‘Easy and safe’ is over-rated

October 26th, 2016

Working with groups generates lots of dynamics. I want to focus on the dynamic between the facilitator and the group. There’s a long held position about facilitation that the facilitator needs to make the task easy for the group, and to create a safe space. I disagree.

When I’m tired, feeling a bit vulnerable, and wanting to be cared for I relish the easy choice in a restaurant of the chef ‘just bringing food’. I don’t want to make choices, or decisions. I want to be (not literally) spoon fed. It’s easy to sit back and let someone else do the work.

People coming to workshops and meetings are often tired too, maybe a bit resentful that their work time has been disrupted, some may be excited, others apathetic – there is no doubt there will be a whole range of emotions in the room. They want to feel that their time has been used wisely.

If it is too easy they will disengage. There are many demands on people’s attention and an email or Facebook post is just a click away. We don’t have the luxury of patiently explaining what will happen (describing the menu/agenda/process) and easing people into the main game. We will have lost them before we even get there. We need to jump straight in, even if it is uncomfortable or confusing. They will work it out.

Most of us do jump in – begin before we are ready. We start playing a computer game, or try out new software, or start making a recipe before we read the instructions. We go back to the instructions when our experience and knowledge are exhausted and we need more information. We are wired for acting, not thinking about acting.

Facilitators need to challenge, to create some uncertainty, to let go of the need to control what people are doing, and to allow for discovery. This can be messy. It can be scary. It can be challenging.

It’s the practice of easy and safe that has led to one of the biggest criticisms of facilitated workshop, expressed in one way or another as ‘but nothing changes when we go back to work’. Some resort to what Johnnie Moore calls ‘commitment ceremonies’ – rituals that pretend to bind people to a new way of acting, when in reality it’s simply a hollow promise where no-one is accountable.

Facilitators can be a greater service to groups by challenging them and dropping the facade of ‘easy and safe’.

An article in The Conversation by Jarod Horvath and Jason Lodge on ‘What causes mind blanks during exams?’ is helpful in explaining why ‘safe’ is not always best. They describe the difference between cold cognition – logical and rational thinking processes – and hot cognition – non-logical and emotionally driven thinking processes. “Hot cognition is typically triggered in response to a clear threat or otherwise highly stressful situation”. Exams can be perceived as a high stakes, threat. So too, might a facilitated workshop. The boss and all my colleagues are present, I will be expected to contribute, I have a lot of other things on my mind, I’ve never met this facilitator before, there’s no agenda, and where are the damn tables?

The easy and safe approach would demand that facilitators reduce this response, and stress around workshops, by providing, in advance, all the information participants need, to make the space ‘safe’ by making sure it is comfortable and familiar, thus reducing the risk of mind blanking, or hot cognition. Then when participants get back to the real world of work, with all the uncertainty, demands, unrealistic expectations, challenges and too-much-to-do-too-little-time, they will be equipped with new knowledge and skills to help them. As I said earlier, I disagree with this approach.

Hot cognition – mind blanking – can kick in at any time. And there are a couple of things to do to according to Horvath and Lodge. One is to de-stress a perceived threatening situation. Facilitators can help this by avoiding overloading people’s pre-frontal cortex with information and as soon as possible, get them up and moving about the space, talking with each other – providing just enough structure to get them going. Familiarity calms the brain and leaves people open for whatever else is coming.

The other concerns preparation. Some of my friends who work in humanitarian organisations return from training experiences with stories of extreme stress and sometimes fear. They have been to HEAT – Hostile Environment Awareness Training – which replicates what might happen in a kidnapping or other life-threatening situations. The trainers rightly know that information is not enough for being prepared – actual experiences, simulated nonetheless, but real enough – help people prepare for the unimaginable. “The reason the armed forces train new recruits in stressful situations that simulate active combat scenarios is to ensure cold cognition during future engagements. The more a person experiences a particular situation, the less likely he or she is to perceive such a situation as threatening.” say Horvath and Lodge.

Their final piece of advice for students preparing for exams, and wanting to avoid mind blanks, is relevant for facilitators wanting to make sure workshops are worthwhile.

“So when preparing for an exam, try not to do so in a highly relaxed soothing environment – rather, try to push yourself in ways that will mimic the final testing scenario you are preparing for.”

My approach, when facilitating, is to avoid the gut-wrenching, bowel-tightening scenarios for sure, but provide enough uncertainty and confusion to replicate what it’s like out there in the real world, to hopefully, keep people engaged during the workshop, and prepared for whatever happens, afterwards. How do I do that? With applied improvisation, of course!

The two not-so-secret secrets about Creative Facilitation

October 24th, 2016

bringingThere’s no big secret to Creative Facilitation, it comes down to two things: using creative processes that allow people to really participate, and showing up as a facilitator that people feel able to trust.

The hard part is letting go of all those practices that squeeze the life out of meetings. We are social creatures, fundamentally wired for socialising, playing and creating together.  To release energy into our meetings, we need to disrupt some conventions.

We need to have fewer presentations and more conversations.

