Bad acts of facilitation

In the last few weeks I have spoken with several people who have shared recent experiences working with a facilitator. In all cases they have said “the facilitator was not very good”. That catches my attention – what are they referring to?  What is happening when the facilitator isn’t very good? 

Complaint #1:  The facilitator had their own agenda. 

The group believed that the facilitator had an agenda and was maneuvering the group towards an already determined outcome. They felt manipulated, that their input was being selectively considered to match a previously determined outcome.

An essential rule – the facilitator must be neutral. The facilitator can not have a pre-defined ‘answer’. The facilitator may speculate on where the group will go for design purposes, but does not know ‘the answer’. Otherwise, the facilitator is perceived to be in collusion with the organizer and the group will not support the result.

Complaint #2:  We didn’t get anything done.

Two days of gruelling meetings coming to a conclusion with no substantive result. The group’s frustration is boiling over due to the inconsiderate waste of their time.

A facilitator must clearly define the outcome for the meeting. To be clear, it is an outcome such as a decision (we will select an option), not a description of the decision to be made (we will decide if option b is right). Facilitators are responsible for getting crystal clear on the desired outcome for the  meeting. This means detailed discovery discussions with the client. Poor discovery leads to poorly defined outcomes and dissatisfied participants.

Complain #3:  The facilitator talked too much.

The facilitator engaged with the discussion, shared opinions and took space away from participants. Participants were frustrated by the inability of the facilitator to ‘stay out of it’.

This is a common complaint when a subject matter expert is asked to lead a meeting. They have expertise, they want to share. A facilitator is content neutral. They do not have a role in content. Their role is to create the conditions for the people in the room to share their wisdom. Instead of hiring the subject matter expert to facilitate, invite them to participate and hire a content neutral facilitator.

Complaint #4:  The process was convoluted.

The facilitator didn’t have a process that was clear or well understood. Participants didn’t know where they were headed, the discussion seemed random.

This might be the most telling indicator of a non-facilitator. Good process is based on an understanding of group dynamics and how people think. The most involved part of event preparation is planning the appropriate group process. A good facilitator designs conversations to keep a group on track and to avoid random acts of dialogue.

Complaint #5: The facilitator was winging it.

The facilitator seemed to be adjusting their plan on the fly and didn’t really seem to know what was to be accomplished.

A good facilitation has iceberg qualities. Only about 10% of the effort it takes to create a good facilitated event is visible. The ‘submerged’ part of the event is the time taken to discover needs and prepare the right process for the group. It is not to say that a facilitator never changes plans mid-event, because that does happen. When course change is needed, a good facilitator discusses the situation with the group and makes change with the input and the consent of the group.

Remember that a facilitator, as defined by Roger Schwarz the leading academic on the subject, is  “a person who is acceptable to all members of the group, substantively neutral and has no decision-making authority, intervenes to help a group improve the way it defines and solves problems in order to increase the group’s effectiveness.”

I feel physical pain when I hear such complaints. To be an excellent facilitator is to embrace the mindset of a facilitator, to deeply understand the role, to have invested in training, to be expert in core methods and to constantly hone skills. Some people have natural talent for facilitation. All talented facilitators have invested in their skills.

_______________________________

Are you engaging in acts of bad facilitation?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you may be guilty of bad facilitation:

  1. Weigh in on content
  2. Offer your opinion on the result
  3. Drive a group towards a specific answer
  4. Love being the centre of attention
  5. Wing it (process, schmocess!)
  6. Can’t explain the underlying methods that you’re using

Are you a thoughtful facilitator?

If you answer yes to these questions, you may be a thoughtful facilitator:

  1. Deep respect for the wisdom of the group
  2. Conscientiously neutral and ensuring there is space for all opinions in the room
  3. Keeper and driver of process
  4. Concerned with achieving desired outcomes
  5. Can discuss with you the details of their process and rationale behind them
  6. Have discuss client needs, group dynamics, needed outputs and event objectives, at length

Need to hire a facilitator?

If you’re hiring one for the first time, look for the following:

  1. Professional certification (through IAF, INIFAC or other)
  2. Have formal training  (Technology of Participation, The Art of Hosting, The Skilled Facilitator, Leadership Strategies)
  3. Adhere to professional ethics (see IAF’s code of ethics)
  4. Engage in continuous professional development

 

When groups struggle to decide

One of the most interesting things about working with groups is observing their dynamic through a decision making lens.  At certain points, during a workshop, a group needs to make a decision, revealing much about the nature of their group.

