Winter. Time to pause, take a breath and wonder: What did I just learn?

Six months, 450 professionals and passionate lay people, 33 days of facilitation, from activating a huge urban development (Green Square), to innovating kerbside dumping programs, to designing a bush reserve, to the future of a hip urban food movement, to the future of Cooks River, to cycling to school, to skilling young farming advocates, to revitalising Landcare, and training hundreds of professionals in Changeology and Facilitation.

First, I love this work

I love watching a room of wary, cautious eyes and faces gradually thaw and become lively, friendly, funny, and shiny with delight. Watching their creativity open up, the sudden outbreaks of laughter, the evident personal pride, the ah-ha moments, the ‘OMG, look what I just did!’. It’s a privilege and a pleasure to observe human beings at their best.

Focus, resolutely, on the touchable

Green Squ
Maps locate us firmly in the practical contexts of people’s lives. Participants strategise at the City of Sydney’s workshop.

In a workshop on Green Square for the City of Sydney, I saw how maps created the vital logic to understand resident’s needs…because places and movement are, after all, what create good and bad health, environmental and economic outcomes in people’s lives. Human possibilities are constrained, or enabled, by the solid fabric of streets, routes, infrastructure and destinations. I’m reminded again to fight abstraction and focus participants’ thinking on what’s solid and touchable. (And I love the term “desire lines” which perfectly sums up the intersection between human motivation and the design of places.)

Know when to be silent

For the EPA’s Circulate program, I saw how a facilitator has to be OK about letting go of control and being simply being silent when the discussion flows beautifully and naturally. The whole room can be like one giant purposefully humming brain, with some calmly taking their turns to speak, and all listening with wrapt attention. Time seems suspended and we discover that Csíkszentmihályi’s flow is something that a whole room can experience. Beautiful. I would have ruined it by saying anything.

Never underestimate participants

Honiara 2
In Honiara, World Vision’s aid workers magnificently craft their own behaviour change projects.

In the Solomon Islands I saw local aid workers, none of whom had a university education, eagerly soak up the full panoply of Changeology concepts and processes, and design projects that were clever and imaginative.

At the MAV’s Hacktivation conference we pushed the boundaries of what a conference is supposed to be, and found that, with imagination and variety, we could push participants to get down and dirty and creatively solve each others’ problems. Really, the traditional conference is so passive and twentieth century, it’s like watching TV. There is so much more we can do with the energy and knowledge in a room!


Personas make us think about who’s NOT in the room.

Yes, I get it. Personas are a great tool. We can never have everyone in the room, so for those whose voices are absent, create personas: their pictures and life stories. In creating an irresistible community consultation strategy for the town of Euroa in central Victoria, we sketched personas of those whose voices needed to be heard in creating the 30 year town plan. Then we stuck them on the wall. It was very useful to point to them, be reminded of their presence, and check off that we had created ‘just right’ consultation processes for their informed voices to be heard. (In fact, I think personas should be mandatory in designing community consultation projects!)

OK, I surrender, the vibe wins

I’ve noticed, over the last couple of years, that I almost always end up rewriting my facilitation plans, dramatically, on the fly, mid-workshop, once I get the vibe and the conversation starts. Actually, it’s always! I don’t seem to ever be able to stick to a plan, no matter how hard I work to imagine the event beforehand. Is it just me? Maybe there’s some sort of cosmic rule here. I think I should just give up and enjoy floating with the current. The truth is that every event gets its momentum from the participants, not from me. My job is to provide some directions and make sure we land, with results, on time. But what happens in between is not truly mine to control.

It’s never about me

No matter how crumby or excited I feel at the start of an event, it doesn’t really matter. Because the energy is in the room…all I have to go is get people, as quickly as possible, talking to each other about good things they are passionate about, sharing their experiences, achievements and learnings – and they inspire themselves, and me! I think this might be a deep secret about facilitation: all the power, creativity and beauty is in the interactions BETWEEN the participants. They have a huge suppressed energy to talk to each other, and be heard. All I have to do, as they say in Star Trek, is ‘make it so’ with a little bit of structure and some nice questions.

A Bicycle Network team generating hilaritas. You can just see their creativity sparking.

Gravitas and Hilaritas
My friend Daniel mentioned that workshops should be a mix of Gravitas (serious purpose and discussion) and Hilaritas (humour). This seems an incredibly good piece of advice. There must of course be a serious purpose, but hard thinking wears down people’s motivation and imagination unless we refuel with delight. I reflect on those times when humour was lacking, faces closed down, and imaginations went cold, until fun popped up her furry ears, smiles returned, and the ideas started flowing again. Yes, I’m going to make sure there’s a regular supply of hilaritas in future.