‘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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What do you do, as facilitator, when you are ‘clearly confused’ (and expected to be the one adding clarity 😜)?

So there you go: apparently facilitators cannot be confused… ?? That’s what my compadriña Nadia von Holzen found out when we were brainstorming to design a session about being confused as facilitators…

Confused??
Confused? (photo credit: Matthew Kang / FlickR)

Of course our experience tells us otherwise. We are confused, we have been confused… When I had to think about when I get or got confused while facilitating, a few moments came to mind:

  • When I had to work with clients that were both really ambitious about how far they wanted to get, and quite demanding in this respect, but had no clue whatsoever how to get there. I found myself having to negotiate what that path looked like as we went along and it was stressful to feel that the whole group seemed to be my sole responsibility…
  • When I found myself facilitating workshops on a topic that I really knew nothing about and I occasionally realised that everyone understood the conversation around me but I – and seemingly only I – didn’t. It was both liberating and extremely confusing to have no grip on the conversation, having to lean in on the group to actually facilitate their facilitator ha ha ha. But that was mostly fun!
  • When in process design conversations, teasing out what the group is trying to achieve, and I got regularly confused as to what exactly was at stake because that ‘why are we gathering’ wasn’t really clear and was being cleared out as we went along…
  • And then my “imposter moment” of finding out that I need to really think on my feet and quickly come up with a better plan and I feel like I’ll run short of options (when in practice it’s not really the case)…

I find that on those moments, I tend to be a bit stunned, possibly nervous or stressed because I don’t know what comes next and I feel the sense of responsibility for the experience that everyone’s going through and for the personal time they put into this.

Then my brain kicks in quite quickly and starts rationalising what’s going on so I find some grounding. So perhaps not as much letting go as I’d like to…

But then perhaps it’s also because I don’t hold a lot of things as very firm either, and so at a micro-scale, confusion, doubt, curiosity, open-ness is there at every corner. I can go with the flow. I just sense that if in case I wanted that, I might not be the best one to conjure up a very powerful counter-flow… Going with the flow suits me better in that sense too…

confuse
Confusion might be a dance – where do you begin it, where do I end it? (photo credit: Tall Chris / FlickR)

In any case, on those moments when I experienced confusion as a facilitator, my reptilian brain kicked in. As I was so much in the moment and dealing with the ‘crisis’ at hand, I was oblivious to what was going on at the meta level of what I was doing. It’s when you realise that facilitating means often operating from that meta level, so much so that living experiences firsthand does not always come so naturally.

On those moments, it would have helped to be more aware of how I was reacting, to find some support in my friends and other contributors, to realise there were quite a few options to deal with that confusion. But hey, we learn one thing at a time…

So anyway, how do we deal with confusion as facilitators?

  • Do we know what it looks like, feels like, taste like?
  • Do we even realise what confusion really means or represents to us?
  • Do we know what elements rattle us most and cause us to get confused?
  • When it happens, do we fight, freeze or flee?
  • How do we connect with the acticipants (all the people around us in that gathering) on those moments? Do we bring them along in our confusion, do we seek advice, do we let them know how we feel?
  • How does the confusion dance unfold?
  • How do we process confusion afterwards? How do we deal with the traces it might leave behind?
  • Do we try to anticipate confusion, cope with it as it comes, accept it or even embrace it – much like the ‘groan zone’ that means we are onto something alive and full of energy?

Together with Nadia we will be unravelling all these questions and more in a forthcoming session at the Testival organised by the Never Done Before community on 23-24 June. Hopefully we can then understand better what it means for us, we can get to remember and even inhabit our confusion so we can recognise its symptoms, we can laugh it off also, and hear other stories of confusion and how our peers have dealt with it, to find out what shades of response might suit us best, going forward. We can tap into the wisdom of the group and the generous care of its individuals to help us inhabit the most confusiastic version of ourselves.

Just speaking about it I look forward to it already!!!

And I think you might too…

Itinerary of a (meeting) change maker

It’s not easy to be a change maker, ie. to be someone who wishes to shake up the culture around them and stop the endless cycle of ‘business as usual’. Even when everyone agrees that ‘business as usual’ is broken.

The meeting about our meetings (image credit: The conversation factory / Daniel Stillman)

I am thinking here specifically about the kind of change maker that should actually be ordinary: someone who wants to change the culture, etiquette and rituals of bad meetings and collaboration in their company.

Someone who has seen too many bad meetings without clear purpose, without participation from most, without any respect for people’s time, intelligence and feelings. Someone who’s seen how taxing that is to everyone over time, leading to complete exhaustion, mental check-out (physical presence but mental/emotional absence) or cynicism…

That someone would want to host the one meeting that every group of people should have: the meeting about our meetings that Daniel Stillman encouraged us to have. And based on that, change the norms and practices around ‘meeting and collaboration hygiene’.

Along that journey, there are many ‘themes’ that would be likely to crop up. These themes encompass opportunities, challenges or obstacles, qualities that help, principles of success etc. And these themes are what can make or break the changemaker’s journey.

