Facilitating Breakthrough
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Facilitating Breakthrough

How to Remove Obstacles, Bridge Differences, and Move Forward Together  

Adam Kahane

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eBook - ePub

Facilitating Breakthrough

How to Remove Obstacles, Bridge Differences, and Move Forward Together  

Adam Kahane

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About This Book

A new approach to helping teams solve complex and stubborn problems from the acclaimed author of Collaborating with the Enemy. It's becoming less straightforward for people to move forward together. They face increasing complexity and decreasing control. They need to work with more people from across more divides. In such situations, the most common ways of advancing—some people telling others what to do, or everyone just doing what they think they need to—aren't adequate. One better way is through facilitating. But the most common approaches to facilitating—bossy vertical directing from above or collegial horizontal accompanying from alongside—also aren't adequate. They often leave the participants frustrated and yearning for breakthrough. This book describes a new approach: transformative facilitation. Instead of choosing the bossy vertical or collegial horizontal approach: It cycles back and forth between them. Rather than forcing or cajoling, the facilitator removes the obstacles that stand in the way of people contributing and connecting equitably, enabling them to bring their whole selves to the process. This book is for anyone who helps people work together to transform their situation, be it a professional facilitator, manager, consultant, coach, chairperson, organizer, mediator, stakeholder, or friend. It offers a broad and bold vision of the contribution that facilitation can make to helping people collaborate to make progress. Praise for Adam Kahane's books "Thought-provoking discourse on handling difficult situations." — Publishers Weekly "Profound... a wise way to negotiate our toughest group, community, and societal challenges."—William Ury, New York Times –bestselling coauthor of Getting to Yes

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Part 1

The Theory of Transformative Facilitation

Transformative facilitation is a powerful way to help a group of people collaborate to transform the situation they are facing. For example, a company-wide team launches a game-changing product. A committee of school board administrators, teachers, parents, and students pushes for policies to increase racial equity. A task force from across a global nonprofit reworks the organization’s operating norms in response to a series of management missteps. An alliance of health care organizations reorients its services to improve population health in its region. A group of politicians, businesspeople, and community leaders work together to reinvigorate their local economy.
My colleagues and I have employed transformative facilitation in all of these settings and others. We have learned that transformative facilitation is a powerful approach—not a conventional or straightforward one, but more effective at helping diverse groups achieve progress than these other approaches.
Transformative facilitation can be used in any group in any kind of organization, or across multiple organizations. It can be used to make progress on any kind of internal or external challenge the group is facing. It can be used by groups working all together in person, online, or asynchronously. And it can be used by anyone who wants to help the group do this, either from inside or outside the group.
Transformative facilitation is a way of supporting people to create change through collaborating with diverse others, rather than through forcing things to be the way only some people want them to be. It is an unconventional way in that it incorporates and goes beyond the two conventional ways that are opposite and in tension: the bossy vertical, directing from above to help the group as a whole achieve its objectives, and the collegial horizontal, accompanying from alongside to help each member of the group achieve their own objectives. It is also unconventional in that it focuses not on pushing the group to advance but on strategically and systematically removing the obstacles to its doing so.
Transformative facilitation is transformative in that it enables the group to break through the constraints of conventional ways of working and thereby to transform themselves and the situation they are dealing with.
The next five chapters explain how transformative facilitation works.


Facilitation Helps People Collaborate to Create Change

Facilitating is a way to help people move forward together that harnesses contribution, connection, and equity. There are, of course, other ways to help people move forward together. These range from fervently hoping to vigorously forcing, and many ways in between: encouraging, inspiring, rewarding, cajoling, manipulating, imposing. These other ways are sometimes effective.
Facilitating is necessary, however, when two conditions are met.


Facilitation is necessary when people both want to create change and want to collaborate to do so. When these two conditions are met, these people have energy to work together, and the facilitator doesn’t need to provide the energy to get them to move forward. The facilitator only needs to support them to use their own energy to move forward.

People Want to Create Change

The first condition is that people want to create change—in their team, in their organization, or in the world beyond their organization. This means that the situation they find themselves in is not the way they want it to be; they think that something is going wrong or could be going better. If this condition is not met—if people think that things are fine just as they are—then they can just carry on doing what they are doing, and facilitation is not necessary or effective. I once facilitated a group of civic leaders in Canada who were concerned about national political divisions, but when what they were coming to understand implied that they had to make some tough changes, the people for whom the status quo was working well enough lost energy for the project. A facilitated change process won’t go far if the participants don’t want their situation to change.
Sometimes the way people see their situation is that they simply have a problem, maybe easy or maybe difficult, that they need to solve. One example might be a project that is behind schedule and needs to be sped up. Other times they see themselves as facing a problematic situation: a situation that different people see as problematic from different perspectives and for different reasons, which they can work with and through but cannot neatly solve once and for all. An example might be a high death rate from opioids. In either case, however, this first condition is met if people face a challenge that they want to address.

