While open space has been part of my facilitation DNA for 25+ years, I don’t always have opportunities to facilitate open space events. That’s changed this past few weeks with two quite different events. The first was for a group of 40 humanitarian workers from the Pacific Region. They meet regularly, but this was the first time they had done so using open space. The second was with around 200 people, many with an engineering background, from a state government organisation.
The first I facilitated alone, the second, I co-faciltated.
Given the choice, I would always choose to co-facilitate. It’s just not possible to have the sort of conversations I like to have with a co-facilltator (Should we or shouldn’t we do this or that? What if we…? How about trying…?) with my client. For one, it would probably freak them out to have too much of an insight into how my brain thinks up, considers, rejects, and eventually, after a circuitous route, lands on a course of action. Or not!
There’s a rhythm to an open space event, especially if people are new to the process. They arrive and view the circle with some suspicion, or at least apprehension. There’s nowhere to hide. It warms up slowly. Even if it’s a short open space, I like to include at least one sleep. People come back different after their subconscious has had a chance to process the experience of open space. Different how, you ask? More relaxed, more confident, willing to jump in – I’m not sure, but you can feel the different energy.
On the whole, I like big open space events better than smaller ones. There’s a buzz, an excitement around being able to get hundreds of people self-organising. It just seems to flow. As we know it always does. For me, it’s more evident when there’s lots of people.
I also love the way people are surprised by how useful it is just to talk with each other. Sure, there’s always someone who is a bit bored, or wants to move along at a faster pace, but generally the feedback is about the joy of actually sitting down and talking about what matters with other people who also care.
My favourite moment in open space is when people reconvene in the circle. I learnt from my friend and mentor, Brian Bainbridge, to sit in the circle and gently ring the bells till everyone comes and sits down. It may take a while, but eventually they do come. And with a large group, there’s also a lot of chatter. I absolutely love that moment, when ringing the bells, and all the chatter has stopped and there’s pretty much complete silence. It’s a moment you can practically touch. I find it deeply satisfying. A bit like open space itself.Facilitation, Open Space | Comment (0)
And how does it differ from any other sorts of facilitation?
It took me a long time – literally years of trial and error – to find my own style of facilitation. It was helpful to see how other people facilitated and I would learn lots from them. But I was not other people. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say there were two huge influences on my facilitation: open space technology and applied improvisation. In-between I learnt lots of processes and techniques, useful of course to have many of these to draw upon, but alone, not enough.
Open space technology and applied improvisation provided a way of being a facilitator,not just doing facilitation. Eh? Does that sound a bit weird? Even if I am not specifically using open space or applied improv, the principles behind these approaches are always a part of how I facilitate.
For example, from open space I learnt to hand over responsibility to the participants, to step out of the limelight, to let people get on with it.
From applied improv I learnt to let go, to trust (both others, and myself), to commit, and how to perform as a facilitator.
Importantly, from both of these practices I learnt these things both cognitively and physically. Letting go is not just an abstract idea, it is a physical process.
Fast forward to 2010 when Johnnie Moore and I co-founded Creative Facilitation. Creative Facilitation embodies (literally) the best of open space and applied improvisation, and importantly, is based on this premise: that the participants in any workshop are creative, intelligent and want to succeed. With that in mind, we facilitate with people, not for people. It’s nuanced, and for me, it’s pivotal.Facilitation, Improv, Open Space | Comment (0)
You might be surprised by the variety and depth of ways to engage people,especially if you’re stuck in a meeting rut, listening to others drone on, and rarely having time to discuss what really matters.
I make my living from facilitating, so I’m always on the lookout for new ideas and better, more creative, and more engaging ways to get the best out of people in a meeting.
I’m hosting a two-day Creative Facilitation workshop in Melbourne on November 26 and 27. You’ll be able to share your reactions and insights with other professionals grappling with the same issues that you are. You’ll spend very little time sitting down, a lot of time doing; and while our appraoches are grounded in behavioural science, you won’t be bombarded with theory. You’ll leave with practical ideas to try at your next meeting or event.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Beyond the traditional ‘facilitator’ role – What does leading a meeting mean in today’s workplaces? How to avoid the mistakes that traditional education teaches us about how people share, learn and interact.