So let’s dive into those themes and see what matters about them… My little finger tells me I’ll get to unpack these themes with my friends later on this year…

Clarity / Intention

The first step is to be clear on what’s not going well in ‘business as usual’, and developing an intention to go against that ‘business as usual’. Because you see that people are getting stressed, jaded, cynical, exhausted, absent-minded. A change-maker has to be able to see it, describe it, and state what it is they want to do about it. And as much as possible, have that eye-opening conversation with other like-minded people that can join the movement of ‘let’s do something different here’, because change is not easy.

Curiosity

This is probably one of the most useful features of a change-maker at all times. Curiosity about ideas, curiosity about people. Not a fixed mindset, a liquid mindset, ready to accept different data and perspectives, curious to understand what tickles people in a different way, knowing that remaining open to deeply understand peoples’ deepest motives is the key towards mutual understanding. That also means not having a fixed idea about the exact itinerary towards the end result (or even what that end result is); instead, having some idea of where you’re headed but keeping open to anything that could make that path more strong and true. Like a bird builds a nest, picking up different twigs and items that show up along their flyovers.

Listening

This derives naturally from the previous item: it’s not just about a mindset of curiosity, it’s also about having the skills to be able to understand others, and that is through building listening skills. Active listening skills: paraphrasing, mirroring, everything that Community At Work and others encourage you to build up. It takes mindful practice to get good at listening, but that’s a non-negotiable skill to have, and it happens to be both an incredibly useful lifeskill but also seemingly the most important leadership skill according to many successful business people. So there: 1-2 flex your listening muscles 💪 !

Active listening (image credit: Normat)

Crafts (and arts of process facilitation)

Up next in the bag is having some command over participation formats (or structures, facilitation methods, work forms etc. however you call them). These ‘exercises’ allow you to organise collaboration and meetings. It’s the ‘toys’ that very often people think about when they think about facilitation. And usually the bit that people calling meetings might want to concentrate on. I generally tend to underplay these because they should always follow function and objectives -thus come quite late in the process- but I also recognise that not having any knowledge of these crafts is a real hindrance for any change maker to achieve their goals. It just takes some practice mastering some repertoire of these participation formats. Liberating Structures is one of many repertoires that comes in handy here.

Trust

If you are hoping to achieve long-lasting change, you can’t really dodge trust. You need to build it in order to make some of the change more acceptable. Trust is the truth as I’ve been saying all along… Trust takes authenticity, vulnerability, openness and open-mindedness, honesty, respect and no-nonsense… it’s about creating an atmosphere where everyone feels invited to reveal as much of themselves as possible… easier said than done, but this is one of the key differences between successful change and anything else that might look good but just doesn’t happen.

Courage

And of course it takes some braveness to challenge the status quo and to wish to establish a new norm. Because change does not feel good, even when you are the one initiating it, let alone when you are not so much involved in it. And here again I’m thinking about the courage it takes for our change-maker to bring it to their boss and colleagues that business as usual is broken and needs to be reconsidered. It takes courage to imagine a different practice, to share it with others (who are partly going to be skeptical about it)… but courage it is that drives every change maker to face being mocked by the mainstream because deep down they know there’s no other way.

Resistance

And one of the main reasons why it takes courage is because the proposed change will meet resistance. For the change maker, this is the famous ‘snap back’ effect (that Brenda Zimmermann coined) which risks ruining all good will to change things for a positive result. Being aware of that resistance is essential. And not just that and quickly waving it off as an irrelevant ‘force from the past’. No, that resistance is real, and understanding its deep roots is of the essence. What is creating the cringe about change for some people?

(image credit: Biola University)

Grit

No matter what challenges are put on your way, no matter how much resistance you encounter, as change agent you don’t want to give up. Grit is what it takes: some combination of determination, resilience, learning and of social creativity to keep going at it. Indeed, it’s an attitude (not giving up and bouncing back no matter what happens), mixed with knowledge (based on what we learn works or doesn’t) and creative skills to try out other solutions. And perhaps it’s also about finding allies along the way, that allow us to nurture that determination. I remember one of the KM4Dev gatherings that focused on this notion of ‘keeping the fire alive’. That resonated strongly with me. We get inspired at times, but that spark of insight and willingness to change can easily get snuffed out unless we create a network of care around it that allows us to keep going, it’s that notion of keeping the fire alive.

Teamwork

And provided you have all the above in place, then you still need teamwork to make these new collaborations and meeting processes stick around. You need a distribution of roles, including the impromptu facilitator, the documenter etc. Especially for online meetings there’s even more need for additional roles (e.g. tech support, chat box or graphic platform steward etc.). So bring along your mates to show that ‘the new way’ works. Because if your attempts at setting a new norm fail early on, and more than once, you are dead in the water…

Ownership

At some point – often even at various points – in the process the question comes up of ‘who owns this?’. Who is sponsoring this change, who has vested interests in it, who takes decisions, who is actually involved in thinking about and implementing this, and who is impacted by this new way of doing things? All these are facets of the ‘ownership’ issue and they all matter. At least all these questions deserve to be raised at least once. Getting this right builds up the trust mentioned above. And when it comes to setting new norms for meetings and collaboration, it’s pretty much everyone’s business, not just the concern of a few, so how to make sure everyone’s on board and feels vested in this change?

Diversity

Finally comes the point of involving various profiles that cover all the bases. At least all the ones that matter in your ecosystem. If you don’t have that diversity, your change initiative risks falling apart because some ‘groups’ will call out their lack of involvement, representation, ownership, power in it. So make sure you have representative demographics of your group (whether the latter is a network, an organisation, department, team or whatever…). This is about having all points of view taken equally seriously and contributing to the conversations and solutions as legitimately as anyone else.

And here we complete our change maker tour and can conclude that though not exhaustive, the above themes will matter at a point or another in bringing about the change and getting it to stick…

Any obvious theme that you would add here?

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Messaging and massaging feedback into our culture: A video chat with Nadia (3/3)

And just like that…

…Nadia and I reached the final part of our video conversation about feedback.

I loved our entire conversation about feedback. Episode 1 unpacked it (the why and what), episode 2 analysed it (the how, when, where), and this episode is bringing it home and to a whole new level: US, all together.

For someone who craves individual change in the service of collective transformation (towards ever healthier societies and a healthier planet), this is the holy grail: how do we harness feedback not just in the space of a nice conversation, between two people, but everywhere, all the time, with everyone, and for everyone else to see and draw inspiration from…

So yes, we covered a myriad of topics in this rich episode:

We brushed through different lenses that help stimulate a healthy culture of feedback: growth mindset, tolerance for failure etc. A positive ‘mindset’ is so important for change, as testified by this infographic shared on Twitter by the fabulous Helen Bevan.

We considered how having “some feedback about feedback”, or at least a conversation on how feedback is being practiced in the group, is a simple but useful and powerful first step, which reveals more than the tip of the feedback iceberg. Taking that step back is a little like “having a meeting about our meetings” that Nadia suggests in this welcome provocation.

Management plays a mirroring and amplifying role vis-à-vis the feedback culture of a given group…

We obviously reflected on the role of management, the top leadership, the human resources teams or departments, how they can couple or decouple feedback with formal assessments, and how they also hold a part of the solution by mirroring useful practices – or precisely not, then adding to the gospel of “Do what I say, not what I do”.

We also flickered through the Liberating Structures (LS) repertoire to see what structures might come in handy to understand, discuss or act upon a feedback culture in the team/organisation. And we actually used quite a few of these structures in a feedback training workshop we gave to a client organisation earlier this year with Nadia. We were left feeling there was even still so much more that could be done about feedback, with LS and generally. Our conversation reminded me that Liberating Structures bet on changed practices by focusing on modifying the everyday behaviours and actions rather than modifying the values or principles that guide those actions.

So what is the surer way to embrace, or expand, a culture of feedback?

Tell us what you’ve tried, or what you’ve witnessed around you.

Tell us if anything from the video below resonated with you or not…

And also tell us if there’s any topic related to collaboration and facilitation that you’d like Nadia and I to think and talk about…

Get a real, deep, dynamic hang on what you do and who with through *Ecocycle planning*

Ecocycle Planning‘ is one of my absolute favourite structures from the Liberating Structures repertoire.

What is it?

Ecocycle planning is a structure that gives you a peek at your activities and/or relationships, mapped onto an ecocycle (the graph you see below). It helps you understand where each of these activities or relationships is in its own lifecycle. Looking at the whole picture gives you a hint at what you might want to rethink, push forward, invest int, let go of etc.

Ecocycle Planning | Liberating Structures | Cycle de développement, Planning  vierge, Les déterminants
Ecocycle planning: deeply helpful, dynamic, conversational… and so much more!

Why is it such a hit for me?

Maybe it’s because it’s deeply helpful: Ecocycle planning is a ‘what-so what-now what’ about your activities or relationships bundled in a dense but done as a very neat and visual exercise… and then it reveals many insights: about individual activities (or relationships), about your whole portfolio, about decisions you are not making, about the risks associated with doing ‘business as usual’, about what you could/should seriously invest in, and what you could/should let go of. About what you might want to move forward with. Combined with panarchy it reveals a whole new world about how innovation and transformation comes about and how agency in one sphere is connected to deeper, more systemic change in related spheres or levels.

Understanding what relationships/activities are – the conversation is rich (photo credit: O. Cornelissen / ILRI)

Maybe it’s because it’s dynamic: we tend to think of our work in rather static terms. Like things are set and don’t evolve. But it’s anything but true: In fact all activities and relationships are going through their own lifecycle, and ecocycle planning helps us see the direction some of these are taking, or should be taking. It’s also dynamic as it helps us realise where we want to see more direction, speed, change and how to put our intentionality into moving things in the right direction.

Maybe it’s because it is a great conversation tool: Like a theory of change or a strategy, it’s not so much the end result (the ecocycle plan) that you end up with that matters, but the conversation about how everyone in the group sees things and makes sense of the collective journey. It’s the collection of points of view, the agreements and overlaps, and the differences and outliers that reveal the richness of your activities and/or relations. And sometimes it’s just like the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ (as on the illustration here): different people will have a different take on what the same relation or activity looks like, because they look at it from a different vantage point.

How does it work?

The ecocycle planning framework is structured in four areas (and two traps): birth, maturity, rigidity trap, creative destruction, renewal, poverty trap.

You start ecocycle planning by first listing all activities (or relationships) that matter, numbering them, and when you have your list ready (with probably a manageable list of about 7 to 40 items, though there’s strictly no lower or upper limit), you place them where you think they fit on the ecocycle.

