Last week I co-facilitated the “Impact Leadership Track” at the NTEN Leading Change Summit with John Kenyon, Elissa Perry, and Londell Jackson. Our track was one of three where participants could take a deep dive into a topic and learn from peers through dialogue. The event also included plenary speakers, including a provocative talk about data methods from Alexandra Samuel. There were cross-track sessions that ranged from traditional panels to an unconference. The culmination of these two and half very intense days was an Idea Accelerator Lab.
Kudos to NTEN for breaking the template on the typical type of events it has hosted. The Leading Change Summit was drastically different from the Nonprofit Technology Conference, NTEN’s flagship event that has over 2,000 attendees, dozens of tracks and hundreds of panels, big parties, a trade show, and all the things you would expect from a traditional conference format. The Leading Change Summit was more intimate (several hundred people), participatory and interactive, intense, and stimulating.
And while anything you do the first time will not be perfect and in many cases stressful, in the end it was a good experience.
Here’s what I learned about designing and facilitating an experience like this:
As someone who has been in the nonprofit field 35 years, I can sum up my experience as: “Remember, it’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” (More about learning as leadership here). Many of the people in the room have been in the nonprofit tech field a long time and it was terrific to have an opportunity to have a more in-depth conversation with colleagues.
It was also an opportunity to learn about co-design and co-facilitate. The downside is that when you have four very experienced facilitators, with different styles, methods, and subject matter knowledge, it takes longer to design and you have to allow time for getting into a rhythm as a team.
A good facilitator knows how to shift or tweak the lesson plan in real time if it isn’t working as planned. Pivots can make the difference between a successful session and disaster. However, it is harder to make pivots when you have a team that has not worked together before.
What makes for a productive team experience begins with a good on-boarding process. Often, facilitation teams are brought together by an event host. So, it is important for the host to hold a call with the facilitation team to clarify expectations for the session outcomes and team authority/decision-making roles. Is there a lead facilitator who is responsible for the final decision or is the team to work collaboratively making decisions?
The team’s first planning session should be one of learning about each’s other trade craft versus diving into the design of the session. That’s hard if deadlines are looming, but essential to have a session to explore questions such as:
- What is your facilitation style and philosophy?
- Do you have a preferred method?
- Do you have subject matter expertise and do you want to share it during the session? How?
- Are there facilitation skills/techniques that you enjoy and are great at doing?
- Are there facilitation skills/techniques that you want to improve or work on?
- What do you want to learn from working together?
Next, of course, is diving into the design task of identifying goals and framing for the session and specific roles. When I am working alone on designing and facilitating a training session or peer learning workshop, I always write myself a lesson plan with goals, times, content, interaction, instructions, and materials. For a facilitation team, you need to create a lesson plan, but it is really more like a “television sitcom script,” that identifies who is leading and what role they are planning. We had a 20 page script.
When you have four facilitators, you want to make sure that you choreograph each activity. I like to use a rock band metaphor. Who is the lead singer, guitarist, bass, and drums. All of us had experience in all these areas so we were able to switch between them in different sections.
Here’s an overview of the roles:
- Facilitator Lead: The person who is facilitating the discussion or exercise. The lead will call on the other facilitators during the discussion to add their subject matter expertise or co-facilitate. Otherwise, respect when someone is the playing the lead and not interrupt or over talk. If the team has worked together, you can pass the “lead” to another person as long as it is intentional. The lead facilitator tasks might include: introducing a section or activity and why it important, offering instructions on how to complete the activity, facilitating full group instruction, and offering a synthesis of the discussion. These could done by one person or could be shared if mapped out in advance. The lead is also in charge of the pivot and communicating that to other facilitators.
- Subject Matter Expertise: If the goal is peer learning, have to be careful about how subject expertise is dispersed into the room. In our session, we designated Elissa to be the “leadership provocateur” and insert her observations about leadership into the discussion. We could have assigned this type of role to everyone on the facilitation team, although it would have required some more choreography.
- Logistics: This includes a number of tasks such as preparing and handing out supplies, assist with timing or herding, collect index cards or sticky notes, categorizing sticky notes or index cards in real time, and running the mic.
- Scribe: The role of the scribe is to capture ideas and build group memory. This can be done with a flip chart and markers or there might be one graphic facilitator dedicated to this task. Whenever possible, the scribe should capture the speaker’s exact words or as shortened or mirrored or paraphrased by the lead facilitator. The scribe should only interact with the lead facilitator, not the group. In some exercises, such as the closing circle, the notes might be taken by hand so they ideas are captured.
- Documenter: Using a digital camera, the documenter should capture photos of the process – the set up, the activity, and the products from the activity. The documenter will also transcribe sticky notes into a word document and capture any thoughts shares via social media hashtag. For example, here is a storify of the tweets from our track. Documentation is important to share back with participants and for the facilitators it becomes a basis of reflection and learning of trade craft.
The Session Design and Implementation
Here’s what we did:
1. Orienting the Group
You need to orient your learners to the journey ahead. It is importance to establish participant guidelines, especially around respect, maintaining privacy, and encouraging a spirit of sharing. When doing interactive sessions, you also have to give a nod to the introverts in the room who don’t always process well by having a conversation with someone they don’t know. That’s why it is important to lay down the ground rules of “self care” and be in charge of your own learning. Our guidelines were modeled after Aspiration’s Participatory Guidelines.
