My 5 Laws of Facilitation

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Law # 1 - Prepare, but don't stick to the plan

You need to come in prepared. I usually spend twice as long as the session itself to prepare for it. The trick is to be prepared to let the plan go. Have a sample agenda ready. There's nothing like killing a great discussion by sticking hard to an agenda and forcing people to move on. Creativity gets stifled and peoples' minds remain on the previous discussion, as you try to move onto the next subject.

One of the biggest novice mistakes a person can make is forcing a conclusion to a thoughtful discussion. Time boxing is an art not  science. 

Flexibility is key to this first law.  

Law # 2 - 20/80

The key to this law is remembering it is not about you, it is about the people in the room. This is not a presentation. This requires a different set of skills. Don't worry about what you are going to say. The more you are focused on yourself, rather than the group, the more likely you are to stagnate the facilitation. Make sure the attention is off of you, do not stand in the front of the room especially when discussion is going on. See Sharon Bowman's technique for training from the back of the room.

For the 20% of the time you are talking, your role is to ask questions, as well as synthesizing what people are saying in the discussion. Synthesis should come after someone has given a long and elaborate explanation that can really be shortened into a Tweet, give them that Tweet so they understand that discussion isn't a place for wasting others time with drawn out statements.

For the 80% of the time that you are being a listener, you need to develop two habits: Active listening (see below) and reading the room. Reading the room is an art. If there is just two people talking back and forth, that means the discussion is falling flat. Stop those people who dominate the discussion with humor, or volunteer someone who has been quiet to give their thoughts. It is your duty to make sure everyone is contributing. If people are having trouble keeping their eyes open, something is going wrong and an adjustment needs to be made. But by the same token, if everyone is ultra engaged in what is going on, do not interrupt, unless the discussion has become repetitive and what is being said is not adding benefit overall. 

Make sure everyone is working. This can be accomplished by checking in on individual groups. Ask each member to use one word that describes their mood at that moment. Ask them to anonymously describe how safe they're feeling on a sheet of paper, and then read it back to the group. Have everyone say what one thing they want to accomplish in the meeting that day. 

Active listening can be broken into four parts: 

1) Contact

Listen to each participant and reinforce what is being said by maintaining eye contact and/or non-verbal responses

2) Absorb

Take in what each person says as well as their body language without judgment or evaluation.

3) Feedback

Paraphrase and summarize what the speaker says back to the speaker.

4) Confirm

Get confirmation from the speaker that you understand their points accurately.

Law #3 - Find the Qwan

The goal of the facilitation is to create a shared understanding amongst the group, it should ideally be a shared mental model. Your job is to take their ideas and help them build towards that common model. The tools are your disposal are:

The 5 whys: Simple enough, ask why continuously to get to the underlying cause or reason for a certain problem, or goal.  

Casual loop diagram: A visualization of how different variables of a system are interrelated. 

Sequence diagram: Shows how objects relate to each other and in what specific order. 

Influence diagram: A graphical representation of a decision situation. It shows all the key elements that go into the decision as well as outcome effects.  Great video by Kent Beck using influence diagram

The Qwan is found when there is a collective "aha" moment. When everyone gets on the same page, and has the same understanding, your job is complete. 

Law #4 - It should be fun

There might be nothing worse for a groups creativity and morale than monotony. You should start off by disorienting your group. Change the location of the session, take them outdoors if the weather is nice. Make the group do something that seems completely random, like making a group of MD's do air squats. It makes everyone seem a bit ridiculous and gives everyone the courage to be seen failing. 

Keep the sessions light-hearted. Be self-deprecating and employ humor into your facilitation technique, it keeps people lively.  People who are generally uncomfortable in group situations, become more comfortable with humor and group laughter. This allows everyone to feel like they can share their ideas, and the creativity flows even better this way. You can even play music, and start singing along and force others to sing as well ( The measures of success for this law are smiles and laughter. 

Law #5 - Continuously Improve

Your first experiences as a facilitator likely won't be the best, so take every opportunity to practice facilitation. It may sound silly, but you can even try it with your friends or your kids at the dinner table. Take a step back from dominating the conversation and get others to throw their ideas out there. You'll gain subtle practice in asking the right types of questions in a comfortable environment. More practically, get feedback from the sessions you facilitate. Ask them what they liked, what they didn't like. Also, make sure to observe other facilitators, what do they do that intrigues you? When do you find yourself most engaged? And then add those things to your own arsenal. It's okay to steal from others if it makes you better!