Thursday, 24 February 2011

How do you explain 'Facilitation' to anyone in this country of ours (United Kingdom)? I have been conducting an experiment - when people ask me "What do you do?", I reply, "I'm a Facilitator". Then the fun begins! They scrunch up their face and a look of pure bewilderment appears. Some bravely try and respond: "Oh so you......, oh do you.....? is that ..........? No I don't know what that means", others just look vacant, whilst others admit straight off that they have no idea what a 'facilitator' is. 
This is happened because we all use word based on its origin. The name "Facilitator" comes from the Latin word Facilis, which means to do or make easy. However, we can also use the word as an adjective and a verb: to facilitate and as an adjective, a facilitated event. This means that all kinds of things can be 'facilitated', all kinds of people can be 'facilitators' and we can facilitate all kinds of things.  

So, obviously facilitation needs a context in order for it to make sense. If I was a trainer or a consultant or a coach the context would say everything I needed it to: "I'm a business/executive coach'; "I train people to use IT systems" or "I provide consultancy in overseas trade". However, even when I try to give a context people look baffled - so is it me? Is it that I can't explain what I do or is it that we don't have an understanding of the context in which I can explain what I mean by facilitate?
So let me try this: "I am a process facilitator". Still no good - I've introduced another bit of jargon!
How about this: "I facilitate meetings". Still little response.
What about: "I facilitate change programmes and projects". Even less understanding!

So in desperation the other day, at a seminar for overseas trade after the usual blank look I said, "Well imagine a meeting and the Chairperson/MD says, 'Why need to analyse the budget, so that we can decide our priorities for next year'. If I was facilitating that meeting I would filter out all the 'red' words: 'budget', 'next year' - and simply focus on the 'green' words: 'analyse', 'prioritise' and think of tools or techniques that would help them do just that, because most people only hear the 'red' words and dive in and add more. The Facilitator trains themselves to hear the 'green' words and thinks of ways to help the group achieve the 'red' outcomes by using 'green' process." Suddenly it was if a light had gone on and she said, "Oh I understand, so you facilitate them by helping provide a way to tackle issues?" "Yes, I said and pressed home my advantage by saying, "And in change, everyone gives their attention to the 'what' has to be achieved/changed. A facilitator, the 'change agent' provides the process to achieve the desired outcomes. It's just on a larger scale to a meeting." 

Suddenly it was as if we were long lost buddies and she could see the need for this in so many contexts! Yet she wasn't thinking about facilitating the building of roads, or facilitating the lunch we were having, she recognised that it had an arena, a place that it fitted.

Sadly, the other day I also went to a seminar where a speaker told us about the change. After the usual questions the host asked us to, 'Share your experiences with each other'. Suddenly an event that had order and structure, disintegrated. Why? Because the host didn't give us a 'format' or any process to do the sharing. Some people broke off into twos, others into threes but as we were all seated in rows it was difficult to have real dialogue. So where was the: facilitation, facilitator or facilitated activity! The feedback from that was dominated by a couple of vocal people who were intend on being seen and heard - so sad and disappointing!

So, my friends, if someone tells you that they ARE a Facilitator, stroke their arm gently, talk in a soft tone and listen to their plight. Befriend a Facilitator today - ask them what they do!

How time goes by!

It struck me how important it is to manage time when facilitating a group. I don't mean the time the (sub) group take when they are tackling the tasks - rather the time that guest speaker take in plenary sessions when they indulge themselves with their topic.
No amount of good planning can overcome a speaker who takes more time than was allotted to them, no matter how good they are (or think they are)!
I thought that I had leant my lesson many years ago when someone hijacked a workshop by taking forever to make the presentation that they thought the participants MUST hear. However, it's happened again and I think the lesson is: never, never leave it to someone else to brief the speaker. Instead, make yourself known and go through what they are going to say, encourage them to make it relevant and make it clear to them how important it is to stick to time.
On the other hand, recently I was facilitating a five day workshop and we had decided to keep people's feedback down to two minutes. At a break point one participant walked up to me and asked my advise - they were thinking of leaving the workshop. The reason: they felt that their English wasn't good enough. How did they come to that conclusion? They hadn't been able to think about what they wanted to say, translate it into English and say it within the allotted two minutes!
The moral: be aware of individual's needs and in the same way as the formal speaker, encourage people to share what they want to say BEFORE they have to speak out in the group. For me this goes back to 'format' - making sure that the group is working in the best way (one to all, everyone, group or all to one). The experience of the guest speaker and the feedback reinforce my feeling that 'one to all' format is to be used with extreme caution.
If anyone wants more information about 'formats' and other useful information about Facilitation, they can get my book: "Facilitation - an art, science, skill or all three?" from

Monday, 20 September 2010

Multi-Wall - Virtual Collaboration

I'm at the centre of a fantastic development. I have been fortunate enough to combine with Lamasatech, a multi-touch technology company to develop a new approach to collaborative, virtual meetings/workshops.