As a meeting leader, you need to be aware of what is happening in your group at that time. Is the decision process going well? Is it stalling? If so, what is happening?

Step 1: Observe

The first step of a meeting leader is to observe the dynamic. What are you noticing? What behaviours are evident? What is going on at the surface? Below the surface?

When groups are struggling to decide, you may see:

  • silence, the group is not speaking
  • limited support for new ideas as they arise, the group doesn’t know what it believes
  • stilted dialogue, the group is uncertain of safety and is feeling cautious
  • an absence of insight, the group can’t decide what something means
  • different perspectives are not acknowledged, the group hasn’t decided to support each other

A struggling group is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it may
be a necessary thing. 

Bruce Tuckmans article Developmental Sequence for Small Groups  defined a the ‘forming, storming, norming, performing’ model that many of us are familiar with. At the heart of this model is an acknowledgement group development follows a cycle and takes time. Groups go through four distinctly different phases characterized by different behaviours and challenges.

That groups struggle is necessary and to some degree unavoidable. Importantly, if even one member of a group should change, you start over. You are back at the forming stage.

Step 2: Self reflection

This is a small but important step as the meeting leader. How are you feeling about what is happening in the room? How important is it that the group resolve their roadblock right away? Do they have time to resolve it?

Take a quick breath to understand how you are reacting to what you are seeing first, before you jump to diagnosis.

Step 3: Diagnosis

Why are the observed behaviours happening?  What do you think is a root cause?  What might some contributing factors? A bit of dispassionate analysis is needed. This is often where a third party facilitator has an advantage as they don’t have a lot of pre-conceived ideas.

  • Is there an overweighting of a single thinking style?
  • Is the group newly formed?
  • Has there been a change in the membership of the group?
  • Is the topic of discussion relatively unfamiliar?
  • Are trust levels within the room low?
  • Are there ‘factions’ within the room?
  • Are there ‘elephants’ wandering freely in the room?
  • Is this a ‘hostage-like’ scenario?

Intervention can be simple.

Step 4:  Intervention

As a meeting leader – there are things you can do to address the dynamics that you see happening. You have to decide on the degree of intervention that is needed. Intervention can be quite simple.

In the case of an overweighting of a single thinking style (which is common when you deal with departmental groups), add diversity. Bring others, into the discussion, who will offer a different perspective which can be beneficial in unblocking a group. Alternatively, plan your meeting activity so as to stimulate an alternate thinking style. A common approach with technical groups who tend to be quite analytic (left brained) is to have them work with images, which stimulate the more holistic, pattern thinking right brain.  (see Too Much Left Brain )

Often, I work with newly assembled groups. As an example, a board of directors has turned over and is quite new, but open to working together. Their limited familiarity causes them to be cautious and reserved. Their group dynamic is as yet, undeveloped. They are forming.

This is the easiest problem to solve. Spend time on activities which will increase familiarity such as personal story telling and small group work or fun exercises. Have the group define its primary purpose. Maintain a supportive environment and encourage articulation of thoughts. In my experience these groups become much more comfortable over the course of a single day. Be aware that a similar process is necessary when new members join an existing group.

New topics are an interesting dilemma for groups. The topic is often the reason for bringing them together, but the topic may be quite different, unfamiliar or uncomfortable and causes the group to act accordingly. In this scenario it is important to give a healthy quantity of time to the topic itself. Increase the amount of time spent the group spends on reviewing facts, reflecting on the topic and exploring meaning before moving to decision. Often groups are pushed towards decision too quickly in these scenarios and find themselves resistant. Time spent exploring the topic will improve decision making.

An untrusting dynamic is more complicated to resolve and will take more time. A good starting point may be to clarify the purpose of the group. Have the group articulate their issues and focus on ideas. Acknowledge and reflect the experiences of the group. What has happened before? Encourage transparency of thinking. What did they mean when they said that? Ask group members to state their reasoning and intent when they speak to reduce the risk of further misunderstandings. Maintain an open and supportive environment. Adoption of this form of dialogue may allow you to get to a decision. Turning this dynamic on a permanent basis is a longer term proposition and a more complicated intervention.

In the case of factions in a room, where the camp is obviously divided, decision making becomes elusive because the factions may be supporting a specific position. In this scenario, it is necessary to define the problem and define the common interest of the group. Focus on establishing options, establish decision criteria and then move towards decision making. A deeply divided group has a host of issues that take time to overcome.  This may be the most complicated intervention and require more than one conversation to get to a result.

When there is an elephant wandering freely in the room, suspend your planned agenda and deal with the elephant. Good decisions can not be made with a large, unresolved issue.

