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Facilitation for Work Place Collaboration Published: Sunday, May 15, 2011 8:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

As more and more of the work that organizations perform is knowledge work, it requires people to apply their intellectual abilities to situations of novelty. At the same time, more and more of this work involves high technology, so much so that the people who do the work know more – possibly much more –than the managers who supposedly supervise them. So what does it mean to manage people when they know more about the work than the managers do? It means that the function of management is something other than directing, controlling, approving, or deciding. So instead the necessary function is to help people to work more effectively, more creativity, more productively, and with greater satisfaction. This function is called facilitation.

         To “facilitate” means to make it easy, to remove obstacles, to smooth out the rough road, or otherwise prepare the way in advance. Collaboration is many people working together so that their different points of view, bases of experience, and knowledge of the problem and its context can be blended together to yield actionable solutions. This is important because getting a comprehensive grasp on complexity typically requires the integration of many different points of view.

         The core of facilitation as a methodology is an understanding of how people solve problems, and how they can do so in a way that favors innovation rather than anti-innovation. In Strategy for Creation, 1991, Murakami and Nishiwaki point out that in the typical organization there are three different kinds of people, “idea generators,” “idea promoters,” and “idea killers.” Since idea killers abound in organizations, so the challenge of facilitation is to enable 100% of the people to be idea generators and promoters, and to use the process itself to turn idea killers into healthy skeptics who contribute critical insights, rather than people who suppress the creative process entirely. Our approach to facilitation does this by creating a structured learning pathways that allows people to explore the problem and the larger context in which it must be solved.

         When facilitating, it’s important to identify the idea killers and prevent them from stifling the process, and it’s also necessary to distinguish between four different thinking processes, Insight, Problem Solving, Creativity, and Innovation.

  • Insight is the spontaneous flash of awareness that a solution exists, or even the possibility that it might and the suggestion of where to look for it. The moment of insight is entirely unpredictable and generally cannot be predicted. But the conditions can be established through careful preparation and facilitation to encourage and nurture insight. As Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
  • Problem solving is when you’re looking for new ideas to fix something that isn’t working right or to design something new in response to a specific requirement. Problem solving always occurs in a particular context.
  • Creativity is when you’re searching for new ideas or new products not necessarily because you need to respond to a problem, but because you want to explore possibilities without preconceived notions. This happens outside of established contexts.
  • Innovation is the studied, practiced, and repeatable application of “methods” to bring something new into being in a way that’s meaningful and useful.

         The key is that no idea comes to fruition without going through all four stages (although not in a linear way).

         Facilitators manage the process to ensure that the right people are engaged in the right part of the process at the right times. Problem solving and creativity are two sides of a single coin, because you can’t solve any complex problem without having a context to do it in, and because you have to be creative and explore for the sake of exploration to expand your pool of options beyond the already known possibilities. Hence, all problem solving requires creativity, and all creativity eventually involves problem solving. The coin of which they are the sides is therefore the coin of innovation.

         Examples of facilitated processes include “idealized design,” described by Russel Ackoff as a way to enable many people to participate meaningfully in envisioning the future state of an organization (The Democratic Corporation, 1994). Scenario building can help groups to understand change, and to grasp how the future might be different. Metaphors can be used to help people grasp complex topics, and to find unexpected solutions to challenging problems. Model building, whether using concepts, physical objects or computer-aided tools, is also effective for creating new options.

         One of the main reasons that facilitated collaboration is so important is because of the difference between tacit and explicit knowledge. While explicit knowledge can be shared through verbal and written expression, tacit knowledge is that which we feel, believe, and experience, but which is beyond conscious awareness and we probably cannot articulate. Since the gap between tacit and explicit processing is so great at both the sensory and conceptual levels, we begin to understand why face to face interaction and collaboration is so dense and so important. Nuances of tone, inflection, timing, cadence, body language, attention, smell, and facial expression are all richly present in any encounter, while they are captured only partially - if at all - in interactions via telephones and computers. From our own experiences, we know that these factors contribute enormously to the completeness of exchange, to our ability to communicate effectively with one another.

         Facilitated collaboration is particularly important when we consider how easy it is for people to develop sub-optimal solutions to difficult problems, which happens so often simply because people don’t understand the full complexity of the systems they’re dealing with. People commonly design so-called solutions to complex problems that typically result in undesirable unintended consequences because true solutions are counter-intuitive, meaning that they’re not the ones we would normally think of, or even ones that we would normally reject. Facilitated collaboration can help people to see the whole system by structuring the creative process in way that encompasses all relevant factors, not just the obvious ones.

Copyright 2011 QBS, Inc.



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