The Facilitator's Secret Question

A question, “What is our purpose?”, keeps cropping up. Why? Perhaps because of a secret that many facilitators already know: this question can bring us to our hearts, and can tap into our passions. We’ll explore briefly how this happens through three examples.

How I came to this question goes back to an evening in 1996 almost 20 years ago in Grosvenor House Hotel, when one Mark Goyder, the founder of think tank Tomorrow’s Company, attended a talk by an eager young man who was launching a book called Diary of a Change Agent. Afterwards Mark invited the young man to meet and find out more about Tomorrow’s Company.

One thing this no-longer-quite-so-young man still remembers from that time is discovering that a substantial and respected think tank can grow from someone called Charles Handy asking a simple but powerful question: “What is a company for?”.

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So what is a company for? You can say its purpose is: to deliver profit to owners, services to customers, wages and fulfilment to employees, or to serve a common good. And what is a facilitator for? To assist collaboration, sometimes by asking the purpose question directly, while knowing quite varied and indirect questions will come back (“Do you mean our purpose as a team, or as individuals or as a company?”).

As facilitators, we put ourselves in confusing and conflicted situations, and why would we do that? Perhaps because we start to feel passion for this work when we are making a difference. Then briefly I am relevant again, and inside it feels warm.

Which work generates most warmth? While warmth does occur when I work at the petrochemical company, it happens more so with organisations that serve a common good (the education systems, the health research, the auditor securing value from public money, the international cultural relations agency, and the volunteering charity that tackles poverty).

So let’s remember the facilitator’s secret question “what is our purpose”, that can be so powerful anywhere towards unlocking choices, passions and resources: both our own and those in the people around us.