The trouble with briefings


July 13th, 2013

This post has been in my head for a long time. It’s an amalgam of lots and lots of briefings over the years. I’m generalising, not referring to any particular briefing.

A briefing is supposed to be helpful, right? I tend to listen a lot in briefings – before and during events. Well, I try and listen. Often the information being shared is a tad overwhelming, often dense (as in lots of impenetrable organisational jargon and acronyms, not dense as in stupid, though sometimes…) and not always relevant. Or it’s the opposite, there’s virtually nothing other than a vague request to do some teambuilding etc.

Thiagi once explained that they will quote on a job based, not on the amount of work involved in the job itself, but on the number of briefings the client wants to provide. Might have been a joke. Nonetheless, brilliant.

If the briefing is about a facilitation gig, I’ll probably start facilitating right there and then with the client. I’ll try and clarify exactly what they want (often they don’t know themselves) and I’ll also try and be clear about what I’m offering (and what I’m not offering). Even so, there’s likely to be surprises on both sides. Or as I like to call them, Danger, Will Robinson moments.

Side Note: Here’s what Wikipaedia says about the phrase “Danger Will Robinson.”

“Danger, Will Robinson!” is a catchphrase from the 1960s’ American television series Lost in Space spoken by voice actor Dick Tufeld. The Robot, acting as a surrogate guardian, says this to young Will Robinson when the boy is unaware of an impending threat. In everyday use, the phrase warns someone that they are about to make a mistake or that they are overlooking something.

When a Danger, Will Robinson moment happens in a workshop, I might wave my arms about uttering said phrase, often to blank looks from the participants (especially the younger ones). Oh well, it gives me time to catch my breath before deciding what to do next.

Here’s some of my favourite Danger, Will Robinson moments.

Me: How well do the participants know each other?
Client: Really well. You don’t need to introduce them to each other. We all work in the same organisation after all.
Danger, Will Robinson: This invariably turns out to not be the case. And if they do ‘know’ each other, it’s often at a quite superficial level.

Client: We want a one day workshop.
Me: How long is a day?
Danger, Will Robinson: For some organisations, a day is from 8 am to 5 pm, for others it is 10 am – 3 pm. Don’t ever assume how long a day is!

Client: We don’t want any surprises.
Me: Probably best to get someone else then.
Client: No, we really want you do it.
Danger, Will Robinson: What’s that all about? Pitfalls (or pratfalls) aplenty in this scenario.

Client: We have a conference room available on-site that we can use
Me: How big is it? Does it have fixed furniture? Is there natural light? Is there access to outdoors? Can we remove the tables?
Danger, Will Robinson: Unless I’ve worked with them before and they know what I mean by all of these questions, they’ll just assume the room is fine. After all, makes their life easy, not having to find a suitable space. Can make my life hell.

Client: How would you like the room set up?
Me: No tables, just chairs.
Danger, Will Robinson: There will always be tables. Someone assumes it’s a mistake (the no tables bit), or it simply doesn’t compute. I now simply get to the venue early enough to remove the tables myself.

Client: The (insert Very Important Person) wants to speak for just 5 minutes at the start.
Me: Does he/she need a screen and projector?
Client: Yes
Danger, Will Robinson: Five minutes is an ambit claim. It could mean anything up to an hour, but almost certainly won’t be five minutes.

Client: Diversity is really important to us as an organisation
Me: What do you mean by diversity?
Client: Checks phone, probably looking for another facilitator
Danger, Will Robinson: This is a clarifying question. Some clients take it to mean that I have no idea what is meant by any number of abstract terms eg diversity, sustainability, collaboration, strategy etc etc. What I really want to know is what they mean.

Client: We’d like an agenda.
Me: I don’t do agendas. I can give you timings and an idea of what we’ll try and cover.
Client: We’d like an agenda.
Danger, Will Robinson: Tricky. Tricky territory. I’ll let you work this one out for yourselves. I have a number of approaches depending on the situation.

Client: Would you like me to print out materials for the workshop?
Me: Thanks, but I’ll bring what I need.
Danger, Will Robinson: Might be useful to clarify (again) that copious notes, materials, manuals etc will not be provided in advance (sometimes I’ll do that afterwards). Sometimes I’ll give participants a copy of my Creative Facilitation book (if it’s relevant to them). May also need to remind clients that the workshop will be active, experiential – that means, people will be moving around, not sitting still.

Client: Where do you want the screen for the presentation?
Me: I don’t do presentations (okay, sometimes I do)
Danger, Will Robinson: There’s a HUGE expectation that whatever I do, a presentation will be part of it. I’ve relented a bit. Now I do use a slideshow for a few minor references, though generally I prefer not to. I will use a screen if the audience is large (more than 60 people) as it makes it easier to share instructions. I tend to create these on the fly though. In a multi-day event, I might use a slideshow right at the start then get rid of it. Unless there’s a real purpose though, I’m prone to leaving it out altogether.

Client: (This can happen at any time…) When are we going to do ‘x’?
Me: With a blank expression and thinking to myself “This is the first time of heard about this!”
Danger, Will Robinson: I missed something. There was a question I didn’t ask, or I assumed something, or my mind went blank. Whatever, I missed this. Yikes!

Client: People are saying…(usually something that’s not good)
Me: Sigh. Which people? What specifically are they saying?
Danger, Will Robinson: This is nearly impossible to unravel. Does ‘people’ mean everyone, some people, an important person, is it code for ‘I want to say something but am too afraid to do so’? Patience and much questioning is needed to get to the bottom of this.

Client: Can we just add…
Me: How important is this?
Danger, Will Robinson: This is what we call ‘scope creep’. You’re called in to do one thing, and the client thinks it would be useful, because everyone is together, to just add…and add…and add. Before you know it all the time has been used up in the usual stuff of meetings.

Client: We’re so glad you’re available, we couldn’t get anyone else to do this job
Me: Uh-oh!
Danger, Will Robinson: Was it just because everyone else was too busy, or do they know something about this client/job that I don’t?

Client: It’s not going well, is it?
Me: Really?
Danger, Will Robinson: Time to head for the bar!

Client: It’s going really well!
Me: Really?
Danger, Will Robinson: Time to head for the bar!

It’s impossible, really, this work. And that’s what makes it challenging, enjoyable, frustrating – and why I keep coming back for more. If it was easy, I’d soon get bored. I need to remember that there’s a Danger, Will Robinson moment just waiting to pounce at every turn.

What are your Danger, Will Robinson moments?

 

2 Comments so far

  1. Amanda on July 19, 2013 3:06 pm

    Smiled through this one, Viv – thanks for posting. Could almost be a ‘things clients say’ to go along with the ‘things facilitators say’!

  2. Angela Dadds on October 24, 2013 10:28 am

    Viv, how refreshing to hear you describe the challenge of facilitating as impossible… that’s exactly how it feels a lot of the time and I assume it’s just me and that I should start looking for a ‘real’ job… ie something safe that doesn’t require me to be ‘up the front and out of my comfort zone’ Except that when I occasionally do that I can feel my soul literally shrivelling up inside me.
    Most recent Will Robinson moment (and yes I am old enough to know what that is) was when a participant stepped in and started facilitating… I was horrified, offended and very annoyed. On reflection, it was exactly what I had encouraged everyone in the group to do! I am teaching this group a variety of skills, including facilitation and I should have been proud that she was having a go. If only my ego would step aside and let the magic happen!

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