Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Presenter/Facilitator Two Step

I'm in the midst of Weekend I of the Midwest Integrative Facilitation training (being hosted by my neighbors, Dancing Rabbit), and I ran into a dynamic that surprised me the very first day involving the relationship between the facilitator and the presenter. Ordinarily it is no big deal to sort this out, but Friday I ran into a buzz saw.

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In most groups this is handled fairly loosely. The person(s) who put a particular item on the agenda introduces it and the group goes from there. The facilitator, if there is one, tries to help the conversation go productively. In some groups, roles are handled fairly loosely, even to the point of allowing the facilitator to be the presenter. (Hint: This is a bad idea. If anyone reacts to the presentation or the direction that the presenter wants to go in, it can seriously undermine the neutrality of the facilitator and the group's in trouble.)

In most groups, the role of presenter is not clearly defined. I think it should look something like the following:

o Provides a concise introduction to the topic, including a statement of the issue(s) to be addressed, any relevant prior group work or agreements impacting this issue, identification of the known stakeholders and known hot spots (points of tension or disagreement).

o Develops any helpful visual aids (charts, drawings, tables, outlines, handouts, etc.) so that they are available during the presentation and discussion.

o Serves as a resource for providing additional background upon request, or to interpret the presentation if anyone is confused.

Note that this does not include responsibilities for how the topic will be addressed, though it may well include a recommendation for how to sequence considerations.

Unfortunately, most groups also don't define what's wanted from the facilitator very well. With sufficient fog around what's wanted from the presenter and the facilitator it's not to hard to understand why there can be either: a) both trying to cover the same ground (about how the conversation will be focused) and battling over control of the tiller; or b) neither covering it (a drifting ship with no one is at the tiller to steer the meeting into productive waters). Obviously, neither of these potential outcomes is desirable.

Of these two potentialities, the second is far more common, mainly because there's a natural tendency to be cautious in the presence of ambiguity (better to be chastised for being a wimp than accused of being a power monger) and tension around the facilitator/presenter dynamic rarely manifests as a tussle for control of the meeting. Rarely, however, does not mean never, as I'm about to personally attest to.

Irritation over presenter/facilitator dynamics most often plays out this way: the presenter lingers in front of the group after introducing the issue, in order to field clarifying questions. Then, if clarifying questions (did you understand what was presented?) slides seamlessly into discussion (what should we take into account in addressing this issue?), the presenter might still be up front, calling on people and effectively running the meeting.
Left unchecked, the facilitator may never get out of their seat.

This is most likely to happen when there's a strong presenter and a passive facilitator, or when there's no clarity about what's wanted from the role of facilitator.
In some ways this is the anarchistic if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it model, where the bottom line is a productive meeting and solid decisions and there's a distaste for creating an orthodoxy about adherence to a bushelful of process agreements. If the work is getting done and problems are getting solved, why create process agreements?

While I find this thinking persuasive when groups are small (six or less), it's been my experience that the presence of a savvy facilitator gets to be enormously beneficial as group size increases. (Which is essentially why I focus on training facilitators—because they can make a huge difference in cooperative group's having cooperative experiences, rather than divisive ones, when addressing tough issues. Good intentions are not enough.)
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At Dancing Rabbit they've developed a meeting culture where presenters are encouraged to play an active role in shaping the portion of the meeting at which their topic will be discussed. Facilitators are typically assigned about a week ahead of the meeting, which allows ample time to meet with the presenter and perhaps other key stakeholders to discuss possible ways the meeting might go. If the facilitator is perceived to be experienced and the presenter not, then it's likely that the facilitator will essentially shape the conversation. However, if it's the other way around, then the presenter may be developing the meeting strategy and the facilitator's role may shrink to that of traffic cop (managing the order in which people speak).

The beauty of this arrangement is that the group gets to harness strength in either the facilitator or the presenter to ensure a good meeting. The pitfalls with this arrangement are the ones mentioned earlier: a) the presenter may not be neutral at all (which the facilitator should be) and thus their preference on how to sequence topics and explore the issue may slant things toward the conclusion they want, which can result in a significantly unlevel playing field; and b) things needed for a good meeting may be missed because of uncertainty between the presenter and facilitator about who's responsible for what (see my earlier paragraph on the dangers of operating in the fog).

I ran into a firestorm this past weekend when we started with the assumption that the facilitators would be responsible for all aspects of running the meeting and we got push back from presenters who felt like we were stepping on their toes. I was not accustomed to presenters assuming such a strong role in how the meeting would flow, and when I was trying to model how a facilitator should generically prepare for a meeting, the presenters experienced as meddling my attempts to probe for background information and to explore possible sequences for engaging on the issues—why was I taking apart work they'd already done? It didn't go well. They felt disrespected and my attempt to showcase a sequence of prep question landed like an inquisition.

While Dancing Rabbit's take on the presenter/facilitator relationship is a bit unusual and I didn't expect it, it's not untenable and it was my fault as the trainer that I hadn't done my homework ahead of time. More, I can see now that I should have made an explicit request to the host community that we wanted the facilitators to have responsibility for running the meetings and that we wanted the presenter role to be confined to the definition I offered earlier in this blog. Even if that was a stretch for Dancing Rabbit, it's what we needed to conduct the training.

Sigh. For some reason, it seems I always need to step in the shit before I can learn to avoid it.

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