Gunner on Facilitative Leadership, Online Discussion Notes

FabRiders’ Network-Centric Resources Project supports the development of people-powered and participatory resources that establish assets for networks and communities. Our past online discussions have focused on developing content with and for communities and network’s, such as Heather Leson on curating data-literacy social learning curriculum with Humanitarians in IFRC’s Data Playbook, Greg Bloom on co-creating Data Standards with Health and human service providers through his organisation Open Referral, or Sarah Allen on designing MozFest as a replication of a healthy internet by getting 2000 people under one roof, collaborating.

On April 23rd, 2019, we had an online discussion with Allen Gunn (AKA Gunner) from Aspiration about his experience in providing, supporting and developing Facilitative Leadership. We were fortunate to be joined by over 35 participants who contributed to the note-taking via the online chat room. Here are some of the take-aways they shared:

Facilitative leadership: 

  • Is a work in progress
  • centres on creating agency and equity.
  • is about designing systems for everyone to achieve a goal collectively
  • balances power dynamics, people focused on collective outcomes are the people we want to give power to, while subverting power from those that take power for themselves and away from the collective.
  • gives proactive attention to little g governance. Eg: use simple language, make one point at a time, speak 1/Nth of the time. What’s the minimum viable governance construct you can reference, 
  • uses Iterative negotiation, a pattern of ‘ask before you tell’. Then counter proposing a path forward.
  • Prioritizes collectivism over expert-ism. 
  • Negotiate shared values around governance upfront. When IN process evoke unassailable outcomes: 1. focus on outcomes and 2. Invoke the collective
  • Engage every participant in advance, ask what their needs are, preflight anyone who is going to have a hard time with facilitative model

Other take-aways 

  • I really feel Gunner’s point here about pre-work as someone who gets brought in as a facilitator at the last minute to ‘save’ an event or process and I have to push for time to talk with participants in advance, talk about ground rules and start eliciting expectations
  • “what aspects of governance matter to you the most?” better than asking for specific pratices
  • I like calling the “parking lot” of un-sorted data to “Zombie garden” because if you don’t address they return to bite you!
  • To be a respected facilitative leaders, it’s important that you finish or follow up on what was discussed after the sessions.
  •  Follow up and honoring the work done by the participants…  Also honoring during the actual event and asking someone to scribe each breakout group and getting their notes before event ends…
  • On the follow up, I think a major challenge is the energy drop after an event, when people scatter and think ‘the facilitator will clean up.’ co-creation means some co-responsibility for follow up
  • Anytime you come into the room knowing what people need, that’s not facilitative leadership. Unless you’ve already talked to the folks, and asked them in advance, and that’s how you know what they need
  • Facilitating is a priviledge and you need to be humble in the role.
Kate Wing‘s Notes

During the discussion we asked participants to break up into groups of three to four to discuss how their leadership values and idealised leadership models relate to what we were describing. The takeaways shared from the small group breakouts included:

  • Good facilitative leadership often only recognised after the fact. Can make it tricky to combine humble approach, and advocating for the need for facilitation (particularly in academia)
  • challenge of the concept to leadership, importance/ resonance of small ‘g’ governance
  • more of a horizontal structure of leadership that also develops leadership in the org/of the team
  • that sometimes the N-1/nth formal is not appropriate to the needs of the participants, who may have come specifically to hear from an “expert”.
  • I shared my dilemma of striking the balance between involving everyone and making sure stuff happens. We also heard about picking up social cues when people want to participate, rather than calling on people we know and thrusting facilitation on them.
  • sit in a circle together
  • c5 also mentioned that small group (1:1) is a good place to subvert namedrop tendency and ensure that “connection” oriented discussion is in the right tone (gifting connection). it’s less performative, so toxic namedropping less likely
  • We spoke about balancing the desire for facilitative leadership vs. the need to move things along. Also how to prevent folks from *foisting* leadership on to someone who is perhaps or informed but wants to play in an ensemble vs. “taking leadership”
  • We explored the relationship between meeting design and facilitative leadership. How does design/activities either help or hinder participation?
  • “if 8 ppl can’t even come to a decision together without a facilitative approach, then what hope do we have to tackle the larger work?”

