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okt 10th

Essay On Facilitation…

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I was recently certified as a Master Facilitator (CPF|M). I had to write an essay on facilitation, which I reproduce here

I have become a beekeeper since my last certification a few years ago. I always was interested in how groups behave, and looking at my bees I see types of group behavior, which taught me a lot about human behavior, like how bees make their decisions. In a way humans have become more like bees, you see Swarm behavior in how they respond to social media. It is fascinating to look at behavior and trends from that perspective.

The trends I noticed in my previous certification, are even stronger today. These trends were mostly changes in society, but impact the way issues are laid before us, and the results afterwards.

I notice four important trends which were already present in 2016, but have more impact nowadays.

Firstly, issues that previously just technical often now have a political dimension. In certain debates, a stance is based on political affiliation rather than information. As a facilitator, you have to remain neutral. In a workshop, I have learned to act on that, by focusing on what people agree on, before tackling the issue, and by designing a process which made sure all arguments came to table. An example of is this is my usage of the ORID-method. This method first has a phase of Objectivation, before Reflecting, Interpreting and Deciding. By first focusing on the objective facts which have happened, I establish a common truth, which results in an effective process afterwards.

The second trend is that experts have less automatic authority in society. In recent years, I worked a lot with the Dutch Behavioral Insights Team at the ministry of transport. They noticed that civil servants were used to design behavioral interventions on their own. Together with them I co-developed a method called “DOE MEE; (Dutch for Go along! D for discover, O for develop (ontwikkel), E for Experiment, MEE for Monitoring and (en) Evaluation) , which allowed civil servants to involve the public earlier and to base policies on the needs. We trained a number of internal facilitators (So called ‘Tigers’), to use this tool in the ministry.

The third trend is the increased usage of digital tools in facilitation. I always like to experiment with tools. I’ll never forget my first videoconferencing session with Estonia (the home of Skype) in the early ought’s, and trying out the early digital whiteboards.

This year everything has changed obviously, with the Corona crisis. In the last two months, the usage of digital tools has been exploding. We had to learn fast, having the advantage of having experimented a lot. In an online environment, you have to be aware of little signals, since body language isn’t as obvious. You have to be strict, and discuss the rules with the group (Mute your mike!), you have to provide safety (This is not being recorded), and clearly ‘time box’ assignments (since you can’t be in all breakout rooms at the same time).

These are only the basics though. After a few sessions I saw that while functional contact moments stayed strong, informal contacts sometimes were suffering. So, I increased the connections between online and offline, like ‘show a physical object that’s important to you, show your view’, and I allowed time, e.g. the first fifteen minutes, were the mike is open, while people come online and test their microphones etc.

Furthermore, it is important that all voices are heard, and that you continue to use individual divergent tools. Online it is easier to disengage if you’re not interested, or just stay silent. Using tools (like formats you prepare, or an online whiteboard like Mural) you can prepare for that, but those require both instructions and onboarding during a session to be effective. We’ve now e.g. developed an online version of our Sustainable Mobility conversation tool, putting an outline and some onboarding templates in Mural, and can lead people through the different steps to discuss measures.

The final trend which is important to notice since it had an effect on me as a facilitator is the rise of complex sustainability issues. Environmental measures have been around since the sixties, but especially since the Paris agreement, they have to be far more focused and often involve a lot of stakeholders. The complex part for facilitators is that often the costs are in different places than the benefits and defined in other terms. Therefore, you have to create a process which shows the relation between those things and where they support each other. An example is that I facilitated sessions between people working on cleaner air and people working on mobility. They often did the same kind of thing, but with a different purpose. We helped them to define their measures in the same terms, so they could see if their measures were strengthening each other or were blocking each other.

A world full of polarization, on its way to environmental disaster requires even more facilitation. This required something for my development as a facilitator. I had to be able to not just look at the session ahead, but to put the needs of the client in the perspective of the larger context he was working on.

Within my practice at LEF –the Future center of Dutch Highways and Public Works Agency Rijkswaterstaat we saw many sectors where the individual interests of the different companies or agencies seemed to make work for a common goal difficult. The clients I saw for an Intake were often overwhelmed by chasm between the common goal in theory and the practical consequences. This led me to developmy intake process, exploring mechanisms where people could actually agree on, while maintaining a neutral stance. This ethical issue as a facilitator is something we as a profession sometimes only pay lip service to, but our personal integrity is one of the most important powers we have.

Thus, the practice of designing a fitting workshop became even more important. I had to develop a program for all the participants of a system to give room to their interest, while maintaining a focus on neutral elements like how they added value to a different part of the chain and you at what they needed before they e.g. could reduce Co2. Discussing these elements requires a strong relation with the client. The client is often a party with an interest of their own though, so remaining neutral is extremely important here too.