Participatory approaches – Ways of sharing information, gathering ideas, and making decisions that helps a group connect and engage with the content. How to create an environment of open-ness and trust, and getting people to work together.
Beyond words – How to get beyond wordy, and worthy, sometimes meaningless, words to unearth what’s really going on – using photos, action and story.
Bravo! You as a performer – While the group, and the processes you use, are important, what about you? How do you deal with challenges, stage fright, a crisis of confidence? The second day of this workshop focuses on YOU and gives you tips and tools to manage yourself, especially when things go wrong.Facilitation, Learning | Comment (0)
With lots of Creative Facilitation training under my belt, the challenge is to keep it fresh. The danger is complacency. Two things happened in today’s training that helped with the freshness. Actually, one happened even before I arrived. I’d decided I’d done enough preparation, so on the train to Melbourne, decided to read the paper on-line. Skipping through politics, economics and sport, I landed on this article about research that reveals the predictors of a successful relationship.
Here’s the crux of the article:
“Say you look out your window one evening and see a huge full moon bobbing just above the horizon. Flushed with wonder, you turn to your partner and say “hey sweet cheeks! Isn’t the moon beautiful tonight?” This, according to Gottman, is a “bid” – a request for a response that will hopefully lead to a small connection between the two of you – an understanding that, on this particular topic, you share the same worldview.
Your partner now has a choice to make – they can look up and say “wow! It is beautiful!” or something similarly agreeable. The Gottmans call this a “turning toward”. (Seasoned improvisational artists like Tina Fey call it the part where you say “yes, and …” to keep a scene moving.)
Or, they can keep eye contact with their computer device and mutter “mm hmm”, or worse, remain silent. That would be called “turning away”.”
Ah-ha, you can see where I’m going with this.
Relationships are at the heart of everything. We might like to ignore relationships in favour of the ‘real’ work. Please do – it will keep me in work for years to come!
Not noticing, ignoring and actively blocking offers is a fast-forward to trouble.
Seemed relevant to the group I was working with today, so I rejigged the non-existent agenda, and incorporated a few activities around making and accepting offers. You can’t plan for this.
And secondly, the flip chart paper I’d planned on using wasn’t available. Rather than stressing, and worrying, I simply decided to do something different. It resulted in a new approach to an activity that I’ve done a squillion times.
Can’t plan for that either.
Seemed appropriate for a workshop on the uses of creative facilitation in innovation.Facilitation, Innovation, Learning | Comment (0)
Nothing is Written
Experiences over explanation
Avoiding the teacher trance
The value of loose ends
Getting out of our heads
Getting over ourselves
We think it’s possible to create more engaging training that plays to human strengths and avoids many of the cliches found in training rooms worldwide. We hope you enjoy it. It’s free and available from here.
Once you’ve read the book, if you’d like to experience for yourself how we work, we have workshops coming up in Melbourne and London. There’s more information here.Facilitation, Learning | Comment (0)
How does a facilitator announce new stuff? A musician brings out a new song or album, an artist has an exhibition of their latest paintings, a writer releases a new book or poem – and a facilitator announces…”I have new stuff to share with you.” Sounds a bit lame really.
Nonetheless, I DO have new stuff to share with you – gleaned from a trip to that other hemisphere where I took part in an improvisation retreat and a learning village, hung out with some seriously cool people, finished a project that’s been on the go for a couple of years, explored street art in Shoreditch (oh, I’m getting distracted now).
It’s boring to talk about this stuff – much better to do it. So I’ll be sharing my new stuff on June 17 and 18 at my favourite venue, the Donkey Wheel House in Bourke Street Melbourne. I hope you can join me. Use the promo code newstuff2015 for a 20% discount. Yay!
Everyone’s offering training at this time of the year (let’s face it, everyone’s offering training all year round!) How do you choose? Not sure, but here’s my advice:
PICK ME! PICK ME!
