Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Facilitator's Notebook: Going Off Script

As I arrived to deliver a soft skills workshop, I started to have misgivings. I don’t really know what is going on with these people. Do they need what I have to offer? What if they disagree with the premise (learning/performance objectives) of the course? What if something is going on in the work environment that distracts them from what’s at hand here in the formal learning environment?
I reflect on the last conversation I had with the manager, who mandated that everyone in his reporting line (15 people) attend. We had discussed the business problem at hand, and we agreed that my workshop would contribute to preparing the team to navigate it.

In order improve the chances that we will accomplish something meaningful in the session, that is, a disruption that will help the participants to perform better at their jobs, the facilitator needs to be ready to go off-script. We need to be ready to ditch what is planned in order to focus on what is needed. As such, here are four facilitation techniques to consider:

Elicit the elephant in the room. It’s fun and energizing to start a class with an “ice-breaker.” What if instead you start with questions that ask each person to articulate what they want to get out of the class and the concerns they bring to it? If there is a truth or challenge common to everyone in the room except the facilitator, that’s a problem. Generally by the time you get around a room of 15 people, the elephant will be revealed. Acknowledge it and discuss what it means to the today’s work.

Gain unanimous agreement the purpose. Instead of learning objectives, propose a purpose for the session. After presenting the purpose, ask for agreement to proceed with it. If the consensus to proceed is not unanimous among all participants, ask dissenters what would need to change in order to be on-board with the rest of the group. Use the responses to refine the purpose before moving on.

Be ready to shift. Based on a refined purpose and any revealed elephants, be responsive to this new data throughout the day. Don’t be married to your agenda. Focus on providing what will have the greatest impact for the participants. Check in frequently, with yourself and the group, to ensure that what you are doing still serves the agree-upon purpose.

Have participants articulate their (very few) commitments. Presumably, people attend your class to prepare to do a better job. As a pro facilitator you remember this, but participants might not. The class likely includes more information and idea than one can reasonably be expected to retain. Before adjourning, take a few minutes to have each participant write down and declare before their colleagues their commitment to bring one specific approach back to the job.

In my instructional design days, I recall being required to script every word that the trainer would say. If, in observing teach-backs or the actual delivery of the course, I found that a talking point was missed or mangled, I felt compelled to provide corrective feedback. Somehow corrective feedback became more important than how the participants responded to the class.

It might seem that these facilitation techniques are only applicable to soft skills training or consulting conversations. For example, if you are teaching basic job skills, you need to stick to the script, right? Well, not necessarily. A faulty assumption in many new hire or functional training courses is that the people entering the class can’t do anything. Chances are, many in the room have had some time on the job and/or have done a comparable job in the past. Instead of making this an experience where participants have to slog through a class of limited value, ask them what they need to get better at doing their job. Then be ready to go off-script, with purpose.

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