A group of people is attempting to accomplish some task as effectively and efficiently as possible. The nature of the task is such that it is not immediately obvious who should do what or how the task should be structured. In order to increase efficiency and effectiveness, specific roles are being assigned to specific people or subteams. One person may be particularly good at directing the group process so that the best ideas are instantiated and the members of the group feel that they are being listened to and therefore they stay engaged.

How can people organize their work in an effective and efficient manner?

∑ Different people have different backgrounds, experiences and skills. Therefore, they have different beliefs about the best approach to the task at hand. ∑ Discussion and debate about the details of how the group should work may not converge or may take a large proportion of the time and resources allocated to the task itself. ∑ Some individuals in the group may have more expertise, experience, and skill at facilitating group processes.

One person serves as a facilitator. The facilitatorís role is to help direct the group process in an efficient and effective manner. The facilitator does not force their own viewpoints about content on the group; rather the facilitatorís role is to control the process of the groupís work.

Techniques for Electronic Facilitation:

Challenges of Electronic Facilitation.

Trying to facilitate via asynchronous typing presents additional challenges. For instance, suppose you were in a face to face meeting and said:

"Let's have some ideas on how to improve our company." You could do a lot to motivate the people with your body language and your tone of voice. But, on-line, the words themselves will have to do.

Suppose someone in the face to face meeting were to give you one idea and then you wanted to encourage others to add to that idea. You might say in an enthusiastic voice:

"Okay!!! Let's have some more ideas on how to improve our company."

Or, you could say the same words in a sarcastic tone of voice while rolling your eyes and shaking your head.

"Okay. Let's have some more ideas on how to improve our company."

That would pretty much discourage the person who gave the idea from further participation and may well scare off the others as well. On line is different because....

Tone of voice is not apparent. Facial expression is not apparent.

Worse than that, you might be THINKING the first intonation and people may be imagining in their heads that you said it with the second intonation.

It has been speculated that this may be one of the reasons e-mail can be so conducive to "flame wars." A person who write something is actually imagining one set of expressions and intonations while they write but the reader is imagining a totally different set of facial expressions and intonations.

Anyway, the point is, your words alone will need to convey your enthusiasm, emotions, motivations, etc.

Some General Techniques for Facilitators

These may evolve into Patterns in their own right, but for now, they are listed as suggestions. I'd be interested in the ideas of others on this topic as well.

The Use of Stories to Stimulate Discussion

One way to stimulate discussion is through the introduction of illustrative stories. You might "seed" a discussion with stories or encourage people to tell stories to illustrate their point. This helps move the discussion off of abstract generalities and arguments that have no resolution.

A: "Our managers are very unhelpful in career advice."
B: "No. That's not true. They are very helpful."
A: "Well, you're wrong. They are unhelpful."

Clearly, A and B have had different experiences. If you can get them to be more concrete and share their actual experiences, they, and the organization might learn something useful. Notice that even if you presented some relevant fact here; e.g., "Well, in 1999, we did a company wide survey and 87% of those surveyed said their managers were helpful" --- that isn't going to convince A.

Shaping and positive reinforcement

By explicitly responding to and praising certain kinds of entries, suggestions, and sharing, that will tend to increase the frequency of those kinds of behaviors. "Shaping" means that, in the beginning, you may need to reinforce entries that are "in the direction of" or "closer" to helpful comments.

I talk versus you talk

In general, it is much more helpful when people talk about their own feelings, experiences, ideas, etc. "I would feel very uncomfortable trying to implement that idea in my organization." vs. "Your idea is not practical."

Introducing A Paradox or Puzzle

Two boxes, each containing the others one and only key

Sometimes, it helps to stimulate thinking by introducing a puzzle or metaphor. Here's one I think is especially appropriate for dealing with organizational issues.

This is a puzzle I made up. There are two locked boxes. Each contains the other's one and only key. The only way to open the boxes is by way of the keys. Yet, I am able to open both boxes. How is this possible?

Answer: The answer is that I am inside a large box. With me is the key to the smaller box. I open up the smaller box, and lo and behold, there is the key to the larger, outer box and I use that key to open up the large box.

I like this puzzle as a metaphor for organizational issues. Often, we "formulate" or "imagine" a problem in a certain way and then try to solve the problem. In the case of the two boxes, we tend to "see" the two boxes as "out there" and don't see ourselves as an element of the problem space. Similarly, in many organizational issues, we tend to think of the problem as "out there" while in reality, if we are able to change our own perception, assumptions, mindset, etc., we may be able to use that change to change the external world.

Systems Thinking

Here is another story based on my real experience that illustrates a similar point about systems thinking.

Jim called a meeting and suddenly jumped up, yelling "I'm boiling in here!" He ran over and turned the thermostat down to 60. We went back to the meeting. After about 10 minutes, Jim jumped up again and said, "NOW, I'm freezing!" He ran over and turned the thermostat up to about 80 degrees. After another 10 minutes, Jim jumped up and pointed to the thermostat. "Now, I'm boiling again. What on earth is wrong with THAT THERMOSTAT?!"

In what ways, may we be in and influencing systems that we think of as "out there?"

Sometimes, we seem to be caught in a "vicious circle." An example is the arms race in the cold war. From the perspective of the US, any increase in USSR weapons is a threat which must be met by an increase in US weapons. But to the USSR, any increase in US weapons is a threat which must be met by an increase in USSR weapons. But, from a "systems view", this is a "vicious circle" that is, a positive feedback loop. Fortunately, a "vicious circle" may also be run backwards in order to turn it into a DE-escalating cycle.

Negotiating from Needs rather than Positions

Story of the two siblings and the Orange:

Once their were two siblings Jean and Billy who both insisted on having the last orange. At last, they decided the only "fair" thing to do was split the orange in half.

As it turned out, Jean actually wanted to eat the insides of the orange and Billy wanted the peel in order to use it in a cake recipe. The point is that if they had negotiated by revealing what their actual needs were, they could have both been wholly satisfied rather than only half satisfied. Insisting on the "orange" is called negotiating from "positions." Instead, try to view "negotiation" as a "design process" in which each party or stakeholder has requirements. The trick is to now design something that meets as many of those requirements as possible.


De Bono, E. Six thinking hats. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985.

Farnham, S. et. als. 2000. Structured online interactions: Improving the decision-making of small discussion groups. Proceedings of CSCW 2000. pp. 299-308. New York: ACM.

Gordon, W. J.J. Synectics.New York: Harper, 1961. Back to Pattern Language

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