Herding cats and hunting elephants

March 9, 2018






There are two major dynamics that a facilitator needs to navigate successfully: the people in the room, and the issues to be addressed. The cats, and the elephants.


Herding cats

I imagine you’re familiar with the metaphor of herding cats to describe a situation where you need to coordinate a bunch of disparate, independent and strong-willed individuals who are not particularly open to direction nor keen to please. If you’re not familiar with cats, suffice to say that cats have none of the desire to please that dogs have. 


In a workshop setting, where stakeholders have been brought together to work through an issue, to plan a way forward or to agree on strategic priorities (to name a few possible scenarios) people become cats very quickly. They will scratch if they feel threatened or cornered, they will wander off if not interested (if not physically then at least emotionally and mentally) and, like cats, they will not be easily won over by cheap tricks and superficial tactics.


The trick to great facilitation is to accept and embrace the presence of cats. A great facilitator will stretch people out of their comfort zones just far enough to disrupt thinking and spark new ideas, but will give them space to retreat back to somewhere safer for a while as they need to. A great facilitator will design a process that can accommodate as many opinions, priorities and preferences as there are people in the room, and will create opportunities for people to express and explore those opinions and priorities safely and openly with each other. Above all, the great facilitator will make sure that everyone in the room is engaged and connected into the process to ensure their inner cat doesn’t slink off.


Hunting elephants

I am not an advocate for big game hunting, but the analogy works well. Again, let’s start with the metaphor, ’the elephant in the room’. This refers to unspoken issues that can be a weighty and oppressive presence in the room but that no-one wants to address, or knows how to address effectively. A facilitator should always address the elephants in the room; a great facilitator will actively go hunting them out. Without surfacing these hidden, unspoken but critical factors, workshops (and other large-group engagement processes) run the risk of delivering false and superficial resolutions, that, when taken out of the artificial environment of the collective dialogue, do not stand up to the reality test. So the great facilitator needs to ask the hard questions, needs to regularly circle back and check in with participants to find out what is surfacing and support people to deal with it bravely and honestly. It is not enough to seek out elephants at the start of a session and assume that everything is out in the open. Elephants are migratory creatures, and a well-designed process will move the dialogue forward and will take participants to new territory which may uncover a new herd of elephants.


Of course, not every process or meeting requires external facilitation, but the principles still hold in your internal, ‘business-as-usual’ meetings and could make a lot of workplace dialogue run more smoothly. How are you designing and leading your meetings to herd cats and hunt elephants?


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