But now, after everything, it’s Athens Olympics, 2004. And I’m in the team.
It’s game 3: Australia vs Greece.
The water polo pool is indoors.
There are 6,000 Greeks going berserk. The sound is deafening. You literally can’t hear another person speak unless they’re yelling close by.
Somewhere in the crowd, in that sea of Hellenic blue and white, are dotted islands of Australian supporters – including my family – decked head to toe in green and gold wigs, face paint, t-shirts, you name it.
We know this is a critical game to stay in medal contention.
It’s 30 secs from half time and we’re ahead by one goal.
This moment then, is the culmination of the roller coaster of 11 years of training, games, selection, rejection, injuries, recovery and chance. All of which means that the opportunity to put us two goals ahead going into half time is up to me.
So, back to the moment at hand.
What do you think goes through an Olympian’s mind in this moment?
Let me share:
Get me out of here.
I always miss these in training.
I always miss these in games.
I wish someone else was taking this shot.
Hang on. You have to think positive.
This is your turn.
This is the Olympics.
Your family’s in the stand.
I can be a hero!
I can score this!
[If you’re an athlete, I’d love to hear about your experiences in moments like these in the comments too.]
There’s probably 5-10 secs for me to think this all through in various cycles as I sprint in with the ball towards the goal.
I pick up the ball.
The Greek goalie saves it.
As I drop down from the shot, I see my team mate swimming towards the goal on the other side of the pool. This could have been the simplest of passes for the simplest of goals.
I sink to the bottom of the pool mortified.
I bounce back up just in time to see the Greek goalie launch the ball the full length of the field to one of his players.
They pick up.
Instead of being 2 goals up, we’re now even.
In water polo, we call that a 2 goal turnaround.
And now I have to swim to the side of the pool for the half time huddle to face my team and coaches and try to regroup.
Any athlete will tell you about momentum. What it means to have it and what it means to lose it.
This was a gut wrenching kick in the teeth.
Sadly, this is not one of those rise-from-the-ashes stories where I scored the winner later on (haha I wish!). That didn’t happen. We lost the game. We ended the Olympics in 9th position.
Was that all from my one missed shot? Of course not. I know that. My rational self knows that.
But my inner critic?
Well, let’s just say I’ve replayed this moment in my mind many, many times.
The ending never changes.
There are a few lessons to draw from this story.
The critic, the optimist and task focussed attention
What’s interesting to me on reflection, and with new insight into these kinds of moments, is that neither the “negative”, nor the “positive” thoughts were useful to me. Both the critic and the optimist were distractions.
What is necessary here, is task focussed attention to act positively.
That means being present and focussed on the most important things I need to do to give myself the best possible chance of success.
This is where mindfulness kicks in. It becomes the scalpel between my reaction (uncontrollable) and my response (choiceful).
It stings a bit to say, but the most important things to do in a 1 on 1 shot in a crux moment in an Olympic Games are exactly the same steps I’d been taught and had practiced since I was 13 in my club games.
Step number one on the mental checklist: Always lift your head up and look around to assess the situation.
With just that single action, I could have seen my team mate and 100x’d the chances of the team scoring the goal. Not to mention that it would have solved my fears altogether. I wouldn’t have had to take the shot at all.
Checklists can help
Checklists are an awesome tool for maintaining and practicing task focussed attention.
They obviously wouldn’t have worked in a pool, but I know a person who was negotiating an 8 figure deal with government. This was a crux 3 months for them.
When we spoke, the deal had been done. They’d won the bid – their largest deal to date – and it was time to get onto the next stages. A huge success by any definition.
Throughout the negotiation process though, when usually they found flow and loved the work, they’d felt neurotic. Sleep was hard to come by. The whole experience felt like a struggle. It had been vastly different dealing at this scale with government compared to private sector. Extremely strict rules for information and stakeholder access meant they felt like they were flying blind.
I knew they had an investment checklist that they used to assess these types of deals.
I asked them: “Did you stick to your deal checklist?”
“Yeah. But it felt horrible.” was the response.
I actually consider this to be high performance. In some ways even more admirable than accomplishing something while being in “flow” or when everything is running smoothly.
While flow states are powerful (and have some cool science behind them), if we have to wait for “flow” or can only perform with “flow”, then that’s a huge precondition and obstacle to doing the important work.
For me, confidence sits in this same bucket.
If we only ever act positively when we are feeling confident, how will we ever start?
In fact, in some environments, confidence might be your worst enemy. For example in investing. If you feel confident, is that because you simply like the idea or the CEO or the branding? Or have you actually been through your due diligence checklist and done the boring work of cross checking with experts?
Doing what matters, in this case sticking to an investment checklist, while experiencing the tough thoughts, emotions and sensations can be really hard.
Like the colours in the yin yang symbol above, my Olympic moment also highlights a pattern of positive and negative showing up side by side and being inextricably linked.
