“The crisis of our time isn’t just a crisis of a single leader, organization, country, or conflict. The crisis of our time reveals the dying of an old social structure and way of thinking, an old way of institutionalizing and enacting collective social forms.” ~C. Otto Scharmer, Theory U: Learning from the Future as It Emerges
The world today is undergoing massive upheavals and change — ecological, social, political, technological, demographic, and more. Organizations are not immune from the impact of these interconnected forces, and are on the cusp of a massive transformation. A shift from viewing organizations as “machines of production and profit” to perceiving organizations as complex, adaptive, living systems shaped by interconnectedness and relationships is gradually taking place. Newtonian physics has given way to Quantum physics and Chaos Theory presenting a completely different view of the world. It is now apparent that our volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world won’t lend itself to being controlled and managed. Organizations situated in this VUCA world are struggling to survive using traditional methods of management and leadership — top-down, linear, control-driven, constantly striving for predictability in an unpredictable world. The map is no longer adequate; the terrain has changed.
Thought leaders, writers, and wayfinders like Frederic Laloux in his Reinventing Organizations, Michelle Holliday in The Age of Thrivability, Giles Hutchins in Future Fit, Norman Wolf in The Living Organization, Otto Scharmer in Leading from the Emerging Future and Theory U, Margaret Wheatley in all her works, but especially in Leadership and the New Science, have been writing about and heralding an era of organizations and leadership of the future. They speak about organizations not only as living systems but also as conscious beings with their own Evolutionary Purpose.
In response to the challenges of VUCA, there have also emerged new organizational models, frameworks, and organizing principles that take a living system’s/network view of organizations while keeping in mind the affordances of technology and a globally connected world. Some of these are Wirearchy, Sociocracy, Holacracy, Networked Organization… These organizational models and works are all indicating a move from a linear, cause and effect driven, efficiency-focused worldview to one of myriad complexity, interconnectedness, unpredictability laced with an inner coherence, and a need to take a holistic view.
This shift to a “living system” view of organization necessitates discarding many of our current beliefs, frameworks, and methodologies. Organization as a “living system” cannot be managed; it needs to be stewarded and nurtured. People are no longer replaceable cogs but unique individuals with endless potential. Processes are not rigid rules; they are guidelines aligned with the organization’s higher Purpose intended to support individuals and teams in accomplishing their work in the most creative way possible. Hierarchy is replaced by networks of individuals and teams. Boundaries are porous and permeable creating open, responsive systems.
Organizations with this view begin to function as platforms and ecosystems for “communities of interconnected nodes”, who collectively work toward a larger purpose. The reason for the organization’s existence, its raison d’etre, takes precedence over increasing shareholder value. And organizations like Patagonia, Buurtzorg, FAVI, Whole Foods, Jaipur Rugs, and many more have shown that this is possible.
Not only does perceiving an organization through the lens of a living system require deep paradigm shifts but also necessitates very different kind of leadership and organizational capacities. Machines are geared for efficiency, repeatability, and production; a living system is tuned to be responsive, creative, adaptable, resilient. Machines have parts that work together in a certain predictable order; a living system is deeply interconnected, complex with an underlying coherence (e.g., the human body). A machine cannot adjust to changing context; a living system responds to changing environment and evolves to its next level. A machine has no conscience or consciousness; a living system has both.
Having said this, it is true that organizations cannot transform overnight into a different way of operating. Even with the best of intentions and the highest of visions, organizations will struggle to shift gear. It is not only a perspective shift but also a profound inner capacity shift that must take place. As visionary leaders and progressive organizations grapple with and embark on their journey of transformation, two underlying principles are emerging as common factors in the living systems view — collaboration and self-management.
These have lately become almost buzzwords in the organizational sphere — every organization wants a culture of collaboration and self-management is the “in-thing.” However, these are outcomes of a certain kind of culture, leadership, vision, and org design. They cannot be mandated, bolted on top of an existing, traditional way of operating, achieved merely through processes and policies, or by introducing technology. As I mulled over this, it seemed to me that one of the core organizational capacities that can usher in this era of “Next Stage Organizations” is Facilitation. Facilitation is often mistaken for some methods and processes that experienced trainers use during workshops to run successful sessions. I am not talking about that kind of facilitation, which is an important skill by itself.
