Blog > How do I know what to do?

September 9, 2010

Indeed! How do any of us EVER know what to do? This question was in relation to facilitation. “How do I know what process to use?” I must admit I don’t know. I do know that if you only know one, or a handful, of processes – that’s what you will do. And if you only focus on processes you’ll miss a whole lot of opportunities.

I was reminded of this by J on his excellent Tales from the Hood blog which explores the intricacies of humanitarian aid.

To a hammer, every problem in the world is a nail. And in the same way, food security experts, not surprisingly, see food as the key issue facing any impoverished community. And you can see their point: without food, people eventually die. That’s not analytical bias, that’s an objective reality. Community health experts will make a similar argument for health: without at least rudimentary health measures in places, populations eventually succumb to infections and contaminations of various kinds. Unattended long enough, they too eventually die. Shelter experts make a similar point about people left too long at the mercy of the natural elements. Economists tend to articulate priorities in terms of the flow and balance of resources between those who have them and those who need them. Capitalists and entrepreneurs see loans and businesses and profit margins as solutions to problems. And on it goes.

Similarly, facilitators are wont to default to their (our) favourite processes: Appreciative Inquiry, Technology of Participation, Open Space Technology, World Cafe, Future Search. And on it goes.

There is nothing wrong with any of these processes. Or in using them. I’m known to prefer Open Space more often than not. And I’m also prone to draw on improv – not so much a process, as a suite of principles and practices, and of a way of behaving and responding.

I’m reminded of the description of improvising that seems to make sense, even outside of improv theatre itself: improvising means combining your existing knowledge and skills with the resources available at the time. There’s two keys to this. You have to invest the time and energy to develop those skills and to have the knowledge to draw on. And you have to notice that there are resources available.

These resources vary enormously. There’s the group itself – often the size of the group and the space available dictates what’s possible; there’s individuals in the group – a great mass of untapped potential, often ignored because a process has already been determined, and someone needs to be ‘in charge’. A simple invitation can elicit all sorts of ideas from the group. And in the best tradition of ‘yes,and…’ acknowledgement doesn’t presume agreement, so I can honour all contributions without having to turn a one-day gig into a three-day gig just to do all the processes and activities suggested.

Then there’s nature. Tricky if you are in the bowles of a hotel in the centre of some metropolis, but for all other times, there’s usually some access to the outdoors and nature which provides an enormous inspiration. The simple act of moving a group to a new space can enliven their senses and engagement.

Despite all of my best efforts, clients still often insist on bringing in an expert or some other notable person to do a presentation – to provide valuable, in their eyes, background information. Sometimes it is valuable, often the presentations suck, occasionally it’s a revelation. No matter – these presentations are also a resource. I’ll often change the process to follow a presentation once I see and hear what’s being offered. Even if I see the presentation in advance, I can’t know what the mood of the group will be during and after and can’t know how well or otherwise the presenter will engage with the group. It all happens in the moment.

And of course there is intuition – just a gut feel that maybe, just maybe, THIS is what’s needed. May or may not be – and here’s the rub, we can’t know before we try. We can’t be sure that this approach will produce this outcome. All we can do, as facilitators, is open space, provide opportunities and encourage exploration.

The question that some clients ask about guaranteeing a certain outcome is rooted, I think, in fear of uncertainty and a loss of status amongst colleagues that they don’t know what they’re doing. I’ve seen this a lot – pre-determined outcomes, the client has ‘solved’ the problem, written the strategy, come up with a way forward, knows the risks and priorities and wants a workshop to reinforce/justify/acknowledge what’s already been decided. It’s safe and it’s unremarkable.. Nobody gets hurt and at best people leave satisfied, or at worst feeling frustrated. Par for the course in many organisations it seems. Tick. Job’s done.

It’s way more riskier to enter a room full of people not knowing what’s going to happen, to be open to possibility and surprise. Yet still, at best people leave satisfied, or at worst feeling frustrated. But for different reasons. The frustration caused by uncertainty and struggle to find meaning I can live with. The frustration caused by a vague sense of being conned and inability to affect the outcome is a huge loss of opportunity, and ultimately a waste of everyone’s time.

So where does this leave facilitators? It leaves us continuously improving our capacity to notice, without judging, what’s going on with a group. It leaves us to explore different ways of engaging individuals and groups. It leaves us to play with ideas and concepts – and to, hopefully, find great clients who will allow us to experiment. It leaves us with even more reasons to work together, to co-facilitate. And it leaves us, when all else is stripped back,  to trust ourselves.

How do I know what to do? I don’t. But I trust myself to know what to do when I need to know.

Cartoon credit: Simon Kneebone

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