Respectful visioning – a facilitated approach

As auditor, I have often been asked to facilitate between different groups. I believe the below may therefore be relevant for us auditors, although the subject is not core audit.

I was recently invited to facilitate a group of experts in preparing for a significant likely change in their environment. As the agenda’s were not yet fully in line, I used a combination of a number of facilitation concepts to develop what I now call “respectful visioning.” What it is, how you can use it and what the outcomes will be I describe below.

Context of the facilitation

Imagine a group of experts, each with their own, strongly held opinions, each of them with a good basis for having that opinion. But, ultimately, some of these opinions are incompatible. They cannot jointly lead to one shared vision. Yet the goal was to arrive as closely as possible to some shared ideas on what the future should look like.

After having spent one and a half day talking to each other, listening to different experts bringing their interesting ideas and visions to the table, and identifying implicit and explicit friction points, the group had about three hours left to try to get as close as possible to a common vision for the future.

My observations

I had been able to identify a number of potential friction points throughout the facilitation I had been providing for one and a half day. These were:

  • A disconnect between people concerned about the day-to-day operational feasibility and people aiming to deliver an overall longer term vision;
  • A strong need in most of the participants to be able to express themselves and to contribute to the ultimate vision;
  • A strong need in all of the participants to be respected in their vision.

My challenge

On the other hand, I wanted to have a clear vision emerging at the end. A clear vision is not the sum of about 20 individual visions added together. In addition, some of the subject matter was either highly technical or organization specific, hence as a facilitator I needed to stay away from getting to caught up in the subject matter itself.

The solution

I used the following approach, heavily borrowing from some of my more favorite facilitation techniques:

  1. Phase 0 – Preparation: I decided not to go for one vision, but for a vision for the short term (ideas in there needed to be realized between now and 1 year), the medium term (with ideas to be realized between 1 and 3 years) and the long term (with ideas to be realized beyond the 3 year threshold). I prepared three flipcharts with on these the term (short, medium, long), the numbers 1 through 5, below that a line and the term “ideas” and below that the term “wildcards”. In addition, I had provided each partipant with three stacks of two post-it notes, in the colors red, orange and yellow.
  2. Phase 1 – Briefing: I told the participants the sequence of activities which we were to embark upon. I had asked the group of participants to be split in three for the latter part of the exercise. The visioning exercise owner had proposed three groups. Each participant knew which group he or she belonged to.
  3. Phase 2 – Individual ideation: the participants were told to generate ideas about what they felt they considered the most relevant achievable objective or result over the short, the medium and the long term. They had 10 minutes to think it over and put their top 2 ideas for the short term on the red post-its, their ideas for the medium term on the orange post-its and their ideas for the long term on the yellow post-its.
  4. Phase 3 – Collection: the participants were asked to put their ideas, depending on the colors, on the correct flip chart. This way we had ideas from each participant for the short, the medium and the long term.
  5. Phase 4 – Clustering and prioritization: the participants were then asked to split into the three preassigned groups. Each group had been assigned a flip chart. They were asked to determine the top five of ideas for the term (the flipchart) they were assigned to. They could use the input and most of the groups started to cluster and try to represent the ideas as best as possible in the top five. After 20 minutes they were asked to come up with a top five. The inputs gathered during the collection phase remained on the flipchart, in the ideas area, under the top 5.
  6. Phase 5 – Presentation: Each of the groups presented and defended their choices for top 5.
  7. Phase 6 – Clarification: I took over from the presenters/spokespersons of each of the groups and facilitated through a sometimes very intense and interesting discussion. At this point, most of the cards were on the table, or rather on the flipcharts. We ended up with at most seven ideas for each of the terms.
  8. Phase 7 – Wildcards: all participants had the time to select one of their initial 6 post-its (or those of someone else) which were still on the flipcharts and put the them in the wildcard area. Ideas in the wildcard area would be taken into account in the reporting of the vision as wildcards, whether or not they were supported or even discussed with the group. Note that the number of wildcards for us was also an indication, albeit it a very rough one, of the level of support for the ideas in each of the terms.


After about 2 and 1/2 hours, we ended up with, as I stated above, at most seven ideas per term, not counting the wildcards. At most, we saw four wildcards on one flipchart, but no more than that. Given we had about 20 participants, hence 120 ideas (40 per term), the number of wildcards is indicative of the fact at least some common ground was reached.

Why respectful visioning?

Introducing the wildcards really helped people in letting go of resistances and inhibitions that otherwise would have been present although not necessarily shown. Knowing that they would be able to voice their views which could be different from the consensus was extremely important. At the end, few actually did, which either shows they were more in line than they thought or that the approach really reduces certain blockages that may sink another facilitation.