Lessons from the field


June 10th, 2009

After eight days of facilitation training in Indonesia, what did I learn?

Before I answer that, a bit of context. I was working for an international aid organisation. Some 55 people took part in the first three days, then 30 of them disappeared to take part in an emergency simulation. The remaining people stayed to learn more facilitation and prepare to debrief the simulation – which also included local staff, bringing the numbers on the day up to 100+. The final day brought the original 55 back together for a review.

It was, at times, challenging, tiring, exhilerating, fun and ultimately satisfying.

Slideshows and interaction can work!

For many years I refused to even entertain the idea of including a slideshow (aka powerpoint presentation) in any facilitation. Then I discovered Keynote (the Mac equivalent of powerpoint) and Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen fame. And my friend Geoff Brown and I started experimenting with slideshows. And we created a training program called Insanely Great Slideshow Presentations. So it was only natural that I would make a slideshow to 1) ease people into the training 2) demonstrate an alternative to crappy powerpoint and bullet points 3) ensure I had a plan for the first day at least 4) prove to myself that I could integrate a slideshow, and interaction. If you’d like to see it I’ve loaded it here on slideshare.

Doing beats all other approaches

Telling is telling, demonstrating provides a frame, participating gives perspective and doing it yourself is really the only way to actually learn. Having an opportunity to prepare and practice using different facilitation techniques builds confidence to actually facilitate.

Having a real facilitation experience to work towards focuses attention and provides multiple learning opportunities, as well as a sense of achievement

The post-simulation debrief provided a real facilitation experience for the trainees. The day was designed in advance and incorporated a number of facilitation techniques, including some that were not planned for! The shift from one venue to another provided an excellent opportunity for the trainees to experience the decision-making associated with staging an event in a less-than-ideal venue.

Improv rules!

Sure, I know I sound like a broken record, but that’s because improv has become fundamental to how I facilitate. And I also believe an understanding of improv principles provides a fast-track to better facilitation. This was proven during this event. I’d introduced my six favourite improv principles for facilitators: Be Present, Accept Offers, Let Go, Make Mistakes, Be Average, and Do Something. I think they provided permission to ‘have a go’ – to see every opportunity as a learning opportunity rather than pressure to perform. During the simulation debrief with 100+ people in a room suitable for probably half that many, facilitated solely by people who had learnt many of their facilitation skills only days before and with a frenetic pace I saw many examples of improvised facilitation in action. I only had to ask once and someone would step up to help, to facilitate a process they’d only seen and participated in once before. They knew it was okay to make mistakes, to accept offers, to be average and present to what was happening, to do something if they got stuck and to let go of expectations.

There’s always an alternative

Okay, so I’d planned to incorporate juggling as an activity. Alas, no juggling balls. Could we buy balloons, and rice? We’ll make our own. The activity was a hit. I’m sure no-one knew it wasn’t planned (although they will now!)

Themes emerge

After a few days a theme of ‘catching the ball’ emerged, fueled by juggling balls, group juggling, improv games and outdoor activities with the physical resilience guys. The ball became a recurring theme – albeit unplanned, and unexpected, but a theme nonetheless.

Even the most basic facilitation skills can make a difference

Not everyone is going to become an ace facilitator. Not everyone wants to. But everyone can incorporate some understanding of facilitation, and the power of interaction, into events they design or lead. And this can make a big difference. Or just a little difference. That’s okay.

Stamina helps!

Don’t skip breakfast. I did one morning. And paid the price later in the morning when I simply ran out of energy. I was unfocused, weary, had trouble making decisions and felt flat. This level of facilitation requires stamina. And that requires fuel. And fitness. I need to be fitter to do more of this work.

Schedule long breaks

We scheduled 1.5 hours each day for lunch, a day off and another free half-day. Learning facilitation is intensive work. Having time and space to relax helps people to integrate and consolidate their learning. There’s a tendency to cram as much as possible into the time available. This is a case where less is definitely more. Once people are tuned into facilitation there’s plenty they can learn along the way. If we scare them off on their first encounter there’s little chance they will pursue further learning.

I’m sure there’s more lessons that will emerge as I continue to debrief this experience. This’ll do for starters.

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