My 10 commandments of group facilitation

Principles, principles, principles…

I’m not fond of rules. I don’t like constraints. I do like ‘strange attractors‘ and boundaries that guide our path, whether secretly or overtly.

Principles do that. So I guess I’m a person of principles.

And as I’m pondering this excellent post by my friend Nadia von Holzen on the 10 principles of Liberating Structures (LS), I want to offer, hereby what have become some of my ‘commandments’ of facilitation over the past few years.

Using again this amazing LS body of work and other instrumental sources of inspiration such as Community At Work‘s incredible living legacy, I’m thinking it’s a good moment to offer my 10 commandments of facilitation, based on my own practice and experience.

It’s likely to become a living list which I may update here and there in the future. Though even now this list comprises some fundamentals that I believe prepare someone doing facilitative work to do and be the change they want to see as part of their work…

So here we go…

1. “Stay out of the content, manage the process”

This one doesn’t come from me but from Community At Work’s seminal ‘Group Facilitation Skills‘ training. And it’s pretty fundamental. Not all facilitators are neutral in the content/process dichotomy. Some allow themselves to mingle in the conversation and share their opinion. Others influence the direction of the conversation (even from a process perspective). And yet I can only honour this commandment and recommend it to others, because the role of a facilitator is, to mirror Sam Kaner’s mantra “to help everyone do their best thinking”. Meddling in that process and taking a stand from content perspective means sending mixed signals: you may value certain points of view that are close to your own. Ultimately, it means there is no integrity to expect from the facilitator.

2. Be the one person that works in ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE’s interest

This is perhaps the second commandment from Kaner, Noakes et al.: not only is a facilitator majorly involved in managing the process, but also in nurturing healthy and productive relationships among the contributors present. By focusing on the process and not adopting any bias in any conversation involved, the facilitator can free themselves to pay attention to how everyone is doing, and to protect the safe space and time of everyone to express themselves. This is fundamental, as it goes to the core of what facilitation is about: the practice of skilfully collaborating.

3. Along the way, develop everyone’s process literacy

This one comes much more from my own practice, directly. Now that I’ve started to write about process literacy more centrally it’s only logical that this becomes one of my 10 commandments: As facilitator you (expectedly or arguably) possess a strong process vision, a lot of process knowledge, and have developed critical process skills. All of this is extremely helpful to have. So how about getting every group you work with to benefit from some of that? Make the process scaffolding visible, explain the principles or reasons why you have managed this particular process bit or not. Share your process language and invite others to see the value of this meta-stance. Every individual, every group, every community becomes all the stronger along the way.

4. Whenever you can, involve and co-facilitate with others

Directly in line with the previous principle, seek to work with other co-facilitators, preferably people that are members of the group you’re working with. This way, not only are you sharing a little bit of process literacy with everyone, but you develop – crucially through joint experience with them – a lot of that process literacy with one or a few people that will directly play a co-facilitative role in the process. A great learning and discovery, not just for them but for you too. Still be mindful of the dark side of co-facilitation, but then actively involve others relentlessly, you’re making everyone smarter this way!

5. Do not fall in love with your own interests, desires, hobby horses – it’s not about you but about THEM

It is very tempting, when designing a process, to get attracted to this new participation format you’ve been bound to try out or adapt, or this new visual tool you want to get your head around. Exploring the edges of your repertoire is great, it relates to another commandment below about self improving, but behold this: Is this approach you’re suggesting something your group really needs, or is it something you have suggested to please your curiosity? Very often, groups don’t need the most sophisticated approaches, tools, bells and whistles. Something simple but solid usually does the trick. Use other safe-fail avenues for pushing your limits. When working seriously with a group – especially a group that pays you to do this, honour your commitment to them and keep thinking about what’s in it for them. Time, and time, and time, and time again.

