Practical wisdom

January 3rd, 2011

If you’ve been reading my recent posts here and here and here you’ll know I’ve been rethinking facilitation in general and facilitation training in particular. I’ve been exploring beyond skills and techniques to try and discover what makes facilitation, and facilitators, work. This TED talk by Barry Schwartz provides some excellent insights.

He talks about ‘doing right’ compared with doing what is ‘expected, required or profitable’. In my own little crisis late last year I experienced first-hand the difficulties and soul-searching that comes with choosing between ‘doing right’ and ‘doing what is expected’. It helped me unearth what I think is a complicity between facilitators and clients to do what is ‘expected’ way too often, which is also not in service of others.

Schwartz talks about how we make rules and create incentives to try and control how people act. We make more and more guidelines, and give people scripts. He gives some examples of how these scripts fail us, as individuals and as a society.

He suggests we need people with virtue and character who want to do the right thing, who have the moral will and the moral skill to do the right thing, to be able to improvise novel solutions to novel problems – what Aristotle called practical wisdom.

Here’s the crux of the argument: Dealing with people demands a kind of flexibility that rules can’t encompass – wise improvisation. We need to know when to bend the rules and when to improvise, and importantly, in the service of others. (If we do this in service of just ourselves then it’s manipulation).

Psychologists have known, through decades of research, that relying on rules and incentives demoralises people. Schwartz suggests it is time for policy-makers to listen to this psychological research.

There have always been canny outlaws who subvert the rules. Schwartz calls these people ‘everyday heros’, but it’s hard to sustain this activity because they either are found out or burn out. What we need, he suggests, is system changers.

There’s a lot in this to influence facilitators and facilitation training – building practical wisdom for facilitation instead of following a set of guidelines; knowing how to improvise wisely. This is why disruptive and improvisational facilitation excites me. Maybe it’s time to shift gears from being a canny outlaw to being a system changer.

4 Comments so far

  1. Dwight Towers on January 3, 2011 1:33 pm

    “There have always been canny outlaws who subvert the rules. Schwartz calls these people ‘everyday heros’, but it’s hard to sustain this activity because they either are found out or burn out. What we need, he suggests is system changers.”

    Indeed. But when they are found out or burnt out, that sends a message to other potential canny outlaws – “don’t do that if you want a long/prosperous career.” And having tried to do that with a local authority, I can attest it is bloody exhausting and not very rewarding…

    I don’t know if Schwarz talks about it (when I get a soundcard sorted for my computer, I’ll have a look!), but the concept of street-level bureaucrats is perhaps involved?

  2. Tweets that mention Viv McWaters -- on January 3, 2011 2:44 pm

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by comunidades, Viv McWaters. Viv McWaters said: [Blog] Wise improvisation and facilitation – #TED talk by Barry Schwartz #facilitation HT @GeoffBrown3231 […]

  3. Viv McWaters on January 4, 2011 9:01 am

    Thanks Dwight, I hadn’t heard the term ‘street-level bureaucrats’ before. And yes, I think it is exhausting to be a canny outlaw – it seems to me people like this either end up leaving or giving up and potentially become passive-aggressive as an outlet for their frustrations. All the more reasons for a spot of disruptive facilitation methinks 🙂
    Cheers, Viv

  4. Mrs Beaton to a pulp: Facilitators as chefs « on January 6, 2011 7:46 pm

    […] to put fingers to keyboard. If you want sensible comments about facilitating, you could try Viv McWaters, Activism is My Rent and Rhizome, amongst […]

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