Participation: when (and when not) to go for it

photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I have been doing a lot of work within organisations this last while—building more engaged and participatory cultures so that better results can be achieved. This includes working with senior leaders, delivering strategic interventions as well as building capacity (see here for more). In addition to getting results swiftly, people get really excited to learn a whole new suite of tools and a new way of thinking about problem solving. It immediately starts to be applied all over the organisation. As one client put it last week: "What we do is not hugely different—the structure is not undergoing big re-design—but how we do everything is changing".

In this same meeting of senior leaders last week one person said that it feels like "a participatory leadership takeover"! This lead us into a great conversation about when and when not to apply a participatory approach. This type of discernment is essential to expanding our leadership to integrate greater engagement. Everyone seems to want do it, but the right conditions are critical.

If in doubt, make a checklist

I love a good list. So here's my first draft checklist of conditions for whether you move with participation or not:

  1. There is something concrete people can change and influence. There has to be something people can impact by participating. If not, why bother having a meeting or running an engagement? Just send a memo letting them know what decisions have been made ... 
  2. We have time to do it well. Ineffective engagement usually comes from bad preparation. If we do not have time to get all our ducks in a row and plan well, consider another approach.
  3. The content will help us move forward together. Some content is best dealt with by a small group of decision makers rather than a large engagement. This could be sensitive material or it could be so ground shaking that all it will do is paralyze staff or stakeholders. A client of mine talks about walking the line between engaging her staff on critical issues and her staff becoming like 'deer in headlights'.
  4. People will be able to see themselves in the results. What creates a credible engagement is people seeing themselves reflected in the decisions and actions that follow. Can you can integrate the outcomes is a visible way? What is infrastructure needed to to support the outcomes? Who is accountable to the outcomes of the engagement?
  5. You are willing to say you don't know. An essential piece of leading an engagement is being vulnerable. If you are not willing to be vulnerable and say you don't know, don't do it.

What my mate Chris Corrigan has to say about it:


In my lead up to this blog I wrote to my friend and colleague Chris Corrigan asking him what he uses to explain this to folks. He suggested the Cynefin Framework as a great tool for discerning when to apply what approach to problem solving. Below is what he said in the email with a pic of Cynefin taken from a recent change leadership workbook. For a video of a full teach on the Cynefin framework that Chris recently at a AoH: Beyond the Basics training click here .

I use Cynefin for this very thing. Problems that are truly simple require no participation to be solved.  In the complicated domain, the solutions are still largely knowable. Once you tip into complex, you need highly participatory forms of leadership because emergent solutions are required.  In the chaotic domain, it doesn’t really matter, but usually time is a factor, so we are back to acting quickly and then dealing with the after effects.
If you apply a solution to a problem without figuring out what kind of problem it is, you can make a catastrophic failure.  The two most common instances of this are applying expertise and analysis to complex problems, and over-complicating simple solutions such that the bathtub overflows while you are convening the team.

How do you discern?

This a live question for me. I would love to know what lists, models and ways you have of discerning when to apply participation and engagement. Please comment below to join the conversation or send me an email (which I may post as a comment if you give me permission).

This post was originally published at Tim Merry's site.