We need to free people to move around, rather than remaining pinned to their chairs.

We need to give participants autonomy: instead of telling them what to do, we create choices for them about how to participate and collaborate.

We need to create a more level playing field in meetings, a space in which everyone feels able to contribute, so we don’t just get stuck listening to the usual suspects.

We don’t believe in facilitation-as-usual and therefore don’t do training-as-usual. There will be movement, surprise, emotion, engagement and fun. We learn our most powerful lessons from experience, not from lectures. The greatest value in workshops comes from sharing experiences, rather than taking notes from the “sage on the stage”.

If you’d like to learn more, I have a one-day introductory Creative Facilitation workshop in Melbourne on November 18th.

And Johnnie Moore has a two-day workshop in Cambridge – that also covers how to perform as a facilitator – on January 9 and 10.

Third best job in the world

October 13th, 2016

ImproventionMy job – working with groups, helping them come alive, unearth their creativity and make discoveries – is the third best job in the world. Sometimes I’m called a facilitator, but facilitation is only part of what I do – it’s a skill that helps me be useful to all those groups I work with.

What’s that? You’re curious about #1 and #2.

The second best job in the world goes to – drum roll please – Alan Alda. Yes, he of MASH fame. Alan works with scientists (and I have a particular soft spot for scientists) to help them tell the story of their scientific research. What makes this the second best job in the world is that he uses improvisation to train scientists. Yep, pretty damn good.

And the best job in the world? That goes to Richard Fidler who hosts Conversations on ABC Radio. Honestly, who wouldn’t want a job where you can do long-form interviews with interesting people, asking well-researched questions, as well as responding to the surprising things that people say? Yep, best job in the world.

I could write ad nauseam on what’s common to these three great jobs, but I think I’ll leave that up to you.  You’ll figure it out! I’m happy with my third-best job in the world, unless someone wants to offer me a go at Alan or Richard’s job.

Best summer ever!

September 15th, 2016

I’ve just had the best summer. Yet it wasn’t summer. Not here. And I wasn’t here. I was there, in the UK, hanging out with my friend and business buddy Johnnie Moore in Cambridge. There’s many reasons that it was a great summer, and one was the fun and connection we had in making a couple of little videos about our work. Our director, Colin Ramsay, is amazing. He’s calm, professional, patient (OMG, so patient!) and loves what he does as much as we love what we do. I think this comes through best in this blooper reel.

There’s so much to learn about ourselves and others through ‘trying stuff out’. As Johnnie says, “There’s a lot of creative energy in failure, if you don’t take it too seriously…Quite a lot of our training work uses rapid, playful failure as way to learn – a much richer experience than giving out right answers.”

Right on!

Creative Facilitation training

September 14th, 2016

Johnnie and I made this little video that describes our approach to facilitation training.  It also includes some footage from our Creative Leadership workshop at King’s College, Cambridge – coming in February 2017 to Melbourne.

HUMAN – sci-fi meets aid

August 4th, 2016

HUMANAs a long-time fan of science fiction, I was delighted to hear that J. was writing a new novel, the world’s first humanitarian science fiction. J. is a fabulous writer as his previous books – fiction and non-fiction, all with humanitarian themes – attest. I’m not sure what it’s like for someone who is a professional aid worker to read his books, but for someone like me who occasionally works in the humanitarian sector and is really a fringe dweller in their world, his books provide a useful insight into the complexity, the joy, and the sorrow, of aid work.

Science-fiction, you’re thinking. Why science-fiction? If you’re not a fan, don’t be put off. Science-fiction has been used, and continues to provide, a window into current social and geo-political conditions in a way that conventional fiction can’t. Science-fiction provides a world that is unknown but familiar, characters that exhibit the best and worst of what it is to be human, and a way to explore ideas without the predictable “that would never happen here” response.

HUMAN does this very, very well. It’s a great read. It’s short enough – novella length – to read in a couple of sittings or on a long flight, and is chock full of insights into what it’s like to be ‘like me’ and ‘not like me’. The parallels to current world events is illuminating and/or scary, depending on your point of view.

In a world where our views are mediated and manipulated, and where ‘outsiders’ are increasingly viewed with suspicion, HUMAN provides an insight into what it feels like to belong, and not to belong, and the underlying bonds that make us all human, no matter what our circumstances or backgrounds.

Enough from me. Just read it and see for yourself. Highly recommended!

Engaging the Resistance

July 19th, 2016

EngagingTheResistanceI’m riffing some ideas here based on the four themes we’ve been exploring for Creative Leadership:

Having bolder conversations
Connecting more deeply
Engaging the resistance
Staying alive


Whoa! This one is hard! I’m not so sure about our “most difficult challenges” – there’s also “everyday challenges” – the things we, I, resist all the time. I have a mantra that helps me with this: Show Up, Let Go, Jump In. I’ve written about this before. Also, begin before you are ready. Both of these help me to bypass my natural reticence. Johnnie and I really like this quote by Hugh Laurie:

“It’s a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you’re ready… There is only now. And you may as well do it now. Generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.”  

