Facilitating sustainable change processes

Good facilitation takes account of four key dimensions: goals, relationships, process and content.
There are many ways to support individual and social change processes in teams, organisations and communities – with most of these having dialogue as a central process element. Facilitating change-oriented and dialogue-based methodologies and approaches aim to bring about meaningful conversations that engage groups of people in systemic co-design that develops sustainable and regenerative solution pathways.

Facilitation can be described as a process of enabling groups to work cooperatively and effectively together and which emphasises the involvement of all participants in a meaningful way. It comprises a system of tools, techniques and skills to be used in working with a group or collective – enabling and supporting them to achieve their objectives in a way that involves and respects all contributions, builds ownership and and releases the creative potential of those involved.

Used over a period of time, facilitation approaches can move beyond being a set of methods and techniques used for a one-off event, to being more transformative within a group, community, organisation or even a region. It can enrich democratic processes and promote organisational and societal cultures that are supportive of collaboration and partnership in the pursuit of more sustainable and regenerative solutions. These more inclusive approaches reflect a new way of working which often challenge traditional top-down approaches – developing a culture of participation in which a diversity of voices, experiences and perspectives inform and influence decisions and ways forward.  As the authors of the MSP Guide remind us, facilitation in this sense then refers to the entirety of the process, not just the individual meetings and events within the process. Facilitating inter-group communication and the emergent relationships is also important to ensure a structured, coherent and mutually beneficial process.

Four key facilitation dimensions

When a group is functioning well (be it a work or sports team, community or multi-stakeholder group) the group dynamics and sense of purpose, belonging and acceptance can bring out the best in people. Most people have had at least a few experiences where participation in an effective group or team has helped us achieve at levels we never thought possible. However, while these collective endeavours may be a necessary part of organizational and wider societal change their presence certainly doesn’t guarantee success. As most of us can also testify, the experience of being in groups and teams in different settings has often shown that groups can equally be inefficient, confused and frustrated. Often groups don’t have a common purpose that drives them. Other times we see group members expend their energy on tring to reach their end-goals quickly, without paying enough attention what is going on (group processes and dynamics) beneath the surface. For a whole range of reasons then, group members can unintentionally undermine the long-term success of the collective endeavour.

However, as Nick Wright points out in a useful blog post,  good facilitation can help address these difficulties by balancing the focus across four dimensions: goals, relationships, process and content. These four different areas of this facilitation model overlap and impact on each other in practice. Good facilitation is about addressing all areas, and not just focusing on one or two in isolation. However, having explored each area in whatever way or level suits your situation, you are free to focus your efforts on those that need special attention. Different questions and reflections can guide group members to assess their performance on each of these different dimensions

  • Goals: In order to achieve results, its important for a group or collaborative to identify the scope and scale of their work together, and what might constitute an improvement. For a work team this might be a clear goal, while for a multi-stakeholder catchment group it may be more important to help the group recognise shared aims, aspirations and targets that they want to move towards. Useful questions may include topics such as: What will success look like?; What would make a great outcome for you?; How will you know when you have reached it?; or Who or what else is impacted by it and how?
  • Relationships: Relationships are key to fostering emergence, new thinking and ideas that would not come for individuals or homogeneous groups. Change begins and ends with relationships, and a big part of systems change is re-wiring and bringing greater depth (trust) to existing patterns of relationships. Good questions to encourage group members to think about relationships could include:  Have we got the right people in the room – who is missing?; What is working well in the group’s relationships?; What is creating tension among group members?; How could we resolve conflicting differences?
  • Process: The kinds of relationships that support safe, creative and innovative multi-stakeholder collaborations do not simply happen. This is where process comes into play, the “how” of facilitation. As we imagine the outcomes of facilitation in terms of the results and relationships we want to see in the world, it is important to design at least some of the relationship building in such a way that it aligns accordingly. Key questions include: Who do we need to bring together?; What are the key conversations we need to have?; What are the best processes to use with these groupings?; What structures, resources and roles will support this work? Are we creating a safe and caring environment for all – including people that have often been left out of these processes?
  • Content: Content is what the group or collaborative is about, what outputs are required, what information is being shared and what decision needs to be made. Effective knowledge sharing improves team and individual productivity, empowers your members, and builds a strong, connected community or collaborative. Key questions include: Are we privileging some knowledges over others?; Do we have the right information and expertise to do this?; What is the issue from your perspective?; What do we need to take into account as we work on this together?

Facilitation is a system of tools, techniques, and skills to help a group of people work well in defining a common vision, making decisions, achieving their goals, and creating a relational climate where trust prevails and communication is fluid, empathic, and honest. Daniel Christian Wahl

Facilitation embraces a selection of tools and techniques – both formal and informal – for facilitating meetings, workshops and events. [Adapted from The need for facilitation]

Tools, methods and techniques

Facilitation can play an important role in ensuring a well-run meeting or long-term engagement process. Useful facilitation skills include planning agendas, creating the appropriate group environment, encouraging participation, and leading the group to reach its objectives. Of course facilitation can also be used at the organisation, project or community level.

There are a range of facilitation guides, tools and techniques to engage people and mobilize evidence in complex settings involving multiple stakeholders. These tools  – in combination with other techniques, like mediation or different types of forums – can also help address conflict and other barriers to fruitful engagement. Kelly Ann McKercher’s Model of care in co-design reminds us that good practice requires us to go beyond business as usual and work harder to create and maintain safety in these new collaborations – especially when we should be  looking to better support traumatised and historically under-invested in groups of people.

Facilitation has many uses, ranging from single board or team meetings to complex processes of organizational change and development. It also finds its application in project, program and portfolio management, and can perfectly support project teams in planning, risk management and project change management and project implementation control. Many of these tools and techniques can be used in different aspects of problem-solving and decision-making. Others can be used to bring a new approach or energy to the proceedings. Most provide ways to ensure everyone has the opportunity to be fully involved and is able to contribute.

Some insights and design elements from collaborative processes

Based on the experiences and insights documented within a recent research programme – The Wheel of Water – which set out to improve our understanding of approaches that involve the wider community in determining acceptable water resource limits, we listed a few design elements that the project team considered will be useful in the design of similar collaborative initiatives.

  • Collaborations take time and need to be developed with a clear expectation of a shared outcome in mind, even though the exact shape of that outcome cannot be specified in advance.
  • Good facilitation is needed to support open conversations. These conversations will often need to include those being run by key stakeholder groups within the process (science team,
    modelling team, key sector groups, etc.)
  • A multi-disciplinary project team comprising relevant technical, policy, facilitation and engagement skills, involved throughout will bring rigour to the process.
  • Care must be taken to ensure different knowledge systems are all appreciated and used within the wider process. These will include knowledge from science, local and traditional systems.
  • Stakeholder values underpin the process. However, it is important to remember that these are not separate from the process, and need to be revisited iteratively in the light of different discussions and contexts.
  • Targets and indicators should cover the important values most susceptible to change.
  • Diagrams and other visualisation tools are important to help present complex information in a visually simple and accessible way.

Additional information can be found from the related LfS pages – Systemic co-designManaging virtual teams and  Facilitation tools and techniques. Other closely related site sections include: Planning, monitoring and evaluation, Team building, communities of practice (COPs) and learning groups and Cross-sector partnerships and collaborations.

[Last edited by Will Allen on September 17, 2022]

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An independent systems scientist, action research practitioner and evaluator, with 30 years of experience in sustainable development and natural resource management. He is particularly interested in the development of planning, monitoring and evaluation tools that are outcome focused, and contribute towards efforts that foster social learning, sustainable development and adaptive management.

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