Facilitation

Giddy-Up

When my daughter was three, the favourite game at home was called ‘Giddy Up’. I was the horse and she would clamber on to my back and shout ‘giddy-up’. I had to move ahead emitting neighs. Every time she wanted a bit more excitement, her magic word was ‘giddy up’ and I had to change pace. (a.k.a faster).

One horse that I would like to clamber on and ride into the future is a steed named Facilitation. And guess what, ‘Giddy Up’ would be the first thing that I would say. There are several reasons.

Facilitation is best poised to be a potent tool to build dialogue and bridges in a world that is mired in conflict and walls. There are several other reasons and I would urge you to give this a read.

For years now, the power of debate, dialogue and the strength of human connection pulled mankind through. Now stare at several abysses. The invasion of technology, the loss of connect, the generational gap, the resurrection of walls and much else. It is time to say ‘giddy up’ all over again and help the world experience the power of facilitation.

Giddy-Up for #Facweek

The week beginning 15th October is being celebrated as the International Facilitation Week. There are several events that are happening around the world for the same.

You could consider being part of a few or follow the hashtag #FacWeek on social channels. I intend writing here on some of my experiences and ideas on Facilitation. Do give me a shout if any resonates with you.

I have had the good fortune of facilitating conversations across cultures and continents. Whenever  I do this, there is one phrase that I play in my mind.  Every time I sit in silence before a session or emerge from the cacophony after it is the catchphrase ‘lightly-tightly’.

To be able to tell between ‘light’ and ‘tight’, and to be able to work it well is important. What would you hold light? Why? And at the other end of the spectrum, what would you hold tight? Why?

To be able to hold your own fleeting feelings and emotions lightly whilst getting the group to tightly own the agenda and work towards finding solutions makes much of a difference. When the group owns the problem and there is a space for solutions to emerge, much happens. Much of it is unseen and goes by the name of ‘facilitation’. When the facilitator is invisible and the groups declare that they did it by themselves, there is collective move forward.

The masters of the craft, I have noticed, hold themselves lightly and recede into the background. Emerging only to nudge the group to hold each other tightly if they find a need. With experience and success, the ability to cast oneself out of the frame is troublesome and tricky. But that often get the group to ‘Giddy Up’ and gallop away!

That’s my thought. Your turn now.

The Power of Facilitation

Every now and then, there are domains and disciplines that come to the forefront and shine. Sometimes for a flicker of a brief moment and at other times for a bit longer.  Before retreating to the back offices of quiet practice or the ignominy of obsolescence and death. Facilitation, however, has been around for ages morphing with societal changes, demands and evolving constantly. There are moments in time, that are inflection points that provide opportunities never seen before. Right now, is one such. We are in the throes of life-altering changes in society that tugs at the power of facilitation to help create pathways for the future.

The future of work and life stand at a crossroad of sorts. We could go in many directions. A cursory examination of the world that we live in brings us face to face with a number of realities. Of course, there are many more. The following strikes me as dominant. (Please feel free to add and debate).

Reality # 1: Fractured and frayed

Switch on the television or flip open any newspaper. The fault lines show. Between countries, cultures, age groups. So much so, that that new fault lines appear citing the existence of a fault line in history and thus get perpetuated into the future. The consequent problem: mankind has been losing its humanity in such crevices. When we can’t have a civil conversation with one other, society has tripped on progress and fallen face down into the sand.

Reality # 2: Multiplier Effect

With the proliferation of social media and social tools, everybody has an equivalent of a global megaphone. Every minor fault line commands its own space, followers and likes. Over time, this shapes beliefs and positions that make possibilities for inclusive dialogue recede.  The tyranny of echo chambers wreck havoc.  The space and platforms for a neutral coming together disappear and walls (sometimes physical ones too) take their place.

Reality # 3: The technology conundrum

The rapid progress of technology has fundamentally altered how we went about our lives. We have ceded spaces in our lives that we treasured to technology. As the world sees more wearables, artificial intelligence, blockchain and a zillion other technologies, it takes a cursory glance to understand that the world is precariously poised. Add the possibility of singularity to that list, and we don’t know how the world will be in the not so distant future! Will we continue to be driven by the lure of profit or will we get to rise up to lift the world with technology? We don’t know.

