I love facilitating groups online. It’s inspiring to support a bunch of scattered individuals to form a real team, working out how to communicate with each other and make stuff happen quickly and efficiently.
And on Friday, I’ll be hosting the second Metaphorum – an online unconference for fans of Clean Language, metaphor, self-organisation and emergence. There’s a huge convergence of positive energy into 12-ish hours of online videoconference conversations.
Meanwhile, I’m also involved in setting up a self-organised Fellows Forum for the RSA. We’re all volunteers. It’s working – 500 users and counting – but there are some very different challenges.
What’s the difference? I think it may come down to something I’ve known for a while: “Constraint inspires creativity.”
That specific phrase came from an old version of the Twitter rules, but it resonated with me from my time at Teletext – and before that, tabloid journalism. Give me a set number of words, or characters, and I’ll get to work – but a blank page scares me.
In fact constraint inspires not just creativity, but also connection and communication.
When I facilitate a dozen people in a room, there’s a constraint – a very physical one. It is possible for someone to just walk out, but social pressure makes them stay.
That means I can use some fairly brave techniques to “force” people to connect, to listen, and to pay attention to the elephant in the room. That’s when real team-building happens.
I can do the same with a group on a video- or even phone-, conference, especially if these are people who are paid to be there. When everyone’s supposed to be on the call together, and someone’s missing, it’ll be noticed. If their line always drops when the conversation gets tough, we’ll notice. That means that the constraint is present and by using Clean Language and other approaches, we can get real communication happening.
It’s very different in the text-only Forum, where people drop in and out as they please – it’s an asynchronous platform, as the jargon has it. The constraint holding the thing together, the”container”, is so big and/or so loose that if someone goes quiet, it could be days before their absence is noticed. And we can’t know if it’s them, or their computer, that’s died. Everyone’s guessing. Is this person sulking? Or sunning themselves?
The lack of constraint means it’s very difficult to “force” anyone to do anything on an asynchronous platform. I’ve noticed that techniques which would work really well in a small, face-to-face group to push people to confront the stuff they find difficult – such as (for us Brits) expressing emotions directly, or challenging someone we disagree with – just don’t work on the Forum. Any pressure applied by the facilitator turns to mush, or is redirected in strange directions.
What I’m concluding is that constraint is essential for getting to that meatier stuff. Until we can find a way to constrain an asynchronous platform, combining synchronous with asynchronous communication is the way forward. Let’s do the easier stuff on the Forum. And then, when we want to go deeper, let’s connect on Zoom.