Facilitation Work as a Cover-Up

img_5403I was shown in a facilitation learning event a short video clip.   It is about a retreat for 50+ people in an organisation design and facilitated by a facilitator   It is the kind of upbeat video with delightful music which showed the smiling faces, colourful wall-charts, fun activities, etc.   There were captions indicating how much the participants happily connected, enjoyed the event, praised about the organisation, etc.

A big question mark came to my mind after I watched the clip – “What really did the event do to the organisation?”    I asked for the objective statements and have to say that the event seemed to meet the objectives e.g. ‘to have a fun, engaging, high energy day’    There were probably also ‘practical outputs’ contributing to the organisation’s strategy and purpose.

But from the clip (and in particular its mood), I questioned whether the event is actually a cover-up to any organisational issue.   Is it actually a dis-services to the organisation?

This post is not a critics to this piece of work.  In fact, if it is a critics, it is a critics to myself.    I have done similar events producing lot of fun and energy, and lot of flipcharts with long list of bullet points.   Well, those events produced what the sponsor wanted…  sometimes perhaps exactly a layer of cover-up.   But is it what the organisation needed?   How much I should and can push the sponsor to spend the resources on addressing the issues under the cover-up?

Well, this is very much related to my last post re my reflection on collusion.




Unconscious Collusion with Learners

“I’ll say nice things about your workshop / coaching if you spare me the pain in learning about myself.”

I was reading an article, and there is a line like above (I modify it a bit).    The collusion we can get into unconsciously….  e.g. probably simply with an exchange of eye contact and smile.   The question is ‘Am I colluding?’   Or I should say ‘To what extent I am colluding?’    I think it is an important question to reflect on from time to time.   This is for everyone who is in the business helping others develop.

Rethinking Experiential Learning – Part 2

img_5073(Continued from my last post of the same topic)

I was involved in running an outdoor experiential learning activity recently in an Executive Education event.    Interesting insights – First, it actually can be run in a way that works for certain learning objectives.   Second, I possibly ‘contributed’ to the limitation of such learning approach.

Learning Objectives – The event was about to learn about group dynamics and own unconsciousness.   So, the outdoor activity was meant to be stretching in order to surface the dynamics and assumptions.    Instead of aiming for nice-nice feeling of accomplishing a task, the participants will experiment frustration and failure.   In fact, the underlying thought is that the more struck the group experiences, the more the participants can learn.   Unlike project work, the outdoor can add a dimension of physical memory e.g. muscle fatigue to reinforce the learning retention.

Given the intensity mentioned above, we spend a lot of time in advance to contract with the participants.   We also a distance in order not to ‘collude’ with them e.g. making the activity easier which the coaches / consultants can unconsciously do so.   [I can elaborate more on the ‘how’ later’]

My ‘Contribution’ – This is probably deeper realisation.   I feared that the participants will not be serious about outdoor.   It may be the case, but I had such fear because I was not serious about outdoor.   I alienated outdoor possibly because unconsciously I did not want to experience the physical challenge and failure.   I projected such unconscious excuse to the participants.   It is already relieving and amazing to hold this hypothesis.

Rethinking Experiential Learning – Part 1

img_5074I gained some new perspectives on experiential learning recently.   In the last few years, I had growing skepticism on this learning approach.   Experiential learning approach has its merits.   First, it takes the participants into unfamiliar context, both conceptually (e.g. climbing the wall instead of finishing a powerpoint) and physically (e.g. in the wood instead of meeting room).   This can better set them free from the assumptions or automatic responses associated with their familiar contexts e.g. projects in the workplace.   They can then more easily try out new behaviours or examine existing ones.   Second, the activities are normally engaging or fun in nature.   For a learning intervention of a few days, we need variety in the learning experience.    There are other benefits which however are not really for learning.   For example, the approach can often make the participants feel more like a team e.g. through overcoming some outdoor challenge together.   This is particularly useful for intact team.

On the other hand, experiential learning has its downside.   First, it is costly and potentially dangerous to run especially the outdoor ones than other learning approaches.   More importantly, participants often remember the fun rather than the (intended) learning points.  Most facilitators / trainers have experienced the laundry list (e.g. communicate better, take ownership, plan more) produced in the debrief.

