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Seven Characteristics of Awesome Facilitators

Any domain attracts attention, interest and following in its ascendency. Facilitation or ‘process facilitation’ is entering that phase now. This interest fueled by some reflection prompts me to write about the characteristics that I have observed in facilitators from around the world who continue to inspire me. It was a random reflective scrawl that morphed into “Seven Characteristics of Awesome Facilitators”.

As the world continues to get fragmented by narrow walls and as existing modes of engineering change creak more than normal, facilitation is more than merely ‘sought after’. Over the last few years, I have seen this in action in the first person. Conferences and events like the International Association of Facilitators‘ recently concluded Asia and India conferences are freshly minted in memory. Both conferences were well crafted with meticulous care and depth. Both organising teams deserved the heaps of praise and applause they got. What couldn’t be missed, was the enormous interest and attention that facilitation as a domain is drawing. I met people from diverse industries, geographies, professions, interest groups etc, all seeking to know and learn more.

Even as I experienced top quality facilitation, I recalled some of the best facilitators in action. When I was amongst those being facilitated. Post the conferences, I was scribbling some notes about what stood out in the best of my experience. ( I continue to hear first-person accounts of great facilitation from the world over. Facilitators whose mastery I hope to experience someday). This post holds together seven aspects that are common in facilitators who I have experienced and admire.  Of course, this is my list filled with my biases and notions of what construes to be the best.  If you are a facilitator, I would encourage you to reflect, have a conversation and evolve your own list as well. For now, this is my list: Seven Characteristics of Awesome Facilitators.

1. Self Awareness:

Top notch facilitators realise that the journey within them is the real journey. They are well aware of their own mental models, preferences. and biases. They are keenly aware of where their true self-worth comes from. Often times, it comes from who they are and not from being a recipient of an award, certification, the position they hold in a hierarchy or even the kind of work they do. They are in the perpetual beta mode!

This is invaluable in my opinion, for they approach the position of a ‘facilitator’  with a degree of respect and an inclusive embrace. They are simple people with no airs. Not for them any ‘super manesque’ infallibility and Midas touches that sprinkle magic solutions.  They don’t hanker for power and have any need to holler into a microphone. Wearing their vulnerability on their sleeve, they walk amongst the rest of us. Like the rest of us! This makes them endearing. There is something in them that draws people seeking out a conversation.

 

2. It is never about themselves:

That is a straight one, isn’t it? To be able to keep the light shining on the group that entrusts itself with a facilitator is an important ask. Great facilitators do this with effortless ease. An important distinction that I became aware of is the temptation to take the stage, in the garb of ‘shining the light on others’!  Great facilitators ensure that the whole space belongs to the group and the community. They are part of the milieu.

‘Holding the space’ is a phrase that permeates several facilitator conversations. This piece has some good insights and it lists eight important tips to hold space for others. Amongst them, are “Don’t take their power away”, “Keep your own ego out of it”, “Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness”.

Those are potholes that I catch myself falling often into. These jarred edges have sticky spikes.

3. Here and Now:

Presence and complete immersion with the group in front of them get great facilitators in a flow. Close your eyes and imagine an ‘ego-less’ state, where it’s not about showcasing oneself or the tools or the competence. A state where the sole focus of the group moving forward. It is a powerful idea that escapes capturing in its full essence here.

Just being present to the stated and unstated needs of the people in front can mean on the spot improvisation of well laid out plans. Sometimes, junking plans and taking different routes.  It didn’t matter if hours of preparation went into the design of a process. I have seen great facilitators drop it as though they had never thought about it because the ‘group has a different need’. To hold oneself at the service of the group is a mindset that switches on presence, in my opinion.

4. Tools are tools:

This is amongst my favourites. The best amongst us treat tools as mere tools. There is a respect for what the tools can help accomplish and a consequent need to be acquainted with these. But true mastery is not in replicating tools and processes. True mastery is in combining, shaping, mixing, axing of tools, processes, and ideas with imagination. Tools must always bow at the altar of outcomes that a group needs.

Heres a tip that I learned some time ago: Learning up a tool is good.  But true learning is when you have learned to go beyond the tool or the process. The quest for the new and shiny tools have sent several of us scurrying to far corners & writing down every word that an expert says. My experience of having practiced it in my early years gets me to wish I had realised how pointless an exercise it is. Unless accompanied by adaptation and reflection lead practice, it is a big house with no residents.

5. Curiosity:

The benefits that curiosity laden inquiry brings are often missed. Genuine curiosity and a spirit of exploration can lead to results that alter horizons.  It is in the nature of what Edgar Shein describes in Humble Inquiry. It helps unravel what groups are confronted with and the issues beneath the surface.

I have been in groups where some ace facilitators tease groups with a curious inquiry. To go beyond what is stated, to ask how to seek why to question if a broader ‘what’ is possible all means to challenge status quo. It is in such challenges that groups move forward beyond their immediate stated needs. Curiosity is a superb lubricant to move a conversation into areas that it hasn’t been to.

