Monday, October 19, 2015

Facilitator, Do You Have a Plan C?

Plan A and B crossed, Plan C take over
In June I had the opportunity to work in Sweden at a wonderful event on the seaside. I got the job because a friend of mine who usually worked with this group was unavailable.

Unfortunately I had another event scheduled until 6pm the day before in Switzerland which meant that I needed to leave my event promptly, drive the 30 minutes in rush hour traffic to the Geneva airport, take a flight to Copenhagen, and there make a 35 minute transfer onto the last flight of the day to my Swedish destination. I would arrive at midnight, and my event started at 8am (outside the city).

What could go wrong? My Swedish counterpart there asked a good question, what if… What was my plan B, she asked? Well, effectively I was already their Plan B as their regular facilitator couldn’t make it, so what was my Plan C, in case any of those many moving parts to get me to the event in time, didn’t actually move.

That is a great question that we should always ask ourselves as facilitators (or trainers, or any person on whose participation an event may hinge). What if we fall ill, miss that flight, get taken to the wrong venue in a city we don’t know?

Now, I have in the past run a plenary session with a dizzyingly high fever, covered in sweat and practically swooning in the blurry spotlights  in front of me (this was at a UN conference in Damascus many years ago – with organizers with a “show must go on” attitude. It was nothing that a huge dose of antibiotics and 2 days in my hotel bed afterwards couldn’t “cure”.) But I have also gotten a call at 05:30am on a weekday from my colleague who was desperately ill, and then found myself standing in a workshop room a couple of hours later picking up with a surprised group where she left off. (That was the source of another couple of blog posts – Facilitators: To Your Health! and Managing Exceptions – The Resilient Facilitator. I also wrote a blog post from the perspective of the stand in - Flu Season! Facilitators Prepare to Step In!)

So sometimes the Grin-and-Bear-It approach can work, or if not, calling a colleague with whom you have a good working relationship and a shared approach. It’s definitely worth contacting your network and making some reciprocal agreements in advance that can help in such emergencies – both local and international.

What else can you put into place as a Plan B or C? One thing that we always do is we develop a “Facilitation Agenda” which is a very detailed description of the process that we will use for the workshop. It includes the sequence of items and speakers, their titles and the titles of their presentations (for introducing them). It includes the group work and activities sequence, the timing and any roles. It can also include mock ups of job aids, flipcharts that need to be created on site, and any other process considerations (how to run the quiz, how to set up the room, etc.). Our Facilitation Agenda documents are very complete, and very long, but they also provide any experienced facilitator all they need to pick up the process and go on with it. A materials and equipment list completes the process pack.

It is also good to make sure that this Facilitation Agenda is developed with your counterpart in the organization, so that they know exactly what the process is, the rationale behind it and the expected outcomes. This helps them better hand this over to a substitute facilitator if need be or even, if they are happy to do it, take on this role themselves, or find another internal person to do this as a last resort.  You can even anticipate this with your counterpart and identify another process person within the organization to have a talk with in advance, as your Plan B.

Thankfully, in my case, the winds were with me. My workshop in Geneva ended promptly on time, and as luck would have it, I shared a taxi to the airport with a Norwegian participant who knew all about the local transport system where I was going. He told me all the ways to get to my destination in case I missed my connecting flight - from renting a car and driving the 3 hours north, to crossing the bridge from Denmark to Sweden and taking the train after midnight. Both would get me there in time for my event. Armed with bountiful Plan B’s, and after a brisk run from gate-to-gate in Copenhagen, I made all my connections and showed up in good shape for my event, much to the relief of my Swedish counterpart who stayed up very late until she received my “I’m here!” text message.

It’s definitely worth coming up with contingencies before you really need them. I heard a TED talk recently by a Canadian neurologist Dr. Daniel J. Levitin (it was about the importance of pre-mortems, inviting us to plan ahead for stress), who reminded us that when you’re stressed, your brain releases the hormone cortisol which makes your thinking fuzzy.

You don’t want to be fuzzy-headed trying to develop your Plan B. Well in advance, when you are calm,

  • 1) Get your network of potential stand-in facilitators in place (local or otherwise);
  • 2) Make sure your process is well documented to the final detail (Facilitation Agenda);
  • 3) Brief your counterpart (so they are fully aware);
  • 4) Know all the alternatives (routes and all);
  • 5) Wear good shoes and travel light.
Chances are you won’t need these things, but if you do, you will be happy to have your Plan B, C, and D in place. It turned out to be a beautiful summer day for an event in Sweden!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Take a Picture, It'll Last Longer (A Cautionary Tale for Facilitators)

The conference centre staff were confronted this morning with the following appeal - PLEASE DON'T TOUCH THE PAPERS - written in foot-high capital letters, and strategically placed in front of the door to our workshop room, the walls of which were plastered with flip chart templates, timelines, prioritised project lists with actors designated - the golden nuggets of our intense working meeting. 

