This week I facilitated (or more accurately didn’t much facilitate) my first online workshop using Zoom and Miro. Let’s be clear, Zoom is great and Miro is a really smart tool – way better than I was expecting. However, I felt deskilled, to put it politely, or pretty hopeless, put another way.
Now, given that my professional identity is wrapped up in facilitation, and that it’s been a core skill for over 40 years (four schools, two university settings and twenty years on the road facilitating events) that was ‘interesting’ as they say. It has certainly been a cause for reflection, so I thought I would share, and I’ve tried to do so in a way that may be helpful for others.
When we facilitate an event there are a number of ways that we are able to add value, both to the experience and to the outcomes. If I list just some of them, you can see why the online experience becomes a challenge. The orange ones hold up for online workshops; the blue ones don’t. (Spoiler alert – there are also some huge benefits in red, of which more later.)
Before the event
- Great planning and design – and clarity about intended outcomes and outputs
- Smart materials
- Mindfulness about environment and seating arrangements
- Quality set-up instructions (and briefing for table facilitators)
During the activity
- Orchestrate the motivational climate
- Allocate nominal table facilitators
- Move from table to table pollinating
- Speak to individuals within a group to coach in
- Hold the room for a moment to share or to unstick everyone…
- …or to demonstrate what one or two tables are doing…
- …or to show something that informs the activity
- Move some people to different tables to change the dynamics
- Read the room and the energy flow
- Invite feedback from individuals
After the activity
- Do whatever evaluation exercise is appropriate
- Collect up all the flip charts and post-its and activity outcomes
- Process them and turn them into useful tools and artefacts
Now none of this is definitive, of course, neither the colours nor the content, so don’t pick at it. The point is to illustrate that much of the customary facilitation skill lies in subtle engagements with the activity process itself – and most of this is lost online.
However, there are also some things that are gained and these might be the key to effective online facilitation:
- Everything that is said can be heard – you are a tacit participant, not a facilitator
- Everything that is done (or not done) can be seen – you are an unseen lurking observer
- There also may well be two or three people invisibly performing these roles
- All the outcomes are secure, neatly packaged and downloadable at the end.
The implications of this feel to me to be that the skills required to optimise an online workshop lie primarily in the preparation beforehand, the ability to listen and interpret and develop insights during and the capacity to add value to the process afterwards.
Put another way, it feels as though the capacity to add value shifts from (a) during the event to after it and (b) from added value to the process/experience, and to added value to the outcomes.
This is obviously so because the person in the event with the greatest insight into what has happened and what has been generated becomes the ‘facilitator’, whose primary role during that phase is not facilitation so much as observation, reflection and insight gathering (much less the case when you are in the room, partly because you don’t hear all the conversation but also because you are constantly alert to assisting the process).
For many workshops, where outcomes really matter, this may be a pretty good trade-off.
To conclude, it feels as though the right instruction for an online workshop may not be to say: “This is what you should do and this is the output you should try to achieve” but instead: “This is what you should do together for the next 30 minutes to get as close as you can to this output. We will be listening to all the conversation, seeing what you do and hearing what you say. That, with whatever you create together, will enable us to add 20-30% to the outcome after the workshop and share that back with you.”