6. Working on themselves:

Perhaps the biggest learning that I have had from expert facilitators is their investment in themselves.  It is this aspect that gives them renewal. Investment in areas of skills and processes is eclipsed often by a conscious commitment to discover and work on the self.

The meticulous commitment to reflect, dialogue, debate and learn as a collective is a not so secret weapon in the arsenal of true champions. But it is something that can so easily missed in the quest for business or in the comfort of easy ‘success’. Lasting long term comes from the commitment a facilitator makes to the craft of facilitation.

7. Givers:

I kept this for the last because it is special.  It is when you truly give, that you are worth receiving.  I have approached members of the community with so much ease that it has made my inhibitions melt. Irrespective of their schedules and stature, people who inspire have gone beyond their brief to help.

People give their time to bounce off ideas, talk,  debate, often times for little or no consideration at all. This lack of seeking ‘whats in it for me’, sets them apart. To them, ‘to give’ is consideration enough.

So those are my seven from a long list I drew up thinking of the people who I have experienced first-hand several times. Thiagi, Kimberly BainBarbara Mackay, Martin FarellNoel Tan, Martin Galbraith,, Tom Schwartz, Rhonda Tranks, Lawrence Philbrook amongst international facilitators.

I hesitate to list my colleagues from India. For the well of knowledge that I have drawn from far exceeds the small bucket of my memory and experience. Let’s leave it at that. Many of them feature in some of the pictures of the Asia and India conferences, courtesy the wonderful organisers from the Chennai and Seoul. (Please give it 2-3 minutes for the pictures to load. You may get a message that “This slideshow requires javascript” before the images load)

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So those are the items that make the Seven Characteristics of Awesome Facilitators. Facilitators who I have seen a few times in action and who have left an imprint on me. I am curious to know about your list. Perhaps we should talk about it soon.

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.

Notes for 2016

Imperatives are best made after the euphoria of the moment dies down. Well, 2016 is upon us and of course, the celebrations are past their prime. It is left to the arrival of the odd greeting card, to remind us that the year is new.
Stones

Resolutions have always been a bit more than distant for me. I opt to frame general directions and vectors for the year, the tonality for the year, if you will, in January. And as the year progresses, these help me catch my breath and adjust my sails.

2016 is no different. Here are my broad directions for the year. Some of it reiterations of what is. Yet others are thoughts on how the year can be. And of course, its in draft mode. As always.

1. Read and Write more. Reading is such a glorious pleasure. The modern times offer another challenge: a ton of material gets created every minute. To sift, curate and read the (b)right stuff will be key. Newer skills to aid curation, dive into topics and engage in reflective conversations, will be critical.

Reflecting on what I read and write more, is what sets the reading in context. The many benefits of reflective writing can never be stated enough. This year, there is another angle. Newer formats of content creation in the digital arena emerge with great speed. Experimenting with these in reflection, will be good fun.

2. Bring people together. I have had the good fortune of being acquainted with a diverse set of interesting people from around the world. The magic of diversity in conversation emerges when people come together. Finding excuses to meet and bring people together has always been enriching. More of it will be more so.

A ‘sense of community’ brings an awesome level of fulfillment to ordinary interactions. To foster such communities wherever possible and contribute to all that is meaningful from around the world, is an imperative that will always be dear.

3. Work Out Loud. Working out Loud more often, especially sharing dilemmas and seeking ideas will aid. To find platforms and people to work out loud, will be critical. Sharing dilemmas and being less sure of myself, in a public sort of a way, will aid the learning. Practice with a purpose and diving deep would be obvious requirements. A collective heft would emerge.

4. “Disruption” is a word that looks sexy on slides. The real test is in weaving it into life. It is in disruption that life, renewal and learning will emerge with immense depth. This year, to weave disruption as a skillful warp into work will be a centrepiece of sorts. Challenging status quo in the mind is going to be a stiff ask. But what is life without such asks?

5. Working my play. Over the years, I have always been filled with gratitude when showered with praise and recognition. I would like to think my getting featured in ‘lists’, public recognition and opportunities to speak, are the consequence of ‘play’ and joyful exchange of ideas. To deepen my practice and play will continue to be my North Star. True recognition will happen when true value is created, wherever that ‘value’ is experienced. To continue to remain equanimous all through, and play with imagination will make a significant difference.

6. True journeys are not about covering new ground on the ground, but having new eyes. I hope to travel a long distance on the ground and with my eyes as well. My ears tuned into as many voices and stories as possible. And share as many. To go the distance will require humility, curiosity, energy and verve in abundance. I pray for these!

7. And of course, there is the India Chapter of the International Association of Facilitators. I have just taken over as the Chapter Lead for India. I look forward to contributing to the chapter along with accomplished and multi-faceted colleagues and build the community.

The areas of interest continue to remain broad. Social Business. The Future of Work. Executive Coaching & Mentoring. Design Thinking. Transitions & transformations. Storytelling. L