Come along and find out for yourself. Melbourne. February 11 and 12. Use the Promotional Code of CF20 for a 20% discount on registration costs. Shhhh – don’t tell everyone.
And if you’re in London, do a Molly (that’s Australian for ‘do yourself a favour’) and get yourself along to one of Johnnie Moore’s workshops on February 5 and 6.Facilitation, Learning | Comment (0)
Musing over the meaning of these words – play, playfulness, game, activity, ice-breaker and warm-up – I invited others to share their understanding. Even with a sample size of 14 responses*, there’s some interesting insights regarding word meanings and the use of language when facilitating. here’s what i discovered.
Some people gave meanings for each word, others took the words as a collective and said what they mean to them: eg “Fun, sharing and the unknown”; “getting together and learning from having fun”. So there’s my first insight:
Even instructions are interpreted differently
That’s not to say everyone should interpret instructions the same way (unless it’s the safe operation of a chainsaw). There’s something interesting and unexpected about what emerges from different interpretations of instructions. Plus, who am I to know the ‘best’ or ‘right’ way of doing an activity?
A word with no context can be taken many different ways
Play, for example can be a verb (activities done primarily for leisure or enjoyment), a noun (a theatrical performance), or an object (the button you push to start a DVD player). This really drove home the point for me that, as facilitators, we may use words that mean a certain thing to us, but may be interpreted quite differently by others. It’s a clue, I think, to talk less, and do more.
There was no agreement on what these words mean, because ‘meanings are slippery’
Thanks to the person who alerted me to this. I understand what I mean when I use a particular word, you may understand something completely different. I remember an animated argument I once had with a US journalist about ‘organic’ agriculture. After a while, I asked him what he meant by ‘organic’ and we discovered that what I understood to be ‘organic’ he understood as ‘biodynamic’: related yes, but somewhat different. We sometimes need to clarify and negotiate what we mean when we use various words. And sometimes we need to be open to accepting a different, or changed, meaning to the one we had in mind.
Our experiences and influencers shape our understanding
“I didn’t come all this way to play games!” said a manager in one of my workshops. In his mind ‘play’ and ‘game’ had a particular meaning, and place. And it certainly wasn’t in a facilitated workshop. A colleague is very clear that a ‘game’ is something that has rules, winners and losers. If it’s a collaborative, group game then, in his mind, it’s not a ‘game’, it’s an activity. A hunter would have a different understanding of ‘game’ eg a wild animal; and game can be used as an adjective ‘are you game to do that?’
Language is an abstraction and representative
The words I type here reflect my thoughts, they are not my thoughts. The word ‘chair’ is not a chair. At least a chair is a concrete object that I can point to, touch, feel, and sit in – even though there are many different types of chairs. Abstract language, which crops up a lot in workshops, is even harder to deal with: communication, strategy, best practice etc. and is fraught with danger.
Meaning can be sucked out of words
Don Watson, in his book, Weasel Words (2004), talks about ‘sucking the meaning out of words’. “This is a language without possibility. It cannot convey humour, fancy, feelings, nuance, or the varieties of experience…This dead, depleted, verbless jargon is becoming the language of daily life. The death of language is not being brought about by absent commas, and misplaced apostrophes, or even by neglected grammar. Foolish as that neglect is, the real disease is in the system…it is there in the cant of competitive advantage and human resources management, transparency, accountability: in the clichés, consumer, client, key, core, going forwards, at the end of the day, outcomes-based. It is there in the pompous lunacy of management jargon which reaches from the world’s biggest corporations and government agencies…to primary schools where children now use PowerPoint in English presentations and are taught to call the conclusions of their history essays product.”
We can have an emotional reaction to particular words
And usually it’s not a good reaction – these words close us down. You probably know what yours are. If someone tells me in a workshop that ‘communication is the problem’ I inwardly sigh and immediately wish I were somewhere else; if someone suggest a SWOT analysis I want to scream. These words trigger a response in me. They may be completely benign to others. In his recent AFN post, Peter Rennie, talks about ‘taboo’ words and muses as to what makes them taboo. Is it because they are ‘shadow’ words, words that remind us of something we’d rather forget or ignore? Interesting question.
