The chemistry of magical facilitation (2) – Put the bossy herald to play for you


Facilitation is the art of seamlessly inviting all contributions to collective sense-making. As such it is an essential element of knowledge sharing, knowledge management and social learning.

So, in the previous chapter of this series, we’ve looked at the big picture of facilitation, how to handle the BOSSY HERALD, particularly in its bossy part. Let’s assume we’re there, we’ve dealt with the politics of the event. Now comes the moment to apply the design in practice i.e. to focus on the HERALD (part) in detail, and to put it to play for you. This moves the reflection from ‘what should be?’ to ‘what could be’. The herald determines the ballpark you play with. Each of its pointers helps you design the workshop in a more appropriate and operational way.

In this second chapter, I’m looking at the first three pointers of the HERALD: How-to/heuristics (facilitation tools and approaches) very briefly, Extent (duration) and Running the event (the facilitator/s).

Proces design and facilitation, a complex ballpark (credits: The Value Web/FlickR)

Proces design and facilitation, a complex ballpark (credits: The Value Web/FlickR)

How-to and heuristics (the tools)

As much as knowledge management is about tools – once, and only once everything else has been dealt with and thoughtful decisions have been taken – facilitation is all about facilitation methods and approaches, once the politics and design is by and large dealt with. In a way How-to and heuristics thus come as the final part of this puzzle – once all other blocks are covered. But it is a very powerful part of the puzzle and one on which you have a lot of control as organiser or facilitator. I will deal with the choice of tools and approaches in a subsequent post (chapter 3 of this series) so I won’t look in detail into this. Just want to highlight that the exact set of facilitation methods, tools and heuristics generally reflects and derives from the other elements from the HERALD:

  • Extent: The length of the event itself points to a specific set of facilitation methods or a specific way of applying a given method;
  • Running the event facilitation: How much can you and should you challenge your preferred facilitation style or push yourself to new limits?
  • Attendance: In line with the participants’ profile, how much can you and should you challenge the expectations of your participants regarding the overall facilitation approach at the event?
  • Location: How the venue itself lends itself to using the space and organising tables and group work;
  • Dynamics: How does the dynamics of the event affect the choice of specific facilitation methods?
Facilitation methods mapped for an event design (credits: me)

Facilitation method set-up mapped for an event design (credits: me)

Pay close attention to these elements before you come back choosing  facilitation tools and approaches.

Extent (the duration)

How long will your event last? How many events/episodes will you be having? Here, keeping the beat and the flow in check is all that matters. If you don’t, you risk losing your audience and it can be quite tricky to win it back. Look at your final destination and manage those poles.

The flow is the path that you are following during that event, which you can see as a voyage on which participants are embarking. You will have to clearly mark the beginning, the middle and the end of that voyage. Along the way, you have different standposts (the various workshops sessions), milestones (the achievements around significant blocks of your event) and stop-overs to break the voyage in manageable chunks. These standposts, milestones and stop-overs are essential for your participants to keep the beat. Here are a few considerations to make the journey as pleasant for your participants:

  • Mention where it is they are supposed to get at the end of your journey (the objectives and outcomes of your meeting) – that clarity relates to the focus of the event and you might even invite your participants to discuss the focus so as to surface additional ideas or concerns;
  • If you’re having an event that builds upon another one (and another one etc.), link the various events to one another to clearly to give that sense of the voyage to the participants: where you have been, what milestones you have achieved, what you’re focusing on now and where you will be in the next event – and how the different events are linked. And re-state how much of the overall voyage you intend to cover with this event – like a stage on a pilgrimage. This makes it easier for your participants to maximise their time however they please and to appease their potential anxiousness to achieve. If people worry too much about being productive and the time they have at hand, they are not in the ‘here and now’ the ‘mindfulness’ that is key to strong engagement.
  • Make sure that each stand post (session) also clearly follows the sequence ‘introduction – middle – end’. Event facilitation follows a fractal pattern where this sequence mirrors itself at various scales (workshop, day of workshop, session etc.). You have to link up these scales, show how one session builds into the day and into the workshop, give a sense of how the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts. It makes most participants happy with the achievement and the sense of ‘going forward’ and not just ‘talking’. You’re taking the anxiousness to achieve away from them.
  • Make it clear also when a milestone is achieved – a particular agreement, a write-up etc. Celebration builds the team dynamics and adds energy to everyone. If, in practice, you have not gone as far as planned but really need to achieve a particular milestone, either build space in your event to achieve it milestone or explain how it will be finalised and achieved after the event – there is much fear of seeing workshops turn into talk shops with no action among all of us event-goers.
  • Whether your workshop follows a straight path and there’s no going astray, or whether you are open to changing your path as you please and remain flexible, tell your participants how ‘set’ or flexible their journey is likely to be.
Sam Kaner's Diamond of participation (Credits: Chris Corrigan/FlickR)

Sam Kaner's Diamond of participation (Credits: Chris Corrigan/FlickR)

Another underground flow is running in parallel: that flow relates to the degree of clarity and agreement (or consensus) for the participants. thisa relates to Sam Kaner‘s famous “diamond of participation” diagram (see graph on the right). Be aware that it will almost undoubtedly happen, especially if your event runs for more than a day. In a week’s workshop, it will almost surely be at the middle of the week, when participants are too far away from the energy of the beginning and the final destination is not yet in sight…

