The situation: A bespoke one-off workshop, content involving prior knowledge and experience only a few in the room own, and learning outcomes perceived as only indirectly useful for the owners of 12 set of eyes staring intently at you at 9am. Facilitation Armageddon!
b) Run it bog-standard. Say to oneself “I am following the Facilitator Guide, ad verbatim; at least if it is not engaging and ineffective, it was the guide’s fault.”
c) Take some risks and back your technique.
When option c) is taken, magic happens. As a facilitator you give yourself no choice but to be dynamic, pay keen attention to your participants’ state and use humour. It puts them in the same roller-coaster car as you. And most importantly it gives the participants access to your vulnerability.
When I faced the above ‘situation’ a few weeks ago, I took three particularly risky risks:
Risky risk #1… I decided I would give as much time as was necessary to gauge the participant’s prior knowledge first, despite the pressing crush of content volume to get through in the day. DIVIDENDS: I knew where to pitch the content and worked out who I could use as ‘team captains’ to guide the less experienced.
Risky risk #2… At the start, I let everyone in on the secret that I had no idea how the day would run, and that it was completely in their control. So nobody knew what was going to happen. DIVIDENDS: Through surprise and showing vulnerability, I created some curiosity, which are the seeds of engagement. Also I could see the participants become OK with the responsibility I had given them; in a way this was a validation of their professionalism.
Risky risk #3… I appealed to their dark side. The afternoon content was how to model occurrence of a random risk on a case study business with financial ratio and net cashflow outcomes, within a software system they had never used. So they got to play ‘Armageddon’, an unconventionally competitive activity where they need to find the worst possible – ‘end of days’ style – outcome. DIVIDENDS: It was great to watch conservative banker-types playing with a system whilst coming to grips with metaphorically blowing up a business’ balance sheet! It was a bit naughty, but safe, fun. There were smiles, laughs and they learnt by experiencing where the limitations were, almost a pedagogical learning approach. I needed to know they would remember that hour, and I think they will.
Most of my time in facilitation has been like running lots of miles to train for a fun-run; all about building up a rhythm and muscle-memory. The times when I have been put under pressure like this though, that is when I have truly learnt about the craft. Pressure makes you vulnerable, but when people are looking at you all day, that is the best gift you can give.