Reality # 4: New world order

All of the above have churned the world order that we once knew. Countries that lead the charge in showing the way are now under the weather, having lost much sheen. The ‘order’ that they promoted lies amidst new questions and fresh doubts. For sure, a new world order brings with it new undertones of strife and conflict. With young populations armed with technologies that can well see beyond nations and boundaries, yet wrapped tightly in think ideologies, the future seems like a looming dark cloud.

If all of that seems far removed from the everyday rhythms of work and home, we have to remind ourselves that our lives, our homes, our places of work function within the context of these shifts. These have an indelible impact on us. What the future of work and living can be, needs fresh discussion.

The power of facilitation

Given the scenario, facilitation, as a body of work is well poised to act as a lever. There are a number of factors that will augment that argument. As a practitioner, my top three factors to bat for the power of facilitation, given where the world is, are the following.

a. The centrality of conversation and engagement

Facilitation is about the conversation, dialogue, engagement and an opportunity to shape a future that is different from the present.  Entrenched positions and echo chambers make strong walls but facilitation is best poised to be the bridge. It is not without example. The Singapore Conversations were a fantastic start. There are several other examples of public participatory decision-making processes. These need to make their move to citizen groups and communities. Without dialogue and conversation, we are broken. That is a substantive reason for facilitation.

b. The belief in the collective:

Facilitation’s working with (and on) the ‘group’ places emphasis on the ‘collective’. At best, there are solutions that emerge with everybody doing their bit to shape it. At worst, there is a recognition of the other’s position. Solutions are rooted in reality and draw strength from its foundations. It is not easy work by any stretch of imagination, but it is a platform for a beginning to be made. With effort and imagination, it evokes hope and promise.

c. A voice to all:

The belief in the collective leads to an important aspect: an opportunity to hear all voices. Sometimes just having a safe space to voice opinion is enough for a problem to sort itself out. As the gap between the haves and have-nots increases exponentially, we have a large marginalised population.  The haves and have-nots have its foundations on privilege. Privilege goes beyond economics.  It includes privileges that stem from age, technology, country of birth, the colour of skin, education, and others. Giving a voice and a safe space for every segment to share (and take responsibility for) their views is straight up the facilitation alley.

So, what must facilitators do?

The invitation for facilitation to play a crucial role emerges in both subtle and not so subtle ways.  Even as it does, there is much work for the community of practitioners from around the world to ponder, posit and practice.  Last week, I was at the Asia Conference of the International Association of Facilitators at Osaka, Japan. Conversations with fellow practitioners from around the world have had me reflecting on what must the community do. Here are some initial ideas. Let’s keep the conversation going. I remain confident that we will get somewhere.

a. Embracing technology:

The relentless march of technology has altered us as human beings and is busy working on our DNA! Amongst other things.  It has shrunk geography and tested our notions of who we are. Every profession from doctors to lawyers to taxi drivers have got to re-imagine their lives and their work. Facilitation and facilitators are no different.

To survey technologies that are emerging on the horizon and re-imagine what we could do with it for the profession is a good place to start.  This conference provided a teasing glimpse of what it can offer with hybrid sessions and a concurrent session on digital technologies that shape our world. Plus of course, an entire series on topics ranging from AI to the future of facilitation in a tech-enabled world.

We need to do more of this. We need more active experiments than the ones that shrink geography and time. Although, they are a great start. We need to get uncomfortable and weave our work around the technology that is becoming available.

b. Inclusive expansion:

As the profession expands and holds increasing allure, people from different walks of life are attracted to it. I have had conversations with a wide array of people over the last few weeks. People who have embraced facilitation with gusto. From chefs to chief executives, trainers to authors to social workers. All bringing in their own backgrounds and spice to the space. This perhaps is a good time to stay inclusive without getting lost in ‘definitions’ of what is (and isn’t) facilitation! We have a job to do. So what if facilitation goes by a different name or wears different overalls.

c. The work within:

As the profession advances, every facilitator needs to do deep work on self. That goes beyond facilitation tools. Facilitation, as a way of life, implies that it is a way of thinking and living. To elevate the profession requires facilitators to go deeper within. Becoming more aware of ‘the shadow’ self and its consequences are important. Here is a piece I had written earlier written whilst engaging with a similar thought stream.

