Blog > Facilitation Trends

February 22, 2009

One of the joys of facilitation is the opportunity to work across organisations and communities and observe similarities and differences. I’ve noticed that there are a lot more similarities, especially in the challenges and aspirations, than differences.

And I wondered what some of my friends and colleagues across the globe were noticing about facilitation, particularly the trends, and their hopes for facilitation in 2009.

So a big shout out to Bob Dick, Brisbane, Australia; Jo Nelson, Toronto, ICA Canada; Nancy White, Seattle, USA; Mark Butz, Canberra, Australia; Brian Bainbridge, Melbourne, Australia; Shawn Callahan, Melbourne, Australia; and Tree Bressen, Eugene, USA, for sharing their thoughts. We’d love to hear your thoughts too.

Here’s a wordle made from the responses to facilitation trends.

Facilitation Trends

Collectively we recognise the challenges of the current financial crisis, the pace of change, the complexity of the worlds we operate in and the challenge of sustainability. We also recognise that facilitators need to respond with doing our core work (enabling participation, allowing wisdom to emerge and encouraging partnerships and collaboration) as well as growing and developing ourselves. In various ways we fear that the current climate will enable the nay-sayers and control freaks to reclaim many of the advances made in facilitation over the last decades. I guess it’s up to all of us to be aware of this and respond appropriately.

Paying deep attention to attention – that’s a skill Nancy White thinks we will all need, especially during these economic hard times, and with our long to-do lists with more than can be done in any day (has she been peeking at my to-do list again?!). “We need to know how to best apply our attention as we interact with others. That’s something facilitation can help with.

“Enabling deeper attention may require a deeper understanding, and practice, of processes that open space for new thinking and innovation. It is clearly a time to get out of our ruts,” says Nancy who points us to Keith McCandless’s Liberating Structure.

And, of course, Nancy is a  master of connecting people and ideas and using on-line tools, so it is no surprise that she also believes that more use of on-line processes will be an emerging trend. She has a warning for all of us facilitators though: “I hope they think deeply about improving core practices, rather than moving dysfunctional processes online. This is opportunity, folks!”

Shawn Callahan’s passion is story. He believes that story can help us all make sense of the complexity we have to deal with, and maybe even pay more attention! More often than not, problems can’t be solved with a step 1, 2, 3 approach. And usually there’s no right answer either. So what to do? Shawn suggests that stories can be a trigger for deeper conversations and elicit insights. And a major trend for facilitators is using our skills to elicit stories compared with facts and opinion.

Shawn helpfully makes a distinction between ‘big S’ storytellers – who use structure and character and archetypes – and ‘small s’ storytellers who focus on anecdotes and experiences and half-told stories. Stories can be used to spark conversations, and facilitation can enable different emphasis and different uses of story, both ‘big S’ and ‘small s’ stories.

Fr Brian Bainbridge’s passion is self-organising systems. He believes that some of us are finally starting to get this, and that the top-down management approaches we’ve been trying for decades just don’t work – no matter how much we refine our processes! He is concerned that “some clients still expect facilitators will control the group and the outcome, that they will apply tried and tested processes which will be risk-free and comforting and non-threatening to the current processes and structures f the organisation.”

I must admit to seeing more of this recently and wonder if the global economic crisis and the increasing complexity we all have to deal with is causing some people to look for control and certainty wherever they can.

Brian also hopes that there will emerge (amongst facilitators) “a continuing awareness that change and changes will be ‘owned’ by the participants, that they will be recognised as self-organising, that organisations and groups will be more ready to cope with outside-the-square-thinking, which is actually already inside-the-group, but seldom allowed to emerge or be acted upon.”

Like Shawn and Brian, Bob Dick shares a passion for storytelling and complexity and understanding the dynamics of the changes we are currently experiencing. As well as the financial crisis, Bob thinks there may be other crises ‘waiting in the wings to pounce when we least expect them’.

And his fear is that these crises may allow “those who are autocratically minded will use the crisis to seize the reins more firmly. This will take us back to earlier and more controlling ways of operating.” Or, “people will realise that such a crisis responds well to cooperation and commitment, and these are skills that quality facilitation can help to provide.”

Mark Butz expects to see more attention given to participation as ‘a right, as a process and as a set of skills’ and that “the field of facilitation and its more capable practitioners are likely to be fundamental to seeing these processes to fruition – finding how the world can emerge from the current turmoil in a healthier and more sustainable place.”

Tree Bressen’s inspiration for her answers to my questions come from a discussion she had recently about faith, energy and spirit and some recent work with colleagues on ‘pattern language’ for group processes. It emerged from her conversations that “all of us (facilitators) relied in our work on tuning into energy or spirit or something like that. We acknowledged that although this is not often talked about among practitioners, and even more rarely discussed with students or clients, in fact our ability to work from and with this basis is central to our effectiveness.” Therefore, Tree hopes that facilitators will work to openly name what lies at the core of our work – whether that is love, energy, spirit or whatever else we perceive it as.

And as others have said in various ways, Tree also hopes we’ll “stand up for the life-centred values that called each of us into this work.” Hear, hear! That means avoiding using our skills in any ways that are manipulative or exploitive for the people involved.

And finally, Jo Nelson and her ICA Associates in Canada must have been thinking about the same questions. They did a workshop recently on trends that are affecting our facilitation business. You can see the full document here. It provides a good summary of what many of us are seeing in relation to the broader context of our work as facilitators: economic uncertainty. fear of job loss, competing pressure on governments, and strengthening civil society and short-term fixes versus long-term solutions. 

They also identify some of the key challenges and opportunities we facilitators face: providing high quality for less price, the need for full, complex processes, a higher value placed on partnerships and collaboration, and an increasing demand for on-line participation.

Another common theme across all the responses was the need for quality facilitation training. More about this in a follow-up post, as well as what differences we hope for facilitation in 2009.

Thanks again to you all for participating in my little research project on facilitation trends – contributors and readers – and let’s keep the conversation going.

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