Resistance seems to become bigger, and harder to shift, once it gets a foothold. Beginning before you are ready seems a good idea to me. I often work with groups who have not done some of the activities that we like to use in workshops. As well having a reputation for finishing on time (a good thing), I also seem to be attracting a reputation for not answering questions (not always seen as a good thing). I have a reason for not taking questions before an activity. I try and give clear instructions, well, clear enough to start. The key is to start – to start before you are ready – and to gather more information when you need it. Asking questions, thinking about what hypothetically ‘might’ happen takes us into our heads. Sure it’s a way of mitigating risk. It’s also a way of not starting until you are ready – and who knows when you will be ready?

If you’re intrigued by our leadership workshop in Cambridge, August 31 – Sept 2, but not sure what to expect, why not engage your resistance, and take a leap into the (relative) unknown? We’d love for you to come and explore these ideas with us.

Connecting More Deeply

July 19th, 2016

ConnectingMoreDeeplyI’m riffing some ideas here based on the four themes we’ve been exploring for Creative Leadership:

Having bolder conversations
Connecting more deeply
Engaging the resistance
Staying alive

This is one of those things that’s easy to say, hard to do. We all like to think we’re okay with change, yet when it comes to the crunch, we all struggle in our own ways. I do, that’s for sure. I love travelling. Yet, on nearly every single trip – no matter where, no matter how good, or how exciting –  at some stage I wish I was home. I yearn for the familiar.

I guess the familiar equals safety. I can’t imagine what it was like for my ancestors to be bundled onto boats and shipped across the planet to an unknown, unfamiliar country. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people to do that today.

Connecting more deeply works for me at a number of levels, not just personal. It’s also about connecting to myself, being aware of my own needs, and also connecting to place – finding something in an unfamiliar place or even, emotional territory, that I can connect to.

This August, I’m lucky to be able to reconnect with some dear and loved friends from around the world. Just being with them will remind me what it’s like to open myself to change. Maybe that’s what we all need – to spend more time with people. One of my favourite ways of connecting is through play. As adults, we often don’t have the time, or the people, to play. Sometimes we think we don’t have permission to play. There will be plenty of play at our leadership workshop in Cambridge, August 31 – Sept 2. You betcha.

Bolder Conversations

July 19th, 2016

BolderConversationsI’m riffing some ideas here based on the four themes we’ve been exploring for Creative Leadership:

Having bolder conversations
Connecting more deeply
Engaging the resistance
Staying alive


None of us like to feel uncomfortable when talking with others. Sometimes it’s easiest to stay silent. Yet staying silent, especially on important topics, can have ramifications worse than speaking out. Silence can be seen as a default for agreement. With so much unrest, shifting political landscapes, and the access to so much information about just about anything, having conversations about the things that matter is important, I think.

I personally struggle with this a lot. I have strong views on lots of things, and find it difficult when confronted with mis-information, myths, and the latest form of -ism going around (racism, sexism, etc). I try to be curious, to find out where other people get their information, how they formed their views, but it can be hard, especially if it’s something I am particularly passionate about. Becoming more comfortable on unknown ground – having bolder conversations – is about practice. Even the skill of having a conversation can be easily lost.

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately by Richard Fidler. He asks great questions, he knows how to have a great conversation. One day, when I have nothing better to do, I’m going to go through a whole stack of his interviews and try and figure out how he does it, analyse his questions. In the meantime, I’m trying to learn by listening, and by osmosis – maybe I’ll soak up some of his approaches!

I also went to an improv class with Gary Schwartz. Apart from all of his other brilliance, he’s a great improv coach. My key message from his workshop was about slowing down. I think this works with having bolder conversations too. If we rush, we miss too much. Slowing down enables us to connect more deeply.

One of the joys of travel and reconnecting with friends is that I can indulge in lots of conversations. Johnnie and I will also be sharing some of our techniques for having bolder conversations at our leadership workshop in Cambridge, August 31 – Sept 2.

Staying Alive

July 19th, 2016

StayingAliveI’m riffing some ideas here based on the four themes we’ve been exploring for Creative Leadership:

Having bolder conversations
Connecting more deeply
Engaging the resistance
Staying alive

To continue doing what you have always done is the easy part, it’s when you want to try something new, something fresh, maybe even unproven, that we enter tricky territory. This is really important for me when I’m facilitating. I have many approaches that work, and I’m not about to throw them out. But sometimes it’s good to try something new, to refresh. The only way I’ve found to discover if something works is to try it. And here’s the rub. Not everything works. Not the first time, not every time.

Trying new things, even when I don’t know how to do them, is how I learn new things, and discover stuff about myself. It helps keep my work fresh and interesting, for me, and for others.

Taming the voice in your own head telling you not to try something new or different is hard enough, imagine what it’s like to try and encourage others? It can be a real nightmare, knowing how far to push – too little and there’s not enough challenge or encouragement; too much and people are frightened off.

I’m looking forward to discovering new ways of staying alive when I’m in UK this August, especially at our leadership workshop in Cambridge, August 31 – Sept 2.