‘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 trust, experience and a bit of ‘failing forward’ can do…

Sometimes, a process design job is not all that grandiose, but it just plays people to their strength and is a beautiful combination of energies and intentions.

(photo credit: CTA)

(photo credit: CTA)

I just emerged a few weeks back from one of these experiences. And the beauty of that was the fact that this could have all gone down really badly hadn’t it been for a dedicated team, some good ideas in the process design, and a need to unite energies. All stars were aligned. Even better when it’s one of the swan songs of CTA and it’s nice to leave a collective signature that makes us all look back with joy at what just came out.

What was the job and what was special about?

Over the last 40 years, CTA has used a wide range of communication tools to reach out to rural communities, such as rural radio and printed media. It was no surprise that CTA organised this ‘Communicating ICT for Development Workshop‘ from 15 April to 7 May 2020 as one of the many workshops it has organised.

What was different? CTA is closing this year, after nearly 40 years of action to promote agricultural transformation in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific countries.

What was also special was that CTA was my first client ever as freelancer, with exactly the same team (Chris Addison and Chipo Msengezi),  and this job also brought me back to work with my former ILRI boss and (still) friend Peter Ballantyne, who himself knew Chris and Chipo very well. A funny coincidence, which wasn’t one.

And more prosaically, what was also special was that we didn’t have loads of time on our hands for quite a process to set up, contracting to do, all activities with quite some project folks and external communication specialists to rope in quickly.

The basic idea was to learn from four projects using Blockchain in agriculture, to understand what they were trying to achieve and how they would go about communicating their work, their blockchain experience, their results etc. Peer learning and sharing to distil some broad lessons learned for other people and organisations interested in using ICT applications (and in particular Blockchain), communicate it and scale their work up.

The choices we made

With only a few weeks to go before everything would be completed, we set out to organise three online meetings:

  1. A first two-hour meeting to get everyone together and for the project leader to learn from each other’s Blockchain experience, aspirations, questions etc. with communication specialists around to observe.
  2. A one-hour meeting to get everyone prepared to work in teams and get to the bottom of comms so as to understand what would seem as best comms options for the projects to communicate their work to their partners and intended audiences, and to communicate to potential investors that might be interested in scaling these projects up.
  3. Another two-hour meeting with everyone again to report back from the comms work and draw general insights about how to communicate ICT projects more effectively.

We went for Zoom as our video conferencing platform (mainly because of the breakout room functionality), and Google Drive as our folder structure to keep all presentations, notes, recordings etc. available for all involved. Simple.

And we planned a process design that would be quite simple:

  • Very short presentations (7 to 10 minutes)
  • Reflecting back, sometimes in breakouts, sometimes in plenary
  • Getting peer-assist type support via Liberating Structures’ Wise Crowds
  • In the final meeting we also had a bit of a scenario-based insight harvesting session.

Mixed with Zoom breakout rooms this was meant to be a simple but easy set up that would allow everyone to quickly interact, share insights etc.

And between the second and the last meeting the teams organised themselves to fill out a Powerpoint template to report back on the comms options that seemed useful steps forward. All in all, simple but quite effective.

The process as it unfolded

There was a smooth transition throughout:

  • The plenary work entailed very short presentations which helped keep everyone focused and engaged and find out more about technology, other projects and applications, about communicating ICT etc.;
  • The break out sessions kept everyone on their toes, thinking and sharing, learning, getting to know other people etc.;
  • The parallel team work to develop the comms options helped delve deeper and prepare everyone, despite limited time to do it all, and they reinforced the dynamics among team members, with perhaps a small element of positive competition.

We organised also another quick check-in among all teams in between meeting 2 and 3 to make sure everyone was on the same page and progressing well enough.

The result

Each project team – bar one that just couldn’t schedule more time for this, fair enough – gathered interesting feedback on their project pitch, on their comms options, on their possible ways forward.

The comms specialists were able to learn much more about Blockchain and garnered additional ideas for their media and channels.

A small network of people was able to engage and develop a budding bond that – who knows – might creatively flare up again in the future.

CTA managed to deliver all of this in very little time.

Although I certainly wouldn’t call our results spectacular, given the time we had and the level of high engagement required both in the meetings and in the team work, I am personally quite happy with our results.