To me, the root cause is that the participants will unlikely take the activity seriously.   After all, who care whether they can find all the treasures in the hunt, and win the champagne from the CEO?    If one does not really put effort in the process, he / she will likely learn less (if any at all)

In short, I would rather get the participants to learn from real life project (e.g. ARL) than experiential learning activity.    It is less costly and safer in running the former.   And it is more likely that the participants will take the real life project more seriously.

My thoughts changed…..  (to be continued on Part 2)

Intended Messiness – Part 3

The 2nd question to reflect on is ‘What are ‘good’ odd moments and what are those ‘bad’ ones to avoid?’    By ‘bad’, I mean those odd moments which are not conductive to the learning objectives.   As such, the answer to this question is really ‘it depends’.   On one extreme, if the learning intervention is about topic like group dynamics or self-awareness, I think all odd moments are learning-friendly.   In fact, the odder, the better.   A classic example is the Group Relations Conference which basically provides white space for assumptions to be surfaced.   See my earlier posts – Tavistock Experience and Tavistock Experience – Learning Design.

How about the workshop I mentioned in the beginning i.e. learning objective around collective wisdom?   Most odd moments are still good for learning so long as the learning transfer mechanism is in place.   See my thought on question 1.

On the other hand, though messiness can help learn collective wisdom, it is probably not a good idea to start a workshop by saying ‘Welcome to the workshop!   We the facilitators have prepared nothing and let’s see what we can learn together in the coming 3 days.   By the way, we only booked this room till 10am.  [silence]’    It probably forces people out of the Learning Zone into the Panic Zone.

Your thought?


Intended Messiness – Part 2

Following from the argument from the last post, there are 2 questions

  1. How to assist the participants to learn from the odd moments instead of just staying in the ‘complaint’ mode in those moments?
  2. What are ‘good’ odd moments and what are those ‘bad’ ones to avoid?

Capitalizing Messiness – To the first question, the first and foremost thing is how centered the facilitator is.   It is about how well he / she can rise above the emotion – to observe self, pause and then use rather than be consumed by the moments.  Practicing EQ helps here.   Without such consciousness, the first question is not relevant at all.

Assuming the facilitator is able to find space to consider this question, there are different ways to approach it depending on the situation.   In the scenario described above, I would probably hold a fish bowl i.e. facilitator team in the inner circle and participants in the outer circle.  The facilitators basically hold a design team meeting in response to the participants’ feedback.    The benefits are that:

  • It makes the participants feel heard
  • It transits the energy in the room from ‘I do not like that….’ to ‘what can we do about it?’
  • It allows space for the facilitator team to work on the feedback
  • It demonstrates how to tap into collective wisdom (among the facilitators)

After some 20-30 mins in fish bowl, all go back to one big circle and work on the question ‘What can we ALL do together to make the remaining 2 days a good experience?’ with the input from the design team meeting.    Lastly, I would leave some 10 mins to jointly reflect on the question ‘What can we learn from the experience this morning so far?’

My thought on the 2nd question to follow…..

Intended Messiness – Part 1

Scenario – Along with others, you designed and ran a 3-day workshop.   For various reasons (e.g. flow design, learners’ composition), on Day 2 morning, a few participants criticized strongly and openly their workshop experience on Day 1.   It was a hard time for the facilitators to deal with the dynamics on spot, and adapted subsequently.   There were odd moments…  with a lot of emotions and uncertainties.   Somehow, the workshop ended reasonably well.    Now, you are about to prepare for the next workshop, how would you like it to be different?

It would be natural to find ways to avoid the odd moments e.g. to re-design some processes or to align better the participants’ expectation.  In fact, it was my thought to do so.   But I changed my mind after a learning reflection with a fellow facilitator.  I no longer want to kill all the odd moments.  In short, our reflection informed me that sometimes odd moments are good stuffs for learning.   This sounds a bit paradoxical.  Let me elaborate by going back to the reflection conversation.

