Category Archives: Facilitation

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.


The network of life

Manuel Lima challenges the prevailing metaphor of the tree for understanding systems. The metaphor has deep roots (see what I did there?), for instance when we casually say genetics is a branch of biology.

We can now visualise systems as networks, revealing far greater complexity and interconnectedness. A tree model of species creates categories that seem clearly divided; a network model reveals far more elaborate bacterial interconnection.

We can shift from seeing a tree of life, to seeing a network of life.

There’s an immediate connection to my work here. I’ve posted before about how many meeting formats reduce the potential for interconnection between participants. On the other hand, it’s possible for simple approaches to help make us more aware of the richness of connection that already exists. For instance, the Unhurried format I’ve been using for a while now.

Also, in doing training work, I’m really interested in seeing participants as a network in which all can create and share knowledge ideas, rather than as a tree in which knowledge cascades down from the expert.

Hat tip: Brain Pickings


A few years ago, I wrote this post about insight being the popcorn of therapy.

I quoted from the book, A General Theory of Love:

Patients are often hungry for explanations, because they are used to thinking that neocortical contraptions like explication will help them. But insight is the popcorn of therapy. When patient and therapist go together, the irreducible reality of their mutual journey, is the movie.

There seems to be strong research evidence that in therapy, the specific technique used is of relatively small significance to the outcome. What matters more are the unique circumstances of the client (e.g. what kind of support network do they have) and what is the quality of their relationship with the therapist.

I’m simplifying, of course, as I don’t want to write a long essay here. A therapeutic relationship is a rich and complex thing.

And that’s just two people.

How much more rich and complex are groups and organisations? Yet in some ways, the bigger the organisation, the more tempted we are to try to manage change with models and buzzwords. It’s so tempting for someone to draw us a nice grid or talk about “agile” or give us a six-step process. But often, we may be eating popcorn, and missing the richer movie.

Agency: noun or verb?

I’ve been thinking about, and working with, agencies lately: ad agencies, design agencies, innovation agencies…

In this context, an agency generally means “people who can do the things you can’t, or don’t want to do”.

Which is fine, if that’s really what you want – as in, I hate doing this, please take it away and do it for me.

But often in life, we say that’s what we want, and then it turns out that we want a bit more control. We have opinions of our own about it, and probably some latent capacity to do it ourselves. If this isn’t recognised there are all sorts of risks. The client gives too much power to the agency which turns into the Pied Piper, leaving the client bereft and exploited. Or the agency can’t deliver, leading to frustration of another kind – I could have done this better myself!

Hence all the talk about the desirability of co-creation.

Maybe we need to go back to the idea of agency from philosophy – the capacity of an entity to act in any given environment. Do you want

agency, verb – and therefore maybe some people who will help you develop your own capacity to act, or

an agency, noun people to do it for you?

I suspect an awful lot of grief in agency-client relationships arises when these choices aren’t explored.

Change and frustration

This diagram[1] pops up in my social streams from time to time. I grabbed it from this site.

Vision Table-2


It aims to show that you must have five elements in place in order to achieve change. It seems to reflect a common story about organisational change. At its worst, it appears to suggest that change is something that should happen without confusion or anxiety.  Or perhaps it is only saying things like “if you encounter resistance, you need to change incentives”. Either way, change is presented as quite a clean, rational logical business.

That’s not how I experience life: my own, other people’s, or in organisations.

I prefer to think of change as inherently messy and confusing. Confusion, anxiety and all those other uncomfortable feelings are not bugs but features.

Just managing oneself is a complex challenge. Managing whole organisations can’t possibly be easier. Ram Dass said, “If you think you’re enlightened go spend a week with your family.” I think there’s an equivalent wisdom needed for those writing about “organisational change”.

(I’m also reminded of Donald Factor’s insight about frustration.)

[1]  R. Villa & J. Thousand (Eds.), Restructuring for caring and effective education: Piecing the puzzle together (pp. 93-128). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.)