Of ‘healthy human systems’ beyond ‘the field’ and facilitating conversations that change the world: an interview with Sam Kaner and Nelli Noakes


Wearing my 'Suspend your judgment' suspenders provided by Community at Work (Credits: EIB)

Wearing my ‘Suspend your judgment’ suspenders provided by Community at Work (Credits: EIB)

I can gladly say I am now one of the 4500 or so people that have been privileged to be formally trained by Sam Kaner and Nelli Noakes of Community at work on ‘Group facilitation skills – Putting participatory values into practice’. And it was a hell of an experience!

So what a fantastic opportunity for me to interview them on what they see as ‘facilitation’ and how they see it evolve, as well as the connections they see with knowledge management. 

No more word from me now, just enjoy… 

Do you see some fundamental trends in facilitation practice over the recent past?

Sam Kaner (SK) When “group facilitation” originated, it was one component in a deeper insight about the powerful role of face-to-face groups as a transformative medium for changing the culture of the organization or community.  The skills of facilitation were aimed at strengthening the individuals in a group, by helping everyone participate more fully, and by helping people pay more attention to alternative points of view and become capable of understanding one another.  These strengthened capabilities, in turn, allow the individuals to operate as a high-functioning group, or team, that can share responsibility, develop inclusive solutions, and reach sustainable agreements that accrue large benefits over time. Thus, group facilitation was part of a larger, deeper system — the operational aspect of a philosophy of empowerment.

When these ideas were introduced to mainstream organizations from the late 1960s through 1980s, the skills of facilitation were impressively effective but entirely mysterious, and the arrival of a neutral third party into a work context was perceived as somewhat magical, not as a learnable discipline.

Then, as participatory groups, with facilitators, became clearly more productive than non-facilitated groups, interest in the role itself became steadily greater.  More and more people have wanted to be trained in the tools and techniques of facilitation, even as the role has been to some extent divorced from the core philosophy.   Thus, in the past 15 years or so, many training programs have developed to cater to people who believe that tools and techniques are the essence of facilitation, and its goal is “effective meetings.”

This trend bothers me quite a bit. I would be excited if these two currents — the original focus on philosophy, and the more recent focus on method — were being integrated, in teaching and in practice. But over the past several years, I have been witnessing the emergence of a rather slavish adherence to tools and technique aimed at “getting things done,” while the goals of participatory values, which aim at building stronger people, stronger groups, and stronger thinking, have been to some extent eclipsed. In our own workshops, (and in our writing) we go out of our way to address this predicament. Not by preaching about it (as I’m doing in this interview) but by linking the many facilitation skills we teach to the inclusive, “both/and” principles on which collaborative aspirations are grounded.

Nelli Noakes (NN) I’ve observed other trends in other parts of the world. I agree with Sam on the way training is packaged, and often the very practice of facilitation follows this same scheme.  We have all seen facilitators flown into organizations, especially located in developing countries, arriving with a bag of tricks but not actually focused on supporting long-term change.  Even so, there are also many thinkers and practitioners reaching for progressive new ideas, both in North America and in the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) around the world.  My own observation, as a past regional director of IAF Oceania, is that other regions outside of North America are not yet so commodified.  Among practitioners internationally, there’s more optimism that the involvement of facilitation can be a lever — both for culture change in specific organizations and for social change more broadly Thus, in my view this more aspirational perspective — that facilitation is a vehicle to help people to work together for serious gains — rubs up against, and co-exists with, the commodified, ‘packaged’ approach to facilitation that Sam has mentioned.

Do you have any idea where it is headed (as a field of practice) and where is your personal interest (your ‘next frontier’) when it comes to facilitation?

(SK) Yes, and this is where my own thinking overlaps with what Nelli just said.

In my observation, there is still plenty of genuine new thinking about the power of collaboration, but this thinking no longer appears in books with titles that focus on facilitation per se.  For example, Roger Schwatz’s current book is titled, Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams.  For new insight now, I follow the work of such organizations as the “National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation” (NCDD), the “Collective Impact Forum” and the “Stanford Social Innovation Review.”  To be sure, the new thinking and applications such as cross-sector collaboration, participatory budgeting, innovation platforms, etc. all respect the need to employ good facilitation skills as a necessary element for productive outcomes.  But these thinkers perceive  facilitation not as a field but as a skill-set and a value-set for social change.  If we consider the possibility that the real field of work, the real body of thought, is social change (or as we have been calling it since the 1990s “supporting and promoting healthy human systems”) then the skills of facilitation, take their place alongside those of coaching, project management mediation, virtual communication, negotiation, problem-solving and other important third party, process-oriented skill-sets that are necessary to enable diverse collections of people to collaborate effectively.

Incidentally, to round out your question, there is another trend that has been increasing exponentially in the past 15 years or so:  Facilitative leadership.