I found the conversation very rich in learning for myself.  To begin with, we were very drawn to the opportunity to reflect because of the emotions involved in the event.   There were a lot of case-in-point which we could discuss how we could handle differently.   Pondering why, I believed the richness was largely because of the challenges in the workshop.  I suspected that if the workshop was smooth and things turned out as planned, I probably would learn less.

I then wondered whether it would be the same for the participants.   Well, it depends.   Most importantly, it depends on the learning objective.   If people come to learn about quality management or Health & Safety at workplace, odd moments in workshops probably do not help.   But when the learning objective is about collective wisdom (it is the case for us), odd moments is useful and in fact probably essential.  (Basically, using Ron Heifetz’s language, the former is ‘Technical’ in nature and the latter is ‘Adaptive’)

After all, learning how to tap into collective wisdom is largely about how to deal with messiness, emotion, uncertainties.

There is another reason why odd moments are good in learning collective wisdom.   Most people (especially those with ‘Technical’ professional background e.g. accountants, lawyers and bankers) resist the notion of collective wisdom.   Or to be specific, we (I was a banker before) hate the loss of control which often accompanies the process of collective wisdom.    Thus, some odd moments are good signs that the participants are entering their learning zone (i.e. outside their comfort zones).  Of course, hopefully they do not ‘check out’ as they go into the panic zone!

It then leads to 2 questions:

  1. How to assist the participants to learn from the odd moments instead of just staying in the ‘complaint’ mode in those moments?
  2. What are ‘good’ odd moments and what are those ‘bad’ ones to avoid?

What are your thoughts to these 2 questions?    I will share my thoughts later.

French and Leadership – The limitation of traditional classroom training


Some thoughts came to my mind when I was attending my French class earlier this week.  (Yes, apparently, I was not an attentive student to French!!)

During the class, the teacher played some recording.   We listened and tried to understand.   He corrected our mistakes and then also introduced some grammar points.  We then practiced some more and got corrected.    This lecture-practice-correct loop (in whatever order) seems to me a rather typical classroom training scene.   In the corporate world, similar things happen in the training rooms.

Some argue that such notion of training in the corporate world was naturally borrowed from schools and / or military training.    It has worked there and thus it might work here.   In fact, if I were the first few people in the business history asked by the CEO to help people learn, I would probably adopt what I experienced before i.e. classroom training.  After all, the CEO has experienced the same and thus would likely agree with my proposal.

It probably worked well in the beginning.   I imagine the first few training topics in an organisation are technical in nature e.g. how to operate a machine, how to process a loan application.   For topics like these, there exist THE right answers (may be more than one). We can thus tell the learners some theories or models and correct their practices / exercises.

But problems arose when we extend such lecture-practice-correct loop into topics without THE right answers e.g. Leadership.  (Of course, it depends what one means by Leadership / Leadership Development.   I talked about it in earlier blogs – ‘Really, what is leadership?’ and ‘Leadership Development’.  We use this term to mean a lot of things.    If it means ‘how to use the performance review system’, there is THE right answers.   But if it means ‘how to lead better’, there is NO right answer.)

In the latter version of ‘Leadership’, any response to the question depends on the situation, the one who wants to lead, the ones whom to be led, etc.    There is no correct answer.   In the language of Cynefin Framework, the technical topics being to SIMPLE or COMPLICATED domain, whilst the latter version of leadership beings to the COMPLEX domain.

Apparently, the lecture-practice-correct loop would not work here.   Any lecture can at best be inputs for individual experiments.    It would be demotivating and frustrating (to the learners and the organisation) to take any lecture content as the Holy Grail.     More, without THE right answer, any attempt to correct would be in vain.

Yet, from what I have experienced so far, we are still largely ‘conditioned’ by the lecture-practice-correct approach, no matter what the underlying topics are.   This probably adds to the list made by Mckinsey on ‘Why Leadership Development Programs Fail’.   In short, we are helping others learn leadership like the way we do French.   C’est bizarre!

(You may ask ‘So what then?’.   See my thought on earlier blog posts like ARL and ‘Forget about Training’)