Teaching Facilitation: Brain Science to Legitimize? (Spring 2017, week 3)

For the second term now, I’ve been asked to give two guest lectures on facilitation for the PPPM 494 Leadership & Change course, which now serves as the undergraduate capstone course for the PPPM department. During this first class I present a Facilitation 101 workshop, which includes some underlying constructs of group process and facilitation that can guide good meeting design, as well as introducing the use of agenda design. I frame the workshop by re-defining the goal of facilitation as strengthening the culture and skills of a group to do their best thinking. Framed as a thinking and decision-making exercise, I then provide a series of design tools for facilitation including: the big rocks theory to design objectives, Kaner’s diamond of decision making and divergent-convergent thinking, types of participation and meetings, the curve of participation, the satisfaction triangle, and the importance of closure.

In addition, using the triune brain model, I talk about the importance of getting people into the best brain space for engaging and making decisions, the neocortex, and the importance of helping people to get out of the reptilian brain where they are limited to fight, flight, freeze, and fawn forms of participation. To demonstrate the value of thinking about brain space, I tell the story of facilitating a strategic planning session two days after Trump’s November 2016 election. It was a very liberal group and the strategic planning effort was already bringing forward many difficult conversations and decision-making points for the future of their organization. Recognizing that people were consumed by fear and frustration over the recent election, I integrated an exercise designed to release those fears and re-set the parasympathetic nervous system. I tell the story because it really, really worked and led to an incredibly brave, productive planning session with 20+ participants, which naturally impresses students.

The triune brain model

However, based on both their questions during the class and the feedback cards collected at the end, I’m beginning to think that connecting facilitation to brain science might be a bit problematic. I don’t feel this way because I don’t think that the connection is not true, nor that the insights gleaned from an awareness of neurology and psychology are not valuable. Instead, I worry that without the prospect of hard science backing up this art form, then facilitation will not be seen as legitimate. This is an issue that plagues the social sciences and human services fields: without scientific proof, how can we demonstrate value? We know qualitatively and anecdotally that facilitation (or mediation or therapy or…) works because we can experience it as having a positive effect on a situation or an individual, but there is little to prove these effects since longitudinal and control studies are rarely, if ever, done. I’m a huge proponent of science, which is why I’m interested in the role of brain science in my work, however, I do worry that if people new to this work only recognize its value as connected to what is a very young understanding of the brain, then they both won’t appreciate the more subtle art of the work and could negate its value if/when our understanding of the brain shifts. I will most likely continue to use brain science to teach facilitation, but it is an interesting question to ponder, especially when thinking about the not infrequent facilitation skeptics and cynics: do we need science to legitimize our work?

Learning “New” Things: Weaving & Funnel (Spring 2017, Week 2)

This week I assisted Lysbeth with teaching her all-day Friday facilitation course for the CRES Cohort 12 students. At this point I have done a lot of facilitation training, however, you can always learn “new” things, or at least slightly different approaches or names for things. Two concepts that I had never heard of before, but recognize that I frequently put into practice with my own facilitations are weaving and the funnel, both of which come from a Quaker tradition.

Weaving is a very subtle form of moving a divergent group of ideas towards a single concept in an effort to build consensus. Difficult to describe, with weaving the facilitator names the threads of a conversation and periodically helps to reframe them under common interests or values, or bring them together as decision points. With good listening and reframing skills, most threads within a given topic will be able to be woven together. There are times, however, when some threads will not naturally “weave” together, such as the orange/red and green threads in this diagram. In these situations, it is up to the facilitator to decide how much acknowledgment is given to these potentially tangential, but also potentially invaluable threads. Sometimes the energy behind these inputs will organically dissipate as the individual either recognizes that they are tangential or moves past them as they recognize their own deeper interests reflected in the weave, in which not giving them extensive attention or maybe even not verbally naming can be okay, as is the case with some of the red and orange threads here. However, this tactic can also backfire if someone does not feel heard, which can have particularly toxic consequences in a consensus-building space. And sometimes, as is the case with the green thread, it is important to work with the idea in parallel to the larger weave and recognize a separate decision about the idea that can be worked with or implemented separately going forward. From a training perspective, this is a really tricky technique to teach and indeed the students in their feedback sheets for the day felt that they did not understand or were able to identify when Lysbeth was demonstrating weaving, which seemed to really frustrate the students and make them doubt this concept. I think that this type of nuanced strategy would be better taught as a general theoretical concept and less of a specific technique, especially given how these students have been taught mediation with very precise and easily identifiable strategies.

