Facilitation Nightmares: How to escape a workshop not going on as planned

| 5 min read

A few days ago, I hosted a session about Facilitation Nightmares during a Virtual DDD gathering organised as an open forum.

The idea was for the participants to share some of their stories of facilitation going astray and to explain how they remedied the situation or to see if other participants would have propositions on what they could have done.

As a group, we discussed different situations. Here are the three I enjoyed the most and wanted to keep with me because they all had unusual solutions.

Let’s start with you, the facilitator, being excluded.

The "You know nothing, John Snow" Situation

Diana Montalion described the "You know nothing, John Snow" situation. She explained that during some engagements, she was facilitating architectural sessions. I don’t remember if she mentioned what they were doing, but I can imagine it was an activity we love in the DDD community but can feel strange for other people, such as Event Storming. Unfortunately, some people in the room wanted to avoid engaging in the workshop, claiming it wasn’t architecture. Who was she to make them lose their time that way?

Diana shared that the feeling she had was that they wanted to do things their way, as they usually did, and that the message they had was that she didn’t have anything to bring to the table. Later in the discussion, we rephrased the situation as the "You don’t belong here" situation.

Together, with the group, we discussed some ideas on how to avoid that situation.

We pointed out the usual stuff about facilitation. At the beginning of the workshop, share why we are running it and make sure everyone agrees on the goals. Make it really obvious and easy to see, so you can get back to them during the session if needed. You can use a "Purpose slide" or write them on a paper board.

Also, establish the goal of the meeting beforehand. Let people know before they agree to come what we will discuss. It would be best if you made the invitation explicit, that way, only interested people will show up.

If people find the meeting is not for them after all, allow them to leave. Explain the Law Of Two Feet at the start of the workshop: if you’re neither learning nor contributing, you can use your two feet to move to something more interesting to you.

Another idea is to let people know you at the beginning or even before the session. If people know who you are and what you’ve done, it adds to your credibility. Show that you have the right to be here and some experiences to share. Someone introducing Diana as a long-time architect and frequent speaker could have mitigated the situation.

Here you are using your rank, demonstrating that you are a player in the game and know things to mitigate the situation.

Doing your own introduction can be a bit awkward, and having allies before the meeting can significantly help. Find some people who know you and your past work and who will make the introduction. If needed, they will remind hard-to-manage participants that you have something to bring to the discussion too.

While Diana faced people being vocal about not wanting to participate in the workshop, sometimes, as facilitators, we met more quiet people, even non-talkative ones.

People not willing to speak

How can we cope with people remaining silent during the workshop?

First, as facilitators, we must remember that some people are quieter than others. Not all of us are comfortable with the potential mess of the workshops.

One proposed solution is to make yourself available after the workshop. Sometimes people can’t speak during the session: it’s not a good time for them, and the environment is inappropriate.

You have multiple solutions to make yourself available. The obvious one is to share some way to contact you afterwards, like your email address.

Alberto Brandolini proposed an idea that resonated with me: never leave the room on time. Hang around in the room after the end of the workshop. Take your time to tidy the room. Some people might stay and help you. As people are living, you might have the chance to hear some voices you haven’t heard until now.

Alberto shared a story of one participant who didn’t talk during a challenging workshop, staying silent in the corner of the room. Once the workshop ended and the other participants had left, he went to Alberto and explained what was happening during the workshop. He described the company situation, the power games, and the toxic relationships between participants. Suddenly, everything happening during the session became clearer.

Another idea we didn’t discuss that day, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard Alberto talk about before, is to have a drink with participants after the workshop. Some people might feel more comfortable in a different environment and start to speak. You might get extra information helping to do your job.

An example of the environment not being as safe as it should be for the workshop to go smoothly is when some participants have more power than others. For instance, when the bosses participate.

The boss derailing the workshop

Having the bosses around can make the discussions more difficult than it should be. People might stop talking, look at the boss for approval for everything they say or worst, you could encounter a boss who decides to "show them how things are done" because "he knows better" and "it will be faster if he explains it". In that case, you lose the collaborative part of the workshop and get only one point of view. And more, you get the point of view of someone who is probably not doing the actual job and has some blind spots.

While having the boss in the room can give you a different perspective, it’s not always an ideal situation.

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To avoid the boss capturing the mic and not letting other people speak, a solution is to round-robin the timer. Everyone can talk for some amount of time, and once the time is over, we’re moving to the next person. This idea obviously works with anyone, big chief or not, because, let’s be honest, bosses don’t have the monopoly of talking too much.

Another excellent idea proposed by Tobias Goeschel is to occupy the boss. This is easier said than done because you must be at least two facilitators. One remains working with the group, and the other creates a new activity in another part of the room. For this, you can use a paper board and ask him to explain his ideas and vision of the world. As long as you make him feel important, you’ll be able to keep working with the rest of the group.

Alberto reminded us there is no such thing as a boss showing up late to a workshop to be a spectator. At some point, they will want to speak, and change things the group has already discussed. Even if they remain silent, just by being there, they will change the environment, and the room’s dynamic might be different: some people will talk more, others will speak less, discussions will move to another topic, ...

In this blog post, I focused on the three situations we talked about that night I most relate to. We had other exciting discussions, and we only covered some of the ideas we wanted to discuss. Have a look at the board and see if some of the situations and remediation ideas are interesting to you for your facilitation practice.

I think it would be valuable to gather more facilitation stories. First, they can be fun to hear, and also, because we can learn from them. If you like that idea and have stories to share, hit me up, and let’s see what we can do!