Category Archives: Facilitation

Are you going to pull it together at the end?

This is question I get asked a lot in meetings, especially those with more conversational and participatory formats like Open Space.

It’s what’s expected of a facilitator isn’t it?

Increasingly, my answer is a form or words that boils down to: No.

I think it’s often more useful for diverse groups of people within the meeting to pull themselves together around the subjects that interest them. If we try to get a diverse bunch of people to all agree on something at the end, we’re likely to go for something bland, or get a kind of fake assent that really means, “I’ll agree to this so that we can all go home.”

Organisations of any size are remarkably complex. They achieve what they do not by everyone following the exact same rules, but by a less predictable series of partly co-ordinated behaviours.

It’s a network, and it has multiple, changing connections. Trying to stand at the end as if we’re all mean to connect around a central person, picture, list of ideas seems a bit flawed to me.

For endings, I like processes that allow everyone, on reasonably equal terms, to share their excitement, concern, ideas, desires for action. Without a big pressure to coalesce around abstractions. I’m struck that what often results is a less precise, but still tangible sense, that we can all carry on together…

Avoiding the teacher trance

image-0008Another sample from Nothing is Written:

It’s easy to slip into a teacher trance.

On the surface, it looks like serious learning is happening as the expert dispenses knowledge and the students appear to be respectfully appreciating it. The trainer is set up as an expert, giving her status over others. This can be flattering to the ego of the trainer, and quite comforting to the audience, reducing their responsibility for the learning. The trainer gets repeated signals that she’s supposed to be authoritative, and becomes quite attached to the power and/or responsibility.

In the teacher trance, we all become attached to explanation and answers, and the surprise of discovery becomes a threat.

But discovery is what really imprints learning. As David Rock and Jeffery Schwartz say in their article, The Neuroscience of Leadership: “For insights to be useful, they need to be generated from within, not given to individuals as conclusions… Human brains are so complex and individual that there is little point in trying to work out how another person ought to reorganize his or her thinking. It is far more effective and efficient to help others come to their own insights.”

By avoiding the trappings of expertise, the trainer is more vulnerable but creates more power and agency for those learning.

Ordinary connection

The Power of Ordinary Practices describes how apparently mundane interactions with managers have a major impact on people’s work.

Management and leadership are so often described in heroic terms, which seem to disconnect everyone from reality. In the search for impact, leaders often miss details and leave people behind. I liked this point from Teresa Amabile in the article:

One, people have incredibly rich, intense, daily inner work lives; emotions, motivations, and perceptions about their work environment permeate their daily experience at work. Second, these feelings powerfully affect people’s day-to-day performance. And third, those feelings, which are so important for performance, are powerfully influenced by particular daily events.

She gives lots of examples of how managers small scale interactions have a big impact on morale, creativity and productivity.

One of my favourite workshop activities is to look at real world conversations, especially those seen as difficult by participants. We’ll often just take two lines of dialogue (a classic “he-said, she-said”) and play with multiple ways of replaying them differently. The results can be dramatic.

The other thing that the article brings out is timing. Too many interactions, or two few, or at the wrong or right time, have big impacts. Failing relationships and conversations often feel to me like badly co-ordinated dances; we think we’re fighting over the content but really we’re experiencing a lack of synchrony.

Hat tip: Keith de la Rue (on Facebook)

Getting over ourselves

image-0016Another extract from Nothing is Written

“In the process of adaptation, man persistently separates from his old self, or at least from those segments of his old self that are now outlived. Like a child who has outgrown a toy, he discards the old parts of himself for which he has no further use… the ego continually breaks away from its worn-out parts, which were of value in the past but have no value in the present.” – Otto Rank

Unlearning and breaking from the past is at the heart of learning and creativity. As Rank observes, great artists like Rembrandt and Picasso were able to leave behind their greatest successes and move beyond old ideas of themselves.

In order to learn, we need to lose our attachment to old versions of ourselves.

Playful learning helps us to try out new versions of ourselves, bypassing some of the stories our minds invent about us.

The value of loose ends

image-0012This is another extract from Viv’s and my new book, Nothing Is Written (free to download).

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the eponymous antihero is fleeing a brigade of Roman soldiers. In his panic, he falls from a ledge into a spot where a variety of zany religious types are preaching to would-be followers. Brian nervously delivers a sermon in the hope of blending into the background and eluding his pursuers.

