Facilitation possibilities (or finding the magic)

“The great leaders are like the best conductors – they reach beyond the notes to reach the magic in the players.” (Blaine Lee)

I was asked to facilitate a meeting for Natural Resources Canada in Ottawa at the end of September. It wasn’t my regular project work, but a request to provide facilitation for the corporate services section, under the direction of the Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM). I have done some work previously for her, and was delighted to continue.

A previous NRCan session with positive outcomes

A previous NRCan session with positive outcomes.

The purpose of the meeting is immaterial here…other than to say it involved budget cuts. Honestly, there are few discussions nowadays with senior managers in the federal government that don’t involve budget cuts. This one was going to be a bit “ouchy”, however, because none of the Director Generals (DG’s) or Directors were aware that they needed to make these cuts before the end of the fiscal year.[1]

I prepared an outline for the day’s discussions. That outline was approved, but I was prepared for some last minute tweaking. The night before the session, I received an e-mail from the ADM’s contact. She had indeed changed it, but it was not too substantive, and I could easily adapt my plans. However, the next morning, there were more changes…in fact, the ADM arrived with a completely revamped outline. Call me flexible (or stupid) but I nodded and said “No problem” when asked if I could manage the changes.

The session started with a presentation by the ADM, and the silence was deafening. You could actually feel the energy snapping through the room, as people realized what lay ahead. Despite how the media portrays public servants, these directors and DGs care very much for their work and the staff who report to them, and the personal lives of these individuals were their priorities.

My years of facilitation experience has helped me to think about my participants as individuals with lives and loves, connections and experiences. Each person in the room has his or her own story, and that story transcends the office or the boardroom. I knew that in this group of senior managers, there is an individual who aspires to be a personal trainer. Another one would like to run a sailing business. Still another would like to spend her time as an elementary school teacher. My challenge for this session was to find out more about them as individuals, and to use that information to help them explore creative ways to address their budget issues.

He may look like a wine connoisseur, but in his spare time, he works for the UN!

He may look like a wine connoisseur, but in his spare time, he works for the UN!

How this activity came to me, I will never know. But there I stood, in front of a room full of senior managers, and I asked them to think about what they, as individuals, were good at. Not fishing or skiing or balancing a budget, but rather, if they did a personality test, what would the results indicate? I explained that as a facilitator, I was a conscientious observer. I paid attention; to every detail of discussion, activity, appearance, because all that minutiae had value. I needed to actively listen, watch, analyze and synthesize constantly, so I could help move the discussions forward. I asked them to look inside themselves and share what they knew to be true. Here were some of their answers: 

  • I am an innovative thinker who can come up with creative “out of the box” ideas that can stand critical scrutiny.
  • I am a fixer. Show me a problem, and I’ll come up with ways to fix it.
  • I am a cheerleader. I can bring people together, rally a team to move forward.
  • I am a bargainer, I can find and make deals.
  • I’m a visionary. I can see past the problem and see the opportunities.

They came up with almost 20 different roles, and I wrote them up on the flip chart. I then asked them to look at the list, and (without considering who was associated with which role), to shape together three small groups that would have a complementary set of skills to address the budget discussion that the ADM had introduced. When they were organized in those groups, they knew they had the right mix of thinkers, visionaries, fixers and others to make decisions.

Ro, employed by the Ontario Science Centre but obviously possessing the skills of a fine barista.

Ro, employed by the Ontario Science Centre but obviously possessing the skills of a fine barista, using all her energy to make me coffee!

All of a sudden, the session that was initially daunting was doable, and outcomes were achievable. The tables vibrated with intellectual and emotional energy. They looked at one another differently – not as directors, but as fixers or visionaries or creators of options. It was empowering for all of them, and made for a new way of tackling challenges.

Thanks to the powers that be that allowed me to stand helplessly in front of a group of strategic and powerful thinkers, and gift me with this idea. Learning to look past job titles and roles is often not a simple task, but it is worth remembering that we can all contribute something other than what we have listed on our business cards. That is where you will reach beyond the notes to the magic in your players.

Look beyond the notes. Find the music in everyone!

Look beyond the notes. Find the music in everyone!


[1] For any federal public servants reading this, allow me to put you at ease right now. Throughout the hours of this discussion, no individuals or positions were eliminated.

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4 thoughts on “Facilitation possibilities (or finding the magic)

  1. Love this Susan! As a manager who has been faced with those sort of energy and soul sapping discussions all too often I would have loved to have you there to spark and facilitate that type of discussion.

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