“Dynamic Facilitation produces a brand new answer that nobody could’ve possibly thought of before they walked into the room. Nobody.”
Alex has used Dynamic Facilitation with teams that have been stuck on a particularly nasty issue for over 8 weeks where he’s solved it in 45 minutes.
Quick apology. Sorry about some the sound dropping out. Skype wasn’t having a great day for us but if you don’t understand Alex when you can hear him that’s because he’s from Arbroath, Scotland. Nothing I can do about that I’m afraid!
Thank you so much, Alex, for sharing your skills and knowledge with us here on WorkshopBank!
Get ready for the next session of The WorkshopBank Podcast coming very soon. You’re not going to want to miss it. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast below to get it automatically to your computer or device when it’s available.
Nick: I’m really excited today because I’m joined by a very, I was going to say a very old friend of mine, you’re not necessarily very old but you’re a friend of mine that I’ve known for a very long time. We used to work together, basically working for the British government. That’s how I describe it these days. When we were on a program to remodel the education sector in the UK between, what was it, 2004 to 2009 I was there. So you were probably there a couple of years before that.
His name is Alex Nairn. He’s a guy I really deeply respect. You were leader of one of the programs or I think the only program we had running when I first arrived. And you only ever when higher and higher up in the organization after that. And every time I was in one of your sessions, it was just fascinating. You basically led me into the world of change management with all the support I could possibly imagine. And you’re definitely one of the reasons that I am doing workshop [bank] today and that I still love and enjoy being a change management professional and facilitator so, welcome to the show, Alex.
Alex: Thank you very much. That was one hell of an introduction.
Nick: It was. Well, I try and pick my guests as much as I possibly can so, no, but welcome. So, we’re going to have a conversation about a topic that I know is close to your heart. I mean, if you’re still talking about dynamic facilitation now, then I know it’s very close to your heart because you were big into it in the last year or so that we were working together. Now our audience may not have a clue what dynamic facilitation is so could you give us a brief overview of how it works, where it came from, how to use it, the objectives of it? I’m really interested to relearn all of this.
Alex: Okay. Well if I can give you the kind of, headline of it first of all.
Alex: I’ll tell you what I like about it and then I’ll tell you how it works. It doesn’t require any preparation by the facilitator what-so-ever. You don’t need to have any content knowledge at all. All you need is 4 flip chart easels, a lot of paper, white tack, blue tack, whatever, marker pens, about 12 to 15 people that are passionate about a challenge they’ve got, and that last point is crucial. Don’t ever do a facilitation in the room that don’t care about the issue. Because you’re about to create a very dynamic interaction between the group that will create something knew just by them all talking about it. And clearly if you’ve got passive people in the room, it doesn’t work.
So you’ve got all this, flip chart stuff, you’ve got 15 people that are sitting in a semi-circle in front of the 4 easels and off you go. Now dynamic facilitation is not about finding the best idea that came into the room and filtering down all the others. Okay? Dynamic facilitation is about taking impossible challenges and finding brand new answers to them that the group creates because of their interaction, because of the time that they have together and because of the process they’re involved in.
Let me say, first of all, that dynamic facilitation, I’m not saying it’s better than every kind of facilitation, it should be used for every situation because it shouldn’t. Every kind of facilitation has its place. The kind of facilitation that dynamic facilitation isn’t, is let’s brainstorm 100 ideas, let’s stick dots on a lot of pieces of paper, let’s count the one with most dots and let’s disregard the 97 other ideas that are on the board and then we’ll just concentrate on the 3 that are left. What the hell happened to the other 97? That can be such a put off for delegates if they’ve written something on a clip chart which immediately nobody puts a dot on because nobody gives a damn about. And that’s not a great way to engage a group in problem-solving.
So what you do with dynamic facilitation, I’ll tell you where it came from later on but, for the moment, what you do with dynamic facilitation is, you have 4 flip charts and, as I say, these 12 to 15 people in a semi-circle in front of them. The facilitator stands, with a pen, at the flip charts and the flip charts are labeled “Problem Statement”, “Solutions”, “Concerns”, and “Data’ or “Facts”. Okay? What’s wonderful about dynamic facilitation is, you never hear facilitators say to someone, not time for solutions yet, we’ll get to solutions later.
