Facilitation as Improv

I am so thankful that my parents were never concerned about what I would do with a drama degree. Theatre, specifically improvisation, has turned out to be the perfect foundation for my career as a facilitator.

Each time I facilitate, I have an audience (participants), a place to perform (meeting facility) and a loose script (agenda). But then, the magic happens as I attune myself to the energy in the room, and work off unplanned inputs and events. Success depends on me being fully present and in the moment.

The rules of improv easily apply to facilitation. For example, consider how facilitators could apply these Commandments for Improv:

  1. We are all supporting actors.
  2. Always check your impulses.
  3. Never enter a scene unless you are NEEDED.
  4. Your prime responsibility is to support.
  5. Work at the top of your brains at all times.
  6. Never underestimate or condescend to your audience.
  7. Trust… trust your fellow actors to support you; trust them to come through if you lay something heavy on them; trust yourself.
  8. Avoid judging except in terms of whether a situation needs help, what can best follow, or how you can support it imaginatively.

Canada is blessed with great improv institutions such as Second City in Toronto  and Loose Moose in my hometown of Calgary. The benefits of learning improv include:

  • Increased confidence
  • Improved public speaking skills
  • More comfort in social settings
  • Refined brainstorming abilities
  • Improved listening and observation skills
  • Enhanced creative-thinking abilities
  • Improved decision-making skills

So improv artists, a second career in facilitation awaits you. And facilitators, improv can help deepen your craft. As they say in the Green Room, go break a leg.

Fingerprints On My Work

My expertise as a consultant is the result of all my experiences and learning. I owe so much to those who influenced and coached me along the way. Here are some of the strongest fingerprints on my work:

  • Lee Pulos

Early in my career, I managed the Old Spaghetti Factory in Ottawa’s Byward Market. This chain of restaurants was owned by the Pulos brothers. Dr. Lee Pulos is a psychologist and pioneer in the human potential field. He provided my first training programs in leadership and self-awareness.

  • John Jones

John, now deceased, was the co-founder of University Associates, the organization that produced the Annual Handbooks for Group Facilitators. I had the privilege of co-designing a weeklong leadership program with this giant (figuratively and literally) of the training and organization development world. I learned a tremendous amount about group dynamics and the elegance of great design for learning events.

  • Training Certifications

My first training certification was with Development Dimensions International. Other training certifications with Zenger-Miller, Achieve Global and Covey followed quickly afterwards. These certifications gave me a foundation in adult learning and behavioral modeling.

  • Quality

In my years with TELUS, I learned a great deal about total quality management through training from Deltapoint, attendance at quality conferences and participation on process improvement teams. I also had the great privilege to attend training delivered by Dr. Edwards Deming himself. This training forever changed my views about systems and measurement.

  • Facilitation

The Quality world also exposed me to the work of great facilitators such as Ingrid Bens and Peter Scholtes as well as organizations such as Interaction Associates. Their pocket guides and tools became indispensable to me.

  • Dialogue

From my first experience in a dialogue session facilitated by a member of the World Business Academy to training in the Art of Hosting by the Berkana Institute to formal education in Dialogue, Deliberation and Public Engagement from Fielding University, I learned how to facilitate and participate in “conversations that matter”.

Of course, I have also been tremendously influenced by my colleagues and clients who have been generous in sharing their approaches, tools and insights. I am grateful for the fingerprints they have left on my work and my life.

Hearing the Voice of the Customer Over the Din of the Organization

“If we build it, they will come” is the famous line from the movie, Field of Dreams. It represents the old-fashioned “Product Out” approach that some organizations still practice today. In contrast, a “Customer In” approach focuses on deeply understanding customers’ current and future needs, and then designing products and services that meet those needs. These are very different mindsets, the former relying heavily on marketing and the latter, on customer engagement.

“Customer In” starts with customer listening or capturing the Voice of the Customer (VOC). Customer-centric organizations gain high returns for their listening efforts including:

  • Early detection of problems with products and services.
  • Market intelligence including insights on competitors and emerging trends.
  • Ideas for increasing sales, increasing customer satisfaction and therefore, improving business results.

There are many possible “customer listening posts” such as:

  • Surveys
  • Interviews
  • Focus Groups
  • Customer Advisory Groups
  • Inquiries
  • Complaints
  • Touchpoints throughout the sales and service fulfillment process
  • Customer visits and observation (Going to the Gemba)
  • Social media
  • Networking

There is the potential of a rich data flow from these listening posts, but organizations need processes to capture, synthesize, analyze, share and action insights. In addition to finely honed individual listening skills, organizations need organizing systems to get the value from what is heard.

Perhaps even more critical is that organizations need a “Customer In” mindset, and not only in the customer-facing workforce. All employees need to regard customer listening as a process of discovery. A culture of continuous improvement, not blame or fear, is required for open, meaningful customer dialogue.   Customer listening can be a competitive differentiator if it is authentic.


