What I’ve learned about facilitation

The art and skill of facilitation for me has been one of the core skills I’ve developed in my time as an L&Der. When I look back over the years, there have been several moments when I’ve known that facilitation as an enabler is a highly powerful way to work with a group of people.

I’ve invested in facilitation as a skill more so than any other L&D skill. In the early days it was being trained with Roffey Park – an institute in England who have deep expertise in several areas of people development stuff. I was on a 3 day training programme with them and learned how to design for stuff, how to develop an understanding of people and people processes and practise in very different ways.

I remember first experiencing Open Space as a facilitation technique at an OD conference and was wowed by it. Some years later I attended my first unconference and was re-introduced to it and to techniques such as World Cafe and the power of dialogue amongst groups.

With a fab group of Twitter people, I spent a day and half on a facilitation jam and really went deep with thinking on what facilitation means and how to be a facilitator. And years later I attended the Facilitation Shindig courtesy of the amazing Julie Drybrough. I attended the day focused on movement and was introduced to models on constellations and using Lego to represent relationships and the significance of positioning ‘pieces’ in certain places.

And in and amongst the last 6 years have facilitated and supported numerous unconferences where we’ve regularly played with facilitation techniques and invited people to experiment with us.

Last year I ran an open workshop and chose the role of facilitator as someone who just sat back and let the group very much self-direct what they needed and had the conversations that mattered to them. I’ve delivered hundreds of workshops over my time and continue to enjoy them when I get the time.

And digital has changed how we can enable facilitation. Being a virtual trainer/facilitator demands fundamentally different design and facilitation approaches to the digital environment. It’s been a steep learning curve ensuring that my virtual sessions are just as valuable learning experiences as in-person.

What I’ve realised amongst all this is that facilitation is one of those situations where I am at my best. The other is presenting. I take great pride and joy in delivering a great presentation and spend a lot of time thinking about this too. With facilitation I get to truly understand people. It’s where I draw everything I know about emotional intelligence, life, business, marketing, leadership, psychology, wellbeing, politics, and so much more and bring it all in one place. Not because I talk about all those things but because they are ever present.

Facilitation, for me, is a human process. It’s as much about bringing out the best in people as it is helping people move forward. Appreciating people for their input, truly valuing contribution means that I’ve learned how to help people discuss things openly and with care. Being with a group of others and having their time to move things on, that’s a privileged position to be in and one I always appreciate. Having the skill to understand the needs of a group, what their priorities are, and inviting them to collectively act, is pretty aces.

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Higher expectations of L&D vendors

In a LinkedIn post yesterday, Sheridan Webb wrote an article about her perceptions of how “L&D” have unhelpful attitudes towards “trainers”. It’s a good thinking piece. I value good writing about what we do as a profession and oftentimes we don’t challenge ourselves enough.

Sheridan lays out several myths of the fallacy of “training” and I agree on them all. They are myths. I also don’t think anyone with actual skin in the game believes these myths. It’s more a recognised reality that the L&D spread is far more diverse than it ever has been before. L&D departments need and require a completely different set of things from their vendors and suppliers. If you’re a one-person in-house L&Der you have to be skilled at a range of things from training to collating learning needs to designing content to curating content to using an LMS and so on. If you’re part of a team often those roles will be split out and you’ll be able to focus on your role more specifically.

I’ve said it before that good L&D is about good OD practice by thinking of the system in which learning needs to take place and what changes to the system need to be made for the learning to be applied, observed and practised.

To take Sheridan’s piece further, I think from an L&D perspective it’s less that training isn’t valued and more that more than training is needed from our vendors and suppliers.

If we’ve arrived at the decision a vendor or supplier is needed, it’s normally for a good reason. For them to be involved with the organisation opens up a whole set of potential discussions and expectations. I don’t want a trainer to just train.

Trainer Insight

When a trainer is with a group of people, and they meet people repeatedly from the organisation, they gain valuable insight. That insight is often about actual lived experience of being in the organisation and they may be hearing things which internal teams are oblivious to. The training environment isn’t a confidential one where things can’t be repeated back. We ask people to respect conversations and not to repeat them, but that doesn’t mean the same thing as their conversations being confidential by default. I often ask trainers to share back their insights so that I’m not missing valuable information.

Beyond the training

By gaining that level of information I’m also much better positioned to understand what’s required to sustain the training. We’ve just invested in those individuals and want to ensure they can put their skills into practise after. What kind of everyday situations are these folks working in which require a different solution and allow them to perform better? As Adam Harwood and David James often say, where’s the friction (between not knowing and not being able to perform) and what do these people need for performance improvement?

That sustained aspect can be different things: shared knowledge from others, a document already in existence, a template others have used, someone else’s experience, a report someone’s already created, and many other things. Those are the things people are typically doing.

