Category Archives: Facilitation

Becoming who we are not: facilitation as performance

jIu84dxoCathy Salit is one of the biggest influences on my work. She’s got a book out this April – Performance Breakthrough -and I talk to her in this podcast.

The subtitle of the book is A Radical Approach to Success at Work, and I think Cathy lives and breathes that claim. Listening back to this interview, I feel reinspired in my work. Facilitation is not about having clever tricks to make people behave differently; it’s about helping people discover and grow together. We need to avoid the traps of aiming for “behaviour change” and be more open to the amazing things that human beings are capable of.


Show notes – these are a rough guide, there’s no substitute for hearing the real thing!

0.00 Introductions.

1.48 Cathy: helping people to be who they are, and who they are not… who they are becoming.  We all have this capacity to become new versions of ourselves.

3.20 Cathy: The value of being unnatural, that’s how we expand our repertoire of what’s possible.

3.38 Johnnie: It’s easy to get stuck in the weeds when we seek to change. To grow, we have to leave behind old versions of ourselves.

4.39 Cathy: We are all artists… think about living more as an artistic process rather than focussing on “behaviour”.

6.07 Johnnie: How a child learns to walk: not by being instructed, but by pretending to walk until it can.

6.40 Cathy: How babies learn language also a process of pretending; and the adults join in this pretending process, relating to babies as who they are, and who they are becoming.

8.15 Cathy: So facilitation, leadership can be about creating space where people can go beyond their normal, constrained ways of behaving.

9.10 Johnnie tells a story of how Viv once responded to a group in apparent difficulty: by saying, “you can work this out” and leaving the room. An example of how you can be quite robust in the way you show faith in people.

10.30 Cathy sees that story as being like a theatre director, responding to what the group is doing and seeing what they need to move forward. Letting go of control, not being “the answer”

11.39 Johnnie: the paradoxical role of facilitator – being seen as “in charge” but also needing to get out the way. Talks about the notion of the ensemble raised in Cathy’s book.

12.20 Cathy: The importance of trusting the group, at least as much faith in creating the ensemble as in getting the notional work done. The dangers of getting over-focussed on the outcome.

13.45 Cathy: Story of a recent facilitation where she asked them to do an unusual introduction process. People met in pairs but then had to perform to the group as the person they’d just met. How it had a dramatic impact on how people were connecting, the performance element helped create a sense of ensemble.

17.15 Johnnie: an apparently simple activity can start to reveal that there’s a lot more going on in meetings than the surface material that we notice. Recalls Cathy’s notion that we can be more than one version of ourselves.

18.50 Cathy: We are not just who we are, already packaged and done. We have a multiplicity that we give little voice to. The perils of being told what “type” we are and getting attached to our identities.

20.20 Johnnie: How I (and others) respond to pressure is to double down on “who I am” which keeps us trapped – and keeps people away. But what right do we have though to push people who are stuck like this? Relates a story about getting permission and creating invitation.

22.10 Cathy: I don’t believe in trying to change people’s behaviour, I believe in helping people to grow. We need to see that we have choices. We have performance choices, we can play other people.

24.15 Cathy references Herminia Ibarra’s book: Act like a leader, think like a leader. Flirt with the idea of being other than who you are.

24.50 Cathy: What it means to be authentic is to give expression to our multiplicity, getting stuck in one role is inauthentic.

25.20 Johnnie: The importance of trusting people to uncover possibilities, and not necessarily on your own schedule.

25.50 Cathy: The orientation to changing people’s behaviour makes it a problem to be fixed. I don’t want to problem-solve when it comes to helping people to collaborate. It’s not a problem, I want to help people grow. Relate to people as performers.

27.30 Johnnie: Recalls Keith Sawyer‘s work on problem-solving vs problem-finding. The value of not answering questions for the group.

28.25 Cathy: Asking big questions about little things. Engaging people in philosophical activity. Beware of assumptions about what we think other people are saying, thinking “it’s all been said before”. The importance of curiosity, keeping asking questions. Language is something for us to create new meaning with. There is so much to work with than we realise is available to us.

30.30 Johnnie: Sometimes I ask a group to not settle for analysis. If people give a performance of an issue, it comes to life in a very different way. Getting beyond management-speak. Connecting more levels of intelligence than the initial problem description suggests.

31.35 Cathy: A performance can be so much more honest. Performance and play create safety to say and see things that are unseeable, unutterable otherwise. Sometimes I’ll ask people to perform the conversation in the hallway that’s going to happen after this meeting.

