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Overcoming Facilitation Dilemmas in Foresight




Facilitation is a greatly underappreciated skill. And rightly so. When done right, facilitation should go unseen – an invisible force helping groups achieve a shared goal by maneuvering the situational context at hand.


A good facilitator shows no bias and avoids influencing outcomes, yet they are direct and tenacious when taking charge. They operate outside the boundaries of time by simultaneously being both present in the conversation, while also one step ahead of the group at any given point.


Let’s face it, most meetings are catastrophically inefficient these days, with folks speaking at, or over, one another to make their ideas known. And that’s with everyday projects that deal with topics familiar  to most, if not everyone, in the room. A good  facilitator  sells  productivity  and manages to stop the spin that occurs if participants are left to their own devices.


Now imagine a heightened situation filled with greater complexity, seemingly endless players and stakeholders, and society-wide impacts; and you’ve got yourself the perfect storm for futures facilitation.


As a trained facilitator in the field of innovation and strategy, I’ve encountered my fair share of perfect storms. In Design Thinking, groups are plagued with preconceived solutions that existed long before the meeting was scheduled, making them hard to shake even when un-related to the job at hand. When it comes to strategic conversations, corporate niceties often transform simple ideas into jumbled logic that tries to account for each and everyone’s sensitivities.


And while these challenges are certainly present within foresight workshops, the field of futures facilitation has its own unique dilemmas to contend with, such as:


Limits to diversity. In the field of futures, we approach problems that are system-wide in scale, impacting more than one ‘design target,’ and interconnected in both cause and effect. While one of the greatest benefits of participatory design (the field in which facilitation resides) is a greater diversity of thought, it is close to impossible to have all stakeholders and perspectives represented at a given meeting. In fact, putting demographics and appearances aside, it is more likely that the cognitive, educational and career experience amongst the group itself will have very little diversity at all.


Discomfort with chaos. Futurists are adept at making sense of chaos. We find patterns in the noise happening around us that may otherwise go unnoticed. It is our superpower – whether a natural born gift or a craft we’ve spent years to hone. Participants aren’t (often) futurists and they shouldn’t have to be. Even though the post-pandemic world has us more accustomed to uncertainty than ever before, most everyday folks would rather ignore the mess than confront it face on, which is something as facilitators we must continuously account for.


Unknown wants and needs. I hear it time and time again, “we aren’t sure what we are looking for,” and while there is certainly truth to this statement (as futurists we know that no one can predict the future) it can create unclear expectations and undue wasted effort for those  conducting  the  research and those participating in it. The problem, however, isn’t a lack of desired solutions but rather being in tune with the driving need behind the engagement. Broad briefs result in broad results. To get to truly impactful work, we must be steadfast in the narrowing of the aperture at the start. 


Future skepticism. Participants often find it hard to imagine, at least with any sense of clarity, what the long-term future holds and therefore it’s much easier to resort back to near-term thinking and immediate objectives. To many of them, foresight might just feel like a new, fun, and ‘nice-to-have’ activity, rather than the critically urgent force for change it is. As a futurist, we must constantly strive for credibility when facilitating, which means being much more prepared than our counterparts, having data to support our claims, and being judicious when incorporating energizers or icebreakers.



Alas, fear not. They say awareness is the first step towards conquering any challenge. Here are four simple strategies that can help you out along the way:


1.) Design with intention. Knowing who will be participating in a meeting or workstream helps you to counter-balance diversity through other means and forms. And while quant surveys and AI can further scale represented parties in your research, there are also ways to counteract bias in a workshop setting – like having participants view the situation through the perspective of different personas or by forcing them to solve for the opposite of what they believe to be true. 

 

2.) Give structure to the noise. Break down big picture thinking into digestible increments. Not every participant’s workshop experience must be the same. Design for their strengths, and delegate tasks that allow groups and individuals to go deeper than the obvious or top of mind. Consider the single-minded goal of your session – is it to generate think? To narrow in on a focus? To find synergy or a strategic fit? 


3.) Don’t settle for vagueness. Get to the root of the problem by understanding “the why” behind “the ask.” What is the business fear that initiated this project? Why now? What would be considered success? Explain to participants and stakeholders that making choices at the front doesn’t eliminate possibility in the end, but rather pinpoints where to dig for gold.


4.) Choose commitment over consensus. Not everything has to be group think. In fact, getting to “alignment” is often a fruitless task, and if anything, worth a separate meeting all its own. It’s up to the facilitator to decide whether you want your participants to get to the answer during the session or whether their inputs are simply a means to further the final research. 

 

Remember, facilitation takes practice. Give yourself grace as you try different techniques and develop a style all your own. Ultimately, success lies just as much in the participant enjoyment as the research itself.


 

About the Author:


Jennifer Tsitsopoulos is an innovator and strategist working at the intersection of trends, insight, and foresight to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges via global Fortune 500 brands. She is currently undertaking her Masters in Foresight at the University of Houston, while residing in Brooklyn, New York. To connect with Jennifer, visit her LinkedIn page at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jennifershabshelowitz/.

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