Dave Snowden

Power of the facilitator

RSS Feed

I’m picking up on my earlier posts on experts and professionalism by addressing the more controversial issue of workshops in modern practice. Now before anyone gets paranoid or over reacts I’m not arguing against workshops per se. after all I use them and have developed a range of methods that depend on workshop type interaction. However I am concerned about an over focus on what should be one technique in a wider process. I am also fundamentally opposed to workshop techniques that directly or indirectly take a therapeutic approach, or use methods derived from therapy. Such always seem to privilege the therapist and either infantilism of culturally filter participants. Hence my use of the psychotherapists couch as the illustration for this post. I’m not alone in thinking this. Participative Action Research (PAR) has been criticised by anthropologists (I have a reference but can’t immediately recall it) as privileging those who match the cultural perspective of the facilitators. I’ve long criticised many Appreciative Inquiry practitioners for determining what stories people are allowed to tell. By the way that criticism does not include the original stuff from Cooperrider but the industrialisation into a always look on the bright side of life that is the more frequent receipt based instantiation of his original ideas.

To give you and idea of my paranoia here, when I was originally developing methods while working in IBM I worked in Denmark so we could facilitate in English but people would speak in Danish with no possibility of the facilitator understanding the content. Our role was to enable a process, not engage with content. From my perspective the facilitator is always in a power relationship with the participants and no matter how much people protest that they don’t do this the more I am convinced of the issue. Creating methods based on perfection don’t work, building processes that don’t require perfection scale. So just as in SenseMaker® we allow the contributor the power to interpret their own narrative, so in facilitation we do our level best to de-privilege the facilitator by removing them from any and all engagement with content.

My other concern is that with workshop based approaches to change there is too much dependency on the event. In our work on citizen engagement we are looking at the ability of a community to stage multiple, contextual micro-events that generate small nudge like changes in the present rather than the idealistic future orientated plans that tend to emerge from workshops. I’ve seen far too many people judge the success of a change programme by how people feel at the end of an emotionally charged workshop, than what they actually do weeks or months later.

More on this in future posts but the simple less is this. If the method allows the facilitator or team to in anyway influence or be a part of content analysis or creation then I think you have a problem – both in authenticity of analysis and in power and effectiveness of the resulting interventions,

  • jonhusband


    Love the notion that this has been industrialised 😉

    As you note, Cooperrider’s work was / is useful but has been seized upon as a hammer for any and all sorts of nails.

  • eccemarco

    Dave, extremely useful insights as always. I have been thinking for a while (and working with) faciltated processes myself; over the last years as part of a large community whose body of work and theory I value immensely.
    Now, wrt Appreciative Inquiry, I do see your legitimate criticism, **insofar as the process forces people to tell one story and does not allow them to tell other stories**. It is not a structure that liberates a community’s need to speak its many stories, when done that way.
    I will make a link to a leadership theory by Bill Torbert which I found of good heuristic value: that there is a pendulum swinging from advocacy to inquiry; simplifying, in advocacy, we lead, push, set a vision -in your language is the vector that gives the direction of the nudge; in inquiry, we open up, listen, get the story to understand the predisposition of the current system’s state. Facilitated processes at times balance very well and are well aware of both polarities to be managed; other times though, they conceal advocacy into an apparent inquiry (e.g. why should we focus on the bright side if all we really want to do is to understand the current state of the system?) At least this helps me make sense of your critique of AI, not as a theory per se (I find it a valid one), but in its applications if/when is not the needed intervention. I think your approaches can give justice to the granularity of the stories and make progress towards an inquiry less biased by pre-conceptions and expectations of what a facilitator wishes (often unconsciously) to find. Meaning: let the inquiry be inquiry; let advocacy be advocacy. Even when the two are present in the same process, it is still logically healthy to see which is which, else we end up giving advice to someone who asked to simply be listened to.

    • Dave Snowden

      In cognitive terms human inquiry tends to be based on a prior decision for advocacy and I don’t think that can be separated even by skilled facilitation but requires a process. So I would focus on constraint mapping before talking about a problem – to take one example. Also people tend to self-deprecation in most narrative structures. We have seen a lot of evidence of stories being seen as positive by the teller, but interpreted as negative by the facilitator or a third party. For me people own their own content and should not have its nature mandated

      • eccemarco

        I see. Useful background, and I have seen some of your conference speeches where you mention biases in our perception (gorillas et al). Do you have references to a blog post (or a series of them) where you unfold this more extensively? and/or a list of references on the subject?

        • Dave Snowden

          The book “The Invisible Gorilla” has that material which will help

  • http://www.rise.global/ Toby Beresford

    It’s always hard to gauge where value is primarily created in a multi-stakeholder events. Is it the output of the meeting itself, or learnings in the minds of the participants or is it of most benefit to the sponsor who has learnt better how different stakeholders think. In each case it probably varies.

    • Dave Snowden

      Agree with all of that, but I don’t think motivational transparency is possible for a human. So we need to change the process

  • Andy Maleh

    Thank you for an insightful read. I’ve facilitated computer programming training events and provided agile coaching in the past. I try to be service-driven in delivering the material and process skills without relying on power or authority to keep myself equal as facilitator to the attendees. I thought that was what I was reading about in your article, but I am sorry I found some of the writing above my academic knowledge as MS in Software Engineering. As such, I was wondering if you’d be willing to follow up with a more concrete example-driven article to explain further.


    Andy Maleh

    • Dave Snowden

      To a degree I am saying that whatever the intention you cannot help contaminating the result if you participate in the content aspects

  • Chris Corrigan

    A good piece and I appreciate you brinin some nuance to your polemics. From here I’d take a crack at writing a piece on how facilitation is a process learned through artisanal practice. In my own teaching career I have lost count of the number of times people were disappointed that they didn’t learn facilitation in a three day workshop. I try to carefully point out that this is not a technical skills transfer (and our incorporation of complexity as a key piece of our workshops disabused the notion). Still there is an idea that given a tool anything can be fixed. Thinking about knowledge transfer of essential artistic skills for working in complex situations is preoccupying my thinking at the moment.

    • Dave Snowden

      Thanks Chris. The reduction of artisan capability to a short term training course has been a general theme of a lot of recent posts but I will pick up on it again soon

      • Chris Corrigan

        Great, me too. Gives me an excuse to dive a bit more deeply into pedagogy and practice. We are offering a complexity course this year where we have been thinking through how to get people to spend a day with artisans before coming to encourage exaption of artisanal practice from other crafts into their own.

  • Vincent Driscoll

    Thanks Dave for a very timely article. I’m an in-house trainer and facilitator in the public sector spending a lot of my time doing workshops with teams grappling with change and the stresses of a high pressure environment. I try my utmost to take a pull approach, working with the stories the teams bring to sessions to help them develop the competencies and resilience they require, whilst taking great care not to push my pet models and theories onto them. It’s a delicate balance. Often teams come to these sessions as someone to an oasis in a desert, only too ready to drink the snake oil. It’s the responsibility of a facilitator to be honest about what they can know about a situation and therefore how much they should seek to steer and control the outcome. Being in-house, I have the advantage of being able to touch base regularly with stakeholders. The workshop therefore is just the start of the process, almost like a project planning session.