Lessons from “high stakes” facilitation

Here are some reflections on a “high stakes” (for me) event that I ran recently working with John Hovell, who leads on Organisation Development for BAE Systems Group. We led the 2015 NTL Community Day – a large group gathering for some of the UK’s leading change experts and master facilitators.

NTL Institute is an American non-profit behavioural psychology centre founded by Kurt Lewin (one of the pioneers of organisation development who led thinking on Group Dynamics and pioneered Field Theory and action research) and which produced or influenced notable “gurus” such as Douglas McGregor (Theory X and Y), Chris Agyris (Ladder of Inference and Double Loop Learning) and Warren Bennis (Leadership).

I was pretty apprehensive – there is something particularly nerve-wracking about “performing” in front of experts trying to do what they have built their successful careers around. But John and I did a good job and got lots of positive feedback, and I wanted to capture the learning points.

To summarise these at the start:

  • Design around the needs of participants. Whatever the hosts’ intentions, involve participants to reflect their needs too
  • Ensure transparency of design and make intentions explicit
  • Take chances to accommodate participants’ wishes because the pay-off in energy and input justifies the uncomfortable feeling of lack of control
  • Balance content (i.e. input) with experience (i.e. the chance to discuss or work with the content). So many corporate events overlook this, yet the brain is limited in how it processes and 20 minutes content followed by reflection creates much more effective learning
  • Go “off piste” if the participants want it – let them shape the agenda and if they do not agree run parallel events within the larger forum
  • Use modern technology to maximize participation in design, connecting and knowledge sharing – but make sure the tools are right and their purpose is clear

Participative design

First and foremost is the principle of seeing the meeting as something that the participants’ own. The facilitators just happen to be their agents for the process. This is true of most if not all facilitation work but an insight that gets lost on some facilitators and those that they are helping. This is an important point to stress so that everyone understands that responsibility for a successful day (or event, or meeting) is shared. Shared responsibility leads to higher engagement, more valuable meetings discussing issues of real concern and more flexible agendas.

Our vision was to create a day designed by the community for the community. Modern technology makes this so much easier. Using Googledocs and Slack (a cloud based collaboration tool) we could involve over six months nearly 100 members of the community in a very transparent way. The technology enabled the creation of a self-selecting virtual design team and helped invite community-wide responses to emerging ideas. Everyone provided input on purpose, and creative ideas, then the design team reviewed the creative design ideas and proposed a process, and then the whole community again provided commentary and further suggestions. In addition to participative design the process means people can arrive (if they want) fully up to speed with goals and agenda, and it sets the tone or the spirit – so as the day progresses the design does too.

Chris Rimmer (whose experience includes IT management for one of the UK’s largest hedge funds) helped in this and between us we entered this in “Discovery” mode – we were not sure how well it would work. One of the big challenges early on was getting people comfortable using the technology and if we had the time again we would have spent more time helping people understand its capability. Some people leap in but others need encouragement and prompting. More conventional methods (email) need to be used alongside the new tools.

Be transparent and obvious in design

We wanted an energizing and relevant connecting activity. It sat in the agenda without anyone specifying what it would look like! I spent a long-time worrying about this. In the end we came back to basics.

Two goals were 1) to define the spirit of NTL and 2) to connect people. So we started in cohort groups (people who knew each other well) to do some reminiscing and story telling about their experiences together, and then we re-grouped into cross-cohort groups to extract themes from the stories that captured the spirit of NTL. My learning from this was to be obvious. The goal is to define the spirit so ask people to answer that question. To connect people help them both re-connect to old friends and meet new ones.

The learning is to be transparent about intention and not to overcomplicate the design as it adds little and just serves to increase the risk of confusing people.

Take chances

The unconference format (let participants decide the topics they work on) is increasingly familiar but still rarely used for larger corporate events. Yet it is such an obvious approach in the right circumstances (in our case generating ideas and sharing information and issues between participants). We learned some useful pragmatic lessons about how to set this up and the participants welcomed the chance to vote with their feet on where to put their energy.

Theory and practice; input and experience

We asked Julie Beedon (founder of the VISTA network and one of the UK’s leading experts on Large Group Interventions) to do a short input on Polarity Management, which is a fantastic tool for helping organisations and teams navigate the challenges of competing objectives. Then we used the framework to get people debating around two familiar issues in change management: 1) what is more important – theory or practice; and 2) how to balance youth vs. wisdom? I think it was helpful to immediately take the framework and apply it in the real world – even though it was a bit chaotic it got people engaged and showed them how to use the polarity management ‘tool’ on real issues.

Flexibility and Energy

At one point we had two conflicting agendas. Some wanted to explore and experience the use of practical energizers while others wanted to continue discussions on their topics.

We had the space to do both. Those who wanted the “lighter” activity around the illustration of some energizing activities had a session with Steve Chapman who is one of the leading thinkers and practitioners on innovation and Martin Horton who specialised in Armed Forces leadership development. Those who wanted the discussions went “next door” to break into relevant topics of interest.

We did not know this was going to happen – we had the good fortune of having the people in the room that could let us go “off-piste” and the flexibility to accommodate differing needs.

The lesson, which could apply to many large group meetings or gatherings in the corporate world, is to use the available resources to meet the needs of the participants. Overall energy and commitment remains high as a result.

Multiple channels

Another technology lesson – give people the opportunity to connect virtually both during the meeting and afterwards. I was skeptical until I saw the value of being able to make requests, convene special interest groups, share information and contacts etc. etc. on the day. We encouraged people to download What’s App before the day and they used it for the session and after.

Reviewing this I realise that that these lessons seem simple, which feels right. Some will think that these lessons only apply to a community type session. I think if we took these on board our corporate leadership, management, employee and customer conferences would be much more effective. But you need a brave host to relinquish control.

My thanks go first and foremost to Mee-Yan Cheung Judge who made NTL what it is in the UK and to:

Julie Beedon

Paul Brand

Tim Burridge

Jenny Charteris

Cindy Chaney

Steve Churst

Alison France

Griff Griffiths

Martin Horton

John Hovell

Dawn Jarvis

Sian Richards

Chris Rimmer

Gwen Stirling