Ever encountered the gap between what you think something might be like and the real experience of that thing in and of itself? Welcome to the world of myths, and at the next IAF Oceania Conference on March 7–9th 2012 in Melbourne there will be a session exploring and busting facilitation myths. What are some of the myths you’ve busted on your own learning journey in facilitation? What about “Brainstorming is a great way to generate ideas for a session”? Or “Facilitators are Neutral”? Or “Everyone needs to be happy at the end of a workshop”? Or “Facilitators are extroverts”?
Over the christmas break I was in Brisbane with my wife’s family and took the opportunity to visit Bob Dick – inveterate action researcher and oft quoted as the Grandfather of facilitation in Australia. And yes – I couldn’t help myself but ask him – in his experience of over 30 years of organisational work and training of facilitators what are some of the myths of facilitation.
Read on below to hear Bob’s top 5 myths of:
- There are people called “Facilitators”
- Facilitators manage the process and stay out of the content
- All processes need to be high energy and fun
- Facilitation is the same as Training
- We develop plans to follow them
Myth 1: There are people called “Facilitators”
“A popular myth for me is that there are these people called “facilitators”, and that they have this bag of tricks called “facilitation” and that once you’ve mastered that collection, then you’re in business as a facilitator. And I think it’s possible to work that way, but I think it’s terribly limiting to do that. It seems to me that a healthier way of thinking about it is that- you’re in a group of people for some reason or other in some context with or without some purpose and it’s not working and you have some skills or some processes that can get it working and so you do whatever it takes to do that. And sometimes that looks like facilitation and sometimes it doesn’t. And I think it’s a lot more useful than “facilitation”.
A piece of that – and this is a personal view, I don’t think everyone will agree with this – is that it’s important that we establish standards for facilitators and that we have courses to teach them the right way to do facilitation and that we have facilitators who are certified somehow or rather. I was trained as a psychologist and certification for psychologists put a straight-jacket on what psychology courses could do. Most of what I learnt in an undergrad program in psychology I haven’t used since. Most of what I use that you could vaguely characterise as psychology I’ve learnt subsequently to leaving university.
Most tertiary education is too narrow to equip people with the complexity of what they face in much of what they do. I don’t think you can do good research in the applied world, or good change work in the applied world if you accept the conventional boundaries of any one discipline. So not just facilitation but psychology, sociology or engineering or anything else you care to name. And not only that it seems to me that to take psychology as an example, there’s a particular language that psychologists use to talk to each other which doesn’t mean the same thing to other people. So a psychologist and sociologist having a conversation with each other about anything technical is pretty wild to observe from the outside, because they’re talking past each other, because they think that because they are both talking English they share a language. But in fact they don’t. One’s talking psychology and one’s talking sociology. And I think facilitation risks taking the same step, or is taking it already.”
Myth 2: Facilitators manage the process and stay out of the content
“A piece of that – every time we put a constraint on what facilitators do or don’t do, we limit peoples options. I really disagree with the reasons for doing that. Really prominent in that is the belief that facilitators manage the process and stay out of the content. That’s honoured more in the breach than in the observance in my observations. And there are times when it’s a really good idea to stay out of the content – even though many facilitators don’t – because when you intrude into the content it actually contaminates the process and makes it harder to manage the process. But having done that why would you close off the option of working in content when that will help the people you are working with get the outcome that you want. So to my mind that’s an unnecessary restriction.
Now I mostly stay in process in much of the facilitation that do because it gets me better outcomes that way but I have no objection at all to moving into content and there are times when what I do is a 50-50 mix of process and content and there are times when I’m acting more in an advisory role and so its heavily content but I’m still using the skills of a change agent or facilitator or something like that to make sure that the conversation goes where it’s supposed to be going.
I suppose the generic form of the myth is that the boundaries between disciplines are useful. And by and large I don’t believe they are. I think that they’re an unnecessary constraint. Why would you wear a straight jacket when there’s no point in doing so – is the point of view I view it from.”
Myth 3: All processes need to be high energy and fun
“Pieces of this myth about what facilitation is, and this isn’t universally true – not everyone believes this and I think our American cousins are probably more at fault than we are although we seem to pick up our American cousins bad habits more easily than their good habits. And that’s a belief that all processes must be high energy and good fun. I’ve got nothing against high energy and there are times when low energy can really kill a process. And I’ve got nothing against fun, but there are times when fun amplifies what you are trying to do and there are times when it’s actually a distraction from what you are trying to do. So again, the amount of energy is a design option and a facilitation option and you make that decision in the moment in terms of what’s good for the outcome that you’re pursuing and what’s good for the present process and it seems the same thing is true about fun.