Within many organizations, there is a great deal of interest by managers around the world who engaged in cross-functional planning and problem-solving. It has definitely become a focus of much training, and our consulting firm has defined our own approach, through training and coaching, to support people who are not neutral third parties to develop a collaborative mindset and acquire skills that can enable their effectiveness. That said, it’s hard to predict how long this trend will endure. Our experience is that the participants in our facilitative leadership programs are intrigued by the new skills and happy when they leave a workshop after a few days, but very few of them are gung-ho participatory philosophers. Most are agnostic on the issue of whether or not collaboration is worthy; it comes down to a question of whether the skill set is suitable for meeting a particular objective. So we think it remains to be seen whether the introduction of facilitation skills into corporate culture, government culture, university culture, NGO culture, will change management theory and practice over time, or whether it will become one more trendy fad, like sensitivity training, that lasts for several years and then runs its course.

To be a facilitator... (Credits: Unclear)

To be a facilitator… (Credits: Unclear)

Do you see any connection between facilitation and knowledge management and if so, where/how?

(NN) Effective knowledge management comes from being able to see a whole system, being able to actively engage players at all levels in that system, and making sense of the data that one can draw from throughout the system. I see two key areas where skilled facilitators can support organisations in this.

The first is through encouraging full participation – giving voice to the knowledge present at all levels of an organization, not just that which comes from the most powerful, or most vocal, or most confident in a system. And as that supports people to become more confident about speaking up, the pool of available data to contribute to organizational knowledge grows.

The second is through supporting people with diverse perspectives in an organisation to better understand each other – to be open and curious about the way information transforms into knowledge differently as it filters through people’s different lenses of experience. By this I mean that people don’t just hear other people’s points of view and think “Oh, that’s nice, Jim has a different thought about that than I do because we have different history and experience”. Rather, that they take it to another level of analysis and go “Oh, so Jim sees it like this and Mary sees it like that and I see it this other way – so what does it mean when I put those pieces together? How do those things connect in a way that tells me something meaningful about our organization?”.

In my ten years working in government agencies, I saw several knowledge management efforts that involve one or two people sending out surveys, logging the results and storing them in an online repository that functions like a data base if anyone wants to go look up something. This seems like such a lost opportunity to me. In a facilitated environment, people develop the thinking skills to put the pieces together themselves, so that knowledge management becomes accessible to, and the responsibility of, all players in a system. This makes it more likely that people will want to use the stored data later, and it also makes it vastly more likely that people will want to update their information as knowledge changes and grows.

Are you involved in virtual facilitation and what do you see as challenges and opportunities with facilitating virtually?

(SK) My colleague and co-author Lenny Lind was one the pioneers in the development of virtual facilitation skills.  Beginning in the early 1990’s he and his team at CoVision developed a platform called Council, built for huge face-to-face meetings where 100 to 10,000 participants came together to communicate in real time, using laptops to promote interaction.  So for example, an executive might stand up in front of the group and give a talk, using slides to emphasize certain points, and everyone would listen just as in a normal large meeting.  But then, as soon as the talking points are covered, the participants talk briefly to their colleagues at their tables and then start typing in their thoughts, reactions, questions, etc, into their laptops.  Then using any one of a number of methods the comments are sorted into themes, some of which are immediately focused on and some of which are deferred. The activity then continues, back and forth between face to face conversation in small groups, and large group inputting and responding. The meeting can last anywhere from an hour or two hours to an entire day or two, all depending on the agenda and its objectives.

Here is the important point: Even though the activity was done in the same room at the same time, much of the information was transmitted virtually and the meeting facilitator had to develop a lot of the skills that virtual facilitators take for granted nowadays. In fact, the software that runs Council was rewritten in the early 2000’s so that it could be used entirely by people who communicated virtually, not necessarily in the same room at the same time. So the virtual facilitation skills became even more central at that point.

I was privileged to facilitate about a dozen Council meetings over a period of ten years, so I learned at first hand the realities of what happens when a virtual-meeting facilitator makes good moves and not-so-good moves in the management of people who are writing comments to people who cannot see the faces or in some cases hear the voices of each other.

This leads to my core point: Lenny learned early that virtual communication is good for certain things but that it augments, not replaces, face to face communication. For example, people can express certain points that are controversial when they do so anonymously. But it is well known that quite often a person’s first pass at expressing something emotional is transformed through the process of discussing it in the context of a genuine, caring relationship. Virtual meetings are great for brainstorming, great for gathering and sorting and getting reactions to information, and they are truly amazing for increasing the number of people who can become engaged in an issue. A phenomenon like this very blog, not to mention the gigantically influential forms of communication such as YouTube and Facebook, are clear evidence of the power of virtual communication to make change in the world. At the same time, the transformative potential of face-to-face struggle — where people develop authentic empathy and compassion not just intellectually broadened perspective — still remains as a substantial component of lasting change. Lenny and his co-author Karl Danskin develop their own views on this in their brand new book, Virtuous Meetings (2104) available from Wiley & Sons.

Where do you go fetch interesting new resources and ideas for your own facilitation practice?

(NN) One of the things I love about working in the field of human systems is that the learning never stops! I have three main areas where I go to develop my own facilitation skills.

  1. The first, and most narrowly specific to my own work, is working with feedback from my clients. We have a strong continuous improvement philosophy at Community At Work, so listening to my clients about what’s working and what’s not working for them gives me ideas about how to strengthen my approach.
  2. Second is having a network of peers to debrief with and learn from. Working with Sam and the rest of our team provides a endless reservoir and insight and experience from which to draw learning, as well as thinking partners with whom to test new ideas. I also have a lot of friends who work in the same field as I so, so an evening or weekend walk, or a quiet drink on a Friday night often doubles as a knowledge-sharing experience!
  3. Third, I read stuff! But not usually books or articles specifically on facilitation. I’m more interested these days in material on organizational development, collaborative practices, knowledge management and board governance.

And I’m hoping I’ll soon have a fourth main area to add to this list. We’ve recently started a Community At Work Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/CommunityAtWorkSF?ref=aymt_homepage_panel for members of our community to share their thinking and ideas. We’re hoping that will soon grow into a vibrant resource for us and others involved in this field.

(SK) Earlier in our conversation, I mentioned NCDD; Collective Impact Forum; Stanford Social Innovation Review. Another really excellent one is Skoll World Forum http://skollworldforum.org. These four have such terrific reach that they point me to other, different sources of ideas all the time.  For those wanting a mainstream professional organization that tries to stay current, I would recommend Organization Development Network (founded in the 1950’s).

Nelli Noakes, Sam Kaner and ILRI staff (Credits: ILRI)

Nelli Noakes, Sam Kaner and ILRI staff (Credits: ILRI)

What would be your advice for starting facilitators?

(NN) When I first fell into facilitating, I had very limited knowledge or practice, and knew almost no-one else who worked in the field.

So the first thing I did was read as many books on the subject as I could find, and then attended some training courses. Then I started persuading groups to let me facilitate their meetings for free. Fortunately, the groups I volunteered with knew even less about it than I did, so they appreciated the order I brought to their previous chaos more than they saw the many errors I made! And I was able to start to get some real experience in seeing what worked and didn’t.

The next thing I did was start to build a network of people who also worked in the field, so we could start to learn from each other. I joined the International Association of Facilitators and the International Association of Public Participation (both of which have a much more active presence in Australia than in North America) and started attending their events, all of which exposed me to many different perspectives.

Those two elements – volunteering and building a network – proved to be invaluable many years later when I started my own consulting firm. I had a lot of people who were willing to vouch for me. To this day, most of my business comes from word-of-mouth recommendations.

My most important piece of advice for starting facilitators (apart from attending our Group Facilitation Skills workshop, of course!), is to become not just comfortable with receiving feedback, but to actively seek it at every possibility. Learn to value it as the most important factor in your own continuous improvement process. (A good place to start exploring how to receive feedback well is Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen)

(SK) Over the decades I have had a lot of chance to watch people get started, and I have come to believe that two ways are especially powerful:

1.    Volunteer.  For example, volunteer to facilitate a meeting at a small nonprofit organization, or at your church, or at your child’s school. In these situations you can’t lose — these community contexts places are so funky that anything you can do will be an improvement. You can see changes happen. Often, if you are secure in your own workplace, a staff meeting or the meeting to start a new project is equally good. Whichever context you choose, just be sure to make this deal at the beginning, before you start: you are willing to volunteer your time for no financial remuneration, but you would like to be “paid” with 5 minutes (or more) of good feedback on your strengths and ‘improvables’ at the end of the meeting.

2.    Find a peer support group.  Having a face-to-face group touching base every two weeks or so is a priceless experience. I have personally witnessed the results, over the years, when people who were raw rookies in facilitation went on to be successful consultants who then built their own long-term independent consulting firms, because they built so much confidence in the early years. In the ILAC years before the creation of the consortium, CGIAR as an entity attempted to maintain a network of people who had earned judgment suspenders. It became an online ‘D-group’. At that point, it became an information-sharing group which ultimately did not have the same dynamism as a face to face support group.

2 thoughts on “Of ‘healthy human systems’ beyond ‘the field’ and facilitating conversations that change the world: an interview with Sam Kaner and Nelli Noakes

  1. Pingback: 10 advices to dramatically improve your un-facilitated meetings… | agilefacil

  2. Pingback: Cultivate your feedback culture | nods & dots

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