Tag Archives: problem solving

Facilitating a session without using a pen

In my most recent article, Enhance your facilitation effectiveness, I put forward the view that the effectiveness of the facilitator can be increased if they do not write anything during a session – transferring, instead, all the generation and recording of contributions to the participants.

This practice means that the participants own the content and, especially, the output.  My experience is, if the participants contribute fully throughout the process, they are more likely to be committed to the actions they have proposed.

How do I manage without using a pen?


The first activity

Let’s start with design.

A facilitated session that has been well designed has specific objectives – each objective is a separate agenda item.

For example, if you are conducting a project review, the first objective is most likely to be to define what was successful in the project.  This objective can be achieved by asking a simple question: What went well.

To start off, the participants arrange themselves in small groups to consider this question.  Every person has a pen and cards – this means that every single person has the opportunity to contribute.

The purpose of this activity in small groups is not to gain agreement but to generate ideas.  This gets the participants familiar with a crucial concept: If I want my ideas heard, I must respect the right of the others to have their ideas heard.

They also experience two other positive concepts.

First, this is a dynamic activity which engages all.  And second you, the participants, not a facilitator, are responsible for its success.

Wyeth team working 1

Sharing the contributions

Having discussed the question, generated ideas and written their answers, the participants give me their cards.

We are all eager to see what others have written.  Indeed, excited.

This first plenary session is usually powerful.  On most occasions, the introduction of the first contributions is met with nervous laughter.  Then, there is recognition that what someone has written is what we have all been thinking but have not dared to say.

Participants then realise that we are talking about what actually happened – and that many others think the same.  Phew!

I post the cards on the boards, the participants telling me how to arrange them – cards with similar ideas are placed together to form clusters.


Subsequent contributions

At the same time, subsequent cards can be added but only by agreement with the whole group.  These new cards are written by one of the participants.

To write these new cards, I choose the first person to my right to write the first cards; then the next person becomes secretary to write further cards, and so on round the group.


Clustering and heading


Having put all the cards in clusters as instructed by the group, I check each cluster with the participants:

– does every card in this cluster belong here

– are there others that can be added from elsewhere on the boards

– what words summarise the contents?

They agree the wording for a heading for each cluster and the secretary writes the heading cards which I post on the board.


The significance of visualisation

As a participant, you write your own contributions to share with the group and then you see them on the boards.  Your cards are in your handwriting.  This is a powerful experience.

You see that your card has significance and you recognise that the cards from the other people have significance just like yours.  You see how each card complements the other contributions.

If you are a participant, you are fully engaged in this process through your contributions and then by directing the organisation of the cards on the boards.  You see how the discussion builds from many disparate ideas into a logical and coherent structure.

The boards are a physical focus of attention.  In a facilitated event, you experience far greater concentration levels.  The focus is on the content – not behaviour, not seniority, nor whose idea it is.

All contributions are equal and not dependent on the loudness of your voice nor the speed of your car.  Everyone is focused on the same thing at the same time and directly related to the issues that they wish to resolve.

So, that is the process – what are the benefits?


The benefits of this process

I will mention what I believe to be the two most significant benefits.

First, this process uncovers what is actually happening, not what we are supposed to think or are expected to say.  Everyone can plainly see what is going on.  When action is proposed, those actions are made on facts, not supposition nor wishful thinking.

Second, engagement in the process leads to ownership.  This, in turn, leads to commitment; actions proposed will be executed.

The facilitator does not resolve disagreement

One major reason for employing a facilitator is when an organisation is experiencing disagreement.

The nature of the disagreement may be simple, such as failure to agree action needed to solve a problem: which is the best way forward? what do we do first?

Or, the situation may be deeper, such as animosity between teams over issues like responsibilities, quality of deliverables or poor communication (it’s always “communication”).  Individuals may discuss these matters amongst themselves but would never raise them with the other team for fear of reprisals and worsening the situation.

A question I have often been asked is “How do you successfully resolve disagreement?”

I find this question difficult to answer because I am not sure that I, personally, resolve disagreement.  I feel that the resolution of disagreement is the responsibility of the participants working within the structure of the event.