The second concept was the funnel. The funnel is a way of creating a consensus-based agenda that breaks down what would otherwise be a potentially overwhelming big decision into smaller component parts. In the example shown on this flip chart, a group is trying to decide on hosting a large event for the first time. Rather than try to get consensus right-off-the-bat on all elements of such an event, the facilitator has broken it down into design, location, budget, and timing with a period for open discussion at the beginning to help ground people in the overall concept and establish some common interests to build decisions from. After a discussion for each component, the decision and the level of agreement is clarified by the facilitator. At the end of the session, the facilitator can then run through each component and quickly re-cap what decisions have been made and where additional discussion is needed, making next steps and the next meeting’s agenda self-evident. For both of these techniques, I feel that I use variations of them in my work, whether in how I help a group move along or in how I design my agenda. However, I’ve never put specific names to these approaches, instead seeing them as off-shoots of interest-based re-framing, creation of group memory, and divergent-convergent design. In a microcosm this is one reason why teaching and practicing facilitation can be so tricky: there is no common, or at least not canonized approaches that allow for a shared language across facilitators or between facilitators and their clients. What one person calls a snowfield, the next calls an idea wall, and the next just calls using sticky notes for list generation. However, as long as we are open to new ideas and curious about each other’s approaches, we can continue to learn and understand the nuanced differences and fertile common ground with which we all approach this work.

The Value of a Good Chart Writer: CWU Retreat (Spring 2017, week 1)

Mar_8_(1) IMG_20170408_110145This past weekend I facilitated a three-hour retreat for the Church Women United (CWU), which is an inter-faith group of women who represent numerous churches in the Eugene/Springfield area. The group has been facing issues of leadership burn-out and difficulty with membership recruitment, especially engaging younger women of faith. To help them with these issues, I designed a retreat that would encourage the members to openly confront these issues that they had been avoiding. Specifically, we developed four objectives for the retreat: 1. Revitalize energy within the group, 2. Explore individual member’s motivations for involvement, 3. Identify current strengths & challenges of CWU activities, and 4. Develop strategies for membership & leadership capacity.

Although I am now used to facilitating solo, this time I was able to bring in one of the current CRES students in the facilitation course, Lauren Asher, who already has a strong background in facilitation. It was wonderful to have the assistance throughout the day. While we all want a chart writer that is an extension of our brain, that only comes with lots of working together. Nevertheless, she had a good sense of what to record and knew chart writing best practices to ensure it was easily readable (especially important for a group with an average age of 70). Having these charts to transcribe and bring back to the group, and having them created without losing my flow of facilitation, was super valuable. However, where she really shown was in her willingness to jump in and assist with small group facilitation. As always happens when dividing a large group into small groups, some of them will naturally “get” the assignment talking about the cues and writing them down as instructed, while others, well, they don’t follow instructions as well. Lauren jumped into one of that latter groups to help draw out their thoughts, and perhaps even more importantly, write them down on the flip-chart worksheets that would become part of the organization’s action plan for the year.

Mar_8(22) carla buckner, anne o'brien, lauren (l to r)IMG_20170408_110705

Lauren working with a small group to develop ways to improve their organization.

One of the hardest and most important elements I have discovered with facilitation is ensuring the creation of group memory.  You can facilitate the most transformative, participatory experience, but if there is no record of it then the likelihood of anything coming from it is pretty limited (which is why facilitation can have a bad reputation as wasted money with many parties). As a solo facilitator this is especially difficult as in-the-moment chart writing can really get in the way of doing my best, most active listening, re-framing, and caring that is needed for high-level participation, but at the end of the day it is those charts that will make or break the long-term success of the work. Having Lauren as a competent, pro-active assistant really helped me to ensure that no ideas were missed that day and that the organization had everything it needed to move forward after that day.