33.05 Johnnie: What sort of safety is it we want? Do we want polite, po-faced safety, where we don’t take any risks or talk about feelings. A rather weak, febrile kind of safety. Versus a different kind of safety where we do share more emotional stuff and find we are more connected and safe in a quite different way.

33.55 Cathy: We’ve got to break down the cognitive and emotive divide that rules our idea of what learning is and what facilitation is. Learning is not just in your head, it wires our full selves.

35.05 More about the book and how to get hold of it!

I can’t wait to get my hands on Cathy’s book, and there are some incentives for pre-ordering. Details here.


Quantum shifts

A few years back, when I had just moved to Cambridge, I was sitting in my new home feeling deeply depressed. The move had been extremely stressful and at that point I was regretting it. This had been intended to change my life for the better, but right then it just seemed like a massive mistake. I remember chatting with the son of a friend of mine, who was a veteran of twelve step recovery.

“Ah,” he said sagely, “you pulled a geographic.”

He explained how easily people in distress from addiction reach for miracle cures – big changes that will transform their lives. A new relationship! A new car! Or (hence the term) I’ll move to Australia! Unfortunately, these big moves often fail because they don’t address the harder to spot, deeply rooted, tiny habits that make up the addiction.

I eventually turned things around in Cambridge, but that conversation has always stuck with me.

Which leads me to another clip from John Wenger’s latest post.

He makes this neat point about the idea of a quantum shift, neatly embracing its stricter meaning and the more popular interpretation.

What was required was a quantum shift; I use “quantum” to describe both the smallest thing and the largest thing.  From my experience, it is usually the smallest shifts in individuals or teams that create the biggest and most significant ripple effects in culture and perforamance.

I think management porn encourages us to compete with each other for “strategic” insights. So the little shifts that might matter get disparaged. We sit at boardroom tables wringing our hands about high-sounding abstractions. The ability to hold these kinds of important conversations is often the route to power in organisations. But they easily distract us from the multiple, apparently mundane details that make up our real lives and may have more to do with how things really change.



Insights and illusions

John Wenger discusses how easily we create blind spots in our self-awareness, leading us to cheerily diagnose others whilst missing our own follies. Moats and beams. He tells of a CEO who was almost comically unaware of his failings on this score.

polonius4aShakespeare was onto this. In Hamlet, the courtier Polonius delivers a wonderful speech to his son about how to live a moral life of moderation in all things. It ends thus:

This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Great stuff. Sadly, Polonius turns out to be a bumbling manipulator of the first order, ruthless mocked by Hamlet for his obsequiousness. And he ends up stabbed behind an arras while spying on Hamlet’s conversation with his mother. Not quite Senator Pat Geary, but close.

This syndrome gets accentuated whenever we are in a position of power.  As the dying John of Gaunt tells Richard II, “a thousand flatterers sit within thy crown”.

The combination of generic human frailty plus the effect of status makes this an almost impossible trap for anyone who styles themselves a leader.

So leaders get lots of training to develop self-awareness, but the fact that they are getting all this attention may actually contribute to the delusions of high status. (Have we created an unachievable myth of leadership?)  At least Henry V, the archetypal heroic leader in Shakespeare, has the wit to dress as a common soldier by night in order to get some idea of what his troops really think.

Habits and the brain

Roland reminded me about this video. A guy gets a bike where the normal steering is reversed, so if you turn the handlebars left, the front wheel goes right.

It’s almost impossible for anyone to ride the bike at all. It takes our hero many weeks of persistent practice to get past first base. (His young son, with a more plastic brain, gets there a bit quicker).

It’s hilarious and fascinating. In our little book, Viv and I say that many of life challenges can’t be solved by reading a book, they are more like riding a bike. This video helps point out the rich complexity of that kind of learning.

So much advice for life’s challenges would be great if they were as simple as they seem. Shelf loads of management books explain how we can be excellent, agile, innovative, whatever. Yet this can be much like explaining to people just to reverse their steering on a backwards bike. Great theory that helps very little in practice.

And this is just to change how one human being and one physical object relate, never mind getting teams of people working together well. We should be wary of letting our explanations override the value of experience, persistence through undignified failure, and sometimes letting go of working it out in our heads.

Learning vs Schooling

This is superb account of the flaws in conventional school education: What the modern world has forgotten about children and learning. It’s really worth reading in full.

Essentially, it says that our understanding of how children learn is skewed by imagining that what happens in schools is a good guide. The school system, influenced by industrial models introduces unnatural pressures to learn in a linear fashion. It’s out of kilter with the way we, as mammals, have learnt and developed through almost all of our history on earth:

It is in this context that we set out to research how human beings learn. But collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World.

