Ten things to keep in mind when facilitating an emergent process

“Traveler, there is no path.
The path is made by walking.

Traveller, the path is your tracks
And nothing more.
Traveller, there is no path
The path is made by walking.
By walking you make a path
And turning, you look back
At a way you will never tread again
Traveller, there is no road
Only wakes in the sea.”

~ Antonio Machado

A complex, emergent group process requires a different kind of facilitation. When you’re not following a pre-designed agenda working towards a pre-determined outcome the following principles are helpful to keep in mind:

1. Be congruent and trust the process
Be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty yourself – if you can’t trust an emergent process, why would the people you are facilitating? Expect that some participants will become irritated and disruptive – most people are not comfortable with truly emergent processes. As facilitator you need to be able to contain this energy by being comfortable with the uncertainty yourself.  It is much easier to take a group through pre-designed content, or to work towards a known outcome.  Emergent processes mean that the facilitator is not “in control”, which can be anxiety provoking.   Befriending uncertainty is like muscle that needs to be exercised (and stretched) regularly!  Personally I make sure I put myself in highly uncertain and ambiguous contexts as often as I can e.g. by attending Tavistock working conferences.

2. Create enabling constraints by setting and maintaining clear boundaries
When the group’s task is ambiguous (required for emergence), other psychological boundaries like space, time and role need to be held in order to create a sense of psychological safety for the group. If there are no clear boundaries, the space becomes too uncertain for anything coherent to emerge.
Maintain time boundaries: if you say a session will be 30 minutes long, stick to it or at least acknowledge if you do break it; maintain your role boundary as facilitator i.e. hold the space, don’t become a content expert. If you create an alliance with the group, or set ground rules, make sure you observe them and hold the group accountable if they aren’t kept. If not, they will not trust you or your process.

3. Keep instructions ambiguous
The discomfort the group experiences with the ambiguity is part the required disruption of entrained patterns that leads to emergent outcomes. Provide clear process instructions, but be ambiguous about expected outcomes. Don’t give examples as that will immediately pattern the group. If you have no choice, give examples from other contexts. Also be aware that asking excessive questions or “not knowing what to do” is often a defense agains the uncertainty; don’t collude with it.

4. Keep up the pace
Keep things moving at a pace where people don’t have time to analyze, complain, get bored, chat, etc. Give adequate breaks – this kind of work can be exhausting for a group. If possible allow for “reflective space” e.g. an overnight off-site workshop often leads to better outcomes as people have a change to “sleep on it” before the final convergence happens.

5. Work with the “edges”
Emergence often happens “in our peripheral vision” so enable things to emerge on the edges of the group. To avoid overthinking and gamed outcomes, keep the groups busy with one exercise while setting up the emergence of something else “on the side”. This is how we emerge archetypes – while the small groups are busy with a given task we pull random people from the various groups and send them to the wall for a few minutes to do some clustering or contribute content, then rotate them back to their groups and ask them to send other members to the wall. This prevents the group from gaming or over-analysing the emergent outcome as no-one is part of the processs end-to-end.

6. Play with similarities, constrasts & difference
Sometimes you may want to optimise small groups for group-think (i.e. make sure members are as similar as possible e.g have sales sit at one table, marketing at another; or executives at one table and middle managers at another) then contrast or cross-polinate ideas between the tables. Other times optimise small groups for maximum diversity. It all depends what the purpose and context of the workshop.

7. Avoid premature convergence
Delay convergence as long as possible; remain in the liminal space for as long as you can. For example constantly mix and remix group members; have small groups dissent or interact with each other, but avoid large group feedback until right at the end of the process.
If things seem to be settling too soon, disrupt. Move people between groups; do a round or two of ritual dissent; interrupt with a divergent exercise.

8. Treat the group like adults
Allow self-selection based on criteria (increases energy levels) e.g. choose the two people who have contributed the most and send them to another group (vs the facilitator telling them to move). Have the group co-create the “ground rules” or alliance for the day and have them decide how they will keep themselves accountable. You don’t want to be cast in the role of the ground rule police … if they said for example “no cellphones” create a mechanism by which they will deal with rule breakers themselves.

9. Be present and work with what’s in the room.
Always be present and aware of the dynamics playing out in the room in the here and now. If there is a sudden shift in the atmosphere or “mood” in the room, work with it. If there is passive resistance, call it out and work with it. This enables you to build trust with the group and get rid of the unsaids that may be inhibiting the process. If something emerges in the group that takes you in an unexpected (but potentially useful direction) follow it. Don’t get stuck on the sequence you had in your head before you started interacting with the group – any pre-designed structure or process flow should just be a scaffold.

10. Have a buddy
It always helps to have a co-facilitator. Someone that can tell you when you’re dominating or influencing the group; but also someone that can help contain and hold the space. The key to a process like this is the ability to turn the anxiety in response to the uncertainty and ambiguity into creative tension. Don’t underestimate how much energy it takes from you as the facilitator to hold such a space and absorb the tension.

You Might Also Like

One thought on “Ten things to keep in mind when facilitating an emergent process

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *