Blog > Recipes

February 3, 2013

It’s been a while – blogging that is. Now that the excitement of our book launch is abating (thanks for all your lovely comments, by the way – and over 2000 downloads, that’s pretty amazing) it’s time to resume some normal blogging (whatever that looks like).

I’ve been thinking about recipes. I have lots of books of recipes (I’m talking cooking here). I’m in the process of digitising my favourites – I know, such a geeky thing to do. And out of all the thousands of recipes I have access to (and that’s only on my bookshelves, haven’t even started on the web yet), there’s just a handful that are my real favourites. My ‘go to’ recipes. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped learning. I like to try my hand at different things – like Moroccan tangines, and Lao salads. I’ve been thinking about why some books get used, others looked at once and then gather dust. Some books provide just one or two great recipes: from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Simone Beck and Julia Child I learnt how to make a sponge, and incidentally, how to bone a chicken (something I’ve done, oh, maybe two or three times and will possibly never do again); from Jamie Oliver I learnt how to make risotto; and in Paul Gayler’s Pure Vegetarian I discovered my all-time favourite salad – ruby salad with beetroot, watermelon and goat’s curd.

The recipes though, are only part of the story. They remind me what I already know, they remind me of quantities but they don’t show me how to cook. They don’t describe techniques. It’s the understanding of techniques that is more important than the recipes. With a solid repertoire of techniques – and a few ingredients – I can improvise when I need to. I don’t even need a recipe. This didn’t happen overnight – it’s a lifetime’s accumulation of knowledge and honing of skills.

Bit like facilitating really (you knew that was coming didn’t you?)

I was asked recently to review a facilitation process that seemed to have more akin to recipes than technique. Here’s what I noticed. I wonder if you have noticed similar things, especially when participating in a workshop?

The whole process seemed simply a means to get people talking together with its roots in a fairly linear process. No matter how it’s framed it’s still a linear: do A, then B, then C and voila! Rewarding in the short term, in the long term, I’m not sure what difference it makes. People leave having followed a recipe, with some heavy-handed facilitation to boot, and I wonder what, if anything they have learned about tackling similar issues themselves in the future. Too harsh?

Like recipes, what some processes do is give people a language and framework to talk with each other – often needed because people generally don’t have the will or the patience to struggle through and see what emerges. I wonder how useful shared language and frameworks are without understanding. Turns into empty words I would imagine. Or maybe that understanding eventually emerges.

I think ultimately, my main concern is that these approaches don’t necessarily lead to any change or action – a whole process of action planning at the end of the workshop is a cop out. It’s done INSTEAD of doing something. I do it all the time, I’d much rather write a list about what I will do than actually get on and do it. I think action plans are just lists at a larger scale. Bit like writing a shopping list and preparing a menu for a meal, but never actually getting on with shopping and cooking.

What’s missing from such processes? Iteration, fast prototyping of solutions, testing, throwing out and trying something else. Too much front end cognitive framing of the problem, not enough messy play.

Others things I’d change – using round tables (they get in the way), people working in the same groups throughout (where’s the opportunity to find ideas from diverse perspectives?), taking something complex and trying to explain the unexplainable – the tyranny of the explicit, and reflection that forces people into one approach – sitting quietly writing. How about doing yoga? Going for a swim? Playing table tennis? Why does reflection have to be only ‘quiet time’? (too much like primary school!)

This is typical of conventional (and somewhat successful) forms of facilitation. Nothing visceral, no edges, no people doing their art and letting the rest of the world see it – it’s, at its heart, a process about controlling what others do.

I think it’s an approach to facilitation that is like a sugary snack. It satisfies in the short term, but leaves you feeling unsatisfied later on, and worse, craving more.

All facilitators know to avoid sugary snacks in workshops. Maybe we should also look at what we do and make sure we’re not providing the equivalent with our processes.



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