This post originally appeared on 30 November, 2012 on the blog of Rhizome, a co-operative providing facilitation, mediation, consensus building and training to grassroots activists and to organisations that support them. When I wrote it I was an employee of Oxfam GB.
‘Oxfam is planning to pilot a new annual campaigning event, and we recently decided to ask our activist network for help in working out what it could look like. Staff had already been through a rigorous innovation process, and we wanted to consult on the initial outcomes. But we didn’t think our ideas were strong enough, and were looking to their grassroots campaigning expertise to add a bit of inspiration.
We provided a really challenging brief for Emily and Maria, our Rhizome facilitators, for a one-day creative workshop, held in October. Inevitably, our internal priorities and plans stopped us from being objective; working with Emily and Maria freed the process from the straitjacket of our organisational thinking. Understanding that our very specific needs from the day could easily hamper people’s creativity, we basically briefed them to manage us! Ceding control allowed the three Oxfam staff members present to observe ideas as they emerged, and participate in discussions, without limiting the productivity of thoughts and conversations (this definitely wasn’t a focus group!).
What resulted was a very sophisticated piece of facilitation, controlling (not a comfortable word!) the space and the energy in it to generate the kinds of outcomes we had hoped for, opening up possibilities by stimulating “left brain” thinking, before helping the group sort, evaluate, and then develop its ideas.
This word “control”. Anyone who regularly facilitates groups has at hand a range of more or less powerful techniques to guide processes, manage interactions, and help groups achieve tasks, whether operating in fairly open spaces, or to more predetermined briefs, as here. In my own facilitation life, I’m interested in the power of relinquishing control to others, collaboratively exploring things like notions of identity, and releasing motivation through story telling (this learning document, co-written with Richard Watts from the everyone foundation, sets out a few of my preoccupations!). But a power relationship inevitably exists between the members of a group and its facilitators and organisers. This can sometimes be based in part on relative levels of skill and self-awareness, but more often, is just a function of the leadership that is tacitly assumed by people with roles assigned to them by organisations such as Oxfam. Of course these roles come with a certain set of skills and access to knowledge. But fundamentally, it is the participants in a session who decide, consciously or not, to give power to the people running the session, and/or to their fellow participants.
It was a real pleasure to watch two very skilled people negotiate these sensitivities, helping a big and well-resourced organisation with a very clear sense of what it wanted, do something which, by its nature, it couldn’t do by itself. Our exercise of control was to recognise our own weakness.
Note: these are my personal thoughts and not those of Oxfam GB.’
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