Versatility of approach

When I’ve not worked with vendors or suppliers it tends to be because their proposals are about one model or approach. It’s what they got trained in so they’re looking to implement that approach for pretty much everything. Or they’ve developed their own model or theory and want that to be the leader for everything they design.

Except what we need in L&D is vendors and suppliers who are skilled at using multiple approaches, understand them well enough to adapt as needed, and lead with distinct lines of thinking without contamination from other models.

Virtual and digital delivery

I have experienced some fantastic virtual training. Quite frankly if a vendor isn’t skilled at or has the associate network to support them in delivering their content digitally then that works more against them than it does in their favour. Through Twitter, I’ve experienced people using tools like Periscope to visually walk people through simple art techniques, so I’m not restricted in thinking it has to be a high-tech product. More companies are moving to enabling flexible working. The more that happens, the more people at home will be expecting to receive training digitally. If you can’t offer that because of restricted belief about impact of digital training, then you need to go and get properly schooled in how to deliver high quality digital and virtual training.

I hope this offers additional thinking to what Sheridan wrote. As always I’m interested to know what resonates for you and what more you’d like to add.

What is selflessness?

My 11yo son asked me this last night. It was late so I had to give him the short answer – doing things for others without thinking about how it might affect you, and not expecting gratitude or thanks for doing it.

It’s a concept I think about often. In the Sikh religion, acting in service of others is central to what we do. Our first guru – Guru Nanak Dev ji – installed this philosophy with his own actions as well as his teachings. When you go to a gurdwara – Sikh temple – pretty much every moment is designed around service to you. People are there to provide ‘seva’ – selfless work. This can be in different ways – serving food, cooking food, washing dishes, cleaning the temple, cleaning your shoes (shoes aren’t worn in a gurdwara), sitting with the Guru Granth Sahib (holy book) while it’s being read. All these acts are there to remind us that humans are all one regardless of stature or status in society.

Being brought up with this mindset and such way of living, means I’m clearly biased about seeing and living selflessness as a virtue.

Selflessness is, I believe, as true a human quality as there can be. It encompasses so much when we act selflessly. We show our humanity. We display vulnerability. We freely love and care for others. We appreciate others. We empathise and feel the pain of others. We uphold values of right and of good. We value life. We accept others.

Sadly, in modern society, selflessness just isn’t high on people’s agenda. Because everyone has an agenda. Everyone’s out to seek something or do something or achieve stuff. We’re so focused on the getting and the receiving we forget the regular importance of the giving and the offering. To be human is to offer of your best to others.

In recent weeks we’ve seen continued frayed arguments about Brexit. What deal can we get that’s the best? How are we going to cope as a country once Brexit happens? Hard questions to answer with a real lack of leadership or clarity on any of that. When people are faced with prospects that life is going to fundamentally change and you don’t know what that means – both literally and figuratively – they get very protectionist.

Protectionism is the arch nemesis of selflessness. I don’t know how we’ll cope as a nation. All signs point to a very difficult decade while we try and understand what our new future looks like. I’m not hopeful we’ll be taking care of each other as much. I believe in the human spirit profoundly, and I’m sure there will be many moments of pride and hope. Amongst all things, I hope selflessness continues to prove to be an invaluable human quality.

The truth of personality profiling

…is that most of the time, the proper psychometric and personality tools that are out there produce accurate profiles as much as people may not want them to.

I meet people regularly enough who ‘hate’ them because they don’t want to be profiled or believe that they can be profiled. They think they can game the questionnaires so that they are seen in a certain way. That once they get the pattern of the questions, they learn to answer them in certain ways to present a certain profile.

The truth is, personality profiling tools are pretty accurate. Now I’m not talking about ones like Myers Briggs Type Indicator or Belbin or Insights. I’m talking about the ones used by psychiatrists and psychologists for professional purposes. These ones are designed to help these mental health professionals gain insight into a person’s personality, their tendencies, their behaviours, so that they can develop clear plans for support and returning people to health.

The common tools in the market, like the ones I’ve mentioned, are developed to be accessible and developed to be easily interpreted. That means they’re meant to be taken with a pinch of salt in terms of the profiles they produce.

Many, produce what are called Barnum statements or for want of a an easy way to explain them, horoscope statements. What that means is the statements could be applicable to most people. It’s often the combination of different statements that create a profile as we’ve become used to.

There have been many studies where people have been given generic statements written as personality profiles. Each person though they were given an individually written piece. Each person reported that the written profile felt accurate to them. In truth they all received the same wording. A bit worrying for the L&D profession, no?

The important thing to bear in mind is that most L&Ders are not psychologists by profession and not carrying out psychological research to verify their profiling tools and not seeking to develop support plans for each individual. The tools and the reports can produce interesting insights if they’ve been answered in good faith. Many tools will also have an element of ‘self assessing’ where people have to also decide what profile fits them best.

