Complex facilitation

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Complex facilitation is a body of methods and principles that have evolved over the years. As a general principle, most complex facilitation is done in a cabaret-style setup with at least three groups of participants who will work in parallel. In keeping with complexity principles, you do not break a problem down into parts and have different groups work on each aspect before they come back together as that route leads to pattern entrainment and lack of diversity.


Note: the fundamental principles are enabling constraints in Cynefin® terms, and as such are focused on the admonition of certain things. The are the four main principles:

  • The facilitator is there to manage a process - not to be an expert, to demonstrate intentionally or otherwise exercise authority or influence over the outcome. To have a light footprint is a minimum, no footprint is the goal. Complex facilitation processes and methods are designed with this role in mind. To support this:
    • The facilitator should not engage with the content in any way. The original development took place in Denmark so that English-speaking facilitators could not understand the content as the conversations were in Danish.
    • Approaches such as using three facilitators also enforces this.
    • When a facilitator asks a question it should be a non-hypothesis question, which in no way indicates what might be a desirable answer.
    • The facilitator should try to keep everyone in one room if at all possible, which enables getting a sense of the overall pattern of interaction.
  • Manage Process, not People. The general principle of descriptive self-awareness focuses on changing the context so that people discover things for themselves, but not by manipulation, more by contrast.
    • Running the same process in parallel between groups and then using Silent listening to compare and contrast would be one example. Archetype comparison is another. Parallel processes should generally start with groups maximised for groupthink, i.e. by maximising diversity between groups. In this way, when the silent listening process is engaged, people will see more contrast in the results.
    • Methods are designed to change interactions, not to change people. They may of course change but that is their affair, not the facilitator's!
    • Never comment on people's motivations or behaviour, change the interactions instead. For example, get groups to nominate people to a 'special' group as a way to get the opinionated members to nominate themselves and give other people a chance to speak.
    • Ritual humiliation can be used to modify behaviour.
    • Power including issues of gender, race, and such will always be an issue to some extent. Managing who is in which group is generally the best way to handle this.
  • Avoid premature convergence. All complex facilitation is about avoiding premature convergence to a solution or solutions. In general, complex facilitation produces outcomes based on social construction (not social constructivism) within physical or virtual workshops, where a pattern of meaning emerges from multiple interactions over time.
    • Breaking up groups and recombining them (for example in Cynefin four tables) is one way, focusing on techniques such as constraint mapping rather than problem/solution identification is another.
    • You never spell out a lesson, let alone tell people in advance what the learning objective is, you enable the group to discover things for themselves and that discovery does not have to be articulated per se.
    • Reporting back biases the group to the first report so we use techniques such as silent listening
    • Vector theory of change applies in workshops as well and 'more like these, fewer like those' is one way to avoid premature convergence.
  • Ensure requisite levels of ambiguity and uncertainty. Complex facilitation sets out to allow for emergence to happen, avoiding pattern entrainment by not following the structures and expectations of 'traditional facilitation'.
    • This may cause discomfort in participants - for example, a lot of people want learning objectives and to know what the output will/should look like. However, this breaks the principles of complex facilitation, so pointing out upfront why you are doing this and explaining why it is important is helpful. Explaining inattentional blindness via the gorilla story is one way to achieve this.
    • Avoid ‘ground rules’, explanations, setting agreements of how we will work together, etc. These processes belong to traditional processes and trigger patterns in participants' minds.
    • Resist people's demand for examples, this is not meant to be that easy
    • No examples should ever be given unless they are so different that they can not be copied.
    • Avoid exercises that can be easily gamed such as telling other people something about themselves that no one else knows and the like. These are too easily manipulated.

The standard question

There are two types of the standard question, type one and type two which are meant to support curiosity and reflecting on actions that would be appropriate based on where you are and not some idealised future state.

Timing and uncertainty

Timing for an exercise is not normally given with the facilitator monitoring energy levels (but never content) to determine when to move on and requests for how long? from participants should be treated rather like Are we there yet?, which is common on a car journey. There are exceptions where a time limit is necessary, such as when there is a presentation element as in silent listening and ritual dissent. If imposing a time limit, be honest: Project the timer on a screen or similar so that people know where they are.

In essence what you are looking for is a point at which there has been some sort of phase shift, insight or difference. Once that has been achieved, move on and don't create artificial time periods. Where you are working in parallel and some groups get there faster than others have additional tasks that will absorb their time but do not leave them hanging around waiting for others to complete.

The essence of complex facilitation is to allow an outcome to emerge, so a refusal to clarify goals is legitimate but should be done with humour. Some activities such as creating archetypes should be done in parallel with a more structured process.

While there may be uncertainty of outcome that does not mean facilitators create an obscurantist atmosphere. Too many approaches attempt the everything will be very confusing you won't know where you are approach which is common to cults, with participants starting to adopt the language of a cult over a few days in what is a form of brainwashing. It is legitimate to say "I can't tell you the outcome yet, but by the end of the day you will see" (going beyond a day would be problematic) but this should not be wrapped up in mystical or esoteric language. Instructions and demands should be clear, concise and precise.

Tricks and tips

  • Use the idea of play in more authoritarian environments. This is useful to break down barriers and get people to start to engage and chat. You want people to feel comfortable and contribute to the dialogue.

Differences and divergences

This section covers other methods and approaches that may overlap with, be compatible with or contradict the principles and practice of Complex Facilitation. Above these specifics, a distinction is made between process and complex facilitation. In the former, the facilitator has been given a mandate by the group to hold up mirrors and generally provide guidance and direction. This is similar to a therapeutic relationship where the mandate is given in the engagement process. In complex facilitation, however, such practices are not permitted and no mandate should be assumed.