People Want to Collaborate

The second condition is that people want to collaborate to address this challenge. This means that they don’t think they can (or they prefer not to) address this challenge on their own or by forcing others to come along. If this condition is not met—if people prefer to act unilaterally—then facilitation is not necessary or effective. I have been involved in trying to organize several collaborations that didn’t get off the ground because many of the people involved in the situation thought that they could be more successful at creating the change they wanted by acting on their own or just with their immediate colleagues, either because they were powerful or because they valued their autonomy. A facilitated change process won’t start or won’t go far if the necessary participants aren’t willing to work together.
Sometime collaborating is easy and fun, when the people involved look at things the same way and like and trust one another. This might be the case in a team of close colleagues. But often the people who need to collaborate to be able to address a given challenge have different positions, perspectives, and sources of power (these differences are one reason many situations are problematic rather than simply problems), and sometimes these others include people they don’t agree with or like or trust. An example might be an alliance of business or political rivals. In either case, however, this second condition is met if people think they need to work together with diverse others.


Facilitation is often necessary in organizations because these two conditions are often met: people in the organization want to create change, and they want to collaborate with their colleagues to do so. This is true in organizations of all types: small and large companies, educational and health care institutions, governmental and intergovernmental agencies, foundations, nonprofits, community associations, and others. So people in these organizations often need facilitation and facilitators.
I first started facilitating when I was an employee in the global planning department of Shell, the multinational energy company. Shell had oil, gas, coal, chemicals, and metals businesses in more than one hundred countries. Throughout the company, management teams faced problematic situations of all kinds, related to market conditions, government and community relations, human resources development, and other everyday and exceptional challenges. The culture of the company encouraged participation and debate, so these teams often held facilitated team meetings, workshops, and retreats to work out how to deal with these challenges. Usually the facilitators of these exercises were from within the same department, sometimes from another part of the company (such as the global planning department), and occasionally from universities or consulting companies.
An organization exists to bring people together to address the challenges that arise in achieving a particular mission. In many organizations, the default way of addressing such challenges is through forcing: the bosses decide what needs to happen and make that happen, whether or not their subordinates agree. Often people choose adapting: going along with things they don’t agree with because they don’t think they can change these things. Other times people choose exiting: quitting their jobs because they don’t like what’s happening, don’t think they can change it, and aren’t willing to live with it. But, in addition to these three unilateral options, people often also choose the multilateral option: collaborating within and across organizational teams and departments to get things done cooperatively and creatively. Facilitation is necessary when people want to collaborate to create change.
Facilitation can take many forms. People can collaborate in a one-hour meeting or a multiday workshop, in person or on a video conference, all together or with different individuals or groups doing different activities at different times in different places. Whatever the form, the role of the facilitator is to help the group connect and contribute more equitably, so as to create change more effectively.
At Reos, my colleagues and I facilitate in many kinds of organizations, always in partnership with managers and staff from within that organization. We helped managers in a chemicals company change their strategy to deal with new government regulations. We helped the staff of a hospital system reduce overcrowding. We helped the leaders of a foundation reprioritize their global activities in light of geopolitical shifts. In all these cases, facilitation was necessary because a diverse group faced a problematic situation and wanted to collaborate to change it.


Facilitation is often also necessary beyond organizations: in larger sectors, communities, and societies, which include multiple organizations of multiple types.
My first experience of facilitating in these settings was when I was still a Shell employee and was invited to facilitate a team of politicians, businesspeople, trade unionists, community activists, and academics in South Africa who wanted to use the Shell scenario planning methodology to think through the transition from apartheid to democracy. (This was the Mont Fleur scenario exercise, which I discuss in chapter 6.) South Africans have a rich history of employing different kinds of facilitation, in contexts ranging from traditional lekgotlas (a Sesotho word for village assemblies) to mass political movements, high-stakes union–management negotiations, and corporate bosberaads (an Afrikaans word for meetings held in the bush or on a game farm). I learned a lot of what I know about facilitation from South Africans.
Facilitating beyond organizations is less straightforward than within organizations because participants across larger social systems are more diverse and see their situations as problematic in more different ways. Such situations by definition inc...

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