The OD mindset and facilitation design

I went an event that the CIPD invited me to earlier in the year, and despite it being really well planned, organised, with content that was spot on and being in a great venue; I left with a feeling of dissatisfaction and irritation.

I found myself having a moan to a friend on a train about it.  The remainder of the journey home was filled with that unpleasant realisation that I hadn’t offered any feedback directly and as a consequence of passive aggressive moaning,  I then had to feel annoyed with myself.

Luckily I have no cat to kick.  I acted on my annoyance; picked up the phone, ‘fessed up, and my feedback was received with a welcome.  I offered to come in and share my own approach to designing events – in the spirit of sharing how it works for me which again was welcomed.

In an early incarnation of myself I was a branch admin manager for an insurance company.  I loved that job.  Complete autonomy and accountability; brilliant manager, multiple responsibilities.  Once a year, all of us were gathered together for a conference.  The evenings were what we all waited for.  Time to talk, make friends, 26 people doing the identical job – before technology enabled so much sharing, all we had was that space.  We were so hungry to share experiences but oh man….  the conference part – I remember once a new 200 page manual being issued, and someone taking us through each page. At the end of it we were swivel eyed loons.  The dreaded theatre layout, the slides, the injection.

Dear reader, eventually the ownership for designing and running of the conference was mine. I asked what they wanted – interaction, time to think, time to be, something active to do.  So we constructed a few activities, got out of their way, celebrated success and –  we had some legendary years.

My start point therefore is always to think of myself as a participant.  In every event, workshop, coaching session, engagement meeting.   What will it be like to be me? And recognising that for people who are like me, and like what I like, there will be people who don’t like what I like. They may respond to the opposite, they may want a combination.

I work to design my work from principles of inclusivity – if I want everyone’s contribution, everyone’s thinking; what are my considerations?

Here’s a summary of the key points I shared with the CIPD gang; about 20 of them came and at least one of these points I think landed for each person there.

Stakeholder, stakeholder, stakeholder

Why is the meeting/event/conversation/activity being held?  Who has interest/power? What do they want, expect, hope for, fear?  Much of the work with meetings I facilitate happens outside “the room”. Ask them, involve them, and listen to them.  Design for them.  Them includes people who will be in the room, people who are sponsoring, initiating, recipients of learning etc.

Imagine the experience from the participant perspective. 

Consider logistical arrangements,  content design and the psychological and emotional experience that people will have.  What will people need to know before, what do you want them to go away knowing, thinking, doing.   Think.  What will a good experience be? What events/meetings have you enjoyed the most?  What are the different experiences that people may bring into the room; some already engaged with some knowledge, others may have a different story.

All of use enjoy meetings where they participate, engage, talk, have time to reflect and share and when we are clear about what is expected from us; and where we have had an opportunity to express our own expectations.

Be honest about what you want. 

If you want specific questions answered; then you can do this through interviews and surveys or a chaired timed meeting.  If you want to impart information, with any engagement as additional benefit, but not essential – then – say it how it is.  If it’s a tell, rather than an ask – plan it that way.

If you want to get others thinking…. if you don’t want a set answer – then facilitation works.  Design a flow that creates space for people to connect and land, that gets energy and engagement.  Don’t do the thinking for your participants; assume they are adults, assume they are at least as smart as you, assume that they will ask for what they need.  Assume that you are equals.

Check in with them, contract with them, and mostly, get out of their way.

Less is more.

Facilitation could I suppose be described as making discussions easier through creating gentle adaptable structure.  Many years ago, facilitating a joint board meeting, pre merger (a first for me), one CEO took me aside and said “Meg; we just need you to be here; that is enough”.  I was trying hard to own the space, be seen, be validated.  I learned so much from that share.  Facilitation is not there to do the doing, or the thinking.  We lightly hold the space with respect and mutuality.  It’s not a performance.

Assume you are equals – then you don’t have to solve any real or perceived difficulties.

Create the conditions for people to think well.

I am a Thinking Environment practitioner, and this infuses everything I do.  There are Ten Components described by Nancy Kline for people to think, really think, independently.    These ten components are based on treating people well.   One of the components is ease –  no need to rush, free yourself from any internal sense of urgency.  Which leads me to the final point I shared.

It’s not about you

A key OD principle – the thought that we are an instrument of change ourselves.  Nancy Kline describes this as “people learn you”.

Be aware of your own stuff.  Most coaches and facilitators have supervision; which allows us to explore when we are projecting our own needs into our work.   For example; if you prefer open flow and not too much structure; that can confuse others.  If you like precision and timescales, that may restrict others.  I remember a leadership programme where we three facilitators could not really connect to the energy of the cohort.  It wasn’t until we midway that we realised we all had a preference for working in a very emergent way and were comfortable with a very loose framework.  What was happening was that the group were almost entirely opposite to us, and were not very clear on what was expected; and to do their best thinking, they needed more structure. We redesigned everything so that there were no vague “go over there and think about the culture here for a while” but clear questions with clearly expected outcomes.  Those who needed a loose framework did what they wanted, and those who worked better with clarity, gained a sense of achievement from knowing where they were going.

Recognise when your need to close something down is because you have run out of time, or whether you are in task mode and want to tick a box, or whether the conversation isn’t going how you think it should and you want to exert control.

One bit of reflection I remember from this recent CIPD session was the relief expressed by one person that the facilitator does not have to be visible at all times.   Facilitation is not a performance.

Facilitation is improvisation

My final thought; facilitation design requires judgement, self awareness, respect for the participant and thinking through the fine detail/nuances so that people have a fulfilling session.   All the things I have said above.

None of that predicts what will happen in the room.

Create space for people to notice what is going on for themselves is the most valuable gift you can offer.

Recent developments in my design has increased emphasis on stakeholder engagement prior to work; and in real time more open space.

It’s a beautiful thing.


10 thoughts on “The OD mindset and facilitation design

  1. Really lovely description of what it’s like to be a facilitator or trainer of an event and the need to adapt to the people in front of you. What hasn’t been said explicitly is that it takes many hours of practice (trial and error) to learn what you’ve written here. Improvising is exciting when it works and terrifying when it doesn’t. Thanks.

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