When that is done, you analyse the ecocycle – alone or indeed preferably together with whoever has that list of activities or relationships in common with you. You both analyse the placement of individual activities, of the entire portfolio, you inspect the patterns that emerge, the risks and opportunities that you see stand out, the actions that might need to be taken. You confront differences of view with your peers, and try to come to an agreement on what fits where, and possibly document that conversation for future reference, as ecocycle planning gains from being revisited over time.

But then doing ecocycle planning for the first time does not quite feel natural or easy. It’s a lot to swallow at once. It’s often confusing to feel what each phase really means. So a little journey through it comes in handy…

Walking through the ecocycle to get a feel for it.

The first time I was ‘formally’ introduced to ecocycle planning, it was face-to-face, with Fisher Qua and Anna Jackson, and we did a physical walk (backwards, walking behind) through an ecocycle made of a rope on the ground. At the time I thought the idea a bit quirky but worth a try in the ‘yes and’ spirit, but didn’t quite see the deeper point behind, other than that it was fun to do!

And only recently it became more obvious to me that there is value in getting a real feel for it, not just going through the motion of the ecocycle, but seeing this as the eternal recommencing journey that it is. So let’s walk this through together and see what we come across… And let’s take the example of activities here, though a very similar logic applies for relationships.

If you start your journey at ‘birth‘ you have basically started all the activities that are in that quadrant. They may be more or less advanced. They may have just started (they’re right at the beginning of birth, right under the poverty trap which we’ll come back to later)… But they have started, they are being implemented, they’re happening. They may be good or bad activities, helpful or not, but they’re a concrete thing now.

As these activities are getting more stable, experienced, they progressively move towards the ‘maturity‘ phase. When they reach full maturity, these activities are the ‘bread and butter’ activities, the daily activities that matter and show that you have developed some mastery at one/several thing/s. They are what people recognise you and come to you for. These activities become the staple of your work, perhaps the main source of income or the main time investment for you. They’re the bulk of the work, and usually what you are mostly – sometimes indeed solely – focusing on.

But as you keep changing, and your context with you, some of these mature activities prove perhaps less relevant. They may become a bit of a burden, a series of pans tied to your ankle that prevent you from walking gracefully towards more important or more exciting matters. Perhaps these activities are no longer needed. Perhaps you have lost interest in them. Perhaps someone else can do them better. Perhaps none of the above, but there is something else that you should keep busy with and keeping these ‘mature activities’ prevents you from investing in these other activities.

That’s when you hit the ‘rigidity trap‘. You are stuck in a place where you just can’t let go of some activities. You may have known all along that you should dump them, or you may discover this starkly for the first time when analysing your ecocycle, but in any case the rigidity trap tells you that there are activities that need to be discontinued – at least the way they have been carried until now. It’s time to take one decision… to symbolically kill your darlings and make space for what really matters.

Create Focus With Ecocycle Planning - Business 2 Community
Ecocycle planning in action – with the typical functions involved (entrepreneur, manager, heretic, networker (photo credit: Nancy White)

If you dare taking that decision, you are in the ‘creative destruction‘ area. Here, you have made the step of accepting that some of your ‘business as usual’ is no longer so relevant. And you need to either stop it entirely, or modify parts of it (how it’s done, who does it, why it’s done etc.). The word ‘destruction’ may make you think that this is radical but it doesn’t need to be. A typical example of creative destruction that I often witness is the annual report that companies have to produce, and every so often need to modify to keep it fresh and interesting. The annual report as a standard (annual / perennial) activity remains, but the way it’s done is different. The process of creative destruction is sometimes long and chaotic, and is often confusing. You first need to draw lessons, to identify the wheat from the chaff, and to decide what needs to be adapted, or entirely abandoned.

As you progress in that thinking, you slowly but surely get into the ‘renewal‘ phase where your ideas are crystallising and gelling into something entirely new, or modified, compared to its previous avatar. It’s the moment of conceptualising what might become a new or next activity. The closer you get (physically, on the ecocycle) from the ‘poverty trap’, the more clearly conceptualised the activity is. At some point, you know exactly what your next activity should be like, all the ins and outs. You just haven’t launched it yet. But you’re ready. And maybe in this renewal area you have a whole bunch of ideas at different maturing stages. That tells you something about how creative you are, but also at how much of a ‘plant’ or scientist you might be – staying the conceptual world – as opposed to an entrepreneur that makes an idea come off the ground.

What separates you from the birth of a new activity is the ‘poverty trap‘. The stage that delineates the decision between – as Sam Kaner et al. would have it – “the world of ideas” and “the world of actions”. We all have many ideas that never see the light. For a variety of reasons: no money, no time, no capacity (qualitatively, so the actual knowledge, skills and capabilities), no approval or authorisation etc. It takes courage, skills and some resources to turn an idea into an effective activity. That said, there’s no problem either to have lots of ‘ideas of activities’ in the renewal area. You let it simmer. Gently does it. At some point you’ll be able to invest in one, or some, or all of these ideas. Until that time, keep stirring 😉

And when you get over the poverty hurdle, you start another cycle, with ‘birth’.

It’s a beautiful, and wonderful journey across this ecocycle… And once you embrace it, it becomes a fundamental part of how you see what you do and who you engage with, at work and/or in life. It’s an incredible epiphany.

