Problem-Solving Facilitation

I (James Lucas) just sat through a conference that was so excruciatingly boring it could be used either to produce medically induced comas or to get terrorists to talk.  It was advertised as a problem-solving, solutions-oriented, strategic thinking conference.  This is akin to calling the clown-stuffed car at the circus “thoughtful entertainment.”

The problems with this conference were legion: no new thoughts, no takeaways, no meaningful discussion.  They actually thought they could spend 3-4 hours doing “breakouts.”  Now, a breakout can be a good thing, if there has been content given to set it up, if there is a thoughtful exercise, if there is time to discuss the topic thoroughly, and if the report-out is well done.  That’s a lot of ifs, though, and these facilitators hit none of them (we have seen very few facilitated sessions that hit all four of these, but this one was special). 

The exercise, with no setup, was to have each person at a table fill in an “absurd” solution to a given problem on a 4-quadrant page.  Then these sheets were picked up and handed to people at another table, who were told to fill in a less absurd follow-up to the absurd “solution.”  Then back to the first table to fill in the 3rd quadrant with a more reasonable follow-up, and…well, you get the idea.  They gave people 1-2 minutes to do their fill-ins, which minimized actual thought, and allowed no time for discussion at the table, which minimized development of the idea (but maximized disinterest).  Report-outs were handled as a “pick one at your table to share.”  They were as lively as a day at the dentist.

What is this so-called “adult learning method” all about?  Well, like so many of these methods, it’s trying to be cute but it’s too clever by half.  It leaves people and their needs out of the equation, and is more concerned about busywork than about improving work.  It doesn’t matter how your facilitation and breakouts are structured if no one gets anything useful out of it.

At Luman, we have a simple yet sophisticated approach to facilitation.  We start with provocative content, designed to challenge status quo thinking and to get people to give up their illusions and face reality, all part of our Diamond of Excellence development model.  Then we break people into groups based on the content they’ve just heard and ask them to have a wide-ranging, dynamic, no-holds-barred but guided conversation.  We tell them that each group has to come up with at least 5-8 ways to use or implement the content.  And then we have a detailed report-out driven by a facilitator who can add even more to the discussion as it evolves.  Lots of depth, lots of takeaways, lots of interest.

Adults in organizations don’t need “adult learning” methods that simply get people to complete an exercise that has no value to the participants.  The conference I attended today made it even worse by being so incredibly boring, but “interesting yet useless” is still not worth very much.  The key is good adult-learning methodology tied to first-class content. 

If you want rich content followed by rich dialogue, leading to real ideas to improve your organization, Luman has what you need.  But if you want cute and worthless, contact us and we’ll give you the name of today’s conference facilitator.

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