Measuring Trust

Trust is a fundamental building block for relationships within families, co-workers and communities. Trust has been called “the bandwidth of communication” – low trust resulting in constrained or no communication, and high trust characterized by open sharing of information and feelings.

For businesses, trust impacts such things as turnover, innovation and reputation. Peter Aceto, CEO of Tangerine Bank, takes an even bolder view on the importance of trust, “Forget price, products, & services. Trust is the new competitive advantage”.

Trust is an abstract, subjective concept that is linked with many other factors such as integrity, competence and dependability. As a result, trust is hard to measure. But it is critical for organizations to know where they stand in terms of trust with their employees, customers and stakeholders. Organizations want answers to questions such as “Are trust levels going up or down?”, “Where does our organization stand with respect to trust compared to other organizations?” and “What factors contribute to building trust and trustworthiness?”

The following are examples of surveys used to measure trust:

Trust within teams and organizations

Organizational Trust and Engagement Index, FranklinCovey

The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team, Patrick Lencioni

Trust trends in society

Edelman Trust Barometer

Statistics Canada Social Capital Report 2015

Unfortunately, survey results provide indicators, not measures of trust. In its white paper, How Do You Measure Trust?, FranklinCovey proposes a three-pronged approach to measuring trust:

  1. Use surveys to raise awareness of trust levels.
  2. Observe and measure the frequency of behaviours that create or destroy trust.
  3. Calculate the economic effects of trust (customer loss, fraud, etc.)

Avoiding the Training Trap

I am surprised how often training is identified as the “go-to” solution for people performance issues. Although I started my career as a corporate trainer, it did not take long to realize there are many other factors besides “know-how” that affect performance.

Robert Mager in his popular book, Analyzing Performance Problems, or You Really Oughta Wanna – How to Figure Out Why People Aren’t Doing What They Should Be, and What to Do About It  (How’s that for a title?) was adamant that training was rarely the best or most economical way to address performance issues.

One of the most helpful models I found for addressing performance issues is Human Performance Technology (HPT)  from the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI). The HPT model has three main steps:

  1. Determine the performance gap at the organizational, team or individual level.
  2. Determine the cause of the gap.
  3. Select and implement the appropriate solution.

Step One requires data gathering to identify the gap between current and required performance.

Step Two requires detective work to determine why the performance gap exists. Possible causes could be a lack of:

  • Consequences, incentives or rewards
  • Data, information or feedback
  • Support, resources or tools
  • Individual capacity
  • Motivation and expectations
  • Skills and knowledge

Step Three is the art of matching an appropriate solution to address the cause. If the cause is a lack of consequences, incentives or rewards, the solution may involve changes to the performance management system; for a lack of data, information or feedback, changes to communications processes may be required; for a lack of individual capacity, staffing and work design could be effective solutions, etc.

Training has its place to address skills and knowledge gaps along with other interventions such as coaching and mentoring. But training has been overused as a “sheep-dip” solution for issues that require systemic process and/or policy solutions.

Beware defaulting to “training is the solution”. As the adage goes, if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Jadding and Predictable Tensions

UnknownOne of my first facilitation experiences was co-facilitating a Jadding session in a large oil company where I was a corporate trainer. JAD stood for Joint Application Development – a fairly new process at the time that engaged the client or end user in the design and development of computer applications. It was my first taste of facilitating a process rather than delivering a training program, and I loved it.

One of the models we explored was Predictable Tensions between the priorities and interests of units and centralized corporate groups:

Unit Priorities

  Corporate Priorities
  1. Functionality
  2. Performance
  3. Cost
  4. Support
  5. Standards/Integration
  1. Standards/Integration
  2. Support
  3. Cost
  4. Performance
  5. Functionality

The model, although simplistic, struck me as the Yin and Yang required for effectiveness, opposite but complementary energies. The model helped depersonalize conflict by helping groups “walk in each other’s shoes”.   Groups could confirm or revise their priorities, using the generic list as a starting ground. But most importantly, it gave a language for groups to reach common ground.

I have used the Predictable Tensions model with:

  • Head Office and Field Groups
  • Corporate Functions like HR, Finance, IT and Communications and their internal customer groups
  • National or provincial associations and their local offices

In all cases, it has helped surface unmet expectations, provide insights about conflict, and pave the way to more effective working relationships.




Setting the Stage for Dialogue

I first experienced the power of dialogue at the hands of an expert facilitator from the World Business Academy. The facilitator was hosting dialogue sessions with diverse groups of employees as part of an intensive corporate culture change effort.

I called my first experience “a waterslide” conversation. Within minutes of the facilitator sharing the groundrules, I felt myself plunge into a stillness of deep listening, genuine inquiry and fresh insights.

Hal Saunders of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue, defines dialogue this way:
“Dialogue is a process of genuine interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn. Each makes a serious effort to take other’s concerns into her or his own picture, even when disagreement persists. No participant gives up her or his identity, but each recognizes enough of the other’s valid human claims that he or she will act differently toward the other”.

