"It's Like Jazz" - The Five Essentials of Dynamic Facilitation

Jazz hands.

Jazz hands.

While on an extended project, I got to my desk one morning to find a sticky note saying, "Brian: be at the large conference room at 8AM." That was it, no other explanation or instruction. It was ten minutes until eight. Work there usually started at around 8:30, so I felt lucky that I happened to arrive early that day. My gut told me I might want to bring a roll of paper and some markers, just in case. At that time, I wasn't a full-time facilitator.

I got to the conference room a few minutes later and sat down at a huge table along with about thirty other people. At 8AM, my client (the only person I recognized) stood up, said, "Thank you all very much for coming on short notice." Then he looked at me and said, "Brian, over to you." Then he sat down. 

Record scratch.

Record scratch.

What would you do? 

Dynamic facilitation is designing an approach in the moment to meet participants' needs.

Why would you do dynamic facilitation? You might need to pivot an approach. Despite all the best preparation, there are moments when you realize that the approach you designed isn't going to get participants where they want to be. This is different from when participants naturally resist the process. This is when you recognize that the logical flow of activities won't result in the outcomes the participants want. 

You might intentionally leave space in the agenda to dynamically facilitate. For example, in facilitating an Open Space session or Salon session, you might choose to wait until a conversation is happening before offering a method or activity to help facilitate it.

Or, you may find yourself in front of an ad hoc meeting with zero time to prepare. Like what happened to me.

Whatever drives it, there are five essentials to successfully facilitate dynamically.

1. Presence.  First, get yourself together. This may sound like your worst nightmare, like showing up for a test you haven't studied for. Regardless, it's your job to stay calm, cool, and collected. Participants take their mood cues off you. Keep your facial muscles relaxed (no wide eyes or gaping jaws), keep a calm and even tone of voice, maintain open body language, and breathe slowly and deeply.

2. Authenticity.  Second, don't be disingenuous or falsely confident about what's happening. The agenda is not a precious thing to protect. Let go of any illusion of control, or any ego. Call a balcony moment and do a process check with the group: "I'm sensing that this may not be getting us to where we want to be. To what extent do you feel like we need to switch tactics and try something else?"

3. A Model.  Have a simple, flexible, framework in your mind to hang any suggested activities on. Choose your favorite. Here are a few to consider:

  • Sam Kaner's Divergence-Groan Zone-Convergence.
  • Interaction Associates' Open-Narrow-Close.
  • The first four parts of the Drexler-Sibbet Team Performance Model can perform double-duty as a facilitation model: Orientation-Trust Building-Goal Clarification-Commitment.
  • Gamestorming's Opening-Exploring-Closing (or Divergent-Emergent-Convergent.)

Whichever you choose, having an overarching approach in the back of your head as you select methods will help participants bring in new ideas, assess them, and decide a way forward.

4. Methods.  This is where you really have to know your stuff as a facilitator. These are the tools in your toolbox, the cards in your deck, the activities and group processes to help the group achieve its outcomes. The IAF Methods Database recently got a face-lift from a partnership with SessionLab, and it's a fantastic resource for facilitation methods. Additionally, check out The Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision Making, Gamestorming, Best Practices for Facilitation, Visual Meetings, Design a Better Business, and Innovating for People as a start to building your own personal methods library. 

5. Flow.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as "a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. [You] are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove." Nancy Reuscher calls it "being a styrofoam cup on the sea of change." David Sibbet simply says, "It's like jazz." How ever you define it, be in flow. If you know you're a strong J on the Myers-Briggs, be ready to flex your P. Be mindful, present, aware, relaxed, and roll with whatever happens in the room.

Dynamic facilitation can at once give you both the scariest and most rewarding moments of your career. 

Epilogue: By request, here's the rest of the story.

First, I focused on my presence. I got my head straight and reminded myself the rule of group dynamics: chances were, I wasn't the only one feeling lost and confused.

Second, I was authentic about what I was feeling. I stood up, started hanging a blank chart, and said, "Thank you, sir. And thank you all for coming on short notice. Now, I'm sure many of you are a little unsure about why we're here. I am too."

Third, I decided on Kaner's divergence-groan zone-convergence as a model for the meeting, for no other reason than that it can be applied to just about any outcome-driven meeting. 

Fourth, I chose a divergence method to bring in different ideas. I said, "Let's take a minute and get on the same page. I'd like to go around the room and do introductions. Please say your name, your role, what you'd like to get out of the meeting, and one interesting thing about yourself that no one in the room already knows." And I drew a Team Portrait. By the time we had gone around the room, the tension had been broken, and I had everyone's name and expected outcome for the day. About half of the participants had clear expectations, the other half had no idea why they were there. We clustered all the outcomes into five or six overarching themes, then prioritized them using straw polls. Once we had the outcomes, I invited participants to each share what they might offer to help achieve those outcomes. That engaged the participants who hadn't known why they were there.

Fifth, to the best of my ability, I tried to flow. For each subject, I offered suggestions for information sharing and decision making methods, but I put the ultimate decision of which approach to use back on the group. I watched the body language of individuals to know when to suggest breaks or different work mixes. And I regularly checked the process: "How is this working? Do we need to pivot and try something else? Where do we go from here?"

The meeting turned into a working session and went until the end of the day. Halfway through, I had to run and get another roll of paper from my desk. When we finally closed, several participants said, "This is the best meeting I've ever been to." 

I took the next day off.