Reflections on Group Facilitation – Expanding Repertoires

In one way or another, we all appreciate a little ‘repertoire’ as part of the ‘spice of life’, whether it be the wit and repartee of our dinner companions, the variety of different musical pieces a band can perform, or the range of acrobatic tricks a troop showcases for our entertainment at the circus. 

Beyond fun and entertainment, the value of our repertoires extends into professional life – for example, we appreciate the range of skills an architectural, engineering, and building team can demonstrate when designing and maintaining a new building, neighbourhood, or urban district; and we appreciate the range of different computer languages a software team can use to code and build new software systems.  Our appreciation of ‘repertoires’ is somewhat endless as it aligns with our inherent creative impulse.

Our appreciation of ‘repertoire’ also aligns with a basic principle in the management of complex systems – derived from cybernetic theory – specifically, the law of requisite variety, which states that, in order to successfully manage a system (e.g., sustain the stability of system operations), the number of states that its control mechanism is capable of attaining (its variety) must be greater than or equal to the number of states in the system being controlled.  This principle of requisite variety extends to the group facilitator, and points to the need for some variety and requisite repertoire in the range of tools they have available when workings with groups. 

Much like psychologists talk about meta-cognitive processes (or ‘thinking about thinking’) as an aid to developing better thinking skills, it’s important for group facilitators to engage in meta-methodological thinking (i.e., thinking about their methods). This allows facilitators to reflect on the range of different methods or tools used in their practice, for example, the range of workshop structures, activities, processes, and associated hardware and software affordances used to facilitate groupwork.  This analysis is best conducted as part of a team effort and our view is that it is best to build a ‘facilitation team’, assigning to different facilitators control over different aspects of group process, including the use of a range of different tools.  As they develop, facilitators will generally work with many different groups across an increasing variety of problem situations and organisations.  Increasing variety entails expanding the repertoire of tools you use when facilitating groups and constant reflection and refinement and learning from experience. 

An excellent showcase of repertoire, of different tools and the reason for selecting them, can be found in a book by Pepe Nummi – Handbook of Professional Facilitation: Theory, Tools, and Design.  In addition to providing a showcase in repertoire, Nummi does something very useful: he describes how, in professional facilitation contexts, a broad variety of group facilitation tools can be used in a relatively simple three-stage workshop structure.  Whether a group is focused on goal setting, process review, or problem solving, Nummi notes that three stages of groupwork are commonly needed, moving from: Clarifying -> Solutions -> Action. During each of these stages there is a need for both Emergent and Convergent group dynamics, as the group first expands the range of ideas and arguments they are working with (Emergence), before converging on a set of ideas and reasons that ultimately shape their future direction as a group.  As groups engage in both Emergent and Convergent activities, Nummi also shows how it is often best – for optimal shared understanding – to work through Me/We/Us activities. In so doing, the facilitator provides time for individual idea generation and reflection (Me), sharing of ideas and perspectives (We) in small groups (e.g., in pairs, or groups of 3 or 4), and sharing and working with the full group (Us).  The group workflows that Nummi describes illustrate his deep meta-methodological thinking and are very valuable to study in detail.  

Importantly, the different tools group facilitators use are embedded in workflows. The ultimate value of the tools are not the tools themselves, but the way in which they are used.  Facilitators sometimes learn one primary method (e.g., from a ‘guru’) and ultimately have a narrow tool repertoire, but it is also possible, as the saying goes, to be “Jack of all trades, master of none”.  We need to be careful not to simply acquire more and more tools without ongoing practice and reflection on their use.  We need to develop skill in the use of tools and learn from experience, including the workflow and group facilitation failures we experience along the way.  Nummi’s showcase of repertoire is excellent in large part because of the facilitation advice he offers, using real workshop flow descriptions, with lots of great learning and plenty of good humour as he recounts his experiences over the years.

At the same time, it’s useful to list some of the tools here and why you might use them. The main reason to point you in this direction is that, much like your humble authors, we hope you will be inspired to continue reading, experimenting, and learning with new tools. Reading Nummi’s book is a great prompt for both expanding repertoires and sustaining humility.  