Every time we reduce the profession to a bagful of tricks and tools, we rip a part of potential and toss it into a vacuous space.

The power of facilitation is more rooted in the outcomes that it can produce.  One way to advance the cause is to help larger groups of people experience facilitation in the context of the real world challenges. That implies work that goes beyond organisational domains. The work at the level of community, smaller cohorts working on challenges that confront everyday life can be challenging. To say the least. From traffic to pollution to plastic to even fostering peace in the building you live in. These are opportunities to hold space for a bunch of people to discuss and debate.

However, harnessing the power of facilitation that resides in everyone requires one crucial step.  Which is as simple as stepping forward with courage and stay open to all that emerges in the group.  There is raw power in quiet courage. Try.

 

Lasting Impressions

There are facilitators and facilitators. Not just the ones that have gone on a podium and facilitated a workshop, but the numerous other bosses, leaders, colleagues, partners and such else. When I look back and think of people who have left a mark on me and the teams that I was a part of, a couple of their attributes becomes apparent. First, lasting impressions have nothing to do with ‘striving to impress’. In fact, it can be counter-productive.  The second is this : It is futile to think of ‘control’ of a group. Especially so, using a position of a ‘boss’ or even worse, as a ‘facilitator’.

It is International Facilitation Week and here are some reflections on lasting impressions that a few global facilitators have left. I view both of these, ‘striving to impress’ and ‘seeking to control’ as memes that can interfere with success.

IAF #FacWeek

To try and engage in flamboyant (and ‘new’ ) action catches attention. The clamour for new ‘processes’ explains it well. But facilitation is more than ‘process’ and is very often diminished by a striving to impress. Some facilitators are natural on the stage. Others wear a new jacket. Dropping their voice, playing with intonation etc, cracking jokes to fill the silence, throwing in new tools etc. These by themselves aren’t bad. Just that, they stand out when someone who is not a natural at all these, attempts to weave it as part of a routine! The routine of trying to impress. Groups easily spot the incongruity between who the person is and the act the person is putting on.

To be comfortable with who I am as a person, with my biases and predispositions, is important for a facilitator. It makes a huge difference. Self-awareness and constant working on the self is perhaps one of the most underrated aspects of building a practice around facilitation. When we are comfortable with who we are, we don’t strive to ‘impress’! Inauthenticity is transparent.

The other meme that I frequently encounter is that of ‘control’.

Control for a facilitator has many inviting dimensions. Control over the participants is a non-starter in most cases. Unless you are talking of kids of yesteryears! With adults in the room, the best that can be done is to invite and create opportunities for them to voluntarily co-create and stay engaged.  Right from framing collective norms that help the group set the rules to working on arriving at cogent solutions.

Control over every minute of what will happen in a facilitated session is stuff that I have attempted early in my career. To disastrous results.   As a facilitator of a meeting or a program, of course, a facilitator needs to have a broad plan of action of how the day will flow. But it is just a broad plan. To be present to the needs of the group, and to stay flexible and ready in the moment to change course is important. Taking into account the energy of the group and its participants.

Facilitation at its very core transcends both of these memes. At its very core facilitation is less about the facilitator and more about the group. Less about the process that is ‘done to’ the group and more about what the group does with whatever that comes their way.

For a facilitator, there is great merit in standing away from the limelight and holding the space for the group to figure out a few solutions.  Some facilitators view that as an abdication. To me, that is hardly the case. In fact, that reinforces belief in the full potential of the group. In any case,a facilitative leader doesn’t see his position as a ‘throne’ to abdicate from. He or she sees his/her role as just another constituent member of a community., shifts the onus to the group, while the facilitator is also present. More channelising the conversation and ‘holding the space’ for it to emerge from the dark ridges of random argument to the possibilities the meaningful dialogue present.

Going past these two memes helps a facilitator to shift the onus to the group. The facilitator takes on another role. A higher order one. The one for channelising the conversation and ‘holding the space’ for new insights to emerge from the dark ridges of random conversation.  The possibilities that meaningful dialogue presents are tremendous.

