From Consultant to Facilitator

Summer 2021 was coming to a close and a new work project was starting up. I was looking forward to it, but at-at the same time I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. It looked like there would be elements of the type of work I regularly do, but also pieces a bit outside of what I’m usually called in to help with.

As the project unfolded, it turned out to be less and less like a typical engagement. But I was enjoying it. I was enjoying the chaos and lack of clarity, but I was really enjoying feeling like a total beginner. It was like day 1 of a new school year.

If I was the student, then Dan Young and Mike Rozinsky were my teachers. I was joining forces with them to establish new capabilities in a large North American enterprise. Thanks to the guidance Dan and Mike, on this project I learned how to be more of a facilitator and less of a consultant, and I’m really excited by this.

The Turning Point

Early in the project, we began discussing some of the emerging themes. The initiative was something pretty novel for the company, which explained why the most visible sign was the need for clarity within and between the various groups involved, including the leadership team, the engineering teams, and a key partner.

We stepped in and offered to run a series of workshops. Initially, one workshop for the leadership team to capture the North Star, and one workshop for the engineering teams and partners to surface their needs to the leadership team.

Due to the way our calendars played out, it was me who initially began designing the two workshops. I didn’t feel out of my depth because I run a lot of workshops, but I was fairly uncomfortable because not usually this type of workshop.

I was very keen to get feedback on the design, so as soon as Dan was available we went through my workshop draft. I asked Dan how he would have designed the workshop, and that sparked a conversation about consulting vs facilitation.

Dan helped me to see that I had designed the workshop as a consultant. I had designed a workshop that would surface information that would allow me to make proposals and decisions for the client. I agreed, and it was clear, because that was my intention.

What followed was Dan talking me through some of his and Mike’s previous workshops. He showed me techniques, like Liberating Structures, that put more emphasis on creating a space for the attendees themselves to be more in control. We discussed how this facilitator’s approach differ’s from my consultant’s approach, and I was curious.

Overcoming Skepticism

I was very interested in the ideas Dan and Mike shared with me. But also very skeptical. I had never seen techniques that required people to engage more deeply, and I expected attendees to rebel, either overtly or covertly.

As it turned out, my skepticism was blown away within the first 30 minutes of our first workshop together. A group of leaders were invited to share something personal about themselves that would be relevant to the project, through a visual activity.

I was surprised. I was surprised how much people were willing to share about themselves, and I could see the leadership team growing collectively as a group learning more about each other and building personal connections. I noticed how this created a different ambiance for the whole workshop. I genuinely felt like meaningful conversations were taking place.

Previously, I would never have felt comfortable to put such an activity in my workshops because I assumed people would refuse. This realisation was the trigger for me to reflect and unlearn some of my thinking patterns, and also to be braver.

Wearing the Facilitator Hat

Working with Dan and Mike gave me lots of great opportunities to understand the mindset of a facilitator. Each week the ideas continued to fascinate me, but equally, the workshops and meetings continued to prove to me the benefits of facilitation.

I’ve since been adopting the mindset of facilitator to more of the work I do. I’ve starting try to postpone giving advice to new clients, instead designing questionnaires and meetings that allow them to answer some of their own questions. I think it’s having a positive impact, although it’s a bit early to draw firm conclusions.

In my most recent public workshop, I also applied some of the mindset and techniques I learned from Dan and Mike. I asked myself the question: “is it possible for attendees to learn about a small topic without me providing theory or case studies?”. In practice, this manifests as me designing a questionnaire and then designing an activity for attendees to reflect on their responses to the questionnaire.

I observed that those parts of my workshop involved much more about the attendees’ work experiences and challenges. This allowed attendees to learn more from each other. I think it felt more real, and more actionable for attendees, because they weren’t just hearing my perspective or exploring contrived examples.

One example that stands out was a discussion on strategy. There was a large spread on the topic of how much attendees got involved in their organization’s strategy. Those doing less were able to see that it’s possible for them to get much more involved and get advice on how to do it from people who are doing it.

I’m Not Sure Where I’m Going…..

Everything I’ve written about in this article played out because I was given an opportunity to do something a bit different. I was very unsure about what would happen. I’m glad I took the chance because it was a turning point that helped me to starting think more like a facilitator and not just as a consultant.

As a consultant, I always felt a need to be somewhat taking a lead and offering opinions. But now I also see the benefits of being a facilitator, and creating a space for others to lead themselves.

This is really just the start of a journey though. There’s still so much about facilitation to learn and master. And due to this uncertainty, I struggle to envision exactly what my work will look in the future. For now I’ll just keep taking it one step at a time and being grateful for the opportunities.

A special Thanks to Dan Young and Mike Rozinsky

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Domain-Driven Design, Organization Design, Continuous Delivery

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Nick Tune

Nick Tune

Technical Leader | Socio-Technical Architect | Continuous Delivery

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