Over the years, we have worked on a range of projects where systems thinking tools have been valuable.  In particular, we have commonly used the tools developed by John Warfield as part of his Interactive Management (IM) process, and we have combined these tools with other tools like argument mapping and scenario-based design tools. However, when we talk about tools it’s important to include activities that are used to open and close groupwork sessions, or energise groups that are flagging, or help groups address emotions before moving on with more task- or problem-focused work.  Expanding tool repertoires includes expanding the definition of tools.  For example, Nummi uses tools such ‘Earth Energy’ (i.e., a fun squat, breadth, project energy exercise) and ‘Floor Ball’ (a simple team game) to energise groups, and he uses ‘Archipelago of Emotions’ and ‘Wheel of Emotions’ as warm-up tools for creating trust to self-disclosure and to help people recognize and process their emotions. To open a session, he might use a ‘Morning Walk’ tool where people walk around the room and when the facilitator gives a sign they stop, find a partner and talk (e.g., how is your morning going?; and walk again “what are your expectations for this meeting”?).   For rapid group feedback in closing or check-out stages of a workshop, one can use ‘One Breadth’ (where participants offer feedback in one breadth), ‘One Step’ (where participants stand in a circle and take one step forward to offer feedback), ‘Whip’ (where participants stand in a circle and speak one word by way of feedback, immediately after the person next to them has spoken), or ‘Talking Stick’ (where participants pass around a stick and offer feedback when holding the talking stick). 

A tool can also change the way we approach a common practice.  For example, rather than ask a group to write goals, depending on the context, one might ask the group to write ‘wishes’, as a way to help people set goals and become emotionally invested in the process of future planning.  And rather than always use ‘Dot Voting’ as a way to select or vote on ideas, or as a way to identify priorities, one can use ‘Dragons’ (whereby group members draw a dragon next to ideas they are selecting or voting for), or when seeking shared consensus the group might use ‘Dartboard’ combined with ‘Silent Moving’ (where people individually and then collectively move ideas into more central or peripheral areas of a dartboard array on the wall, as a way to rank order priorities). Many of these tools are implicitly ‘tools of engagement’, in the sense that they sustain the energy and focus and productive group dynamics while also explicitly achieving a particular process goal (e.g., establish trust, foster dialogue and sharing, elicit feedback, allow the group to vote, select, prioritise, etc.).  For example, another way to prioritise ideas (other than ‘Dot Voting’, which we commonly use) is to use an ‘Investment Activity’, where participants are given a sum of money and asked to invest it across the set of ideas, solutions, goals, etc..  Group members can engage in this Investment Activity in pairs or groups of three, to facilitate dialogue and reasoning as to ‘why’ different ideas, solutions, goals, are selected.

Other tools focus on ways in which groups move dynamically (e.g., to circulate and collaborate) when generating, clarifying, and reviewing ideas and arguments.  For example, rather than assign people to fixed sub-groups, or specific topics or themes (e.g., using representative sampling and distributing participants in a balanced way across sub-groups, which we often do), the facilitator might simply use the ‘Café’ tool, where participants move to a preferred table where a host is present and contribute to the theme or topic being considered there, before receiving a prompt to move to another ‘preferred’ table. Or ‘Bus Stop’ can be used to rotate session topics for idea generation, review, deliberation) systematically by allocating a fixed amount of time where sub-group members focus on a topic before the sub-group is rotated to the next topic, or the topic (i.e., flipcharts and other writing materials) are rotated to their table.  

Other tools help with more differentiated forms of evaluation or review, for example, ‘Field of Two Criteria’ allows group members to prioritise actions across two criteria simultaneously (e.g., impact and feasibility), with scores across both criteria used to position actions in a simple matrix on the wall [1]. Other wall arrays can be helpful when it comes to reviewing actions and group progress, for example, the ‘Kanban’ tool, where group members first review actions that have previously been selected and then move them to different sections of the wall, indicating whether they are ‘To Do’, ‘In Progress’, or ‘Done’.  