Failing forward insights?

This experience taught me a few things:

  • No matter how rushed things might seem, it’s still possible to pull something together;
  • Trust among the organising members, and experience/expertise to let everyone play to their best strengths is the key to success;
  • Zoom breakouts remain an incredibly powerful and energising feature which, according to Chris “left me more energised after two hours of meeting than after many of the one-hour meetings I attend”;
  • The simple logic of helping each other unlocks so many insights so quickly. Wise Crowds was great to get everyone to receive insights in no time.

Next time around, I – and I think everyone in our group – would plan things ahead of time to get them properly planned, get even more people around and draw more extensive lessons that can be re-planted directly in appropriate networks.

But for something that started off two months ago, and finished after 3-4 weeks, this edition gave an ok song to the CTA swan, and proved once again that ‘in trust we trust’ 😉

New aspirations for new world, new me, new we, new then…

So that’s it, we didn’t leave this up to chance or change anymore, we pivoted and decided to give our next Liberating Structures immersion workshop totally online.

Join us at the online immersion workshop 6-9 July

Join us at the online immersion workshop 6-9 July

We had it coming. And things might change still over the next few weeks, but it’s really not likely that we can interact freely short distances away from each other come  July. So here we go for an online experience. So far the third (or fourth?) online immersion workshop of Liberating Structures only.

We will still focus on all the ‘social’ sub-worlds and domains in which our participants evolve, while keeping open to just about anyone. But in the process we’ll be bending the world of Liberating Structures to a few threads that seem to matter to us and could be a good fit for the people we hope will join us:

Acknowledging the new real, the new normal

Our first thread is to basically acknowledge that we are have indeed shifted our reality. We may not go back to the old reality, and both our environment, ourselves, our interactions have mutated and are forming up a different ‘normal’ that is still very much in mutation.

We’ll use Liberating Structures to accompany everyone on their journey to realising this and making the current reality a useful starting point for an exciting foray into the unknown and into promising new realities and opportunities too.

Finding ourselves and each other, online

So once we have acknowledged we have moved into another reality, let’s see where we are in it. Let’s gauge who we feel we are, what our next ‘me’ can look like. And despite the absence of hugs and the reality of physical distancing, let’s check in with each other and find  new ways to engage deeply and widely in this new reality.  Even if we are not eye-to-eye and face-to-face with everyone in this COVID19 world, we can find ways to be seen, heard, respected, appreciated, contributing, co-creating, trusting, guiding, coaching etc. I particularly look forward to this part of the journey. Liberating Structures have a lot to offer here too.

Multiplying our options

Now, realising that the new normal is here to stay is good, but even better is to leverage new opportunities that present themselves. There is just SOOOO MUCH out there that can be done by way of reinventing who we are, what we do, what we could do etc. And our creativity and energy and aspiration  and motivation are all set to be conjured up on this pathway. So let’s explore what we  can do alone, what we can do together, what we can do as new societies, how we can organise ourselves to to make tomorrow’s world a more humane, environmentally friendly, peaceful, open world.

From ecocycling our activities to dreaming out loud what our next moves can be and helping each other find out blind spots and hidden chances, Liberating Structures  offer many options to separate the wheat from the chaff…

Building our resilience

The final piece of this puzzle is at the core of Liberating Structures: how can we keep on adapting to shocks and change (as THAT is the new normal anyway) and embrace its mess, chaos, confusion and indeed destruction to shed our skin and keep a chance to reinvent ourselves perpetually? How can we better cope now and in the future, alone and collectively? We’ll explore the dynamics of personal and institutional change, of finding our balance and our ways to be more ‘complexity aware’ and ‘change-proof’ – not to prevent change from happening but rather to manoeuvre around it gracefully.

These threads might change. Even if they stick around, we may sharpen them. In any case some the ideas behind will motivate the design of this online immersion workshop. And all the while we’ll keep the structure simple.

I’m curious, as we are now diving into the deep end of that process design lake, and I hope you’ll splash with us in the lake!

Join us  online: https://thecreatorscompany.com/event/liberating-structures/

Get your ticket (the first 10 get a discount!)

I am, you are, each of us is an ‘everyday facilitator’ – let’s cultivate this together!

