Workshop Design: 3 Tips to Turn Facilitation Into Enablement

It's gonna get messy!
(Credit: spydergrrl)
As a business analyst, a good portion of my work is to facilitate working sessions with groups of people. They might be a team (even my team) or they might be a disjointed random group of subject matter experts from a whole bunch of different organizations. And my job is to bring them together for a few hours in the hopes of producing some outcome: planning a timeline, analysing an existing set of tasks or data, generating requirements, etc.

So when I design an interaction, it's my job to make sure I don't waste anyone's time, that the group produces outcomes and (maybe even most importantly) that the group sees value in what they just did, and (if it fits really well) seeks to re-use the approaches (or just their spirit) in their own work.

Which is where a lot of training and facilitation falls down: 
Take an off-the-shelf tool, combine with canned examples, present in a brief amount of time with limited hands-on work, and a finally add a dash of good luck to attendees who intend to attempt applying their learning in the real world.
In other words, we show them "fishing", we fish for them, we fish with them, but we don't actually teach them to fish.

Which is unfortunate because the interaction is an opportunity to hack people's thinking about work. Instead of treating training or facilitation as a sacred space that needs the facilitator to run properly, I'd rather focus on teaching the participants that they can do this themselves.

In fact, I'm very conscious of two things when I design an interaction:
  1. The number of person-hours each workshop represents is (the number of attendees) x (the length of the workshop), say 40 people x 3 hours = 120 person-hours of work. That's a TON of productive time and my job as the session designer and facilitator is to make sure we produce outcomes that reflect the time investment.
  2. People will benefit more from a session if they not only do work, but if they leave with some form of take-away. I don't mean a hand-out, I mean the learning related to the technique, the methods or the work being done. Something on a personal level that they can take back to their own work when they return to the office. 
The training room is not a sacred space. And while the skills of a facilitator can make or break a session, the session and tools shouldn't be considered some magical Narnia, where everything needs to be just so for it all to work. It's my job to reduce the perceived risks of trying new things, getting dirty and continuing to do so when they get back to the real world.

So here are 3 things I do to make any facilitation or training session benefit attendees long after they leave:
  1. Nothing off the shelf: Grabbing some off-the-shelf technique, a few props (markers, post-its) and throwing them at some people in a room with whiteboards will not get the group to the desired outcome as quickly as it would if there was a little bit more forethought and prep work: It only takes an hour or two with the client to really delve into their current way of working, their issues, their context and weave those into the session. 
  2. Show them the value: Nothing sucks the air out of a session or its potential than an intro that basically states: "We're here because you have an issue, so let's do this random task to solve that issue and then you can all get back to work." The session is work. It's going to move them forward, and it is going to be valuable. Tell them. Show them.
  3. Help them solve their problem: If I'm teaching them a tool or technique, I use their current projects and their current issues as examples that we work through. When they come in to learn a technique or tool, we apply it directly to their work. Canned examples aren't nearly as effective or memorable as experiencing how a tool or technique can help them in their day-to-day.
That way, when they leave the session, they will have moved closer toward their goals and will have experienced how the techniques or methods used in the session apply directly to their circumstances. They can continue working on the progress made during the session and they are more likely to re-use what they have learned, thanks to the context-driven hands-on experience.

Not only do you leave them with a bit more knowledge, you leave them able to actually use it. And you reduce the fear of trying it for themselves because they already did.

It's the difference between participants seeing training as being delivered by guru facilitators whose magic trunk of tricks is so complex and elusive, they cannot be replicated outside the Narnia of the session, and seeing these tools as accessible, applicable, malleable, with low barriers to use.

It's the difference between teaching a tool and teaching people to try different approaches to solve their problems.

Which is the difference between thinking of training as "I know better, let me show you" and "You can do this, let me show you".

And which do you think makes a more lasting impression?