A conversation with facilitator and entrepreneur Wolfgang Wopperer-Beholz

Wolfgang Wopperer-Beholz is a London-based facilitator and self-described sense-maker who helps organizations and startups navigate change and complexity through training and coaching. He started his career as a student of philosophy and political sciences before becoming an entrepreneur. Most recently, he’s also dedicated himself to climate activism.

Through my conversations with innovators of all kinds, I’ve found that while someone’s “first life” might not seem related to their current career, it always has points of resonance and connection. For Wolfgang, his philosophy background directly impacts his strategic facilitation work: “It influenced my work in two different ways. One is that, when studying philosophy the way I did, there is a tradition that focuses heavily on logic, presenting sound arguments, and being very clear about what you’re trying to say. It was a training for dealing with complex issues and being critical of positions that are being put forward with an air of authority. I think it was excellent training for understanding complex issues.”

Wolfgang Wopperer-Beholz is a London-based facilitator.
Wolfgang Wopperer-Beholz is a London-based facilitator.

Second, he explained how philosophy gave him a reliable “bullshit meter”: “It comes with a critical attitude. You get very aware of bullshit. I developed a sensitivity for going beyond buzzwords and trying to understand the fact of the matter as early on as possible. I’m more relentless in doing that and a bit more critical than I would have been if I hadn’t I studied philosophy and political science.”

“I developed a sensitivity for going beyond buzzwords and trying to understand the fact of the matter as early on as possible.”

What makes a great facilitator?

As a fellow facilitator, I wanted to talk to Wolfgang about how he became a facilitator and what that designation means to him. First, he shared how he doesn’t think, as some might, that being a facilitator is about knowing all the answers: “I see myself not in a position where I can provide people with knowledge or answers, but where I can help them find answers and reveal the knowledge and the information they already have. I see my job as helping them think together and find solutions they probably wouldn’t have found if they wouldn’t have worked and thought about their challenges together. I wouldn’t have been able to provide them with these solutions either.”

For Wolfgang, a facilitator isn’t hired for the “gathering and processing of information and/or decision making.” Instead, he thinks this gathering and processing need to happen within the organization. He’s there to help them to that.

In June 2019, Wolfgang pledged on Twitter to not buy any new clothing or textiles for a year.
In June 2019, Wolfgang pledged on Twitter to not buy any new clothing or textiles for a year.

Three modes of facilitation

We also discussed how all facilitators have their particular style and strengths, and Wolfgang shared his perspective on what makes a good facilitator. He identified three forms of facilitation. First, he described an experienced facilitator he saw at a tech festival last year: “The main thing he helped us with was making sure everybody felt safe and that there was a process in place that would lead somewhere. He was very much in the background and helped us through the process just by his presence and by the aura he exuded.”

That in-the background mode of facilitating is one approach; personally, Wolfgang likes to take a more hands-on approach: “I am, compared to other facilitators, very keen on diving into the subject matter with the participants in my workshops.” For him, this takes the form of visualizing ideas as a way to make connections for people in the room: “I’m always trying to be part of the thinking process. I like to identify structures and connections and visualize ideas as we go forward. My way of facilitating is quite focused on generating artifacts or models that help my participants understand their challenges better.”

“My way of facilitating is quite focused on generating artifacts or models that help my participants understand their challenges better.”

Wolfgang then talked about the third mode of facilitation: “There are facilitators who are neither ‘mere presence’ or diving deep into the subject matter, but focus more on a rigid structure of the process. This can be a good way to help teams also, to provide them with a structure they can think freely in.”

No matter what type of facilitator you are, Wolfgang noted that authenticity is most critical at the end of the day: “What’s important for a facilitator that he or she feels comfortable within his or her mode of working. Something that’s authentic and natural and doesn’t play like ‘facilitation theater.’ The facilitation I don’t find very valuable is when you realize that a person is just doing what he or she does because they read somewhere that it’s supposed to be the way. But, there isn’t any understanding, depth, or authenticity in it.”