While co-working on a facilitation training event, one of the themes we’ve been exploring is that of the ‘everyday facilitator’.

Become a facilitator, and cultivate collaboration, empathy, and sorting out the many problems that really need solving! (Credits: Meetville.com)We don’t need to always rely on superpowers from outside to facilitate our conversations and collaborations.

We can cultivate our own facilitative abilities here, today, now!

Why isn’t it the case already? As a species we humans tend to be lazy thinkers and prefer leaving the mental heavy lifting work to outside ‘facilitators’… that is when we even know why it makes sense.

There are different starting points here, as per this very rough typology of people’s appreciation of facilitation:

  1. Level 1 (the most basic) is complete Ignorance. “What is this ‘facilitation’? What does it look like?”.
  2. Level 2 is when people have a vague idea of what facilitation is and they simply don’t want to invest in it for sometimes good, bad or confused reasons (e.g. “why do we need someone from outside to come tell us what to do?” or “we can manage time by ourselves”). Rejection.
  3. The next level up (Level 3) is Confused appreciation, ie. when people are actually ok with the idea of having facilitation in the room, but they have the wrong idea of what it is – they think it’s moderation, or time keeping (see this post for some answers about that)… It’s an improvement from the previous level, but it still doesn’t really do justice to what facilitation brings in the room…
  4. The level up from that –Level 4Commitment– is when people not only understand, and appreciate facilitation but they actually invest in it on a regular basis because they really get the point of facilitated interactions – more often than not coming from outside.
  5. A final level (Level 5) is Cultivation – when the people in charge not only want to commit towards facilitated interactions but want to ensure it facilitation skills are actively cultivated among their ranks, so that facilitated interactions and general group collaboration depend less and less on an external ‘facilitator superhero’ meant to be helping a group. Facilitators are not superheroes. Great facilitators are just there to help the group do their best thinking, and the bulk of the work.

When people see the value of this cultivation, each of us is set to become (and be recognised as) an everyday facilitator. That is when we start using skills and approaches that bring us closer to one another.

That idea is one of the deep reasons I believe in process literacy. It is also the seed that shows where we should invest our scaling efforts (empathy), rather than believing in scaling up our results.

And frankly, how on earth can we stay away from cultivating facilitative skills?

  • Are we not facing problems that are so complex that we can’t solve them on our own and need collaboration?
  • Are we not working almost continuously with teams, collectives, networks, but still don’t have the baggage to make these interactions more effective?
  • Do we really have enough resources to keep on bringing an expert ‘facilitator’ from outside without getting them to share their expertise with the rest of us?
  • How many insipid meetings, boring-as-hell symposiums, agonising conferences, confusing workshops, pretending-to-be-participatory sessions, just all-out-awful gatherings do we need to go through before we act upon these every day business place sores?
  • Do we really prefer to save a few pennies now rather than save big pounds later by investing in everyone’s capacity to work with groups effectively?

I think this is a pretty universal issue. And certainly in the socially-driven sector.

So get started on your facilitation ‘cultivation’, it’s a decision you’re not likely going to regret.

A concrete opportunity to make it happen…

And because a good piece of news never comes alone, THIS is a golden opportunity to get started with it, whether you already facilitate meetings and processes or not. Go on then, join us and be surprised at the power of simple collaboration.

As you can see in the picture below (that’s our design team for this golden opportunity), working on collaboration is not the least exhilarating of experiences 😉

Our design team (Credits: Nadia von Holzen)

Our design team (Credits: Nadia von Holzen)

A liberating step towards team collaboration, creativity and (social) impact

A lot of teams try to collaborate and hope to reach impact through their interactions. But the reality is that it’s not very clear for many of them how to really go about it. Group / Process facilitation is certainly not the worst step you can make in this direction.

In fact, it can be one of the most impactful, creative, constructive steps you decide to take. It’s not for no reason that process facilitation is considered by one of the sharpest global knowledge management experts – Nick Milton – as one of the very most important skills to master.

One special training workshop taking place in The Hague, the Netherlands, on 12-13 December might be a step in this direction for you and your team(s).

The past few years of my life have brought me to facilitate more and more interactions between people, teams, groups, organisations, networks. And in the process I have really found my calling, thanks among others to Community At Work (C@W) and their incredible approach to group facilitation which rewired my practice entirely.

