Why large group processes go badly in environmental and public policy facilitations

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This is a list of causes/triggers for large group failure or problems was developed in a web survey of group facilitators in April-May 2008. To get the input, experienced facilitators across the country were asked to fill out a web survey about “why things go badly in large group” processes. These facilitators specialized in environmental and public policy facilitation.

Joe McMahon compiled the comments. At the Environmental Conflict Resolution 2008 Conference in Tucson in May 2008, Joe McMahon of Collaborative Processes and Chris Moore of CDR Associates facilitated large and small group processes about this topic. We asked the group to tell us: Is this list of triggers for large group problems accurate and complete? They added a few topics. We asked individual to indicate which triggers occur most frequently in their experience. A    is inserted where many facilitators participating in the discussion supported this concept as a common problem for large groups facilitations. Although informal, the results are interesting.

My summary of what we learned – causes of group failures


  1. Polarized parties, often with a long conflict history.
  2. Lack of collaborative leadership or direction.
  3. Dysfunctional parties.
  4. Parties who seek to undermine the process.
  5. Low disclosure by some participants, hidden agendas.


  1. The process pace is wrong; time too short for complex issues.
  2. Problems with the decisional process or lack of clarity about desired outcome.
  3. Unrealistic expectations (outcome and pace).
  4. External pressure (from senior management or politics).
  5. Lack of credible expertise to assess data.

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