Ten lessons from facilitating strategy with think tanks and policy teams

20 September 2018
SERIES Rethinking organisational development 20 items

A lot of effort goes into developing strategic plans in think tanks and government institutions as means to bring about change. However, in a previous post, I argued that once developed it’s not uncommon for plans to be left on the shelf to gather dust. I went on to say that if organisations are going to change sustainably, strategic planning needs to be seen as an ongoing process which explores the ‘here and now’, and the direction staff are already moving in, rather than a one-off exercise to envision an idealistic future ending in the production of a document.

Since writing that post over two years ago, I’ve put this approach to the test with think tanks and policy teams in various countries including Zimbabwe to varying effects. Here’s what I’ve learned.

1. Understand why strategy is being pursued

Organisations might want to develop strategic plans not because they’re interested in exploring what they might do differently, but because, by doing so, they’re seen as professional (i.e. everyone else appears to be doing so). It might satisfy a desire for certainty amongst senior personnel. Not producing one, might make them feel anxious. A strategy can be a useful marketing tool that describes the organisation in the way they would like to be known by others. Funders (where organisations rely on them) are more likely to give money to an organisation which appears to be certain about ‘where they want to go’ and ‘how they intend to get there’. And being involved in strategy can also provide staff with a sense of belonging and identity. In these situations, pursuing ‘strategy as process’, is likely to be futile.

2. Ensure support from a team and not just an individual

If the person contracting you (the contractor) is supportive of ‘strategy as process’ rather than the production of a document, check that their colleagues are too. If they aren’t and you proceed, you may find yourself with frustrated participants with unrealised expectations. This may also weaken the position of the contractor in relation to the rest of the team.

3. Identify and work with (informal) groups

Organisations tend to emerge from the work of individuals working together in formal and informal groups and associations with the aim of ‘getting things done’. Thus, work with your contractor to identify reasonably coherent groups or associations (within a larger group) with whom you can facilitate conversations. Employees may be more comfortable talking frankly with people they like or work with closely. Groups might cohere due to shared identity (gender, race, age), level of experience, role or function in the organisation or simply because they work closely together. You’ll then want to bring together the various groups to provide space for issues discussed amongst smaller groups to be considered and discussed amongst the larger group. Conversing together in a big group may be an uncomfortable experience for some but provides a space where individuals can deliberate and negotiate with, and become more visible, to each other.

4. Frame and facilitate discussions as if they were a ‘clearing in the forest’

Martin Weegman introduced this concept at 2017 Complexity and Management Conference. Drawing on Heidegge, the clearing provided a space where wanderers in the wood could see the sky and each other. Similarly, employees of a think tank or government institution are often caught up in habitual patterns of thinking and doing with few opportunities to think about what they are thinking and doing. Paying attention to one’s own thoughts and actions, especially with others can be transformative.

5. Encourage participants to take informal conversations from the margins to the mainstream

Changes in actions of employees are likely to start with changes in the conversations they have. As people talk about what they are doing differently, they are likely to think and act differently. However, formal spaces where employees come together to converse tend to be highly structured with little room to talk about issues that may be troubling individuals. Difficult issues are often brought up informally in private, through social media apps such as whatsapp or in person down corridors, whilst filling a glass from the water cooler or over a beverage in a bar/pub. These are the so-called ‘hidden transcripts’. Bringing these informal conversations into formal organisational life can go a long way in highlighting some of the issues people are facing in their work.

6. Encourage people to talk about how they feel

Working together is an emotional endeavour, which can provoke difficult feelings such as shame, anger, irritation, anxiety as well as others. However, employees often ‘armour’ themselves up when conversing with one another, burying difficult feelings, as a way of protecting oneself – uncertain about how others might respond. But expressing one’s humanness and vulnerability in communication with colleagues, can promote empathy and often elicits feelings of warmth and appreciation – improving working relations in the long-run.

7. Be prepared for a considerable degree of anxiety and discomfort

Framing discussions as a clearing and encouraging people to talk about how they feel will inevitably shine a light in the dark corners of the organisation. Differences between participants will emerge. Grievances will be brought to bear. Participants may be critical of each other which in turn will provoke a certain degree of defensiveness in some. Participants may well disagree about the nature of the problems being experienced, potentially leading to finger pointing, blame and fall out. Participants may project, for instance, their anger, onto you as a facilitator, holding you responsible for the difficulty they find themselves in. However, by ‘staying with the trouble’ and not ‘bottling it’, you may find that participants eventually ‘let go’, become more detached and develop the capacity to discuss constructively and find compromise. As Leonard Cohen said “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”. A breakdown of relationship can lead to new patterns of behaviour (though not always to the ‘good’).

8. Be wary of too much structure

You may be tempted to define an agenda for discussions in advance or use 2 by 2 matrices, idealized schemas and/or typologies to guide conversations. Although they can raise useful issues, they can also have the effect of stifling discussion, closing down options and limiting people’s imagination. Relatively free flowing conversations are more likely to reveal new insights. But such conversations can just as easily lead to a dead end. This approach can be unsettling for some who are accustomed to more structured processes, where discipline, obedience and control are preferred.

9. Resist the temptation to be seen as the expert with all the answers

Participants will often look to you to offer solutions to problems or to decide between alternatives. And you may want to do so yourself to justify your fee! But in providing answers, you may unwittingly close down potentially useful exchanges amongst participants (and your suggestions may nevertheless lack context specificity). Rather than feeling compelled to provide advice, see yourself as a broker, bringing together groups in an organisation that don’t usually talk to each other and as a counsellor, asking questions of employees, getting them to acknowledge what they do and how they work with colleagues and offering thoughts about what might be going on between them. Employees usually have a lot of ideas themselves about what they might do differently but are rarely encouraged to share them.  Give them the space to express them and for others to respond or react.

10. Embrace silence during discussions

During conversations there may be moments of silence. Participants (especially if they are mother tongue English speakers) may feel unsettled and look to you to say something – anything to break the silence. And given the power you’ve been granted as facilitator, you may well relent. However, not talking doesn’t mean people are not engaged. Silence can be a powerful force. During difficult or complicated discussions, silence can help participants to make sense of what’s been said. It can help calm people down where emotions may be running high. Periods of silence also allow those who are more reserved and introverted the opportunity to think and make a contribution to the discussion. As a result, you may want to create periods of silence (through spells of mindfulness or meditation) to facilitate this.