Enhance your facilitation effectiveness

Avoid holding a pen

I received a number of comments about my article Why I don’t hold a pen: the perils of pen holding.  In the original article, I explored what I believe to be a crucial issue –facilitators are likely to be more effective if they do not carry a pen.

Some people felt I was being strangely brave while others expressed disbelief and bewilderment: how can you run a group session if you don’t use a pen?

As a result of these comments, I have had further thoughtsharpie-flip-chart-blues on what I believe to be an essential approach.

Before you continue reading – I hope – let’s be absolutely clear: I do not write anything, all recorded discussion is written by the participants and by the participants alone.

Organisational culture

Let’s take a step back and start with organisational culture.  The organisation, or organisations, that you work for – what is the prevailing culture?  Is it a culture in which information and knowledge are openly released, judgment and expertise freely shared, feedback encouraged?

Or, are these matters largely suppressed?

You will have experienced this suppression in most meetings.  The majority of meetings are chaired by the boss.  The boss frequently hogs the flipchart, holds a pen and dominates the airwaves.  The unspoken objective is control rather than release.  The end result: acquiescence triumphs over participation.

The facilitator who uses a pen, is likely to introduce these major blockages to group communication – perpetuating the elements of negative culture and hierarchical domination.

Consequently, the risk of a facilitated session run by a person who writes up contributions is that it will be no better than a normal meeting.

“What motivates you?”

Let me tell you of an experience of mine which helped me develop my approach to facilitation.

I was running a series of training courses for the managers of an IT company.

I gained the impression that one group of managers was disengaged at work and ineffective in their roles – they were certainly unresponsive in the training sessions.  In an attempt to stimulate their brains and generate discussion, I asked what motivated them.

There I was, gripping the flip and poised with pen.

“Getting a car,” was the first response.  I wrote ‘car’ on the flip chart.  “Yes,” said the second, “a posh car.”  I inserted ‘posh’.

“A BMW….”

“..or a Jag.”  (Laughter.)

They were getting silly.  It was too much for me.  I was frustrated that I could not fit ‘posh car’ into any motivational theory that I knew.  It was time to take control and explain what motivation really meant and how it applied to them.

“Right.  What you are really saying is ‘money’.  Because you can’t get an expensive car unless you have the money.”  So I wrote ‘money’ on the flip chart.

I think their contributions dried up a bit after that.

Lessons learned

Looking back, I feel ashamed of my behaviour.  But, as I moved from training into facilitation, this experience taught me four vital and related concepts in my approach.

First, you have to work within the culture of the organisation.  If you hold a pen, you are more likely to judge contributions, edit them, push the conversation the way you think it should be going.  Start where they areHBS team 2 at.  Remember: the participants are the experts, not you.

Second, avoid control and interference.  If you, as a facilitator, ask a question, you have to accept all the individual answers in their original form, not change the words nor interfere with the content.

Third, if I do not hold a pen, ownership remains firmly with the participants.  They then own every contribution and they own the output.

Fourth, it is a characteristic of many interventions by consultants, trainers and facilitators that they parachute in and then gallop off into the distance leaving the client unsupported and in a state of chaos.

This is less likely to happen if the client owns the contributions and the output – output to which all have contributed and to which all are committed.

Next week I will post a follow up: how I  generate  and manage contributions.  There – something to look forward to.

Teams that win or lose

The Rugby World Cup is currently being contested in England at the moment.  Over five weeks, many teams have already been eliminated, including England.

It has made me wonder whether you have noticed what people say – and probably, what you say if you play sport – after they have just played a game?

The first factor, understandably, is whether they were successful, and won; or whether they were unsuccessful, and lost.

But, what do they say after that – this is where it gets interesting and the conclusions can be applied to teams at work.

What team members say next depends on their degree of realism about their performance and how honest they are in analysing what needs to be done next.

If you put these two concepts together, win/lose and degree of realism, you create a four box model which helps analyse the situation:

Whingers or complainers are losers who do not accept responsibility for their poor performance.  They apportion blame and refuse to acknowledge their own shortcomings.

Whingers apply false rationalisation such as it was too early in the morning, the referee was against us, the sun was in our eyes, we never got going.  Reality is buried under clichés – rub of the green, bounce of the ball, the dice were loaded against us from the start, so near yet so far….

Teams in organisations that are whingers, blame other teams or suppliers or customers for their shortcomings, never themselves.  In doing so, they erect a wall to separate them from the rest of the world.

Or, worse still, they point the finger at other team members, which leads to low loyalty, dissension and a further deterioration in performance.

Improvers acknowledge defeat but they analyse the reasons and explore how to raise their performance.  They say: We didn’t like that result – let’s look at what we have to do different so that next time we perform better.

A team of improvers has a constructive discussion and faces up to unpopular decisions.  They acknowledge what went wrong and search for a different approach to improve performance.

