Goldilocks facilitation, or the practice of mediocrity

Enough U.S. politics for a while. Back to our regularly scheduled programming…

I’ve facilitated several workshops recently, and I’ve also had the nice opportunity to be a participant in a few others. It’s great to see other facilitators at work, as everyone brings a different style and toolkit to the practice. Sometimes half the notes I’m taking in a session are about facilitation ideas rather than the conversation.

Increasingly, I’ve tried to question my model of what the workshop space is and can be. Workshops get a lot of flak for being overly rigged talk-fests, with experts expounding and participants making long comments disguised as questions. Little gets said or done that wasn’t expected. In fact, the only reason anyone showed up was for the coffee/lunch/pub conversations. Duncan Green recently had a post on the enraging aspects of academic conferences (namely, panels) and while he was talking about a slightly different sort of event, many of the criticisms translate over. Obviously I try to steer clear of those sorts of workshops (either running them, or attending them).

The workshops that I find most valuable have the following characteristics:

  • Concrete objective to create something, e.g. a vision, strategy, implementation plan, etc. The objective needs to be something more concrete than “sharing ideas” or “getting people together” to be productive, and should be something that participants couldn’t achieve in one-on-one conversations. This objective both creates the justification for the workshop and guides the other design choices.
  • Agenda designed for the participants. Conversations, breakouts, panels, exercises, or games are crafted to move participants toward the objective, potentially in a non-linear way, by combining their expertise and perspectives. This typically means that formal presentations are limited, perhaps used as framing and to spur ideas but not as the core of any sessions. If there’s information that everyone needs, put it in the pre-reading.
  • Equity among participants. Effective conversations and exchanges require that participants can come to more or less equal footing, at least within the workshop space. If power differentials exist outside the room (e.g. donors/grantees, management/staff, gender, language fluency, etc.) or participants distrust one another, then you need to find ways to mitigate those factors.
  • Deliberate adaptation. If you could predict the flow of the workshop, there wouldn’t be much point in holding it, right? Deliberate adaptation means building in contingencies and potential pathways from the start, so that you can pivot as needed.

Those characteristics can play out in many different ways. How should we think about the overall approach to workshop facilitation?

My go-to metaphor is about space: the facilitators create and structure a space—physical as well as conceptual—which the participants have to fill it (see past posts for more). Generally speaking, you want to keep those two roles separate. That said, I’ve found that impassioned participants will often want to take control of the agenda and shape the space; an adaptive workshop should make that possible, but both the facilitator and participants should aim to revert to their original roles once the course correction has been made.

As a corollary to the space metaphor, I’ve started to think about the facilitator’s role in Goldilocks terms: provide just enough guidance, but not too much; bring in just enough outside expertise, but don’t let the participants off the hook for providing content of their own; respond to participant pushback just enough, but don’t let someone hijack the agenda; be creative and have just enough fun, but get serious when needed.

Or, put another way, facilitation is a practice of mediocrity. Which is to say:

  • You need to be just prepared enough that you can guide a conversation, but being over-prepared locks in your thinking and reduces your ability to be responsive; better to get a full night’s rest than sweat over the final details.
  • You need to be just knowledgable enough on the issues to be on equal footing with most of the participants, but not so much that the group looks to you for expertise; better to have them looking to one another for ideas.
  • You need to be just charismatic enough that you can grab everyone’s attention when you need it, but un-charismatic enough to lose that attention when you stop talking; better to disappear into the back of the room when the conversation gets going.

What does that mean for overall models? The alignment is the most important part. Alignment among the objective, the participants, and the approach, especially. If someone asks you to facilitate something and immediately starts describing the sessions, the first thing you need to do is hit the pause button and ask them to rewind to the overall objective. If there’s not a transparent agreement among those organizing the workshop on what they want to achieve, then you can’t have alignment on the rest.

One particular caution: If the event is primarily about the ability to communicate that the event happened or about getting known names on the stage, then that’s going to constrain everything else you do.

A few more concrete tips:

  • Write a narrative of the workshop before you start designing sessions—i.e. everyone starts agreeing on A, we’ll get them to point B by the end of day 1, so that we can start in on C at the beginning of day 2, etc. That lets you break down the questions (“how do we get from A to B?”) and check if you’re on track throughout (“whoops, looks like we won’t get to C until halfway through day 2”).
  • Always have a facilitator’s agenda that you keep separate from the participants agenda. For me, I’ll write out almost-verbatim how I’ll introduce each section, describe the task, etc. It’s a great way to spot potential holes in the narrative. Also, because you’ve already thought about what you’re going to say, you can devote more mental bandwidth to reading people’s reactions.
  • Always have a team, whether that’s a full facilitation team, participants who are ready to step up at certain points, or just some people you already know who can help you read the temperature in the room.
  • Don’t get enamored with any particular format, game, exercise, or framework. The effectiveness of panels, breakouts, fishbowls, post-it sorting, two-by-twos, ignition talks, think-pair-share, popcorn-sharing, unconferences, or any other approach depends entirely what you’re trying to accomplish and who’s in the room. Context, as always, matters.
  • Avoid the temptation to get clever or complicated. Intricate exercises with lots of moving parts that take 10 minutes just to explain to participants are high risk. Sometimes less is more.
  • Be cautious of the “session we have to have” and the push to squeeze in a particular speaker or topic. Interrogate why that needs to be part of the workshop; there might be a great, unarticulated reason why it will help the group to accomplish the overall objective, or there might just be political reasons—which is fine, but better to clarify that among the workshop organizers at least.
  • Keep the focus on the participants. Yes, there are institutional goals, constraints, and egos that you need to satisfy. Focus on the people in the room, and you’ll find ways to achieve those other objectives as well.

Photo credit: Me, taken at the TA LEARN workshop (expertly facilitated by Chris Michael); Rio de Janeiro, Nov 2015.