The most effective facilitators that I have worked with blend into the group, yet stand apart. They listen to the conversations in the group and have little of solutions to offer to the topic of discussion. Yet, at the end of the conversation, people walk out with far more that mere solutions. They have new energy, meaning and purpose. For the energies from each one of them stands well woven into the solution.

Facilitation is a lot like sailing. The ace sailor navigates by the stars but adjusts the sails to catch the wind.  To act decisively and engage in reflecting on all the action.  To stay curious yet quiet. To seek people and conversation by listening with active intent. All these creates the space for success showing up at opportune moments.

The next time you are called in to facilitate, relax. Look at the field and catch the wind. The answers are blowing in the wind. Catch it. Its in fashion these days. Besides, it leaves lasting impressions!

 

Strategy. Alive and real!

The topic of building strategy that is alive and real, that is not an indulgent document that is a result of an annual ritual is a topic that stays on the minds of many. Be they entrepreneurs, social leaders, corporate executives and anyone with a set of objectives to move forward with. More on that in just a bit.

First, introducing Kimberly.

How do you introduce someone who has been making a difference to a growing community in a rather quiet, matter-of-fact manner? In a world where the decibel levels of raw marketing are perpetually set to ‘maximum’ examples of people who let their work do the talking is becoming rarer, Kimberly Bain and her work stand out. So when the opportunity of working closely with Kimberly Bain came up, we at the India Chapter of the International Association of Facilitators, we were delighted. To put it mildly!

Kimberly is an expert facilitator and works with both small and large groups ( 5 to 500) to help them reach consensus and achieve a common purpose amongst other things. She has a vast portfolio of experience, facilitating community groups, professional, volunteers, academics, hospitals, medical professionals, government departments and stakeholder groups. Her style is inclusive and works on building consensus. Something that our fractured times so need. Her innovative approach to strategic planning, expert conflict resolution techniques combined with her varied facilitation toolkit get her to work with varied groups across the world.

Her recent book the “The Reflective Practitioner : becoming a reflective ethical facilitator” made it to to the Amazon best sellers list is fast becoming a seminal resource for facilitators all around the world.

My conversations with her have been diverse, as she gets to do a bit of exploration of India.  Her thinking on strategy and her approach to conflict resolution perked my ear.  Read on. Am sure you will learn a thing or two.

Me : What are the components of strategy making and where do you see organisations / leaders struggle with?
Kimberly : Strategic planning is about focusing for success, this requires careful and insightful planning on how to develop the Strategy, who to involve, the processes to ensure best thinking is included and all options and opportunities are considered. Many thought leaders know that the Strategic Planning Process is almost more important that the resulting Plan itself. While most leaders understand this, they do not always have the background and information needed to design a planning process that meets their needs, the needs of the organization and the needs of the people who will be executing the Strategy. Utilizing the art and science of facilitation can provide the guidance needed to custom design a Strategic Plan that is based on collaboration to produce sustainable outcomes, therefore building the buy-in needed within the organization to move employees from thinking to action and from paper to implementation.

Me : How does facilitative style of leading people augment a business leader’s skillset? What must a leader do to bolster that?
Kimberly : In order to develop and utilize an effective facilitative leadership style, leaders need to understand behavioural analysis, group decision-making processes, individual communications styles and conflict handling styles. In order to bolster individual facilitative leadership we need to learn how to make the job of those who we lead “easier”, by facilitating their work, their relationships and expand their ability to innovate.

Strategy - Alive and RealMe :  A degree of conflict is inherently needed for progress and growth. Now is this true, from your experience? How do leaders get to foster this?
Kimberly : That depends how you define “conflict”. Creating an environment where individuals can voice and explore different opinions, alternative points of view and unconventional thinking does help groups and organizations grow and progress. But “conflict” often is a result of poor communication, negative assumptions of intent and lack of trust.

Me:  Inclusion (or the lack of it) can break the best of strategy. In a world where young people across the world want to participate in the decision making process and want to have their voice heard, what is the next frontier of strategy making?
Kimberly : Absolutely, engagement and inclusion are a central theme for effective strategic planning exercises. Not only is this necessary for social enterprises and community-based strategic planning, but it is just as important for profit-based organizations to include staff, shareholders, stakeholders, partners and customers in their Strategic Planning. This ensures all views are considered, all options are explored, and most importantly, champions and cheerleaders are created throughout the organization, making implementation smoother and more effective. When people feel like they have been involved in the decision, they will not only support it, but they will advocate for it!

