Origins of Process-Based Facilitation

Process-based facilitation is, in a way, an approach to the intentional design of a facilitation event. However, even in an ad-hoc event the process-based facilitator uses the models, concepts, frameworks and process-based structures in much the same way. However, I am getting ahead of myself.

Back as early as 1983 I was introduced to the concept of facilitation in meetings held at the Fleet ASW Training Center in San Diego, CA. My senior chief actually did a very credible job of using facilitation for the first time in a training staff meeting.

I next experienced it almost 10 years later when I was at Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA HQ) in Arlington, VA during the Navy’s Total Quality Leadership fad. I call it a fad because of the haphazard implementation many flag and senior officers gave it. Unfortunately, it never got all the way down to the rank and file civilian workers, junior officers or deck plate personnel before the next few fads came along and distracted the leaders attention. Yet, during that period I got a rough introduction to becoming a group facilitator.

The NAVSEA HQ Director of Quality, Donna Tierney, suggested that I start learning about TQL by taking the first course available, which was the Advanced Facilitation class held the following week. I later went back and took the Basic Facilitation Class. Unfortunately, neither provided the background theory or underpinning structures and I was left wanting.

Over several years I attended a dozen classes offered by a variety of organizations. Many of these classes were basic facilitation classes. I also acquired a rather large library on quality, facilitation, effective meetings and other Organization Development related books.

In taking the classes and reading the books I was looking for a model of facilitation that reflected what really happened in facilitation. In facilitation I saw a process that was, consistently, never the same. And no matter how hard I looked I could not find a model that reflected the facilitation process. The models I found were over simplified boxes that didn’t reflect a process. The closest model I found simply reflected the use of a few tools and techniques.

Among the many courses I took was the Effective Facilitator by Leadership Strategies. I felt that this was the first purely facilitation based course I had actually ever taken. Others taught me how to facilitate a planning session, problem solving or quality group. I learned a lot from this course but I experienced a breakthrough in the form of the structure of their model. Oh, their course was just like all the others in that they taught techniques, not a process. Yet, I believe that Michael Wilkinson in developing the model he used, instinctively understood that it encompassed a process but either didn’t go far enough to uncover it or simply focused his energies on techniques because that was how he learned facilitation. What grasped my attention was how he used a structure within the model to show repetitive techniques. I thought, if they can do this for techniques couldn’t I show a repetitive process in much the same way.

During this period I partnered with Charles D. Markert, PE, MPA, CPF and formed the Center of Excellence and Leadership in Facilitation or CELF. We later changed the business structure and renamed the business the Dynamic Leadership Consulting Group, DLCG. But Charlie and I worked together on parts of this for several years.

The issue now was to identify the proper steps of a repetitive process through which all facilitated events could be tracked. Or more to the point, present the minimum number of broad steps used in facilitation. So I needed a system that reflected the most basic process, that also reflected the work and language of facilitation and worked for all the things facilitators did with group. It is from this that four things were explored:

Chaos Theory – This concept teaches us about how systems in nature operate. It teaches us that systems are made up of repeatable patterns on multiple layers. In examining a process-based approach to facilitation the model I ended up with would need to reflect this natural pattern to be valid. So this was in the back of my mind throughout the development process.

Plan, Do Study Act Cycle – PDSA was originally designed by Dr. Walter Shewhart and made popular and updated by Dr. W. Edwards Deming in the 1980’s. It was my belief that the PDSA represented the simplest of systems and processes. It was some form of these four steps that the model of process-based facilitation needed to reflect. However, it was tied to the quality movement and didn’t make sense in the language of group facilitation.

Dynamics of Group Decision Making (Divergence and Convergence Model) – In searching for the root language of facilitation we turned to the work of Sam Kaner. The concept we used in transforming the PDSA into a facilitation-based model was that of the Dynamics of Group Decision Making found in “Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making”. Kaners’ concept, known as Divergence and Convergence, tells us that Facilitators helped groups diverge, by gathering data, on an issue and then converge, in processing the information, to generate understanding. We knew that these two steps must somehow be included in the four steps of our process represented by the PDSA. So we asked how would we describe divergence and convergence in a simplified way? What resulted was Gathering Data and Process Information.

Divergence and Convergence of the Dynamics of Group Decision Making.

Divergence and Convergence of the Dynamics of Group Decision Making.

The result of the PDSA transformed into our Agenda Activity Cycle (A2C) is described as:

¨      Plan: relates to Step 3, Focusing the Group. In this step we pull the team together and review the path we have been on, share the next branch of the path, and tell them about the destination. The facilitator provides detailed instructions, if needed, and gets the group to work. This Step is the application of the preparations done during Step 1.

¨      Do: relates to Step 4, Gathering Data. This step builds the base of information that the entire activity cycle works with. It is common for a group process to include, potentially, several data gathering activities before the team moves on to analysis steps. This is called “Divergence”. In it the group identifies, generates, and gathers data. We call what they gather data because we purposefully avoid analysis during this step. As the group enters this step they are all at different levels of readiness to do the work. Many are already past this point and ready to take action. But the facilitator needs to slow the action focus of the few to allow the others to catch up and the action-focused individuals to gather some data to inform their intent.

¨      Study: relates to Step 5, Process Information. This step involves the discussion and manipulation of the data for the purposes of understanding the relations and implications it has on the issue under study. We call this “Convergence.” In this step we generate an understanding of what the data means. We differentiate, integrate, narrow our thinking and converge on the right meaning to inform the action(s) we choose to take.

¨      Act: relates to Step 6, Decide. This step may require a significant decision by the group, a recommendation for others to take action, or at times, a decision to not make a decision, just a simple acceptance of the work and what it may teach us.

We display the Agenda Activity Cycle or A2C in our Facilitation Model as illustrated here.

The A2C is a cycle that is repetitive on several levels. At the highest level it reflects a significant portion of the facilitation process, at a mid-level it represents the overall design of an event, and at the lowest level it represents each activity of the agenda. In this way, I believe the A2C reflects the application of Chaos Theory.

In the next article I’ll take a look at and discuss the entire Process-Based Facilitation Model.

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