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

 

Towards your vision

Part 4 of 4

In the first 3 articles of this series, we talked about articulating your story, defining your vision and getting real about what stands in the way of your vision. And let’s be honest, the third step was absolutely the hardest.

It takes some emotional digging and a bit of hard reflection to be boldly honest about what stands in your way. But defining that – magic! Because now, you can focus your energy on moving towards the vision, by tackling your obstacles.

Strategy sets the direction for moving towards something. 

Step 4 in the Personal Strategy process is defining your strategies

Strategy is more process than goal, in that is sets the direction for moving ‘towards’ something, allowing one to discover the real nature of the path along the way. Without the strategic framework of directions, action can be scattered and piecemeal.

Strategies need to be aimed at your obstacles, rather than your vision. Too many plans fail because the strategies aim for the vision and fail to address the barriers. Focusing on the obstacles keep strategies related to the real things that are blocking your vision. The movement of an obstacle unlocks elements of your vision.

In the case of the person who is afraid of rejection and therefore selling their services, a strategy that they may consider (to move towards vision of being a ‘go to’ consultant) is to find speaking engagements, or partner with someone else so that less direct selling is needed. Another strategy may be to take a Dale Carnegie course, or a Selling Skills course in order to build skill to overcome the fear of selling.

Not every strategy is bold and new.

Often, strategies point to a new behaviour or attitude or activity. It’s important to recognize that in times of transition, some things that you are already doing need to be protected to support the more venturesome strategies.

Let’s get started on your personal strategy.

 

Favourite warm puppies

Part 3 in a series

So, now that you have articulated your story and defined your vision, now what?  There are so many things standing in your way, right?

It’s true. There are things standing in your way and that is the purpose of step 3 in your personal strategy process, the obstacles conversation.

Obstacles stand in the way of achieving your vision.

Obstacles are concrete manifestations that stand in the way of achieving our vision. They are about behaviours, actions and attitudes that inhibit us. Importantly, they are NOT someone’s fault, there is no blame to be assigned.

Obstacles are often artifacts of previous decisions or events, which can block the changes that we might need to make. Obstacles are utterly fascinating because we have real relationships with them. They tend to be our favourite warm puppies that keep us ‘distracted and poor’, in the words of Jo Nelson, ICA Associates.

Let me give you an example. I worked for a large national telco in the 2000’s. In the western offices, we had a favourite warm puppy called THE EAST. We fed and nurtured that puppy and every chance we got, we showed off our puppy. A change in the expense policy, well THE EAST is clearly trying to make our lives difficult. We are the fourth stop on a national town hall tour, well what can you expect from THE EAST? The Christmas party was cancelled because THE EAST thought pot-lucks were fun… and on it went. We worked very hard at building up THE EAST’s capacity to stand in the way of … something, nay everything.

The process of honestly and deeply defining root issues holding our obstacles in place is where opportunity lies. This is the thing to resolve in order to unlock our vision.

Once we articulate an obstacle, it is much easier to figure out what to do.

Another example: an individual has made a decision to become an independent consultant with a vision of being a ‘go to’ expert. One of her favourite puppies is ‘I don’t like selling’. A deeper dig into the root issues identifies a fear of being rejected by putting herself ‘out there’ which ultimately inhibits her ability to find new business.

The value in being coldly honest and stating the obstacle for what it really is (a fear), is that the obstacle can become concrete and genuine strategies for overcoming the obstacle can be developed.

If the obstacle isn’t clearly articulated and clearly defined, any efforts to overcome the perceived obstacle will be misplaced. If the obstacle isn’t addressed, achieving the vision will be much more difficult.

The obstacles discussion is a powerful stage in personal planning as it highlights where your energy will need to go in order to move towards your vision.

Let’s get started on your obstacles discussion.

 

 

 

What do you want?

Part 2 in a series

… “and in this box, I’d like you to write out personal vision statement

Is there anything more daunting? The prospect of filling that blankness with something deep, insightful or inspirational is overwhelming. It is soooo hard. Why?

It’s hard because this just isn’t how the  the brain forms new insights and it’s not how a creative process works.

Step 2 in a personal strategy process is to identify your vision.

The process that I use for a personal vision workshop is not rocket science, but it is highly effective. It works because it approaches a ‘vision’ statement from the bottom up, from the assembly of many ideas. It doesn’t ask for the big idea first.

Examine your data divorced from assumption.

