Skip to contentSkip to navigation

Facilitate collaborative breakthrough with these moves

By alternating between top-down and bottom-up approaches to problem-solving, teams can make progress.

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 a 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).

These moves help address five questions that participants and facilitators in all collaborations—regardless of the particulars of the situation—need to work through.

• How do we see our situation? In other words, what is actually happening? This question is about the reality that the group is working together to address. If we can’t understand our reality, we can’t be effective in transforming it.

• How do we define success? What outcomes are we trying to produce through our efforts? If we don’t know what our finish line is, we can’t know whether we’re making progress.

• How will we get from here to there? What is our route from where we are to where we want to be? This question is about the way we will move forward—the approach, process, methodology, and steps.

• How do we decide who does what? What is our approach to coordinating and aligning our efforts? This question is about how we will organize ourselves to collaborate across our differences, without necessarily relying on our usual roles and hierarchies.

• How do we understand our role? What is our responsibility in this situation? This question is about how we each position ourselves with regard to our situation and our collaborative effort to address it.

These questions all arise right from the beginning of every collaboration, but they usually don’t get answered all at once or definitively. Facilitators and participants need to deal with them repeatedly and iteratively over the duration of the collaboration, whether that is days or decades.

How transformative facilitation works

Vertical facilitation is common and seductive because it offers straightforward and familiar answers to these five questions. In this approach, both the participants and the facilitator typically give confident, superior, controlling answers to the five questions (i.e., they identify one way to reach their goals). In horizontal facilitation, by contrast, participants typically give defiant, defensive, autonomous answers, and the facilitator supports this autonomy (i.e., each participant will find their own way to reach their goals).

The vertical and horizontal approaches answer the five collaboration questions in opposite ways. In transformative facilitation, the facilitator helps the participants alternate between the two approaches. This is how the group gets the best of both, avoids the worst, and moves forward together.

Here’s how it works, in the context of each of the five questions that are at the core of all collaborative efforts.

How do we see our situation? Often, when collaborating, each of the participants and the facilitator starts off with a confident vertical perspective: “I have the right answer.” Each person thinks, “If only the others would agree with me, then the group would be able to move forward together more quickly and easily.” But when members of the group take this position too far or hold it for too long and start to get stuck in rigid certainty, the facilitator needs to help them explore other points of view, a collaboration move I call inquiring. Doing this helps the group invite different ideas and therefore gain horizontal perspective. When participants are pounding the table, certain that they have the right answer, the facilitator can start by encouraging them to add “In my opinion” to the beginning of their sentences. This sentence stub opens the door to inquiry: to participants asking, of one another and of themselves, “Where—from what experience or data—does this thinking come from?”

A facilitator enables greater contribution, connection, and equity—and thereby forward movement—by alternating between vertical and horizontal moves.

Participants can also take a horizontal perspective when collaborating: “We each have our own answer.” Taking this approach too far and for too long, however, is also problematic and can lead to cacophony and indecision. In this case, the facilitator needs to help the participants advocate for the point of view they think is correct, so they can try to convince others and as a result move toward the clarity and decisiveness of vertical unity.

The facilitator moves between advocating and inquiring, and in doing so encourages the group to do the same. Through this cycling, the group and the facilitator gradually and iteratively clarify their understanding of where they are and what this implies for what they need to do next.

How do we define success? The vertical perspective on this question is “We need to agree.” But when collaborators get stuck on this demand for conclusion, the facilitator needs to help them keep moving by asking, “What is your next step?” One of my most important learnings as a facilitator has been that in order for people to move forward together, agreement is not required as often or on as many matters as most people think.

It’s also possible, though, for participants to go too far with the unfocused horizontal: “We each just need to make progress.” When this happens, the facilitator needs to help the group pause to work out what outcomes they can agree to focus on by asking, “What do we agree on?”

In doing this cycling between advancing and concluding, the facilitator is working with a key tool of facilitation: the pace and timing of the process. And by supporting the group in this way, the facilitator can help the group clarify their understanding of where they want to go.

How will we get from here to there? Often, each participant in a collaboration and the facilitator think they know the way to get where they want to go. This is a vertical mindset. But just as with the other questions involved in collaborating, a group can get stuck here. The facilitator needs to help participants experiment with pathways to their goals by asking, “What other options do we have?”

Later, when the participants start to get stuck in the horizontal view—“We will each just find our way as we go”—the facilitator can help them map a common way forward by nudging them to agree on a plan of action for the group.

Sometimes the facilitator needs to persist with the planned process for the work of the group, and the group needs to persist with its planned course of action to address the problematic situation. Sometimes they both need to pivot to deal with what is actually happening, which is different from what they had planned. By cycling between mapping and discovering, the group and the facilitator slowly clarify their way forward.

How do we decide who does what? The facilitator helps the participants work with the fourth question by encouraging them to alternate between directing (like the director of an orchestra or band) and accompanying (like an accompanist playing piano or drums). A vertical perspective—“Our leaders decide”—can be the group’s initial position on how to decide who does what. But this can lead to ineffective bossiness. The facilitator needs to encourage each participant to claim responsibility for their own actions.

However, when the participants start to get stuck in their unaligned horizontal actions, the facilitator needs to direct from the front of the group to help people find alignment by suggesting a way forward for the team as a whole.

How do we understand our role? When participants in a collaboration think about their role in the problem they’re trying to solve, they often see themselves in a vertical position, standing outside the problem, looking in, and being there to fix what’s wrong. But this feeling of cold remoteness from the problem can make it hard for the group to come up with solutions that reflect an understanding of the needs and capacities of the stakeholders involved. So the facilitator needs to help participants consider how they are part of the problem and therefore have the leverage to be part of the solution—by asking them to consider their own role in and responsibility for what is going on.

But if the participants start to get stuck in a self-centered and myopic horizontal view, positioning themselves inside the problem and focusing on putting their own house in order, the facilitator needs to help them get a clearer, less partisan perspective on what is happening.

Sometimes facilitators also need to stand outside the collaborative process to get a clearer perspective on what is happening, and sometimes they need to stand inside it to recognize the ways in which they are themselves part of the problem and therefore have the leverage to be part of the solution.

Transformative facilitation, transformative outcomes

Every group that is collaborating needs to work through the five basic questions—not just once at the beginning of the collaboration, but multiple times, iteratively, as the collaboration unfolds. The facilitator therefore needs to make the alternating horizontal and vertical moves over and over. Facilitating in this transformative way can help groups break down barriers to contribution, connection, and equity, and thus move forward together on their most important and daunting challenges.

Author profile:

Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.