Facilitators can’t predict the outcome

May 23rd, 2010

Neither can anyone else. How on earth is it possible to bring together a group of people and predict how they will act, think or decide? It’s time to debunk this myth of facilitation – that the facilitator possesses some power over how people will react and can guide the group to a preferred (by whom?) position.

Johnnie Moore said this:

The more I work, the more I want to encourage people not to have a good time if they’re not having a good time and get away from the insane notion that somehow everyone should be aligned, having the same experience and (especially) having a great time. Learning is non-linear and it’s just stupid to imagine it should happen painlessly and on some predetermined schedule.


I think it would be good to start more meetings with the idea that it’s actually ok to have a crappy time and achieve nothing – to provide an antidote to the tedious pressure to be positive and productive and make mostly fake commitments to action at the end. If we don’t really embrace the possibility of failure, we may actually be killing off the space for success.

Earle Mardle wades in with this comment, reproduced here in full (because it’s so spot on):

I know some people hate this but the reality is that we are ALL making ALL of this up as we go along. There are NO repeatable experiences. Not ever. We live in a chaotic universe highly sensitive to initial conditions, if one of those conditions is that we have done something like this before, it can’t possibly be repeated.

And there is no way for any system, process, model, magic wand or frigging incantation to be able to predetermine the outcome of any interaction among any arbitrary number of people from any, repeat ANY set of so-called backgrounds.

Development comes from trust, confidence and getting over our fears.

Trust in ourselves and in others, confidence that they, and we, will be able to cope with the results of our screw-ups as well as our achievements.

And we are all afraid, every last single one of us. I regularly wake up in the morning with the thought in my head that we are “so screwed”. For me that is apparently the old North American Indian version of “its a great day to die”.

It seems to me that only as long as I remind myself every day about the potential for failure, small and big, that accompanies every single thing we do, only then can I get moving and start the day in the confidence that I have accepted that I don’t know the answers; much of the time I don’t even understand the questions, even if I can hear them.

Failure isn’t where we end, its where we start. Big deal. We need to get over it so we can have a life.

So where does that leave facilitators? It leaves us being honest about what’s possible, and with opportunities to provide people with experiences that are different from their everyday work in a way that throws light on whatever challenges they are facing. It’s not up to us to determine what they will discover, or what they will do with that knowledge, if indeed they ever find what they are searching for. Facilitation is not the answer – it’s an opportunity for people to connect and have conversations about what matters to them. Inevitably, this might be quite uncomfortable. To limit those opportunities by imposing a process or by channelling people to a particular outcome is to misuse the trust placed in us as facilitators.

3 Comments so far

  1. Tweets that mention Viv McWaters -- Topsy.com on May 23, 2010 8:11 pm

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by comunidades, Viv McWaters. Viv McWaters said: Couldn't help debunking this facilitation myth http://bit.ly/ao0GIU (with help from @johnniemoore & @rlmrdl) […]

  2. Mark Boulet on May 27, 2010 2:03 pm

    Me again Viv!

    My responses to this posting are very much in the spirit of Geoff Brown’s ‘Yes AND…’ rather than “Yes BUT…”!

    A few things came up for me when reading which I wanted to share, based a little on the Show Me the Change conference I attended with you.

    That facilitators cannot predict the outcome resonates. That we might limit opportunities by imposing a particular process resonates. That facilitation should encourage conversations and get out of the way resonates.

    Some questions to throw into the mix:

    * What if conversations occur at cross purposes, repeat themselves and leave people with too much openness? Is there a danger then that they walk away feeling disempowered, confused and end up doing nothing?

    * The idea of no outcomes, no limits etc is awesome? How do we marry this with the so-called realities of organisational and work expectations? Is there a way of giving a nod in both directions with our facilitation?

    * I suspect that understanding the people you work with is key? Some are comfortable with openess, no limits, lateral thinking, creativity etc… others, who might be more the do-ers and implementers might be less so?

    * How do we as facilitators then justify our contributions to this open processes, with no outcomes gauranteed? There are those amongst us who might then cycnically ask – what are you being paid for?? (a little crude, but hopefully it makes my point)

    Maybe I’m being boring, but is there a middle way to begin to explore? One that has its approach grounded in the ideas you and others are exploring, but also perhaps is delivery is then tempered by the questions I am asking?

    Look forward to chatting more about this … and for seeing you at the Open Space training in a couple of weeks.

  3. Viv McWaters on June 1, 2010 5:13 pm

    Hi Mark

    Thanks for your comments – you make some good points. These are questions I also continue to struggle with.

    For years I used processes that jammed people into making a decision. They went away happy, and so did I, until I started seeing a trend. I’d be called back to do something remarkably similar again. Good for the bottom line, but eventually, not that rewarding. I started searching for the missing elements – a search that continues. I believe we’re in the midst of a change in the way we work that will not become apparent until way afterwards (we’re seeing the effects before we know the cause – classic complexity). Working in this type of complexity – without trying to simplify it – IS messy, it’s random, it’s unpredictable. The tendency to want to ‘normalise’ something that’s already normal (messiness) is very strong. By normalise, I mean revisit processes, and frameworks, and metrics that ‘help’ us understand the world. I guess I have no problem with others doing that – it’s not something I want to do any more. And I certainly understand the attraction. I also think that open-ness is misunderstood. Open Space for example is a highly structured process, yet it appears open, even chaotic to the observer. You will have probably noticed that I’ve been posting a series on disruptive facilitation. This is where I think facilitators can really add value – by disrupting the patterns of behaviour and thinking processes that keep individuals and groups stuck. As one client described it – SHIT Happens! Shifting Historically Ingrained Thinking!



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