Before leaving the room the night before I also took photos of everything, even though the next day we would work together again, further develop the ideas, layering additional information and meaning over our previous day's outputs.

In the past, I would have waited until the end of the workshop to take these photos, so as to have the final artifacts, organised and polished. But not any more.

At a 3-day workshop in Paris last month in a beautiful new hotel we were also working visually. The walls of our meeting room similarly featured the colourful results of our first 2 days of work and discussions, decisions and ideas. The outcome of this strategy meeting was critically important in the life of this group. We were excited as we left the room the evening of Day 2 to have the few hours on our third morning to carefully review our work, synthesize and prepare the outputs and ambitious work plan going forward. 

I guess you can tell where I'm going with this... for the first time in my professional experience, right in the middle of a 3-day workshop, we walked into the meeting room an hour early on the morning of Day 3 and were confronted with the brutal reality that the night cleaning team had taken down and removed absolutely everything from the walls, all our flipcharts posters, templates, papers from our tables and all of our workshop materials! It could have been any other empty meeting room in the hotel. In a very controlled, surprisingly calm and professional way we freaked out (then we got to work).

You might think that this was a bit of an overreaction, but if you are using a visual discussion methodology that collects and organizes outputs on flip charts, posters and templates, and a group of 15 people and the host organization has collectively invested 320 person hours (effectively 2 person months of time), tens of thousands of Euros in logistics costs (having flown in from all over the world), and the equivalent monetary figure for their professional time, then having these documents removed is a very big deal. 

We hurried to recreate the results from our handwritten notes and memories, the hotel having been quickly alerted about the loss. An agonizing 15 minutes later, we were relieved to hear from the hotel staff that a thorough search of the cleaning closet produced a bag of our flip chart sheets and materials - the new night staff member had been told to clean the room, had taken the instructions literally, but clearly had not felt confident to throw everything away. 

We re-posted our slightly crumpled flip charts, taking the opportunity to reorganize them, and were done 10 minutes before our participants arrived. I took photos again, and learned a lesson - make records as you go along rather than at the end, just in case!

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Can Humiliation Boost Brain Function? (Yes, When You’re Learning Something New…)

Surfer Hollow Wave Ride

There I was, prone, my nose the requisite hand-width from the logo on the waxed board. Then, on command, execute sequence: paddle the air like crazy, then up on one knee, then two knees, stand up, body turn, arms out and ride that imaginary wave.

Surfing seemed pretty straight forward there on the sand. Side-by-side on the beach we had 10 surfboards, and 10 wannabe surfers, being put through our paces by the surfing instructor before we ran into the water with our boards. Cool! Well…

I spent the first half hour of my 90-minute lesson just trying to get on the darn board without falling off the other side. That was already rather humiliating, but I had the water to hide in (frequently and head first). Once I could actually get on the board, turning it around so it was facing in the right direction was my next challenge, and doing so without getting caught broadsided by the waves that were coming in with frustrating regularity, as waves do I guess.

Then I found myself miraculously on my board, facing the beach (at frighteningly close range) and hearing the surf instructor shouting “PADDLE!” at me. I paddled, and rode my wave onto the beach -  on my stomach. It was surprisingly comfortable but, I was assured by my sons, not the way to do it.

There were several thousand witnesses on the beach that day, watching me fall off my board, belly surf onto the beach and twice get up onto my knees but no closer to the standing cool of the little kids and my sons dude surfing around me. All in all, I spent at least an hour humiliating myself and the rest of the time underwater.

Benefits, you ask?

That was a sunny day in Rhode Island, let’s go to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean now, to Newcastle University in the UK.

Thirty volunteers were recruited recently for an experiment that began by subjecting them to a barrage of problem-solving, memory and reaction time tests to set a baseline. Then they were randomly assigned one of three activities to do for eight weeks and went home.

Members of one group had to walk briskly for three hours a week, a vigorous exercise that kept their hearts pumping and their brains deliciously filled with oxygen-laden blood.

A second group played Sudoku and did puzzles like crosswords for their three hours a week. Comfy in their lounge chairs, their brains were constantly being challenged and titillated solving these brain teasers.

The third group spent their three hours each of the eight weeks staring at a naked man named Steve. This was actually in the form of a life drawing class, where Steve was the model.

And eight weeks later, where were our volunteers now?

As expected, the walkers made great strides in their general health and fitness. The puzzlers became addicted to Sudoku and presumably proudly got their solving times down from double to single digits and competitively went on to harder and harder puzzles.   And the life drawing group? They enjoyed it! But when the scientists re-ran their cognitive tests, which group do you think made the most brain progress? What’s your guess?

If you guessed Sudoku, you would be WRONG.

The life drawing class made the most progress in cognitive skills of memory, reaction time and problem solving –  why?