Nick: Yeah. Yeah.
Alex: But that’s not what we’re covering today. We’ll keep that aside for another meeting or whatever. Whatever the people in that group want to say is captured by the facilitator and captured onto the flip chart as either the problem statement, the solution, the concerns and negativity, as some people would view it, or the data and facts. That way, everything that’s said in the room is captured and respected as a piece of information.
The way you would start it, a dynamic facilitation session, is with the problem statement. What is the problem, you as a group, are committed to solving here today and you all want to solve it, otherwise you shouldn’t be in the group. And it takes awhile to articulate the perfectly because you will have a different way of framing the problem. So you need to get the group to position where they’re happy to run with one version.
But that doesn’t take very long because once again, because of the way the DF works, their versions can come into play. So you would start with a problem statement and then you would immediately you would ask or the person that came up with the final version of the problem statement, you’d ask them, what’s your solution.
Nick: Okay. You literally jump straight to solution from the problem.
Alex: You capture solutions but there are people who will have concerns about that solution.
Nick: Yeah. Yeah.
Alex: You [inaudible 00:07:07] that concern and capture that concern but it doesn’t make that solution wrong.
Alex: And that’s the thing. Whenever I’ve done DF, the thing that [inaudible 00:07:17] conflict that we normally have in these meetings. Because normally, in facilitation environments, you often get two ideas and one of them wins.
Alex: And that means the other one loses. And that means we don’t [inaudible 00:07:33] the one for the rest of the bloody meeting.
Nick: Yeah, exactly. You’ve lost that person now.
Alex: [inaudible 00:07:40] as somebody else. In a dynamic facilitation environment, your opinion, my opinion, your solution, my solution, my concern, your concern, my facts, your facts are all equal. And all captured because they add up to an understanding of the issue.
Alex: And it [inaudible 00:08:00] what sequence they come in. As you can imagine, the facilitator is working quite hard.
Alex: Because you spend a lot of time writing stuff on to flip charts and you’re not necessarily writing exactly what they say. You’re pulling from them what do they mean by what they say [inaudible 00:08:17].
Nick: Okay. So there’s an element of interpretation there that the facilitator has to take on board.
Alex: They should confirm with the person who said it. It’s not one these things where you say I think I know what you mean so I’ll write it down differently. You have to make sure. Tell me what you’re saying when you say that. What do you mean when you say that? And that’s what I capture as the interpretation. So we’re getting deeper. And the other thing you never allow in facilitation is 2 delegates to go head-to-head.
Alex: That would a win-lose situation.
Nick: So the conversation is always by the facilitator, is it?
Alex: It always comes through the facilitator. And before you know it, you’re starting to get a free-flowing conversation where people can say what they like, what they don’t like, what they know, what they don’t know and the other thing that happens is the problem statement changes.
Alex: Because, at some point, you will always say, I’ll tell you what the real problem is. And then you’ve got yourself a new problem statement and then you’re back to, what’s the solution for this new problem.
Nick: What happens if the whole group says, no, rubbish, the old problem statement is the right one? Do you have to keep going?
Alex: You just keep going because one problem statement doesn’t necessarily outweigh the other one. It just becomes another piece of information that deserves some attention.
Alex: If you find yourself going back to the old problem statement, so be it.
Alex: But, the thing is, that what you’re doing is, you’re purging the room.
Alex. Purging the room of all the information they walked into the room with.
Alex: You’re getting it down and you’re treating it with respect. And then there’s a point always in a dynamic facilitation where the room goes quiet and, as a facilitator, you’re terrified.
Nick: Yeah. That’s not [inaudible 00:10:13]
Alex: And that’s a good thing because that means that they have actually purged themselves or they’re now deeply thinking about it. The worst thing a facilitator can do at that moment is fill the gap.