Group facilitation – It should be more than you, in quality and in quantity (photo credit: Mathias Weitbrecht)

6. Remember your inner yoda – embrace your ethical self

When in the room, facilitating, you have no space to colour your statements politically or ethically. But upstream, when designing the process, it’s your every right – and perhaps duty – to follow your own code of ethics. And I’m thinking particularly about how you look at dynamics of inclusion, diversity, representation, transparent decision-making. Is the plan really paying attention to everyone the way it should? Is it complete? Is it doing due diligence? Is it not reinforcing entrenched power patterns, and perhaps even creating a climate of distrust etc.? Be very mindful of how you contribute to a healthy (or not so healthy) environment and dynamics in the groups you work with by not asking some critical questions upfront.

And this leads me to the next commandment…

7. Be mindful of who you are – the ‘self as instrument’

The ‘self as instrument’ is again a principle from Community At Work. Know yourself and work with yourself in the room. Know what triggers you both positively and negatively. What is likely to make you over enthusiastic and less risk-savvy, and what will rattle you. Understand the “communication styles that bug you” (C@W, still!) and the ones that you display yourself (with a tinge of TRIZ here). Meditate perhaps, so that your inner eye remains open and alerts you to emotional triggers that affect your judgment and your integrity. The more you know yourself, with all your weaknesses and your strengths, the more you are able to serve others fully and unconditionally.

8. Be the facilitation that you want to see in everything you do

Don’t limit your facilitation practice to the events and collaboration initiatives that you end up working on. Apply it to your life, to your working and wherever desirable your personal relationships. Be supportive, be helpful, listen actively, be mindful of outcomes, be collaborative. When you breathe what you preach, people trust you all the more, because they can see that you walk your talk and respect your work and approach. And bonus, doing so you might even cheekily bring people to taking an extra step of slight discomfort that they might not take otherwise, though that’s matter for another blog post…

9. Self-reflect and self-improve

Maybe it’s the heritage of my knowledge management profile, but I firmly believe that much like a lot of facilitation is getting groups to reflect on everything, you should also reflect on how you’ve been doing this or that, what you did well, what you did unexpectedly, what was good, bad, ugly and lovely in all of that, and what you can do to get it even more right next time around. As the LS gospel goes “Learn by failing forward”. Growth thinking drives the best facilitators, and the pie is always getting bigger. So have your portion now, and then some more! Yummy learning! And at that, you might need the feedback of others to help you cover your blind spots and help you grow, which paves the way for the last, but certainly not the least of these commandments…

10. Work with (many) others, and be grateful!

Facilitating is inherently collective. And it takes many people indeed to go through successful collaboration, even during just the space of an event. So go out there and find your partners in crime. Involve the sponsors, the people in the room. Whether they help design, co-facilitate, document, manage time, manage technical platforms, review the works, the more you involve others, the more active the entire crowd becomes and the more likely they are to invest more of themselves in the time together, and in building quality relationships with each other. Besides, it’s sheer pleasure – well, with some spicy moments ha ha ha. Don’t stop there, thank them, and once again show that collaboration scaffolding: it wouldn’t be possible if all of these people, all of you hadn’t been involved.

It’s a beautiful job to facilitate, and I hope you enjoy these commandments, and perhaps apply some of them or share your own here… What are your 10 commandments of facilitation?

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10 advices to dramatically improve your un-facilitated meetings…

Shooting towards ten commandments (Credits: ideacreamanuela / FlickR)

Shooting towards ten commandments of unfacilitated meetings? (Credits: ideacreamanuela / FlickR)

In my experience as meeting-goer (and I have to admit I attend meetings way less than I facilitate them), it seems a number of standard mistakes happen by default. These mistakes really cripple any attempt to turn the meetings into useful gatherings and meshings of ideas, people and energies.

These mistakes tend to appear particularly in meetings where there is no facilitator involved. Yet it’s clear that not every meeting can be facilitated (for lack of time, money, thought about it etc.).

