Facilitation: making things easier

Facilitate: ‘to render easier; to promote; help forward; to lessen the labour of…’ From French, entering the English language in 1611.

Always keep in mind that as a facilitator you are there to make things easier for the group.

What I do with a group of learners or trainees is not facilitation although there are times when I do facilitate. I teach and teaching can involve facilitation. In the role of a teacher, I come with some knowledge and experience of the subject –matter and the skills.

If I was just facilitating I do not need to have any knowledge of the topic or the people I am facilitating. I should be able to walk into a room of strangers and using a range of group processes, guide them to a conclusion whether that conclusion is a solution to a problem, a strategic plan, a resolution to a conflict, a decision or a set of actions.

In fact, if you are a highly skilled facilitator you probably do not need to prepare, but that is not really recommended. I do want to say, however, that some of the most successful facilitation sessions I have conducted are the ones where I have thrown the plan away and asked the group what they want.

So a facilitator is someone who uses a range of processes, tools and strategies to guide a group to the place it wants to be. A facilitator’s knowledge is the various tools and processes they bring to a situation.

The group has the answers – the knowledge, the solutions, the ideas – and the role of the facilitator is to bring those “out” of the minds of individuals into the group space.

This means, as a general rule, the facilitator does not express her point of view, give advice, or provide information. A facilitator should also be careful about telling stories. The aim is to keep the attention away from you. In a sense, you should be invisible. It is the group that is the focus and the group is the focus of the group, not the facilitator. As soon as you step out of facilitator role into advisor, instructor, storyteller, the dynamic shifts and you become the focus of attention. Then the process may falter and you will need to work to get the group back on track and back into the group-immersed groove.

As a facilitator you will:


Introduce the topic

    • There might be a warm up of some sort. You might ask for someone to focus the group with a story or “the reason for…” or the “history of…”
    • Or, you might state what your understanding is of the group’s goals and intentions and make sure everyone agrees with you.
    • The way you start will vary according to the purpose of the meeting and the people themselves.

Make sure everyone understands what the expected outcomes are

  • “At the end of this session we will have…” and the outcomes need to be concrete.

Explain the process

  • Set ground rules with the group about how they will interact or work together; what behaviour is expected; what the group norms are. And you may have some you want to add if the group has not come up with them.

Begin the process

  • Ask a question or set a task
  • Listen to answers
  • Write them up on butchers paper or flip charts or however else you are recording.
  • And what are the rules of transcribing? Write up the exact words of the speaker, as close as possible to word for word. Don’t be tempted to write what your think they mean.
  • Remember to number the pages so they can be typed up in the correct order!
  • You may want to appoint someone or bring along someone as scribe. There are advantages and disadvantages to this.

Facilitate a conversation whether it’s problem solving or idea generation or storytelling

  • Seek clarification
  • Make sure everyone understands
  • Make sure everyone contributes (if you think this is appropriate)
  • But, remember, someone who is silent may be actively participating
  • Keep tracking the feeling of the group
  • Deal with disruptive behaviour
  • Sit quietly and observe the conversation if it gathers its own steam
  • Encourage humour and playfulness; Many a good ifea is generated this way.
  • You might break the group up into pairs or small groups for certain activities
  • Move people around to change the energy and keep focussed on the energy. You will know when energy drops – have a break, move, do some thing different and physically active.
  • Track the time – time keep – What do you do when it looks like time is running away from you?

Bring the session to a close

  • Summarise, congratulate, read out the key points of what you have transcribed, decide or re-iterate what is to be done next.
  • Thank them.
  • Type up the raw data generated by the session before you edit and provide the client with both the edited version AND the raw data.

Project management – the triple constraint









Project management is about managing a one-off endeavour that delivers specific outcomes to a particular standard or quality over a pre-determined period of time using a limited amount or money or resources.

Project management is a structured way of achieving goals for change and innovation.


The triple constraint

Projects are traditionally described as having three constraints.

  1. Quality: the standard of the outcomes to be achieved
  2. Cost: the amount of money it will take to complete the project
  3. Time: the amount of time available for the project


Quality is expressed in the specifications or outcome standards of the project.

Cost is expressed in the budget or resources.