What have you noticed yourself, using Ecocycle Planning? Where does your curiosity go with it, regardless of whether you have experience with it? And what are you waiting for to give it a go?

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Time for comfort HERE and NOW – Time, the ever-present elephant in the room of our meetings (2/4)

In the previous post about ‘time’, I covered the topic of time as a driver of process design. In this second post, I want to look at time as ‘the measure towards creating a comfortable space to reveal ourselves’ on the spur of the moment.

Time is perhaps the most uncomfortable unavoidable element of our life. Ditto with time at work and in our engagements and interactions…

We constantly clash against time, in the spur of the action: not enough time to chat, not enough time to hear everyone, not enough time to fully explore a topic, not enough time to get to conclusive statements, not enough time to take a proper stab at a decision-making process that leads to sustainable agreements (here quoting language dear to Community At Work) not enough time to do it all…

Part of it has to do with how we may have designed a particular engagement. And then part of it is a reflection of how we are and how we go about time, and how we need it to fully express ourselves.

Our Twitter-sized and TikTok-paced modern lifestyles increasingly require us to shorten time for this or that, to divide our attention to ever more things. We are children in the candy store and have difficulty to focus at all the great things we need to do, want to do or simply that come our way…

Let’s face it: we really do need time. And yet not one uniform version of time, but several parallel pacings and timings.

quiet days (des jours tranquilles)//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

Individual time to compose ourselves

Not all of us have fully developed thoughts on just any topic. In fact, most of us don’t have that. Some of us are introverts and need individual thinking time to gather their thoughts, some of us are simply thinking more slowly, because we’re distracted or focused on emotions or other aspects even more than on our thoughts.

It does help to make sure that our interactions also allow us to find that individual time. A check-in does wonders to get people to break the ice with each other, but it can also serve the purpose of gathering and composing ourselves. An exercise like ‘Spiral journal‘ can really serve that purpose, among other options. Veera Hyytiä talks about similar ideas in this blog post.

Creating individual thinking time for people before socialising, as embedded in a lot of Liberating Structures, also goes a long way to create ways for us to find our own groove and tune in to the situation, the people, the topic at hand.

And even, as my multi-stakeholder collaboration buddy Paul Barrie recently invited us to do at the start of a virtual study cycle session, getting people to think about what conditions they may need to be fully present and not distracted by the many invitations and notifications online, is helpful to give ourselves some time to simply ‘be there’.

Time in pairs to develop our conversation, and develop our trust

Stepping forward from individual time, we also need time as pairs of people to have a conversation that goes beyond platitudes and helps us more fully reveal our whole self – disclosing the conversation in our head. Because that time is really listening with intent, with the meaning to understand, and perhaps even empathise. Following the ‘art of conversations’ that Celeste Headlee brilliantly outlined for us.

Other things that can help? Active listening (I do disagree with Celeste about the fact that paraphrasing is not helpful). But also understanding how our patterns of supporting each other can create a better conversation, such as Helping heuristics.

But at any rate, we also do need time to share our ‘first draft ideas’, to draw each other out to find out more, to listen and support each other, to balance the air time among us, to develop the conversation to different corners and new heights…

Time in groups to hear everyone and ‘get somewhere’ (or not)

One step forward and we are in small groups – or even the full plenary group – and there again we do need time to feel comfortable. Because there are more people that need to be heard, understood, integrated.

Of course this is the most challenging space to give time, because there are annoying communication patterns (like these ‘four kinds of people who ruin academic conferences‘). And if there’s a need to elaborate on each other’s thoughts and to ‘get somewhere’ specific, there is more pressure to be efficient, but it’s not always possible. When we try to shorten the time, quicken the pace, cut people off, we ruffle their feathers, we run the risk of getting them to clam down, we may even irritate or disengage them. So it’s risky business to seek efficiency at all costs.

And sometimes the best conversations are not with a productive aim in mind. The ‘Bohm dialogue‘ established by David Bohm is a fresh take on how we structure our conversations, and it really invites us to slow down and really speak truth and honesty without trying to impose our views or advocate etc. There is a lot of value in there, as there is in the art of the unhurried conversation that Johnnie Moore and Viv McWaters are championing.

Then again, time is precious and we can’t always just go on and on and on. And sometimes we do our best thinking in quick iterations. This is also the hypothesis behind a lot of Liberating Structures (LS).

In any case, the hidden wicked question here is somewhere along the lines of ‘how is it that we have an objective to achieve in a given time and at the same time we want everyone to really engage their authentic self and to find a solution together?’

Combining times, pacings, and transitions

The art of creating ‘comfortable time’ might lie at the junction of all of the above. Whether we are together ‘strictly for business’ or because we want to develop and deepen our relationships, we may have to find a mix of individual time, slower time in pairs or even in groups, quicker paces, or first draft thinking iterations à la LS. Because in doing so we are also offering ourselves different options to let our thoughts and emotions develop, intertwine themselves, and let new options and questions come to the surface.

And in doing so, it helps to be mindful of transitions between different pacings. Because we also need time to adjust our mind, our lived experience, to the different settings we are in (individual, together, with the full group) and to the deluge of ideas that might have just happened.

