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Complex Adaptive Systems and the Future of Facilitation

by Bryan on February 2, 2006


A number of years ago I wrote some simple rules for facilitation of ideation and idea development with large groups using some of Stu Kaufmann’s ideas around patch logic (from his book At Home in the Universe). The rules weren’t quite right but the execution over the years has yielded some surprising results.

People in collaboration seem very uncomfortable not knowing what’s going on. I should rephrase that because it’s impossible for a person to know what’s going on in a collaborative endeavor. Instead, people accept an illusion that they know what’s going on. So they tend to want to stay in large group all the time so they can hear everything, for example. In reality, they’re hearing almost nothing. Imagine sixty people in a room working on a problem of creating a strategy for a new product launch. One of them can talk at a time. If each one talks for a minute, then over the course of an hour each person talks only once. What does each person do with the other 59 minutes? Listen? Highly doubtful. Even with the best of active listening skills, a person fades away after fifteen minutes or so. Take notes? Well, so now we have sixty sets of notes and doodles. What’s the value–collaboratively speaking–in that?

If I put the 60 people into ten teams for an hour, now ten people get to talk at once. Ten more get to capture ideas on a flip chart at the same time. Everyone gets to speak for six minutes. The pace of the dialog acclerates. Further, if I give each of these teams an assignment to create something then I end up with ten products. Even if eight are worthless, the value of the remaining two probably eclipses whatever a group of 60 might have come up with together.

Now if I ask the 60 people to solve the problem individually for 20 minutes and then get into ten teams to put their ideas together to create something, I’ve got 1200 minutes of intense creation and involvement by all the individuals, followed by 400 minutes of intense discussion (one speaker at a time in ten teams for 40 minutes). Compared to the first example, I’ve leveraged 60 minutes into 1600 minutes of “speaking” versus 60 minutes of speaking.

Now comes the problem. People at some point feel like they’re not connected to the rest of the teams and want to hear what they’ve been doing. It’s necessary for them to know what the other teams have been doing because the next stage in the process is to take the ideas and solutions and recombine them together in another iteration of work. This represents the opportunity for crossbreeding and a test for the fitness of the ideas. Through the iterations, the most fit solution will emerge without need for any other decision making approach. But if I have ten teams talk about what they just did in succession, that’s about 100 minutes. And you know what happens in those 100 minutes. That’s right–one person at a time talks and everyone else zones out. HUGE waste of time.

There are some alternatives. One is to have representatives from each of the ten teams go out to other teams during the process and find out individually what they’ve been up to and bring those ideas back. So, in each team, one person stays in place and the remaining five people split up and go to five other teams. Rotate once more and now each team of six has touched each of the other teams in the session and they return with the ideas to their home team and incorporate the ideas into the product. Now I’ve used 20 minutes and each team now has information from every other team.

Or… if there is time, each team posts its results. The best way to do this is with a picture, some text that describes the diagram and a brief 3 minute video tellling the story of what went on in the team. The results are posted to an Intranet and everyone can peruse whatever they want to as the session moves forward.

The most difficult problem left to solve is how to move the work to the next round. In other words, let’s say that the group of sixty people is working on coming up with a new product. They might do a couple of rounds generating new product ideas as individuals and in teams. Some rotating between team rounds would cross-breed the ideas and some interesting ones would emerge. Now what? We need to move the best ideas into further modeling and testing. So we need a method to tell which ideas are the most fit–even if it’s as simple as the interest that people in the group take in them. Then we need a way for people to sign up to work on the ideas they’re most interested in. And we need a way to document everything so that teams have a record of the ideas moving forward. And a record of the individuals associated with each idea so they can go back to the source and ask questions of them for clarification. A report of a team’s idea is terribly compressed and it takes interaction with the people who were on that team to unpack or uncompress the ideas back to understandability.

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