Alex: You stand there and you let them think about it. And if you panic and say well can we stay focused on the answer, it’ll be like, whoa, you’re back the way you started, where you shouldn’t have started from. So you just stay quiet and then suddenly someone will say, “I’ll tell you what I’ve been thinking,” or “what about this, do you think this would be a good idea.” And off you go again. But there is a process that you bring in the middle of DF that you can do once or twice. And it’s called a bookmark.
Nick: Okay. How does that work?
Alex: What you do is, you simply flip over a blank sheet of paper, a flip sheet of paper and can we just summarize where we are now and where we came from and what’s happened along the way. And just by doing that process on that flip chart, you bring the group together.
Alex: The flip charts suddenly come together and [suddenly] create [inaudible 00:11:27] to actually do right on the flip chart, you’ve really hit the jackpot because now they’ve owned.
Nick: Of course.
Alex: They’d all like to find who [inaudible 00:11:36].
Nick: See, you’d only do that for the big bookmarking, to bring the audience up?
Alex: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, the rest of the time, you’re managing the environment and making sure everybody is heard, everybody’s respected, there’s no conflict, everything’s captured, all that kind of stuff. So, effectively, if I had to summarize this, it’s a conversation that’s recorded, and because it gets deeper and deeper and deeper and more exploratory, things begin to appear in the room that nobody came in with.
Alex: That’s the secret of DF. It’s not about somebody, it’s about, I mean the guy who invented it called Jim [inaudible 00:12:22]
Nick: Sorry you just dropped out there and that’s quite important.
Alex: He called it choice creating.
Nick: And what’s the guy’s name?
Alex: Jim Rough.
Nick: Jim Rough.
Alex: He call it choice creating because what the room is doing is creating new choices. Because of its conversation, new things will emerge.
Alex: I’ll tell you an example of a DF session that I actually did in an environment that you and I worked in. And it was when I was doing some training on DF. We started off with the problem statement; how can we better chips in the canteen? And that was quite serious.
Nick: I hope that was with our senior managers.
Alex: It was indeed. How can we get better chips in the canteen? And when they came up with that, I thought, oh, this is going to be a disaster. It wasn’t. It was far from a disaster because it was something we all felt passionate about. And do you know how it ended up? It ended up where the problem statement is; how can we make the restaurant more customer responsive.
Alex: And if we’d actually started and stayed on a facilitation process about how to get better chips.
Nick: Yeah, we would’ve ended up with better chips and that’s it.
Alex: We would have ended up with better chips, maybe. Or we’d have just gone [inaudible 00:13:50] how to, or who’s going to go talk to the chef or should we give him a cookbook for Christmas, you know? That’s what a funny answer would’ve been. But actually we opened it up to a bigger issue that [inaudible 00:14:02] chips [inaudible 00:14:04] nobody, they could tell anybody. Now why couldn’t they tell anybody? Well because they weren’t customer responsive. Okay. What can we do about that?
Nick: Yeah. So how did it take to get from chips to responsive?
Alex: 20 minutes. I mean, I have run DF with people that have [inaudible 00:14:22] meeting so I had to solve an issue and we solved it in three quarters of an hour.
Alex: Steak and eggs. Because they were stuck in this narrow channel with this narrow question.
Alex: When they explored the question, they got deeper into it and discovered they’re actually probably trying to answer their own question or there was another way of looking at it, whatever.
Nick: Right. Okay. So it’s almost like a root cause analysis technique, right?
Alex: It may be a root cause analysis and that may be where it goes, but it’s more than that because it generates an answer.
Nick: Yeah, of course.
Alex: It’s not, let’s just find out what the issue is, it produces a brand new answer that nobody could’ve possibly thought of when they walked into the room. Nobody. Because you’re working with 15 brains or 12 brains coming together as 1 through the bookmarks, through the process.
Nick: How does the audience normally feel at the end of a process like that?
Alex: Well, they become very energetic because they can see themselves going somewhere. It starts off [inaudible 00:15:33] you start the DF session, it’s a bit like a conversation in a pub.
Alex: Everybody just says what they want to say.
Alex: And the facilitators just capture it. And whatever you want to say is fine. That’s what you want to say. If you care about the issue and you’ve got something to say, it’s captured.
