Mythbusting: What facilitation IS and ISN’T

So what do you do, exactly?

It’s a question all facilitators get – from friends, from family, from new connections at networking events … There’s not an easy way to describe group process facilitation – especially if someone has never worked with someone like me. But here’s a closer look of what my job is and isn’t.

What’s your organization looking for? This quick list might help get you closer.

  • For facilitators

If you’re a facilitator, I invite you to take a look and see if you find it to be true in your own experience (are there any I missed that you encounter?).

  • For prospective clients

If you’ve been told your group might benefit from facilitation, but aren’t quite familiar with the process, I’m hoping these descriptions help give a better picture of what we do, what we don’t do, and the value we can ultimately bring to your group.

A quick note

Please keep in mind, it’s never a bad thing to ask a question. So, even if you got it wrong – don’t let that stop you from asking a different one! Keep asking away.

I’m happy to share and curious to hear what you think and always happy to explain more about what I do. Here we go.

Facilitation is NOT…

Counselling

I get this question a lot. People ask me often whether I feel like an Oprah or Dr. Phil when groups are sharing difficult truths, grievances, frustrations and the like.

paolo-nicolello-1127477-unsplashAnd it’s true, many of the exercises I lead participants through can feel therapeutic, simply because it gives a space and a process for people to talk about topics or opinions that perhaps aren’t often sought – or as openly received as they are during a facilitated workshop.

Yet, here’s the big difference between my work and those professionals who offer professional counselling advice: I do not deliver feedback.

Through careful questions, I open the floor for people to speak and act as a neutral observer, repeating back what I’ve heard to make sure I’ve understood.  Sometimes I’ll ask the group to repeat back what was said to ensure the group understands.  At no point am I weighing in with my opinion or in judgement of what has been said.

In this way, facilitation is a bit more like coaching, encouraging a group to work together to arrive at their own unique solutions or end points.

Consulting

I’ve written before about the differences between what I offer and the services a consultant can bring to an organization.

Consultants are hired for their knowledge and expertise in a particular field. The consultant often goes into an organization to discover the organization’s circumstances and then offers their assessment of the situation and skills to address. Instead, I’m hired to help teams discover their own thinking.

Crowd management

If there are a few “strong personalities”, that round out a team and seem to be paralyzing progress, I’m often asked  to help bring the naysayers on-side.

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Oh, dear! What a responsibility, to transform a vocal dissenter into a compliant team-player. Unfortunately, no, I cannot offer this service.

But. (Don’t worry, there is a “but.”)

Instead, I create processes that create space for everybody else. So those loud, scene-stealing, types aren’t erased or transformed, but rather, come into context, as everyone else (even the shy, quiet types) are given a time to speak, and have their chance to own the conversation.

When you create this type of situation, everybody else gets louder and the “loud voice” becomes noticeably quieter simply for lack of airtime.

Interestingly, the so called “loud voice” are often loud because they don’t feel heard.  So really demonstrating that I have heard them goes a long way as well.

Bringing a group to a pre-decided endpoint

Similar to the above point, I’m not a wrangler. Sometimes a client will approach me to let me know s/he has already made a decision and needs someone to help bring all others on-side, to bridge the understanding and pave the way for a new world.

This is awkward.  If the decision is already made and we’re pretending that it’s a participative decision, then it is better if I walk away. It goes against my ethics to run a manipulative event.

nathan-shively-57964-unsplashIf, however, the decision is not fully made and there is genuinely a role for the group in making the decision, then I create process that allows the group to participate within the defined boundaries, acting as the neutral process support to get there.

Another alternative, if the decision is made and we need to group to understand the decision, why it was made and explore implications and impacts or perhaps begin planning for implementation – then this is also a great role for a facilitator.  What we aren’t doing is “forcing compliance”.

Training

This is a bit of a fine line. Yes, you can use a facilitated process to help people discover a new topic or subject area, and there is definitely such a thing as a facilitative trainer,  but no, I myself am not an expert in a subject or here to help others learn how to perform a new task.

(Unless the topic is facilitation – in that area I am qualified as a formal trainer!).

I remain neutral on all content. If there is a subject matter expert present, who needs help leading a group through a certain type of process, I can aid in that journey, but the content will never be a facilitator’s to own or pass along.

The bottom line

Ultimately, I can help groups come to a resolution around a problem, area of tension, or difficult question. But I’m not counselling, training, executing crowd management skills or manipulating a group to do it.  Facilitation is about offering good process that taps the wisdom of the group, enables the group to discover its thinking, and lets the group itself discover that they had the answers all along. And honestly? I can’t think of a more rewarding job than that.

When asking the tough questions, use WHAT not WHY

I read a lot – or I guess, I should say, listen a lot. That’s right, like many others out there, I consume a lot of books through Audible and also have a steady stream of weekly can’t-miss podcasts bookmarked on my phone.

These recordings help me keep my hours behind the wheel both entertaining and productive, while giving me plenty to think about in both my home and work lives.

Recently, I was listening to a new Tasha Eurich book, Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life.

The beauty of clarity

If you’ve ever heard me speak, or worked with me through a facilitated session, you know I’m a big fan of clarity and the self awareness it can bring.

Though this book is more about better getting to know one’s own self, in it, I came across a valuable nugget that rang very familiar for my professional work.

The author talks about the importance of asking yourself WHAT questions more often than WHY, when going through self-reflective exercises.