I also meet people who say they can change their personality at will when answering the questions. What they mean is they understand how to answer the questions in a particular way which will determine a particular kind of profile. That doesn’t mean they’ve changed their personality. It just means they’re manipulating the questions. They’re also probably manipulative people in real life. If someone is circumspect enough about a widely available personality tool that they want to manipulate how they’re seen, they’re probably also the kind of person you want to be cautious of in life. They’re also the kind of person who won’t get anything of value from the profile because they’re trying to fudge the whole thing.

In L&D we don’t use personality tools as best as they can be used. We certainly don’t use the ones used professionally by mental health and psychology practitioners.

But for the person who doesn’t believe they can be profiled – they probably can and are just as susceptible to the whole approach as everyone else. As much as everyone is an individual, we are many of us the same when it comes to broad personality characteristic traits.

The skill of interrogating models in L&D

One of the tasks we often have to do in L&D is interrogate and evaluate the models presented to us. Pretty much everything in L&D revolves around a model, and it can be easy to get lost in the array of stuff that’s out there. Evaluation models can vary from Kirkpatrick to Brinkerhoff. L&D models can vary from 70/20/10 to learning cycle to responding to learning requests to performance consultancy. Digital learning can be e-learning, video learning, can include social learning, and can be about anything you do on the internet. Then there’s the models used in skills development / interpersonal skills / leadership and management development. E.g. coaching models, feedback models, communication models, succession planning models – there are lots. Too many, almost!

Sometimes, there are no models at all. Just a person and their thinking. That’s ok, sometimes there’s a lot of value in hearing a person’s thinking. For example, unconscious bias training, diversity and inclusion training, these topics often revolve around a set of thinking or a theory as opposed to a model.

Over time, what I’ve learned is that there are useful questions to ask about models and theories, and these can help in ensuring the solutions we develop or the interventions we design are based in sustainable practices, and help drive actionable outcomes. Often these questions are about interrogating the presented models or theories. I’m very willing to be driven by the evidence behind a model or theory. If there is a paucity of information, I’m less likely to be convinced. If the theory or model has been debunked, I need to know why. If there is evidence for a model or theory, I’m more likely to want to explore it further.

Another thing to bear in mind about the choice of models or theories is that as a people, we are more likely to be swayed by the advocacy a person has about a topic, as opposed to the facts presented. Sometimes, a person thinks x. They haven’t fully investigated, researched or explored their thinking. Their conclusions based on their thinking will reinforce their world view. E.g. A person who has never drunk water from a tap, may go to an undeveloped country, drink water from a tap, contract an illness and believe that all tap water is dangerous to human health. Of course, we know this to be false, and there are likely to be clear reasons for the water causing illness which can be corrected. But if you’ve had a bad experience, it’s going to take a lot of evidence and convincing to encourage you to try again. That person is also likely to advocate you never drink tap water, even though thousands of people will be unaffected. But their advocacy will make people listen, for no other reason than the person will have a strong opinion about it.

The skill of determining which sets of thinking / models we decide to proceed with also answers a different and very related question – which version of the truth do we want to promote? There is no one model which answers all questions about the human condition, and so it becomes really challenging to know which models present the version of the truth that we want to be associated with. However, there are models which are unhelpful, are based on false ideologies, and have questionable evidence.

So with the above in mind, here’s a set of questions I normally ask myself and ask of the person(s) about the model(s) or theories being presented.

  • Am I biased because I like the person and want to be associated with them?
  • Does the model/theory support a world view I have? If so, what other evidence is there that I should be aware of which may go against this model/theory?
  • What evidence is there for the model/theory being presented? Is that evidence reliable? What is the validity of the evidence? How has it been researched? What has been the criticisms? What settings has the evidence been developed in?
  • If the evidence claims to be scientifically validated, where is the supporting research that can be looked at independently?
  • If the evidence is about a person’s own thinking/research, how do they present it? Does it cause concern? Does it look like they are only seeking to validate their own thinking or are they attempting to present other points of view?
  • Do I have a set of thinking about the topic which will unduly bias the model/theory I decide to select?
  • If there are claims about success, on what basis are they claiming success?
  • Are there organisational / political drivers at play which will directly influence my decision making?

This isn’t an exhaustive list. It’s not even a complete list. It’s a set of thoughts that help me to keep alive to the reality that I am going to be biased in my thinking, I am going to be biased in the decisions I make, and I need to be aware of the influences on me when making decisions. Importantly, I believe, it helps to ensure that I don’t just follow up any model or theory which is presented as being the ‘right’ one, as there can only really be a ‘best fit’ or ‘right for now’ approach.

Should L&D be part of HR? This question, again?

It comes around regularly enough.

