Ten tips for facilitating emergent processes
“Traveler, there is no path.
The path is made by walking”
- Antonio Machado
Facilitating emergent group processes requires a different kind of facilitation. When you’re not working towards a pre-determined outcome, following a pre-designed agenda, the following principles are helpful to keep in mind:
1. Be congruent and trust the process
You need to be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty yourself — if you can’t trust an emergent process, how can you expect the people you are facilitating to trust it? Expect that some participants will become irritated and disruptive — most people are not comfortable with truly emergent processes. As facilitator you need to be able to contain this energy. It is much easier to take a group through a pre-designed agenda/content, or to work towards a known outcome. In an emergent processes, the facilitator does not play the role of expert, and is not “in control” of the outcome. This can be anxiety provoking. Befriending uncertainty is like muscle that needs to be exercised (and stretched) regularly! Personally I make sure I put myself in highly uncertain and ambiguous contexts as often as I can e.g. by attending Tavistock working conferences.
2. Create enabling constraints by setting and maintaining clear boundaries
When the group’s task is ambiguous (which is required for emergence), other psychological boundaries like space, time and role need to be held in order to create a sense of psychological safety for the group. If there are no clear boundaries, the space becomes too uncertain for anything coherent to emerge.
Maintain time boundaries: if you say a session will be 30 minutes long, stick to it or at least acknowledge if you do break it; maintain your role boundary as facilitator i.e. hold the space, don’t become a content expert or rescuer. If you create an alliance with the group, or set ground rules, make sure you observe them and hold the group accountable if they aren’t kept. If not, the group will not trust you or your process.
3. Keep instructions ambiguous
The discomfort the group experiences in ambiguity is part of disruption of entrained patterns that is required to enable emergent outcomes. Provide clear (but not overly detailed) process instructions, but be ambiguous about expected outcomes. Don’t give examples as that will immediately pattern the group. If you have no choice, give examples from other contexts. Also be aware that asking excessive questions or “not knowing what to do” is often a defense against the uncertainty; don’t collude with it.
4. Keep up the pace
Keep things moving at a pace where people don’t have time to overthink, analyze, complain, get bored, chat, etc. Give adequate breaks — this kind of work can be exhausting for a group. If possible allow for “reflective space” e.g. an overnight off-site workshop often leads to better outcomes as people have a chance to “sleep on it” before the final convergence happens.
5. Work with the “edges”
Emergence often happens “in our peripheral vision” so enable things to emerge on the edge of the group. To avoid overthinking and gamed outcomes, keep the group busy with one exercise while setting up the emergence of something else “on the side”. This is how we emerge archetypes — while small groups are busy with a given task we pull random people from the various groups and send them to a wall for a few minutes to do some clustering or contribute content, then rotate them back to their groups and ask them to send other members to the wall. This prevents the group from gaming or over-analysing the emergent outcome as no-one has visibility of the entire end-to-end process.
6. Play with similarities, constrasts & difference
Sometimes you may want to optimise small groups for group-think (i.e. make sure members are as similar as possible such as having sales sit at one table, marketing at another; or executives at one table and middle managers at another) then contrast or cross-polinate ideas between the tables. Other times optimise small groups for maximum diversity. It all depends on the purpose and context of the workshop.
7. Avoid premature convergence
Delay convergence (or solutions) as long as possible; remain in the ambiguity of the question space for as long as you can. For example constantly mix and remix group members; have small groups dissent or interact with each other, but avoid large group feedback until right at the end of the process.
If things seem to be settling too soon, disrupt. Move people between groups; do a round or two of ritual dissent; interrupt with a divergent exercise.
8. Treat the group like adults
Allow the groups some autonomy. For example, instead of the facilitator choosing which group members to send to another group, allow self-selection based on criteria e.g. choose the two people who have contributed the most and send them to another group. Instead of laying down “ground rules”, have the group co-create the “ground rules” or alliance for the day themselves. Also have them decide how they will keep themselves accountable. You don’t want to be cast in the role of the ground rule police … if they said for example “no cellphones” create a mechanism by which they will deal with rule breakers themselves.
9. Be present and work with what’s in the room.
Always be present and aware of the dynamics playing out in the room in the “here and now”. If there is a sudden shift in the atmosphere or “mood” in the room, work with it. If there is passive resistance, call it out and work with it. This enables you to build trust with the group and get rid of the unsaids that may be inhibiting the process. If something emerges in the group that takes you in an unexpected (but potentially useful direction) follow it. Don’t get stuck on the sequence you had in your head before you started the session— any pre-designed structure or process flow should just be a temporary scaffold.
10. Have a buddy
It always helps to have a co-facilitator. Someone that can tell you when you’re dominating or influencing the group; but also someone that can help contain and hold the space. The key to a process like this is the ability to turn the group’s anxiety (a natural response to the uncertainty and ambiguity) into creative energy. Don’t underestimate how much energy it takes from you as the facilitator to hold such a space and contain the tension.
Claudio did a Sketchnote of this post, I thought I’d add it here so that more people could appreciate it!