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Facilitate collaborative breakthrough with these moves

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Early in my career as a facilitator of multi-stakeholder collaborations, my colleagues and I led a two-year strategy project for a Fortune 50 logistics company. The company’s established way of doing things was vertical: the CEO managed by giving forceful, detailed directives, which had produced coordination and cohesion that enabled outstanding business success. But the COO thought the company’s situation was dangerous. Globalization and digitization were changing the competitive landscape, and he wanted employees from across the organization to collaborate more horizontally to create innovative responses.
My team worked with the COO and his colleagues to agree on project scope, timeline, and process, and to charter a cross-level, cross-departmental team. The process we designed for the team was more egalitarian and creative than what they were used to. They immersed themselves in the changes in their market by spending time on the front lines of the organization, going on learning journeys to successful organizations in other sectors, and constructing scenarios of possible futures. They participated in workshops that emphasized full engagement on the part of all team members and that included structured exercises designed to generate, develop, and test innovative options.

This transformative process enabled breakthrough by creating a space in which the company’s command-and-control culture—which assumed that the bosses knew best—was suspended. This in turn enabled greater contribution by participants from different departments and from different levels in the hierarchy. The project team cut across the siloed organization, where lines of communication ran up and down rather than from side to side, so the process enabled greater connection. And the company had a steep hierarchy of privilege, with senior people having much greater compensation and agency, so the process also enabled more equitable contribution and connection. By enabling contribution, connection, and equity, our transformative facilitation helped this team come up with and implement a set of initiatives to launch new service offerings and to streamline company operations.

A facilitator enables greater contribution, connection, and equity—and thereby forward movement—by alternating between two types of moves: vertical ones that focus on the unity of the group as a whole and horizontal ones that focus on the plurality of the individual members of the group (see table).

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