The facilitation contradiction

At the end of a workshop the ideal outcome is excitement, motivation and commitment towards the actions identified. My personal (greatly Cognitive Edge influenced) preferred approach to facilitation is to stay out of the context as much as possible.

The thinking behind this is that if the groups self-organise themselves around what they feel passionate about, self-reveal any insights, issues or ideas they might have, and then self-realise the sense to be made around these, then they will avoid the natural reaction to being led towards a pre-conceived outcome, and the ownership of the outputs will be complete.

Or so I thought until now. At a couple of recent workshops I have been left with most, if not all of the interim stage outputs, the piles of future backwards hexagons, the masses of emergent themed anecdote circle material and sheets and sheets of river diagrams, cynefin frameworks and message maps.

I fear that the issue of ownership goes further than the ideas, action planning and sensemaking of the workshop. For true ownership they need to also facilitate the workshop themselves. The process of facilitating a workshop internally gives the total feeling of control, no matter how friendly, involving and professional the external facilitator can be. In hindsight I now remember this feeling acutely when, as I worked in English Nature, we would proudly run participatory narrative workshops and feel a true sense of accomplishment that it was a totally, English Nature outcome. Problems, solutions, actions and facilitation.

There are however (I now genuinely believe) massive benefits from bringing in an independent external facilitator who spends all their time perfecting workshop methods, is alert to the energy levels, involvement issues, alternatives and options at every step of the process, likely session timings, flow of outputs into subsequent activities and many more unpredictable barriers.

In TRIZ terms this sets up a contradiction. How can a group ‘own’ the facilitation but ‘not own’ the facilitator in order to get the best outcome possible.

I don’t know the answer. In my work with both Oxford Creativity and Argenta Europ, I help develop facilitators via experiential learning with the intent that they will be self-sufficient in their own organisation, but what about the big, expensive, high profile, must succeed challenge or ‘Wicked problem’ that inevitably arises. Then what about the broader, interdisciplinary, merger, conference events where directive facilitation with a potential stake in the outcome, might be disruptive, distrusted and even damaging.

I guess the approach should be appropriate to the challenge and the circumstances and for this I would recommend a good scoping study prior to the event followed by a rigorous double loop lessons learned review afterwards.



  1. What people are going to take with them and use are the conversations they had. If these were deep and serious, then things will stick. So, the problem owner needs to hear people telling stories with sincerity (another thing wrong with someone representing a group post-its). Participants will walk out with new language, new system viewpoints. The facilitator is doing the barn dance calling to make those conversations happen with enough time, space and energy. (As we know, it is NOT the job of the faciltator to be writing on the flip chart and giving their twopennorth).
    Yes, not going to happen without planning, and a smart organisation will really gain from the double loop learning.

    • Thanks Brian,
      I particularly like the concept of ‘deep and serious’ conversations and ‘telling stories with sincerity’. I think you are right, the post-its are the last things I should want them to own. Perhaps to leave without realising you have changed is the most powerful outcome of all.
      Cheers, Ron

    • Thanks Ivan,
      A quick scan of information on both of these shows they are definitely in the right field and have already given me some good leads. I am initially more cautious about ‘Solution Focus’ as it has a tinge of ‘appreciative inquiry’ but hey I am open to any ideas that make facilitation more interesting and effective.
      Cheers, Ron

      • Hi Mark
        I once ran a great appreciative inquiry workshop and was picked up shortly after by Dave Snowden as ‘happy clappy’ to add to his ‘techno fetishist – fluffy bunny’ range of other people’s methodologies.
        My reservations lie with the idea that it recommends ignoring the negative. Both Cognitive Edge and TRIZ benefit from an understanding of the whole system including the negative, eg build on the’ learning from mistakes’ and looking at ‘resolving harms’ respectively. Don’t get me wrong I appreciate the psychological benefits of positivity just not to the detriment of experiential learning.
        Cheer, Ron

  2. If you google ”a comparison of AI and SF“ as I just did, you should find this:

    A Comparison of Appreciative Inquiry and Solutions Focus
    SF recognises the emergent nature of behaviour in complex systems and helps ….. COMPARISON OF Ai AND SF/ V1.5 9 By Kendy Rossi, Tricia Lustig & Mark McKergow

    which will assist…

    Happy reading,
    Arthur Battram

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