Change - Strategic Facilitation

by Tony Mann

Dealing with problems in organisations

If the strategic facilitator notices something amiss in the way the organisation is functioning, then they need to use the tool known by the acronym SCA: symptom, cause, action. People’s anger, resentment, frustration, worry, absenteeism, lack of engagement, desire to compromise, forcefulness (the list is endless!) are only symptoms of something happening – an underlying cause. The strategic facilitator’s role is to identify where in the Process Iceberg®.

Organisation model the problem has arisen. The strategic facilitator should assume that there are no ‘difficult people’ and that people have the best of intentions to make a success of their jobs and to achieve the organisation’s goals. If the strategic facilitator has planned the change agenda well, they will have done much to reduce people’s angst. However, particularly in conditions of uncertainty, there will be occasions when even the most meticulously-designed plan erupts!

The strategic facilitator should assume that every emotion is only a symptom of a problem higher up the ‘iceberg’ (see below).

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Emotional insecurity (emotions/issues) is possibly a consequence of a lack of skills, attributes or knowledge or inappropriate roles. Alternatively, it could be the consequence of poor systems (information not flowing effectively in the organisation) and using data that means different things to different people. If there is an inadequate or ineffective high-level process, this will cause the organisation to falter. If the strategic focus is not clear, this would cause people’s emotions to become raw. Therefore, the strategic facilitator has the responsibility to be constantly monitoring, using SCA to identify where in the Process Iceberg® any issues lie.

Working upwards

The cause of any emotion is invariably at a higher level in the iceberg: SAKs/roles; systems; high-level processes/structure or the strategic focus itself. The golden rule for the strategic facilitator is to take the action at least at the level of the cause or, if possible, higher (see diagram below).

In experiments, people’s emotions ‘looked’ different at different levels of the iceberg. The emotional response gets more severe the higher up the iceberg the cause. Using SCA as an analytical tool, the strategic facilitator will see the symptoms and should look for the cause at the levels above. The group should then take the action that is appropriate to remedy the cause.

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Using SCA and SPO – inner dialogue

A good strategic facilitator has an inner dialogue as they observe the organisation at work:

 

What are the symptoms... everything is all right... everybody’s interacting effectively, nobody’s particularly over-excited, there’s no rashness about the way that people are dealing with the change agendas... there’s no frustration, everybody’s quite quiet, that team hasn’t been very interactive lately – I wonder if they’ve got a problem, they seem to be thinking deeply about their new responsibilities, they’re probably going through an analytical stage, they’re probably thinking it all through. They don’t want to start interacting with other departments yet; no, that’s okay, I don’t need to worry about that... hang on... That project’s gone quiet – they were engaging with others the other day, they were engaging quite animatedly and they were talking a lot, and they’ve gone quiet... that’s a symptom something is going on. They shouldn’t have gone quiet, why have they? ... Ah, because someone has just thrown a strong challenge to what they had planned. This has completely destroyed their agenda, so what has caused that to happen? ... Ah, it’s because it’s a totally different issue and the person who was making the suggestions can’t see its connection with their issue. They don’t see how they can combat it because this issue seems now to be catching everybody’s attention. So, is it that the issue that they were talking about was irrelevant and that what everybody is talking through now is a key issue? Alternatively, is it that they are both relevant but that the other people have not seen it? Now, that department, I think, is avoiding groupthink and they have seen something that nobody else has and everybody else is being caught up in the obvious ones. I think I need to intervene and challenge the organisation that there are a least two issues and they should not drop the first one.

  • ‘Symptom’ – department going quiet and not interacting
  • ‘Cause’ – different perceptions; they have spotted an issue that nobody else in the organisation is wanting to face up to
  • ‘Action’ – go right up to the top of the ‘iceberg’ and say to them: ‘are there two or three issues here you should be looking at in terms of your goals?’

At this stage, to focus on the individual team/department would only draw attention to them and, if groupthink is prevalent, this could lead to more problems. Instead, the strategic facilitator should construct an SPO and say:

  • (S) I think there is an issue that is being picked up which is this... and now another one has been identified, and I have a sense which they may both be important and I suggest that you don’t disregard either of them until you’ve had time to examine them both.
  • (P) So, would it be useful if, instead of taking one item and discussing it to death, you thought about all the potential issues and then decided which ones you need to tackle?
  • (O) That way you will be sure to tackle everything that is important.

This takes the emphasis off any individual or group, but still gives the organisation the necessary support to alleviate the emotional symptoms.

Thinking ‘up and down’ the iceberg and looking ‘forward’

A good strategic facilitator will be scanning up and down the levels of the strategic Process Iceberg®.

  • They will be assessing the nature of the change agenda to see if it is stable: that is, not becoming more uncertain or diversifying.
  • They will be auditing the strategic process and format to see if it is delivering the intended output.
  • They will be watching over the feedback to check understanding and buy-in.
  • They will be discerning departmental actions to see if there is compatibility and integration or lack of harmony and conflict.
  • They will be looking for (emotional) symptoms to see if they have missed anything.

All this, while they are also looking ahead (with the change agenda leader) to the output of the current strategic process and the next change agenda and considering how they might need to re-evaluate the goals and change agendas and redesign the intended strategic process to match the outcome from this phase (see below). Sometimes there will be more data than expected or sometimes the data will suggest different paths. Sometimes the outputs will not be of the quality or detail that may be needed or they may be too detailed. The strategic facilitator is watching all of this as well as the dynamics of the organisation and their relationship to the current strategic process and change agenda.

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Altogether, the strategic facilitator has a full time job. It starts at the first change-planning meeting with the client, through the design of the Agenda Strategic Process and contracting the style of the interventions, into the change/project, at which point they are at full stretch, managing the delivery of the goals(s) and harnessing the organisation dynamics by (re)designing the strategic process as required.

This is no role for the faint-hearted, nor is it a role for those who want to operate vicariously through the organisation. This is a ‘servant’ role and one that requires great art, skill and a sense of the science of time and space.

Summary

The Process Iceberg® Organisation model helps plan for change, implement a strategic intent and conduct a diagnosis of the organisation’s problems. It can also be used at a group level to explore departmental/project change. For more in-depth exploration of these concepts and their pragmatic application (see here).