Most often working alone with clients, the design facilitator becomes self-sufficient in their own resources of memory. They don’t form a collective memory. As we will note below, there is a risk of continual revisionism about the successes and failures for the facilitator, as they are left largely autonomous in their interpretation of a complex event. So after the event their memory is more than usually solitary. But more critically, their work does not build on a collective memory. It lacks the nuanced colour and movement of the inputs normal in a culture. Once in a facilitated conversation, the design facilitator has few cues as to the history present: Is what was just said original, a cliché, an espoused or despised view?
Why does this lack of texture and historical constraint matter? Because at that point the psychology of being present begins to mimic those pathologies that treat context as emotionally indifferent.
We become the gynaecologists of innovation births, but risk daring to say to the mother “I know just how you feel”. We believe that working with managers makes us experienced at management.
And of course, this feature of systems gives us a privileged stance whether we are fully deserving or not. It is a truism that those who are in a situation often can’t fix it. (This is the premise of the systems theory maxim that you must have the “requisite variety” to change a system – and by definition, if you are in a system you don’t have the requisite variety to change that system). Arguably a very significant percentage of all consulting engagements are outworkings of this dynamic. Even the most knowledgeable and experienced expert can find themselves neutralised if they are immersed in a context in ways that mean they are truly in and not “outside of” the system they wish were different.
No-one can “prep” for a facilitation. No matter what prior experiences or suite of heuristics or personal repertoire of models and metaphors, the answer does not lie in the control of the design facilitator. It lies in the emergent fusion of the situated dilemma with the wisdom of the team (including the facilitator) in the room. In a typical 2 day facilitation, by morning tea on the first day there is no turning back, and, equally, no answer. In this respect the facilitator becomes deeply self sufficient. They alone are reading and directing the trajectory of the conversation – what to notice, what to ignore, what to pick up from the offerings, what to leave on the table, which item to go back to further unpack, which to leave and thus destine to insignificance regardless of significance. The loneliness of the long distance runner is existentially compressed into moments of panic over a few short hours of indeterminacy.
Compounding this, the facilitator experiences only a compression of duration. They develop a tunnel vision – repeatedly working in one aspect of the whole process of knowledge making and enactment. They only live in one cognitive locality, in one habitat. They don’t test or monitor, build or produce. They just design. Again and again.
Then there are a number of dynamics in the design facilitation that conspire to remove the facilitator from the groundedness essential to wellness of being.
a) They continuously “crest the wave” – ride the perfect tube. The “current situation” of the facilitator is not an immersion of life, a joining of fortunes with the other.
b) The nature of exercising the requisite variety you must bring to the design problem places you “above” the problem. The nature of a design facilitation is that it “takes you up a level”.
The problem of the design facilitator interlocks with the more generic risks facing the designer. They share the feature of being inveterate problem solvers, seeing every space, issue, deficiency and prospect as a chance to get their pulse racing, mind engrossed, and personal satisfaction enhanced by plying their trade and designing a solution. The result is that we over-exaggerate the scope of our toolkit – we become used to the success of these tools and rely on them in many other areas of life. Of course, designers trip over and scuff their knees like everyone else, running up against our limitations and hard realities in relationships and in stubbed toes. But whenever the issue looks vaguely like someone could have taken a better user perspective, or the space is a thinking space, out come our ways of doing and being that are definitely designerly. Everything looks like a nail now we have seen the power of our Thor-scaled hammer.
But there are more cognitive spaces and tasks in the world than map onto the designers mindset. Translation, audit, supervision, monitoring, reporting, administration, collation, summary are just a snippet of the range of mental operations that can stretch into career length thought lives. And designers may well do none of those, or none well. Designers need to have a firm sense of proportion and propriety about the scope and fit of their toolkit, or risk legitimate charges of arrogance.
In this respect the design facilitator becomes the prime case, the………. If a designers’ project entails working across a spectrum of environments (varied locales for their user research), conversational interactions (model builders, toolmakers, cross-functional teams) and modes of expression (sketching, graphic tools, craft materials, physical making) the environment of the design facilitator is by comparison, monochromatic.
Add to these the further features of:
a) There is no duration to our presence, or to our follow-through. We don’t “see things through”. We don’t live with the consequences, the implementation, the roll-outs, the responsibility of success or failure. The boundaries of our co-creative activity are so blurred that we can narrate success or failure as we choose. In a real risk of solipsism, failure happens when we narrate the events at a time when we feel blue about the world, success when we can find ways to defend our behaviours export the blame, or shield ourselves from condemning voices (perhaps even our own) – usually by moving on to the next immersing experience.
b) Isolation. This is not fundamentally community work. In our practice we have had facilitators who live in other states, and who have no necessity to connect with the office for months at a time. There are few professions that is true of.
A shrunken repertoire of modalities
What do actors report as experiences of risk in their profession? All the world’s a stage? Is that a metaphor or a delusion?
Design Facilitators are the BASE jumpers of the facilitation and mediation community.
We select and shape, and because the resolution is in the form of a solution to a wicked problem.[i] There is often very little competition or evaluation of our designs . The solution is seen to be ‘right’, with little or no possibility of being challenged or Quite apart from this, of course, is that organisational life sweeps on, the world turns and who knows what might have been. And organisations are tragically immunised against disappointment by so many decades of fad surfing and change. And as already noted, we don’t live in our own answer spaces.
Let me go back to my opening question to the design facilitator: Who are you enacting yourself to be? If you see no need to be concerned about this issue, perhaps you are already endangered. Give this article to someone you love and trust and ask them if they see this dynamic playing out in who you are to them.
The “doctrine of dual effect” is well known in medicine and law: You cannot intervene in a person’s anatomy and physiology without the risk of a secondary, unwanted effect. Similarly, the Chinese draw attention to the yang to every yin, Jungians speak of the shadow side. It seems that wherever we act in the world, we need to be mindful of the downside, the opposite of our intent, the unintended sequels to our presence. I’m asking the design facilitator to heed that heuristic, and take care with their at-risk heart. I have suggested that there is some psychosocial forces patterning you, and offering that interpretive framework as an alternative to the bald charge of arrogance.
The development of these characteristics are vital to the survival and effectiveness of the design facilitator. And yet, when these characteristics flow over into other areas of life problems can arise.
Being aware of the potential damage to both personal and workplace relationships is a first point in guarding against using design facilitator characteristics in ‘non-design’ contexts. Working as part of a multi-disciplinary team, developing team skills will counteract some of…. Spending time in other areas of activity – production, testing, will also…
Exercises for the at-risk heart:
- Listen. Don’t become so charmed with the sound of your own voice
- Listen without fixing. Look at your ways of being and see if you just went and did it again!
- Don’t turn everything into a design problem
- Especially listen if the space you are in is NOT a design space – take the back seat.
- Slow your mind – stay with the issue and style of thinking needed in the current space