Facilitation Zen: Achieve more by doing less

Will I eventually facilitate participatory group processes by inviting no-one to sit in a dark room and breathe with me?

What will happen if you let things happen? (picture by wrestlingentrophy on flickr)

Well, not quite. But after my recent insight about getting more participants by inviting less people, today is all about getting more results by doing less. When you are called to facilitate group processes it is easy to think that you get more effective the harder you work, the more methods you know and use and the more of your wisdom you share. So you squeeze your schedule full of activities, using participatory this-that-and-the-other techniques, some energizer games in between… and your poor participants get exhausted trying to follow your speed and rarely get to finish discussing an interesting thought, because it doesn’t quite fit into your tight time plan. And because everything takes longer than you thought, you decide to shorten the break time (when they could finish the discussions you interrupted).

And some of them will think – or even say – “Please, do what you want with us, but stop facilitating us!”. Because they come to think of facilitation as something that is done to them, where they are squeezed into the pre-defined mold of a game-like methods with complicated rules that become so much more important than the serious issues that the group tries to solve. I write about this because I know it – from the perspective of a participant and as an occasional over-facilitator.

I know that over-facilitation often comes from being nervous, trying to do things extra well and the fear of the unexpected, of, even worse, silence. But I also know that from the perspective of the participants it can feel patronizing, like being pushed around and as if my concerns are not taken as seriously as some abstract plan developed beforehand.

If you find yourself in the role of a facilitator and planner of participatory processes and often hear yourself telling your participants to move faster, cutting breaks or engaged discussions short, or spending more time explaining the rules of an activity than actually doing it… go into a dark room alone and do some breathing… And when you come back, have a look at your next workshop plan. Cut the number of activities in half. Plan for longer breaks. When you plan how much time you allot for one activity, don’t ask yourself: “What is the minimum amount of time we would need to do this?” but “What is the amount of time in which we could comfortably do this?” Don’t get too attached to your method but rather stay connected to what the group wants out of this. And allow yourself to change course if you see that you are not getting there.

Some of the most liberating and powerful moments that I have had when facilitating were when I stopped whatever we were doing and admitted: “I have the feeling this is not working for you. I get the sense that XYZ is going on. Is this true? What do you think? I could offer you three different ways of continuing…” And, I must admit, I had some of the most useless, dull and passive aggressive sessions when I knew that things were not working but instead of saying so and asking the group for help, I felt like I had to stick to the plan and just push harder.

Does this ring a bell? I’d love to hear from your experience as over- or zen-facilitator and of your best and worst experiences of “being facilitated”…

The politics of implementation

Tetanus vaccination - cost effective... but still, who's gonna pay for it? (copyright hdptcar on flickr)

Last week I went to an interesting event by the Society of International Development (SID) about innovative approaches in health system financing in developing countries. The speakers told us about new and more market oriented approaches, local experiences and international trends etc. But what I found most interesting happened in the discussion, when one of the audience members got up and said: “In the end, it’s all about the politics of implementation”. The whole room full of international health and finance expert nodded so vigorously that I felt like the ground was shaking. Yes, everyone who has been in the field and tried to reform pretty much anything, knows that it is great to have sexy innovations or reliable tried and tested approaches to offer. And it is important to push the envelope in trying out new things and also continuing to do (and fund) the approaches that have worked in the past. But that is not at all enough to achieve project success and change the world for better. If you get stuck in the politics of implementation, your best concept will just remain that, a concept. Or, a “plan” as a Ghanaian colleague once defined it for me: “It doesn’t have to be realistic, it’s just a plan.”

Now after I left this room where everyone seemed to agree that you won’t get anywhere without taking politics (in the broadest sense) into account, the question I had was: Why then is it always treated as an afterthought, a surprise, something you have to muddle through once you (Surprise! Surprise!) encounter it? Why is: “How we’re gonna deal with the inevitable politics of implementation” rarely a chapter in project proposals? And why are there few better, more formal or teachable methods than  “muddle through” and “use your intuition/experience/inherent status”? I find this especially surprising as this insight is not limited to public health financing: You could say “In the end it’s all about the politics of implementation” in just about any room of development practitioners and people would agree.

It’s say: If that is one of the main things holding you back, look it in the face, anticipate it, make a plan (I’m being German here, as always, I mean a plan with concrete actions, money and deadlines attached to it), learn and teach methods that help you deal with politics and go ahead, deal with them.