It’s a fractal pattern too, meaning that what shows up in the moment – the positive and the negative, the critic and the optimist, the high and the low, the fear and the courage – also plays out across the minute, the hour, the day, the week and the lifetime.
I find it liberating to recognise this in my own experiences:
the joy and love I experience with my children and the anger that shows up when the toys aren’t put away.
the excitement before delivering a workshop and the fear of no-one being interested.
I also find it deeply humanising to recognise this in others’ stories and situations too:
the person starting their new dream job sitting with the discomfort of feeling like a fraud and eating alone because everyone else is consumed by end of financial year activities.
the anticipation of a wedding day mixed with the tension of family dynamics.
the health care worker juggling their commitment to service and wondering how to keep their families safe through COVID.
the Ukrainian who shows up to a client coaching call after driving for 7 hours to after a missile strike.
the leader who’s been up from 4:30am to 10:30pm every day for the last fortnight because their team is halved by the flu but they keep trying to act positively because supporting their team is too important.
the teacher trying to navigate the state requirements for assessment for the kid who had to miss the exam but still deserves a fair shot.
the idea that in a world of digital, the value of face to face increases.
We typically don’t experience too much anxiety putting the washing on the line.
But my observation is that the more important something is, the more likely the tough thoughts, feelings and sensations are to show up.
We experience tough “stuff” not because we’re inadequate, weak or broken.
We experience it because we care.
My new inspiration
You may have read this passage from US president Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
I always assumed he was writing about third parties (and maybe he was!).
But what if the critic that doesn’t count is the one parked in my mind?
Is that a part of me that I have to learn to accept?
It sure seems like it.
For 42 years the critic and the optimist have been with me. Nothing I’ve ever tried has made them go away. They just find new ways to maintain a voice. No amount of pushing away or arguing stops them. No amount of chocolate or ice cream will drown them (Sweet tooth? Guilty.). No amount of caffeine will silence them.
The crucibles are tough but I can learn from them. They can help me uncover and deepen my understanding of what truly matters. Then I can bring those lessons forward with me to do more of the important and be the person I want to be in the process.
And while the pattern seems easier to spot in the more extreme experiences, it’s there in the smaller moments too when I take a second to really look at them.
And if I can recognise this in myself, then I can open my eyes and look around.
My mum was a doctor and would come home and tell us about the “courage in the suburbs”. It’s true.
Humanity is extraordinary.
There’s no need for instagram highlight reels or polished veneers. The fear and the courage, the joy and the tension, the excitement and the boredom, the love and the suffering – we all sit with these dichotomies and still get up every day.
The person on the bus, the single parent, the child in front me, the colleague I’ve just met. Everyone has their own battle whether we know it or not. It doesn’t matter what the scorecard, bank account or trophy cabinet says.
It’s inspiring and it’s right next to me, everywhere I look.
So often I seek one half of the experience and deny the other, but I want to celebrate the whole and the fact that we all share it. I’m trying to practice sitting with the tension inherent in both sides of the yin yang. I’m trying to practice accepting the bad with the good and the good with the bad.
In a strange way, maybe there’s nothing to be done. I’m already sitting with the tension. Maybe I just need to remind myself to make it a conscious choice to accept it.
As The Editors sing: every little piece of your life, will add up to one.
It’s true for everyone and it’s true for me.
So I’ll take the whole please. I’d like to get better at bringing all of who I am to everything I do.
Have you ever organised a meeting, event or social occasion? Great. Then, like me, whether it’s conscious or not, you’re already a facilitator too.
Because wherever there is a group of people, there is facilitation.
I’ve never been formally trained in “facilitation”. I didn’t even really know what it meant until a few years ago.
But it turns out I’ve been practising and participating in it for years – in meetings, presentations, conferences, classrooms, off-sites, parties, functions, events, even in my weekly ice baths.
Recently, I was an observer in a leadership session of 50 people.
That night, I came home and wrote up feedback for the team. As I was thinking it through, I wanted to write a checklist for my own practice to crystallise what I’ve picked up over the years from my own experience and others’.
So I decided to publish it here.
What I’ve found most interesting in the reflection process is that the skills learned through facilitation are not confined to meetings and conferences. They apply in my family dynamics, relationships, parenting and all sorts of social contexts.
In this article I asked my go-to facilitation ninja, Alix Dunn, for feedback.
As well as being an awesome human, Alix has decades of experience in facilitating events, meetings, and conversations both in person and remote. She’s worked with Google, Amnesty International, Shopify, DeepMind and Mozilla Foundation to name just a few. She currently trains facilitators in companies all over the world to better facilitate remote meetings.
I sent my draft through to Alix, then last night we jammed on a shared doc. Her commentary and pointers are in [brackets].
It was an awesome learning experience for me including a key call out of my approach (see #20 Permission for Benevolent Dictatorship). Tonnes for me to consider for my next facilitation.
Please let us know in the comments if you have favourite tools, tricks, tips, activities etc for facilitation.
We’d love to hear them.
What Is Facilitation?
For me, facilitation is about helping groups to:
create a great experience for all participants,
create better outcomes than any one individual would have had on their own,
work with the inevitable interpersonal dynamics and disfunction.
[Alix: The most important aspect of facilitation to me is to connect this conversation with those that have come before and those that will come after*. This is actually the primary reason why most meetings are a waste of time because they are unmoored from the greater context and purpose.]
#1 Facilitation of learning
A key insight for me as I began to understand facilitation, is the letting go of having to have all of the answers. That was a huge relief.
Just like coaching, it’s the realisation that while content may be a stimulus for conversation, the real learning happens in the minds of the individuals in the group.
Facilitation helps people to uncover their own solutions, to contextualise concepts for groups and to clarify their most important next steps and action.
[Alix: I see facilitation as the creation of space that allows people to step into a new perspective.
When I work with teams on things like strategy, facilitation enables them to step outside of their day-to-day and juxtapose ideas and questions that they otherwise wouldn’t encounter or see side by side. The way they fill this space becomes a form of group expression and clarity.]
#2 Facilitation outcomes
I find these three outcomes help me to think through and plan for a facilitation session.
Education and awareness: While content can sometimes feel like edutainment, the story telling aspect is critical. It’s how we learn and remember. So relevant examples, stories and case studies can help people connect to their own understanding and apply it for themselves.
Peer-to-peer contextualised learning: The group takes the seed content and makes it their own, fits it into their experiences and provides hyper relevant feedback and insights for their peers.
Peer-to-peer support/accountability for ongoing implementation: Because groups can build a shared picture or mental model of the issues and topics, this helps to build a common language and understanding for making further progress.
[Alix: I see facilitation as about divergence followed by convergence. We can’t have a shared story or shared picture until we understand how we each see things through a unique lens.
To achieve together we have to understand each other and our ideas, and support each other to set norms and direction that allows us to prioritise and move forward.]
#3 Enabling voice and contribution
I want to help the quietest speak up and the loudest to listen. This doesn’t mean equal air time, but it does mean I want to help everyone have an opportunity to feel heard.
[Alix: I see voice as a word used to mean contribution, but that is a simplification of the idea of contribution. We live in a society that prioritises the loudest, but also those that process verbally, on the spot.
Remote facilitation opens up all kinds of ways to create multi-modal contribution — chat, voice, collaborative editing, anonymous polling, prep time, silent processing, break outs, 1:1s.
Facilitation is about creating pathways for all kinds of contribution with the goal of maximising engagement across a group.]
In this situation, mindfulness and values were important tools to help me choose my response in the moment and then a follow up later on.
It’s also a very good reminder to myself to make sure that I understand the most important issues for a given group when we finally meet.
Note to self: Never assume the brief is right.
(I talk more about the briefing process below in the Before section.)
Participant vs participant
Another time I was facilitating I had a domineering board member in a strategy offsite day. They’d been flagged in advance by the CEO. They’d arrived late because they’d decided their exercise was more important than everyone else’s time. They became increasingly disruptive over the course of the day. The chair didn’t speak up and I avoided confrontation in the hope that they would have the self-awareness to stop.
Turns out hope was not a good strategy.
Ultimately the outcomes that the CEO was looking for were accomplished but it could have been far less painful.
It was a critical lesson for me in establishing expectations or “House Rules” (more below).
The other reflection for me was to have an escalation process up my sleeve to deal with this kind of personality.
Here’s mine for now:
Questions to the group
Gentle but firm reminders
Private conversation in a break
Escalate to direct challenge if necessary.
But personality clashes are inevitable in facilitation and in any team.
In fact, conflict, tension and disagreement can all help create better outcomes for a group provided it’s within acceptable bounds.
Note to self: It’s one thing to experience discomfort for myself, but sometimes I have to be willing to let the group experience the discomfort too.
[Alix: I think a lot of the discomfort we experience when we are addressing an issue is because we feel like we are asserting our individual needs on another person or a group.
When we facilitate it is important to be able to articulate the objectives of a conversation. We are on the hook for those objectives. When something emerges that is working against those objectives, reminding ourselves that we are there to advocate for the success of the group can make intervention something you are doing for a group rather than to a group.
Sometimes I even start with a simple exercise to force people to disagree with each other so they can get into the practice.]
#5 Importance is the antidote to discomfort
The best thing I’ve found is to get explicit, clear buy-in from the group about what is most important to them and use that as our compass as we go. I like to remind people of what’s at stake so we might be willing to work with the discomfort.
[Alix: Asking people to commit to the objectives of the conversation at the top of a meeting can be a powerful way to enlist them into your goal of achieving them.
