‘The periodic table of facilitation’: What did I learn about what we can learn about facilitation

This year, one of the main sources of excitement and renewal in my work life is coming from Never Done Before, the community of facilitators created and co-hosted by Myriam Hadnes (from the excellent facilitation geeking podcast ‘Workshops work‘).

One of the great sessions I had the pleasure to attend there was about the ‘periodic table of facilitation‘. We set out to dissect the field of group / process facilitation and distil elements that would feature in a such a table, following some design principles of the actual periodic table.

Without a prescriptive formula, we actually started with a brainstorming session (in breakout groups) where we populated a whole Miro board with all the thoughts that came to us, before we started organising them – in different breakout groups – from the whole set of ideas into categories that made instinctively more sense to our various groups. And then we took one more step back to identify what might be the deeper ‘organising principles’ of this table we landed with.

And the result is this periodic table of facilitation in the making, on Miro: https://miro.com/app/board/uXjVO3Hhsmg=/

We didn’t manage to land with a neat periodic table.

In fact, we kind of agreed that perhaps this was pushing the metaphor too far for a domain (group/process facilitation) that is perhaps more an art than a science, and that may not have such clear properties ascribed to it as the physical table.

The biggest aha moment for me though, was that I (and a few others apparently also) kind of assumed that some bits of facilitation were almost innate/given, and others were acquired, it turned out that pretty much anything can be learned in facilitation.

BUT…

Not everything comes as easily, quickly and naturally. In our last breakout, we actually even found a sort of gradation from instrumental and fundamental between:

  • What we have (the tools, equipment and props, participation formats / structures / work forms / facilitation exercises) e.g. Lego Bricks (for Lego Serious Play), World Café, Open Space Technology, Miro etc.
  • What we know (our knowledge of the domain, frames of reference, frameworks, repertoires with their own ontology etc.) – and that is also together with what we believe and what we imagine… e.g. Art of Hosting, Liberating Structures, Theory U etc.
  • What we do (our practice, but from an intentional practice point of view, because throughout our development pathway of course we do stuff) e.g. process design, active listening skills, group decision-making rituals and practices…
  • What/who we are (our traits of character, abilities, areas of mindful attention etc.) e.g. curiosity, empathy, acceptance, humour etc.

Some of my own learning from this great session (which hopefully will be followed up by another session to deepen the metaphor or export it to a more fertile ground):

Of course it’s not quite that simplistic. What we have, know, do, are mesh and mingle somehow. But there is definitely a difference in how quickly we can ‘pick up something to learn’ or not. Ie. it’s easier to grab a set of post-it notes compared with running a 1-2-4-all, which in turn is easier compared with understanding Theory U, compared in turn with applying the gospel of Theory U or Liberating Structures, compared to working on our empathy or sense of acceptance…

There is somehow almost a parallel here with the four levels of teaching by Broadwell (from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence): What we have might be our starting point. Usually, what people think of when thinking about facilitation are the tools and exercises. But that’s just a start, when we don’t really know that that is not the name of the game. What we know is when we realise that there is a lot out there that we may need to go through before we start understanding better (what we know). That leads to what we do intentionally, practicing and practicing. And ultimately, we actually have integrated all of the above in the way that we are and by this power we facilitate…

There is perhaps a parallel with the excitement and pacing of excitement that each of these four ‘areas’ provoke in budding facilitators and in people getting interested in facilitation: they are first attracted by the tools, then often by the repertoires, then by the skills (applying the repertoire), then by the philosophy behind it and the deeper traits that help all the above to work better…

These four domains offer ways to reinforce our overall practice, because of course we probably need a bit of everything to make collaboration work. So it’s also a case of picking and choosing our favourite angles to focus on next, and going in spiral to discover it all…

Maybe all the above is utter rubbish, but in any case that session has been engraved in my memory and though we may not have found the right metaphor with the periodic table, there is something about ordering these domains of facilitation that is deeply resonating with me…

By the way don’t miss the opportunity to join the NDB ‘Testivál’ starting tomorrow:

Join the Testivál for over 30 workshops across 24 hours – and be transformed as most of us were in this community

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One thought on “‘The periodic table of facilitation’: What did I learn about what we can learn about facilitation

  1. Great post Ewen, I’m curious about this periodic table, will check it out and hopefully join into the further reflection. The 4 fundamental you uncovered resonate a lot with me and my experience. I call them sorts of maps. As facilitator there are so many aspects to take care of (including self) that I find these kinds of reflections extremely helpful. I’ve blogged myself several times about what is needs and what it means and what helps to be the facilitator. Thanks!

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