Thursday, March 24, 2011

My Three Ring Circus

Back in 2003 I pioneered a two-year training program in Integrative Facilitation. While I did that inaugural version solo, it went well enough that I've found fellow trainers to partner with me (one of whom is my wife, Ma'ikwe) and have kept going. I've now completed four rounds of the training, and have two more under way: one in the Mid-Atlantic States that is half completed; and one in the the Midwest that was just started in February.

While I've often started a new program before the prior one concluded, I've never had more than two running concurrently… until next month, when I'll launch a version in northern California, April 21-24. (And while that's plenty for now, I'm in dialog with folks about offering this training both in North Carolina and New England—it never rains but it pours!)

Here's how it works. We find enough people interested in becoming better facilitators (or cooperative leaders—the course works just as well for that) to fill a class that lives in the same region—to minimize travel for the students (That said, if someone is willing to travel from outside the region to participate they are welcome). The course consists of eight 3-day weekends, all in the same region. Each weekend is hosted by a community that provides meals and overnight accommodations for the class in exchange for free outside facilitation of live meetings. In addition, the host gets two free auditors slots for the weekend that they host, plus a professional report from the trainers that offers our
reflections on where the group is at and where they might focus to enhance things.

Training weekends open with a check-in Thursday evening and run (more or less nonstop) through a closing evaluation Sunday afternoon. They are long weekends where it's best if students can set the rest of their lives aside for three days of total immersion in the art of facilitation.

The weekends are spaced approximately three months apart, which makes it easier for participants to carve out a weekend from their otherwise full lives, and to integrate and put into practice what they've just learned.

The teaching material (50+ handouts) is divided into eight major chunks:
Working Content
Challenging Personalities
Power & Leadership
Organizational Structure

Handouts are distributed a couple weeks ahead of each weekend, and we protect time for questions and practice with the teaching material Friday morning. The bulk of the weekend though is given over to preparing for, delivering, and debriefing live meetings for the host group. The skill set of facilitation is rich and complex, and I've made a deliberate choice to emphasize the kind of learning that comes from doing, rather than what's gained through talking and watching (though there's plenty of time for both of those as well).

The students facilitate meetings for the host group where real work is being done, where there are nontrivial and vexing issues to address. During the live meetings, the trainers reserve the right to step in at any time to throw a life ring to floundering students, to redirect the conversation along a more fruitful path, or to explain things that are confusing. In short, we teach the moment. It's the most fun thing I do.

Upping the Ante
When I first ventured into the field of process consulting (back in 1987), I wasn't sure if I could consistently deliver good meetings, or help stuck groups through logjams. The group would be counting on me; what if I got exhausted or lost my way? As I got more experience, I trained myself to be able to focus for longer and longer stretches, to the point where I rarely space out or get overwhelmed. (While I may not always have a brilliant idea about what to do, I almost always have an idea.)

After more than a decade as a consultant, I started wondering whether I could teach what I could do (while obviously related, they are not the same skill—some are good at one and not the other). That led me to put together the Integrative Facilitation course, where my abilities to focus would be further tested. During course weekends I need to simultaneously track what's happening with the students and what's happening with the host community in the live meetings. Sometimes, what I think the student needs most (perhaps more time up front to wrestle with their uncertainties about what to do in messy dynamics) is not the same as what I think the meeting needs, and I have to assess that meta question on top of everything else—is it better to emphasize what the student needs to ultimately be a better facilitator, or better to step in immediately and offer the statement or guidance that I think will help get the meeting on track? It can get tricky.

Now, after getting acclimated to the pace and exhilaration of course weekends, my challenge is to run more courses concurrently. Today I'm looking at the possibility of having 12-16 training weekends per year instead of 4-8.

What will be after that? Probably a parallel and advanced curriculum where I'm training professionals and training trainers—the people who will replace me. The themes for that might include:
Knowing Your Limits (and How to Expand Them)
Pedagogy (Both Teaching Generally & Teaching Facilitation Specifically)
Teaching the Moment
Balancing Content & Energy
How to Write Reports (That Are Worth Reading)
Marketing Yourself
How to Give Good Workshop
How to Cultivate Clients
Preparing for a Job
Managing Your Energy on the Job
When, Why, and How to Collaborate
Giving Critical Feedback
(Gracefully and Accurately)
Critical Feedback (Gracefully and Accurately)
Seeing What's Below the Surface and Around the Curve

As you might suspect, I'm not particularly worried about running out of interesting things to do.

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