Alex: In any sequence you like. It’s not about some, let’s talk about this issue, it’s nothing like that at all. It’s whatever is on your mind right now is what you need to say and we need to hear it. And of course that allows people to be themselves. If I’m the kind of person who wants to go straight to the solution, I’ll go straight to the solution. If I’m the kind of person who wants to say it’s never going to work, I’ll fill the concerns page for you in five seconds.
Alex: If I’m the kind of person that needs to have the facts before the rest of the room can make decisions, I will give you all the facts and they will be captured. You know? So everybody’s allowed to be themselves.
Nick: I think that’s fantastic. I mean, if you run strict facilitation process where you have a tool where you’re starting at position A but you always get to position B because the tool drives you in that direction. If you’re doing that with a group, there’s always two or three people who want to rebel against the process because they just don’t agree with the process. It’s not that they don’t agree with the problem or even the solution at the end. They just don’t like the process. It sounds like with this, you wouldn’t necessarily get that problem.
Alex: Well, I mean, the bottom line is, DF isn’t a process.
Nick: No, that’s right. Yeah.
Alex: Flipcharts that listen to people. And it’s not a process. And what happens is that people find their own way through there by being listened to and respected.
Nick: Yeah. Yeah.
Alex: And [inaudible 00:17:32] safely. I mean, I’ve had people come up to me, board members have come up to me and said that’s the first time I’ve been listened to in a board meeting.
Alex: And the thing was, they weren’t even listened to. It was me that listened to them.
Nick: Yeah, because everyone else is thinking about their own thing. What they want to say. So no one’s actually listening to anyone.
Alex: And respond to what was said. So there’s a group listening but the important thing is the facilitator’s listening and capturing. And, of course, I can then ask questions from [inaudible 00:18:05] which means it really has been listened to.
Nick: Yeah. So when would DF not work? I’m in. I would want to use this on everything. What’s the reason that you wouldn’t want to use DF?
Alex: That’s a really good question. You wouldn’t use it if you didn’t have four flip charts. That’s not entirely true actually. I’ve seen people trying to do it just by sticking things on the wall. The wall was just tearing off flip charts and sticking them on the wall and starting again with a new sheet, you know?
Alex: But I’d never try to do it without four flip charts because you’re moving at such a pace you need to be efficient. When would I not use it? I wouldn’t use it, well, I’ve done DF with 25 people in the room and I know I didn’t get to 25 people.
Alex: I tried but I didn’t.
Nick: So size of group matters in this, doesn’t it?
Alex: [inaudible 00:19:06] contribute and the rest [inaudible 00:19:07] occasionally but they were never really there. And at the end of it, I don’t believe we got a group, I don’t think whole group believed in what the problem was or cared that it was solved. So I would use it with people who are apathetic. I would use it in a group that was too big. I wouldn’t use it for something that it clearly wasn’t needed for. I know that sounds a bit vague. They have to be big problems.
Alex: Really big problems that people really care about. And they can not see a way through it. This is great for multi-agency work.
Alex: Because the big issue about multi-agency work is [inaudible 00:19:48] to say that their issues are different and my issue’s different [inaudible 00:19:55] you’ve all got a commonality that you can exploit.
Nick: So there’s an element of team voting to it as well as that?
Alex: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s not what it’s intended to do but the team by creating something together and getting excited about it. And then moving on to solutions does create relationships within a team.
Nick: And when do you know you’re there? When do you end? Is it literally just a time thing, this is all the time we’ve got?
Alex: That’s a great question. And it’s the one that challenges me the most as to when. The last time I used DF was just three weeks ago and it was a really big issue inside a team of board members. We managed very quickly to move away from what the issue was to what it really was. That happened very quickly. And then there was a point when I knew there was nowhere else DF could take them so I then moved onto a more traditional level; a what’s your next step if this is going to be a solution. And they didn’t even notice the join.
Alex: I didn’t suddenly announce, okay, DF’s finished. You’ve all got a solution. Let’s move forward. I just said so what are you going to do about a solution. Somebody make an action plan and I just got another flip chart and off they went. So, as far [inaudible 00:21:18] them. So there is a point as a facilitator when you’ll know that the room is energized, the room wants to get on with fixing this thing, and know what to do. And at that point, you don’t flip a light switch and say DF is now switched off folks. You just move naturally into a bit of action planning.