Me :  Could you share an experience in helping a team with making of a strategy that has stayed with you.
Kimberly : I worked with a Government Agency in Canada. This was a new Agency that was created to help coordinate Cancer Control efforts across Canada. The Agency had no actual authority over health departments across the country, so they needed to develop a Strategy that would position them as the hosting agency convening crucial conversations to help coordinate effort and increase impact. Canada has 13 different provincial health departments and I assisted the Agency to design a Strategic Planning process that brought together each province, the various national and provincial cancer advocacy groups, agencies and thought-leading clinicians. The process took 9 months and was extremely successful. The 5 year resulting Strategic Plan was so effective that the Agency received a second 5 year mandate and is considered the main reason that cancer mortality rates have decreased across the country!

Kimberly is leading a two day session on Strategy Alive in Mumbai on the 26th, 27th of August. An opportunity for business leaders and facilitators to come together and explore. More details and FAQs are there on the Facebook events page as well. Dive in folks. It will be a fantastic investment of your time.

For those readers in Bengaluru, Kimberly will be leading a half day session on the Tao of Facilitation. The event page is here.

One of a kind

Facilitation. Now, that’s a much abused word. There was a time when anybody with a PowerPoint deck, platform and a set of participants came to think of themselves as great trainers. Gradually, as ‘training’ in itself became less ‘cool’ and perhaps as a need to distinguish themselves from others who had gotten on to the ‘training’ bandwagon, it became fashionable to call oneself as a ‘Facilitator’. So much so, in several circles, ‘training’ and ‘facilitation’ are interchangeably, and without the slightest of pauses!

That topic for another day.

 

meaning

 

It was in 2011 that I got to experience deeper insights into what facilitation is. Or can be. I recall, very vividly, how a bunch of committed people from Japan demonstrated their response in mobilising public support and action, after the Fukashima nuclear disaster. It was mind blowing, to say the least. At one level, it was facilitation skills at play. But at another level, it helped me see a coming together of people with passion, with a singular objective of wanting to make a difference to a population. There was no commerce. No forking of brands in the name of CSR. It was just a committed bunch of people wanting to make a difference and do their bit. It was deeply humbling.

Since then, I have listened to stories and understood designs about how Facilitation helped brokered peace between countries or between warring factions of an apartment complex to bringing change within corporate contexts.

‘Facilitation’, I realised, was more dynamic and had potency to affect larger communities and conversations. Far beyond corporate walls and narrow problems. It was action. Inclusion. Participation. Mutuality. And a respect for one another. The feeling that we are all in this together. There was no pedestal to stand on and ‘address’ the group. I was hooked to the International Association of Facilitators. It occurred to me that to be able to stand before a group of people (sometimes in the 100s) and getting them to do their work, helping them work through their dilemmas is as raw as it can get. And more importantly having fun in the process.

After playing with facilitation in different settings since then (here is a post from last year), I am more than convinced that if it is one skill that community leaders, entrepreneurs, development workers, business leaders, leave alone HR practitioners, need to learn really well, it is facilitation. There is a ton of material available about what it is and what more you could do with this.. The International Association of Facilitators is leading the charge worldwide.

This week, I am looking forward to hearing many more stories of facilitation and sharing a few of mine too. The Asia Conference of the IAF is happening in Mumbai on the 21st and 22nd of August. Check out the website. With facilitators from around the world coming in, this will be one heck of a carnival of learning and process design. If you havent registered yet, I am told there are a few seats left. Do come in. Would be an experience to remember. Do follow the hashtag #IAFAsia15

IAF Conferences are quite unlike any other conference. They are intimate participative experiences that draw the best out of people in a fun filled effortless way. Riding on a feeling of togetherness and community. Plus there is a committed bunch of people working relentlessly to help the community move forward.

I am really looking forward to this.

Facilitating a conference on facilitation!

