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.


A connected world beckons

A new year invites us ahead. A year is just behind us. The segway days always proffer an opportunity to reflect and gather ourselves towards renewal. 2013 was fabulous. Like most other years. O Henry’s fantastic line “’Life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating” settles it for all years.  Nestled in the whorls of the smiles, sobs and the sniffles there were lessons to be learnt and songs of the heart to be heard.

The present day world is called a “Connected World”. Not without reason. Conversations in the digital space have ushered in a level of exposure and transparency to our lives that have never been seen before. These conversations have set the tone of dreams and aspirations in a ever so profound way, in far off places. Including the deepest recesses of our hearts. This piece by R.Madhavan captures it well.

We no longer are content with ‘what was the case’ driving the present day agenda. Heck, stuff that is labelled ‘what is possible’ is something that we seek to dismiss, if it doesn’t match up to what we hear as possible from around the world. In our restlessness for change and progress, we have crossed frontiers that we didn’t know we could and more often than not, have discovered frontiers that we didn’t know existed.

Examples of the Arab Spring may sound clichéd and are too often touted.  I am fresh from a trip to Egypt and conversations with people on the ground there, has had a profound impact on me at many levels. At the core, irrespective of culture we are all the same!  The connected world is a ‘big’ ‘small’ ‘bad’ ‘good’ place. Infact, fit whatever adjective you would want to fit in there and it would work.

The connected world, is what we make of it, and what we give space for. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat and a zillion other ideas moved from being just swell ideas to ideas that also paved the way for fat bank accounts. Every single round of VC investment in ideas provides the way for chatter and a load of more noise on what perhaps the idea can do. Of Course, there are after effects too.

But for the discerning, who can cut the noise out and listen deeply, what stands out is what was well known : The ground is shifting. Only now, it is shifting far faster. Even before we get to comprehend a shift fully, one more is well underway.  Examples galore. Large chunks of people are getting introduced to the internet through their mobile phones, completely by-passing desktops. I hear that the robots are coming and that they will pretty much do everything that you wanted them to do. Thus changing the several industries (including the Indian IT industry)! That driverless cars will do to chauffeurs around the world, what mobile phones did to Kodak.

Infact, several aspects of the present portend the shifts that are coming at us furiously. Like Amazon selling 426 items per second on Cyber Monday. Or the realities that 3D Printing is bringing. MOOCs. Apps. Oh my, the list of course, is endless

All of them makes me stop and ponder with wonder. On the world that was, that is and that will be. So filled with possibilities and potential.
At a very personal level 2013 provided me with fantastic opportunities to interact with several thought leaders across the board, in person. Listening and sharing ideas. For which I will be forever grateful.

Equally rewarding was when my travel took me to small towns and villages. Places where people haven’t experienced the bright sparks of wisdom that emerges from Twitter. Or Google Plus. Or indulge in the incessant chatter of friends and family on whatsapp and watch cat videos on YouTube.

Their lives without smart phones or 3G connectivity, runs on old world wisdom and a basic person-to-person connect.  And as the farmer who owned one ox as his prized possession, narrated his hopes for the future over a shared meal in a remote contour of the country, I was reminded that confidence and hope for the future are not a function of tools and possessions.

When when his wife, after serving two more ladles of rice with a large smile, spoke with an effervescent matter-of-fact ease, about walking three kilometres, one way, for a pot of water, I didn’t know what to say and stared emptily in silence.  The labourer in Dharavi who lives in a home that is as small as a Nano yet labours away to make small utensils as a route to his big dreams taught me the power of momentum from concerted action.  The social worker who walked away from being a five star chef to taking care of destitutes on the roads of Madurai showed choices dictate consequences.  These stories are as endless as the advancements we are seeing in the connected world. I could go on, till it is 2015! Or more.

2013 was the year that I met as many people who have been remarkably confident with far less, as those that have been meticulously despondent with much more. Perhaps the biggest of learning’s for me has been that love, hope and happiness is ready currency and always shareable. Something that my daughter teaches me daily!

If you are reading this, you are privileged in so many ways. (And no its not about how profound the contents on this blog are 🙂 ). The quest therefore, thats kept me up many night is this: “how do we spread this privilege around?”


We, all of us, have the unique privilege of holding the reins of possibility. Of connecting two different worlds. Infact, of many different worlds. I totally loved it when Gautam Ghosh, tweeted that networking is not saying ‘here is my business card but asking ‘how can i help’? That outlook and approach can leave the world a far better place. How can we bring people together? Shrink the worlds, so to speak.

Earlier today, I sat with a piece of paper and stared aimlessly into the sky. Scripting the hopes I harboured for 2014. Heres what I had scrawled.

  • From seeking happiness to spreading some. Ditto for love and hope
  • From being insanely competitive in a very limiting way to being profoundly co-operative in an ever so expansive way. From hoarding to sharing.
  • From running fast to running meaningfully.
  • From holding court in conversation to more holding the space for other people to converse.

I wonder what you make of these.

The tools that the connected world offers are stuff that world hasn’t seen much of before. To imaginatively deploy these for purposes far beyond what they seem to offer is where the opportunity for the future lies.

J.P.Rangaswami writes in his blogpost here “We have to remember we’re human beings. And as human beings, one of the most powerful things we do is to have covenant relationships, not contract ones.
Covenant relationships have tacit components to do with trust and sacrifice and vulnerability and forgiveness.
We need to learn how to model all this, this ability to trust and to make ourselves vulnerable, this ability to sacrifice, this ability to forgive, in the systems we design to conduct business. Because those abilities are what make us human. And business is conducted between humans.”

That could well be as good as it can get stated.

So, heres wishing us all the power to go beyond the obvious, open eyed and curious. Aware and thankful for the privileges that we have been bestowed with. And looking for the first available excuse to spread some cheer around. Lets get to work. After all, as Gibran said, “Work is love made visible”.

Internal leverage!

The world has a ton of problems. And sometimes, you cant help but thank God that some of them are there. For they make living and life worthwhile. The quest for solutions may not lead a person to solutions always. But invariably the learning that comes from such quests are far more important than the solutions themselves. But on that topic, another time. Another post.

But pause for a moment and wonder at what kind of creative solutions are needed to solve the problems that we face today?  Not at all times can we have a ‘total revamp’ or ‘blue sky’ technology as an answer to our problem. Yes, it would be good and in some cases pretty much necessary too. But most cases, as in life, we do not get presented with the cleanest of slate to restart from scratch.  Yet, the solutions that ordinary people come up in their lives are both incredible and ‘just what is needed’ from what is already there.

Take a look at these one minuter videos that have been around for a while now, but always never fail to inspire every time I view them!

May I invite you to pause and think about organisational equivalent of problems like these. And solutions found.

Large organisations boast of such a fabulous diversity and depth of knowledge and talent , that it is a shame that much of it goes under leveraged! If you are a leader in a large organisation, when was the last time you looked within in the quest for answers to problems you are confronted with, before dialing for help outside?

Large organisations and their talent can be better leveraged. Lets say you are seeking a solution to say, ‘how best to design a workshop’ (an example I choose, because of frequently being faced with it). How many times have you thought of asking the folks in sales ? Or maybe Marketing ? Or administration? Or manufacturing? I mean, anybody in the building.

The answer may not be directly something that could help, but it sure is going to be something that I could build on. People may not know a thing about learning design, but they know the organisation pretty well! And when structured approaches to seek their thought and apply it well are sought, the solutions work like magic.

What perhaps is required is a problem that is not only large enough, but for a which an answer is sincerely sought. Combined with a diversity of intelligent minds some of who have are seeking those answers and buffeted by some quick first steps!

Leaders and managers who have the ability to entertain and examine ideas objectively without necessarily embracing them, are an important component of such collaborative on the ground innovation. More such managers in a system, more leveraging and energising that comes by the organisation!

Now, now, does it not have challenges? Ofcourse it does. The solutions evolved sometimes aren’t the best in class. They may not have the gleam of a finished product from an assembly line. But they are precisely that. They aren’t from an assembly line! They are put together!

The other challenge with such a solution is the fact that it may not have the best of whats in vogue outside of the organisation. That needs to be consciously built. Knowledge of best practices and latest research is so available on public platforms that if you are determined to get it, there can be no stopping!

Having worked on several such projects and veering to believe that organisation intelligence and talent needs to be grossly better leveraged and makes life easier on several counts!

  • At one level a non-assembly line but the most appropriate solution is found.
  • At another, far deeper level, it energises the organisation no-end! People who find themselves valued and whose views and opinions are sincerely sought do not mind giving an extra bit to help the project through!
  • Add, diversity of work! I have been coding all day and suddenly someone swings by and asks, “hey, we want to fix our leadership issues. Would you like to play a part?”
  • Plus, once all ideas are incorporated, guess what, change management and implementation is held by a far wider set.
  • At yet another deeper level, could you think of any better way of cross pollination of ideas and forming of relationships between diverse groups who otherwise maybe quite oblivious to the other’s existence, leave alone work and problems? Organisations give an arm and a limb for something like that!

The next time you have a problem that you want to solve, look inside around. Sometimes, the people standing very close to you can have an idea or two that perhaps no can come to you with!

Don’t get me wrong. External consultants have expertise and specialisation that are hard to match. It is important to build that expertise on the foundation of assimilation of internal strengths as well!  I have cherished working with several external consultants. And all of them who have left an imprint are ones that began by leveraging on diverse thought streams within the organisation!

Another classification of learners!

Often, when speaking to sets of participants attending learning programs, I find myself share a ‘classification of learners’. I wish I could remember where I had read it, for me to cite reference here.

The classification in itself is a rather telling and usually elicits some shifting of feet, muted laughter, smirks, smiles and sometimes,  guffaws!  Broadly, this is what I say.

There are four classes of learners who come to attend a ‘training program’

a. Prisoners : Participants who have been ‘sentenced’ to a few days of training. Who would much rather be doing m(any) other things, but who are there in the room, because they have been forced to ‘attend’ the program. Left to themselves they’d much rather be doing other things.

b. Vacationers: Self explanatory, isn’t it?!? A training program seen as an opportunity to stay away from work, get paid for it and yet enjoy the best of venues / food and generally catching up with long lost friends and colleagues. A meta coffee machine of sorts, to catch up on all whats happening in the organisation.

c. Experts : Participants who consider themselves as ‘experts’. With ‘expert opinion’ at the expense of leaning something new. Sometimes that may be well founded. Many times not so! Perhaps its their background, the colleges that that they have gone to, the experiences that they have accumulated, the seniority in the organisation. Past learning inhibits future learning !

d. Explorers : Explorers are those that are possessed with a sense of curiosity and discovery. People who know a few things, but are always seeking for learning something new. Building on what they know, treating it as an adventure, taking risks, assimilating experiences of all in their line of sight and daring to go where they havent gone before. For those reasons, explorers are all great learners. Learners are also ‘explorers’ in their contexts !

This classification applies to all of life too. For learning is a life long event. Nay, journey! True learners are those that are filled with curiosity. Those that approach every moment with a sense of possibility and with a spirit of exploration. For that is the spirit of life. One look at our children teach us that. Filled with questions, playfulness and armed with a surfeit of curiosity.

Somewhere along the way, as we grow up, we become ‘experts’ or vacationers of life. And sometimes prisoners too. Perhaps its time to unleash to the child in us. To be real explorers to get to be good learners.

“Learning is a journey” is a much abused and clichéd phrase. One could go through that journey as any one of the above and yet up going to a completely new land or not traversing any distance at all.

The key to the ‘Journey’ must be realisation that journeys always involve change. A change of scene. A change in speed. Many times, new eyes too. And change is inherently uncomfortable. Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable is so key to learning. So key to life.

Metrics & L&D. Are you catching the drift ?

At a recent conference, I shifted uneasily in my chair as the discussion veered around benchmarks for for ‘good’ Learning & Development organisations.

The standard ‘metrics’ were discussed. Like Programs, budgets, ( % of L&D budgets to Turnover, profit etc etc ).

These so called ‘measures’ are spoken with so much of clarity and ease that these can be mistaken to be the answer.  They inevitably tend to form a veil of sorts over other important questions. Sure, budgets and other resources are important. How much the organisation is willing to spend on the Development of its people is a question that is important.  But it also one that also beseeches some more questions.

The chief question being : What / Where is the money being spent on?

Especially so in a connected world. Here are some  questions that have been on my mind.

Have L&D functions reorganised how we are structured? Cared to pause and look at our outlook  ? Have we changed the pecking order of our priorities ? Especially so, to  suit the needs of a workforce whose outlook towards development ( both the ‘message’ and the ‘means’) is so strikingly different than those of earlier times.

Personally, I think we have a distance to cover.

The workplace is a microcosm of the societies that we live in. Changes that fundamentally impact society impact the workplace as well. Enough ( & more) has been written about the role of Social Media in the Arab Spring uprising and such else. These have brought about downfalls in regimes with military might that lorded over for several decades.

The networked world has brought about a seismic shift in possibilities, ways of life and living.  It is only natural to factor these in designing organizational policies, practices and approaches. Yes, L&D interventions too.

In a networked world, L&D is not the prime ‘provider’ of resources for learning. Perhaps that was true of an earlier era, when knowledge was limited and separated by geography and a certain lack of scale in reaching out to one another.

The role of L&D is different, in the era of the ‘Smart’ worker 

Jane Hart lays out the key options that are available for facilitating learning and performance  in  a  survey.

Source is here

The results of the survey are here

Formal training goes right to the bottom with only 14% thinking of respondents thinking of it to be an effective way to learn. Now pause for a minute. This isn’t one more blogpost which attempts to riddle ‘formal training’ with bullets. The need of the hour is to see what suits the requirements of a fundamentally different workforce now.

What kind of conversations happen post formal events ? What kind of work related contexts are set for the learner before a learning event? What kind of seamless avenues / processes have been created ( by L&D / org ) for employees to search, seek and leverage each other’s expertise?

It is going to take a while for L&D teams to adjust our sails. If L&D is drifting, it is only fit that  realization dawns on us that winds that were blowing have now begun blowing in a very different direction!

If the compass is pointing in a different direction, it is best to re calibrate everything. Including measures and metrics !