BBC news, who reported the experiment, quoted clinical psychologist Daniel Collerton as saying “Learning something new engages the brain in ways that seem to be key. Your brain changes in response, no matter how many years you have behind you.” Learning something new improves your brain function and memory! Yes!

Now, let’s go back to my surfing lesson, as embarrassing as it was. That was (obviously) completely new for me. Trying to do all those coordinated moves, that the instructor was telling me, in the right sequence, for the first time, definitely engaged my brain as well as my body. The life drawers in the study saw brain benefits from developing their psychomotor skills by thinking about moving their hands to draw.

The life drawers also derived more health benefits and calorie burn from standing three hours a week for their drawing class (better than sitting – unlike our puzzlers, you can’t do Sudoku standing up). Although I was not standing, ever, I also was not sitting on my surf board (I was falling off it most of the time).

And finally the life drawers in the class were the most socially active of the three groups in the study, talking to each other and learning together, this social side also reportedly contributes to keeping your brain sharp.  My surf class camaraderie also produced opportunities for social interaction that did not always involve collisions, but lots of tips, cheers of support and peals of laughter (including my own saltwater chuckles.)

The Newcastle study concluded that “any group activity which involves being active and learning a new skill will boost your brain” and its cognitive function.

So the next time you’re laying on the beach and see someone learning something new, like surfing for instance, remember that they are improving their brain function and you are just getting a sunburn!

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

The Many Benefits of a Beautiful and Peaceful Place to Work

Bellagio 2
This is not a holiday snapshot, it’s actually a photograph from the balcony of one of my recent workshop venues – the Bellagio Center, in Bellagio, Italy, on the shores of Lake Como.

I had long heard of this venue, but my first visit was only recently, for a scoping meeting of an interesting new social enterprise initiative called Sphaera (the subject of a future blog post).

Some groups hold their workshops a short walk down the hall from their offices. Some go a little off site to a nearby hotel or conference centre, not wanting to have to go too far to gather their participants together but wanting something a little different for a change of context. And yet others put a lot of effort into finding just the right gathering spot that will help participants bring their best and most relaxed and creative selves to the task at hand. Even if it means a little extra time and travel to get there.

Environment definitely affects people’s ability to work effectively and creatively. I have been to many workshops held in square, grey institutional rooms looking out at parking lots (if they had windows) that took a heroic effort on everyone’s part to get inspired and energised for a hard working session to develop their new partnership, strategic plan, or vision. When the food is so-so, and the bed rooms are so-so, added to weather or logistics hassles, no matter how well structured your event is, you are starting on the back foot with your people.

Now come with me to Bellagio, Italy for a moment – a visual feast every moment of the day (even in the rain), with cozy villa rooms to sleep and work in, served meals that always start with drinks in the drawing room or on the balcony. Winding lanes, vast gardens and olive trees to walk and talk, 24-hour coffee nooks, and bikes to borrow to follow signs to the swimming gate for before or after-hours exercise. Far from any large, noisy urban area (although gelati within a short walk) there is not a sound at night that can disturb deep sleep. What’s not to love?

I pulled out three immediately obvious benefits from working in a peaceful and beautiful place:

  • Presence: It is often hard for busy people working 150+ percent to stop the noise in their brains long enough to focus on your agenda and goals, even if they have a vested interest. If they are close to home or their offices, they tend to disappear from time to time, or try in all the breaks keep up as much as possible with their full-time work load. Give them a magical place to work and shorten that transition time from crazy busy to creative. They will be present not only physically, but mentally because where they are with you for work is better than almost anywhere else they could be. They will still try to keep up on email in the evenings at least for the first day or so, but there will be a lot to get and keep their attention here.
  • Pace: Sequestered as we were in villas that were over 500 years old, watching sailboats o the lake float by, walking up and down the hill to our meetings and meals, hearing the lazy buzz of bees on banks of flowers, a beautiful ruin of a castle reminding you of the slow march of time  – things slow down dramatically in a place like this. With your focus on the one thing you are there to do together, your pace slows down dramatically  - from the full throttle dash to keep up or catch up through frenetic full-time multi-tasking, to a measured, considered and thoughtful cadence (aah, so this is what life should be like).
  • People: So now with your head up (rather than on your screen) and in an awe-inspiring environment, you begin to notice those people around you, also attending your meeting. You have time for them, and wonderful places to get to know them. You enjoy the beauty of the place together, you sit in the garden for your small group discussion with your shoes off and your bare feet on the grass, the sun just starting to set over the top of the villa. You remember that drinks are being served in 30 minutes on the terrace and you finish your discussion on creative ways to bring more learning into the process under discussion. 
People are comfortable in this venue, they smile and laugh easily and before your very eyes, people are connecting, relationships are being built, and there is a desire to collaborate and co-create. Nice! (I just got a big rush of peaceful and productivity just looking at these photos and remembering my week at Bellagio.)
Bellagio 3