Funny enough, this is a golden rule among facilitators too!

Eurich posits (and I strongly agree) that while WHAT questions generate possibilities, creativity and breadth of thought, “WHY” questions can often shut down those paths of positive exploration.

When facilitating, I always encourage participants to ask themselves questions like, “What were all the events that happened?” or “What are you worried about ?”; “What are you proud of?” or “What might we need to change?” These lead to more productive ideas than WHY questions.

The downside of WHY

WHY questions often seem to lead – one way or another – to criticism or limiting thoughts. (“Why can’t we get this right?”, “Why haven’t we been doing it that way all along?”, or “Why won’t the other team see things our way?” “Why did this happen to us?”).

When we ask WHY questions (on a personal or professional level) we are examining the causes of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, which can lead us to very superficial answers.  Our brains search for the easiest response.  WHY can lead to reduced decision quality as we fall victim to “recency effect”: where the most recent experiences are given disproportionately more weight.

WHY questions can also lead us to being defensive. They can feel accusatory and stir up negative emotions. WHY can draw us to our limitations and keep us trapped in the past.

“So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do” – Ben Franklin

The magic of WHAT

Meanwhile, WHAT questions tend to keep us open to discovering new information about ourselves, even if the information is negative or goes against our beliefs. WHAT questions can draw us towards our potential, keep us curious and help us create a better future.

Asking WHAT encourages us to name our emotions, which can help us to stay in control. (e.g. “What emotion am I feeling right now?” versus “Why am I feeling this way?”)

Transitioning from WHY questions to WHAT can move us from victimhood to clarity and action. (Scroll down below for a master list of questions for your own use!)

And, like with so many other examples of life imitating work, I find this is just as true for organizations undergoing self-reflection and searching for a clear path forward as it is for self-inquiring individuals.

A counter-argument for WHY

In Insight, Eurich quotes Jim Collins in his book “How the Mighty Fall,” where, on the flip side, he suggests companies that get wrapped up in WHAT they are, and don’t understand WHY they got that way, risk becoming extinct. He encourages organizations or groups to ask themselves WHY?

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In the business world, there is a technique called “5 Why’s” which is aimed at drilling to a root issue by pushing past the superficial response to an initial WHY question, by asking Why four more times. “Why did that happen? Why did THAT happen? Why? … Why?…”. The expectation is that repeated query gets a deeper response.

And yet…

I’d argue, however, that you can ask the ‘WHY’ question that Jim Collins references in a WHAT format.

For example:

“What are all the factors that have contributed to our success?”

“What is our purpose?”

“What keeps our customers coming back?”

“What can we do differently?  Better?”

“What holds us in the present?”

“What blocks us from moving forward?”

“What happens if the customer stops buying from us? Talking to us?”

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Self-awareness meets facilitation

While considering how both Eurich’s views and those of facilitators are so similar on the WHAT versus WHY question, I started thinking whether I might be on to something greater.

I began considering what other areas of facilitation methodology (like the ORID method that I use) that could be applied to a person’s everyday self-reflection – not just in a professional setting. (Look at that, another WHAT question!)

In The Courage to Lead by R. Brian Stanfield, he promotes exactly that – the use of facilitative practice for deeper self-exploration.

I have begun to apply this theory of facilitation in my inner world – taking myself through the Objective, Reflective, Interpretive and Decisional steps as part of my own self-reflection at the end of the day (especially after, say, a professional engagement I’ve led or a family event that has left me with lots to think about).

I’ve found it is in fact helping to lead me to wiser, more satisfactory conclusions and decisions – rather than leaving me ruminating or losing sleep over an experience.

Now I’m left to wonder what other connections between organizational health and personal wellness can be made. WHAT do you think?

Here is a quick guide to reframe less productive WHY questions into more production WHAT questions.

Non productive Productive
  • Why am I in this situation?
  • Why do these things always happen to me / us?

 

  • What are the actual events and happenings?
  • What do I remember someone actually saying?
  • What words did they use?
  • What happened first?  Second? Third?
  • Why did he say that?

 

  • What emotion am I feeling right now?
  • What am/are I/we worried about?
  • What am/are I/we excited about?
  • Why can’t the other group be helpful?
  • Why can’t our leader think more like we do?

 

  • What role do I/we play in this situation?
  • What might be the motivation of our leader?
  • What might be the motivation of the other team?
  • What might be important to the other team?
  • What might the other team be worried about?
  • What do I/we need to move on?
  • Why did this happen to me?

 

  • What are the implications of this situation for me?
  • What are some alternatives?
  • What are the risks and benefits associated with the alternatives?
  • What am I prepared to accept as a limitation?
  • What am I not prepared to accept as a limitation?
  • Why should I expect anything different to happen?
  • What might I do differently next time?
  • What steps can I / we take in the future?

Behind the scenes: A facilitator’s dilemma

Update: Here’s what happened!

June 6, 2019 – Thanks to those of you who weighed in on social media and offered thoughts based on your own experience to this post.

I wanted to make sure I delivered an update to close the loop and share a pretty interesting lesson learned – one I wasn’t expecting from this situation.

Normally, in my work, if a group is searching for a way forward, I would recommend some sort of consensus-based solution which sometimes feels like a compromise. In this case, as I write below in my original post, my own advice probably would have been to get both people to try and find common ground and act in good faith as they both moved more closely toward it.

In fact, in this scenario neither I nor my fellow consultant had to really give anything up or change the way we do things.

Instead, we just worked hard to keep our sections separate and define our scope and goals for the audience. I think the saving grace really was that we had discussed it beforehand and realized that the value, outcome and skills we were offering to the client were different.

So, we told them that! The consultant explained she was there to review and aggregate data, draw out insights and offer advice from her lens of experience. I explained that I was there to help the group explore the content, discern patterns, generate insight and draw their own conclusions.

Together they determined their next steps.

christin-hume-482925-unsplashThe consultant and I kept our sections separate and never interfered or interjected during each other’s activity – knowing it could confuse the crowd if we did.

We both had plenty of time to work with the group, and the client’s support, to let our skills shine. And, it turned out to be a great pair of workshops – for all involved.

Overall, the client was happy we were able to accomplish separately for her what she needed us to do.

What would you have done in this situation? Feel free to tell me in the comments below.

Behind the scenes: A facilitator’s dilemma

I have written recently on a topic that I have plenty of experience with. Infighting, or a sense of competition between teams in the workplace, and how either a facilitator, or a group leader, can work to resolve it.

But here’s the thing. Even though I’ve got lots of helpful answers for those facing this morale-dampening corporate squabbling, these types of situations can be pretty stubborn to solve.

And even though I like to think I’m pretty good at what I do, I don’t always have all the answers.

When it comes to opposing positions, things aren’t always black and white. And even professional consensus-builders like me don’t get a pass.

Here’s a recent example that has led me to follow all my own advice – and hey, I’ll admit, it’s tough work with no easy answer. Here’s the scenario:

I was recently paired with a professional consultant to tackle a project for a valued client.

Because of the very different nature of what we both do, we almost immediately had a clash of approaches.

listen

It makes sense: a consultant is hired to bring the answer to the table.

Meanwhile, a facilitator’s job is to bring the answer out from the group of participants.

A consultant formulates opinions and shares their work, a facilitator discerns the opinions of the group.

A consultant provides content, the facilitator provides process. A consultant is hired for what they know, a facilitator is hired to help the group bring forward what they know.

So, she and I continue to go back and forth on how we want to run our joint session. Her job is to offer her insights and gain the approval of the group and mine is to discover what the group thinks and enable them to agree with each other.

Honestly, I am not entirely sure how we will resolve our distinct approaches.  And please stay tuned to hear how it ended up.

But I will tell you, in the meantime, it has reminded me that when you’re coming at a problem or opportunity from different mindsets, even if both have some willingness to compromise, the final outcome may not look like what you wanted or hoped it would be going in.

Leave the cliffhangers to Hollywood. Here’s how to end your meetings on a satisfying note

Catharsis, the final chapter, the end.

Whatever you call it, humans need closure. Whether it’s reading the last chapter of a good book to find out what happens, hearing the punchline of a joke, or making a decision at the end of a strategic planning or business meeting.

That’s right – even in the boardroom, the rules of human nature apply.

Enter the Decisional level of thinking, the final step to the ORID methodology.

In a sense, this is the easiest step of the process. To complete it, you and your participants don’t need to make a big “D” decision, but you do need to bring the conversation to some kind of resolve or conclusion, what I call a small ‘d’ decision. It is often as simple as planning a single next step – like scheduling a follow-up meeting to determine how to put the day’s work into action, or assigning some takeaway actions.

But as small a thing as those seem, they can be surprisingly easy to overlpencilook, especially because they often come during the final minutes of a long session!

Yet, without a final decision to close the session, you risk provoking a sense of futility, frustration or reluctance among you participants. They feel their time has been wasted, are unsatisfied and may never want to take part in another planning session again if this one doesn’t give them that all-important conclusion.

So, make sure you nail the Decisional phase, and you’ll ensure you win supporters – and generate commitment – throughout the room.

Here’s how to do it.

Leave enough time.

The clock is counting down. People have begun gathering their belongings, packing away their laptops, checking their watches and staring at the door.

Maybe the room you booked is about to be taken over by the next group. Or, perhaps you have out of town participants eager to catch their flights.

You can’t hold them back much longer … do you really need to complete this final phase?

Yes!

The Decisional phase is the conclusion to the long, fruitful hours you’ve already invested. Pay it the attention it deserves.

What to do: Take an extra few minutes if you do run over time. I, myself, won’t let my groups leave until we’ve at least created some sort of decision or next step.

Even if you just agree that the conversation isn’t finished and a follow-up discussion is needed.   Briefly summarize what you hope to achieve and you wil have brought the discussion to conclusion.

You can avoid this problem altogether by ensuring throughout your workshop or session that you are constantly checking the schedule to prevent the hours from getting away from you.

Know what you’re deciding on.

If you don’t know what you want to get out of your session, it will be hard to know what the end should look or feel like. So, ensure you carefully and thoughtfully determine the objectives for this discussion.

What to do: Work with your team to define your intention for the meeting, and what success at the end of the day will look like.  Refer back to these when planning the Decisional steps to ensure you’ve met your intention. Are you:

  • Making a decision? (What is our decision?)
  • Putting forward a recommendation? (What is our recommendation?)
  • Ensuring your group is fully informed? (What is your comfort with this topic?)
  • Seeking feedback on a topic? (What else do we need to know?)

Your objective will tell you what your decisional step needs to be.

Design your process fully.

You’ve run through your entire agenda, thought through some difficult dilemmas and agreed what’s wrong or what solutions might work. But if you haven’t included time in your agenda to make some concrete decisions, you risk your intelligence evaporating into thin air. Clues that this has happened sound like “There’s an hour of my life I’m never getting back!”

What to do: Careful planning, again, makes the difference here. Paying attention to the ORID structure (what are the facts, what are the internal/emotional responses, what are the  insights and finally, what next?) makes a tremendous difference. Intentionally planning the part of the meeting where you ask for closure, resolve, what the group has decided, or the next step matters.

This will help you solidify the idea that, after all the brainstorming, ideation and discussion, you are committed to coming away with a result (or perhaps even just a plan on how to create that move the result forward).

Flesh out each preceding stage.

If participants in the room aren’t on the same page, can’t seem to agree on facts, or are stuck in endless ideation, you may have gaps in the Objective, Reflective or Interpretive stages of the discussion.

What to do: If you find yourselves stuck when you go to make a binding decision or agree on a future step, consider returning to a previous stage to make sure you’ve completely explored it. It may be necessary to obtain additional facts, or explore past experiences more, or consider additional alternatives. A clue that this might be the case is when you hear “ I just don’t know enough to make a decision”.

Include the right people in the room.

I’ve been in a situation where groups reached the Decisional stage, and only at that point realized that no one present had actual decision-making power (or, in some cases, budget) to implement any changes.

ladder of involvement
Source: Institute of Cultural Affairs Canada

What to do: Planning, again, at the outset can prevent this problem to ensure your end state is in line with your group’s influence level. If you’ve come too far, rather than letting your work go to waste, consider creating a recommendations report that you can present to the decision-makers, with the supporting rationale. Determining which recommendations you intend to put forward is decisional-level of thinking or identifying the right people that need to be included. That clarity is also decisional level of thinking, which in this case informs your next step.

There is a theory called the “Ladder of Involvement”, which defines what kind of input a group is actually being asked to provide. Be sure at the outset that you’re honest with stakeholders which level of decision making the meeting is asking for.

 

Deciding to decide

People have committed time, ideas, efforts opinions and have worked hard to understand their fellow participants. Ensure that if you’re organizing, or moderating, a strategic planning or feedback session that you’ve included all the important ingredients, from the O to the R to the I and crucially, the D, so that everyone goes home happy. Both your group and your organization will then be able to benefit from real action – not just hours stolen from their busy schedules.

Strategic Planning got you spooked? Part 2

What’s holding you back? Here are the most common barriers to corporate road-mapping — and how to instantly banish them from your boardroom.

Part 2 – Why “10-commandments” style plans just don’t work

Bring those skeletons out of the closet, we’re going to fix them once and for all! Leave the fears behind so you can get back to work on your inspired, executable plan.

(…continued from part 1.)

Fear 5: You’re scared your plan will be a “one-hit” wonder

The problem: Who’s this strategic planning session for anyway? This is the first question your participants are going to ask themselves as they walk in the room. The answer should be: for them. Not just for senior leadership, not just for management, but for everyone who participates. Yet, this can take some convincing, and a properly designed process, to make that true.

rock star

An inclusive process that prioritizes participation is a hugely valuable tool for overcoming apathy, disinterest and a lack of buy-in. People don’t get excited about things they weren’t involved in. And they don’t love being given a ‘to do’ list without any input. (Think about how well that approach works with kids and spouses!)

The solution: Personally, I don’t like the term ‘buy-in’ as it feels vaguely manipulative. And so the answer to the problem is to create inclusive process that encourages genuine contributions and aligns input from everyone involved. To achieve this, the facilitator deploys a series of techniques that contributes to alignment, such as asking teams to contribute their ideas and connect ideas to the company strategy.

The right process will leave everyone feeling included, valued and with a stake in the planning and the outcome. When each individual has been encouraged to put their thoughts and opinions into the mix, they’re then much more likely to internalize the plan – because at that it’s their baby too, not a directive delivered from on high, nor just a list of someone else’s ideas. Even if senior leadership designs the initial strategy, including other layers of management and staff during the validation process should be the next step, to ensure this inclusiveness and investment from all teams.

Fear 6: You’re scared that the plan is un-executable

The problem: We’ve all been there. We get swept up in the excitement of a really good brainstorming session, we’re sketching out amazing cure-all strategies that will transform the world as we know it. But what good is this type of plan if it’s unattainable? How can we be sure a feel-good strategic planning session doesn’t lead to goals that seem outlandish or unrealistic once viewed on our computers in the cold light of Monday morning?

The solution: A great technique for creating a realistic plan is a healthy discussion of obstacles. Some people fear this type of approach, concerned that the conversation dwells on negatives and is inherently destructive.

In fact, a well orchestrated discussion of what holds us in place leads to plans that are grounded in reality and aimed at obstacles. Plans that focus on the desired future state, without also considering the obstacles create a ground hog day experience for the group, where they discuss the same old challenges a year later and the amazing strategies continue to be un-executable.

Another solution is to look at planning as a series of steps, rather than a single event. Once you’ve landed on concrete steps for action, take those ideas back to the organization. Go to small teams for feedback. Ask them to add their own additional insights, and don’t be afraid if new questions come up. Ask them to help you address considerations and questions such as ‘What would this mean for you?” and “How can we bring this to life?”

Once you’ve completed the plan, give control over its implementation to broader employee groups by creating a portfolio of projects. Split goals and objectives into manageable tasks and assign them to appropriate units. Invite team members from these units back to your 90-day follow up session to understand how they are progressing.

Fear 7: You’re scared that this session will produce the same old stuff

xerox 2

The problem: When you begin planning, do you find ghosts of meetings past can come back to haunt you?

Do you hear the same old arguments, barriers, knotty issues continue to rise to the surface, never to find resolution?

If your strategic road-mapping sessions have started to feel like an endless merry-go-round where you continually address the same old stale, stubborn issues, consider adding new activities into the mix.

The solution: You can’t expect something different to emerge if you keep starting with the same ol’ SWOT every time! Get rid of the familiar and try doing something different.

First, involve different people. As above, having a diversity of voices and skill-sets in the room is a powerful way to give you new, fresh and surprising perspectives. It’s a way to change the conversation – often for the better.

Other remedies could include techniques like environmental scans, historical scans, scenario discussions, , tours of unrelated , all to stimulate creativity and shed well-worn mindsets. Get off-site! Go to an unusual location. See how others are solving problems that might look different than your own, but underneath are probably quite similar.

And don’t forget to really dig deep to explore the things that hold you in place. Discovering the deep contradictions in an organization is a doorway to the future.

Fear 8: You’re scared it won’t work

trip.jpgThe problem: You’re worried that the plan, with all the hard work and optimism you invested in it, just isn’t going to move the needle in the way you’d hoped. What if you try something and it fails? Wouldn’t this be the most disappointing outcome of all?

The solution: Although there’s nothing wrong with failure (especially if you learn something from it), you can also try and prevent it in the first place.

Understand that even though your strategic plan might be approved, it still might not be perfect. The key is to check in regularly on the plan’s progress. Ask what is working and what isn’t.  Work to determine what you night need to change to succeed. This will give the sense that the plan is a living document, easily editable once you learn new information. Flexibility is important, using the plan as a strong guiding hand.

Want to learn more about how professional facilitation can transform your next strategic planning session from frightening to fruitful? Reach out to arrange a consultation.

Strategic planning got you spooked?

What’s holding you back? Here are the most common barriers to corporate road-mapping — and how to instantly banish them from your boardroom.

Part 1 – Chaos, crowds and cobwebs – oh my!

Does the thought of undertaking strategic planning give you chills? Are you worried that something might go wrong, or you’re not doing it right?

Don’t worry — you’re not alone.

In fact, I’ve been facilitating strategic planning sessions for more than 10 years and I continue to be surprised by how much hesitancy, fear and dread I encounter around this process.

It seems a poorly run or poorly organized strategic planning is like a bad horror movie that people just can’t get out of their heads.

But, when I hear about some of the sessions that my participants have been part of, this lingering bad taste in their mouth makes perfect sense. Sometimes sessions can go sideways. Sometimes they go nowhere. Or, most damaging of all, sometimes they lead to personal insult to and disengagement among stakeholders.

But that doesn’t mean the participants or the subject matter is to blame – it’s usually the process itself.

Here are a few common strategic planning bugaboos you may recognize – and some easy steps on how to fight back.

Fear 1: You’re scared to include a variety of people

The problem: I often hear from clients that they’re worried if they have a room full of participants representing multiple different business units and roles, the team will end up with too many ideas competing for limited airtime, leading to inefficient and exhausting debate.

Here’s what I say when I hear that: GREAT! The more diversity of thought, the better.

When it comes to strategic planning, thorough discussions are essential. To achieve this, you need more – not fewer – perspectives!

The solution: So how do you prevent a multitude of voices from descending into chaos? The difference is the design of the process, the way the session is run.

A properly trained facilitator (whether internal or third-party), uses consensus-driven methodologies that ensure a clear understanding emerges, that everyone stays on track, and that the outcome works for the participants – and the business.

Remember: everyone has intelligent input to offer when you ask the right questions.

Fear 2: You’re scared that, once complete, the plan will sit on the shelf, never to be referenced again.

The problem: Oftentimes, a group will complete a highly successful strategic planning dusty booksession, and emerge bursting with bright ideas, innovative solutions and ambitious commitments. Yet, when the plan is completed, it quickly gets buried under a pile of urgent paperwork, and is slowly relegated to the bottom drawer of the boss’s desk, never to see the light of day again.

So, the problems you set out to solve, the patterns you wanted to break, and the new way forward you envisioned, never gets off the ground.

There is nothing more disappointing than seeing good work go to waste. But, the good news is, you can easily prevent this frustration with just two simple clicks of your calendar.

The solution: First, choose the first initiative identified in the plan, and schedule it to be planned right away. In fact, try to schedule that kick-off meeting before you even leave the room where the planning has taken place.

Next, schedule one more meeting: a 90-day review. Include all people involved in the initial planning session. Here, ensure participants are prepared to report on what has been accomplished in the past six weeks since the planning ended. This will help reinforce that the work completed is being measured, that it’s important, and that each outcome matters.

It’s even better if this session is facilitated by the same person who led the strategic planning session, so you can bring everyone back into the same atmosphere, energy and mindset as the first.

Fear 3: You’re scared that people will just agree with whoever is leading the meeting.

ringmaster

The problem: It is very difficult to be a subject matter expert, a leader and a facilitator all at the same time.

The solution: When planning a strategic planning session, give the leaders a break. Consider hiring a third-party to take the reins of the session. This will take the pressure off internal stakeholders or meeting leader to act as neutral observers (which can often be nearly impossible!). Bringing in a neutral facilitator also removes the risk of and perception that any one person’s voice gets more weight than another’s. It also  minimizes the chance that participants feel ‘railroaded’ into supporting a certain point of view.  Plus, leaders can listen, fully participate and contribute their wisdom – rather than running the show or feeling like they’re in a room full of .

Fear 4: You’re scared that not everyone ‘gets’ the business (e.g. some people are just too junior to take part).

The problem: Sometimes highly trained or experienced people just don’t think those in other roles “get” what the discussion is about. So, they’re reluctant to bring in people who hold junior positions or have less experience. Yet even though these  different voices and viewpoints may seem unsophisticated or uninformed to one, they’re actually very much important contributors.

The solution: I firmly believe that only by collecting everyone’s wisdom can you get the wisest result.

A trained facilitator can design process which incorporates diversity to create a richer result. The benefit then becomes the enhanced perspective of the participants, the greater commitment to the results from more parts of the organization by involving more voices.

A tool that we often use is a “journey wall” which helps illuminate the history that has come before the current situation, where the group stands today, and what the ideal future state looks like. It can be really helpful to bring in a graphic illustrator to support this process; they can help create an illustration that captures this context and information in a way that’s easy to understand and actually see. As a bonus, then you have a permanent image you can use again and again.

These are just a taste of the common worries that hold people back from conducting a productive and valuable strategic planning session. Stay tuned for more tips coming soon. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a facilitator to help lead you through these, and other, thorny questions, reach out any time.

The importance of Interpretive thinking: Here’s how to dig deep while still staying on track

You been waiting patiently for me to uncover this next level of thinking. It’s familiar and comes easily to most groups. The only problem is, once you let the checkered flag fly on Interpretative thinking, it can be a little to easy to get stuck in an endless loop of synthesis.

Let’s explore how to make the most out of your Interpretive thinking – without running out of fuel before the finish line.

What does the Interpretive level entail?

By this point, you’ve collected a good amount of factual and intuitive information at the Objective and Reflective level of thinking. Without these information-gathering phases, you won’t have all the details you need to start digging deeper into the issues.

And that’s what this level of thinking is all about: connecting the dots between all the information you’ve gathered so far, and discovering the deeper insights. Now is the time to ask the group what it all means.

This is where you start considering the broader implications of the topic or project in questions and its potential impacts, significance and purpose.

You’ve determined X and Y to be relevant, and now you have to ask yourselves aloud, “So what?”

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This is the last stop before you start making decisions, making it critical in the sequence.

How can it benefit my group or team of stakeholders?

During Interpretive level thinking, you will draw out the significance of information you’ve collected so far. When done properly, Interpretive-level discussions ensure all participants are heard, ultimately giving everyone a greater sense of ownership of the final decision you arrive at.

This level should also prevent others from feeling railroaded into agreeing to a certain conclusion, and that together you’ve thought about all the other people and processes that might be impacted by your actions.

The good news is, you should have no problem encouraging a group to dig into these meanings; in fact, it’s a level that people jump to quickly and easily — we’re all well trained to think at the interpretive level.

Sounds great – how could it go wrong?

Picture this.

You’re sitting in a meeting and you just can’t shake the feeling you’ve been here before.

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The same familiar faces, sipping from the same coffee mugs, repeating the same arguments you know you’ve heard before. Is it just you, or were you in this exact same meeting, discussing the exact same topic, last week? And last month? And last quarter.

Nope, it’s not your imagination. Welcome to over-interpretation.

When groups get to this level of thinking, it can be easy to get stuck. And that feels frustrating.

As a professional facilitator, I see this “Groundhog Day” syndrome all the time.

There are further red flags that you have entered interpretative thinking no-man’s-land. Maybe there’s a small handful of loud voices that are dominating all others. Maybe the discussion is superficial, avoiding thoughts on the future impacts of a decision or how other stakeholders will be impacted by a project.scott-van-daalen-7183-unsplash

Maybe one team’s conclusions to race ahead are taken as the final decision – even before the discussion happens. If this is the case, it’s time to act.

Recognize these progress-blockers

You will not move forward productively if you find some of these characteristics repeating themselves. If you do notice one of the following, try and reverse it by broadening the group’s thinking with some structure using  thought-provoking questions. Here’s how.

Conversation killer: Combat it with:
Starting with a foregone conclusion or inserting one into the conversation

(e.g. “We have made a decision to go left – who wants to go left?” “We believe this is the best approach, now what?”)

Broaden the conversation and explore the position by asking the question – what are some other options available to us?  What else might we do?  What are some other considerations?
Intellectualizing or abstracting
(e.g.“We need to live into our values and walk the talk, set an example for the industry, be the change we want to see, aim for 110%”)
Bring these high-minded, noble ideas back down to Earth with practical examples. For example: What does living our values look like? What are some things that we might do? What specifically does setting an example look like?
Judging responses as right or wrong

 

If you have an opinion on what someone else is saying, remove your good/bad judgement and seek to clarify meaning instead. For example, “Tell me more about what is behind your thinking?  What would others think? What would be different about how we might do this now, versus what we have done before?  What could we do to make sure it works this time?”
Not getting different perspectives

 

If the same person is doing the talking for the group, or the same opinions are shared without a wider view, ask for other perspectives. “Is there another perspective” or “I’d like to hear from someone else” or “Put yourself in a different stakeholder’s shoes, what might they think about this and how might the issue be perceived?”
Allowing the loudest voice to provide only one alternative

 

Often the person who is most forceful with their assertations will win an argument, or dominate a discussion without much challenge. This makes the meeting feel more like an announcement (where a decision has already been made) rather than a true debate.

As above, consider it your duty to speak up and offer a counterpoint to this single perspective. Ask for other views in a round robin format – ask each person to share their viewpoint. “What do you think?”

Break the group into smaller groups, ask small groups to share their thinking with each other. Then ask the groups to share what they discussed as a small group. This will help get other voices into the conversation.

 

How do you know your Interpretive level of thinking is going well?
You know you’ve arrived at effective Interpretive thinking when you find people on your team:

  • Discussing implications, impacts, alternatives, consequences of a decision or project
  • Having spirited discussions about these lines of inquiry
  • Pushing into the depths of the topic, the “what ifs” and “what’s next”
  • Thinking about how others are affected
  • Discovering what the broader story means to the group or organization

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When “I level” of thinking is fully explored, people feel like they are looking at the topic comprehensively and really understanding what it means now and what it could mean in the future.

The group feels they have been meaningfully engaged in the conversation, have had opportunity to share their views and feel fully heard. Then, once you move on to the decisional phase, each and every participant is much more likely to support the group’s final outcome.

Good luck with your discussion!

 

 

Facts are friendly

What are some key words? What phrases did you highlight? What number was quoted?  What did you hear? What graphs did you notice?  What colours do you see? 

These are a series of questions that I frequently ask participants and students of facilitation alike. It is surprising how difficult it is to get a response to these questions.

The questions are easy and the answers obvious, and yet, people hesitate to offer a response. They are perplexed. Why you would ask such simple questions of a capable group of people? Is it a trick question? There must be some deeper significance sought. The answer couldn’t be as simple as ‘red’.

…students have said to me, “I didn’t know where you were going with the question, so I didn’t know how to answer the question” … when I asked the question, “what colour did you see?”.  

Facts, data, sensory information

In facilitator parlance, we call these simple questions objective level questions: the facts, basic information and sensory inputs. And we use them to begin a conversation aimed at thinking through a topic. These basic pieces of information are drawn in through what we’ve read, heard, seen, experienced, touched or tasted and they help us to form a common understanding of the topic at hand. These pieces of data inform a concrete starting point that is necessary for a group to successfully think through a topic.

Western thought values thinking that connects dots, sees patterns and looks for meaning or what we call the interpretive level of thinking. Analysis, deductive reasoning, extrapolation, interpretation are all forms of interpretive thinking and are tremendously well trained in professions such as business, engineering and accounting. A connect-the-dots response is the kind of response that is often rewarded and the thinking that make us seem smart. When we can take a piece of data and turn it into thoughtful commentary we are ‘bright’, ‘insightful’ and ‘quick thinking’.

“Our nervous system is at the same time a data-gathering system, an emotional processing system, a meaning-creation system and a decision/implementing system.” – Edgar Schein

There is a bias towards interpretive thinking

In my experience, groups have a bias towards interpretive thinking. Without question, interpretive thinking is an essential part of the thinking process. The challenge that emerges with our bias towards interpretive thinking is that we are quickly led towards interpretations without having fully considered all our data points. Decisions are made before all sources of data have been considered and all facts present. The result can be outcomes that later earn a “how did we miss that?” kind of reflection.

In the absence of the objective data, we flounder

Without a solid grounding in the objective level of data, we tend to flounder. We find ourselves going around in circles and struggling to ground ourselves in the present reality. Each person approaches the conversation with a different understanding of the situation which often leads to confusion and the absence of clarity.

 …. an 8 year old child comes through the door with a story of a fight erupting from a simple game at the playground. The child launches into her story and you find yourself asking: Where were you playing?  Who was there?  Whose ball was it? What happened first?  Then what happened? Who showed up? When did they show up? Ok, whose dog was it? 

You can’t understand the story until you understand the situation. You can’t understand the situation until you’ve compiled your facts – the objective level of data.

…a participant walks in to a meeting room, well prepared, having read the pre-read package. The meeting chair starts the discussion. The well prepared person shares the conclusion they’ve drawn. Someone else, who did not read the package says something like – “Are we talking about project x? What dates are you referring to? What part of the project are you addressing? “Who provided this material?” And around it goes until everyone has a common understanding of the situation. 

Objective data brings clarity

There is tremendous power in spending time on the objective information that sometimes seems ‘too simple for words’.  It accomplishes a couple of things. First, it ensures that everyone in the room shares a common understanding of the topic to be discussed. It is much easier to move a conversation forward when people in the room are not grappling for facts. Many times I have seen a meeting chase its tail because participants did not start with the same set of facts. How many times have you seen a discussion start with the ‘rightness’ of a number? Until the facts are clear and known by all – the meeting will be circular.

Second, it ensures that if there are different perspectives on a fact, that it is surfaced. This is not to suggest we are trying to surface ‘alternate facts’, but it does remind us that I can see a 20% gross margin as excellent and someone else can see it is an opportunity for improvement. You can see the process of using a sticky note to pass information along as efficient and someone else sees it as ‘vintage’.  I can see a colour as orange and someone else as tangerine.

