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Participation and its Facilitation

In today’s fast-paced world of constant change and pressure for responsiveness, all organizations must dance to new rhythms. And so the Giants are finally waking up and learning to dance…One of the most important dance steps they are learning is to involve their people in problem-solving and planning...Rosabeth Moss Kanter (foreword to Winning Through Participation) 

Late last year BBC TV presented a programme in which the leading ballerina of the Royal Ballet, Covent Garden took on the task of learning new dancing styles (she began with belly dancing). In order to practice a new dancing style she had to unlearn many of the techniques and ways of moving that are necessary for a great ballerina. This was not easy. And so it is for both individuals and organizations when it comes to change, especially when the change has to do with people’s involvement in problem-solving and decision making.

Organizations, and people in these organizations, are learning a new dancing style because the music the world is playing has changed. The stylized music of ball-room dancing that used to deliver the profits generation after generation has been replaced with a rapidly changing and bewilderingly complex music. If you do not dance to the new music you do not survive long. The rhythm of participation runs through all of this new music and is fundamental. This is no accident.

In The Age of Participation the authors suggest why participation is not just the ‘flavor of the month’ but rather a response to ongoing historical trends in the organizational evolution of the world.

  • Today we don’t need masses of people in the middle ranges of the hierarchy to collect and analyze information - "people get much of their information directly," - and in an usable format. This means that more and more people in an organization can manage their own activities and participate in the life of the organization without direction from above.

  • As increased interdependence and globalization become the norm we are realizing that the walls and barriers that have separated us in the past must be breached. "Increased interdependence requires increased participation."

  • Technology widens the responsibility of each worker for the overall well-being of the enterprise. "Technology in the work itself makes each person’s impact more significant and his or her commitment and involvement more critical."

  • The demise of the ‘job for life’ reality is also driving organizations toward participation. "The old paternalistic security must be replaced by a new sense of control."

  • Finally, the emerging power of the customer to shop the world to find exactly what he or she wants at the best quality and best price means that organisations must empower the person who receives the customers’ request "…to do whatever it takes to get and keep the customer. In other words, people have to be able to think, choose, and participate."

Thus organizations find themselves struggling to enable authentic participation for greater and greater numbers of their employees. This inevitably involves people gathering in working groups, teams, etc. When any group meets there are two dynamics going on. One has to do with the content of the meeting—the subject or focus of the meeting—the what of the meeting. The second dynamic has to do with the process of the meeting—the activities the group uses to deal with the content—the how of the meeting. Even when a group has an informal open discussion (a family around a dinner table) these two realities are present. Most people never think about process when they find themselves in or leading a meeting. And yet the most widely voiced criticisms of meetings are related to process. The age-old cries—"It’s a waste of time!" "We never get anything decided!" "It never goes anywhere!"—have to do with the process of a meeting not its content.

Facilitation is the art/skill of using processes to enable authentic participation in a group’s work to accomplish its objectives. Roger M Schwarz, says in The Skilled Facilitator, "Group facilitation is a process in which a person who is acceptable to all members of the group, substantively neutral, and has no decision-making authority intervenes to help a group improve the way it identifies and solves problems and makes decisions, in order to increase the group’s effectiveness."

Peter Senge in The Dance of Change states simply, "Most change initiatives fail." Authentic participation is not simple or easy and we are still learning but it is fundamental to the dance we find ourselves in—the dance of profound organizational change. The first thing the ballerina did in order to become a belly dancer was to find herself a good teacher. New music and new rhythms require new moves—authentic participation is a life-giving experience for a group. Facilitation is about enabling this life-giving rhythm in the dance of change.

Back to Articles overview

  1. McLagan, Patricia & Nel, Christo. The Age of Participation, New Governance for the Workplace and the World. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. San Francisco, 1995. (Pages 15-17) 
  2. Schwarz, Roger M. The Skilled Facilitator, Practical Wisdom for Developing Effective Groups. Jossey-Bass Publishers. San Francisco, 1994. (Page 4)
  3. Senge, Peter, et.al. The Dance of Change, The Challenges of Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London. 1999. (Page 5)
  4. Spencer, Laura. Winning Through Participation, Meeting the Challenge of Corporate Change with the Technology of Participation. Published by The Institute of Cultural Affairs, 1989. (Page xi) 

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