Groups of people, in and beyond organizations, often need facilitation. To be able to move forward together, one or several people, within or outside these organizations, need to act as facilitators.
Conventional Vertical and Horizontal Facilitation Both Constrain Collaboration
The most common approach to facilitation is vertical facilitation.
Vertical facilitation focuses on the singular whole of the collaboration: the one united team, the one definition of the problem, the one best solution, the one optimum plan, and, ultimately, the one superior leader who can decide what the group will do.
It assumes that expertise and authority—of the more knowledgeable or senior participants and of the facilitator—are required to make progress on problematic situations.
It is vertical in that it is based on this hierarchy of the larger over the smaller and the higher over the lower.
Horizontal facilitation focuses on the multiple parts of the collaboration: the positions and interests of the individual members of the group (who often don’t see themselves as a team), their different understandings of the problematic situation, multiple possible solutions and ways forward, and, ultimately, their separate decisions about what they will do.
It assumes that in order to make progress on problematic situations, each participant needs to choose for themself what they will do—that no one can or must exercise superior expertise or authority.
It is horizontal in that it rejects hierarchy as illegitimate and ineffective. It emphasizes equality.
Both of the conventional approaches to facilitation, the vertical and the horizontal, produce valuable upsides and can work well for a while. But both also, when overemphasized or pursued on their own for too long, produce downsides. These downsides inevitably reduce and place at risk the effectiveness of these approaches to helping people move forward together.
How Do We See our Situation? Advocating and Inquiring
Facilitators employ, model, and teach opening—to enable cycling between advocating and inquiring, to understand what is going on, and so to be able to make well-grounded decisions about what to do next. Furthermore, opening is foundational for all four of the other pairs of moves and for the other four shifts.
In transformative facilitation, facilitators practice opening their talking and listening, and in doing so encourage participants to do the same. This foundational practice of transformative facilitation enables everyone to move fluidly back and forth between advocating and inquiring and thereby to continue to deepen their understanding of what is happening and what they need to do. Over the course of the unfolding of a collaboration, facilitators and participants need to keep making these moves and this shift, over and over.
How Do We Define Success? Concluding and Advancing
The purpose of transformative facilitation is to help people transform their problematic situation. The second question that the collaborators need to work with, repeatedly, is: How do we define success in transforming our situation?
In vertical facilitation, participants define success as concluding: making a deal, pact, or agreement. They say, “We need to agree.” The facilitator focuses on enabling such agreement. The upside of this approach is that it provides a clear and definitive finish line to work toward. The downside of overemphasizing this approach, without making room for pragmatism about what agreements are possible and useful, is that it defines a window of success that may be too narrow: reaching an agreement may be more than the collaboration is able to accomplish (because the participants are not willing or able to agree), or it may be less (because the participants want to go beyond making an agreement, to achieve other results).
In horizontal facilitation, the participants define success as advancing. They say, “We each just need to keep moving forward, whether together or separately.” The facilitator focuses on enabling such movement. The upside of this approach is that it focuses on taking pragmatic next steps, even if they are partial or messy or don’t include everyone. The downside of overemphasizing this approach, without a clear finish line, is that it values activity over results, so participants may find that the results they end up producing are unsatisfyingly dispersed and insubstantial.
In transformative facilitation, the facilitator and the participants employ repeated cycles of diverging, emerging, and converging, and of concluding and advancing, to move forward together. This requires discerning.
How Do We Get from Here to There? Mapping and Discovering
Transformative facilitation supports a group in undertaking a journey to transform their problematic situation. The third basic question they need to work with is: How will we get from where we are (the subject of the first question) to where we want to be (the subject of the second)?
In vertical facilitation, the participants say about the steps they will take to make progress on their problematic situation, “We know the way.” The facilitator says the same about the process the participants will employ as they take these steps. The upside of this approach of mapping a route is that it provides a clear way forward. The downside of overemphasizing this approach, without being open to changing the route along the way, is that it can lead the group into a dead end or off a cliff: the chosen route may not work, but the group will persist in following it nonetheless.
In horizontal facilitation, the participants and the facilitator, knowing how challenging it is to predict and commit to a future series of collective actions, say: “We will find our way as we go.” The upside of this approach of discovering the route along the way is that it recognizes that collaborative processes are often uncontrollable and unpredictable, and therefore need to be developed democratically and step-by-step. The downside of overemphasizing this approach, without planning out the route in advance, is that it produces disorganized and divergent wandering.
How Do We Decide Who Does What? Directing and Accompanying
Transformative facilitation helps people collaborate without forcing or being forced, so their actions are both voluntary and coordinated. The fourth question that they need to work with is: How do we decide who does what?
In vertical facilitation, the participants say, “Our leaders decide,” and these leaders assign and coordinate the actions of the collaborators. The facilitator supports the leaders in doing this. The upside of this approach is that it provides authorization for and alignment of the actions. The downside of overemphasizing this approach, without making room for self-motivated actions, is that it produces debilitating subordination and resistant insubordination.
In horizontal facilitation, the participants say, “No one is the boss of us: each of us will decide for ourselves what we will do.” The facilitator supports the participants in coordinating their independent actions. The upside of this approach is that it respects and harnesses the participants’ self-motivated actions. The downside of overemphasizing this approach, without authority and alignment, is that it produces separateness and misalignment.
How Do We Understand Our Role? Standing Outside and Inside
Transformative facilitation is a process in which participants and facilitators work together to transform a problematic situation. The fifth and most fundamental question they need to work with is: How do we understand our roles and responsibilities?
In vertical facilitation, participants see the situation they are facing as problematic, and they are collaborating in order to address it. They approach the situation as if they were outside (apart from) it, saying “We must fix it.” Facilitators also position themselves outside: they see their role as helping the participants change what they are doing so that the situation can change. The upside of this approach is objectivity. The downside of overemphasizing this approach, without making room for personal responsibility, is that it produces coldness and abdication: the arrogant view that for the situation to change, other people must change.
In horizontal facilitation, participants see themselves as inside (part of) the situation. They are collaborating because they see themselves as partly responsible for things being as they are and therefore partly responsible for changing the way things are. They say, “We must each put our own house in order.” The facilitator understands that in playing their own role in the group, they are also partly responsible for what is happening. The upside of this approach is self-reflectivity and self-responsibility. The downside of overemphasizing this approach, without making room for an outside-in view, is that it produces myopia: people getting so caught up with their personal dynamics that they lose sight of the larger systemic dynamics of the situation.
Transformative facilitation helps people who are facing a problematic situation collaborate to transform that situation. Collaboration offers a crucial multilateral alternative to unilateral forcing, adapting, and exiting.
Transformative facilitation therefore offers a possibility that is larger than only helping groups address their particular situations. It offers a way to escape from the twin dangers of imposition and fragmentation. Transformative facilitation offers a way to create a better world.