One secret to good facilitation design: work with maps not tools


A design for a recent workshop, based on Theory U.

Three years ago, I spent some time reflecting on the principles that underly my work in an effort to describe authentic facilitation practice. Lately I have revisited this question because I have been asked to design and deliver several facilitation training workshops and I have found myself wanting to go deeply into the core of facilitation practice, rather than focusing on tips and tricks. As a result, I have been reflecting a lot on what is at the core of my practice: how to I design and then sit in the flow of a group’s process in a way that can be useful to the group’s needs?

Thanks in large part to some prodding by my friend Ashley Cooper, who asked me something about how I do what I do, I have been thinking about this question in detail over the past couple of weeks and I’m reaching the following conclusion: I work primarily with maps, and secondarily with tools.

When I first began facilitating groups, I started collecting exercises and methodologies and practices that help groups do certain things. This “toolkit” seemed to be essential to my practice. In truth, these tools are important, but it didn’t take long to realize that tools themselves are not all that is required to do good group work. I learned that you have to have a few other things as well, including a basic underlying theory and some maps that seem to help us transect the terroitory between where we are and where we want to go.

My basic underlying approach to facilitation is rooted in these assumptions:

  • The wisdom we need right now is in the room.
  • Facilitation is not a directive practice, but rather a practice of creating and holding a container for the group’s wisdom to emerge.
  • To get to truly creative solutions we must invite chaos and order to play together.
  • Leadership is about inviting passion and responsibility into the process and supporting connections for action.
  • The process serves the group and needs to be carefully planned but should remain totally invisible.
  • Co-creation is the best way to get to wise action
  • Process and content are equally important.
  • For a system or a group to function well it needs to be learning from its experience.
  • Groups are living systems, not mechanical systems.
  • All good work done in the world depends on good collaboration. Good work therefore is about both quality content and quality process.

I also have an assumption that any group I am working with is trying to get to “better” whether that means a better set of services, a better product, better relations, better work. This is an important assumption, and it is the basis for my utilizing an appreciative worldview in general, a worldview that seeks to build on what works rather than remain stuck in problem solving.

Once you have a handle on your worldview, it becomes very useful to have a map to understand the journey that any group is on. Over the years I have worked with many maps, using them for different reasons. Some of my current favourites include:

  • Sam Kaner et. al.’s Diamond of Participation for groups that are moving from a question to emergent insight or learning.
  • Otto Scarmer’s Theory U for working with groups who are trying to lead from the emerging future.
  • The emergence of the inviting organization, Michael Herman’s take on Ken Wilber’s integral quadrants to chart how action emerges from purpose using invitation as a carrier.
  • Appreciative process design through the four-D cycle of apprecitive inquiry.
  • Chaordic stepping stones, a take on the chaordic lenses for designing organizational structures that are as light as they have to be to work in a complex world.
  • The five breaths of large scale change, a map that helps us find our way through large scale projects.

Most of these I have integrated in a “mother map” which links together several of these maps, even as I continue to use them each more specifically for designing precise meetings.

Now, why are these maps important? The maps I use are generative. They invite us to consider evolving in specific ways and they create design conversations that bring some real clarity to the tools we might employ in the service of the group’s needs. When I design with a group using this map, it helps us choose exercises that allow us to be in th emoment while having our sights set on where we are going. If we need to change our work mid-stream, having a map helps us to figure out where to move in the moment. When I facilitated an appreciative summit in 2005 on Aboriginal youth suicide in Prince Rupert, we were confronted with a problem of keynote presentations and introductions going way over time. We needed to change mid-stream on the day to allow the voices of the youth to be heard. Knowing that our process was intended to take us on an appreciative journey towards designing and destiny helped us to pare away what was not essential to the gathering, so that the youth could offer their dreams in a way that made sense. Without that map, we would have been lost, probably tied to our process and tools and unable to let go in the moment.

Having a map allows you to be incredibly flexible because you can abandon a path that is no longer serving your journey and pick a new one. If conditions change, you can adapt. This doesn’t mean you don’t need to know your tools – being a skillful practitioner of group process is an art that becomes a life time learning practice. It does mean however, that you can become more skillful in selecting which of those tools to use and when. It makes you a better improviser, and more importantly, of much higher service to the group.

So while I would continue to advocate for aspiring facilitators to learn tools and processes and practice them as much as they can, I want to also send a strong recommendation to any and all that you also explore some of the maps that are out there that describe specific kinds of journeys that groups take. Use these as your basis for designing group work and the tools will fall into place. The more tools you know and are capable of using, the more flexible you will be.

For those of you that use maps, which ones are valuable for you these days?