As I wrote in an article recently:
'Online meetings are now in vogue. There is a plethora of technology companies offering to connect people. However, what stands out more than anything is the fact that it is invariably a ‘one to all’ format – that is: one person ‘presents’ or speaks to the ‘audience’. Especially in Webinars, which is the more commercial end of the market, people present their ideas/expertise in a one-way communication stream. If anyone is on camera at all, it is the presenter and the rest of the audience is hidden from view. Interaction is often limited to writing questions for the presenter to answer, or completing surveys that they offer to the audience. In contrast, ‘Second Life’ (for example see, allows people to interact as avatars/‘characters’ and to visit different locations (e.g. whiteboard and auditorium). People connect voice over the internet (VoIP) and have conversations, which although meaningful, lack ‘depth’. There is little opportunity to work collaboratively. Some other simple programs allow people to draw on whiteboards. This, in many ways, belittles the real nature of collaboration and creativity, reducing the interaction to drawing lines and boxes on a page. 

A Facilitator’s underlying aim when people come together is to ensure effective interaction and to make sure that people engage effectively with the information that they create and develop. When we, as facilitators, think about virtual meetings, our primary focus is on whether the technology will enhance or interfere with the collaboration; and the ability of the people to tackle issues, solve problems, shape ideas, develop solutions and create new patterns of thinking. Consequently, if we are to facilitate ‘virtual meetings’ of people in different locations, and get the interaction we strive for, we need technology that suits the philosophy we adhere to.

One of the newest and possibly most exciting advances is multi-touch technology - see to view one of the early research models. It enables people to interact and handle data simultaneously, using multiple touches. Many of us will have experienced touch screens (e.g. buying tickets at a train station) and end-users are now beginning to explore what it could mean for them. Early multi-touch screens were merely ‘toys’, for example, moving photos around, flipping them and re-sizing them. Those of you who saw ‘Minority Report’ will have seen Tom Cruise handling data using a form of multi-touch. In ‘Indecent Proposal’ Michael Douglas was ‘flicking pages of information using a virtual ‘glove’. Now, following the ‘research’ and these early science fiction examples have come the ‘development’ and practical application. Hospitals are developing the use of multi-touch screens to allow the doctor to show different aspects of data to aid patient understanding. Police are experimenting, using multi-touch screens to display crime scene information. 

‘Facilitation Multi-Wall’ is in its development stage. It offers the opportunity to connect people/groups from different locations and enables them to interact with the same data, at the same time. If you would like to see an early prototype of Facilitation Multi-Wall being demonstrated go to: 

Working at a multi-touch screen at their own location, people will be able to upload the data, which could be a technical drawing/diagram, spreadsheet, or any other document they wish to explore/discuss. As the short video shows, the participants can also send electronic post it notes via their mobile phones. Users can send them one at a time or in batches; this way the facilitator can ensure that there is equality of participation. Once the data is on screen anyone, anywhere will be able to move it and add to it. In addition the software can offer a wide range of techniques (e.g. electronic post its), tools (e.g. fishbone diagram, force field, four box model, etc.) and even client’s own organisational models.

The aim is that each participating group could be seen and or heard via audio and/or video, displayed in the corner of the screen, likewise the facilitator, who could also be at a remote location. If those taking part in the activity decide, then data can be ‘broken off’ and taken by one of the groups to work on and brought back to the forum when completed. The data could be moved to another multi-touch screen in the same room/location or at a distant location as the technology enables groups anywhere to work in this technological environment.

The multi-touch screen, with its ability to enable simultaneous, real-time interaction can offer a new level of collaboration. It can be used for a wide variety of ‘meetings’ and ‘workshops’ where people need to engage with each other and handle visual data and information. The use of the multi-touch, multi-screen application can enhance virtual multi-location meetings and workshops. The real challenge will be to get groups up from sitting at the table and working at the ‘wall’. However, we as facilitators, have a great tradition of encouraging groups to change their traditional style of working. Using the multi-touch screen on the wall will not only be a novel experience for some but an enriching one as well.

I will be demonstrating the multi-wall at the upcoming IAF Conference in Helsinki (15th - 17th October. If you would like more information please contact me:

In the book: 'Participate for a Change' that I have recently written I am compelled to conclude that 
'... despite all the theory that supports a 'participative' style of change, the temptation is always to impose change. Managers see the urgency and the impending external key drivers and their reaction is to make change happen. Often the workforce is seen as an obstacle to change. They anticipate resistance and indeed many of the change models predict that resistance. In 2010 in the UK several very large organisations such as British Airways and the Royal Mail face the need to make radical changes to the way they operate if they are to remain competitive. To date the workforce has been resistant, even hostile, to changes in their working practices and there has been a breakdown in relations between management and the Unions. As Facilitators and change agents we need to be aware of the potential for resistance to change and be ready to forestall it with effective participatory activity. Nevertheless it is important to face head on the question of when to impose change and when to engage in a participative process. It is also important to see the consequences of both approaches and recognise the advantages and disadvantages of both.

If the workforce has a high vested interest in the status quo then management has to decide whether the risk to the business is so serious that it cannot afford to engage them in the change process. However, the consequences of not engaging the workforce can be even more disruptive to the business than the external threat. Faced with imposed change workers/employees often withdraw their emotional support for the organisation and as a result their input, positive contribution and enthusiasm reduces, which in itself can be as harmful as the external threat. If there is a high vested interest in the status quo and a high risk to the survival of the business then management may choose to drive change through. However, the aim should always be to engage the workforce in the change process because even if it is slower in the beginning, it will be more productive and reduce resistance in the long run.