Nick: Okay. So action planning is the natural step. You’ve got your solution. Everyone has agreed what the solution is and it’s about now working who is going to do what when.
Alex: You can tell in the room when people are ready. It’s a scary process for facilitators because you don’t know when it’s going to happen.
Alex: The reason it’s less scary for me, but it still is scary, is that I’ve now done it enough to know; trust the people, trust the energy in the room, that something will come through.
Nick: Yeah. People always come through. And it’s not about the facilitator, anyway. So you’ve got to kind of take yourself away from that affair and think, well, they’re here to solve their own problems. And all I’m trying to do, my only job, is to help them get there and it’s not like they’re going to leave me hanging or anything. Yeah. I love it.
Alex: I mentioned the bookmark and you can do more than one bookmark.
Alex: Depending on how long you’re actually working with them, you may decide you need a second bookmark because you can see the group move to sort of a significantly different place. And, as I say, definitely the second bookmark you get done by one of the delegates. Because, if you do the first one, get them up with a pen in hand and they will work really hard to make sure that the group’s work is captured and recognized.
Alex: I’ll just say a little bit about Jim Rough.
Nick: Yeah. Do that, please. So, Jim Rough is the creator.
Alex: The creator of dynamic facilitation and I know he’d be happy to talk to you.
Nick: Fantastic. I’d love to get him on.
Alex: I met him, first of all in Frankfort when I went to be trained. I then sponsored a course in London that he came to. And then I attended another one this year, in fact, just as a bit of a refresher. So I’ve actually met the guy three or four times now. He came up with this system because he was working inside a wood mill, a pulp mill, in Washington State in America. It was the workers versus the management and nothing was working because they were shouting at each other but they weren’t communicating. They were talking to each other but they weren’t communicating. And he discovered, when I talk to you individually, I can hear that you’ve all got points. When you talk to each other, the points just go zooming past. So he invented this process to actually let everybody be heard and obviously it’s developed over time into the shape it’s in now. I mean, if you put dynamic facilitation into Google, he’ll be there. You’ll find it.
Nick: Okay. Well, I’ll look it up and I’ll also include the links below this broadcast as well so people can find out a bit more about it. Are there training courses that people can go on? Or is there just stuff you can read about? Or would this broadcast be enough for people to really give it a go?
Alex: I’ll never be enough [inaudible 00:24:52]. Jim’s mission is to save the world and this is just one of his tools. The tool that he wants to use in a lot of different environments to do that. No he runs seminars. I think he was in Switzerland a couple of weeks ago. Austria has taken this on big time in local government. And they use it to have the community heard.
Alex: And so they call it the wisdom counsel and they use dynamic facilitation as a process to help the community speak to its government. And it’s, once again, as you can imagine, bringing a lot of desperate groups together in local [inaudible 00:25:40]. DF brings them together every time. And, as I say, Austria has taken it on in a big way.
Nick: Fantastic. And what about the UK? Other countries. This sounds like a very interesting thing for America’s issue.
Alex: I have yet to find a local government official that will allow this to happen. There’s to seem a fear. I’ve tried three or four times now. In fact I’m working with another city at the moment and this one’s looking possible. There seems to be a few that if you ask the people what they want, they’ll tell you.
Nick: Right. Can you imagine?
Alex: And [inaudible 00:26:30] of course wouldn’t be able to do it because they’re going to ask for the wrong things.
Nick: That’s right. Yeah. We won’t be able to deliver so let’s not find out what they want.
Alex: No. So hopefully we need a local official with courage.
Nick: Right. So the private companies are much more up for this normally, have you found?
Alex: This is fine for commercial environments. It’s fine for everybody actually. Local government leaders can find this to be a challenge to their authority and they could lose control if the people get too many nos. But they’re not [inaudible 00:27:13] how this thing works and that’s not what it’s about. But for any organization who has got a big problem, I keep emphasizing big, impossible problems, are the best topics for dynamic facilitation.