Also see, Thiago’s excellent notes from the discussion.

And scroll down past the video for Dirk’s raw discussion notes.

Resources shared:

The online discussion in full

Dirk’s Raw Notes

Balancing power dynamics – people focused on collective outcomes are the people we want to give power to, while we disempower those that are building and contributing to individual power. It’s about subverting those people who are taking power for themselves and thus taking it away from that. 
Subverting power dynamics that build power and control
It’s about building a narrative that grounds communities in a common goal
A facilitative leader enables collective action through governance – and small g – governance – this isn’t about bureaucracies. make the governance simple and in plain language that everyone can understand and remember.  (i.e – in a small group speak 1/nth of the time – nth being the number of people in the group.
Iterative negotiation – having a pattern of ‘ask before you tell’ – asking the group what should be done next, before telling them what they should do next.
A facilitative leader guides everyone through the process and share’s ownership of it.
We’re conditioned from a very early age to listen to the person at the front of the room.  Listen to the teacher, expert, rock star. This model turns that around to say ‘we need to use all the brains in the room, rather than just one’. 
Open projects are a great place to learn about how to do governance – Debian is an example – the reproducible builds team – the leaders know how to get inputs and then negotiate the best ways to move forward.  So they aren’t doing everything they get input, but they take it all in.
Individuals that can do Facilitative Leadership, understand that the knowledge in the room is greater than their own.  The knowledge to get to the remit does not lie in one individual, but in the collection of humans that are together in the room.  A facilitative leader is guiding the group via governance to the goal.
With people that are more used to a ‘front of the room’ approach to doing things – you need to negotiate with them first on the process for getting things done. Invoke unassailable things – so Invoke what the goal is – and then if someone says, we can only get there with someone at the front of the room, gently remind them that a richer and more effective way to get to the goal is to use the collective mind.  Negotiat with your partners to get there – it may take awhile.
Funders fetishise expertism – they need to stop it and fetishise collectivism.
A good narrative is so important.  So if you are pushing a collective approach to people that aren’t used to it, you need to make sure they understand what the process is before they get into a room.  
You need to engage individuals before any important meeting to understand what they think is important to be accomplished and to pre-flight them on the process.
Reasons people might push back on a collective process:

  • Fear of having to speak
  • Undermines their power 
  • Fear of the unknown .
  • People have experience bad facilitation

You need to articulate the benefit of everything you are asking people to do. You need to be ready to admit that you might not have the answer to everything. You are ready to take feedback and integrate it to make the collective action better.
Find out what people think Leadership is. Asking people what aspect of governance is important to them. Be careful about how you ask the question – don’t ask a question that will start wars.
Facilitative Leadership – you are the voice authority (be back here in five minutes or else) and then you are the court jester (yes, we’re throwing post-it notes up on the wall and it seems crazy)
Tell after you ask. Tell after you listen. Tell after you do.
Three steps     

  • Step one – data generation (people write on post-it notes and put them on the wall, unsorted)       
  • Step two – organise the data (sort the post-it notes into columns and label the columns)        
  • Step three – data analysis (vote on the most important columns to address 

Yes, you generate a lot of data – but you are processing it and determining how to move forward.
Facilitative Leadership – honours the work being done as it is being done, and guides people along the way
Use a model of two to one or three to one in prep time – so for one day meeting it’s likely 16 hours.  Factors that might impact the amount of time it takes to do prep, number of participants, complexity of goals, participants mental health. 
Within large institutions, facilitative leadership will be about empowering the disempowered. To give those people a sense of voice.  ‘Hey, let’s collaborate on this document’.  You need to engage senior leadership about the positive aspects of using the collective knowledge in their institution – invoke the ‘i’ word. You’ll have greater ‘impact’ if you effectively engage everyone in the institution. You can use Participatory and inclusive processes or you are going to be left behind. It’s about teaching labour to subvert and claim back power