Complex facilitation thoughts

Yesterday I facilitated a big Lessons Learned event in Bolton as part of my work with Argent-Europ.

Because I had additional in-house facilitators assisting in the groups I found I could be the perfect ‘complex consultant’, completely contextually free, as I was trained all those years ago by Dave Snowden, Tony Mobbs and the original Cynefin Team.

I really do think that creating the starting conditions of a complex system at an event like this pays huge dividends:

  • Allowing self organisation of the groups,
  • Never ‘leading the witness’ so that all insights are from within not from the ‘wise’ consultant.
  • Setting up just enough structure that themes and insights can emerge from the material.
  • Using hexagons so that the material is visually ‘organic’.
  • Example stories that set the pattern for storytelling but are not contextually related to the subject being discussed.
  • Flexibility on timing and order of events so that the order of the day grows from the energy and involvement of the participants.
  • Maximising local interactions.
  • The inherent inclusivity of these methods which allows everyone an equal voice or at the very least a free choice as to whether to participate.

Standing back allowed me to see some interesting patterns and behaviours that I had never before been aware of:

The two anecdote circles had completely different dynamics, one group was boisterous, challenging and generated fewer anecdotes, the other was quiet, thoughtful and built up a table full of rich and varied material. Both, of course, were ‘just right’ for that particular group. The importance of these Cognitive Edge methods being ambiguous in their instruction and only gently nurturing positive behaviour and damping the negative means that they fit the group whatever its constitution and overall behaviour.

One of the participants pointed out that the future backwards was top heavy in the near past as the further back they went the less they could remember and the less likely anyone present was around then. He then brilliantly self-realised that this storytelling approach should be a regular occurrence not just a final project tick in the box for a required review.

I completely miss-explained ‘maximising the differences’ for the future backwards group (in order to show differing perspectives), leading everyone to expect a varied membership not the ‘work unit’ separation we had planned.

I had a real tumbleweed moment at the start with my normal attempt to self-depreciate make fun of my hair and beard. This also began with my cynefin training when Dave advised us that consultants who stand up and list their PHDs are doomed to fail, whereas some early self-depreciating humour sets you out as, just like them, one of the good guys. Well, I just looked out and saw not a glimmer of a smile and thought this was to be the most challenging day of my life.

A couple of hours in, a few hundred hexagons sharpied and I started to get through. Before lunch I got a huge laugh about “oxytocin production during orgasm” and then finally an inadvertent slip up about mirror neurones almost got me a standing ovation. I often make the football analogy that watching Wayne Rooney score causes the neurones of every fan to fire identically to his, as if they were in his shoes, but of course “that hasn’t happened in a long time”.

In our ‘post match review’ we discussed the merits of simply generating the anecdotes on the day for participants to remember, against the capture and subsequent accessibility/re-use of the anecdotes by others in the Organisation. Here lies the essence of scalability of this approach which of course SenseMaker is designed to handle and whether the recording, transcription and availability of the anecdotes justifies the additional effort/expense.


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