So, the competence of the building relations is more important than ever. I developed templates to show to clients that we have all the important stakeholders. I improved my scripts as well, showing the results of each part of the session. I did this this since clients are often more used to facilitators now, and therefore more capable of discussing steps and therefore interested in why we do certain things. An example is a session I did for a water board (a Dutch layer of government). I introduced a cartoonist, which at first seemed superfluous to the client, but using the script she could see how the cartoons were used.

Designing a session Is what I love doing most. This gives you the chance to really explore the problem at hand. What did I get from the intake, what positions are important and what interest they represent. Are we at the point we have to develop a creative solution, or are we reflecting and evaluating. And just when you think you have the code cracked, and have all sections or your program are leading logically to the next, something happens which forces you to look at the situation from an entire different way all over again. A session, can be like a fascinating puzzle or an adventure in this way. A feeling I have compared to Scuba diving on a wreck, and then you suddenly see an octopus, hidden there since decennia.

As said, something I worked on in the last few years is making the subresults of the parts of the program clear for the client, so he can understand while some parts are necessary, and not just ‘fun’. This gives you more flexibility on the day of the session itself, as you can quickly check with the client if the sub result has been achieved, and how we can or should adapt if necessary.

The elements of the LEF center can support you in creating a safe environment by using lighting or furniture, but in these days, it is even more important to create a link between your participants, like for example first exploring a personal ambition (What’s was your best travel experience, or even what was your favorite Bedroom, in case of a session about mattresses).

The competence of creating a safe environment is more important than ever in these corona days. Since you can’t see each other, you should spend even more energy to make sure people feel part of the group. One example I did recently on a community of practice ask people in advance to send the image which had touched them most during the last three weeks. I received lots of pictures from stay at home situations, of brave doctors, and of happy things. By creating such a reel of pictures (which I had combined and let people tell stories about), we shared an experience, and thus were part of the same group.

During such a workshop, it is important to guide your group towards the end, remaining calm, repeating statements, summarizing, giving everybody space. Making more and more flight hours the last 8-10 years made it easier to feel and see who needs to be heard, and make little interventions like standing next to someone to make them end their monologue. An example of this a recent workshop were we discussing the development of a discussion tool. One participant kept adding his long philosophical view, and classical inspiration at every point. A small intervention is complimenting the man, giving him well defined space, asking him a direct question (which is the most important inspiration for part x), and showing the flow of the day. This gives the participant a feeling he has been heard, while the group can work on their objective.

Important to make sure you improve yourself, is doing a session review with the client and our account managers to reflect upon what happened and how we can do it better the next time. The interesting thing that sometimes occurs is that a client seems too easily pleased when everybody is happy after a session, but only after a review he or she realizes the session might be just the beginning. An example is a recent session I did on the implementation of Sustainable Mobility within a large organization. In the review, the client reflected on the session, and got tons of new leads to act upon. And I got lots of good feedback for repeating such a session in a different organization. We learn by reiterating our formats all the time.

At the LEF center we try to develop our knowledge in a quarterly Community of Practice. Being a facilitator can be a lonely existence, but by using the space as a central perspective we can exchange experiences. . In the LEF center I could really experiment with the recommendations of the last recertification, practicing with ‘letting go’ for example.

I reviewed many facilitation and innovation books in the last for years for a Dutch online bookshop. By reviewing you force yourself to ‘ruminate’ the knowledge a few times before you can pass judgement. The competence of improving oneself as a facilitator is important to me. It is one of my drives to experience new things, and then discuss in a setting like a community of practice what the effect is. Examples are the implementation of sleep masks in parts of the session: what happens to the discussion, what happens to the trust. The insights provided useful for facilitating online, and let to the usage of things like more guided meditations in my sessions.

Experimenting with new methods is always important, and LEF we try to use our hands as well, and I have facilitated a number of Lego Serious Play sessions. At one time, we lost our most fervent fan of the method, a CPF himself. I was honored to be asked to facilitate a session to remember him, by building a Lego work in his memory. The atmosphere afterwards was one of the moments I felt the power of facilitation most strongly.

As a board member for IAF-NL we organized many conferences. Relevant subjects as facilitating without borders (physical, virtual or mental), Facilitating naturally and facilitating as a game. In most of those conferences I facilitated a workshop, which helped me to remain curious about new forms of facilitating as well. Internationally I helped organizing the IAF-EU mini conference in 2013, where we explored the importance of play. In 2017, I was involved in a European conference in another way. We had to restructure the finances sharply, to make sure the chapter wouldn’t go broke. Luckily the facilitators themselves had a great ‘unconference’.

Being involved in IAF taught me a lot, like that facilitators are difficult to facilitate. I had to adjust my style to give the facilitators space to reflect, but also accept the process. I did that for example by telling more about the relation between elements of the program in advance.

I remain optimistic about our world though, more and more you see our way of working getting traction in the Dutch government, and people asking for more sessions.  By remaining positive and the professionalization of our craft within and outside the IAF we’re sure to have a great decade for facilitation ahead of us. (

When I see my bees flying from their hive and cooperating to gain nectar, I just feel the spirit of cooperation and facilitation to help make this possible.