The Instant Facilitator

Apart from school debating and one lecture presentation, nothing prepared me for my debut as an instant facilitator.

I was an attendee for a computer user conference at the World Congress Centre Melbourne at Crowne Plaza. As part of the Queensland branch of the group, I had been asked to introduce each speaker and then ask for questions once they had finished. This was easy. Usually there were no questions and I wrapped it up quickly. Or with too many questions, I left everyone to continue the conversation out the door after the presentation finished.

Which meant I was completely unprepared for the last session of the conference.

Participants in plenary sessionFifteen minutes beforehand, I was taken aside and asked to lead. I almost went into apocalyptic shock. This was a plenary session. Me in the middle, five geek gurus on my left and several hundred system managers, developers, engineers and sales people in front of me. I was outgunned and more than a little overwhelmed.

And my preparation didn’t help either. I quickly scanned the names of the experts. I saw that one of them had worked on an previous incarnation of the currently popular operating system. That old clunker had a command called show stardate. I thought I could use that as my icebreaker.

I turned around and the fifteen minutes have disappeared in seconds. I walked to the podium. I waited for the geek gurus to sit. Then I wait for the audience to file in.  I made sure to keep my hands behind the podium. If exposed they would be glistening from sweat.

I introduced myself. Then the experts. I make my joke about the show star date command. And I die. I received a dirty look for my failed joke.

I had no choice. I had to go on. Then it didn’t matter. I opened up the session for questions. And then I stepped into a different space and time. I’m suddenly aware of who was asking questions and what they really meant. Every so often, I would take a question and then ask for more information. Or paraphrase the question back to them for clarity. Both I found helped the experts with their answers.  I’m not sure but I may have asked questions of them myself : I now know I tend to do that if no one else is asking.Andrew Whalan Facilitating

It worked brilliantly. I was relaxed. I even apologised to the man at the back dressed in black sitting in front of a dark wall who I couldn’t see too well.

It went so easily. Except I’d never facilitated before and had only spoken in public on one other occasion. So what happened?

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The Spy I Would Have Been

Last night, I mentioned in passing that one of my favourite authors was John Le Carre.  Which began a discussion about Tinker, Tailor,  Soldier, Spy! After a lull, I mentioned that one of his books I most treasure is  The Russia House. When asked why, my answer became surprisingly pertinent to my role as a documentation writer, trainer and change analyst.

This novel is Le Carre’s farewell to the cold war. It’s a well-written anti-spy story with a unique plot.  It also is one of the best spy movies ever made.

It centres on a book publisher Barley Blair (played in the movie by Sean Connery) who is unknowingly given Soviet secrets stating that their nuclear arsenal is ineffective. That information falls into the hands of the British Secret Service who want to determine its truth. To that end, Blair is semi-trained as a spy and sent back to find out more. He ends up falling in love and plays the spies off against each other.

Yet Blair though an extraordinary character is not the reason I love and adore this book. It’s his handler, a spy called Ned (played by James Fox in the movie), a character who despite acting in the background dominates the story.

And its his relationship with Blair that fascinates me.  As a good operative, Ned  has done his research and is well-briefed about his agent.  But he doesn’t divulge what he knows. For Ned’s role is to ensure Blair gains his trust, tells him what he already knows and tell him what he needs to know.

Ned is first and foremost a listener.  To that end , Ned shows he has a open personality. His gift is to give away small secrets about himself so that others can share greater ones. His talent is so subtle that people tell him their truths without them ever knowing. And that’s exactly what happens with Blair.

Yet we only find out minor details from Ned about his life and background.  We never find out what Ned is really thinking until the end of the book. And then its too late!

Ned’s a man well versed in the art of listening. A man who knows the power of the quiet of silence.  Yet a man who knows how a few words can evoke many in return, enabling him to find out necessary and extra information. And that’s his talent And his job.

If I were a spy I would have been like him.  Fortunately, I confine my lesser talents to stakeholder management and eliciting information from subject matter experts.  I do work in that same way : proffering small amounts of information to elicit greater knowledge while excluding unnecessary context as far as possible.  Tasks at which Ned would have been incredibly adept.

 

They Didn’t Mention the War : They Were Too Busy Collaborating

Last week, at work, the Aarnet (Australian Academic Research Network) is mentioned.  In my mind I slip away from the meeting and go back in time. To 1990, in fact, where I was witness to a remarkable episode of collaboration.

My then work colleague had done the unthinkable. He had talked management into connecting to the internet. But the only way to do so was through the Aarnet.

We had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for. The internet wasn’t the sexy World-Wide-Web as we know it now.  The internet seemed to be like a fairly disorganised library. It was made up of e-mail, news groups, search tools and file servers, all great tools that worked separately but never together.  That was to wait until the advent of the World Wide Web. "World Wide Web" by الهلالي - http://www.fotosearch.ae. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:World_Wide_Web.jpg#/media/File:World_Wide_Web.jpg

Some of us used email. My colleague used the search tools and file servers to find software. Everyone else used the news groups.

We could find out anything. We also could share anything too. But not just in our area of expertise, or interest or locality but internationally. This level of collaboration was best shown by an incident which could not happen now.

It wasn’t long after connecting to the internet that the first Gulf War began. We had the radio on to follow the latest updates. It was then we heard that Scud missiles were being fired at Israel. One work colleague spoke up and said he had a friend in Haifa.  We became nervous as events might have escalated very seriously.