The LS ‘punctuations’ (back to back listening, flocking), or changing ways of interacting (e.g. by drawing together, by silently interacting as was done a while ago by the Never Done Before collective), or simply a breathing exercise, a change of location can really help readjust ourselves, all together. The breathing exercise that Nancy White offered us to do in the middle of our KM4Dev Knowledge Café on Liberating Structures turned out to be a life saver at a moment when lots of people were just overwhelmed with a very high pace / high energy sequence.

Whose time are we following?

Exactly like we may wonder whose feedback is at stake, we should wonder who is dictating the pacing, how we negotiate for more time, or less time, how comfortable we are with the pacing, how uncomfortable we are and how helpful that might actually be or not…

The political nature of time reveals its true nature when we realise who controls time and why. And we should all be aware of that question, because it bears on the trust that develops between people and also vis-à-vis the people sponsoring an interaction.

Questions to sharpen our practice around ‘time in the moment’

So in short, what are some guiding questions to accommodate comfortable ‘time in the moment’:

  • Who is defining and controlling time and pacing in our interactions and why?
  • What process is there to check whether the time indeed feels comfortable and productive for individuals, groups, the plenary collective?
  • What process is there to renegotiate the time there is for this or that segment (and who is bearing the implications on the rest of the planned time together)?
  • Is there attention to the time that people spend with themselves, in pairs, in groups etc.?
  • How much of your planned interactions is on the side of getting to a productive end as opposed to having an ‘assumption-free’ dialogue (see short video below) or cultivating deeper relationships, and how is timing and pacing geared up for that?
  • How is the set of conversations unfolding before our eyes informing our theory of how right timing and pacing is?
  • Are there cultural elements to be aware of, about the group’s preferences to install a comfortable conversational time?

And as a bonus, one little video about David Bohm and his invitation to suspend our assumptions in dialogue, as the ticket to elevating our conversations and relations – which is what we are ultimately seeking beyond whatever time we give ourselves for a structured conversation…

Check trainings on ‘Group facilitation skills’ and ‘Multi-stakeholder collaboration’ offered by Community at Work here.

For Liberating Structures, find the whole repertoire here, and feel free to join us on the upcoming Liberating Structures immersion workshop (January-February 2022).

Feedback: How? When? And who for? A video chat with Nadia (2/3)

In the previous post and video conversation (which Nadia also covered with some additional insights here), we looked at what feedback is, wondered why it is so both intimidating, difficult to get started with, and simultaneously powerful and desirable.

In this second video chat on the single most important little learning practice we can do socially, we get a wee bit more technical, on how to give and how to receive feedback.

See Nadia’s latest post on this here: https://learning-moments.net/2021/11/10/how-to-train-your-feedback-practice-give-feedback-with-care-and-compassion. She rightly invites us all to give feedback with care and compassion, and in conversation.

And with that come the questions of who the feedback is given for, when it’s given, and to what extent…

(We know your time is limited, so we gave the timings of various turns in our conversation in the description, below the video. Go directly watch what is tickling your curiosity).

Who is it really for?

We have to be well aware of who we are giving the feedback for,

Is it for ourselves, to offload our chest and feel better because we really got annoyed, rattled, ruffled, rubbed in the wrong way by what someone said or did? Or just can’t help pointing ‘improvables’ to others?

Is it because we want to help the other person see their blind spots? Will they actually benefit from this feedback? Are they even eager to learn, in general or on this particular aspect of feedback? Is the relationship balanced enough or will the feedback hit the ‘relationship trigger’ that Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen unravelled in their seminal book?

Is it in order to contribute to a better relationship altogether? Is it perhaps even part of a well-oiled mutual feedback routine which helps sharpen each other and build trust for each other as ‘the other pair of eyes kindly watching my back’? Is there indeed a hidden invitation to reciprocate?

It’s never a bad idea to reflect first on who your feedback really helps – at this point, or on this point.

The timing, pacing and amount of feedback

And then comes another key element in the feedback dance: When, how long, how much?

Give that feedback too early, or uninvited, and you may clamp your partner, Give it too late and it no longer carries the same power.

Give too much of it and you might injure your relationship. Give not enough of it and the message may not be perceived well. It’s like this classical table of understanding the British art of understatement (a cultural point in case when it comes to feedback):

Image credit: The Independent

Answering the ‘who for’ question is closely linked to the timing and pacing of feedback. Indeed, some say that ‘wisdom’ is not about knowing the right things, but knowing when to share or apply them. We all live according to different biological rhythms, and though we all share the fact we live in a fast-paced world, yet we are affected by it differently; we choose to cope with it differently. Ditto with our learning. Effective feedback comes in the right measure, at the right time.

That means getting a good grip on the inclination for feedback of the receiver, and on their timing preferences.

And while you might have observed many things worthy of pointing out, the receiver may not be ready to receive all of that either. So perhaps choose according to the personal preferences of the receiver. And if your conversation invites it, you may be able to cover more, or most, or perhaps even all points of feedback. But double check how all of that information affected the other person.

Get feedback on how you just gave feedback 😉

With a sharp ‘feedback opportunity radar’, some measure of sound technical advice, and a perspective of caring, compassion and mutual learning, you will – together – go a long way 😉

In the third, and final video chat about feedback, we’ll elevate the conversation to the collective dimension of feedback: how to start, grow, and stimulate a culture of feedback.

