Dealing with Complex Issues in Events and Workshops – Things to Promote and Avoid

Several clients recently asked me to explain how exactly our approach would be different from more conventional approaches to change events, workshops and facilitation. How can I simply describe what we do and what we don’t do?

Interestingly one of them send me notes from a preparatory discussion around an event we were about to prepare – and in there I found the following:

Mr. XYZ brought up the need to ask and address the question of what are organizations, countries and other players in the response going to do differently that will get us out of the reality of today.  He noted that around the world there are the “right” programmes and technology but it is still not working.  Following that, the [group] should ask if the current response and targets are realistic, considering the […] donor situation.  Finally he noted that many of the problems aren’t technical but rather based on a lack of an enabling environment and a need to find the social and cultural solutions.  Beyond the consultation, are we getting commitments? Who is taking the responsibility to get more money in country budgets? How do we move from analysis to doing something about the current levels?

Mr. UVW acknowledged that there is no shortage of actions verbs being used to describe the next steps but it remains unclear what it all really means.”

(Emphasis and removal of names by myself)

These gentlement were expressing and sharpening the issue we hear so often… So what do we then do? Well, we have to acknowledge the complex nature of those circumstances, issues and the systems they are part of – and then deal with them accordingly.

Things to Promote

  • Expound complexity: the complexity of an issue/situation must be consciously addressed and worked through. This can only be done by engaging different part of a complex system into a dialogue and avoid “monopolisation” of “right « wrong” or “best « bad (practice)” by a few (experts). An open conversation must aim at creating an understanding for the bigger picture for everybody involved in a peer-to-peer process, not by a few experts sharing the “right” perspective with everybody else.
  • Leverage diversity: as a consequence from the previous point, homogeneity in background, experience, thinking and opinions levels the appreciation and assessment of an issue/situation. It is important that different people bring this diversity into the room/conversation and allow a real-time interaction. Stimulating pro-actively dissent, disturbance and deviation is essential to realistic and meaningful engagement with complex issues/situations. This diversity must be actively promoted, managed and leveraged.
  • Promote shared understanding, sense-making and emergence of common grounds: in complex situations, sense-making is a critical task. While the facts often may be on the table, they are often not enough; the crucial task is to make sense of them, to come to a shared overviews and interpretation, to identify and recognise patterns (often more than stringent, mechanical cause-effect relationships, which in the face of complexity often fail to persist). By engaging in a process of mutual learning and sharing among peers (who each contribute a particular “world view” and as such are “experts” in their own rights), common grounds are identified. Common grounds are those stepping-stones, which everybody authentically can adhere to without compromising. These common grounds are the basis of further understanding and hence engagement and commitment.
  • Foster learning and growth: getting to terms with complexity always entails an initial intensive phase of learning and growth (in terms of ideas, perspective, understanding). During this phase, it is of paramount importance that everybody suspends their judgement and fully engages in a process of disconfirming previous knowledge, learning about new (often surprising) ideas and facts. Jumping to conclusion or seeking to confirm pre-existing knowledge and assumptions are detrimental to a genuine and adequate understanding of a complex issues and circumstances. A properly designed event/ workshop will take people through an initial phase that is exclusively dedicated to learning, where all decisions are suspended towards a later stage of the event.
  • Iterative working approach: complex issues and systems cannot be understood in a straightforward, clear-cut manner. Inherently – and in distinction to “technical/mechanical” issues – they need an iterative (step-wise) approach, encircling and narrowing down the issues and possible responses. To avoid the ascendancy and supremacy of authorities and their preferred ideas/views, it is important to provide structures that withdraw the possibility of a few selected individuals to dominate and determine a situation. Working constantly and consistently in parallel, yet shifting sub-groups provides the golden opportunity.
  • Follow an inherent flow of process: it is critical to design a process that on the one hand provides containers for the topics (content) to be dealt with extensively, and on the other hand leads the group of participants towards an objective and the production of results. This inner architecture of an event must caters for the defined outcomes and incorporate the flow towards that point. It is critical to move away from a “line-up” of individual thematic sessions; this produces often fragmentation in thinking, leaves things erratic rather than interlinking different aspects and it leads often to disorientation, the individual being lost in the succession of events, mental leaping and eventually lack of coherence of workshop outputs. A coherent architecture can guide participants through a full-fledged thought and learning process and eventually converges towards shared outputs and results.

