Blog > Practical wisdom

January 3, 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.

Share post on social media: