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.

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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

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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.

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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!

When groups struggle to decide

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

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

Step 1: Observe

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

When groups are struggling to decide, you may see:

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

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

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

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

Step 2: Self reflection

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

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

Step 3: Diagnosis

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

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

Intervention can be simple.

Step 4:  Intervention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask the group what it needs. 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

What does hearing look like?

January 2016

When I’m working with groups, I am always watching to see whether they are listening, and more importantly how they are listening to each other. Do they actually hear what each other has to say? After all, the whole point of a facilitated session is to ensure that people share, listen and learn from each other.

From a physical perspective, listening appears to happen when:

  • someone looks directly at the speaker
  • notes are being taken while someone is talking
  • body language is forward and attentive (e.g. leaning toward the speaker, head nodding)

Any school teacher or professional trainer will tell you that the physical signs of listening can be misleading. For example,

  • I am looking at the speaker, but thinking about about how tight my belt feel today
  • I am taking notes, but really I am preparing my grocery list
  • I am leaning forward and nodding my head, but I’m doing this to keep myself awake.

While I’m watching for the physical signs of listening, it is crucially more important to look for the evidence of listening, which is hearing.  We all know what it looks like when hearing doesn’t happen. Think back to a presentation you attended, your last project kick off meeting, or a vendor sales pitch! A failure to hear looks like:

  • ‘umm, can you repeat the question’
  • non-sequiturs: responses feel like they are disconnected from previous commentary
  • people speak in vague, unspecific terms
  • or worse… ‘deer in headlights’ … stunned silence

So – what then does good hearing look like? What is the evidence that hearing is taking place?

Hearing can be observed when:

  • clarifying questions are asked of a speaker
  • objections are raised to what was said and in context of how it was said
  • the speakers comments are restated or rephrased
  • a response was provided that was directly connected to what was said
  • additional insight was added to the previous level of insight

When I work with a group, the evidence that they have moved from a more passive (or physical) level of listening to an active level of hearing becomes obvious when they seek to clarify statements; when they identify underlying assumptions and when they challenge the assumptions of others. This can create conflict, but as long as the group continues to hear what each other says, they move beyond conflict towards resolution.

When groups start to build on each other’s ideas, hearing is actively at play. It sounds like:

“I liked what you said when… and if we did also did this then…. we’d accomplish what … said”. 

I work with a small management team that doesn’t always agree with each other. What I really appreciate about this team is that they actively hear each other. They demonstrate their hearing when they genuinely seek clarification from each other; they openly disagree with each other and more importantly state why they disagree with each other. Once the source of disagreement is understood, then they start building resolution by referencing statements that they have said earlier and begin to stitch together a go forward approach. This management team has well developed conflict resolution skills and their number one asset is their capacity for hearing each other.

When I am working with a group – large or small and I see these moments of hearing, I feel that anything is possible. These are the little moments that feel like big wins in a facilitated discussion.

When was the last time you observed it in action?

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. 

Training & facilitation: similar but different

Oct 7, 2015

“Is there a difference between a facilitator and a trainer?”  

During a break, in a recent facilitation, a participant began to describe to me, the challenges her organization had experienced delivering a training program. The trainer that was hired didn’t seem to hit the mark for the organization. The participant told me that the trainer did too much talking; didn’t draw out the people in the training session and didn’t create enough dialogue. So I asked the question: “Did you hire a facilitator, or a trainer?”

___

There is much common ground between facilitators and trainers. Many facilitators train and many trainers facilitate. They share over-lapping skills sets. and perform similar activities. Some common traits for both trainers and facilitators include:

  • thoughtful, articulate and responsive to questions
  • able to adapt to the needs of people in the room
  • able to keep participants engaged and interacting
  • able to manage to an agenda 

Trainers are additionally responsible for

  • delivering a specific learning objective 
  • designing and controlling a process
  • managing room dynamics 
  • and bringing content expertise to the discussion

The last point is important – trainers are generally content experts. Their criticality stems from their ability to illuminate content, to aid comprehension of a subject, and to help participants engage with the concepts. This is important and makes them persuasive in their delivery. A trainer will generally be at the centre of any discussion in the room.

Facilitators, like trainers, are responsible for: 

  • designing and controlling a process 
  • managing room dynamics

The roles begin to diverge in how an event unfolds. Facilitators are also responsible for:  

  • tapping into the knowledge of the room to generate the necessary content 
  • listening carefully in order to ask the next question 
  • gaining commitment to action and follow through to achieve a desired outcome
  • remaining steadfastly neutral

A facilitator listens more than they speak. They ask carefully considered questions, aimed at provoking ever more thoughtful responses; allowing the room to discover its wisdom. 

According to ICA Associates, the focus for facilitators is on enabling groups to process their experiences, think things through, form consensus and make plans and decisions. The facilitator’s energy is dedicated to developing process and tools to assist people in achieving their objectives.  

In short – a trainer owns content; a facilitator owns process.

Michael Wilkinson of Leadership Strategies sums up his conversation with a trainer who also facilitates: “I like facilitation, but I love training. Because when you’re facilitating, you really have to listen to them. And that’s work!”

After our discussion, the individual that I was talking with indicated that there was a strong desire in their training program to have the participants share their knowledge; build community and network; and learn from each other. At the conclusion of our discussion, she thought that a facilitator might have been a better choice. They just hadn’t understood the difference.