This can make it easier to advocate for the group when you push to change direction or effect the behaviour of a single participant.]
#6 Know the key stakeholders, audience, objectives and context
Depending on time and scope this might be:
Connect with people (aka stalk) on LinkedIn
Review websites, news or recent content
Phone or in person interviews
Meet with members of the group to find out key themes, issues and topics.
Survey data – quantitative or qualitative
In this process, I’m listening for how they describe the problems they’re grappling with and specifically the language they use so I can adapt how I engage in a workshop or meeting to increase relevance as quickly as possible.
Note to self: A few questions to remember in the process:
What are the desired outcomes and why are they important?
What is getting in the way?
How can I tie content and questioning back to these?
[Alix: I really like the question: If you are thinking in a selfishly constructive way, what would you get out of this meeting?
It frees people up to think about what they want, shows them that you are working to incorporate their needs to the extent that is possible, and it also is information you can draw on to refer back to them in the session themselves.]
#7 Reduce content
In facilitation the value is created by the group inquiry process, so less content is far more powerful. Getting to discussion and exercises quickly are where the ideas are generated, interrogated and then turned into concrete actions and take aways.
Note to self: If I’m not sure that I have enough content for a day, then I’m probably at about the right amount.
[Alix: In remote, speaking for more than 3 minutes uninterrupted almost guarantees you will lose people. Practice your prompts and segues so you can be tight with how you tell people what they need to know to get into the right headspace and get going.]
#8 Vary Modalities
Keeping energy in the session is always important. Changing the modality of the facilitation is an easy way for me to do that.
Main room, breakouts, shared doc contribution, virtual whiteboards (eg Miro and Whimsical I’ve tried and liked but there are many others.), screen share, chat, live voting (eg Slido)
[Alix: It’s proven that when we move between spaces we are better able to remember things. In in-person settings I will sometimes book a second conference room so we can move during the day.
In remote facilitation, moving between platforms or documents can help to crystallise what people are hearing, learning, and thinking.]
#9 Be clear on exercise instructions
I really struggle with this. I tend to repeat facilitation exercise instructions. Often it’s because I know the exercise well and know what to do. But I really need to sit down in advance and consider it from a first timer’s point of view to make sure they’re clear.
[Alix: Lean into different learning styles by typing out your prompt instructions, practice them verbally, and share them in chat if you are remote. Saves repetition and improves the quality of your prompts.]
#10 Facilitator or Participant?
I’ve often tried being a facilitator and a participant in the same meeting. It’s possible and it’s what most of us do, most of the time.
Leaders facilitating in groups always impact the group dynamics – it can’t be helped. And because leaders are so often the facilitator in their own meetings, they have to watch the clock/agenda/logistics as well as try to contribute.
While that’s the norm, it’s a juggle. Having an outsider facilitate meetings allows everyone to participate.
In my experience, the more important the meeting (by factors like duration, group size, importance of decisions, collective salaries, opportunity costs etc), the more valuable it is to have the external facilitator.
[Alix: When you are wearing two hats, be clear which you are wearing and be mindful that your power as a facilitator means it will be more difficult to disagree with you or tell you to stop talking if you are stifling engagement by over contributing.]
#11 Facilitation Agenda Template Structure
My go-to structure or story arc for a facilitation agenda is past > present > future. I’ve found this leaves a group with a sense of closure, momentum and clarity of next steps.
Critical point: Participants should be doing something more than listening as soon as possible.
Welcome & Why – Purpose of meeting, Why people are here today, Why do they want to commit? Expectations of each other. Particularly with an external facilitator, it’s important that a leader “hands over trust” by explaining the “why”. [Alix: in groups smaller than 20 in person and 10 remotely, everyone should speak. A low stakes go round with introductions and a question to get them warmed up and in the ‘room’ can get you started off right.]
Progression – Where are we in the process? (particularly if there have been multiple sessions.) What is the agenda for today?
Past/Reflection – Where have we been? What have we learned? What might we do differently next time? This helps to tie up the loose end and free people to focus on the issues at hand.
Present – Where are we now? Updates? This provides the data we’re going to use to move into the Future section to make sure we’re all on the same page.
Future – Where are we going? How are we going to get there? This builds on the insights from the Past and Present sections to focus on future options and resulting ownership of actions personally and collectively.
Wrap – Any aha moments? Key takeaways from the time together?
One activity I love is Nourishers, Drainers, Looking forward to:
Nourishers – what has given you energy?
Drainers – what has drained your energy?
Looking forward to – what are you looking forward to in the next period?
Share and discuss what you feel comfortable with.
These should be at least every 90 mins. Revise content and activities until they are.
[Alix: In remote, you should be clear that people can turn off video whenever they need to relax physically, and breaks should be every hour.]
