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Extreme Facilitation

General Challenge

If a good strategy distils the collective wisdom of the enterprise, how may the strategist engage senior executives whose diaries are crammed with busyness? Traditional workshops festooned with post-its, flipcharts, and PowerPoint are seldom effective when the urgent disrupts the important at the squeak of a smartphone. A smarter way must be found to focus the enterprise’s expertise and experience on its past, present and future, and collect and organise its knowledge, insights, and opinions.

Particular Challenge

A divisional head in the client enterprise had assigned responsibility for strategy development to one of his directors, but none of the director’s drafts had gained the head’s approval. The author (Nicholas Whittall) was engaged to support the director, his peers, and a core team that would undertake the desk work required to support strategy development. This presented four challenges:

  1. The author had to accept responsibility for developing the strategy without reducing the director’s accountability. This demanded that the director participate in a core team as primus inter pares, with the author facilitating on his behalf.

  2. The tyranny of the urgent over the important. The directors insisted they would not commit time to traditional consulting workshops. They would commit their deputies and one or two others to a core team, but they themselves would only participate in concentrated meetings for which the expected outcomes were clearly articulated.

  3. The directors insisted that the final document should not exceed six pages.

  4. A strategy that would gain the divisional head’s approval had to be delivered. Whilst ownership demanded that the client “hold the pen” the author risked denting his reputation if he failed to corral the community to deliver the strategy. The author had to strike a balance between inspiring the strategy and writing it.


Focusing effort was key to securing sceptics’ participation in the strategy, by:

  1. Extreme facilitation – focusing the core group’s attention by setting exam papers;

  2. Insight elicitation – interviewing senior executives to extract knowledge, insights, opinions;

  3. Collective wisdom consolidation – collating the gems uncovered into strategic objectives.

The directors agreed to devote one hour sessions to the strategy, with no more than two sessions per week. Often they were available only at lunchtime, so their undivided attention was moderated by their need to eat. The author set them and the core team exam papers to elicit their views, then primed a conversation with the questions they could not answer. Their contributions were collated into papers for their review and outstanding questions directed desk work by the core team. They termed these intense examinations "extreme facilitation".

Senior executives across the enterprise were interviewed to elicit:

  • Hindsight: how the enterprise had arrived at its current state;

  • Insight: the main drivers that had brought the enterprise to its current state;

  • Foresight: anticipating near term plausible futures the enterprise may face from the drivers;

  • Farsight: envisaging longer term plausible futures by extrapolating combinations of current trends, those emerging, and credible breakthroughs.

The outputs from the interviews and the extreme facilitation were collated into a narrative and strategic objectives which were offered to the community for review.


This intervention gave the client, whose staff were largely sceptical of strategy:

  1. A crisper approved strategic headmark against which more detailed planning could proceed;

  2. A headmark against which current investments in change could be assessed;

  3. A baseline statement of the collective wisdom that was easier to challenge and refine;

  4. An exemplar strategy against which others could be developed;

  5. A baseline from which continuous improvement could be planned.

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