Facilitated Visual Planning:

The forces that can mitigate against success

by Katherine Woods (with contributions from Hugh Evans)


When I originally envisaged this article, I thought I would write something about what I’ve learnt about facilitating visual planning sessions from many years of experience in facilitating group planning sessions. I decided to invite Hugh Evans to share his thoughts on this subject. As an expert in Executive Education from Henley Business School, Hugh has a vast experience of leadership dilemmas.

During my conversation with Hugh, we realised that some fundamental issues need to be considered in relation to Facilitated Visual Planning (FVP). So, I have chosen to share some of our insights into what is required from a leader who decides to take a facilitated, visual planning approach. An alternative title that I considered for this article was: ‘Visual Planning – have a go if you think you’re hard enough!’

The powerful forces that affect FVP

There are some powerful forces that can inhibit leaders from engaging in FVP. These include:

  • Conditioned leadership. This is about how leaders engage their teams. Most corporate organisations still have a culture in which leaders are conditioned to operate from an ego-centric orientation. The people who are promoted to the top of organisations tend to be those who are good at making themselves (and their points) heard in meetings, which is seen as a mark of authority and credibility. Business success is all about, “What did YOU achieve personally?” 

Taking a darker perspective, Guth & Macmillan (2006) found strong, if indirect, evidence relating to managers who believe that their self-interest is being compromised. They can not only redirect a strategy or delay (or reduce the quality of) its implementation but can also even totally sabotage it. This raises at least two challenges for FVP: 

  • How might self-interest not be served by opening up to a group?
  • How can sabotage be controlled or how can the self-interest of participants be prevented from undermining group work?

In an ego-centric leadership culture, senior managers and leaders need to be seen to be making their points in a meeting, in order to establish their credibility and to build their personal brand. Such meetings often have some really unhelpful patterns of communication behaviour:

  • Person A makes a proposal
  • Person B repeats the proposal in their own words (often phrased as a challenge to the first proposal!) so that they are heard
  • Meanwhile Person C is thinking about something else - and the moment Person B stops, they make a different proposal

This is a caricature of what happens but if this pattern repeats, even just a couple of times, the meeting ends up with a lot of items on the table but no real progress. There is a real shortage of inquiry here: no one is checking understanding or assumptions and there is very little public listening. But people are understandably just doing what they are conditioned to do - being heard, being right, being first.

This type of conversation usually ends with the most vocal participants ‘fighting it out’, whilst the quieter ones withdraw. We know that this isn’t a productive way of working as a group, or as a way of making high quality decisions. So in this case, the challenge for FVP is how the process can interrupt the pattern and allow individuals to feel as if they are going through their ritual (at least until they can see that their rituals and patterns aren’t useful to what the group is trying to achieve).

The distributed leadership model talked about in academic circles, and the Level-5 leadership described in Jim Collins book, Good to Great, both require a level of humility that is rare in senior corporate leaders. Typical corporate leadership behaviour focuses on the leader being the prime driver of creating strategy, making decisions and dictating action. This leads to planning being done in quite closed groups. This in turn leads to the second force that prevents facilitative planning.

  • The need to nail decisions. For small groups of leaders in strategic off-sites, nailing decisions can lead to some very exciting business strategies. But how many of them are executable? The business world is probably full of strategies that are intellectually brilliant but that haven’t been executed. The art of facilitative planning lies in being able to mark out the pitch and then engage different parts of the organisation in working on what needs to happen to win the game. In this style of leadership, a leader needs to hold the tension of not making decisions, which can feel scary and can also be seen as ‘weak’ in some organisational cultures.
  • The illusion of control. Most senior managers and leaders need to be seen to be ‘in control’ of their areas of responsibility. But what does this mean? And how much control do we really have? If you take the view that we really only have control over how we respond and deal with now, this allows leaders to let go and to work very differently with people.
  • Distorted information (Chinese whispers). Another unhelpful pattern of behaviour can be demonstrated through some research that Hugh shared with me. This has been conducted with able students who have been told a story. They are asked to repeat this story at increasing intervals from when they first heard it (an hour, a day, a week, a month…) and the accuracy of their story-telling is assessed. The results have shown that even after an hour, there is some distortion of the original account. If we think about how we make sense of information, by linking it to our own personal experience, this result isn’t that surprising. However, it has huge implications for planning methods.

For instance, a small group of leaders might lock themselves away and nail the strategic decisions for their business. Each of them then goes out to their parts of the organisation and communicates their version of the strategy to their teams. These people in turn communicate their versions of the second hand story…and so on. This is open to huge distortion, leading to misalignment and fragmented execution.

What it takes to embark on FVP

By sharing these challenges and insights into the flaws of traditional approaches to planning, our aim is to show that it takes courageous leadership to adopt a facilitative leadership style. It requires a leader who can think about ‘we’ as well as ‘me’. A phrase that sums this up well comes from some work by Chris Argyris: ‘Strong ideas, loosely held’. This is the concept that it is okay for a leader to have an opinion but they probably don’t have all the answers and therefore need to be open to other views. A leader who really wants to harness the best from their team needs to create an environment of trust and respect that allows for a mature depth of dialogue in meetings.

A good FVP leader also needs to be prepared to go slow to go fast, rather than following the ‘quick win’ philosophy adopted in many organisations. This mindset will enable them to hold the tension of not making decisions along with making those decisions in an inclusive and iterative way.

The benefits of FVP

The FVP philosophy interrupts the unhelpful patterns that can occur in traditional approaches to planning. There is a clarity that emerges from visual planning that makes processes, assumptions and decisions explicit, and therefore dramatically improves the chances of alignment. The visual nature of the outputs from visual planning also makes them clear and engaging for others to contribute - which again improves clarity and aids involvement.

Fundamentally, the results from collaborative planning are much more likely to lead to sustainable change in the organisation. FVP has a role in assisting leaders who want to drive action and achieve quick results. But it also provides a way of working which is more likely to engender group commitment and clarity, increasing the chances of creating sustainable and enduring results.

As development professionals in an organisation, we know that you have to deal with the prevailing culture in the ‘meeting room of your organisation’. We suspect that you, too, recognise the helpful and less helpful patterns that continue to be played out. If there are other patterns that you’ve experienced, please let us know about them. It would be very interesting to explore with you how FVP could help to mitigate or navigate or even break the patterns that are proving to be highly disruptive to the business’s ability to make real progress.

To explore FVP in your organisation or consulting, please contact us on +44 (0)1628 471 114 or email us at enquiries@meetingmagic.co.uk.

In the Asia Pacific region, contact us on +65 8244 0244 or email us at apac@meetingmagicinternational.com.


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