This worldview too easily ignores the diversity of learning approaches among children, falsely classifying many perfectly able children as in some way disordered.

When you see children who do not learn well in school, they will often display characteristics that would be valued and admired if they lived in any number of traditional societies around the world. They are physically energetic; they are independent; they are sociable; they are funny. They like to do things with their hands. They crave real play, play that is exuberant, that tests their strength and skill and daring and endurance; they crave real work, work that is important, that is concrete, that makes a valued contribution. They dislike abstraction; they dislike being sedentary; they dislike authoritarian control. They like to focus on the things that interest them, that spark their curiosity, that drive them to tinker and explore.

I see similar mistakes made in training of adults in organisations. The need to standardise and measure leads to a dreary approach to learning, that denies participants the real joy of discovery. Things are over-explained and under-experienced. Often, the only nod to diversity is the recitation of discredited pigeon-holing models that tell us we are one 16 neat and tidy “types”.

Hat tip: Ron Donaldson via Facebook

Not being an MC

Facilitation means different things to different people. It’s worth spending a bit of time finding out what people really want when they ask for a facilitator.

Sometimes, I find clients want a master-of-ceremonies – someone charismatic to lend glamour and gravitas to proceedings, and to be the reassuring central figure through whom all activities can be safely and reassuringly handled. If they can afford it, they should hire a TV star who will do this really well.

But this is not my idea of what a facilitator should be doing. I think a facilitator needs to wary of the spotlight and willing to take themselves off the stage as soon as possible, letting the participants do the work. Far too often, I see people trying to facilitate who work too hard and end up hogging the microphone, explaining, making amusing jokes, asking deep, tough-sounding questions.

Soft skills and straitjackets

Two posts by good friends appeared in my timeline yesterday which seem closely related.

Jon Husband writes about Semantic Straitjackets a useful way to describe the many models and processes used in organisations to help manage things. They all promise to solve organisational problems, yet easily become the problem themselves:

The models created to codify “how to do things better, faster, cheaper” are almost exclusively derived from yesterday’s and today’s mainstream management ‘science’.  These models have led us directly into the modern re-engineered, optimized and streamlined business processes that surround us in our daily lives today. Today’s business processes, competency models for all sorts of work, and leadership and management models are all focused on this kind of short-term performance-related behaviour. 

They are so common and widespread that they are used almost without thinking. As a result, just like buzzwords that may present a solid idea, but are diluted through popular and not- rigorous use, many of today’s models have come to be relatively meaningless in our new context.

People love being able to produce diagrams, grids and seven-step processes that appear to solve the complexities of working with other human beings… but don’t.

Which is why John Wenger’s post seems rather timely: soft skills are not soft. Those who think the answer to complexity can be found in a model or process easily create the idea that their thing is tough and resilient, and that anything to do with people’s feelings is soft and ineffectual. But actually responding to people’s individual needs is the really hard work, choosing to have the difficult conversations we’re tempted to avoid, and risking engagement with our own messes and shadows. The shiny models which appear to allow us to avoid those conversations are perhaps a distraction from the real work. As John says:

I believe, like many do, that being with others as they develop the human capabilities that we all could do with, happens one conversation at a time.  It happens when we take the time and energy to engage with others and approach them on a human to human level, without reducing them to a bunch of unsavoury behaviours that need changing.

I notice how reluctant I am these days to engage with the business-speak that surrounds processes, and often wish I could just say: could we just talk about this?  “Just talk” sounds humble, perhaps even feeble to some ears. But I think we need to stand up for it; doing so may be the braver, harder choice.

Why go to lectures?

When all of Richard Feynman’s physics lectures are now free online… do you really want to pay good money to schlep to something that’s probably nothing like as good, where you can’t control the pace nor when you’re best suited to absorbing the content?

I don’t suppose this will stop most organisations from using expensive face-to-face meetings for the dreary “downloading” of content. But it should.

Hat tip: Jon Husband via Facebook

Blaming less, learning more

Matthew Syed has a powerful article in The Guardian, highlighting the toxic effects of blame on organisations. A bureaucratic over-reaction to errors is hugely counter-productive. Too much rigidity in pursuit of safety creates greater danger. Beware the “fundamental attribution error” which causes us to see bad people and overlook the stressful, poorly designed context in which they are working.

If we panic and lose our faith in people, we create structures than actually prevent them from doing their best work. Years ago, I learnt from Chris Corrigan to ask: what kind of people are we designing this meeting for? If we design for smart, caring, intelligent people, those are the kind who are likely to turn up. If we design on the assumption they will be lazy and disruptive, then we’ll probably create the very meeting we most fear.