But on the news groups it was a different story. Iraqi students had no idea what was going on. They were asking questions. American and Israeli students were answering them. It didn’t matter that a war was going on.

That’s what happens when you give people the ability to collaborate.

 

How to give and receive better feedback as a remote team

From Kate Kendall and Tessa Greenleaf of CloudPeeps, a better alternative to performance reviews (I only ever found a handful useful).

Kate Kendall

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 10.02.43 PM

I’m mixing things up this week with a guest post from our happiness lead at CloudPeeps, Tessa Greenleaf, about how to do one-on-ones well in distributed teams. 

From the very beginning, CloudPeeps has been committed to creating a culture of transparency, which means sharing consistent feedback — and that’s a huge part of why I wanted to join the team. It’s important to us that we keep open lines of communication on a daily basis. So far it hasn’t been too much of a challenge, as we’re all pretty tight-knit. However, even though the culture has been instilled, now is the time to cement it.

That’s why we felt very strongly about implementing pair calls [hour-long Google Hangout feedback sessions] with different team members each month. I was excited to take the lead on organizing these calls, and am happy to share how we’ve begun implementing them.

Pair call vs. performance review

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This Printer Isn’t Working (Diagnostic Ping-Pong)

It’s a true story but it shows how diagnosis works at the boundaries of problems….

Andrew James Whalan

“Hi I’m just ringing about the printer. It’s not working.”
It was the printer just over the partition from me. I had taken it on myself to try and fix it. But I was not a desktop support person any more. I had:

Printer Printer

  1. Checked the printer had paper, no jams and enough ink
  2. Stopped and restarted the printer queue
  3. Deleted the print job
  4. Cleared my temp files
  5. Switched the printer on and off and, of course
  6. Rebooted my PC .
The first-support information technology person walked me through all the checks. I had done all her suggested steps and perhaps more. Sigh!

The next day the printer man arrived. He:

  1. Checked the printer had paper, no jams and enough ink
  2. Switched the printer off and on, and of course
  3. Ran a printer self-test.
I forgot that one. But after he left I leant over and checked the test results. The printer had passed…

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Bunnies in a Basket : Facilitation Before Persuasion

Andrew James Whalan

Keeping Bunnies in a Basket by Annabel Crabb is still one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. And today things became more complicated with Glenn Lazarus resigning from the Palmer United Party.

Funnily enough, despite being political, I didn’t immediately think of politics. No, selfishly, I thought of myself.

You see, managing stakeholders is a required superpower for anyone who is a trainer, technical writer, instructional designer, change manager, community engagement manager, social media manager, and a myriad of other occupations including politics.

For me, stakeholders appear in three flavours. They are either subject matter experts, authorised approvers or both.

Subject matter experts usually are excellent to work with once they see how their contribution is relevant.

If they are an authorised approver, then even better.

It’s the latter category, when the authorised approvers are removed from the content, that the situation becomes much as Annabel Crabb has described.

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Now What? I Found a Better Way Out

It’s Friday night. I’ve met my partner at her work. We walk across the road to the car park.
I’m handed the keys. I open the door for her. I get in the driver’s seat. I start the car.
To my left are two exit signs. I choose the one closest to me. I start to drive out the exit.
At the end of an exit is a parking attendant. He summons all his authority in his right hand and deposits it on me with a stop signal. I stop.
He says, “Don’t you know you’re using the wrong exit?” I think to argue, turn the car around and reenter the car park.
I choose the exit sign furthest from me. And leave the car park.
My partner just shakes her head at me and says, “We don’t do things like that around here.”
We laughed but it was serious.

What has this to do with learning and development you ask?

It illustrates a potential problem with learning and development in organisations.

What if you educate yourself and find a better way of getting out of the car park?

While learning and development in organisations still remains under the control of the organisation, course content and context can be tailored to satisfy organisational objectives. An example of this is the induction course which sets out the required expectations of employees. Another example is the information technology courses required to enable the introduction of new software. The philosophy behind these courses is pedagogical, imparting the knowledge, skills and attributes to enable learners to carry out certain functions or roles.

Even the introduction of more innovative training methods can create resistance. An example was that of an organisation who was introducing training using more facilitative methods. The intention of the training was to change attitudes of people who worked very closely with others who were dependent upon them. That training used role plays. Once the participants knew that, they resisted the training. However, as the organisation ultimately controls the training and it would be linked to their roles, the resistance would have been overcome.

But it is the advent of more online courses, that loosens the control the organisation has learning and development. By enabling learners themselves to control their own learning, that is, to be self-directed adult learners can create potential organisational problems.

The first is that they will enrol themselves in courses not related to their roles or outside their prescribed training plan. While an employee may learn a new skill, for example, customer service that he or she can apply in their job, there remains the potential for learning to be directly applied in the workplace. There is of course the potential that the employee may learn a new skill outside of his or her job and utilise that elsewhere, whether still within the organisation or perhaps outside it, in a new role perhaps.

The second is that the collaborative learning may enable self-directed adult learners to solve existing organisational problems. Again if the problem is minor, most organisations will embrace it depended upon its culture.  But if collaborative adult learning finds a better way out of the car park and meets the attendant, what then?