What toddler tantrums tell you about work conflicts – Or: The risks and benefits of being a pattern thinker


"I'll teach you how to deal with your colleagues" (copyright by lovelornpoets on flickr)

And what is a pattern thinker anyway? Well I came up with this description when trying to understand why Net-Map is so easy and intuitive for some and difficult to learn for others. I realized that it’s not so much about whether you are more of a left brain or right brain person, whether you think in numbers or stories (quantitative vs. qualitative), but it’s about being able to see patterns.

A friend recently told me about her problems at work. I saw a pattern that my toddler daughter often shows as well (throwing a tantrum because she feels not in control, because I don’t give her a way to contribute) and we developed solutions for the work conflict by thinking about what works with my daughter (e.g. giving people tasks they can handle, allow them to contribute, even if you suspect you could do this faster/better on your own). So, pattern thinkers strip away most of the details (in this case: the age of all involved, their individual personalities, the content of the conflict etc.) to hone in on a structural similarity, asking: Where are these two very different scenarios similar and can I learn from one for the other? I have read research that claims that most of what we call intuition is actually just a way of recording, storing and activating patterns from experience – and the brain does this faster than you can watch, you just know: “This is (not) gonna work!” without quite knowing where this knowledge comes from. That’s why most people get more intuitive as they grow older and store more experience.

I come from a family of pattern thinkers, my father being the mathematical thinker, seeing patterns in numbers, letters… and politics for that matter. My mom is more of the story pattern thinker: Tell her any human interest story and she will predict (with 90% accuracy) how it will end. Annoying and scary for a teenager growing up – impressive now. And remembering how I saw their ways of thinking when I was a teenager made me understand a major risk of being a strong pattern thinker: Once you see that you are right so many times in your prediction, you stop allowing for the 10% of times that things don’t follow the pattern, you stop believing that things and people can change, your view of the world becomes static because you expect the future to follow the same rules that you have seen in the past. Seeing patterns reduces risk (because you know what kind of situations to avoid) but also might keep you from taking those healthy risks that can change the world, change the rules. This might be why a lot of innovation and revolutions are started by rather young people, who have not lived long enough to collect so much evidence that change won’t work anyway…

So, the question is: How can you hone and use your ability to see patterns without discounting for the 10%? Or, to move this from the (made up) quantitative to the more qualitative description of the same question: How can you become a skeptical optimist instead of becoming a cynic?

And: Yes, I do see the irony of describing the risks and benefits of pattern thinking from a pattern thinking perspective…

Don’t Net-Map this!!!

If you know me, you know that I will soon start Net-Mapping what’s for dinner or whom to invite to my daughter’s third birthday (just kidding.. or am I?). So you’ll rarely hear me warn you not to use Net-Map in a certain situation. But recently someone asked me whether I ever had negative experiences or whether there were situations in which I would advise against Net-Mapping and, indeed, there are some:

1. In a hostile or conflict situation where you don’t want your opponents to get better at thinking strategically.

2. In situations with painful power differences if your group is not ready (yet) to talk about them.

3. If you don’t know what you want

4. If decision makers are not truly committed to participation and empowerment.

Let’s have a closer look at these:

1. Not teaching your opponent strategic network thinking

Let’s say you are lobbying for a good cause. At least that’s how you see it. But there are influencers who try to lobby against it (and probably believe that theirs is actually the good cause and yours is the evil one). Obviously it would be tremendously helpful for you to have a complete picture of the advocacy actor landscape and understand how the other side sees it. However, experience shows that you can hardly avoid that your interview partners and focus groups learn a great deal during the mapping session. And their ability to think strategically about their own network development will increase – whether you like it or not.

2. Painful power differences and a group that is not ready to face them

One of the strengths – and dangers – of Net-Map is that it makes differences in power/influence explicit and allows participants to talk about them. The bigger the power difference within your network, the more this will feel like putting a finger in an open wound – and adding some salt to taste. A good example would be a group of well intended people who are looking to create a power-free network of collaboration around a cause but each have a very different ability to influence because of where they are coming from (country, education, organization, position, wealth). I’d say: Eventually they’ll have to deal with it, because you ignore power at your own risk. But if the group is not ready yet, you might make the group explode before they have built a strong enough foundation to face these issues. One option here could be Net-Mapping without influence towers.

3. You don’t know what you want

The initial question we write on top of any Net-Map is something like: “Who influences XY?” If you don’t know what XY is, Net-Map is not going to tell you. If you rush into mapping without spending enough thought on XY you’ll end up like the people in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“, who found out that the answer “to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything”  is 42 but unfortunately no one knew what the question was (and a lot of my Net-Map clients start out with a question nearly as big as that…). You’ll get a map that somehow tells you something about some people in the general area of your interest – but your interview partners will be about as confused as you are and most of them will pick their specific pet question and answer that – without telling you what the question was. And what are you going to do with “42”?

