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helping organisations to be more like people

Facilitating organisations?

If we seem to know we do better when we aren’t just being told what to do, why do we keep telling each other what to do? Wouldn’t a supportive atmosphere be a more effective way of getting things done? Many of us have seen this work in learning environments, why not learn from it in working environments?


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A few years ago I was running community training courses fairly regularly. At some stage, I had a realisation that many before me had also had: that people seemed to learn the best when they were doing stuff, not me.

Thus, I began to embrace the art of facilitation: how much can you help a group of people walk down a path they’ve never been, without giving them the directions?  What combinations of well-timed, targeted questions, suggestions and anecdotes, will enable people to learn what you (broadly) want them to learn, in the way that they want to learn it (and ideally remember it)?

Old news

The same debate I was having with myself had been had many times previously and had led to some fairly significant shifts in non-classroom-based learning, as well as numerous alternative school movements.  The move was away from the concept of a single expert, putting lots of information into the heads of their less-qualified pupils, towards one where everyone played a part – not only because we all remember better when we do, but also from a firm belief that we all have something to contribute, given our unique experiences.

Like so many things, some old Chinese folks seemed to have figured this out many centuries before myself, or the countless ‘radicals’ who gradually started to see the problems with traditional training/teaching in the 1960s and ‘70s:

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”

Several hundred years later, some of us in the West realised they were probably right. Sadly, many of our learning institutions are still clinging to a perceived supremacy of the old ways…

Facilitating organisations?

Yesterday I was reading about some ‘radical’ management ideas… many of which seemed to echo this thinking from the world of education, namely, that people do things better when they are given the chance to do them themselves and that people from all ‘levels’ of an organisation have contributions to make at all levels of that organisation… (if ‘levels’ are even an appropriate form of organisation in their own right…)

Theorists, consultants, and yes, even managers themselves, from Henry Mintzberg, to Frances Westley, to Ricardo Semler, have for decades been saying things like:

“We have this obsession with ‘leadership’. It’s maybe intended to empower people, but its effect is to disempower them. By focusing on the individual, even in the context of others, leadership can undermine a service of community… When [former IBM CEO Gerstner] heard of the initiative [to get the company into E-business, from a programmer], he encouraged it. That’s all. Instead of setting the direction, he supported the direction setting of others… What should be gone is this magic bullet of the individual as the solution to the world’s problems. We are the solution to the world’s problems, you and me, all of us, working in concert.” [Leadership and Communityship, Henry Mintzberg, Financial Times, October 23 2006]

“When social innovations take flight… the innovators are influencing their context while their context is influencing them in an endless to and fro. Decisions are made, actions are taken but it is not always clear how they came about. There is a wonderful sense of collective ownership: all who are involved feel this is their project, their cause, their time to change the world. [Getting to maybe: How the world is changed, Frances Westley et al, Vintage Canada, 2006]

“Most of our programmes are based on the notion of giving employees control over their own lives. In a word, we hire adults, and then we treat them like adults… Outside the factory, workers are men and women who elect governments, serve in the army, lead community projects, raise and educate families… but the moment they walk into the factory, the company transforms them into adolescents. They have to wear badges and name tags, arrive at a certain time, stand in line to punch the clock…” [Managing without Managers, Ricardo Semler, Harvard Business Review, September-October 1989]

‘Is facilitation the new management?’

Trendy buzzword headlines aside, I can’t help but notice an emerging pattern here towards a more facilitatory approach…

What if, instead of managing organisations, we facilitated them?

While, as others suggested when I put this idea on Twitter yesterday, I’m not keen to create new jargon, I do think ‘facilitation’ provides an understanding of getting things done in group dynamics that is fundamentally different from most of that which we have dubbed ‘management’ in recent centuries.

But rather than provide more quotes from my endless reading into the geeky world that is management philosophy, in the spirit of this post, I’d be keen to hear yours;

Is the facilitation/management distinction a useful or counterproductive one?

  • Have you been involved in something you might describe as facilitation in a workplace?
  • Did you feel there was practical value in this approach?
  • Did it create unexpected problems for anyone involved in the process?
  • How would you aim to convince someone who practiced ‘traditional management’, that there was a better alternative in facilitation (whether calling it that or not)?
  • Anything else you might have thought of while reading this?

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Posted in flexibility and jargon and leadership + management and power and trust and Uncategorized.


4 Replies

  1. OK, not based on theory but on my own experience… an effective manager (effective in pushing forward the goals of the organisation through the management of a team) is also an effective facilitator (effective in creating the context in which team members can contribute according to their own proclivities while functioning as autonomously as possible, and at the same time feeling valued and producing work which they value). It was a management style I strove for back in the days when I managed teams. It can work in traditionally structured organisations *up to a point* but it depends on culture and the willingness of the overall management to support such an approach. It is damaged by the fact that traditional management hierarchies promote the passage of disinformation both up and down the hierarchies (There is a blog post or 20 in that alone;-) )

    I suspect that what you are getting at is not just a facilitative culture, but a facilitative organisational structure which, I also suspect, would necessarily be far more anarchic than most organisations could cope with. The best example I can come up with off the top of my head is the Open Source Community and the various projects that come out of it, forming temporary organisational structures that exist to achieve a goal. I would be interested in seeing the idea carried further in longer term orgs with a social enterprise focus 🙂

  2. Liam Barrington-Bush Oct 15th 2010

    Excellent thoughts Adam!

    The Open Source Community stuff is spot-on and I love the idea of structures that exist to achieve specific goals, and then dissolve… Like a ‘project working group’, except it applies to everything that the organisation does! …and isn’t a crappy forced additional thing you’re expected to do on top of your regular job, because it is in fact your regular job 😉

    I agree that a facilitatory kind of management would require suitable structures (or, often lack-thereof) to succeed… It will be a tough sell to all the dinosaurs out there, but in the current world, think they will need to start making these kinds of adjustments, if they want to stay relevant in an increasingly less top-down environment…

    Thanks again!


  3. Oh yes!!! If organisational culture can’t cope with this then it needs to change. You don’t need to bring in CultureBusters – just challenge by not going along with the ways things have always been done and showing off alternative approaches so that others start wanting some of that too.

    By the way, is the facilitated-stand-back-and-let-participants-work-it-out approach the way the Big Society Network did it at Stockport?

  4. Liam Barrington-Bush Oct 17th 2010

    I wonder how far a facilitatory approach to management can grow, as Adam says, within a traditional managerial context? I’m sure it can improve some peoples’ working lives (which should of course not be discredited), but I wonder what happens at the point where the new approach and old approach collide? My own experience suggests this isn’t always a pleasant piece of the process…

More Like People is an association of freelance consultants, facilitators and trainers, working primarily in the voluntary, community and campaigning sectors in the the UK and elsewhere.

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