Another strand that I have been using and have found very complementary to the C@W approach is ‘Liberating Structures’. I even compared the two on this blog (though this was a while ago). One of the main benefits of Liberating Structures (LS) is that it is easily applicable, even without prior facilitation experience. I have tried many of these structures in my practice in the past five years or so, and have seen many others use them for their benefit too, whether to explore new topics, vision the future, address thorny issues, think holistically, help each other, improvise and innovate, consider paradoxes of our work and lives etc.

This December (12-13), I will be working with LS pioneers Fisher S Qua and Anna Jackson, as well as with seasoned facilitators and friends Nadia von Holzen and Cristina Temmink, to immerse (some of you?) to the fascinating world of Liberating Structures, applied to social purpose organisations.

Two days of exploring many of the structures from the Seattle collective, and helping each other think about how to apply them to social work, whether development cooperation or otherwise. It’s a really small investment, when you think of the situations it might unlock (and the relations, time, pain and money saved) in your work further down the line.

I have full confidence that this will be beneficial to all the participants, and I am available on this blog and other social media to explain how this might work for you.

So I hope you join us and apply soon – early bird tickets stop on 15 October.

This upcoming adventure will be an excellent opportunity to blog some more on this space also!

Register (early bird)https://ls-the-hague-18.eventbrite.com/

More infohttps://liberatingstructures.eu/the-%20hague-social/

Don’t run without your facilitator(s), unless you like backfire effects

You have been thinking about this event, you know what you want to do with it and why, you have been convinced – and it’s a good thing – that you need a facilitator to help you with your event.

Dare to rely on your facilitator for collective success (Credits: G. Salokhe)

Dare to rely on your facilitator for collective success (Credits: G. Salokhe)

It sounds all good, and on paper you are all set for success… unless you follow any of the following traps, which could irremediably turn your event into a Murphy’s Law festival.

You have developed a precise agenda

This might be your first problem: as you couldn’t wait for the event to take shape and give you a concrete ‘feel’, you have drafted an agenda, day by day and to the minute. The problem with this is two-fold:

  1. You may not have thought carefully enough about the topics and objectives that should absolutely precede the (participation formats and) processes you will include in your event;
  2. As a result you may have widely unrealistic expectations – and not only that but you are now putting your facilitator in a difficult position because a) they will have to work backwards with you on all that preceded this agenda and b) you are strait-jacketing them into an agenda that may not reflect something they are comfortable facilitating…

Just leave this to your specialist in facilitation, it’s their job to help you get there by following a thorough design process that will make sure you have very clear objectives and an agenda that reflects this. Your facilitator is also not

Designing an event is also about reinventing at every step of the way (Credits: GapingVoid)

Designing an event is also about reinventing at every step of the way (Credits: GapingVoid)

You have shared the agenda with all participants

What can be worse than the previous scenario? Having developed the agenda and shared it with the participants, who now have their expectations higher up and may not like to hear that the plan has completely changed (after you’ve discussed it with your facilitator).

Again: resist the pressure of sending something too early, or send something quite vague that focuses mostly on the topics you will address. You have plenty of time and reason to work this out with your facilitator and do it properly.

You don’t really care about who comes and who should come

That is a big mistake! Your facilitator may not be a specialist of your industry, but you are (supposedly) and you should have a pretty good idea of who would be interested in the topics you want to address, who would be concerned by the objectives you’re setting for yourself and who should thus participate. Spend a bit more time thinking about who this event targets, who should be interested, who should come as resource persons (giving contributions) and who should come as audience…

Of course you could have a totally free and open registration, but there must be a few folks that should be on your radar screen… And think about ‘who would be typically missing’ from such an event, and take that extra effort to invite them, perhaps?

You have invited ‘resource persons’ to provide (too many/long inputs)

Contrary to the previous scenario, you may have a very good idea about who you want to see bring in some inputs, but you might have gotten too enthusiastic and basically invited them to:

  • Submit (for instance) presentations that are way too long (typically, above 10 minutes most people start switching off their concentration, so think twice about the length);
  • Submit too many inputs, to the extent that you will now have difficulty arranging a compelling agenda that presents all that information without boring participants or overwhelming them…

This is again an area where your facilitator can help you strike a balance between content and processes to absorb that content properly. There are various ways of dealing with a lot of content (from shorter and different inputs to parallel sessions, or agreeing that the event will be mostly type 1 – sharing information…) but again this should be part of a conversation you’re having with your facilitator(s).

