterns in the group. Large-group and small-group activities change the container. A more or less intense agenda sets a condition for deep work or more surface accomplishments. Some of your activities focus on differences; some focus on exchanges. Think about your most favorite activities and engagements. How do they shift conditions in the room?

The second approach is: Adaptive Action. This simple—yet complex—cycle can help even the best facilitators become more effective at supporting movement toward wise action. It is an iterative, ongoing cycle of inquiry that helps you see, understand, and influence conditions across the system. Adaptive Action helps you consider how the CDE (conditions) influence each other at all scales. It helps you see how an individual influences the whole system, and how the whole system has powerful impact on the individual.

Adaptive Action moves you and your clients to informed action. Adaptive Action also supports ongoing exploration for continuous improvement and innovation. The cycle of Adaptive Action uses three questions:

  • What? This question helps you name patterns that shape current reality. In this phase, you observe and name the patterns that inform your understanding. You help the group describe their current reality, and then name differences between what is and what they want.
  • So what? In this phase of the cycle, you consider the impact of what you see, and how your actions are influencing the work in the room. For the participants in this phase, you provide a lens to help the group understand implications of existing patterns. It also helps you identify the potential or range of possibilities of the group’s aspirations. In this phase you identify possible actions that can move the group forward.
  • Now what? Having considered possible options for action, you choose one option and take action. You monitor the steps you take and watch for consequences of your action, both intended and unintended.

The action of this final stage helps you move into the next cycle as you ask What? about the outcomes and impacts of the step you just took.

One thing to remember is that you and your participants are engaged in multiple and simultaneous Adaptive Actions. You will run your cycles, generally in shorter loops continuously checking your own performance, your impact on the group, and the group’s responses to you. At the same time the group goes through many cycles. Each individual and the whole group are constantly seeing what is happening, making sense their worlds, and taking action as a result—they just may not know they are using Adaptive Action. The image reflects this ongoing flow of Adaptive Action cycles.

When you use Adaptive Action and Pattern Logic, you have the tools to step into each of the competencies that set an HSD-based facilitator apart.

  • You and your clients engage in ongoing cycles of inquiry and action based in an understanding of Adaptive Action and  Pattern Logic
  • You and your clients understand system interdependence in a way that helps identify the most viable options for action
  • You and your clients see dynamics of a system and adapt to changes and challenges in that system

If you want to know more about how HSD can help you build your skills as a facilitator in complex systems, join us for our next Adaptive Action Lab. In Facilitation and Adaptive Action: Leverage the Power of Groups, we will explore how HSD can build your competence to move beyond your current performance. Register today so you can join us next week.

Even if you don’t sign up for the Adaptive Action Lab, please be in touch. Let us know how you use these two simple approaches in your facilitation practice.


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