The role – and attitude – of a facilitator in designing events

I had to take a stand and clarify this.

I’ve recently witnessed some event design processes that went really badly, where the ‘client’ and the ‘facilitator’ ended up at complete odds with each other. With as result a seemingly permanently damaged relationship, and the serious risk of derailing even the event they were planning together.

This incident offers me a good opportunity to restate what the role of a facilitator is at process design stage. And not only the role, but also the overall attitude. But first here’s for roles and responsibilities:

Process design is a complex map (Credits: The Value Web)

Process design is a complex map (Credits: The Value Web)

Listening (and asking questions)

First and foremost, you don’t jump on process design, you listen. Carefully. You read if you’re being given background literature. You make sure you have enough context to understand the context in which you’ll be operating. You prepare your questions to clarify that context. And consistently, relentlessly, unhesitatingly you listen and listen and listen some more and better.

You want to find out about the motivation behind the event/process, the people involved in the organising and participating sides, the possible tensions, the way things have already been organised etc. All kinds of things addressed in the BOSSY HERALD.

Helping to identify topics, outcomes etc.

In process design, of course your role then is to clarify the list of topics that your client – your ‘person in charge’ – means to address, and what outcomes they hope to achieve for each of these topics. This is not only good practice for your client to articulate their objectives, but also for both of you to get a sense of realism put into the time planned for that event or initiative against the objectives set.

Your role is to develop processes for each of these topic outcomes, but you need to get that first part right. And how do you do it? You guessed it, by listening (see point 1).

Help check logistics

A very important aspect that could easily fall between the cracks otherwise is the logistics of the meeting. Help your client make sure they have booked a proper room, have all the equipment you and they need, have instructed people to help with e.g. the set up of ICT tools etc.

You can also refer to my 10 advices to dramatically improve un-facilitated meetings; they contain some ideas about this.

Teasing issues out 

I alluded to this earlier in the listening part. Your role is to understand what is invisible, unspoken, but actually playing a critical role. This kind of a teasing out is a business critical skill when it comes to developing your network, as you need to be able to recognise the challenging gigs from the simple ones (and to decide whether to take them on or not).

So keep asking questions: about who has the power to decide things, who is missing in the room, what topics cause frictions, who is possibly at odds with who else, why things have been done in a certain way, what decisions have been made to do things differently and why etc. etc.

In the process you may also find out about some useful procedures, frames of reference, templates etc. that could shape your event. But tease things out you must.

Clarifying who takes decision etc.

A specific point that requires more emphasis here is the question of ‘who has the power to make a decision’ – whether the decision be about the process design or about any point of content discussed during the event. It remains one of the difficult but very impactful elements of your work.

I tend to work with a clear ‘person-in-charge’ whom I feel free to call upon during the meetings to take decisions (about time allocated, about choices in adjusting design, about deciding the issue). It can (and should) follow a much more thorough process of clarifying the decision rule, but even in the absence of that, you can’t get away without asking who calls the shots, unless you’re ready to fall into a nightmare scenario.

Remaining neutral

Apart from some specific cases that I’ll explore in an upcoming post, you’re not supposed to take decisions for your person(s)-in-charge. You’re supposed to focus on the process and on how to help everyone do and share their best thinking. So in the process design phase you can make suggestions about certain design implications, but the content items are not for you to comment on. They’re for your client.

And because things can and usually somewhat do run out of hand, your last task in this ‘process design process’ is…

Educating your client about process literacy

It’s also your job – it certainly has become my vocation – to also teach your clients about processes. So that next time around, when you work together, the design process is easier and smoother. Because you share language, and perhaps even a vision about how a process is supposed to run. This is about everything that relates to your job. You can decide to keep it all for yourself but I find that it really helps my clients to explain how I do stuff and what effect it has. Once they see process they can become better process visionaries and implementers themselves.

That little bit of building peoples’ process literacy pays back 10-fold.

Now, about that attitude…

As I got to read in the ‘culture map‘, some cultures are more ‘principles-oriented’ and others are more ‘application-oriented’. I find my culture, and my personality, are very much geared towards principles. And for me attitude is also a matter or principles. I don’t do my work without thinking why I do it. I have ethic, ethos. And so for me the attitude when designing a process is of utmost importance. And it relates to what Sam Kaner would describe as the first commandment of facilitation:

Be helpful, be supportive.

Even if as facilitator you don’t like the event, or your client, you’re there to help them,  to fa-ci-li-tate their work, not to make it more difficult.

So a facilitator should assume a globally positive and flexible behavior, no matter what.

And of course things happen and problems occur, but you learn from these and get to plan things better the next time around. So keep that in mind and until the show is over, rub it in and give your best 🙂

 

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3 thoughts on “The role – and attitude – of a facilitator in designing events

  1. Dear Ewen, thanks for your reflection, some great and important points. As facilitators, we have to “marry content with process”, that is what an experienced facilitator whose work I respect a lot told me once. As facilitators we take the aspirations of the workshop organiser as serious as our process knowledge.
    As you point out, clarifying the context in which a workshop is taking place, its purpose and expected products as well as some deepened understanding about people joining, all these aspects come always before we start designing anything.
    You may want to have a look at the Worksop Agenda Shaper helping to clarify exactly these aspects before shaping the agenda. https://learning-moments.net/2017/06/16/the-workshop-agenda-shaper/
    Best, Nadia

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  2. Hello Nadia,

    Thank you for your reply and for pointing to your resource. It sounds like a useful tool in your practice and I like the visual representation. There’s a lot to say about workshop & process design as I think it’s probably even more important than facilitation in the room itself (though of course the agenda plan that emerges never quite unfolds as planned and that’s for the better).
    The main point I was trying to make above was that it also takes an ‘attitude’ of facilitator, of wanting to make things simpler, not more difficult. Facilitators can also tend to be so focused on their own process expertise that they might forget that…

    Anyway, keep on sharing good practices and tools like you did here and thank you for engaging 🙂
    Cheers,

    Ewen

    PS. Sorry for this very late reply, a lot of things are changing in my life right now and I don’t have quite the time I’d like to attend to blogging. My apologies for this.

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