Death or poisoning by Powerpoint is looming (Credits: Scott Adams)

Death or poisoning by Powerpoint is looming (Credits: Scott Adams)

You have booked a venue that you like – but may not be appropriate

Here is another typical mistake of running without your facilitator: you select a meeting venue that doesn’t lend itself to the objectives you (will) have set. It could be a place that has terrible acoustics, unmovable seats, large pillars or columns that prevent people from seeing parts of the room, no option for putting flip-chart sheets on the walls, or all of the above, and more… really not ideal! So go visit the venue with your facilitator or ask them for their list of requirements, and select a proper venue, accordingly…

So what is left for you to do?

In summary, if you’re bored but want to move on with your event, some of the useful things that you can do include:

  • Thinking about the topics you want to address, and the objectives you have
  • Thinking about your audience and some of the key resource persons you’d like to involve
  • Requesting venue requirements from your facilitator to do some scoping of good venues that comply with these requirements

…and plan a meeting with your facilitator, virtually or not, as soon as possible, to discuss some of the above and make progress to seeing your event as a real hit!

Combined with ‘10 advices to dramatically improve your un-facilitated meetings‘ following these tips above could be the difference between making and breaking your goal…

Facilitation and collective action back on the menu… big time!

Agile KM for me... and you?

(Disclaimer for Nadia, Russell and others who commented on this post [and see feedback/results here by the way]: This post was drafted before and thus does not yet reflect some of the changes that I hope to bring into this blog based on your collective feedback…)

Lots of different happenings in the world of event/process facilitation as far as I’m concerned – lots of useful links and ideas that might inspire you too…

Graphic Facilitation with Nancy White (Credits: Gauri Salokhe / FlickR) Graphic Facilitation with Nancy White (Credits: Gauri Salokhe / FlickR)

I’ve finally gotten into reading ‘The surprising power of liberating structures‘, and what a platinum mine of useful reflections, methods, tips, designs etc. a real gem for all collective action process (and event) facilitators… It’s perhaps the best recent thing I can think about that might help me revive the post collection ‘The Chemistry of Magical Facilitation

I’ve been following some…

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All the mistakes you make, all the promises you break… in your events

Agile KM for me... and you?

Always make new mistakes (Credits - Elycefeliz) Always make new mistakes (Credits – Elycefeliz)

Should’ve seen it coming a lot earlier… that mistake that was so familiar when it happened again. Or rather: those mistakes

I just ended a streak of five events in four weeks to facilitate in the past four weeks and when repetition happens, the danger of the auto-mode is glowing in the dark.

Auto-mode is the enemy of learning, it’s the number one factor for breaking promises to improve. I make all my mistakes with events when I end up revisiting that dreaded auto-square 1.

So, upon the excellent inspiration from Amanda Harding, a fellow facilitator who helped me out on the last event I designed and steered, I decided to jot down a list of some dreaded intellectual and practical roundabouts I wish to avoid in future events.

Pack too much

This is my one consciously blind spot…

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A tiny little bowl full of talking fish – A ShareFair “day 0” session

Agile KM for me... and you?

So we’re back to day 0 right? And back to fishbowl? I hope this time I’ll make a better job at giving the context and gist of a fishbowl than when I did itfor the AgShareFair.

The fishbowl format (picture credits: Instructional Design Fusions)

But this time the situation’s tough: it’s only the five of us. Perhaps Etienne Wenger’s excellent introductory session – which coincidentally used a fishbowl format – inspired enough participants to skip this hands-on session? Nevermind, we will have our fishbowl session and it’s going to be a heads-on session for lack of hands to work with.

So what’s in a fishbowl? Two circles: the inner circle has 3 to 7 chairs (I prefer 4-5) and people occupying these seats can talk. The outer circle has chairs (or standing participants) that cannot say a word and just have to listen. The topic is set around a broad statement or question that should be wide…

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