The chemistry of magical facilitation (1) – mind the BOSSY HERALD

I had mentioned that I would sooner or later set my blogging foot again on facilitation island and would seek the island’s treasure trove to trace the original chemistry that makes magical facilitation happen. Well, I guess I’ve just landed on the island and am now on my way to find the trove.
Facilitation magic takes the power of the collective to the next level [Photo credits: mello.luiz/FlickR]
Facilitation magic takes the power of the collective to the next level (Photo credits: mello.luiz/FlickR)
This journey will take four steps:
  1. Mapping the big picture to understand the wide angle and political side of the event you are designing or facilitating – i.e. the subject of this very post;
  2. Tracking the details of that wide angle, to ensure your take on that wide angle and politics is viable and operational;
  3. Zooming in on appropriate facilitation methods to go functional and finally…
  4. Diving in dynamics, at the heart of the workshop, to inject the relational and emotional.

It’s the chemical combination of these four elements that makes your facilitation magical.

Now onto the first part of the event design…
1. The politics and wide angle of magical facilitation – here comes the bossy herald
Whether we like it or not, every event also sets some level of power plays. Someone (possibly a multi-faceted someone) is calling the shots and shaping the agenda. And beyond that politics, there are a few other important ‘wide angle’ elements to take into account. Ignoring this means you might come up with the best workshop design and facilitation but totally miss the point. And make that multi-faceted someone upset. And get participants confused. A total waste… You don’t want to go there. That’s why in this facilitation journey it’s always useful to mind the BOSSY HERALD. Although he’s slightly obnoxious, he reminds you of all the major elements that determine the wide angle of an event. Each letter in the bossy herald stands for a crucial aspect in this wide angle. Let’s inspect this…
The bossy part represents the political side which you cannot afford to neglect:
  • Big picture. Where in the bigger picture does this event fit? Is it a one-off event? Is it integrated with ongoing work? What is the rationale behind it? What drive pushed this event off the orchard of good-ideas-that-have-not-yet-been-used-and-perhaps-never-will? How are you going to tap into the source of inspiration for this event? What will you prepare and expect other people to prepare in this respect?
  • Ownership: Who owns the event? You, the facilitator? Someone else? A group of someone elses? Are they all present around you to discuss the design of the event or do you have to deal with each of them separately (mind the between-hammer-and-anvil scenario)? Do they have an agenda for this event? More importantly, to what extent do your participants own this event? In other words, is there room to co-create the agenda along the way or do you follow a pre-established agenda? How much flexibility is there to shape that agenda along the way?
  • Sharpness: Assuming that you are focusing on an overall theme for the event, how far are you planning to examine the core of the matter and its edges? How much are you hoping to explore your field? Are you hoping to expand the understanding of the matter at hand laterally (getting more people on board, levelling the field of knowledge) or vertically (delving more in depth in the pool of  knowledge)?
  • Spectrum: To what extent does the content of your overall event’s theme constitute your bull’s eye? Are you interested in the content only? Or do you also have a keen eye for the process surrounding the event e.g. do you also want to stimulate teambuilding, strengthen partnerships, raise awareness about the who-is-who in this field etc.?
  • Yearnings: What are the deep expectations that you (and the people owning your event) have for this event? What outcome should it lead to? What products are you hoping to see come out of this? What non-negotiable outputs should be achieved? What other outputs and outcomes would you ideally like or love to see? Should the event lead to specific concrete written outputs (a report, an article, an action plan, a declaration) at all or should it focus on the innovative and creative exploration of your subject, or other intangibles? Is your event aiming at efficiency or effectiveness? Can you picture what would be your ideal outcome / story of change for this event?
Once you’ve taken care of the bossy part, the herald part covers other important wide angle aspects:
  • How-to and heuristics: Take stock of what you have gathered with your bossy analysis. What approach does your experience and common sense dictate you to follow – what is your heuristic for this event, if any? How much do you have to align with the political and wide angle agenda and in contrast how authentic to your own style and aspirations can you afford to be? What tools and approaches seem to make sense in this context?
  • Extent: What about the length of the event? Is it lasting 2 hours, 2 days or 2 weeks? Is it a one-off event or one component or block in a series of mutually reinforcing events? If the latter, how much are you going to cover with this event?
  • Running the event: Who will be facilitating the event? Are there support facilitators? How experienced are all the facilitators involved? The numbers and experience of facilitators has an impact on the level of interactivity that you can design (the more interactive, the more experienced and numerous facilitators you need; some specific methods may require prior experience because they follow a very well codified approach). To what extent can you/they deal with overt or subtle tension? With a large group? With high profile participants?
  • Attendance: What is the profile of your participants? Who is actually coming? Volunteer participants or corporate recruits to a compulsory event? How much do they know each other? How much do they know about the topic? Do they come from the same institutions or different ones? Do they have similar or different professional functions? Is there a hierarchy among them and should it matter in this workshop? Are they all working on the same initiative? Are there tensions among them? Do they speak the same language? How much common culture do they share?
  • Location: Where is the event taking place? Is the venue modular / changeable or is it fixed in a static way (as those conference rooms with translation facilities and a fixed set of desks chained to one another)? Do you have any possibility for group work (break-out rooms, use of outside facilities etc.)? How does the acoustics work? Will you need a microphone?
  • Dynamics: Based on all the above comes a somewhat underrated but extremely crucial consideration: What kind of conversation dynamics do you want to foster? Informing conversations? Reacting on information? Exploring and blue-skying? Questioning or criticising? Co-creating? Arguing or following a ‘yes and’ approach? This is all related to the relatively static or dynamic nature of your event and the need for a seasoned facilitator. Then again, no seasoned facilitator got where they are without trying things out and without failing, so feel free to follow the ‘yes and’ rule (see video below) and throw yourself (or your not so seasoned facilitator) in the event!
For any event, find your way through the pointers of the bossy herald – but don’t overlook him, he’s the maker and breaker of events. All the rest is marbles and bubbles in comparison.

In the next post in this series, we’ll look at the practical implications of the herald in your event.

Related blog posts:

Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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  1. Hello Sophie,

    Thank you for the comment. Yes, that’s right! Best is when the bossy part is left to the group of participants to decide, i.e. when the event is entirely co-created as they go along, using an Open Space or any other method… But that’s way more likely to be the exception than the rule…

  2. Nicely put, Ewen! Never disregard the Bossy- it makes the whole event moot, as even if people seem to be ok during the event itself, it will be very hard to get applicable, “followable- up on” and contextualized action. Results will end up on the wrong side of some document somewhere.

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