#13 Allocate relationship building time
One of, if not the, most important outcome of any group facilitation is relationship building. In work that’s the opportunity to break down silos, increase trust, share experiences and just fundamentally enjoy the process of being with your team.
Tactically this might mean longer lunches, or specific activities. If a group doesn’t know each other well, I prefer to increase structure with questions and activities to reduce awkward moments.
[Alix: In remote, for longer sessions or sessions with groups that will work together longer term, I will set aside 15 minutes for extended introductions or 1:1 social time.]
#14 Preparation for participants
Everyone performs better with preparation. No exceptions.
So wherever possible, I try to seed questions, share objectives and agendas, provide preliminary content, gather data, ask for input prior to the event. This creates the space for deeper thinking without the social and time pressures.
The comms in the build up to an event are critical.
Note to self: Don’t skip this step.
[Alix: Some preparation can undermine meetings if we focus too heavily on process and not enough on story, or if we prepare people to operate from a script because we get them too focused on what they want to get out of a conversation rather than what success looks like for the group.]
I ran a workshop once in a venue with no windows. We were inside all day. The food was brought to the room too, so there wasn’t even that excuse to leave. By the end of the day I felt awful.
Plants, light, fresh air – the science is well and truly in on the role environment plays in performance.
Some basics, like a window, can go a long way. Decent food helps too.
[Alix: This often happens when we focus on the time allotted and a list of things to do rather than the objectives and experience. If you get clear on that and the importance of impact over quantity of hours, the faster we let go of the ‘hustle’ agenda mentality and the less likely we are to end up in basements.]
#16 Materials, notes and actions into existing workflows
A good workbook is an art form all its own. But so many end up on shelves and in drawers.
If I can, I love facilitating a workshop so people capture notes and actions into existing workflows. Even if it means simply allocating time at the end to summarise them from a workbook.
I try to design for time and activities for people to pull out laptops or phones to have the notes searchable, accessible and useable after the event.
Having a designated scribe can also help. Ideally someone who is not participating so note taking is their sole focus.
[Alix: This is where remote wins. Documentation is more natural to produce in the course of our conversations. That said, be mindful of the power dynamics of who is documenting — if it’s all junior people of marginalised races and genders doing your note-capture, you’ve got a problem.
Elegantly designed takeaway prompts are also a great way to lift up the signal from the noise. Prompts like: What’s one thing you’re still thinking about from that session? What is an open question you still think needs to be resolved? What’s one door you closed in that discussion?
Answers to these questions will help you create high value notes rather than high volume reportage.]
Leading Facilitation On The Day
#17 Room Set Up
Make sure everyone can see screens and speakers. Change table and chair config as necessary.
[Alix: In remote turn on closed caption, let people know if the meeting will be recorded, and ask in advance if there are any accessibility requirements people need to participate fully.]
I nearly always start any presentation or facilitation session with mindfulness. This is just as much for me as it is for the participants.
My go-to activity is 3 x 4-7-8 breaths (breathe in for a 4 count, hold for 7, out for 8). I’ll use variations of that again after breaks to help people refocus on the work at hand.
[Alix: I’m stealing this.]
#19 Holding space
I found this idea a bit woo woo at first.
But if I think of the purpose of facilitation as being the enablement of others (rather than subject matter expertise), then I can visualise the space and the participants in it.
My aim then is to try to maintain a global view of interactions and responses within the group and make choices about where to focus my attention to support the group in finding their own solutions.
[Alix: I like to think of facilitation as creating structure within which serendipity can happen. When things are too random, or messy, or noisy, it’s really difficult to relax, and when we’re not relaxed and stressing about being interrupted, or wondering what comes next, we can’t show up creatively and empathetically.
Holding space is about creating psychological and strategic safety to take risks together.]
#20 Permission for benevolent dictatorship
It’s the delicate dance of giving a group enough space for discussion and yet having the ability to interject, cut people off. The best way I’ve found is to make this an explicit request.
Is everyone ok if I have to interrupt from time to time to make sure we stay on track?
Some people present this as House Rules such as:
I’ll be asking people directly to give comments and feedback on different sections so you’ll need to pay attention.
Dichotomies like : Judgement off, Curiosity on. Devices off, Videos on. (Hat tip Byron Rienstra for this one.)
Doors will be locked at the start time and will not open again until the next break. (This was from a friend of mine who did a course at London School of Economics. If you’re late, you’re locked out until the next session. No exceptions.)
[Alix: A dictatorship implies you’re doing what’s good for you. A facilitator is working to do what’s good for the group. I will often say at the top, I may use sharp elbows so we keep on time, or I am time-boxing this conversation for 10 minutes so we can make sure we cover the other things we want to discuss.
I’m not asking for permission. I’m telling them that is going to happen so they can trust that if someone is talking and talking, someone has taken responsibility for addressing it and they don’t have to.]
#21 Music to direct attention
It sets the tone as people walk or sign in.