A counter example: There are times when deeply reflective processes where people go inside and become very internal bring about real personal break throughs. An example for life and career planning. There are times when you want high energy and high group interactions so that you’re getting the cross fertilisation between people. But then people need time to go inside and make use of that in the context of who they are and where they’ve been in the story of where they are going. And that seems low energy. And often there are some moist eyes around and it doesn’t seem like fun either. And yet for that kind of process that’s where the personal breakthroughs happen. And often the moist eyes are a sign that that’s what’s going on.
Sometimes agony is where the breakthrough happens too. There was a study done by Yalom, Leiberman and Miles that found that 7%, if my memory serves me, of participants in T-Groups (this is from the 60’s) were – and in their words – psychiatric casualties. And as a result T-Groups were banned in universities throughout Australia, even though there were some really effective personal development and professional development courses that used T-Groups as the medium for development. And then an English academic whose name I should remember because he’s widely published in many different fields, he revisited participants who in the American study would have been classified as psychiatric casualties- 6 months after that, and found that these were the people who reported the most profound beneficial outcomes from the experience they had had in the T-Group. So once again, this says to me – anything that puts a rules or constraints around change work in complex systems – because that’s what we’re talking about – is closing off some possibilities that might be the best chance of getting a good outcome.”
Myth 4: Facilitation is the same as Training
“Some, maybe 20% or 25% of the people who come on my programs have had it recommended to them by somebody else because they “facilitate” in trainer mode and they recognise (or have been helped to recognise) that that isn’t always the best role to operate from, so they come along to watch someone who works in a much less structured way. So often I start workshops – if there are novices present- that there is a continuum of facilitation which at the one extreme is “don’t have any plans and go with the flow” and at the other extreme is “to know what you’re going to be doing at 13 minutes past 2 for what purpose”. And sometimes each of those extremes is appropriate, but not very often. And that my own preference – when I think it will work is to be about a quarter the way along from the unstructured end – with the proviso that I still do detailed planning. I just don’t expect to follow the plan. When I’m working down the unstructured end I don’t expect to follow the plan.”
Myth 5: We develop plans to follow them
“So maybe that’s a myth. Maybe the myth is that you develop plans to follow whereas the more useful mindset, mental model is. I think Dwight Eisenhower said it beautifully he said “planning is everything, the plan is nothing”. Or as that Russian general said 150 or more years ago “no plan survives the first contact with the enemy”. And I’m not suggesting that participants are the enemy although occasionally that’s been true. But no plan survives the first contact with a complex reality. So a really dangerous myth is that “we plan to be able to follow the plans”.
Plans are to get the right neurons firing so that we can be in the moment and so when there’s a requirement that we do something unplanned and unexpected we’re able to do that. It isn’t that we jettison the plan entirely it’s that, one way of saying it is if we are working with a particularly fairly robust process – processes that run themselves – like fairy story. Even with groups that you’d expect to be really nervous to start with, and even if they are nervous to start with, if they pick up the spirit of the thing – then it’s true that all you need to know is how the fairy tale starts and how it ends. And I’ve never had fairy story bomb out badly on me. I’ve had it start really awkwardly occasionally with lawyers in one case I’m thinking of particularly. But once the energy starts to pick up they do great things.
So a really robust process- means that if the process is doing the facilitation I don’t have to. And that frees me up to notice what’s going on. And I find it difficult to pay attention in the same moment to what’s happening to all the individuals in the room and to what’s happening to the group as a whole. It requires different mindsets to observe those two things and I have to alternate between them. And I kind of guess that’s true of a lot of people and if the process is running itself then it’s easier for me to do that because I can give my attention to scanning the room to look at each person in turn and deliberately defocus and look at what the configuration in the room is and where the energy is and so on because the process is doing some of the work for me. And what the suggests for me is that continuum that I sketched out before suggesting that unstructured was at one end and structured at the other, that there is actually a best of both worlds version of it, where some of it is structured and run by the process – as you say to free up the change agent to improvise in the moment when the moment requires something a bit different. Points of leverage.”
What are the myths you’ve busted? What’s true for you within your practice and learnings around facilitation?
I’d love to hear…