Nick: Okay. Okay. So [inaudible 00:27:32] is on me. So, if one of our listeners wants to try out dynamic facilitation and they come against that objection that their subjects are worried about where it might go. How can they overcome that objection? Have you come across that objection and you’ve solved it so you know how to deal with it? Or is it always different?
Alex: I’ve never come across it because I actually don’t tell them in advance.
Nick: What they’re going to do, right. Okay.
Alex: I agree with them, what is the output you want to achieve? What’s the problem you want to solve?
Alex: Ask them to have four flip charts in the room.
Alex: And then I just explain to them how it’s going to work. And they love it. They absolutely love it. Delegates love this process because there all engaged practically all of the time. Once again, depending on the size of the group. But they’re virtually engaged all of the time. And it really works. But I would never explain to someone in advance, dynamic facilitation and expect them to buy it and understand it. Because you’ve got to be in it. It’s about like telling them how to ride a bike. They don’t have a clue how to ride a bike until you’re on it.
Nick: Yeah. So you just get on with it. You do it and the results speak for themselves. But the process is probably a bit too scary and unnecessary to go deep into.
Alex: Exactly. Virtually with all the processes, all the events that I would do, I wouldn’t tell them the DF. I’d say, what is it we’re trying to achieve here? I’ll get you there. And then I’ll just turn up and I’ll do it and they’re on it. It’s so funny. They can see that their people, because if you’re working with a CEO, or a nervous CEO, they can see very quickly that their people are engaged. And that’s what they want. That’s all they want. They’re having a good time and getting [inaudible 00:29:30].
Nick: Right. Got it. Well, personally I think it’s fantastic and the main reason I love, and it’s a purely selfish reason, is I don’t have to do any preparation before I turn up. You just turn up, you do it, there’s no materials, you just need a willing group of people and, yeah. And I love those processes where you just literally have to trust it. You don’t know where you’re going and it’s exciting for facilitator just as much as the audience, the delegates.
Alex: Yeah, I mean, this lack of prep thing is really quite important because I’m happy to know vaguely what the issue is that they want to fix. [inaudible 00:30:18]. If you’re working with a CEO, that CEO absolutely wants me to know the issue at the onset. But I also know within 10 minutes the issue will change.
Nick: Yeah and this process allows it to.
Alex: But if you want to tell the CEO whatever your problem is, that’s not the one that will be solved. [inaudible 00:30:32] we’ll just get someone else.
Nick: Yeah, it’s much better to let them have that realization privately rather than ram it down their throat before hand.
Alex: Let it happen in front of them and they’ll be fine.
Nick: Well, that’s great.
Alex: And the only advice I would give people is find a safe situation to try it. You know, go looking for a problem with a safe group of people, and once again make sure they care about the issue, make sure it’s significant enough, and then just give it a go.
Alex: But don’t tell them it’s the first time you’ve done it.
Alex: The first time I did it, I did not tell them it was the first I had done it. I told them I had done it several times and it had been a fantastic success.
Alex: That was before I even went on a training course.
Alex: Yeah. I just read about it on the website and I thought, this feels right. It feels right.
Alex: I just went with my gut.
Nick: It does just tick some boxes there that an experienced facilitators know about what doesn’t work particularly well about very rigid, very strict processes.
Well, Alex, thank you very much for coming on the show. It’s been highly entertaining as always and highly informational and really interesting. One more thing, if people want to contact you, what’s the best way to do that? I mean, I don’t think you’re going to get a flood of connections but if anyone wants to speak to you about this, would that be possible?
Alex: Yeah. I don’t know how you connect people up through your…
Nick: I can leave your e-mail address. Would that be okay?
Alex: Oh, absolutely. But I would certainly ask people to go on the dynamic facilitation website.
Nick: Yeah. We’ll leave that as a link.
Alex: [inaudible 00:32:32] When Jim talks about it, he says it in a much more articulate, shorter period than I am.
Nick: Fantastic. Well, hopefully I can have a conversation with Jim as well and just complete the circle. But this has been a fantastic introduction so thank you very much.
Alex: Okay. Thanks, a lot.
Nick: Thanks, Alex. See you soon.