It helps differentiate between thinking time and activity time.
It also makes a space – virtual or in person – feel less lonely.
Crank the music volume for attention. Moving people in and out of activities and spaces for breaks can be excruciating. Thank goodness for enforced closing of breakout rooms online! The inherent conflict is that so much of the value is created in those interactions. But I’ve seen music volume used like a scalpel to signal expected behaviours and direct attention.
Choose music wisely. I once had a participant ask me pretty frankly to turn it off when a classical playlist I’d used headed into a somewhat screechy violin piece.
Have it in offline, downloaded playlists. (Beats banking on the wi-fi working.)
Always take my own speaker. Never bet on facilities.
[Alix: This is really fun. I always feel judged for my music taste but should probably get over myself. One of the coolest moments at a remote event I facilitated was a participant played piano for us as we closed the sessions each day. Live music was a whole other level of connection and risk.]
#22 Questions and silence
Because my job as the facilitator is to help people learn for themselves, questions and silence are two of my most powerful tools.
A facilitator is a bit like an event MC – you’re not there for the spotlight, you’re there to make everyone else look (and feel) good.
Deflecting questions to other group members I’ve also seen work really well.
“Thanks for the question John. Jane, what do you think of that?”
[Alix: In remote, silence feels like the oxygen is being sucked out of the airlock. Count to 5 in your head before you rush to fill it. Be sure to incorporate silence in your agenda as people use silence to process information and non-stop talking can make it really difficult to engage meaningfully.]
Everyone appreciates an early mark. That may mean cutting out content or reprioritising discussion. But always finish on or before time. Lots of conversations can be had later.
[Alix: In remote meetings, people are often ending a meeting right as they are beginning their next one. I start meetings at :05 and try and end at :55.
What you get out of the last 5 minutes is never worth the rushed feeling of people zooming from one calendar invite to the next feeling like they’re on a treadmill of sameness and anxious because they’re late.]
#24 Physical movement
In work settings especially, it can be really common to be seated all day. Some things I’ve seen work really well:
Create opportunities to change tables
Set up activities in different sections of the room to force people to move
Stand and gather around a whiteboard
Use the space as a continuum so people can respond to a question by physically positioning themselves in a room. How much of your potential is being used? All of it on one side, none of it the other side of the room. Stand where you think is appropriate.
Give permission for people in virtual settings to stand up and move about.
Aligning the movement exercises with the agenda is really powerful to have people move after breaks (especially lunch).
[Alix: In remote, frequent breaks are important. I have a friend that starts sessions with body work, where people stand up video off and touch their toes, reach of the sky and do a few breathing exercises. Video off is important too — we weren’t meant to have perfect posture for 90 minutes at a time.]
#25 Silent Brainstorm
To minimise the impact of power dynamics and personality types, one of my favourite activities is to have people brainstorm in silence (or with thinking music). Ideas and notes then form the basis of the group discussion.
[Alix: Just one upping the comment above about silence being a scary but critical aspect of remote work. Silent reflection followed by a non-verbal share in a document or in chat can open up ideas and space for new things to emerge that wouldn’t have come out in a space of shouty sharing.]
On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely are you to recommend this [event] to a friend?
Why did you give that score?
What worked well?
What could be improved?
All your comments
If possible allocate time for feedback as a part of the agenda.
In my experience “feedback as homework” has atrocious completion rates and people quickly forget the specifics that will help me get better next time.
[Alix: I encourage my facilitation students to ask at least two participants 1:1 to talk to them about what they got out of the meeting and how it could have been better. This gives you textured feedback and helps you hone ‘speculative empathy’ which is a technique I use to review, reorder, and redesign agendas based on what I anticipate people will experience if I subject them to that agenda.
Feedback is important, but you might get as many different pieces of feedback as you have participants so don’t get discouraged if a few people weren’t 100% satisfied. That is the nature of designing things for a group.]
#27 Follow up
The aim of follow up is really to make sure everything has been wrapped up.
If there’s anything remaining, be clear on what is left to complete. I try to make it the responsibility of the group to compile and send notes, take photos or export exercise outputs.
Thank you notes/emails/gifts are great. Choose what’s appropriate for the situation.
[Alix: I tell students to share after every meeting: Why we got together, what we did, and what comes next.]
But defining importance doesn’t mean a thing if I don’t put it into practice.
Without a system to convert importance into repeated and sustainable action, it becomes like lots of other things: just another interesting experience…
a meditation retreat is just a quiet weekend away,
a diet is just a temporary loss in weight,
a values discovery process is just another feel good exercise,
a training workshop is just edutainment.
What a waste.
While awareness is helpful and necessary, nearly all of the value is created in the ongoing implementation.
The next question then is: How do I take what’s important to me and put it into practice?
After 17 years of working for myself, I’ve experimented with tonnes of ways.
