Big Picture

A Better Way to Collaborate

Business Conference Speaker

A company-wide team launches a can’t-fail initiative. A committee of school board administrators, teachers, parents, and students pushes for policies to increase racial equity. An alliance of health care organizations reorients its services to improve population health in its region. A group of politicians, business people, and community leaders work together to reinvigorate their local economy.

What must each of these groups do to succeed? They must collaborate effectively.  

But in every one of these situations, the most straightforward and commonplace ways of working together—a few people at the top telling others what to do, or everyone just doing what they want to do—don’t work.

What’s a better way?

One better way is called transformative facilitation: helping a group collaborate by combining these two approaches as a group works through five basic questions:

  1. How do we see our situation?
    What’s actually happening here, around, among, and within us? This question is about the reality (including the reality within the group) that the group is working together to address. If we can’t understand our reality, we can’t be effective in transforming it.
  2. How do we define success?
    What outcomes are we trying to produce through our efforts? This question is about where we’re trying to get to through our collaboration. If we don’t know what our finish line is, we can’t know whether we’re making progress.
  3. How will we get from here to there?
    What’s our route from where we are to where we want to be? This question is about the way we’ll move forward—the approach, process, methodology, and steps.
  4. How do we decide who does what?
    What’s our approach to coordinating and aligning our efforts? This question is about how we’ll organize ourselves to collaborate across our differences (without necessarily relying on our usual roles and hierarchies).
  5. How do we understand our role?
    What’s our responsibility in this situation? This question is about how we each position ourselves vis-à-vis our situation and our collaborative effort to address it.

How groups typically answer these five questions

When groups rely on vertical facilitation—a few people telling others what to do—people in the group typically give the following five confident, superior, controlling answers:

  1. “We have the right answer.”
  2. “We need to agree.”
  3. “We know the way.”
  4. “Our leaders decide.”
  5. “We must fix this.”

In contrast, when everyone does what they think is right—known as horizontal facilitation—participants typically give the following five defiant, defensive, autonomous answers, and the facilitator supports this autonomy:

  1. “We each have our own answer.”
  2. “We each need to keep moving.”
  3. “We will each find our way as we go.”
  4. “We each decide for ourselves.”
  5. “We must each get our own house in order.”

Why transformative facilitation is a better approach

As you can see, these two approaches produce two sets of polar-opposite answers. But in transformative facilitation, the facilitator helps the participants cycle back and forth between them. This is how the group gets the best of both worlds, avoids the worst, and moves forward together.

How might this play out in the real world? When a group is first asked, “How do we see our situation?” people may exclaim, “Here’s what we see, and it’s the right answer!” Each person ends up thinking, “If only the others would agree with me, then the group would be able to move forward together quickly and easily.”

But when the group takes this position too far or for too long and participants are pounding the table, certain that they have the right answer, the facilitator needs to move to a horizontal plurality and open the discussion.

Then, when the participants take this horizontal “We each have our own answer” too far and for too long and start to get stuck in cacophony and indecision, the facilitator helps them move toward the clarity and decisiveness of vertical unity.

The facilitator moves back and forth, advocating and inquiring about what’s happening within the group and what the participants need to do about it. In doing so, the facilitator encourages the group to do the same in regard to what’s going on with the problem they’re addressing and what they need to do to fix it.

A powerful approach for any group

Transformative facilitation is a powerful approach. It’s not a conventional nor straightforward one, but it’s more effective at helping diverse groups achieve progress. Transformative facilitation can be used in any group in any kind of organization, or across multiple organizations. It can be used to make progress on any kind of internal or external challenge the group is facing. It can be used by groups working together in person, online, or asynchronously. And it can be used by anyone who wants to help the group do this, either from inside or outside the group.

In short, it can help people create a better world.


Written by Adam Kahane.

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Adam Kahane
Adam Kahane is director of Reos Partners, an organization that helps people move forward together on their most important and intractable issues. He has worked in more than 50 countries with teams of leaders from business, government, and civil society, and his methods have been praised by Nobel Peace Prize–winners Nelson Mandela and Juan Manuel Santos. He is the author of five books, including his newest release, Facilitating Breakthrough: How to Remove Obstacles, Bridge Differences, and Move Forward Together.


Adam Kahane is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.