So here are 10 advices that can help anyone running an un-facilitated meeting to hit the mark more surely – and for clarity by meeting I mean gatherings of 2 hours or more:

  1. Work with a team, from the design phase. Even if you don’t involve a facilitator, you will need to make sure you have people that help you make sure: all logistics is running smoothly (brains don’t work on empty stomachs or when payment grudges are getting in the way); all inputs, presentations etc. are collected and harvested; the event is properly communicated before, during and after (including social media, reporting etc.); someone is there to relay you when you want to join the conversation etc.
  2. Think carefully about the topics you want to cover and outcomes for each of these topics. If you’re not clear what your key topics are and what you want to achieve for each of these, you might start on the wrong foot from the get-go… And knowing which topics you want to address also means knowing what your ‘content boundaries’ are, i.e. what you definitely WON’T address at your event…
  3. Think carefully about the type of meeting you want to shoot at. You may be interested in mostly passing on information, collecting feedback or you might be aiming at a more complex group interaction (e.g. to explore new grounds, to make complex decisions etc.). Being clear about the type of meeting you’re actually getting at will inform your design and clarify the group dynamics you may expect from your attendees…
  4. Think carefully about the content balance, ie. the balance between the content presented and the capacity of your participants to process and digest that information

    This is also about balancing content and its processing ;) (credits: Your ecards)

    This is also about balancing content and its processing 😉 (credits: Your ecards)

    I tend to apply (more or less) the following rule of thumb: For the time of each presentation count 3 times as much time for its digestion (whether through Q&A or group work). So for a 6-hour day of work, having more than 1.5 hours of presentations will not really provide the participants a real opportunity to fully digest that content.

  5. If you have many inputs, consider alternatives to PowerPoint presentations. I listed quite a few here. You are the one in charge, so you can impose certain restrictions on the way people are sharing their inputs. In a Botswana meeting I facilitated for my current organisation, we managed to avoid Powerpoint recitals, and in an older KM4Dev annual meeting we even banned Powerpoint and ended up with very creative presentation formats.
  6. Consider the kind of venue and set-up you are hosting the meeting at. Pillars are big no-no’s, acoustics matters, and the chair set up also has a strong influence on the group dynamics e.g. if you want to stimulate participation and interaction: Classroom style < U-shaped table set-up < cabaret style < semi-circle or full circle… There’s much more to say about this, but know that if you want your participants to engage, your seating arrangement will have a hidden but very strong influence on whether engagement happens or not.
  7. Be aware of power dynamics and attend to it. There are always more powerful, or confident, or fast thinkers, who tend to monopolise the conversation. It’s great to get their inputs (they are the first ones to talk so they model an active behaviour) but your event shouldn’t be limited to their inputs, but to as many peoples’ as possible. For this, you may need to try out different formats (e.g. small group interactions, forced listening techniques such as fishbowls, used in the interest of the less talkative). In fact this is a good matter for a future post of its own (watch this space!).
  8. Don’t shoot for perfect time management, but for a perfect conversation. Because I have low tolerance for long-winded speakers, for a very long time I had the feeling that having a meeting follow the program and finish in time was one of the key traits of successful meetings. I have learned through my training and work with Sam Kaner and Community at Work to be open to the creative force of conflicts and to make space for conversations when they are hitting an important point, at the expense of time management… But of course it is in those sensitive moments that it is most useful to have a facilitator at hand…
  9. Plan - do - check - act: the continuous improvement cycle (Credits: Leyhill.com)

    Plan – do – check – act: the continuous improvement cycle (Credits: Leyhill.com)

    Adopt a continual improvement cycle: Gather feedback (check), think and review (act), adapt (plan), try it (do). In other words, as Dwight D. Eisenhower would say: “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” and so you need to be prepared to leave your plan aside and to adapt your approach to your participants. This means also carefully creating a space for them to express their ideas for improving your meeting!

  10. Have fun! Have as much fun as Golden State Warriors do on the basketball court! It is the sports team that is having the most fun on the planet and they show fun is also the key to (MUCH) better performance. If you’re not having a bit of fun at your meeting, how can you expect others to? And if no one is having fun, are you really in the best conditions to make this meeting a useful and productive one?

Does this make sense to you?

Yes? Then give it a try!

No? Then let me and us know what you would do differently!

And in any case, if you are not sure how to go about your own events, or if these are (expectedly) particularly complex or difficult, call upon a specialist: facilitators are there to help you do all of the above – and a lot more – in the best possible way, and help the entire group do their best thinking.

Wondering where to find that support? ILRI’s engagement and collaboration team can help 🙂