Lessons from an accidential facilitator
I never chose to become a facilitator. Right after joining 3Pillar I had clients come in from North Carolina for the day and I decided to do a series of exercises with them that I read about online so we could learn about their target customer and business objectives then explore potential features. Sitting in the room was our head of client services and he saw workshops a way to show our value and expertise to current and prospective clients.
So I became a facilitator. To date I’ve never had formal training, everything I know comes from experience and reading. Here is what I’ve learned:
Have a flexible framework – I’ve development a method for designing and structuring workshops that allows me to customize the experience for clients needs without having to create from scratch every time.
You need to know enough to be dangerous and not much more – My clients are the experts. I can’t be as knowledgeable as they are. I need to know enough to ask questions and raise possibilities but anything more could make me boxed in my the same conventions and thinking that are preventing my clients from innovating.
Always have a plan just don’t always follow it – I always reserve the right to throw out my plan if it’s not what the clients need and I’ve done that many times before. As Dwight Eisenhower may have said “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
Collaborative exercises work better than conversations – Conversations can easily fall into old patterns that prevent new thinking and new ideas. Exercises allow people to think through things on their own and then share.
Offsite is better – My clients have much more meaningful experiences when they leave the daily distractions of their office behind.
Running the Session
Energy is the most precious resource – Making sure that you have different activities, opportunities for movement and breaks will help keep the energy level up. You should also know that the lunch coma is real and that most group productivity drops after about six hours.
Regulate with charm – My repeat clients all come back because I kept them on track without making them mad. It’s something that requires a soft touch and paying close attention to their reaction to know when to let it run a bit and when to reign them in.
Bring things to the surface – Sometimes you’ll find participants aren’t on the same page and they don’t know it until you bring it up.
Bring your perspective – My clients hire me because of my experience and diverse knowledge instead of being a neutral time keeper.
Deciding what not to do or what to take off their plate is the hardest thing to get people to do – Sometimes I have to stand in front a group and ask them several times and ask what they aren’t going to do or make them take features off their list. No one wants to give things up but without saying no it we have don’t have direction or strategy.
People argue about things that don’t matter – Sometimes people argue about small things instead of the big things that really matter. This is called Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. As the facilitator, you need to stop this crap by asking if the current debate is one worth having.
The answer is likely not in the room – If the information isn’t available then the conversation needs to be focused on how to get it or you need to put it to the side. Don’t allow for precious time to be lost to random speculation.
Getting to Next Steps
Ask people to hold hands or commit – I’ve heard that at Intel they say “disagree and commit.” Meaning that you should have it out but once the decision is made they need to go execute on it. As a facilitator you need to make sure tough conversations happens and then ask for the commitment.
Writing reports is hard – I have no good advice to give here. I just try to schedule time after the session to write up findings. If you have advice for me, I would gladly receive it.
One more thing, you can facilitate any time and just about anywhere. If you are involved in a meeting and it’s not going great. Get up to to the whiteboard and make it better.
Image: An altered version of a workshop plan