In the case of a room full of ‘hostages’ – people who would rather be anywhere but here, find out what would be a useful outcome to them. If there’s nothing in sight for them, let them leave the room. They do not want to be a part of the process and won’t help you get to a good decision.

Ask the group what it needs. 

Last and perhaps most important, ask the group what it needs to resolve its struggle. Ask  what would be helpful to the group at this point in their struggles. Sometimes groups will ask for more think time, or more discussion time, more facts, more structure, or better decision criteria. When in doubt – ask the group.

It’s important to remember that not all struggle is bad. In fact, struggle is often needed to come to a common understanding or agreement on a topic.

Some of the benefits of a struggle during the decision process include: 

  • increased group cohesion
  • increased commitment to outcome
  • increased likelihood that important topics are coming to the surface
  • areas for additional discussion are exposed

As the leader of a group meeting, your role is to create a healthy process for decision making. The group’s job is to get the decision made.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What if someone says something stupid?

February 2, 2016

He avoided eye contact, looked uncomfortable and squirmed in his chair, when I asked “How would you like to proceed?”

This wasn’t a cold call and I wasn’t a boss or an instructor asking pointed questions. I had been invited to a potential client’s office to discuss strategic planning. Our conversation was lively, engaged and with lots of shared ideas. And yet, when it came to taking a next step, the prospect was somewhat paralyzed. “I need to think about this” was his subdued response.

Bad salesmanship on my part?  Perhaps.  But I think something more complex was at play.

This person knows that he needs to put together a larger plan; he knows that he’s spending time in the urgent and unimportant and not getting to the important activity. He has an idea of what his future should look like and intuitively he recognizes that involving other people is worthwhile. And yet, he is… uncomfortable.

Where do you start? Who do you involve? If you involve people, do you raise expectations unreasonably? What if they aren’t the right people? What if they say stupid things? What if the discussion spins out of control? What if you get into the middle of it and don’t know what to do next?

What if .. what if.. what if….

I believe in the keep it simple mantra. A planning process does not need to be complex. It does need to be thoughtful. Here are my four key steps:

Step 1: Get clear on your why.  Why do you exist? What is the compelling, emotional reason that you get out of bed in the morning?  (please… do not say to make money or worse, add shareholder value… blech!)

Step 2: Dig deep to understand what stands in the way of achieving your why. These are often fundamental contradictions that are barriers to achieving your why.

Step 3: What do you need to do to address your barriers? What key strategies or big initiatives should you start that will address your fundamental contradictions?

Step 4:  What do you need to do in the next 3 months to implement your key strategies or big initiatives?  You can only eat the elephant one bite at a time.

OK, but who do I involve?

I believe that diversity of perspective is incredibly valuable, so I tend to advocate more minds, rather than fewer.  To get to ‘why’, involve your leaders, employees, suppliers, trusted advisors and key customers. You will be fascinated by their view. When tackling barriers and establishing strategies involve your leaders, key employees and trusted outsiders. Do not fear the outsider viewpoint, it will only add depth. When you start defining actions, make sure the people who are expected to execute are involved. No one likes being handed at to do list!

What if someone says something stupid?

It is extremely difficult for the leader of an organization to also lead a strategic planning discussion. Bring in a neutral party to lead the discussion. When you have what I like to call a ‘facilitative strategist’, stupid becomes wisdom and everyone benefits. Conversations stay productive and constructive.

What if we get stuck?

The facilitative strategist leading your process should have a robust understanding of a strategic planning process and should know where they are headed. In times of doubt, a discussion with the group about what’s next generally resolves those concerns.

What if we don’t like it after we get started?

The great thing about a strategic planning process is that you take it one step at a time and can re-evaluate direction after each step.

My advise to anyone fearing the planning process – find a facilitative strategist that you trust, look them in the eye and say – let’s pick a date! You will be pleasantly surprised at the energy and creativity that will result.

 

 

 

It’s not the money, it’s the principle

April 14, 2015

We humans are not as evolved as we might like to think, and we instinctively care about fairness.

Research on brain functionality suggests that much of our motivation driving our social behaviour is governed by the principles of avoiding threat and seeking reward. Interestingly, our brain uses the same networks for social interactions as for primary survival needs.

According to David Rock, our primary survival needs are governed by the more primitive parts of our brain and operate in a fairly binary mode: feel good -> move toward reward and feel threat -> move away. Our primitive brain networks process threat and reward cues almost instantly and tell us what is meaningful. The layman would say this is a ‘reflex or instant reaction’. To put this in day to day terms…meeting strangers at a cocktail party activates the same brain networks as if we were being approached by a woolly mammoth…threat is imminent!

