From education to employment

A matter of democracy


A few weeks ago I experienced Dynamic Facilitation (DF) and Wisdom Councils first hand when Jim Rough, the US based creator of these processes delivered his three-day workshop in London, which was hosted by my company Change that Matters. As a company we are interested in finding useful ways for engaging with organisations and communities to bring about meaningful and lasting change and following conversations with colleagues in Austria and Switzerland DF and Wisdom Councils looked like likely contenders. Having been a participant and a facilitator of the Wisdom Council process, I think Wisdom Councils have a lot to contribute towards exploring the role of democracy in solving many of the complex problems that ail our society.

The intention of Dynamic Facilitation is choice creating rather than decision making. We have all taken part in conventionally facilitated meetings. Participants are usually led through a process, in which the whole group of participants is expected to move in linear fashion from one process step to the next. Everyone needs to be on the same page in such a meeting. The first step may be that the group explores the nature of the problem in more detail, this may be followed by an exploration of possible solutions, key barriers may be identified next and a SMART action plan tends to conclude the discussion. I have facilitated meetings like this myself and they work perfectly well with certain kinds of problems – fairly simple ones. These conventional meetings serve to organise the thinking, get focus behind implementation and manage risks successfully. However, increasingly teams, organisations, communities and society face issues that are highly complex. So much so that at times there is confusion or at least disagreement about what the problem actually is. When we look at the global crisis that we are currently facing how would you define what the the problem is? Is it human nature, population growth, religion, the neo- liberal economic system, climate change, our food system, the financial system, or addiction to growth? These issues create passion, emotion and energy but they remain unresolved. So often discussions are a battle between egos whether at international or local level. The situation gets polarised by people of different opinions, the focus is too often on determining who is right and who is wrong and which side we can agree with rather than on looking for resonance and for creating new choices which will resolve the situation. Issues get analysed and through that divided into increasingly smaller chunks. This makes the junks seemingly more manageable but they frequently cease to be representative of how we perceive the problem. This breaking down of the larger systemic issue also squashes the energy because somehow we don?t feel so passionate about the bits as we did about the whole. The focus may be better but it is on something we don?t much care about. Dynamic Facilitation on the other hand wants to use the energy we have for the issue by allowing us to deal with it in its full messiness.

In a DF meeting participants sit in a semi-circle with four flipcharts and a trained facilitator in front of them. There is a flipchart each for problem-statements, solutions, data and concerns. The role of participants is to be authentic and bring their understanding of the problem, solutions, supporting data and concerns about the problem to the meeting at any time. There is no such thing as “not relevant at this stage” or “can you hang on to this thought till later” or even “maybe at a different meeting”. Every contribution is acknowledged and written down on the flipcharts. The facilitator sorts the contributions by putting them on the most appropriate flipchart, protects contributors and what they have said, asks questions to elicit further details and helps individuals to be brought into the conversation. It is tough work for the facilitator to keep the flame of a group of 8 to 12 people burning, whilst honouring each and every contribution and keeping the red thread going. This is challenging as participants can, with their words and contributions, be on


any flipchart at any time. It is not the facilitator?s role to guide people to focus on solutions, problems, concerns or data but to get their contribution most meaningfully into the space. The group of participants goes through several phases usually starting off with what is referred to as a purge, the stage when all the feelings that have been stored up about the topic come out. This can be a very heated phase which because of its unloading function rarely reveals novel insights. However, once people have said whatever they needed to say a very productive stage is reached that often culminates in an insight for the whole group. Participants reach conclusions, reframe the problem and generate the energy to do something about it.

Wisdom Councils use Dynamic Facilitation with a group of about 12 randomly selected people within a community or organisation who come together for a day and a half, often a Friday afternoon and Saturday, to talk bout issues that matter to them. We are not talking about a topic pre-determined important by whoever is considered in charge but one that emerges from We The People, very often consisting of individuals who may not carry any formal authority within an organisation or community. Instead of taking decisions, which is a cutting-away, choice-creating delivers additionality. There is no voting on the best solution and no formal consensus but a working together till everyone feels it is quite clear what the intelligent responses to the issue at hand are. Participants bring the knowledge but also their feelings and experiences into the Wisdom Council.
After a day and half the randomly selected Wisdom Council then reports back its solutions and its thinking to a wider group, which in the case of large organisations may still only represent a small microcosm of the whole.

The commitment to act is not based on the Wisdom Council having the personal power to make changes across the whole organisation or community themselves but by bringing issues into the wider forum, the issues and solutions will find resonance and those who have commissioned the Wisdom Council are being held accountable by the people. Once a commitment to the process is made, Wisdom Councils are convened every 6 months and the conversation that follows is ongoing.

The potential of the this way of working has been spotted by the Office for Future Affairs in Austria, where the Wisdom Council is used as a vehicle for social and political change across the federal province of Vorarlberg in Austria. The Office for Future Affairs in Austria however is not alone in adopting the Wisdom Council as a way of creating change through conversations that matter, Swisscom a communications company in Switzerland as well as communities in Canada, New Zealand and the US work successfully with these processes.

What resonates deeply with me is that Dynamic Facilitation intends to work with the complexity of an issue and therefore focuses on the system rather than its components. Although tougher for the facilitator, there is a high level of scope for change that goes well beyond doctoring symptoms. Wisdom Councils appeal because they want to work with this passion that people have for complex issues and quite different from Stephen Covey?s recommendation in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for people to concentrate on their circle of control and influence i.e. the things that they can directly influence and control such as their diet, their own education and exercise habits, Wisdom Councils want to get people involved in the circle of concerns. These are the things that we often feel powerless to change. Wisdom Councils are a mechanism for organisations and society to reclaim that ability to influence and co-create. I can see huge potential for using wisdom councils to engage learners, employees and local communities and for people to have a say on things that really matter to them.

Andrea Gewessler is director of Change that Matters Ltd, an independent company working with organisations and communities to bring about transformational change through dialogue, collaboration and innovation, and is particularly active in the sustainability field. Her work is inspired by systems thinking, the U-process developed at MIT as well as some of the emerging social technologies such as Future Search, Open Space, Change Labs and World Cafe. You can also follow Andrea on Twitter

(Photograph credit: Seamus Ryan)


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