Facilitation and equilibrium


September 30th, 2014

Some beliefs and theories in facilitation have always bothered me. What appears to be sane and sensible on paper, in reality, just simply don’t stack up when working with a real, live group of humans. One of these is divergent thinking and convergent thinking. It presumes that people will engage in divergent thinking (coming up with different ideas etc) and then, after a period of struggle, will converge on a smaller set of ideas that are acceptable to everyone. What’s always bothered me about this can be explained by the principle of preferential attachment in networks (and yes, a group of people in a workshop is a network). Basically, people are attracted to the more popular ideas (it’s the rich get richer phenomenon). What if the really innovative, radical, game-changing idea is not one of these?

Exactly. It gets lost, and business continues as usual doing much the same as before with little or no disruption. Everyone leaves happy, but probably feeling a bit dissatisfied.

Until recently, we have believed that equilibrium is possible, and preferable, in biological (including human) systems. However, research is now showing that convergence to equilibrium is now the exception rather than the rule. Is it time to rethink our systems of facilitation and let go of the unrealistic equilibrium states some clients yearn for?

5 Comments so far

  1. Amanda on October 11, 2014 3:32 am

    I keep two quotes from Chris Corrigan with my notes on the divergence/convergence model: “Sometimes we don’t need everyone to be on the same page. What we need instead is a lot of prototyping, or connected action. In this case there is still a decision making process, but it is individual led, “posted and hosted” and undertaken by invitation. It is valuable because it allows for actions to come from the margins without the need for a whole group to be involved.” AND “Sometimes we confuse action taking and decision-making. Working for convergence of a collective decision is what we do when it is important to find the unified voice. Sometimes that unified voice is important. Other times, it really is not that important at all. In some cases we are working to help people in a group become more clear about the ecology of actions that will emerge with respect to a particular topic. We are not ready for and do not need a collective decision. What we need is more clarity at smaller level of systems about how and what different people and sub-groups will do. In all work with good decision making, remember that we are always working to bring forward a clear proposal, tend to relationships, and seek clarity.”

    It reminds me that sometimes we don’t need to – or want to- tidily converge, but rather allow “posted and hosted” action, and awareness of what different folks are up to. For those reasons you describe 🙂

  2. Marc Hudson on October 11, 2014 9:04 pm

    Excellent post. To echo/follow Amanda – it depends what the workshop is FOR. If you’re trying to come up with one or two workable but not revolutionary/gamechanging proposals that improve and existing system, then by all means narrow/winnow/ignore the margins. But if you’re trying to do something bigger/fuzzier (and is the funder of the workshop on board with that?!) then the (all-too-familiar) format you describe will go badly wrong/not fit for purpose.

    These are tools, after all, and you wouldn’t use a saw to drive a nail, or a hammer to cut a plank of wood. (Marc, in full irritating sententious mode).

  3. Andrew McMasters on October 12, 2014 12:23 pm

    Viv – I’d love to talk you off line about this. I have a method I have been working on that might address some of these issues….
    Mary and I are on our honeymoon. How’s next week for you?

  4. Viv McWaters on October 12, 2014 3:23 pm

    Thanks @Amanda – I think the confusion about action-taking and decision making is rife. I’ve started testing agreements using sociometry – far more robust and visible.

    @Marc Agreed. And I think we ignore the margins at our peril 🙂

    @Andrew What are you doing reading blogs on your honeymoon!? Congratulations btw. I’m around next week and would love to chat. I’ll email you.

  5. Vanessa on October 14, 2014 9:03 am

    I agree. It’s unrealistic to expect every workshop or conversation to come to consensus or a neat and tidy end. But it’s often difficult to get funders to see that this is OK. As a facilitator, I endeavor to guide decision making that makes a real difference, but it’s difficult. I think it’s better for people to leave the session being affected and changed, rather than happy and dissatisfied.

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