Have you ever worked somewhere where something went wrong? Does it take you longer than you think it will to explain what you do in your job?
Chances are, you work at a complex organization and you’re probably an expert at what you do.
In most organizations when an incident occurs, it’s common practice to call a meeting to discuss it. Generally called postmortems, retrospectives or after action reviews, the number of people in the room and the agendas of these gatherings vary. Sometimes new protocols are created, sometimes people get fired. The most important outcome from these meetings — and the only one that truly matters — is learning and good facilitation is crucial to making that happen.
A facilitator’s primary job is to create and hold a structure that keeps people engaged. In these meetings there’s a tension between looking backward to the past and looking forward. It can feel like striking a delicate balance between gathering input (being in the moment, listening and talking through events) and creating output (assigning action items and work to be completed after the meeting ends).
In order to resolve this tension, it’s key to keep in mind the fundamental goal: we’re around this table to learn, not just to fix. Focusing too much on fixing can force you to “fix” the wrong things in the wrong ways — which ends up making your job way harder in the end. It can also create new opportunities for accidents to occur.
“Cause is not found in the rubble. Cause is created in the minds of the investigators”
— Sidney Dekker, (2006). The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error
People tend to find what they are looking for (a phenomenon called confirmation bias) which can cause a type of tunnel vision. A skilled, neutral facilitator creates conditions that are conducive to actual learning and generating appropriate next steps.
Ideally, the facilitator was not involved in the incident. It is their job to stay focused on the discussion structure, not add to the content. This involves setting the paradigm (articulating goals and expectations), and focusing on unearthing tacit knowledge (the stuff that participants don’t know they know, or don’t know they don’t know) throughout the meeting.
Here are a few fundamentals for every facilitator to keep in mind:
1. It is the facilitator’s right (and responsibility!) to play dumb. You are probably not the only one who doesn’t understand a given point, and you are in the unique position of being able to interrupt and ask questions at any point without risking looking stupid. Remember, it’s not about you.
2. When in doubt, ask questions. Don’t answer them — ever. You may have a juicy insight or relevant experience, but this isn’t the place to share it. That would be at best irrelevant and at worst an abuse of your power. If a “solution” appears to you, awesome — but keep it to yourself for now.
3. Make room for everyone, but respect individual preferences. Invite all participants to share their experience and showcase their expertise, but don’t single out people who may be uncomfortable speaking up. Psychological safety is the highest priority.
4. Alert people to the fact that that they are learning. We rarely notice it in the moment, because learning is a fairly subtle frame of mind. One trick is to stop the conversation every so often and ask, “Does anybody know something now that they didn’t know before?” If even one person nods or raises their hand, you’ve succeeded. Each time a single person gains deeper understanding and emerges changed by the experience, the organization benefits immensely.
5. Be prepared to go on and off script. A solid facilitator is adept at switching between dynamic interventions and static frameworks. This gets easier with practice. It’s important to be explicit up front about how people’s time will be spent and what they can expect to come away with. However, there may be moments that the agenda will need to pivot.
6. Resist the temptation to jump to action-planning too quickly. It’s great if action items arise during the discussion. However, to preserve momentum and keep people present in the discussion and learning, it is best to jot down to-dos and table them until the end. Even better, schedule a separate follow-up meeting.
One more time: resist the temptation to rush to action-planning. The goal of this discussion is to create a shared understanding of what happened, and a safe space in which to compare differing realities and stitch them together into a larger, more nuanced reality where different perspectives can co-exist.
Without that shared understanding, the potential for organic, exponential learning is reduced to something linear and drastically diminished. This shared understanding — even if it’s an understanding that there are pieces we don’t understand or of which we remain unaware — is essential to building a foundation for better ways to communicate and work together.
Handing out to-do lists is really tempting. They signify progress — a kind of currency or evidence that time was well spent. They appease our anxieties and make things seem simple as we navigate our way through this complex world. Unfortunately, that simplicity is an illusion. As a society, we need to question our desire to construct a single narrative from a complex story, especially when we’re viewing that story in hindsight. Forcing one narrative creates a fabricated (yet comforting) world for us to live in, but it is never the whole story.
If you do happen to come up with what sounds like the perfect action item — and assign it to the appropriate person with access to the right resources to get it done — you will feel a sense of satisfaction. That satisfaction will be misplaced, not just because more often than not the person won’t get around to doing it but because it’s beside the point and a distraction from your goal.
The objective is to collectively create a robust narrative where substantive deep-seated issues can come to the surface. Only when underlying issues have materialized and become explicit can the action items be designed to address them.
It is a facilitator’s job to discover the story behind the story and to create conditions that allow people to describe their work, to listen to one another, and to unearth what is embedded within the profound learning opportunities that mistakes present us.
Raise your hand if you learned something.