Engaging the System: Tapping into Diversity

By Cory Davis

In a previous post, I discussed tips and tools for engaging teams. Now, I would like to discuss some tips and thoughts about how to engage the system at work.

As always, I want to give credit where it is due. This blog post is inspired by Bob Chartier’s “Handcrafted Leadership” (2015) about the art of facilitation and engagement. If you are interested in the tips and tools that I share with you here, please check out his book.

Engaging the System

What do I mean when I say “the System”? I mean everyone at your organization. Not just your team or department. The system refers to all available departments or employees. The idea of engaging the system is designed to tap into different perspectives from all available angles or viewpoints.

There is power in numbers and diversity. Interesting ideas, stories, and knowledge stored in the system can spur innovation and creative problem solving if you can dig it out. By opening yourself up to data burried in the system, you can get a broader range of perspectives to address challenges and tackle problems.

Bob Chartier gave an example that resonated with me, demonstrating the value of diversity in problem solving. The operations department at an energy company in northern Canada regularly incurred massive damages to its powerlines in one particular area due to snow piling up on the lines that underwent melting and freezing. This was very expensive for the company. Furthermore, it created a dangerous and harsh work environment for repair crews. One employee from the health and safety department shared a story about her previous job in Vietnam. She worked at a hospital where helicopters regularly caused harsh drafts, which caused problems for them. Would flying a helicopter to blow the snow off the powerlines right after it snowed help? Yes, it would… and it saved the company a fortune.

The point here is to engage the entire company, community, or organization. However, engaging such a large audience can be tricky. Without a carefully designed approach handy, it can become a daunting task. There are too many large meetings designed around a problem, issue or task that result in no tangible deliverables.

That is why I wanted to share two facilitation tools from Bob Chartier’s “Handcrafted Leadership” to engage the system:

1. The Open Space

This is not your traditionally structured company meeting, with a power-point, strict agenda and formal seating. It is designed around the idea of a “Town Hall”, where everyone’s voice will be heard. The Open House is a themed meeting. It could be about a policy, new idea, or a problem that needs to be solved.

Design the meeting space to be in circles around the center of the room where your facilitator will be at the beginning. Have everyone introduce themselves and state what they think should be on the agenda. The boss will not create the agenda, the particpants will.

Once the agenda is created, post each agenda item around the conference room with an attendee, perhaps someone who came up with it. Then participants will be split into “pods” of 3-5 people who can wander freely to talk about the agenda items together. Each pod will generate ideas, recommendations or solutions for each agenda item. Give them a template to document them. You dont need to limit participation to employees, you can also invite partners or other stakeholders as well.

2. The World Café

This is a fairly common tool with lots of material online about it. Unlike the Open Space which is generative (creating ideas, solutions, etc.), the World Café is responsive. It is designed to elicit reactions from participants to a speaker’s presentation, new ideas, policies, challenges, a presentation, or new information. It is also a good chance to spur innovation and share knowledge, that you can put into action.

The World Café consists of three elements:

  1. The presentation or talk. This will provide the audience with information.
  2. The Conversation. Get everyone talking about the presentation. It will consist of a host at each table to faciliate a conversation between 3-4 people. Set a time limit for each group, then get them to switch tables about 3-4 times. Have a different theme for each round of conversations. For example, the first round can just debrief the presentation. The second round could be about ideas and questions. The third round could try to uncover the deepest unanswered questions.
  3. The Response. Questions that result from the conversation will be gathered and the speaker or other audience members can answer them in the format of a talk show.

This is a great tool to engage an audience after a presentation. We are all sick of sitting through a presentation to only have a few questions answered before particpants have a chance to discuss them or let the material sink in. The audience members will generate much higher quality questions after they have conversations about it.


The above are just two facilitation tools you can use to engage the system. If you are ot familiar with facilitation tools like the ones mentioned here, please check out the plethora of free facilitation resources online, or better yet, read Bob Chartier’s “Handcrafted Leadership”. One resource that I love found free online is the Institute for Innovation and Improvement’s Facilitator Toolkit.

This post was intended to create a dialogue about engaging the system. There is so much to be gained by opening up to the diverse perspectives deep within the system that can enable us to attack problems, or generate ideas from a wide range of angles. With the right approach, you can engage the system in an organized, effective and time-efficient way.

Thank you so much for visiting my blog and reading my post. If you enjoyed it, please subscribe, give it a like, or follow me on Twitter @interestpeaks.

I found this topic interesting. However, I would be much more interested to hear your thoughts, opinions, ideas, questions, or criticisms. If you would like to share, please do so in the comment section below. I promise to read all comments you post here.

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