ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition — February 2004

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In the Spotlight
Get Your Money's Worth From Each Employee
Moving the Elephant
Dynamic Facilitation and Transformational Thinnking

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February 2004 News For A Change — Home Page

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Moving the Elephant
Dynamic Facilitation and Transformational Thinking

The Problem
In the December issue of News for a Change, we considered the story of the three blind men who come across an elephant, each one touching a different part. The man who finds the leg thinks the elephant is like a tree, only this tree moves around and causes problems. To solve these problems, the blind man resorts to a thinking process that has him breaking the problem into parts and building barriers as he tries to control things.

This orientation toward control is how we think in most meetings and through goals, guidelines, and agendas. As a result, we work only on issues for which control is appropriate and skip the big, impossible-seeming issues for which creativity is needed. Most people are more comfortable with this approach than with the seeming chaos that accompanies creativity.

The control-oriented approach doesn’t help us to see the
elephant. Breaking big problems into smaller ones is an intentional narrowing of the mind, looking carefully at the elephant’s toes and how the knees bend. It drives us to be more mechanistic in our thinking about issues.
Because it is natural for people to look for and to see the whole elephant, people often become frustrated with the superficial way of talking in normal meetings and how the big issues go unaddressed.

A Solution
In that same article, we introduced “choice creating,” a way of thinking about difficult issues with “heart creativity,” as well as “head creativity” and achieving breakthroughs. Using choice creating, we can see the whole elephant, and we can see new solution possibilities.

Dynamic facilitation is a way of facilitating meetings where choice creating is natural. This process is guided by the energy of the meeting’s participants more than by objectives, guidelines, or the agenda. The group is helped to identify an issue they care about deeply. Then people are helped to express themselves fully and spontaneously.

If the elephant is going to be seen, at least one individual in the group will need to break out of the old patterns. This breaking out may feel like frustration at first. When this is expressed, the dynamic facilitator writes it down on a list of concerns and reflects the list back to the group. He/she creates a context so this “negative” energy can transform into something positive. Comments are captured on one of four different charts: solutions, data, concerns, or problem statements. No matter what someone says, it’s part of a creative group flow where each comment sparks new thinking in others. With this approach, passion is an asset, not a liability, because it makes breakthroughs more likely.

This energy-driven process stimulates choice creating and empowerment, which makes elephants seeable. For instance, one group of employees in a social service agency all wrote letters to top management trying to get rid of their new manager. They were resisting her and her ideas. In a meeting the dynamic facilitator asked the manager to describe what she wanted from the group. First, she expressed her frustrations, which were captured as concerns and points of data. Then she described how she wanted the department to run. Others did the same.

Soon, it was clear to all that the problem wasn’t the manager or her proposal, but her authoritarian approach. That was the first breakthrough. Then as people talked further, a new discovery was made: One of the conditions of her hiring was that she exert authority over the department. Now people could see this wasn’t her natural style but something that had been imposed on all of them.

The old problem was solved. It was in the group’s relationship to upper management. People accepted the new manager and even her ideas. Her relationships to people in the department were becoming healthy after the elephant was discovered.

As the group continued talking, they became more empowered to make change. They spoke to upper management and discovered an even bigger elephant in the form of state policies. All felt empowered to address that, as well.

In most meetings, people won’t allow problems to get bigger or for elephants to be seen. A more normal approach to dealing with such resistive employees is to use “conflict resolution.” This can lead to a negotiated settlement about the exact nature of employee and manager responsibilities and a contract of behaviors. This doesn’t get to the real issue and may hinder a heart-felt solution.

With dynamic facilitation, people address and solve “impossible-to-solve” issues. The key is the sincere, creative quality of thinking that dynamic facilitation elicits, which is known as choice creating.

JIM ROUGH is a consultant, seminar leader, speaker, and author. He invented dynamic facilitation (www.ToBE.net) and the wisdom council, and he co-founded the nonprofit Center for Wise Democratic Processes (www.WiseDemocracy.org).

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