Related stories:

What we learned about what feedback is and why it feels so hard – a video chat with Nadia (1/3)

Feedback has been a staple topic on this blog and on my agile Knowledge Management blog. I blogged most recently about it here earlier this year, but also generally under the category ‘feedback‘.

And it shouldn’t be a surprise, because indeed feedback is powerful, and directly within our everyday reach.

Feedback – unsolicited (image credit: The UTNE Reader, photo by Karl Horton / FlickR)

As Nadia (Learning Moments) and I have started helping people and organisations with their feedback practice, we decided to share some of our insights on this important, and yet misunderstood and under-tapped learning opportunity that feedback is, via our ‘Facilitators Unplugged‘ series.

And because this topic is rich, we are tackling it in three breaths:

  1. What is feedback, why it matters, and why it’s so darn difficult
  2. How to give and receive feedback meaningfully
  3. How to develop and nurture an entire ‘feedback culture’ in our teams, groups, organisations?

In the first of our video chats on this topic, we are coming back to the essence of what feedback is, the three types of feedback that are broadly recognised, why it’s so difficult to deal with feedback (and particularly receiving it), why it is important and powerful, and we give a little nudge of attention and action to start incorporating it in our everyday life.

The video contains timings for specific segments of our conversation.

Have a check below!

In the process, we are giving a deep bow to Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone for their seminal book on the topic: “Thanks for the feedback, the science and art of receiving feedback well” which deeply impressed both of us.

Episode 2 of this feedback series is coming shortly – watch this space!

Are you interested in improving the way you (and your team) deal with feedback? Feel free to contact us!

Related stories: What it means to be a facilitator – The dawn of ‘Facilitators unplugged’ chats?

“Everyday process literacy” – en français dans le texte (et en audio)

Yes, I blog so often in English that some might forget that my native language is French.

And recently I had an opportunity to use it. Indeed I had the honour of being invited by Lily Gros (on LinkedIn), on her fabulous podcast ‘La Licorne‘ which celebrates ‘extraordinary collective moments’ of learning, realisation, inspiration, intense experiences or feelings.

In that episode – all en français except for a few English words here and there – I’m exploring little insights of ‘everyday process literacy’ and how that might be useful for all our interactions, at work and even in life…

With a big bow out – as ever – to Sam Kaner and his Community At Work tribe for quite a few insights that he/they shared with me, and for the general body of work that these pioneers have done on (collaboration) process literacy throughout various decades.

For now, if you feel like having a short break, dans la langue de Molière, here is a piece that might be interesting and fun. And if you have interesting stories to share – in French still – feel free to contact Lily, she’s good, she’s fun, and her podcast deserves a lot of attention because she’s really onto all kinds of interesting reflections!

Also a big thank you to Myriam Hadnes who is organising the next ‘Never Done Before‘ facilitation festival in November. She’s the one who got Lily and myself in touch with each other. Thank you Myriam!

Now for the podcast episode:

The episode in question: https://lalicorne.buzzsprout.com/1516522/8867579

Want to work on your own process literacy?

By the way, talking about everyday process literacy, we are on our way to starting the promotion of a new Liberating Structures Immersion workshop in January, so how about you join us and bring your friends to join the silent revolution in the making?

Time, the ever-present elephant in the room of our meetings (1/4)

Time, the ultimate obsession of human beings, is nearly the only variable we have no control on whatsoever, and the measure that separates us from the end of our existence.

Time
Time, the big obsession of our lives and meetings (Photo credit: CathRedfern / FlickR)

Time is not only a reason for existential angst at the macro level of our life. It also creeps into our meetings and interactions in a myriad of significant ways:

  • In how we obsess about time generally and the overall conduct of the meeting
  • In the expectations we have about what it takes to realistically achieve an objective in a given amount of time
  • In how we are respecting people’s time and finishing every segment of interactions on time or not
  • In the pacing we use to interact with each other
  • In how people are monopolising the conversation and depriving others of air…time
  • In how much (or rather how little) we should focus on passing information – which can easily be done asynchronously and individually – as opposed to conversing together, which asynchronously can’t be done with quite the same effects as face-to-face interactions
  • In our tolerance to go further than business-as-usual or not
  • In how we manage our energy in our collaboration and interactions
  • In how we create space for meta reflections, sharing our feelings, disclosing our private conversation etc.

These manifestations of time in our interactions have a major influence on the quality of our interactions and what we can expect out of them.

So, what have I learned about time in our interactions?

It’s such a big topic that I’ll split it up in several posts, to explore in four breaths:

  1. Time as a driver of our process design
  2. Time as the comfortable space to reveal ourselves
  3. Time as the uncomfortable measure accompanying our collective groaning
  4. Time as an adjective of our interactions, to be thought again radically (towards…?)

Time as driver of our process design

Time is one of the finite resources in our gatherings. When designing a conversation or event, it is one of the hard variables that requires us to think carefully about what is possible and what is not.

And as this quote illustrates, we do not make a particularly rational use of time when thinking about what is possible.

Like so many things in our human beings’ existence, we want to bend time to our desire, control it and manipulate it, fit it in our mental boxes so it can be dealt with neatly and efficiently, dare I say ‘pperfectly’. And here our first lessons about time emerge.

Meaningful interactions take time, and so do our deepest outcome desires

What can realistically be achieved in the space of two hours? One day? Three days? Four sessions over one month?