Time is expressed in the schedule or timeline.


Each of these is a constraint because they place limits on a project. Change one of the constraints and you change the whole project.

Project management is about effective management of the triple constraint.

  • We manage the quality by ensuring specific quality outcomes or specifications are achieved.
  • We manage the cost through a project budget and resourcing plan.
  • We manage the time through scheduling.

We aim to bring a project in on time, on budget and to specification. Often one constraint may dominate a project and therefore constrain the other two factors and influence the way a project is managed.


When time dominates

For some projects, the most important factor is time. The project must be completed by a certain date, no matter what. In this case, because the focus is getting things done quickly you may “cut corners” on quality or you may need to spend more money to employ more people to meet the timelines.


The effect of the dollars or resources

There is a significant difference in projects which have limited resources and those which have generous budgets. In a small budget project, one person may manage and do the work of the project. Given that the project can only afford one person, it may not meet its deadlines.

The one person managing and doing the project tasks may need to work long hours to ensure that quality outcomes are met. In a large budget project, a project manager may have the role of coordinating a team of staff, consultants and sub-contractors who get the work done.

If the project manager is sufficiently skilled at managing the team and the processes, quality outcomes should be more easily achieved on time.


When quality is everything

If quality of outcomes is everything, then there should be sufficient resources and a timeline that is flexible. That is an unusual project, but if you think about projects where the outcomes must be as safe as possible and where the consequence of poor quality may mean injury or death to end users, then you can see how the cost of the project will go up and the timelines may need to be extended.


Project planning for the constraints

It is critical when planning a project that your client and your team are aware of the implications of the constraints placed on the project. Be very careful about accepting a project that has such significant constraints that you will not achieve outcomes or you will go significantly overtime or over budget. Everyone loses in a project like this. And you want to win!

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Key terms for strategic planning


It is critical that when we are conducting strategic planning we all have a clear understanding of what the key terms mean.


Describes core business and broad purpose of the organisation


Values are the principles by which the organisation works. Values sum up what is critically important for the organisation. Values underpin strategic planning and form the criteria for decision-making, behaviours and action.


A vision is an inspirational scenario of where the organisation will be in the future. It builds on the mission and incorporates values and is the outcome of a successful strategy plan.

Goals or objectives

Goals or objectives are broad statements of purpose that show how the organisation will fulfil your mission and will achieve its vision within the framework of its values. Goals will be developed for:

  • Broad areas of business or major projects
  • Support and infrastructure like financial management, HR, OHS, quality assurance
  • Governance

Strategic planning should incorporate goals that are SMART or SMARTI






Implementation plan

Each goal or objective in a strategic plan has a series of strategies and action plans per strategy that identify how you are going to achieve the goals/objectives, who is responsible and what the timeline is.

Success measures

Success measures or key performance indicators specify how you will know that you have been successful such as an increase in factors like participation or profit margin, or decrease in what is problematic like absenteeism or workplace accidents. For each measure it is customary to set specific, quantifiable targets.

A balanced scorecard refers to a measurement framework that includes both operational and strategic measures or combines financial with people measures.

The triple bottom line refers to strategic planning with measures that address goals or objectives that are:

  • Financial
  • Social
  • Environmental

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Action learning

Action learning is a term applied to a formal learning process that is derived from the fundamental way humans learn – from experience. We all learn from experience all the time and there are a number of learning theories based on this. 


A classic example of experiential learning is children learning how to speak. They are immersed in a world of language from the moment they are born and experience words and phrases and grammatical structures without at first understanding them. They listen, make noises, mimic and try out words and phrases. They make improvements and refinements based on corrections received or the puzzled questions of clarification from adults or other children. They go away and talk to themselves or their toys and then connect with others and join in conversations. They experiment with their own language. They reflect on responses and listen and observe (watch a toddler watching adults talk!), and gradually acquire the new knowledge and capacity to speak through cycles of listening and practice, observation, reflection and response in a community.