When complacents win, they see it as an end result, an arrival.  They look to the past.  They say: That worked, so more of the same is the order of the day.…never change a winning team….if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

A team of complacents may rely on a few performers and will find it hard to recover when things go wrong.  They fail to realise that success and a high standard of performance will be temporary unless more focus is applied.

World class performers recognise that, when they win, they need to improve still further and that winning is only a start.  They look to the future – the next game is the most important one.  They recognise that others may catch up with them.

They focus on delivering high performance and accept individual and collective responsibility in achieving that.

Teams in business, indeed whole organisations, behave in a similar way.  Teams that whinge blame the customer or the economy for the poor situation.  Improvers use problems as a means to improve their service.  Complacents stick to traditional methods and refuse to accept change.    World class performers develop themselves and the whole team, on a path of continuous improvement.


Prevent your feedback and appraisals going wrong

Appraisals can be one of the most difficult activities to get right.

When implemented effectively, they are a source of development for both the appraisee and the appraiser, and they open up organisational communication.  The trouble is, the prevailing organisational culture and the attitude of individuals means you may well experience the following approaches.

“This is your annual appraisal interview”

Approach  “This is your annual appraisal interview as required by the company, in which the manager, that’s me, has the opportunity to critique your performance over the last twelve months.  I’ve been interviewed by my boss.  Now it’s your turn to be done.”

Analysis  An appraisal process that is seen as one way and downward, right and wrong, reinforces management hierarchy and control.  Staff are suspicious because this approach focuses on what the organisation demands, rather than what the individual might potentially contribute.

An effective appraisal is a collaborative approach, a two way process in which both people give feedback to each other.  An effective appraisal is based on a shared overall aim – to explore how we, together, can be more effective.

“The problem with you is…”

Approach  “The role of the boss, that’s me, is to provide clear direction.   I won’t beat about the bush.  Both of us need to know where we stand.  These are your faults and you have got to work on them or you won’t get anywhere around here.”

Analysis  Many managers feel that an appraisal means criticism, that it is a process of correction, more like a disciplinary hearing.  One company I worked in openly called it “character assassination.”

There are two issues here.  One is that the focus of an appraisal should be forward, constructive and about potential; not backward, destructive and about faults.

The second issue is that one individual is using their position power to pass judgment on what they consider to be right and wrong – imposing their views on another, rather than engaging in an exploratory conversation.

Feedback should provide the appraisee with more options in the future, not fewer.

“If I were you…”

Approach  “If I were you (you have a big disadvantage in not being me)….”

Analysis  This is a crippling message to send out.  First of all, it may appear as advice but is, in fact, an order: “Do it my way, and properly.”

Second, the boss underlines the fact that, in their position, they universally have more wisdom, greater experience and a barrow load of charisma – all of which are lacking in their subordinates.  This discourages creativity, energy, innovation, initiative and commitment.

The best appraisal process is one which enables the appraisee to draw conclusions for themselves.

“You shouldn’t have done that”

Approach  “I’d have done it differently (and much better.)  And we wouldn’t be wasting time now talking about it, if you had tried to use common sense before you started.”

Analysis  This is another crippling message, stifling originality and limiting development.  This approach is negative and backward looking.

There are so many positive ways discussion can be opened: “How do you feel negotiations with the suppliers went….How are you getting on with Chris….What personal development do you want to focus on this coming year?”  And the big one: “What can I do for you that will help you do a better job?”

The best feedback helps people grow, it does not diminish them.

“I think you did that because….”

Approach  “Nothing escapes my attention.  And I am pretty astute when it comes to psychology and I’ve got you worked out.  I know what makes people tick.”

Analysis  Not only is the boss a snoop but, beware, they are also a mind reader with superior powers.

When giving feedback, provide examples and focus on observable behaviour. Avoid speculating about people’s inner thoughts or pursuing personal theories.

“I know how it feels”

Approach  “I’ve actually experienced the same as you, only worse.  So you have my sympathy.  It’s not funny, I can tell you.  I conquered adversity.  So….”

Analysis  The receiver of this comment has had an experience that is personal to them and it might have been painful.  The boss has not had that experience and doesn’t know what it feels like, however similar they feel their situations may have been.

The next phrase is likely to be along the lines of “so you have just got to grin and bear it” or “just pull your socks up” or “do what I did”.  In other words an unsympathetic response followed by an order.  This approach is another means to exert control.

Avoid clichés like “I know how it feels” and avoid showing pretend sympathy.  Instead, ask questions: “Looking back, how do you feel about it now?”

“My door is always open”

Approach  “In conclusion, I want you to feel you can come and see me any time.  No problem is too small for me if it’s worrying you.  I’d like to think we can work things out together.  You know, heart to heart.  Now, I must get on….”

Analysis  My first boss used to say this to me and I was immediately confused.  Maybe his door was open but he was rarely in there and, when he was, he seemed to have far more important things to do.

I would be interested to hear of similar comments you have experienced in the name of providing feedback, so please let me know.

engage // collaborate // commit