What survived is what’s on this page.
I’ve found a combination of four “tools” – Daily Practice, Calendar, Kanban and Scrum – that help me translate what’s important into action. They enshrine reflection on the work, the process and the system itself. They provide me with the right mix of structure and flexibility for dealing with uncertainty. They help me walk the line of tension between time management and prioritisation.
If I can hit some or most of these in a day or week, then I know I’m at least setting myself up to stay on track.
As always, please take and adapt for your own purposes.
The primary purpose of my daily practice then is for me is to reconnect to my values, who/what’s important to me, purpose, what energises me etc. I can then keep them front of mind as I work through a day.
So most days I try to:
Say my values to myself with my first glass of water in the morning. (10 secs)
An alarm goes off on my phone and watch at 5pm every day to remind me to bring love and gratitude into dinner time with the family. I’m a morning guy, so the evening transition back from work into home is when I really need the reminder. (2 secs)
I meditate before bed. (20 mins)
I write one thing I’m grateful for to my wife and three daughters into four moleskine notebooks – one for each of them – before bed. (5 mins)
You might notice that only one of these has a specific time attached to it.
I’ve found it far more effective to to attach my daily practices to an existing event rather than a rigid time (eg first glass of water rather than 5:30am.) The event will definitely happen, but the timing of it will vary depending on kids’ wake up times, life etc. [For more on habit formation check out Atomic Habits.]
Calendar – managing time
Time is a non-renewable resource so my calendar is only for time based events, never tasks.
Firstly, I check my note and set non-work commitments that matter to me as recurring appointments: school pick ups, exercise, cold bath, family commitments. This means they become the default in my calendar rather than having to be squeezed in around everything else. It creates positive friction for me to move these which means I’m more likely to adhere to them.
Next, I add my weekly work cadence as recurring appointments. I use the Scrum rhythms – Planning, Retro and Review, Refinement, Daily Scrum. (More on this below.)
The rest I leave free.
I also use Calendly to allow people to book times directly into pre-allocated blocks in my calendar. This saves me the tedious back and forth of aligning diaries and allows me to protect blocks of longer, deeper work in my week through customised availability settings.
Kanban – managing work flow
Kanban is how I visualise my workflow process and the work itself. I love it because I can see at a glance the status of everything. It’s my central source of truth too so I can rest easy knowing that things aren’t going to fall through the cracks.
I began with a version that looked like this:
My hand writing is terrible, so here are the columns (left to right) and a brief description of how I use each. The lines in the columns represent items of work.
This is where I capture all the ideas I have for things I could do. It’s the place I put an idea if I wake up in the middle of the night and don’t want to forget something. I add to it any time and then refine and reprioritise weekly. The most important work moves to the top of the list.
This is the prioritised work I commit to getting done this week.
Once I start a piece of work I move it to In Progress.
This is where I move a piece of work when I need feedback or input from others to make progress. I’ll move it back into In Progress once the feedback comes in and I’m working on it.
When the work is complete. (Obviously!)
I set up my kanban in Notion. Trello and Jira are also both great tools. All have free options.
Alternatively, I’ve seen people use post it notes or excel too. The tech is secondary. It’s the philosophy that counts so whatever minimises the friction to getting started is the best option.
If you enjoy the dopamine hit of ticking off a to do list then you’ll love getting extra dopamine for moving items from To do > In progress > Done. (I’m guilty of creating to dos to cross them off so this works a treat for me.)
Kanban and leadership
From a leadership standpoint, I’ve seen kanban become a powerful tool to create psychological safety by allowing full transparency into work and work flows. It allows the question to be asked of 1 or multiple parties whether it’s up, down or sideways in an organisation:
Given our constraints, what is most important to us to get done?
It also enables both aspects of accountability: celebration of great work delivered or feet to the fire conversations where delivery is not met.
Scrum – managing prioritisation and uncertainty
Scrum is a framework for addressing complex problems. I love the way it helps me plan to work with uncertainty and focus on what is most important right now.
A few years ago, I signed myself up to a Professional Scrum Master course to add some depth to my novice “agile” skills.
Most of the people on the call were members of software development teams. We were half way through the first day.
I raised my hand.
“I realise Scrum was originally designed for software teams, but I’m the only full timer of my own consulting business. Is it possible to run Scrum with just one person?”
My trainer Ferzeen chuckled. “Yes. That’s called Scrum of 1. It’s possible but…” We explored it briefly in the session and then some more in breaks and follow up calls.
I have practiced “Scrum of 1” ever since.
My Weekly Structure
I follow these four Scrum rituals with my kanban open each time:
Planning – This forces me to interrogate my capacity for the week. I check my calendar and commitments to make sure I organise and prioritise my work for that week accordingly.
Daily Scrum – This is a very quick daily check in with myself for progress.