A brainstorm mines your thoughts, desires and emotions for data points. Once the data points are assembled, they are examined without assumptions and in the context of other ideas that are also divorced from their assumptions. The next step is to look for the patterns and the deeper insight that the data point towards.

Brain science tells us that we form new ideas and new patterns when our brains are relaxed and able to form new neural pathways and knit old information together in new ways. This is one of the reasons we have our best thoughts in the shower first thing in the morning or when we’re out walking the dog.

Personal vision workshops create the opportunity to examine our own data points in a different context, in a relaxed and uncomplicated setting where new connections free to form and new relationships between ideas can be explored.

Where’s the value in spending time on personal vision?

By defining a personal vision, you create a frame from which to explore opportunities, evaluate options, create focus, eliminate distractions, and importantly, devise strategies for change and motion. If you can decide on your big picture aspiration, it is far easier to make smaller choices.

In a personal vision process, what matters most to you, in your complete life, will emerge.

You will define the pillars of your vision and an overall vision statement. Your pillars will be a reflection of the elements of your life that are most important to you. Often they include family, career, friends, learning, wellness and recreation.

My clients tell me they emerge inspired, excited, positively motivated, curious but firmly comfortable with their insights and discoveries. This is a great place from which to approach new chapters in your life, job hunting, big decisions or business opportunities.

Let’s get started on your vision statement.

 

 

 

What I believe to be true…

“I’ve been asked to speak on work-life balance at a women’s leadership conference”, said a friend of mine.

In my blunt fashion I said, “Good lord – why are we still asking professional women this question? Why do we assume that women, who are powerful and competent, need answers to this question? How often do we ask men this question?”

Image governs behaviour

In 1956, Kenneth Boulding wrote a book called The Image. In it, he wrote that our behaviours are a reflection of the images that we hold of ourselves. In his words “…what I believe to be true; my subjective knowledge. It is this image that largely governs my behaviour“.  

As events occur, they alter our images and as our image alters we alter our behaviour accordingly. Images are built up as a result of our past experiences. They can be deeply ingrained and are held in place by the messages that reach it. “The meaning of a message is the change which it produces in the image“.  When a message hits an image – it can be rejected; it can add to the image or bolster the image; it can clarify the image; or it can intrude on the image, catalyzing some kind of change, even a revolutionary change. When this revolutionary change happens the image may be re-organized. 

The key element of how the message is received and how it impacts the image is the value screen that a message must pass through. In Boulding’s words “the values are perhaps the most important single element determining the effect of messages on its image”

I was reminded of this model the other day when I realized that if really DO want to be 10 pounds lighter, then my image needs to shift to that of a person who IS 10 pounds lighter (the revolutionary change). I need to filter the allure of the pumpkin scone through a value filter that says “skinny people don’t eat pumpkin scones”.  Then I will triumphantly turn up my nose at said scone. 

If we accept this model, then maybe the question we need to ask professional women is:  “What is the underlying image that we hold, that makes us think we need to keep answering this question? What messages are we receiving that say we don’t know the answer? What values are we filtering our perceptions of work/life balance through?”

 I think this would spark a far more interesting conversation.  

Facilitation for image shift

When facilitators work with groups, they often work within the framework of image shift. A group wants a certain outcome – so what needs to shift, in order to achieve the outcome? If a group wants to be a high performing team – what image do they hold of themselves? What messages are reinforcing the current image, and what values are these messages being filtered through? What are the resulting behaviours? How do these aspects of the image model need to shift to move the group towards its aspirational state? What are the underlying contradictions preventing this shift? 

These are fascinating conversations that groups must navigate as they shift from their current state towards the desired, future state.

Facilitation is an enabling process. 

Reframe the problem

Aug 17, 2015

It turns out our parents were right. There really is more than one way of looking at a problem.  

Once someone perceives a problem in a certain way, it can be very difficult to see the problem in any other way. Past experiences and past brain patterns cause us to lock into a mode of thought. The expression “if all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” comes to mind.

Sam Kaner says that when tackling difficult problems most people reach conclusions quickly and are confident they have explored every solution option. Their expertise, past experience and frame of mind suggest that looking for alternatives is pointless and a waste of time (see a previous article “All fun is not Superficial for a small discussion on the corresponding brain activity)”. The idea that a problem can be reframed, that it can be considered from a different perspective and therefore dramatically shift their understanding is a significant shift for many people. It’s not a place they go to easily. 