The SCARF model (David Rock, 2008) identifies 5 domains of human experience: Status is about relative importance to others. Certainty concerns being able to predict the future. Autonomy provides a sense of control over events. Relatedness is a sense of safety with others and Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between peopleWhen any of these domains is threatened our primitive avoidance responses kick in (withdrawal, retreat, anger, threat).  Check out his TED talk.  

Fairness is a domain that is particularly acute. In fact, research suggests that fairness is so essential to humans, that we will give up money in exchange for a perceived ‘fairer’ outcome. How many times have you heard the expression “it’s not the money, it’s the principle”;  “it’s not what he did, it’s the principle”.  Fairness is a significant and primitive motivator for people.

In a sports context: a red team plays a blue team.  The red team wins. At the conclusion of the game, the blue team identifies and awards an MVP (most valuable player) to the red team. The player happens to be the coach’s child. The award feels fair. We are happy, we congratulate the MVP.  

On the other hand, if the red team’s coach selects the MVP award and it also goes to his child – it feels unfair. We have an immediate threat response which may be anger, disbelief, or frustration. In these two situations, the outcome is the same but the manner in which the event occurs creates a completely different response from our brain. It’s the principal that counted. Fairness mattered. 

In your day to day office environment, how often is perceived fairness threatened? What effect does it have on dialogue and understanding? What about collegiality? decision making? What can you do to minimize the threat/avoidance response in your team? (spoiler alert – performance reviews are huge ‘threats’ in corporate life).

So what are the implications when facilitating?  How do you encourage people to share openly and freely? How do you prevent someone from feeling threatened and ‘shutting down’? If you spot someone demonstrating signs of feeling threatened, what can you do to make it neutral or rewarding? 

This is a key reason facilitated workshops spend time on icebreakers, warm ups and introductions. We are less ‘threatened’ when someone is no longer a stranger. Another techniques is to record the words of people ‘as is’;  avoid paraphrasing and repeat as many specific words as possible. This ensures people feel heard, thereby lowering threat response.

I’d love to hear from you – what do you do, in your meetings, workshops, 1:1’s to reduce the ‘threat’ response?  

Sources:  

David Rock

http://www.your-brain-at-work.com/files/NLJ_SCARFUS.pdf

Social Neuroscience, SCARF Model and Change Management

http://thehypertextual.com/2013/04/23/social-neuroscience-scarf-model-and-change-management/

 

 

The power of a problem statement

Mar 18, 2015

When you work with clients in a consulting capacity, often, the most difficult part of a discussion is identifying the problem that needs attention.

An initial conversation with a client will typically start with a description of their current situation and illustrative examples. The client will provide additional situational context and then discuss what they think might be a solution. These conversations can be far reaching, interesting, helpful, insightful and yet lack clarity and focus.

When I find myself in this situation, I’ll ask the question “if we had to write a problem statement, what would it be?”. This question is a bit of a conversation stopper. The client will pause and often say “hmm that’s a good question”. Clients that I’ve worked with more than once will say “oh that question again”.

After a few minutes, the client begins to mull over a few phrases and after 2 or 3 efforts and sometimes through a collaborative effort, the problem description emerges. As an example: “our strategic plan says we are expanding our offerings into a new market segment but we do not have a product strategy”.

Once we can agree on a descripiton, we can talk about why it’s a problem and the impact of the problem. For example: “without a product strategy, we don’t know what we’re selling and we don’t know how we’re delivering it – which means we’re doing nothing'”.

There is nothing quite so effective at creating a lens on what it is that we need to address. Once the problem statement (description + why) is articulated, we can really focus in on the next steps. It may be research, a planning session, or a facilitated discussion. What ever the next step, the problem statement is always a powerful catalyst.

The problem statement is equally effective when pulling together a meeting agenda. How many times have you been invited to a meeting which is circular, directionless and without focus? After 45 minutes you just want to poke your eyes out with frustration.

By setting meeting context with a problem statement and following it with a genuine question, you can create an infintely higher quality discussion. For example: “we struggle to reconcile our cost numbers every month, which means we are constantly under time pressure and often issue reports with incorrect numbers. Our customers are at risk of making bad decisions. Do you see it differently?”

The next time you’re in one of those circular, unfocused meetings – ask the question… What is the problem statement? What are we trying to solve? Do others see it as problem? The problem statement is a powerful tool for creating clarity.