Wolfgang at work.
Wolfgang at work.

Innovation isn’t linear

In all of my conversations, I ask interviewees about the approaches they’ve seen go wrong in corporate innovation. Wolfgang’s answer: “Approaches that discount complexity and try to model innovation as a linear process, when in fact, it’s a complex adaptive system.”

The idea of complexity theory is something I’m fascinated by as well, so I asked Wolfgang to discuss how he got interested in the topic. “I think the first contact I had was almost completely isolated from my work context because it was intellectual curiosity. After working in product innovation and in diverse contexts with many different stakeholders, the only way to describe the situations we’re working in is by making use of the concepts of complex adaptive systems. I began to try and understand my work through that lens.”

He continued: “This is why I don’t think there is a silver bullet for innovation. Things are complex, and we will fail most of the time. If you use tools that give you a better understanding of why that is and how to react, it’s a more honest way of working than suggesting things aren’t as complex or easier.”

Interested in finding out more about complexity theory? Wolfgang suggests an online course called Complexity Explorer by the Santa Fe Institute.

Innovation and outcomes

Perhaps it’s the philosopher in him that made Wolfgang give me a comprehensive definition of innovation when I posed the question “What is innovation?” He said: “I begin quite canonically with innovation as the creation and introduction of new or significantly enhanced products and services, processes, or business models. This can be understood as either the practice of creating and introducing them, the process that structures this practice, or the system the practice takes place in. I’ve found the third meaning most helpful in my work.”

He went on: “When innovation is understood as the outcome this system produces, it isn’t an end in itself, but a change that creates positive impact on stakeholders — which is why they drive or embrace it. The key question then becomes: For which stakeholders does an innovation create positive impact — and for whom does it not? Does it profit management and shareholders? Does it profit users and customers? Does it profit employees and suppliers? And, most important to me, does it profit society and our ecosystem as a whole? Only if it does, innovation becomes progress.”

He summarized it this way: “So for me, understanding impact on all stakeholders is key to understanding innovation.”

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Ten steps to a successful innovation program

When I ask the innovators I speak with about how they would structure an innovation program, I never know where they will take the question, which is what I love about it.

Wolfgang took my question and laid out a constructive ten-step approach to a great innovation program.

  1. Formulate a clear and ambitious overarching purpose.
  2. Organize all needed competencies for turning the purpose into implementations in diverse interdisciplinary teams.
  3. Structure their work in an iterative process focused on continuous learning and alignment.
  4. Create space for expeditions and exploration early on, and for focus on implementation and shipping later.
  5. Use products, services, etc. as the concrete social objects around which to organize, learn, align, and grow teams.
  6. Provide semi-formal mechanisms to collect, evaluate, and incorporate feedback from all stakeholders into these objects.
  7. Regularly decide on how to go forward with individual initiatives based on this feedback.
  8. Collaboratively design and adapt not only the products, services, etc., but also the process you’re developing them in.
  9. Use sense-making frameworks to create a shared understanding and support collaborative design, learning, and alignment.
  10. Create an incentive system that fosters this explorative way of working, if necessary, independent from other areas in your organization.

Wolfgang reflected on these ten steps a bit more in our conversation and how he’s seen things go wrong in organizations that don’t have a firm grasp of the first step in his process — purpose. “In almost every kind of organization, there is some disconnect on the way throughout the organization structure, throughout the hierarchy from purpose to concrete action. There’s always some point where things don’t line up anymore, where there isn’t a good reason for doing things the way they are doing it, where it’s just a product of the silos they’ve built over the years. This is usually the main roadblock to get to a consistent understanding of ‘why are we doing what we are doing?’”

And to circle back to complexity theory, Wolfgang reiterated how this disconnect is not a simple fix: “This is something you can not solve inside of a single workshop. I’m always trying to create awareness of that — and then generate ideas how these disconnects can be dealt with more fundamentally than just patching them.”

Thanks for reading this summary of my conversation with Wolfgang Wopperer-Beholz. If you want to check out my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please see here.