4. Decision makers not committed to participation

Participation and empowerment are not things that you can switch on (to make your donors, stakeholders, staff members happy) and off (to avoid having to do things differently) as you please. This is not just about Net-Map but any participatory approach: Once you start using empowering and participatory approaches, two things happen: People’s expectations of being heard increase and their ability to make themselves heard does so as well. Imagine you start an organizational change process by involving people from all parts of your organization in participatory Net-Map sessions. And then nothing happens. Or let’s say: And then you don’t follow up. Because, most likely, two things will happen: People will get cynical and frustrated and less willing to contribute than before this session (because they were thinking: “For once they are asking us, the people who really know!”). And they might start initiating some grassroots change just building on their insights and networks developed during the sessions. Whether you like the direction this is going in or not.

Relief: Stop banging your head against that wall…

if you just can't help it: Bang head here (copyright by jcrakow on flickr)

A lot of my Net-Map sessions are about: “How do you achieve your goal (whether that is feeding children in Ghana or reorganizing a company in the US) and who will help / hinder you?” And I can see how mapping out all stakeholders and developing realistic strategies for their involvement can be hugely empowering.

But every once in a while I also see that the biggest impact of mapping out who influences the achievement of a specific goal is the realization: “There is very little I can do. This goal is too tall for me or I am just not in the right position to influence this very much.” In these cases mapping it all out and talking it through with an experienced facilitator gives the person permission to stop banging their head against a wall in an attempt of creating a break-through. Once you realize that your head is so much softer than that wall, you can take a step back, sit down, take a deep breath and have a look at your whole situation: Once you realize something is out of your reach, you can stop feeling like a failure for not achieving it.

Just recently I helped someone map out a long standing family conflict around the one black sheep in the family. She had a very strong desire to integrate her uncle in family festivities again and had put a lot of energy in trying to push for this. Mapping it all out, however, helped her see that as a junior family member who was not involved in the conflict, she had very little power to change deep rooted family dynamics. And that there wasn’t just one side to blame for the whole conflict. So while it was well within her power to continue maintaining a strong and loving connection to the uncle herself, she had to let go of the goal of drastically changing the way the rest of the family connected to him.

Have a look at those things that you fight for most passionately and with most headache involved. Are you banging your poor soft little head against a rough stone wall?

To talk about swimming – or make them jump in?

Any talk about water won't rival the feeling of this swimmer who just jumped in (picture by Horia Varlan on Flickr)

Or: Why talking about an experience is no substitute for the experience.

This week I led students of Latin America Studies at Georgetown University through a Net-Map exercise (Thanks to their teacher Patricia Biermayr-Jenzano for organizing this!). They chose their own questions (a wide range, from personal family disputes to crime reduction in a Latin American small town) and started mapping it after a brief introduction. All of them had read some of my papers and case studies before, so one of the things that struck me in their feedback was how different Net-Map looked to them when they read about it and when they actually did it. Some of their comments:

“I initially was skeptical because I did not understand why a simple activity could be a method for creating social change.  Net-Mapping allowed me to view the world differently.  Granted, stepping back and analyzing the degree of influences in our lives should be a natural process, but it is something that we do not do visually.  By doing this activity and visually seeing our influences, it breaks the ice and fosters dialogue in a non-confrontational way.” 

“The level of sophistication of the tool far exceeded my personal expectations.  I was skeptical not because of the materials involved in the process (paper and pen) but because of the difficulty in determining who influences whom in most of the research in which I have participated.  I think the greatest advantage of the Net-Map system is the ability to look at an activity from a variety of levels.  My group worked on the scale of the individual, but seeing the work of the other groups made it obvious that Net-Map can be transferred to an organizational level or even perhaps to an international level.” 

“I had never done net-mapping or anything alike before. Honestly, when listening to the explanation I thought it was kind of a game. However, after doing the exercise I actually realized the great value it has. Using this hands-on method of visualizing problems or activities I believe is really useful. I believe that great ideas and problem visualization can be seen that may not be realized using other strategic methods.”

Yes, I fully realize the irony of this post, because, as I said in the introduction: talking about an experience is very different from experiencing it. So, get some pens, post-it notes and toys, print out the instructions, come up with a question that bothers you and involves many different actors and see what happens if you try mapping it. You might not start out as an Olympic swimmer but rather splash around in the shallow pool for a while. But even that will be a more interesting experience than reading stories about water, wouldn’t it?