While many of the tools Nummi presents appear relatively simple, the skill needed to implement the tool effectively is distinct from the tool itself, and the tools are always embedded in a more complex workflow (i.e., where multiple tools are used together as part of a workshop process).  Also, when Nummi uses the word ‘tool’ he also includes more complex facilitation processes.  For example, the ‘STP Analysis’ tool is used in advance of planning a workshop. It helps clarify with group leaders what they actually ‘need’ in terms of group workflows rather than simply following their ‘preferences’ or ‘desires’ for the groupwork session.  In practice, STP is challenging as it involves dynamic dialogue with group leaders, first clarify the ‘Situation’ (i.e., what is the situation the group is facing), and next the ‘Target’ (i.e., what is the target, what do you wish to change in the situation), before moving to a ‘Proposal’ (i.e., what the group session will focus on, which in turn informs the specific workshop tools selected). Similarly, the ‘Dynamic Facilitation’ tool involves a challenging process of prompting free flowing conversation in relation to a topic and dynamically recording what group members are saying.  The facilitator is largely silent throughout the process, but must work vigorously to place group members’ ideas into different fields on the wall – Facts, Concerns, Problem Statements, Solutions.  In reality, this requires a lot of skill not only in prompting and sustaining group conversations, but it also involves an interpretative challenge on the part of the group facilitator as they seek, with the support of group members, to place ideas into the correct fields.

In total, Nummi documents a total of 41 different tools, which are usefully listed in a Tool index.  The list can be readily expanded if we move in two directions, as we will do in this book.  The first direction is movement to incorporate software tools, which often allow for different group processes to unfold.  For example, we have used ‘Argument Mapping’ tools to facilitate deliberation in relation to a specific claim or proposal a group is working with (e.g., “The company should be sold” [2]), mapping reasons, objections, and rebuttals as they emerge as part of facilitated group dialogue.  Also, beyond ‘Field of Two Criteria’ tools, which can be facilitated using a matrix on the workshop wall or using software such as Mentimeter, when there are more than two criteria and when the group seeks to weight decision options based on multiple criteria, then software tools supporting Multicriteria Decision Making can be used (e.g., 1000minds, which is available as a web application [3]). 

The second direction is movement in the direction of Systems Thinking tools, some of which will also make use of software support tools.  For example, we have used Interpretative Structural Modelling (ISM) to support systems thinking. This involves the use of software that presents a series of binary yes/no decision options to a group (e.g., Does element A enhance element B?) and the group deliberates on each prompt and works to complete a matrix of all yes/no decisions (coded 1/0). The group subsequently visualises the relationship between all matrix elements in the form of a graph, which illustrates the consensus logic of the group across all decisions[4].  When it comes to systems thinking methods, we recommend a second book here, which, under the theme of ‘Expanding Repertoires’, is a nice complement to Pepe Nummi’s book.  The book is written by Michael Jackson, and has the weighty title: Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity.  The book showcases a range of systems thinking and design methods for working in the context of technical complexity (e.g., Operations Research, Systems Engineering), process complexity (e.g., the Vanguard Method), structural complexity (e.g., System Dynamics), organisational complexity (e.g., Organisational Cybernetics and the Viable Systems Model), people complexity (e.g., Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing, Interactive Planning, Soft Systems Methodology), and coercive complexity (e.g., Team Syntegrity, and Critical Systems Heuristics)[5]. We do not provide a summary description of these tools or methods here, but we see them all as potentially useful, depending on the type of group process one is working with.  Also, as part of broader group design, collective intelligence and collective action projects, it is best not to see these methods as ‘separate’ from one another — they can be usefully combined.  What we want to stay focused on here is the job of the group facilitator, and we want to reinforce the idea that the role of the facilitator is critical in the success of these group design activities.  It’s simply a bonus if the facilitation team has been working to expand their repertoire, and maybe their wit and repartee also!

[1] Note: while the in-person group facilitation tools covered in Nummi’s book do not require the use of any software, we have found that tools like Mentimeter can be useful for ‘Field of Two Criteria’ work, allowing for multiple actions to be reviewed and average group ratings to be generated based on aggregate individual voting, with immediate visualisation of results on overhead projector or computer screen.

[2] This was a real proposal an MBA advisory group were working with in their role as company advisors. It was a challenge to facilitate given the emotion linked to the proposal, but the group presented their arguments in the session.


[4] We will come back to this and provide examples.

[5] See also:

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