What’s all this got to do with facilitating?
Language is a form of power. Don Watson (2003) again: “Public language that defies normal understanding is, as Primo Levi wrote, ‘an ancient repressive artifice, known to all churches, the typical vice of our political class, the foundation of all colonial empires’. They will tell you it is in the interests of leadership, management, efficiency, stakeholders, the bottom line or some democratic imperative, but the public language remains the language of power. It has its origins in the subjection or control of one by another.”
As facilitators we need to cultivate our ability to sniff out weasel words and to challenge them. In a workshop someone suggested ‘business as usual’ was needed. This is a meaningless term to me, so I probed a bit more. What they really wanted to say was ‘we need to honour our existing commitments’. Still not great, but at least better than ‘business as usual’.
And we also need to be aware of our own facilitation weasel words. There’s a great hash tag on Twitter #shitfacilitatorssay. I cringe every time, seeing myself using ‘facilitator’ language.
It pays to be vigilant – to notice the language others use, to notice the language we use, to be aware of the power of language, and to sometimes let go of language altogether and tap into more embodied experiences of sharing.
* To be perfectly clear, this is definitely not a scientific study – it was a random on-line question to facilitator groups with the invitation to share what these words mean to them.
Don Watson (2003) Death sentence; the decay of public language, Random House, Sydney.
Don Watson (2004) Watson’s dictionary of weasel words, contemporary clichés, cant and management jargon, Random House, Sydney.Facilitation, Language | Comment (0)
Inspired by TrampolineDay and Open Space – it’s what to do when you don’t have time for either of those processes. I had about 75 minutes, a group of about 20 people, and an obvious need to talk about lots of stuff. I knew this because, well, I was observant, and also because people kept coming up to me and asking if they could “just have a couple of minutes to talk about X”
I’m not a fan of one-to-many, or whole group, processes, especially when people are physically together in the same space. There’s too much scope for just a few to dominate, both the discussion and the agenda, and to get bogged down in details. Soon enough, the devices emerge and people start to disengage.
I think Idea Bounce is a cool alternative.
Here’s how it works. Mark 3 or 4 spaces in the room (keeping people in the same room maintains the energy, and you don’t lose time walking to other rooms or spaces. Just another reason to have as large a room as possible, and to get rid of the tables!). Decide if you want three 20-minutes sessions or two 30-minute sessions. In this case I chose four spaces (A,B,C and D) and two 30-minute sessions. After all, I’d never done this before so had no idea how it would work.
I drew the grid on a whiteboard and titled it “Stuff I want to talk about…”
And here’s the best bit (that I learned from TrampolineDay). I created a pitch box, designated with masking tape on the floor, just big enough for one person. To get one of the slots on the grid, you had to step into the pitch box and announce your idea. This did two things. First, it made people get up and commit to stepping in and announcing what it was they wanted to talk about, and secondly, only one person could pitch at a time. The grid filled within minutes, and then people got to work.
*pats self on back*Facilitation | Comment (1)
If you could draw a caricature of a facilitator, what would you include?
- Covered in sticky notes, in multiple colours and sizes
- Surrounded by butcher’s paper
- Holding multiple marker pens
- Trying to herd cats or catch clouds
- Wielding a whip or cattle prod
- Standing in front of, or at the centre of, a group of reluctant participants
- Constantly donning a selection of interchangeable hats: party hat, policeman’s helmet, hard hat, artist’s beret, timekeeper’s cap
And so on.
What you probably wouldn’t see, is this:
That’s because the most powerful work of facilitation is that which goes unseen. It’s what the facilitator is not doing.
Letting go of control, enabling the group to do the work, and holding the space for whatever it is the group has to do. Sure, there may be some suggestions as to process, but inevitably the group will do the work themselves.
The facilitator’s role is to get out of the way while remaining present.
Sounds easy. Quite difficult.Facilitation | Comment (0)