With Traditional Facilitation

Traditional facilitation is about meeting agreed-upon outcomes. It is consistent with methods that come from the complicated domain and traditional facilitators are regarded as experts. The tools and methods are grounded in the principles of achieving outcomes and reaching consensus. It is about following a pre-determined set of steps in a process to get to an outcome.

Traditional facilitation seeks to help make group work easy. It is about helping to get groups where they need to go and perform more effectively. Holly Hammond, Plan to Win.

"It seeks to support everyone to do their best thinking...and...enables group members to search for inclusive solutions and build sustainable agreements." S Kaner, Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision Making

"...contribute structure and process to interactions, so groups are able to function effectively and make high-quality decisions. A helper and enabler whose goal is to support others as they pursue their objectives." I Bens, Facilitating with Ease!: A Step-by-Step Guidebook with Customizable Worksheets

With Process Facilitation

Core competencies currently outlined by the International Association of Facilitators ( that facilitators demonstrate the following skills:

  • Listening. A facilitator needs to listen actively and hear what every learner or team member is saying.
  • Questioning. A facilitator should be skilled in asking questions that are open-ended and stimulate discussion.
  • Problem-solving. A facilitator should be skilled at applying group problem-solving techniques, including:
    • defining the problem
    • determining the cause
    • considering a range of solutions
    • weighing the advantages and disadvantages of solutions
    • selecting the best solution
    • implementing the solution
    • evaluating the results.
  • Resolving conflict. A facilitator should recognize that conflict among group members is natural and, as long as it’s expressed politely, does not need to be suppressed. Conflict should be expected and dealt with constructively.
  • Using a participative style. A facilitator should encourage all learners or team members to actively engage and contribute in meetings, depending on their individual comfort levels. This includes creating a safe and comfortable atmosphere in which group members are willing to share their feelings and opinions.
  • Accepting others. A facilitator should maintain an open mind and not criticize ideas and suggestions offered by learners or group members.
  • Empathizing. A facilitator should be able to “walk a mile in another’s shoes” to understand the learners’ or team members’ feelings.
  • Leading. A facilitator must be able to keep the training or meeting focused toward achieving the outcome identified beforehand.

With Open Space Technology

Open Space Technology (OST)[1] invites each participant to identify the topics they would like to discuss. There is no editing or agreement on the topics proposed, or a limit to the number of topics proposed. These topics become the agenda and participants are free to choose which topic they want to go to, and can move between topics, or not go to anything, and start new conversations anytime anywhere. This allows for participants to engage in debate or walk away. The facilitator does not intervene in the process unless someone is trying to control others and stopping them making choices about their own participation. A key difference between OST and complex facilitation methods is that it is lightly constrained when compared to tightly constrained methods like Ritual Dissent or Future Backwards.

With Radical Transparency

Transparency, like any human quality, is subject to Aristotle's Golden Mean: any human quality is a balance between the quality not present and the quality taken to excess.

There is a libertarian myth that tends to underpin absolute transparency. If we have learnt anything over the last few years, it is that the transparency and open nature of social media creates an unbuffered feedback loop which will tend to perversion.

There are significant and growing concerns that total transparency of data is leading to easy manipulation of individuals by social media giants.

Total transparency also stifles innovation: If everything is visible, conservative behaviour is the most likely result. There needs to be some degree of discretion and time for ideas to develop.

There are, of course, benefits to transparency. For instance, software companies are able to use public data, educational material is easy to access, and so on. But it is worth remembering that Wikipedia is managed by enabling constraints, that is not everything goes and not everything is permitted.

Within a facilitated workshop, while all material should be available at the end, facilitators often prevent sharing during the process to allow for the emergence of novelty.

And what about you?

These are some of the patterns and assumptions that we hold about the role of facilitation that is challenged when using complex methods. For example …

  • That it is our responsibility to give clear and unambiguous instructions so that participants ‘get it right and do not fail’. In contrast:
    • There is no right answer. It is about exploration and discovering options and alternatives, not finding the ‘right’ answer
    • You are not looking at limiting the exploration of options, and looking for diverse perspectives to surface
    • And we are assuming we KNOW the precise question that SHOULD be asked which is not the case typically
  • That we are responsible for the experience that participants are having – their level of engagement and enjoyment
    • In the moment, we are responsible for providing the environment and the processes that enable engagement and participation, not the choices people make
    • There may be opportunities and a mandate at a different time and a different process to reflect and review. And provide feedback and skill development
  • That the recognition of our contribution to the outcome is important to our identity as a ‘good and competent’ facilitator
  • That the communication itself is radically transparent and potentially better informal
  • That relationships in facilitation are key and trust and honesty are two foundations of this

Planning for the event

  • What is the purpose and intent of the engagement
    • Discovery, sensemaking, or just engagement?
    • Insights, capturing learning, decision making, or evaluation?
  • What do you know about the cohort you are working with??
    • Do they know each other?
    • Have they worked together before?
    • Are comfortable with ambiguity?
    • Are they likely to need more or less structure?
    • Do you need to show the differences in perspective?
  • Can the design meet multiple objectives?
    • Is this part of a broader strategy?
    • How much of the source data (eg from anecdote circles) needs to be captured?
    • Do you need to use different colours for different cohorts for visual ‘self-awareness’?
  • How does the output from one process contribute to another?


  • Rolls of brown paper to cover the walls
  • Multi-coloured hexies
  • Spray glue (spray to secure the hexies)
  • Clear sticky tape (to secure material to the wall)
  • A high-quality digital camera or modern smartphone for record everything

Large group facilitation

... is a whole different ball game and needs mentoring