FACILITATOR STORIES - We're Involved! | Gary Rush, IAF CPF PDF Print E-mail

November 1999


gary rush facilitation

FACILITATOR STORIES - we are involved! by Gary Rush, IAF CPF


I facilitated two workshops for this project. There were over 25 participants and it was an important project for the business. These workshops also gave me some of my favorite stories. I thought that I'd share two of them with you.



Pushing groups too long results in exhaustion. Once a group becomes exhausted, they fail to perform. Sometimes you can tell by their participation. Sometimes, by whether the group stays together or begins to fall apart. Most groups hit the exhaustion wall pretty hard. It isn't a gradual demise. It's like falling off a cliff. Sometimes the clues are subtle. Other times, as with this group, it's like an alarm going off.


There were four key participants in the workshops. They contributed the most since they were the most knowledgeable about the business. They were also the most argumentative. I enjoyed their participation, however, they really made me work. They would discuss or argue about everything - including the workshop process. I prefer that to the group being quiet. The first day of the first workshop went well. We accomplished a lot that day. Near 5:00 p.m., one of these key participants stood up and asked, "What are we doing again?" I explained the workshop process, again, and what the workshop deliverable did for the project - i.e., why we needed to do this. The project manager helped, too. This went on for about 20 minutes with no luck. Exhaustion had taken over the group. I stopped the workshop for the day and sent the participants home to rest for the next day. The project manager and I took the four key participants aside and discussed the workshop process and the project. After about 10 minutes, the four participants understood. Changing the situation from a large workshop group to a small group sitting around a table helped. The understanding of the process by these four participants - or their lack of understanding - was infectious with the group. If they got it, everyone else did too. If they were confused, so was everyone else.


The next day, we began the workshop again. It went well until about 5:00 p.m. Again, one of the key participants stood up and asked, "What are we doing again?" Remembering what happened the day before, I immediately announced that, "It looks like we're done for today. Go home and I'll see you bright and early tomorrow morning at 8:00 a.m." The participants left, except for the four key ones, and we discussed the process, again. They were happy. This routine happened every day! These four participants were the alarm clock letting me know that they were so exhausted that they forgot what they were doing.


You need to act when groups get exhausted. Changing the venue - from large group to small group - helps. Sometimes, just send them home to rest. Whatever you do, don't push on - it doesn't work.




One reason I liked this group so much is that they had no loss of creativity. The second workshop provided challenging logistics. The room was a large ballroom of an old hotel. It looked like a library (actually, it was called the Library). The walls were dark. A bookshelf filled the rear wall. A 6-foot tall fireplace occupied the front. One side was doors and the other was windows. The ceiling was high with chandeliers and fairly low lights. I had over 25 participants sitting in a "U" shaped table that had an opening of 20 feet across (I could have used roller blades to get around the room). It was difficult to see because of the lighting and room size. The hotel helped by securing 25 banker desk lamps - the kind with the green glass shade - one for each participant. That helped with the lighting. It also gave the participants something to do to make life interesting. Whenever they felt that they didn't want to participate, they would turn off their lights. When they wanted to make a special point, they would flip the lampshade to illuminate their face - glowing from the bottom. This made for an interesting session because it added humor. It didn't get disruptive, so I didn't stop it.


I knew that they were engaged when they did something that no other group had done. I always give groups permission to stand and walk around. It helps to keep focus. This group, though, took it to the extreme. I was in front of the room working on a model the group was building. I turned towards the chart to document their discussion. When I turned back towards the room, the entire group was standing next to me. They had stood up and walked up to the front of the room! Three of them were standing on the tables so that they could see over the heads of others. I had the entire workshop on their feet! Normally, this might seem disruptive, but they were participating - so I let it go. It was very important that they understand each other's business. It worked. They discussed the model and their business. They resolved their different ways of working. They defined their business. The room had been a distraction so they fixed the problem by walking up to the front of the room. I was momentarily surprised, but pleased. This group really was involved!


I Learned


I learned that, when there is no other choice, problems with rooms can be ignored. Participants are concerned more with the discussion and their business than they are with the room. Letting groups be themselves provides creativity and better clues on how to handle them. I also learned that the participants are truly the most important resource that businesses have. This company and its projects will always be successful because of its people.logo




This exercise was provided by Rolf Meursing of IBM in The Netherlands. I thought that I'd share it with you. It is a good technique to replace "pros and cons". Some of you know that I don't like "pros and cons" because they can be manipulated in a group and they force win-lose. However, with controversial issues, it is helpful to look at different points of view. This is what Rolf did:


To discuss a controversial issue, he broke the participants into three groups: Positive, Negative, and Audience. The positive and negative groups each had 15 minutes to develop their arguments. They then presented their arguments to the audience group - like a debate. Afterwards, the positive and negative groups gave a 2-minute rebuttal to defend their position. The audience group then described the criteria they would use to decide the issue, based on the arguments presented by both positive and negative groups.


The groups were given 5 minutes to revise their arguments based on the audience criteria and the debate was repeated. After the second debate, the groups reformed as one to discuss the issue.


Do not polarize the participants. Ensure that the groups are made up of people who hold a variety of views. You select the group makeup - don't allow the participants to choose. In most debate contests, which side you must defend isn't known until the debate.


The benefits of the exercise are that it:


  • Stretches the ideas
  • Allows the participants to have a more complete view of all sides of the issue
  • Provides better arguments.


Try this exercise and let me know how it works. Thank you to Rolf Meursing.logo