Let me explain.  A significant amount of the effectiveness of a facilitated intervention rests with the design, in the planning beforehand.

The participants may be strongly entrenched in their own ideas and opposed to the ideas of others, but it is the design of the event that enables them to reach an agreed and successful conclusion.

This article explores how a carefully designed event manages disagreement to achieve this agreed and successful conclusion.

Overall aim and output

The first stage in planning is to agree an overall aim with the client.  If we take the example of a project review, this might be:

Explore lessons learned, for both individuals and the organisation, to make future projects more effective

The enhanced effectiveness of future projects will be through an action plan – hard output agreed and generated by the participants.

Overall aim and output are vital to a collaborative process.  If these two elements are clearly defined, they focus the participants on what they have in common, rather than differences of status, experience, qualifications or gender.

Agenda items

The second stage in planning is to take the end result and work backwards.  If this is what the event aims to achieve, the client and the facilitator explore what steps have to be taken to get there.  In other words, the agenda items.

Each agenda item has a specific objective and is based on a question.  For example, if we take the earlier example of the project review, you might start with:

What went well

You can think of agenda items as being like control gates – you may not approach and open the next gate until you have completed the current task.

One immediate benefit of having a disciplined approach to each agenda item, is that you eliminate topic leakage.  Topic leakage is a common meeting problem in which uncontrolled discussion jumps to parallel or unrelated issues, causing frustration and acrimony.

For example, if someone says that inter-team communication was good, another person may say that it wasn’t.  An argument ensues: Oh yes it was, oh no it wasn’t; was, wasn’t.

I remind people that, currently, we are looking at what went well.  If you feel communication was not good in the project, remember this point and raise it in the next session when we will looking at the things that did not go so well.

One of the strengths of the project has been agreed, everyone is satisfied and we remain focused.  The participants are reassured that the process works.

The process itself

The third stage in planning is to agree how the event itself will be run and how contributions will be made.

One thing I say at the start of an event is “Disagreement is normal.  Here we have a number of people, each one of you has your own ideas.  This is an opportunity to share these ideas so please allow others to do the same.  If disagreement becomes obstructive, we will not achieve our aims.  When disagreement is healthy, we will.”

Participants realise that it is OK to mention matters that, hitherto, everyone has avoided.  They will be prepared to open up and raise potentially controversial issues, knowing they have permission to do so.  Others may disagree with what is said, but the contribution will be dealt with constructively.

Discussion is driven by cards and large pinboards.  Participants work initially in small groups, generating ideas.  They share and discuss these ideas, and each person writes each one on a card.  The purpose of this phase is for everyone to generate as many ideas as possible, but not to evaluate them – this comes later.

The only guidelines I suggest are one idea per card, seven words maximum and please write clearly.

I collect the cards, read out each one and put them on the boards where the participants tell me to.  I do not carry a pen and do no writing myself – the content is owned totally by the participants.  This is another reminder for them of their responsibility.

The final element I would like to mention with regard to the process, is prioritising – this is probably a method most of you already use.  The participants have sticky dots and put their dots on the issues that they feel are the most important for them.

One rule I suggest is a maximum of two dots on any one issue to avoid a small number of people skewing the results.  The prioritised list may be flatter but the result reflects accurately the wishes of the whole group.

Further consequences and benefits

This careful planning provides participants with reassuring certainty.  They can concentrate on contributing because they know exactly where they are, why they are there and where they are going – can you say that about the usual meetings you attend?

Clear guidelines and a facilitator who provides direction, gives the participants confidence and a recognition of mutual dependence – if we are going to achieve the overall aim, we are going to have to cooperate.

This encourages listening.  If you want your viewpoint acknowledged, you have to allow airtime to others.  Differences are recognised and accepted, rather than becoming divisive.

Participants also realise that it is up to them, here and now.  The facilitator is not an expert in the content but in the process.  So the participants have responsibility for the output, the action agreed and, at the same time, the handling of disagreement.

As the result of an open approach by the facilitator and a solid design, the participants achieve what we originally agreed – to make both the organisation and the individuals more effective.