He’s not very good. The crowd challenge the details of his story, and the more stressed he becomes, the less convincing is his performance. Fortunately, the soldiers pass by and he can relax. So he abandons his story mid-sentence. It doesn’t really matter any more.

But this is just the point at which the audience moves from scepticism to curiosity. The unfinished nature of the story hooks them. As a result, a massive crowd builds up, trying to make sense of what’s happening, pursuing all manner of hilarious possibilities.

The value in training is to open people up to possibilities. It is the responsibility of the learner to pursue those possibilities. Being incomplete can keep people engaged.

Siloes and networks

Greg Satell asks, What makes and organisation “networked”? He makes some points challenging either-or thinking about networks. So bureaucracies and silos aren’t inherently bad, it’s more a question of recognising other networks exist – and you can connect silos usefully without needing to disparage or dismantle them.

In a lot of meetings, I think facilitation can help people to find other ways to connect across the more officially recognised structures, matrices and hierarchies.

What sort of learning?

Just want to point to this lucid article by my friend John Wenger: transformational learning.

If someone wanted to learn something like ‘how to have a difficult conversation with a staff member’ in a transactional way, this may result in him or her having more ‘top tips on difficult conversations’ but it would be unlikely to result in deep or significant shifts in how they relate to their staff. Furthermore, research shows that the half-life of knowledge that is simply transferred is very short. This means that any positive benefit of someone learning what they need to in a transactional manner would be neither deep nor long-lasting. This is simply because material such as this requires the involvement of both the ‘thinking’ brain AND the limbic brain; the part of the brain that governs feelings and how we manage relationships. Research indicates that skills based in this part of the brain are best learned through motivation, practice and feedback, rather than simple transfer of information. In other words things that involve the “F” word (feelings) require a transformational learning process. As Emotional Intelligence guru Daniel Goleman, states, “A brief seminar wont’ help, and it can’t be learned through a how-to manual.”

Rot, or noble rot?

Lauren Collister defends emoticons and various other bits of linguistic shorthand against those who insist on the sanctity of language.

I know I can be a language pedant, tut-tutting the grocer’s apostrophe etc. But of course, even that “etc” started life as a corruption.

As with language, so with life. We get scared of what looks like unruliness, but may actually be useful emergence. When facilitating, I try to tread very lightly when people don’t seem to be doing what I expected.  I aim to trust that they’re smart and are taking care of themselves better than I know.

So for me, the killer line in the article is this subheadline: change doesn’t mean decay.

At least, not necessarily.

Hat tip to Viv for spotting the article


Now published: Nothing is Written

NIWthumbViv and I have now published the pdf copy of our new short book, Nothing is Written.

It’s based on our experiences facilitating and training groups from San Francisco to the Solomon Islands, working with corporations, charities, government bodies and colleges.

We share eight simple ideas that guide how we work:

Nothing is Written
Emotional Connectedness
Experiences over Explanation
Shared peril
Avoiding the teacher trance
The value of loose ends
Getting out of our heads
Getting over ourselves

We think it’s possible to create more engaging training that plays to human strengths and avoids many of the cliches found in training rooms worldwide.

You can download it here (pdf) and we hope you enjoy it!


Getting out of our heads

Here’s another extract from Viv‘s and my forthcoming little book, which presents a few of our favourite ideas about working with people as facilitators and trainers. You can now download it here

image-0014Getting out of our heads

Many of the challenges we face are complex and will not yield to mere analysis.

Meeting them has more in common with learning to ride a bike than solving a puzzle. You don’t learn to ride a bike by reading a book. You need practice and a willingness to explore.

As the saying goes, it’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.

This is brilliantly demonstrated in Tom Wujec’s Marshmallow Challenge. Tom goes round the world with a set of sticks and marshmallows. He dishes these out to all sorts of groups of people. The challenge is to build the tallest structure possible with these materials. Typical managers spend their time in a talkfest, trying to work out the answer. Kindergarten kids just get stuck in, trying building stuff. The kids usually get taller and more creative structures.

It’s tempting to favour clever-sounding analysis over practical action. Trainers who fall in love with explaining things risk falling into the trap.

Many challenges need to be explored in three dimensions, not in analysis. Explore what’s possible through action and experiment.

You can download the whole book here