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Once a couple of years ago, I was in a car listening to my sister swear at the voice on her car’s GPS system and I once rented  a car with the sometimes handy device. Until recently, that was the extent of my expertise with car directional GPS systems but in the last month  a series in the Doonesbury comic strip  and a quick Google search has expanded my expertise about car GPS systems.  I now know that many GPS systems work by mixing and matching fewer than 60 snippets of words. Imagine that driving from cost to coast is dependent on two or three minutes worth of voice commands ordered and re-ordered in ways designed to keep you going in the right direction.  Okay, this may sound like trivial pursuit but there is a point to this digression into minutia.

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In my experience, many facilitators are as efficient and effective as GPS systems.  When the goal is to lead a group from point A to point B good facilitators, adept at using a few skills well, can direct a group. When the meeting gets lost, a good facilitator reshuffles his/her directions in order to get the group back on the right road.  Effective meeting management is an essential linear process facilitator skill but unfortunately, facilitation is increasingly less about getting from point A to point B in a linear fashion.  Governance and networking thinking is collaborative and non-linear and, as a result, facilitation is fundamentally changing.

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This month I have been following a theme in my posts about the shift in business practice away from hierarchy and towards governance and network thinking as they relate to the practice of facilitation.  In my last post, I described the role of the theory of empowerment education as a primary influence for facilitators operating in a “governance” or “networked” environment.  In this post I want to further expand on the concept of constructivism  in facilitation.

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First we need to define constructivism in a practical way.  Constructivism is the principle that learning is fostered through putting together the pieces in order to create a whole rather than deconstructing the whole into the parts.  By reflecting on experience, embracing ambiguity and paradox, and learning collectively groups find more meaningful knowledge.  Constructivism is about an iterative process rather than linear thinking and as such, requires new ways of facilitating. In this context, the traditional GPS facilitation tools associated with hierarchical, government thinking are inadequate to address the self-direction that constructivism demands.

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At the same time we need to recognize that a constructivist shift in facilitation is not an either/or proposition.  Clear meeting facilitation skills are fundamental to any facilitation process. Constructivism simply expands the facilitator’s skills and demands that s/he approach groups with constructivist tasks such as: creating, deciding, predicting, designing and analyzing.   For a facilitator such action verbs suggest more than running a good meeting.  Facilitating in a constructivist environment suggests three overarching frames:

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Facilitate in Ambiguity:  Often, constructivist approaches require a facilitator to be comfortable with ambiguity.  The mantra that “chaos is okay” runs counter to the command and control style of good meeting process.  But for constructivism to work, it often takes a process of several iterative cycles from broad to narrow and from disorder to order.  Hanging out in the space of ambiguity needs to be okay. Unfortunately, typical facilitation doesn’t make such space but rather moves rapidly from a brainstorm list to a priority list.  In a typical process, speed and order are valued over process and synthesis but in a constructivist environment the opposite is true.  In constructivism, efficiency takes a back row to process and understanding.

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Facilitate for Construction:  Often facilitators bring to a group process a tool bag full of deconstruction tools.  How do we take this problem apart, break it into manageable tasks and fix it. Facilitating in a constructivist environment requires construction tools, as constructivism is a systems-thinking skill.  The tools of construction require space where participants can learn and build. Scenario planning, storyboarding, open space technology, video narrative, and concept mapping, are examples of constructivist tools that might be used to facilitate a constructivist environment.

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Facilitate from Authenticity:  The third overarching frame for the facilitator in a constructivist environment is to be authentic.  I have seen a facilitator manage a group claiming that the process would be a blank slate in which the participants could create, design and decide.  However, as the process unfolded it was clear that the agenda was not a “tabula rasa” but was, in reality, largely predetermined.  In the end, participants in the process felt that it was disingenuous and, “yet one more reason not to trust the hierarchy.”  Constructivism decentralizes power and should only be used when equity and empowerment are the transparent goals.

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Constructivism can be a powerful construct in facilitation, especially in the new reality of facilitating in the context of a network and where the process matters as much, if not more than the outcome.  Old school facilitation where chart paper is inked up and participants are taken from start to finish as if on an amusement park ride are less and less relevant in today’s challenging economic times.  The new breed of facilitation is thinking more deeply about theory and frameworks across several academic disciplines. In this context, constructivism and empowerment are emerging foundation stones of a new facilitation practice.

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As always your comments are welcome.

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Further Study:

I want to thank Bernie Dodge, faculty at SDSU’s EDTec program, whose generous knowledge sharing has over the years continues to influence my practice and thinking. http://www.slideshare.net/bdodge

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Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.