Even if we ‘just’ wanted to devise a strategic plan, review a programme, brainstorm around a topic, imagine a future together, we have to be realistic as to what can be achieved in the artificial setting of a gathering. What’s more, when we superimpose an objective of getting people to know themselves and to get to know the others and acknowledge their differences and commonalities, ie. when we are also working on the relationships and on achieving trust between people, we have to be even more humble about the baby steps can that be achieved.

Human interactions are characterised by all the quirks that play out at the interplay between our ideas, our feelings, our inclinations, values, our language, our habits, our self-consciousness, our degree of empathy, our understanding of group dynamics etc. etc. Do we seriously take all of this for granted? Are we back to the hypothesis of homo economicus who deals with life with the rational precision of a robot? When you think about how feelings shape even (vividly) our memory of things, let’s realise that we are dealing with homo sentiens and one homo sentiens is complex enough, let alone a whole group of us trying to get somewhere together.

We have wild dreams about solving the world, finding quick and durable solutions. So when will we learn that these objectives are inseparable from the relationships that contribute to these outcomes? In ‘real life’ we don’t (or hardly ever) become friends for life in just one moment spent together. Developing relationships takes care and momentum.

Our impatience to achieve our most deeply desired outcomes is a reflection of our core misunderstanding of human dynamics, and of how real time plays out at a completely different pace to what we hope.

Humility is the key here… And breaking down our outcomes into achievable steps. Better two small and concrete steps forward that will effectively be taken than 10 big leaps that will remain another abandoned intention on the way to hell.

Time is hidden in many aspects of our interactions, and remains a blind spot

Interestingly, even when at a strategic level we may have accounted sufficient and realistic time for specific conversations and desired outcomes, we may remain blind, in our process design, to the time-crunching quirks of interactions… which comprise, for instance:

  • Making sure that everyone is around before you can start an activity with the group
  • What it takes to frame, explain, introduce activities
  • The problems that happen with technical interferences (internet connection going down or slowly, a program with a glitch etc.)
  • The time to transition from one activity to the next, from one speaker to the next, from one (physical or virtual breakout) set-up to the next
  • The time it takes on average for someone to express themselves in front of a plenary group
  • The time it takes to get responses to questions in plenary, and the domino effect it has on inviting other contributions

Are we seriously thinking about all these chronophage activities in our design? Do we then have an even more realistic sense of how much real time we have on our hands? Or do we simply assume that a 60-minute segment means 60 minutes of productive time, when in reality it’s probably closer to 50 minutes, or even (much) less…

Time is not the measure of choice to manage group interactions

Unlike (some) children, adults want to finish a task that is given to them. Finishing on time per se is not the ultimate goal to cherish for a group, unless you are just illustrating a point and not exploring an issue ‘for real’. It’s better to come to the bottom of things, and get the group to feel (at least somewhat) complete than to manage only by time.

And I know, sometimes our participants seem perfectly happy to just finish an exercise on time rather than to go on and follow the logic until the end. But is that not a case of intellectual laziness or simply checking out from the overall interaction, settling for ‘business as usual’ or whatever point some people have decided (“I don’t care, this is not for me anyway”)?

So here is another assumption to seriously shake off: managing by time is not respectful of peoples’ intelligence, capacities and desires. It just gives the epidermic sensation of release and of having ticked the box. But meaningful relationship-building and developing sustainable solutions is no box-ticking or back-patting exercise. It is raw, it is rough, it is intense, and it takes whatever time it has to take, because it’s meeting people where they are, not where they should be.

The health of a group also depends on respecting their time

All of that said, we cannot get completely oblivious to the personal time that people are dedicating for interactions. Going over that time significantly, repeatedly, and/or without giving them a choice, is not respectful of the gift of their presence. Ditto for all these interactions where basic needs (food, drinks, bio-breaks, need to take a full break) are ignored for the pretentious sake of the greater good. But a hungry person is not a rational being. A thirsty fellow is not a happy participant. Someone who badly needs to go to the toilet is no longer capable of working in the service of the group, and someone with their head rammed in with information cannot take it any longer.

We simply need to respect the breaks and closing times agreed, generally, and keep our realism in what can be done outside of these boundaries.

Respecting peoples’ biological needs is a requirement, not a variable that can be messed around with. Productive time is all that happens between those ‘biological adjustments’.

So for that matter, an event I attended once (as a participant documenting sessions) where people were sent to lunch past 3pm after a slow and evidently painful death by Powerpoint (with very little or no time left for something as dry and as timidly participatory as a Q&A session) is a caricatural example of what not to do.

Time, in process design, is a measure of our outlook to either control or to embrace the world around us

Whose time are we actually accounting for? In many cases, it’s the sand timer that is playing out in the head of the sponsor or organiser, not of the contributors (participants)…

Time is a measure of our impatience and of our self-centredness. Instead, we would be much better off happily embracing time as the landscape running behind a genuine encounter with ourselves and with others, where we are, where they are, not where we should be. That outlook determines our capacity to cope with time early on in the process, and that’s not the end of story about time, only the beginning…

I’ll unpack the next level of the sand timer in the next blog post.

For now though, let’s ponder this humbling quote from one of my favourite jazz trumpet players…

(certainly not my favourite tune performed by Miles, but here you go, on par with the theme…)