In normal everyday living, experiential learning is not a formal educational process. Although it could be argued that children are “trained” in the acquisition of language from parents, siblings and peers, it is not a formal and structured process and such “training” is not the only way that they learn a language. Formal education starts with kindergarten and school. Everyday experiential learning is informal and not necessarily less effective than formal learning

Structuring experiential learning

Action learning is one way of formalising and structuring experiential learning. Other similar learning processes are problem-based learning, project based learning, work based learning and communities of practice. Action learning is also an organisational learning method that can be applied to business processes such as team-based problem solving, quality circles and change projects.

The process of action learning

The process of action learning involves groups of people in the following processes:

  • Planning
  • Doing things based on the plan
  • Observing what happens as a result of their action
  • Meeting to reflect on their actions & observations
  • Making adjustments to their plan
  • Doing further action, observation, reflection and re-planning

…until they reach a point where the problem is solved or the project is complete and they have acquired new skills and knowledge.

The group meetings are usually facilitated by a member of the group or a team leader, a manager or a facilitator.

At the first meeting the group defines problems or issues to be resolved by action learning or develops an action learning project, like introducing change or innovation or testing a new process. Teachers and trainers can use action learning for student projects. As well as acquiring specific skills and knowledge, students learn to plan and reflect. Action learning enables learner collaboration and independent learning.

As the continuous loop of action learning proceeds the learning usually gets deeper and deeper with meetings engaged in analysis and problem solving and mutual support. It is an ideal way to make authentic changes and generate innovation.

Critical reflection is central to action learning.

It provides the opportunity to understand what we’ve learned from what our actions. It can lead to research and consultation that deepens the learning. During critical reflection, you examine what happened previously – review, rethink, re-plan, revise and come to agreements, decisions and conclusions before planning the next stage.

Critically reflective questions

Questions to gather information:

What happened? What did you see? What did you hear?

What worked? What did not work?

How did people react?

What were the consequences?

Questions about responses and understanding:

How did you feel about it?

How did people react? Why?

What is the significance of what happened?

Why do you think it happened like this?

What does that tell us about…?

Can we find out more through research or consulting others?

What have we learned?

Questions for moving on to the next stage in the action learning cycle:

How does our reflection change things?

How can we build on our success?

How can we address any problems or issues?

What will we do now?

What help do we need?

What are the next steps?

When do we meet again?

The final meeting

At the end of the project you should evaluate the project and summarise what has been learned.

How successful have we been? What contributed to the success?

What were the critical success factors?

How would we do things differently next time?

What new skills and knowledge have we acquired?

How has this changed us? The organisation? Processes?


The Kolb learning model describes learning as a never-ending cycle of four stages: concrete experience, reflective ob­servation, abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation. Applied to teaching it would mean using the following process:

  • Practising a task (concrete experience) and experimenting with different ways of doing it asking the learner to reflect on the practice and what could be done differently next time (reflective ob­servation)
  • Discussing “the why” of the skill and linking to theory or principles (abstract conceptualisation)
  • Further practicing and experimentation guided by the new abstract or theoretical knowledge(active experimentation).

For more on Kolb see http://www.businessballs.com/kolblearningstyles.htm and http://www.infed.org/biblio/b-explrn.htm

Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) acknowledges the importance of informal learning by assessing knowledge and skill acquired from everyday experiential learning.

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Creating project team identity using appreciative enquiry

Recently in a post on the Australian Facilitators’ Network discussion forum there was a question about how to create a sense of team identity. I rather liked the response from John Loty who outlined an appreciative enquiry approach. Thanks John! www.johnloty.com

Although context and focus of varies according to different situations, industries and organisations, there is a standard or generic format as follows:

  1. Best Experience

Tell me about the best times that you have had with your organisation.

Looking at your entire experience, recall a time you felt most alive, most involved most excited about your involvement. And what made it an exciting experience? Who was involved? Describe the event in detail. (Tell the story of that time).

  1. Values

What are the things you value deeply; specifically, things you value of about yourself, your work and your organisation?

a        Yourself — without being humble, what do you value most about yourself?

b       Your work — When you feel best about work at your organisation, what do you value about it?

c        Your organisation — What is it about your organisation that you value?

What is the single most important thing that your organisation has contributed to your life?

  1. Core Values

What do you think is the core value of your organisation? What is it that, if it did not exist, would make your organisation totally different than it currently is?