Things to avoid

  • Fragmentation of events, topic hopping, disruption of flow: “topic-based agendas” (listing individual sessions dedicated to individual topics or issues) should be avoided → cf. above
  • Cognitive overflow (avalanches of information, overstretching of attention span): the workshop format of presentations is by design only suitable for simple messages. The human cognition is not capable to absorb larger amounts of information in this format. On top of this, the human attention span is limited to roughly 20-30 minutes – anything delivered beyond gets lost in the black hole of human exhaustion. Presentations are uniquely suited to bring across 2-3 key messages or ideas, which are very simple in nature, yet critically important and must be highly sticky. Yet, it takes a top presenter (professional in the art of presenting) to deliver such a presentation. The usual pitfalls (ie. projecting “speaker’s notes” by PowerPoint instead of visual supports and symbols → split of attention between media) can be very damaging – and many presentations fail to fulfil their purpose. Therefore they are a very risky format that requires a lot of care and knowledge to handle.
  • Frontal formats: format like presentations, plenary Q&A’s and panels suggest – through the physical arrangement – a sense of “we” and “they”; they suggest and install hierarchy and superiority that are not conducive to the understanding of complex situations and issues. What’s more, they are detrimental to ownership, engagement, and commitment. What is needed instead is an atmosphere and a set-up of “us”, of co-thinking and co-creating.
  • Sustaining authority & hierarchy: the dominant (and loud) voices – of authorities of some kind – often tend to level and paralyse the creative thought processes (based on diversity), that are indispensable to come to terms with complex issues and situations. For instance are classical plenary sessions (and classical Q&A’s) prone to be dominated by a few authoritarian individuals and tend to suppress dissent and deviant minority views. They often create an ambiance of aggression and controversy. For these reasons they can be “toxic” to gaining profound understanding, creative thinking and innovation, and therefore results.
  • Jumping to conclusions: we always have the habit and inclination to prematurely rush to judgement, conclusion, decision; this stands in the way of thoroughly explore and understand alternative perspectives and ideas, which consistently leads to mediocre results that are more reiterating old ideas in new words.
  • Hamper emergence, cross-fertilisation, innovation: many workshop formats don’t have the openness and freedom to allow for novelty to take place and emerge. They stifle innovation by not providing (enough) open spaces for the unplanned and unforeseeable to take place – and therefore prevent innovation by design.

Roles & Responsibilities of the Facilitator – and the Participants

In events and workshops of the nature described above, it is highly critical to clearly distinguish and separate the different roles in the event. Contrary to more conventional modes of facilitation, the facilitator is only responsible for the structure and process of the event, ie. she/he guides participants towards the sequence and flow of modules towards the defined goal. She/he ensures that the “containers” remain intact and integral, opens and closes them properly and ensures that rules are observed. That way she/he ensures that the results are achieved.

Participants as far as they are concerned take care of content and outcome: they contribute their expertise, reflections, ideas, suggestions, knowledge, they observe the content level, unearth insights and patterns and take charge of moulding outcomes.

The facilitator must strictly abstain from summarising, paraphrasing, assessing and the like (which is quite common in conventional forms of facilitation), as this constitutes an inside-out interference on the content level. Since the facilitator is mostly perceived as an (informal) authority, this will inevitably bias and distort the content level to the disadvantage of an optimal outcome, will hamper or even stifle the emergence of higher levels of understanding and insight; lastly there is a high risk that at least a few participants will perceive this kind of intervention as manipulative towards a predetermined (and superimposed) outcome. In this light it becomes understandable why in fact the less the facilitator knows about the theme of the event, the more can he fully focus on the actual social process – which is her/his defined role and responsibility – and the less is she/he tempted to interfere on the content level. Likewise the documentation raw material is largely produced by participants themselves and must be an output of the processes, which in its turn must be consolidated into an actual report by a (small group of) content matter specialists and managers.

Following the above it also becomes clear that the most important task of the facilitator is actually not the delivery (→ facilitation) of the event itself, but the design of the architecture, flow, structure, process and methods used during the event before it actually starts. Once it begins, facilitation is largely delivering and executing what has been designed – and the success of the event is largely determined by the preparatory work.

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