from a posting on the “Group Facilitation” Listserve, 24 March, 1997. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Organic categories come from watching the ideas fall together into bunches through an iterative and chaotic process and then naming the bunches. Coming up with categories in advance is the technique that—on more than one occasion—I have seen destroy the effectiveness of an entire series of workshops.
I try to keep an open mind about nearly everything that has to do with facilitation but on this point I’m gun shy. When I think back to my worst moments as a facilitator, they did not involve dealing with difficult people, or having to scrap my design in the middle of the session and start over, or lack of participation, or forgetting materials, or any of the other usual nightmares. As bad as those moments are (and I’ve had my share of them), they are nothing compared to the sick feeling I get when a good exercise isn’t working because I’m trying to force fit the creative, divergent work of a bright and involved team into pre-determined or hurriedly determined categories. The ideas don’t fit, the participants get frustrated, and I know that the rest of the work on this project will go badly because the categories we’re going to work on aren’t the real categories we need to work on and don’t have a good fit of ideas in them. I feel like a charlatan—masquerading as a facilitator, but really just leading the group through a fixed process to get their buy-in, not really trying for true collaborative work products. I just don’t do this anymore.
Predetermined categories, fishbone diagrams where the main “bones” are the 4 Ms (materials, maintenance, money, and labor) need some help to your finance check out, planning exercises with three time frames, process analysis based on functional departments, high-medium-low priorities: these are in my toolbox, but they stay in the box until I see that they are ideas that might help the group create its own categories.
Edward S. “Ned” Ruete