Facilitation : the benefits 3

Self reliance and speed

This is the third article of a three part exploration of the benefits of facilitation

The client is self-reliant

The output from every facilitation assignment is an action plan.  Each plan of action is unique but, whatever its content, the responsibility for the plan is with the client and not with the facilitator.  Part of the process of the event itself is to transfer ownership from the facilitator to the client, to make the client autonomous and self-reliant.

The client needs to understand this from the start.  They don’t have life jackets, no safety ropes, no parachutes – they are responsible, this is it.

What is the facilitator responsible for?  The facilitator is responsible for defining requirements with the client – the overall aim and the specific objectives.  The facilitator is also responsible, with the client, for the design of the event and the structure of the output.  And then the facilitator is responsible for managing the process itself.

But – the facilitator is not responsible for the content.  It seems to me that a facilitator should walk backwards as soon as they are in front of the participants.  Yes, we are very much present at the centre of the discussions, but the focus is on the participants and their contributions, not on us.  We are transparent.

The experts in a facilitated event are the participants.  They know the company, its customers and suppliers; they are part of the culture.  They know intimately what is happening.  They may have strong feelings and they will have up to the minute examples to back up their assertions.  It is not our role to interfere with this experience.

This approach is different from the traditional approach of a consultant in which this person is seen as an expert.   They are listened to, their advice is sought and followed.  Why ignore them?  There are occasions when you need an expert but, in this instance, the facilitator’s expertise is in the process, not the content.

So, how is self-reliance a benefit?

Well, if the client realises it is up to them, they accept the responsibility. They embark on a journey of self-determination – this creates a great deal of energy and urgency.  The real issues are raised, discussed and prioritised.

The actions they create to address the priority issues are understood by all, because all have contributed, and the commitment to enhanced effectiveness is great.

Self-reliance gives the client confidence – they know they can do it – and the plans don’t fall over when the facilitator departs.


Clients have frequently been amazed at the end of an event, saying to me “I really didn’t believe you when you said we would do it in one day.”

What can you achieve in one day?  Strategy, project start up, project review, BPR, customer service, performance management, training needs analysis….

These initiatives need careful planning by the facilitator including consultation before the event with key personnel to help design the approach.  But the engine room of the initiative is undertaken in one day.  Everybody – a team, senior managers, service providers, clients – whether it is six or one hundred, come together in one room for one day and they leave with a plan.

Let’s take a specific assignment such as an IT strategy.

The traditional approach involves a consultant or the IT Manager visiting the major stakeholders and asking what their IT requirements are.  If IT has a less than glowing reputation, responses may not be very helpful.

The consultant or IT Manager arranges meetings, not all of which may be successful or, even, do not happen.  They listen to complaints.  They make copious notes.  They send out questionnaires; some of them are returned.

Then, how do you compare the importance and urgency of one manager’s contributions with those of other managers, or their veracity?

All participants in this process may be tempted to skew the findings and the focus is often technical.

The consultant or IT manager then works hard, late at night, to prepare a report and presentation with fancy charts.  At this presentation half the managers disagree with half the findings and the end result is low commitment to a plan that is out of date, too technical and seen as not addressing their real issues.

This process takes months.

In contrast, using the approach of facilitation, I get all the stakeholders together at the same time to focus on effectiveness.

Similar to the traditional approach, I would start by meeting each of the senior managers separately.  The purpose is to hear of the satisfaction with previous strategies, the current situation, their potential requirements and, finally, their hopes and fears with regard to a day’s facilitated event.

Then, I would gather all the senior managers together for one day and I would ask them how they think the IT unit could make them more effective – there are other questions they need to consider, but this effectiveness question is at the heart of the event.

This approach has many benefits.  If you lead with a question on effectiveness, the participants focus on their work issues and their future, rather than the past and blame.  They are forced to think about their own plans and opportunities rather than the attraction of new technology.

They share their concerns and aspirations so that any action agreed is coherent.  A clear perspective emerges because they are allowed to articulate their feelings and appreciate the ideas of others.  They are committed to the actions because they have created the plans themselves.

And, finally, the output is on their desk the next morning with a reminder of what they said they would do that next day so momentum is not lost.

Elapsed time using the approach of facilitation?  Three weeks.

Traditional approach?  Four months?