The beat is the energy that you (and particularly your participants) have to run that pathway. There are a few things that help along that pathway to keep the beat:

  • The clarity on the final destination and on the main stop-overs on this voyage, as mentioned above;
  • Developing a sense of the group. Ice breakers are great in this sense, particularly those that explore some personal details, anything that gives more information about participants than their professional ‘function’ (there is a person behind that professional). Group work is also great as it brings people to get to know each other and effectively collaborate (thereby bringing much stronger bonding than just talking). Humour and informality help too, it breaks down barriers between people. As my boss – a very experienced facilitator himself – says: when a group starts having its own jokes and plays with it, it’s going very well;
  • Your personal energy as a facilitator – the more energised you are the more energy you give your participants. Speak clearly, enthusiastically if possible, add to the fun, move around, look at people in the eyes, engage, show them that you believe in this workshop and in achieving something)!
  • Keep the beat up by organizing energisers and occasional breaks when you see that participants need fresh air. Observe how the group energy is going and feel free to ask your participants how they feel about having a break or doing something different, like going away for a walk (why not even build some sessions around a walk or an interview in the park etc.?).

Running the event (the facilitator/s)

The next bit that matters in the design is: who will be running this event? Who will be facilitating it? If it’s you, that’s easier, because you know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses.

Still, how much ‘up to the task’ are you? How much does the design of the workshop reflect your way of working or not? A first balancing act here: between alignment and authenticity. How much have you played to your strengths and how much have you challenged your comfort zone? A delicate balance to strike here. Obviously, playing to your strengths means you are more likely to do things well. But you need to keep yourself sharp – and keep the events interesting for you as facilitator over time too – so how much are you stretching yourself to try out new things?

In practice I find that it’s worth doing something slightly different every time to keep the show interesting.

The facilitator: a multi-faceted, multi-skilled animator

The facilitator: a multi-faceted, multi-skilled animator

If someone else is facilitating – or perhaps if someone else helps you facilitate – what is their profile?

Here are a few things to review for yourself first, when selecting or hiring an external facilitator:

  • How high profile is your event going to be? How much will failures be tolerated?
  • How heavy on facilitation is your event going to be?
  • How intercultural is your event going to be?
  • How flexible should your event be?
  • How interactive is your event going to be?
  • How large is your group of participants going to be?
  • How tense is your event likely to be?

The more your event follows these characteristics, the more experienced a facilitator you will need.

Experienced facilitators usually have enough distance to manage tensions and readjustments with flair and fun – and they critically know WHEN to readjust, they hopefully are socially intelligent enough that they can pick up intercultural communication clues, they are used to interactive methods to the extent that they have no trouble explaining sub-group facilitators what their task is, they can handle large groups and they know how to manage tensions – whether appeasing them or precisely releasing and dealing with them rather than letting a ‘passive-agressive’ atmosphere develop. An instrumental skill that facilitators – experienced or not – should develop and nurture is the art of listening. It is their main tool to gather clues about the event climate and the need to readjust. Listening is not just auditory, it also means listening with your eyes: scanning the room around to see if people are engaging, deciphering body language to find out who is irritated, sad, tired, out of focus, stirring up trouble (rare but happens)… Another useful skill is that of synthesising and of paraphrasing, asking questions (even disarmingly simple ones) to address the concerns and issues that the participants are probably dealing with at the same time. Clarity of elocution is another essential skill: speaking clearly, loud enough, not too fast, paraphrasing what was said to synthesise it and asking the participants if everying is clear and if they have any question. And as mentioned above, openness and humour for fun, fun and fun are other must-haves. If your event is ‘facilitation-heavy‘ (demanding), It might even be a good idea to hire a couple of facilitators. Facilitation takes a lot of attention. Having a couple of facilitators is useful in many ways:

Two facilitators make the process stronger (credits: sreisaat/FlickR)

Two facilitators make the process stronger (credits: sreisaat/FlickR)

  • It helps prepare more quickly the materials and instructions (there is usually a number of flipchart sheets to prepare, posters, colour cards and the likes etc.);
  • It brings a variety of facilitation styles to the participants;
  • It helps facilitators facilitate well but also pay careful attention to the energy in the room, the body language of some participants, the signals that are emerging;
  • It keeps the energy of the facilitator up because they have time to charge up their batteries;
  • It makes it easier to organise sub-groups where there is usually a need for a sub-group facilitator (an/or chair, and/or timekeeper);
  • It helps to introduce exercises, make presentations, hold props, mime assignments etc. or even engage in on-the-spot jokes etc.;
  • It helps with the documentation of the event – as one of the facilitators can be documenting the discussions while the other one is indeed organising an exercise.
This sounds like a mountain of details, and truly there is much to the complex art of facilitating, but unveil the facilitation onion layer by layer. Embrace what you can now and leave the rest for later. A lot of it will become tacit knowledge in due time.

In the second part of this second chapter, I will examine the attendance (the participants), the location and the dynamics of the event, the other three crucial elements to make the HERALD play for you… and also the information that the herald governs, the content matter that is addressed in the event.

Related blog posts:

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