Here are some groundrules used to set the stage for dialogue:

1. Speak to the center of the circle rather than to any person.
2. Really listen. What does the dialogue bring up for you?
3. Speak only when moved. Be “economical” with what you say.
4. Leave a space for silence after people speak. Don’t think about what you are going to say. Digest what was said.
5. Speak in “I” statements and only on behalf of yourself.
6. Do not use any evaluative comments – neither supporting nor disagreeing. Simply make your own statement.
7. Ask questions to the center of the circle. Do not direct questions to any one person.
8. Everybody is responsible for following and ensuring everyone follows the rules for dialogue.
9. Speak in a way that others want to listen, and listen in a way that makes others want to speak.

For more information on dialogue, I recommend William Isaacs Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together.

The founders of the dialogue movement believe we can change the world by changing how we talk and listen. I believe and hope that is true.

Powerful Questions to Drive Change

Over a decade ago, I saw an advertisement for a workshop on Powerful Questions. That’s an odd topic, I thought. Now with hindsight, I realize the topic was ahead of its time.

What is a powerful question? Reos Partners in their Change Lab methodology use powerful questions as the catalyst for significant social innovation. A powerful question is one to which there is no answer yet. A technical question, in contrast, is one to which we do not know the answer but the answer exists. In other words, when faced with a technical question, research can provide the answer. When faced with a powerful question, we must turn to one another and engage in dialogue and discovery, through which new intelligence emerges.

Examples of powerful questions being explored now using Reos Partners’ methodology are:

  • “How can all of us ensure that all children in Calgary grow, learn and thrive by the age of 5?” being explored by The United Way in Calgary and Area’s community change initiative, Thrive by 5
  • “What will it take for Canadians to succeed in creating a good future?” explored by the Possible Canadas Project 

Powerful questions are challenging because they focus on complex, systemic issues. Often the questions are about “wicked problems”.   The Austin Center for Design defines a wicked problem as “a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for many reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems”.

Forming a powerful question takes a lot of trial and error to ensure it is a “real” question, not technical, that will inspire and engage others in the search for change. However, be inspired by this wonderful quote from Albert Einstein, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”


2014 has been another wonderful year of consulting. I am thankful for all the opportunities to learn and add value for my clients.

This year, I welcomed seven new clients:

  • Calgary HandiBus Association
  • Job Safety Skills Society
  • City of Lloydminster
  • Wainwright Credit Union
  • Calgary Family Services
  • Town of High River
  • Calgary Housing Company

I was honored to be selected to work with Mayor Nenshi and Council this fall. We in Calgary are fortunate to have this caliber of political leadership.

I had the great fortune to be partnered with Sam Hester and to see the benefits of graphic recording during a strategic planning session I facilitated. To learn more about her work, visit her website.

This was also a great year of learning. I joined the Institute of Corporate Directors, completed their program, Governance Essentials for Not for Profits, and attended several one day seminars and webinars to enhance my skills as a Board member.

Many thanks to my clients and colleagues, and best wishes for a successful and joyful 2015.

The Power of Reframing

Midway in the movie Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, there is a powerful moment of reframing. Jack’s fiancée has surprised him by coming to Moscow. She discovers Jack is working with the CIA, and insists on being part of the covert operations. Jack is vehemently opposed. Jack’s boss interrupts their argument by saying, “This isn’t couples therapy. It’s a geo-political crisis”. Instant reframe. Different context. Different decision.

Reframing is a key leadership skill, critical to problem solving and innovation. Reframing is the ability to take a different perspective on a situation in order to develop a new approach or solution. It requires stepping out of your paradigm, and using a “new lens”. In the simplest form, reframing is what happens when you say, “Let’s look at this in another way”.

Here are three perspectives I use to help leaders reframe situations:

  • Stakeholder Lens
    Who are the stakeholders who can impact or will be impacted by this situation? How would they describe this challenge or situation? How are their views different from or the same as yours? What would they see as possible solutions?
  • Opposites Lens
    What do you believe is true about this challenge or situation? What if the opposite was true? What would be the appropriate action? For instance, what if the generally accepted economic forecast is not true?
  • Systems Lens
    Think about the various levels of a system: Individual, Group, Organization, Community, Global. At which level are you viewing the current challenge or situation? How does the situation change if you view it from a different level? For instance, if a group is underperforming, how might the organization as a whole be contributing to that problem? Or conversely, how might the performance of a few individuals be impacting the performance of the group?

How Great Leaders Think: The Art of Reframing by Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal suggests four lenses to diagnose and solve organizational problems: Structural, Human Resources, Political and Symbolic. Used singly or in combination, these lenses help leaders avoid hasty, myopic solutions.

Reframing brings new meaning to the lyrics, “Do you see what I see?” Enjoy the experience.

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