A recent experience comes to mind that really illustrated this concept. A colleague was discussing an upcoming facilitation which was complex and looked difficult. They were being asked to look for cost reductions in a project that was well underway. We circled around the topic for a period of time, wrestling with the negative scenario, speculating on the level of automatic resistance that we would encounter. 

After a time, it was suggested that we re-frame the problem. Could we find another way we could look at this issue? Our thinking quickly shifted from the more negative ‘cost reduction’ to a more positive ‘project performance’ mode and the approach to the facilitation quickly emerged. I was reminded of the real value that comes from re-framing.

On a simplistic level., ‘our product won’t sell’ can be reframed as ‘we’re trying to sell our product to the wrong people’,  or ‘our employees are incompetent’ to ‘our employees don’t have enough time to do a quality job’, or ‘we don’t have enough money’ to ‘we haven’t figured out how to find new sources of money’. We instinctively do this when we’re trying to mediate between two people, kids, colleagues or employees.

So, if you find yourself stuck on a problem statement, and working with a group, consider the following steps: 

  1. State the perceived problem.  
  2. Brainstorm a list of ‘reframes’ of the problem.
  3. Discuss the implications of the possible reframed statements
  4. Decide on your next step 

You may be pleasantly surprised to discover that an alternative approach, option or solution is more evident than originally thought. 

For a more detailed discussion, check out The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making by Sam Kaner.  

          

Too much left brain?

July 21, 2015

In modern society we have highly valued a certain type of person and a certain type of mind – people such as engineers who can analyze data, computer programmers who write code, MBA’s who can crunch numbers. 

This type of individual draws heavily from the left side of the brain – that part of our mind that we understand to be rational, analytic, and logical. The left side of our brain reasons sequentially, excels at analysis and handles words. A person with these strengths is definitely the kind of person you want doing your taxes.   

In contrast, those we have considered ‘right’ brained may be artists who express themselves non verbally, writers who create beautiful images, futurists who see patterns and suggest trends. This type of person draws more heavily on the right side of the brain which is nonlinear, instinctive, it reasons holistically, recognizes patterns and interprets emotions and non verbal expressions. This is someone we want as a coach or counsellor.

In A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pinkhe summarizes 3 decades of research on the brain’s hemispheres to 4 key differences:

  1. The left hemisphere controls the right side of the body; the right hemisphere control the left side of the body. 
  2. The left hemisphere is sequential; the right hemisphere is simultaneous. 
  3. The left hemisphere specializes in text; the right hemisphere specializes in context.
  4. The left hemisphere analyses details; the right hemisphere synthesizes the big picture.

I have recently facilitated strategic planning meetings with two management teams that had a heavy weighting of technical skills, or what we’d call left brain skills. Our meetings included an workshop where we identify barriers to achieving our desired future state. The process of brainstorming options went well – many ideas were generated. The process of organizing the ideas into clusters went quickly, albeit with a more linear approach to organizing ideas.

Once ideas are clustered, we look for the larger pattern of causation and the deeper meaning. We’re seeking the root of the issue to assign a name to the cluster. This name, then represents the obstacle that requires future attention.  

What a challenge for these left brain-centric teams. 

They struggled to see a larger pattern; they struggled to see context and they struggled to assign larger meaning. The left brain was struggling and there wasn’t enough right brain thinking in the room to offer balance. A certain level of frustration began to arise. Soon the groups began taking a name from one cluster and assigning to another cluster with a small modification, to get the job done – the root of the issue may have been missed.

I happened to read Daniel Pink’s book a week or so later and had a giant eureka moment; to get a left brain crowd to do right brain work was going to require much more instruction, direction and example from the facilitator. The group won’t automatically jump into the more holistic, pattern identification work. It’s not that the group doesn’t have these capabilities, it’s that for these groups, the right brain skills were under developed, in part because we have valued these skills less in our ‘Information Age’. It will be necessary to ‘wake up’ their right brain thinking prior to such an exercise. 

Our brain has two halves that work together, not independently. The left side of the brain hears the words that someone says, the right side creates meaning. Damage to one side of the brain impacts our entire being. We aren’t ‘half brained’ even if we pull on skills associated with one side of the brain more – both sides of our brain work together. 

So, this leaves me asking questions: what are the implications for businesses stacked with left brain thinking? What are the risks for organizations that value sequential thinking over the holistic and pattern thinking? What are the potential impacts to long term success if organizations dissect the problem without synthesizing the bigger picture?

