• Sherry P. Johnson

Shallow Dive Into Chaos


So this one time I heard a famed psychologist advocate for something that really ticked me off. He talked about organizations who had successfully spurred productivity by convincing their staff that they were going through a crisis…when they weren't. That's right: fake a deadline, raise the stakes, and watch your staff or volunteers reengage and innovate.


Apparently, we tend to innovate hardest when things are high stakes. Don't have an extinguisher for that grease fire in the workplace kitchenette? Your thick cotton sweater can douse the flames! Congratulations, you've discovered a novel use for that favorite clothing item. Cue cheers from your colleagues. Maybe get a promotion. Can you do that again with our mission work?


I've heard this thinking whispered in more than one place as a secret leadership trick. It’s not quite the same, but I've met facilitators who "hide" things from participants on purpose, so that the "pop" will create drama when they want it to. They retain all kinds of mysteries, enjoying the power of leading people into the darkness. Some facilitation almost feels like a loyalty test: Follow me, trust the process, you don't want to get overwhelmed, do you? You hired me; don’t you trust me?


But do you see what's wrong with this approach? There's no consent. People tend to hate feeling tested. What happens when they find out they were manipulated? Or that your bag of tricks is a shell game?


And with the world we're in now, people have so little margin that a manufactured crisis or facilitation magic trick is just as likely to produce vigor as detachment: Picture the dog-drinking-coffee-in-flames meme: "This is fine."


That said, our brains and bodies are best wired to innovate when facing crises, and we tend to entrench ourselves in familiar practices in all other contexts. Even brainstorming is getting old for most folks now, unless facilitators can shape the constraints to produce a wee bit of the emotions associated with crisis.


Dave Snowden talks about using consent-based "shallow dives into chaos" to produce novel ideas with groups. I love his framing, and with groups I work with, I try to think about creating a process that centers participants in the playful realm of complexity, where I maintain low stakes, but with higher constraints that mimic a crisis. And I'm not talking about 90s-era tower building or high-ropes courses for team building. I'm talking about taking something that's important to a group and tweaking the context to produce just enough tension for them to discover. It's about introducing just enough discomfort to put everyone in the room into a position of awareness and exploration. …And always with consent.



A favorite structure: Reverse brainstorming. Take the question you want folks to brainstorm on, and have them brainstorm its opposite instead, under a time constraint, with a light competitive element. For example, I worked with a group a couple weeks ago who needed to rethink their approach to collaboration across their member organizations. But instead of asking them, "What are all the ways we can better work together?" I asked instead, "What are all the ways we can isolate our member organizations and destroy any interdependence we now share?" I gave them five minutes and challenged them to see which table could get the highest number of answers. I provided them with markers and pre-bulleted flipchart paper. I set it up with instructions:


"This work may feel silly, rebellious, or even make you feel sad or angry at times. But please trust that we will use this work to move effectively in the direction of your mission. Think of this as the opportunity to vent all your fears, frustrations, doubts, and past disappointments before we reset and move toward what we do want."


And then I ask for just 1-2 examples while checking for consent. I start the timer. Every time, it's incredible. People have fun, they bond, they get angry together, and they reveal the "elephants in the room." Those emotions drive them into the next phase of testing or planning their ideas.

These kinds of activities (I've got a whole book full of improv games, too) require instructions structured around "social stories" before they'll dive in. They need to know what is predictable and unpredictable about the activity. They like hints of what it could look like, and what requires mystery. These queues honor participants' dignity and sets them up to feel oriented despite their discomfort.


Now more than ever, managers and all of us facilitation professionals need to figure out how to seek more consent before we use our power to lead people into the necessary unknown. Let's deserve their trust.

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