Objective data grounds a conversation

It is surprising how often people push back on starting a discussion by confirming the objective level of data. I hear things like – “everyone knows that”, “these people are too busy for this”, “we don’t have enough time”, “we all know the process”. In our time pressed environments, the time spent one ensuring we are uniformly grounded in the facts has become either luxury or superfluous.

When I walk into a room to do business process work, we start with the current state. It is virtually a guarantee that when the current state goes up on the wall, people will say, “I didn’t know that”, “I had no idea”, “seeing it from end to end really helps me understand the situation”.  

Objective data reduces anxiety and frustration

Frustration, anxiety, pointed questions, bad decisions and blame often stem from a fuzzy understanding of the objective level of data. When decisions are made with incomplete data, where one person held a piece of information that another did not, blame and frustration are often the outcome. Time spent sharing the basic facts contributes to the clarity which allows anxiety and frustration to dissipate.

A group I worked with found itself in a circular situation where there was resistance to exploring current state processes (because everyone knows the process) and frustration because no one knew what the processes were and what came next. There was an overwhelming sense that the problems were too hard to solve.

 

Objective data helps us to challenge our assumptions

One of the most important aspects of spending time on the objective level of data is that it helps us challenge our assumptions and prevent us from relying on past strategies and outcomes that may bias our thinking in a situation. A former NASA flight director talks about the approach they use for staving off panic in a crisis situation.  They start with a series of questions:

  • What was everything they knew and did not know about the situation at hand? (objective question)
  • What did the data actually say about the situation at hand? (objective question)
  • What was the worst thing that could happen as a result of the situation? (may draw on experience and sometimes an objective question)
  • Did the team have enough information to know for sure – and how could they get more information?

Helpful objective level questions

What are some helpful objective level questions for your next meeting? Consider the types of questions a reporter might ask:

  • What words did you hear someone say?
  • What did they actually say?
  • What did phrases did you read in the document?
  • What do you remember seeing? hearing? doing?
  • What happened first? second? third?
  • Where did the incident occur?
  • When did it happen?
  • Who was there?
  • Where were you?
  • What do the meeting minutes say our resolution was?
  • What did we capture as an action item?

Facts are friendly

Years ago, I worked for someone who used to say to me “facts are friendly, facts are friendly”.  It wasn’t until I jumped deeply into the study of facilitative methods that I truly understood what he meant.  The objective level of data (facts) are not just friendly, but the essential starting point for thinking clearly, when clear thinking is needed. 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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

 

Meeting organizer: book facilitator first!

I would like meeting organizers to call facilitators before they book venues and dates for meetings.

In the past several months, I have done a dozen facilitations for as many groups, and in virtually all situations, the date was booked, the agenda partially defined and the meeting room decided BEFORE talking with the facilitator.

While this sounds like a rational approach, if you’re the facilitator it is completely backwards.

A professional facilitator starts every client engagement with a thorough needs assessment. We need to understand what is to be accomplished, what has happened so far, the challenges and the dynamics of the group and who will carry out the work that emerges from the work shop. We are curious about the relative strengths and weaknesses of a group; the history of the group and its promise.

Once we understand these factors, we can address the client’s uniqueness and design an appropriate agenda and meeting process. Until the process is defined, the room needs are less clear (beyond something BIG).

So, I’ve crafted a list of things that I’d like meeting organizers to know:

  1. Give your facilitator SUFFICIENT LEAD time. Good facilitation needs preparation time. The call on Monday for a Thursday facilitation is thoughtless at best and a recipe for disaster at worst. Leave booking your facilitator to the last minute and it is likely that the good ones will not be available.
  2. Make time for the facilitator to conduct a thorough NEEDS ASSESSMENT  interview with you. If there isn’t time for that conversation, consider changing the meeting date. Without a good discovery conversation, you may not get what you want from your meeting.
  3. Consult with the facilitator BEFORE you finalize dates and rooms. Your facilitator will know what their room needs are when they’ve considered the processes to be used and the number of participants involved.
  4. Do NOT hand a professional facilitator an already baked agenda. The value in hiring a facilitator is their expertise at designing an effective agenda that will accomplish your meeting goals. If you’ve already decided agenda and process, hire a time keeper.
  5. TRUST your facilitator. Facilitators have spent lots of time with lots of groups and  have learned through trial and error what works and what does not work.
  6. Book a room with LOTS OF WALL SPACE. Natural light is awesome and we love it too, unless it means that there are NO WALLS for posting the efforts of the day. Golf courses seem like a good idea until you realize that there isn’t any uninterrupted wall space.
  7. Book a BIG, FLEXIBLE room. We want two or three times more space than ‘maximum occupancy’ dictates. People NEED to move around during a long meeting.
  8. Avoid rooms with a FIXED BOARDROOM table in the middle of a long narrow room. These rooms aren’t comfortable or particularly functional and you will certainly feel like you’ve been held hostage by the end of the day.
  9. PUT AWAY DEVICES. You are making this investment and taking people out of their jobs for a period of time for good reason. Give yourself the gift of focus and implement a no device rule for the day.
  10. SEPARATE lunch space from work space. Move lunch to a different room. Food is messy and so are work spaces. Participants need a physical break during full day meetings.

Successful meetings are a result of good discovery, good process design and good physical environment. The role of a facilitator is to ensure all  three elements are well addressed. So start your meeting organizing with a call to the facilitator!