There is one conference that I make it a point to be around, it is the India conference of the International Association of Facilitators. For a variety of reasons. For one, it is a brilliant community with loads of equanimity. For another, there is no question of sitting back, staring at a deck of PowerPoint slides, slickly produced corporate videos and listen to suave speeches or a panel discussion, which is the staple fare of most other conferences. Nothing wrong with that.

Just that, the IAF conferences require active co-creation, reflection, and meaning making as an integral part of every minute. IAF events are truly immersive experience for everyone in the room. Never a dull moment. Perpetually inclusive and trusts the wisdom of the community to keep it moving along. That is a rich wisdom and I have always been enriched after each meeting!

leadership

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To share, learn and grow with the community is a narrative that is dear. We (Me and the L&D team from Asian Paints) were there this time around too, to share our experiences with facilitation, but more importantly to co-evolve along with all participants, a ideas and thoughts alongside our experience.

We ran a concurrent session and here are some highlights and reflections that we shared and helped co-create

a. The detachment that is necessary from labels & tools and in order to attach ourselves to outcomes seemed to resonate with many. The ‘lightly-tightly’ way of working. There were several models that got built atop that vector.

b. Every tool has a place and needs to be respected for that. Overuse can undermine, and under use can be a travesty of what is possible if that tool too had been used. Training, Facilitation, Coaching etc are different tools. ( Tools that carry different meanings in the minds of many). Attachment to outcomes, can bring about a focus on interplay and ownership.

c. Questioning of assumptions can alter the dynamics of how the future (and organisational processes like ‘reviews’)  can be differently built. To begin working on a problem as its stated, but to enable reframing of the ‘problem’ by all stakeholders, with imagination, can cause considerable shifts. We shared a couple of examples, the group constructed a few that were neat.

d. Of course, there were multiple rounds of discussions on ‘dismantling the hierarchy’ and the imaginative ways of co-creation that can be enabled by simple sharing and ‘letting go’. I would reckon the ‘letting go’ bit is a difficult but necessary pill (if it were to be one), for outcome effectiveness to reign.

e. We had begun by getting the group to imagine ‘all interactions’ within an organisation. The choices made by random diverse groups reiterated to me, how common organisational dilemmas are. And more importantly, for how long they have been around. We need new ways of working with and resolving these dilemmas. The old ways don’t work, for they were meant for an old time. And of course, we ourselves are new.

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Another feature of IAF Conferences is the open, transparent way of gathering and collating feedback. What you see above was feedback sheet of participants from our session. It left me smiling, while serving as a pointed reminder of the work to be done.

The world and the #FutureOfWork, need an inclusive approach to life, living and work. The foundations of ‘facilitation’ stretch far beyond a clutch of skills. It presupposes an inclusive, generous, mindset that is not bound by ‘control’ but lead by ‘a letting go mindset’ and get everybody to take responsibility. It is a key skill to imbibe and get proficient with, for now and the times to come. With an emphasis on community, common ground and development. Skills to stitch together the future in the face of ever widening differences, are critical. Now, more than ever before.

It was in 2011 that I first attended the Asia Conference of the IAF in Bangalore. There were delegates from many parts of the world and every corner of Asia. It was 2011, the world was still reeling from the shock of the earthquake and Tsuanami that hit Japan. That conference had a number of facilitators from Japan, who detailed and demonstrated how ‘facilitation’ was getting deployed to rebuild the community in Fukashima. It was a deeply moving and a very thorough experience.

The conference provided perspectives, a clutch of skills and a sea of global friendships. I remember leaving that conference thinking if facilitation could aid complex community building work (like the Fukashima example) from the ground up, adapting it to the precincts of organisational  realities required a dash of courage and oodles of imagination. Nothing more. In more ways than one, it sparked a fresh bouquet of thoughts and has kept us busy for a long while.

Heres some news : The Asia Conference of the IAF is coming back to India ( It went to Schenzen in 2012, Tokyo in 2013, and Singapore in 2014).  Sometime in August 2015, Mumbai will play host to the IAF, Asia Conference. Thats the best news I have heard in a long time.  Watch this space for more.

In the meanwhile, here is Brig.Sushil Bhasin’s generous take on our session. Do read and give him a shout! 🙂 His energy is infectious.