Should L&D sit with HR?

I used to think about this question.

Until I got over it.

It got raised again last week at the Learning Live conference.

It got me thinking about several different points.

L&D isn’t a lobbying group. We don’t have organisational power to change where we sit. If we are part of the HR function – who gives a flying fuck? (It’s my blog I can swear)

The answer to my question, no – one. No one cares in the organisation. No one cares so much, they couldn’t care any less or any more than they need to.

Because it’s only ever a question that anyone in L&D asks.

I don’t even know why there’s such bemoaning about this question.

The simple truth of it is this. Regardless of where L&D sits, if we want to be valued by the business, we have to do valuable work.

In the main, it won’t be ‘HR’ who stops us from doing valuable work. It’s our lack of influence.

If we want ‘HR’ to be on-board with our great ideas and great initiatives that will have business impact, we have to prove our ideas have value beyond our own opinions.

But don’t stop thinking there. ‘HR’ have a connection to business leaders, and business leaders also need to see and understand where the business impact will be with L&D’s proposals.

That influence comes from a number of factors:

  • How involved are L&D with active support and promotion of HR activities, policies and strategy?
  • How does L&D uphold and advocate for company values and embedding of values in design of solutions?
  • How does L&D draw a clear line of sight of L&D solution to business impact? (Note, business impact can mean many things)
  • How does L&D build solid relationships with ‘HR’ so it’s seen as a partner?
  • How does L&D create and deliver great learning experiences? (either as a team themselves or with suppliers or a combination of both?)
  • How well does L&D understand business drivers and designs solutions that directly support them?
  • How well does L&D understand about modern learning design principles and provide easy solutions to the business?

There’s probably more and other factors I’m missing, too.

You could ask anyone in the organisation from the most senior leaders to the more junior staff if they have an opinion on where L&D sat as a department, and not one of them would care enough to give you an answer. Why? Because it doesn’t matter to any of them!

People in the business will honour and appreciate that there is an L&D department at all. How well they regard the function depends on how well the function provides its solutions. What they do care about is having relevant solutions that help them do their job better. That can be done by L&D, and if not directly, be facilitated by L&D to happen.

I’ve kept ‘HR’ in apostrophes because HR covers a broad brush. It includes employee relations, organisation development, culture change, employee engagement, recruitment, L&D, transactional stuff, and so much more. So when we throw out this broad reaching term, we’re often referring to a particular person, who sits in HR, and are too lazy in our thinking to find a better way to articulate our frustration.

If you’re concerned about the question of whether L&D should be part of HR, you are completely focused on the wrong thing.

Creating space to think

I think this is what we’re meant to do in L&D.

We’re not performance consultants. You know who knows about performance? The people doing the job required of them.

There’s a narrative around being performance consultants that I’m really uncomfortable with. I explored this in a previous post where I explored what it is that L&D is for.

I think L&D is about providing people a space to think.

It’s not about content delivery – not necessarily. If it were, work from the likes of Harold Jarche, Jane Hart and John Stepper wouldn’t prove to have value. People want and appreciate and engage in dialogue. When we have dialogue, this is where thinking evolves and learning takes place.

L&D shouldn’t be focused on delivering models, theories or content. Not exclusively. That’s not where the learning occurs. The learning occurs with discussions, depth of thinking and application of the learning.

On a recent programme, I designed in coaching calls to take place after the workshop itself. I did this because one of things we know too well is that any ‘course’ is only effective for the day it’s delivered. After that day of learning, it is highly unlikely someone will continue their application of their learning. Feedback from the delegates completing the coaching has been they’ve valued being able to re-visit their thinking on the topic, with dedicated time and space to think about what they learned, how they’re applying it, and the specific contexts they operate in.

Of course, this sustained learning and reflection can happen in a multitude of ways. Asking delegates to journal / blog about their ongoing learning. Asking delegates to form coaching pairs. Asking delegates to come back together for action learning sets. We’re not short of sustainment activities.

It’s giving people time and space to think. In session as well as ongoing. Models / theories / etc have their place. It’s very rare someone in a direct interaction with someone else remembers the model / theory / other. They are more likely to reflect on what they’ve experienced in a previous situation and act in a similar way. If they’ve been exploring how to think differently / better, they’ll be likely to try a different interaction. That doesn’t tend to come from ‘performance support resource’ or ‘job aid’.

I also get stuck, because there is a place for training. There is a need and a purpose for asking someone to impart their knowledge to others so they can use systems / tools / techniques. If you’re a therapist, an engineer, a physician, a technician, and any other number of jobs, they do require training. Being sat down and taught. There are right and wrong ways.

And this is different to giving people space and time to think. To trust them to arrive at their own answers. To allow them time to reflect on their practice. To offer them support with their thinking.

I think this is what L&D is about.