Refinement – This is an interim prioritisation process of checking the backlog of ideas to see which ones are most important and prioritise them for the coming week. They’ll be checked again in Planning.
Retro and Review – This is how I enshrine reflection into my week. I love it. The aim is to reflect on what has happened and what has been learned in the work. At the end of this session, I close the done column once I’ve reviewed the week and start afresh.
I’ve found that I work really well on a 7 day cadence from Monday afternoon to Monday afternoon so my timings reflect this.
Retro and Review (4-4:30pm Mondays)
How did the week go? (Start at the Done column and work backwards through Awaiting Feedback, In Progress, To Do)
What have I learned?
What worked well?
What could be improved?
Anything need to be updated in the Backlog?
Archive the Done column and create a new one.
Empty the kanban entirely back to the Backlog column.
What I’ve learned then feeds directly into Planning immediately afterwards.
Planning (4:30-5pm Mondays)
Check the diary for the week ahead – anything I need to be aware of that impacts capacity or priority?
What is the Sprint Goal for this week? [Add this to the Sprint Goal column]
What are the most important pieces of work in the Backlog that need to be done this week?
Add these from the Backlog to the To Do list.
Refinement (4-4:30pm Thursday)
What is looking most important to do next week?
Prioritise my backlog accordingly by moving the items to the top of the list.
Daily Scrum (9am each day)
What happened yesterday?
What needs to happen today?
Are there any blockers?
I can’t tell you how powerful Scrum is. What I’ve outlined here is just the beginning of understanding the nuances of Scrum. It is a framework gifted to the world through Scrum.org that has helped create trillions of dollars in value. It has completely changed how I work.
I also have a slight confession to make.
Right now, Ferzeen my Scrum trainer in the early days, is my Scrum Master for work for one hour a week. She helps me run my Retro/Review and Planning processes.
Because while coaching myself in my Scrum of 1 is possible and I’ve done it for long periods, I also find it hard at times to pull myself out of the weeds. I’ve found her Scrum coaching helps me get clearer and better outcomes each week. That’s a huge compound effect over a year.
Inbox = 0 – managing other people’s agendas
Finally, I hear a lot of people complain about their inbox and fair enough. As they say, your inbox is everyone else’s agenda for your time. This is a clear obstacle to doing my most important work.
I use a really simple technique to triage my inbox and get it to zero in a few minutes, often less. This allows me to separate comms from work.
I use Gmail, so as I look through a list of emails:
I add a star to anything I need to action.
Then I archive everything.
Inbox = 0.
Philosophically, time is one of the great tests of importance. What I’ve starred will show up in my starred folder for attention later on. If it’s truly important then, I might add an event to my calendar or an item to my backlog on the kanban for action.
The same principle applies for MS Outlook, just use a flag instead.
So there you have it.
I’ve gone through long periods of coaching myself using the interplay of these tools. They have helped me be more productive and focus on the most important.
I hope it’s a useful reference to help translate importance into action.
Any questions? Hit me in the comments section below.
[The final section below is really for people who’ve had more experience with these frameworks and are interested in the progression.]
Evolution – Scrum + Kanban [progression]
[NB: This section is a complete distraction if you don’t have the above set up and practiced but some might be interested in progression…]
Over time my kanban + scrum practices have evolved. My kanban now looks like this:
The columns in this one are: Backlog, Product Goal, Sprint Goal, To Do, In Progress, Awaiting Feedback, Definition of Done, Done.
Everything applies from earlier in the article, so I’ll just explain the differences here.
This is my mid term (3-6 months) goal. Historically I’ve had multiple goals. Now I only have one. It doesn’t mean I don’t work on other things but this is my singular focus. This acts as a filter/reminder for how I prioritise and select tasks from my backlog for my To Do commitment.
My goal for the week that will move me closer to my Product Goal. (Only 1 goal for reasons same as above.) This also determines/filters how I prioritise my work.
Definition of Done
This is where I check to make sure I’ve actually done the work. Depending on the work, that definition changes. My current definition requires that for me to classify a piece of work as “done”, it needs to meet one or many of the following criteria:
aligned to my purpose, values, vision etc.
tested (by someone else)
follow up action added to the backlog of things I could do
distributed (to relevant people)
published (Website, Email, LinkedIn, Twitter, Medium, Instagram, Facebook)
peer reviewed for content, spelling and branding
It can look a bit daunting so let me explain the logic. It works left to right.
I have a Backlog of ideas of what I could do.
I check my Product Goal and define the Sprint Goal for the week.
I prioritise my work to make sure I’m doing the work that is most important to hit the product and sprint goals. I move the most important ones to the To Do list.
As I work through my To Do list over the course of the week, the work moves to In Progress and Awaiting Feedback.
I review work against my Definition of Done and then move to Done when complete.
All of these three new columns help me to sharpen up my prioritisation and hold me accountable to truly getting a piece of work done.