I am talking about Facilitation as a way of being that offers safe space, creates a container for exploration, makes way for emergence, enables collaboration and co-creation, builds a culture of inclusion, and helps to align discrete actions with and towards a larger purpose. I believe it’s as necessary a leadership skill today as planning, organizing, and controlling was fifty or seventy years ago. I came across this beautiful definition in the article: Next Stage for Self-Management: Skilled Facilitator Training.
Facilitation, or facilitative leadership is the dynamic and effective ability to move a process along in the most inclusive, focused, energized and alive way possible.
In this context, I have tried to explain the underlying competencies of facilitation so necessary to thrive today.
Hold space for complexity and emergence — Today’s challenges will not be solved by using yesterday’s best practices or logic. However, even when we cognitively know this, our innate human tendency — especially during times of stress and uncertainty — is to cling to old ways, rush in to fill the void, find an answer, and move on as quickly as possible. Staying with the uncertain and the ambiguous makes us nervous. We don’t like how this feels — the rising heartbeat, the tightening solar plexus, the dry throat… . When a group collectively feels such sensations, the urge will be to move towards the first obvious answer and available “action”. It is reassuring to come up with action items that promise to take us toward an imaginary solution. This is when we become reactive as opposed to staying responsive.
This is precisely where facilitation and facilitative leadership play a huge role in keeping the group centered, present, and receptive. Effective facilitation enables individuals and groups to go deeper into the zone of discomfort, probe and sense, let go of old patterns, and co-create from the emerging future. One such facilitative process is the U process that Otto Scharmer describes in Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges.
However, this is not easy. This is not merely about using the tools and methods of facilitation; the inner condition of the facilitator is extremely crucial as well.
“The success of any intervention is completely dependent upon the interior condition of the intervenor.” By William O’Brien, Former CEO, Hanover Insurance
When done well, effective facilitation can lead a group from breaking down to breakthroughs.
Stay centered on the participatory process — Self-managed organizations are not only about managing the self (which is crucial) but are also about participatory processes. Such organizations value autonomy, purpose, and non-hierarchical structures. Collaboration and cooperation are foundational elements of a successful and thriving self-managed organization. Since decisions are no longer driven from the top, it becomes imperative to have processes that are inclusive. However, these do not happen automatically just by removing positional power or by flattening the organizational pyramid. Crafting and nurturing a culture of self-management require deliberate and effective facilitative leadership and interventions. Samantha Slade’s Going Horizontal has many practical examples and methods for organizations embarking on this journey.
Either individuals can self-identify to become facilitators or teams can select facilitators on a rotating basis — what is important is that the skills of facilitation be built into and across the organization.
Tap into the potential present in the room — Effective facilitation is not only about moving the process along but doing so in the most effective and inclusive manner possible. This means tapping into the diversity of the group, and holding multiple perspectives even in the face of cognitive dissonance. IMHO, one of the hallmarks of effective facilitation is to stay with paradoxes, feel the dissonance, and not give in to an “either/or” view. This requires creating a safe container for all the voices to emerge, to help the room see and sense what is surfacing, and thus discover the “magic in the middle”.
Be aware of the different capacities of individuals — I was listening to the Google Book Talk by Diane Musho Hamilton yesterday when she said something that struck a chord. I am paraphrasing my understanding here. She speaks about the necessity to broaden and deepen our abilities to hold diverse perspectives, especially in the face of complexity. Nonetheless, she emphasizes that this is a capacity that needs to be built, and not everyone is or will be at the same level.
For a facilitator, it is important to be conscious of the different capacities that exist in a group. This requires a subtle and nuanced ability to stay present, open, and inclusive. Often, we might run the risk of labeling people as “closed” if they are unable to hole a wide a range of views or slip into an “us vs. them” position. As a facilitator, the questions and interventions used are important in keeping biases from taking over. The importance of the “inner condition” of the facilitator cannot be stressed enough.
Help the system see itself — A good facilitator is a pattern connector and sense-maker for the system. Through effective processes and holding the space, they can connect the specifics to the larger context thus helping the room/system discover the patterns at play. This shared awareness creates the conditions for fast, flexible, and fluid decision-making at the point of need. This is what makes an organization responsive, adaptable, and effective. Helping organizations build shared awareness and enabling the system to sense and see itself are critical skills that can transform how an organization perceives itself, its connection with the larger purpose, and its role in society.
Facilitation and facilitative leadership can help organizations embrace the potentials of the VUCA world, flow with the changes, and thrive even in what seems like chaos. Because underneath the chaos lies a hidden order that will emerge if given space and attention.