Can a business that values both its ‘right’ and ‘left’ brain be more successful?

… I’d love to hear what you think.   

All fun is not superficial

July 7, 2015

“All fun is not superficial, not everything serious is profound”, says Chris Whitnall from Talkforce.  

Words to live by when you’re a facilitator preparing for a meeting.

Why do facilitators prepare ‘fun’ activities at a meeting?  Why do they make you fly airplanes or play with building blocks? Why does this happen at offsite meetings? Serious money is spent on offsite meetings, shouldn’t we be focused on serious things? 

Neuroscience tells us that our brains easily traverse old neural network paths. These well traveled paths keep us safe; warn us of threats and are in part the reason why we drive to work ‘in a fog’ and get there safely. The neural connections are deeply embedded and regularly traveled. This is also why we are good at post-mortem analysis, forensic examinations, and deductive reasoning – because our brains have been there before.

Solving new problems, creating new ideas, delving into long term visioning, or imaging future states is much harder work for our brains. Our brains need to create new pathways or connect old pathways in new ways which takes a great deal of energy and requires a different catalyst.  

Have you every had a ‘eureka’ moment during your morning shower?  or during a run? Have you woken up part way through the night with a brilliant idea. Have you been talking about something and suddenly experienced a flash of insight on an unrelated matter?  How often have you woken up in the morning with the distinct sensation that you have a solution just below the surface that you can’t quite access… but you know its there. If you can find a way to re-enter that state of semi consciousness you might find it again.  

We’re all familiar with the movie cliche where the brilliant inventor has a massive aha moment, doing something quite fun, or completely unrelated to the problem to be solved. (There’s a great moment in a bar scene in The Imitation Game). 

What you are experiencing or witnessing is examples of new connections being made in your brain; the catalyst has been something that had nothing to do with the subject at hand. A common scenario is that the brain is in a relaxed or calm state and is free to expel energy on new connections.  

Generally, work environments are not very calm. Humour and fun at work allow us to relax, thereby reducing our defensive instincts. When we are less defensive and more relaxed, there is space and opportunity for new connections to be made, for eureka moments to be had, or even more simply, to be open to an new perspective.

Facilitators know this and work ‘creative space’ into meeting planning. There is method in our madness when we ask you to make a paper airplane or build a duck from building blocks. A single exercise may have multiple purposes. 

Offsite meetings are serious money and serious outcomes do need to happen.  A bit of fun can create a climate for serious ideas to emerge.

 

You are part of the problem

May 31, 2015

Wait – I am not! No way, I am not part of the problem. If he was more co-operative or if she would stop beating a drum, this meeting would not have been hi-jacked. Does this sound familiar? Even a little bit? Even if you didn’t say it out loud?

One of the more eye opening experiences that I have had, was examining
my mindset, as I dissected a facilitation that I had performed. It was surprising, shocking really, to discover how impactful mindset is to the eventual outcome of the facilitation.

As a leader you have heard that you should ask for the views of others before you share your own (in the interests of not biasing the discussion of course); that you should always go into a meeting knowing what you want the outcome to be; that you need to be cautious about being frank with your opinions. The idea of being open, unscripted or unplanned is … well…risky.

As a result, you tend to walk into a meeting with firm ideas of what the ‘script’ will be in this discussion. You may be thinking “I already know the answer” or “I’ll share only what you need to know” or “this group is hopeless”. And when you do, you are driving the meeting down an narrow path.

The casualties of this approach are transparency, curiosity and full participation because your mindset says “I know the best approach”. Participants are thinking “wow – he/she was SOOO not interested in another viewpoint” and suddenly, in spite of your best intentions, you are part of the problem.

As a facilitator and a leader, the notion of transparency as an enabler was a real ‘aha moment’. When you relax your assumptions, state your views and why you think them AND genuinely seek feedback, you add to the knowledge in the room. Your transparency allows people to make informed decisions about what is relevant and what should be shared, increasing the knowledge in the room. Your genuine curiosity encourages participants become accountable for their role in the discussion. You create a climate for more effective discussions. Now – you’re part of the solution.

While the process of self examination was admittedly uncomfortable, there was a liberty that came with being able to say “I might be part of the problem and here’s why I think that. What do you think?”

A great article on this subject by Roger Schwarz who has developed and trains this approach.

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/