Collaborative Governance: Structure, Craft, and Changing Culture

Acton_Collaborative Governance-Structure, Craft, Changing Culture

In her study of the outcomes of collaborative processes on hydropower licensing, Ulibarri writes “For the purposes of effectiveness, ‘collaboration’ is more than simply having multiple people working together” (2015, p. 299). Indeed, over the past 20 years the concept of collaboration has taken off in the public sector in everything from policy making to implementation to service delivery (Emerson, Nabatchi, & Balogh, 2011). Collaborative processes, particularly collaborative governance, have become especially popular for cross-sector work aimed at tackling “wicked problems” that cannot effectively be addressed by a single sector (Ansell & Gash, 2007; Crosby & Bryson, 2010). However, while it has become increasingly popular, as Ulibarri points out successful collaboration is not a simple process and can result in equally complex outcomes. To better understand the role of collaboration in today’s public administration world this paper examines collaborative processes through the three lenses of structure, craft, and culture. It is discovered that successful collaborative processes are first structured around a partnership model that encourages a non-linear, cyclical process. Second, from this structure, well-designed collaborative processes encourage the development of a unique type of leadership style or managerial craft, one that is facilitative, transformative, and learning focused. Finally, a collaborative governance structure that has participants adopt this facilitative craft produces outcomes that are more than just holistic, effective, and efficient policies—participants get to enjoy the creation of a collaborative, trust-based culture not only between public sector administrators, but can also stretch across sectors, throughout organizations, and among traditional adversaries. With more attention on democratic deliberation and stakeholder participation, it is found that collaborative processes can possibly even encourage trust between everyday citizens and their government.

Internship Evaluation: Tenacity (week of August 28)


Lauren and I completed our mid-way internship evaluation (again). Since this is a “never-ending” internship at this point, it isn’t really a mid-way evaluation for this summer, but hopefully a more-than-mid-way-evaluation for this project as we started it in July 2014 and hope to have it finished in May 2016. On the sheet provided from the CRES department she gave me 5’s across the board. Her main comment was that she was impressed by my tenacity with this project. From technical issues to bureaucratic hurdles we feel like we are sailing with Odysseus on his return voyage from Troy–just when we have fought off the Cyclops we are tricked by Circe and then we become haunted by the Sirens. We will get home and we will tell the heroic story of our own Trojan War, which in this case is the story not of bloody battles and trickery, but of men and women coming together against all of modernity’s bureaucratic odds and despite deep differences to manage a natural resource more sustainably and beneficially for all involved. Strapped to the mast of my ship, we will sail on.

Oregon Fellows’ City of Portland Job Shadow Day (July 22)

As one of the privileges of being an Oregon Fellow, we are invited to a City of Portland Job Shadow Day. This is a day that starts with an awesome tour of City Council and then you are teamed up with two City of Portland employees to network and basically pick their brains on how to get a job in city government. Because the Office of Management and Finance organizes the event, most of the job shadow mentors are from that office–an office that apparently is a common landing place for new MPA graduates. Not too surprisingly and certainly foreshadowed by my unique StrengthsFinder results within this group, it was clear that the organizers struggled to figure out who to pair me up with.

That said, my first meeting with a woman in the city’s human resources department was quite lovely. Although she has a Master’s in HR and no academic background or trainings in conflict resolution or mediation, she totally got what I was all about and the type of work I aspire to do. I don’t think I want to go into human resources, but if push came to shove, I could see it being a good option–and one I’d probably be decently good at. Most interesting was her encouragement of me to research emotional intelligence–definitely adding it to my list.

Finally, we ended the day with Fred Miller, the Chief Administrator Officer for the City of Portland. A very impressive man with a huge resume across all sectors. He brings to the public sector a desire for the city “to be the employer of choice.” I look forward to the day when government employment is the career of choice not because of a pension plan, but because of a desire to do public service and a belief that it can effectively and efficiently done.

Software and Archives (week of July 20)

Back from Hawaii and the drudge continues. This week I spent a good four hours researching video editing and qualitative research software. At this point I think I will be going with Adobe Premier Pro and NVivo. I now have an assistant intern, a PhD student in psychology, who will be helping with some of the drudge. Unfortunately she works off of a Mac, so now my researching continues to see what we can do to bridge that ultimate chasm in the world of computers.

After talking with Lauren, I have also begun a parallel attempt to regain momentum on the Lower Columbia Solutions Group website. Right now that is taking the shape of reviewing and sorting lots and lots (we are talking in the hundreds) of old, archived files. Sooner or later, they will all be oh so organized and have a neat, tidy home on the internet.