The other orientation piece is the agenda. As a trainer, I create two agendas – a participant agenda which is a summary and a more detailed facilitator’s agenda. There is always a dance between too much detail and specific times vs less detail. Participants need to have a good sense of what is coming next, but as a trainer you need some flexibility with timings.
2. The Importance of Icebreakers: Getting To Know People in the Room
Good instructional design to create an environment for peer dialogue begins with good on boarding and for people to connect with something they already know or believe. This sets the stage for deeper learning and that requires trust and comfort level. We kicked off with an icebreaker where people introduced themselves in share pairs and then the pairs joined another pair. The conversational device was to make up a name that represented something you already knew and wanted to discuss. We got feedback from a participants that they would have appreciated an icebreaker that let them to talk to more than a few people.
3. Learning Begins with Igniting Curiosity
How do you inspire people to be open to learning during a session? What is the journey that you take them through? I think about the KWL process . What you know? What you want to know? What you have learned? You’ll see that we did the first step, encouraging people to tap into what they already know with the icebreaker. That second step, identifying what they want to know – we did this in our session with “burning questions” which were posted on a sticky wall. Later, these questions were organized into categories so we had a concept map of issues people wanted to explore and these categories were also used in different activities.
4. Taking in New Ideas: Facilitated Listening
Since the term “Impact Leadership” was something that needed some definition, we decided to incorporate “lightening talks” and “facilitated listening.” Each of the facilitators brought a level of subject matter expertise to the idea and we each got a chance to share that. In addition, we had the plenary speakers and facilitators do lightening rounds talking about how/why impact leadership links to their subject matter area. This included: strategic dialogue as a data from Lisa Heft, inclusion as a data from Deena Peeriot, measuring results from Matt Groch, and using data for storytelling from Alexandra Samuel.
To frame it with a leadership skill, we asked participants to use “internal or active listening” and take notes during the talks. Then we opened up for discussion, followed by a synthesis by Elissa Perry describing the leadership patterns emerging in the discussion.
5. Peer Self-Assessment and Peer Coaching Exercises
The afternoon was a space for structured interaction between participants to examine their impact leadership questions and to provide some peer advice. The small group exercises required that each person practice facilitated listening.
The first session used an appreciative inquiry framework called “SOAR” where participants focus on strengths rather than going to a negative space. Londell facilitated this exercise and I was delighted to experience it as a participant. One thing that I mindful of as a trainer is that always experience a method as a participant first before using it. I liked the feeling of empowerment and how it can shift you out of your usual way of thinking. The peer coaching exercise allowed participants to work in small groups of three people and take turns being the talker, listener, and witness.
We organized people into small groups based on clustering of the burning questions into themes on the sticky wall. Above is a word cloud of the transcribed burning questions.
6. Overnight Reflection
I’ve done many multiple day, intense training sessions. What I think is the magic is the use of “overnight reflection.” These types of sessions are very intense and can be stimulating, if not over stimulating. So, being able to “sleep on an idea” and share a reflection is great. This also helped us create a bridge from the first to the second day.
7. Concept Poster Session
Participants worked on concept posters describing their ideas or takeaways. We did this exercise so people could consolidate their ideas for a report back to their staff or if they wanted to, create a pitch for the Idea Accelerator. We created the “International Museum of Concept Posters” and grouped the ideas based on the themes that had appeared earlier. Participants also had a chance to view each other’s work and to do a one-minute practice pitch -and offer help or ideas to others. What I liked about this activity is that it is fun, creative, and people aren’t sitting down, but walking around.
I designed this exercise after a delightful experience visiting the Barnes Foundation Museum where the art work is hung on the wall in a way to facilitate pattern recognition and learning about art concepts. I have used posters in my training design for years – either to consolidate learning or as part of innovation labs. I set up some short exercises to get people comfortable with drawing and always bring a collection of fun materials to work with. It took a long time before people got up to get their supplies and start drawing. I wish I had done a structured creative thinking exercise to get people comfortable.
However, we were pleased to see a fair number of folks in our session offer up a pitch for the Idea Accelerator.
And, I always bring a set of fun materials, but it is time consuming to put them away. I always put the concept of the “Magic Marker Fairy” who will organize the markers by type or color. And, viola, the magic marker fairy did make an appearance.
8. Closing Exercise
We did a closing exercise called “Pass the Stick and Just Three Words.” Instead of stick, we used my ugli doll which has traveled around the world and passed through the hands of many nonprofits. You can see a word cloud of the different words that emerged. Most people felt inspired. We also asked for feedback from participants about what worked and what didn’t. This revealed a gold mine of insights to help improve the design of the session.
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” Anne Lamott
That quote is from Anne Lamott from her book Bird-by-Bird which is about the writing process. You have to acknowledge that the first time you do something or write a first draft, it isn’t going to be perfect. Even the second or third time. So, one of the things I highly value about instructional design is the time and space to reflect on what worked and what didn’t work. And, to always make time to get feedback in the room from participants. (I’ve written about these techniques here). I learned a lot from co-facilitating this track – from the participants, but especially from my co-facilitators. I am inspired to continue my own learning journey of being a better trainer/facilitator.