  1. Three Wishes

If you had three wishes for your organisation, what would they be? (No limit on resources)

People interview each other (preferably persons they don’t know and then the pairs form groups of 6 or 8 — 3 or 4 pairs and relate (share) their discoveries…with each group then sharing the highlights to the larger body.

This process (Discovery) is the first step of the full-blown Appreciative Inquiry process, but it would probably be sufficient to achieve a sense of identity and/or cohesion. And, (my comment) allow for in depth discussion of differences – what they are, how they enhance to the team, whether any need to be resolved in some way.

Fish bone diagrams for problem solving

Remember Fish Bone Diagrams for problem solving? I still think they are useful for framing a problem. Useful for educators and students!

What is a fish bone diagram?

“Ishikawa” or a fish bone diagram can be a useful tool for helping you map a problem and take into account a range of possible causes. Each “bone” represents a possible element of the problem, e.g. people, equipment, materials and methods (or you may add other elements relevant to your own situation such as policy or environment).

The value of using a fish bone diagram is that it encourages us to look at each element in isolation and in combination with other elements. Most often, a problem can have one or more causes. Fish bone diagrams can discourage us from jumping to the apparently “obvious” solution. Potential causes are simply listed on each “bone”. If you wish you can list causes on one side of the bone and solutions on the other.

How to develop the diagram

  • Draw the fish with its bones
  • Name the problem or effect
  • Write this succinctly at the ‘head’ of the fish
  • Decide on what type of cause each bone represents, eg people, machines, materials, methods
  • List possible causes on each of the bones
  • Select which causes you will address
  • Generate solutions for each of the causes


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Fish image made by Freepik from flaticon.com

Learning & assessment principles for competency based training


These were generated at a workshop I facilitated recently with a group of vocational education teachers.

Although there are many official documents, standards and policies that stipulate similar principles, the group wanted to develop their own as away of confirming that they were in agreement and also as a way of emphasising what was important to them as educators.

The group agreed that these should be addressed when designing learning and assessment and as a set of criteria against which learners could provide feedback and evaluation could be conducted.

What learners need to understand

  • the nature of competency based training & assessment
  • the scope of the qualification, the units and its various applications
  • how they can/will learn
  • the purpose of assessment


  • are encouraged to critically reflect on their learning
  • interact constructively with other learners
  • have the opportunity for peer and self assessment
  • are supported, especially those with special needs which have been identified in the pre-training review or LLN assessment
  • are engaged in the evaluation of the learning & assessment


  • is aligned with the unit requirements: elements, performance criteria and range of conditions etc
  • focuses on the achievement of competency
  • is appropriate for the qualification level
  • is communicated effectively to learners
  • uses a range of methods to collect evidence
  • aligns with the principles of assessment
  • meets the rules of evidence
  • encourages reflection on practice
  • is engaging and enjoyable


  • A variety of learning modes & approaches is used
  • Learning and assessment strategies cater for a range of learning styles
  • Learners are engaged in practical activities & performance of the competency
  • New skills & knowledge build on previously acquired skills & knowledge (scaffolding)
  • Strategies, assessment practices and materials are culturally sensitive and inclusive
  • Learning processes and materials are industry relevant and up to date


  • is applied in real world situations, especially workplaces or community settings or a simulated environment
  • Alternatively, complex case studies are used for application of knowledge
    • Also, learners have the opportunity to create their own case studies based on their own work experience
  • Learners explain their practice and activities as a way of demonstrating their understanding of required knowledge

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Strategic planning process for small not-for-profits

Strategic planning is an imaginative process underpinned by practical down-to earth thinking. It allows us to visualise the possible, confirm what is important for us, and do reality checks on dreams.

We bring the real world of data to bear on sometimes fantastical scenarios. We allow time to argue about what we are here for and what is deeply important to us. And then we get down to the nitty-gritty of developing a plan to make it happen.

Strategic planning takes time. Please, please, please allow sufficient time. I have been asked to facilitate strategic planning and told I had an afternoon to get from vision to broad plan. I said, “No!”. Even a revision of the current plan takes more time than that. Setting aside sufficient time allows for greater commitment from participants to the process and the outcomes. And it can be fun!

Usually, it is best to get yourself a facilitator, but just in case that is not possible, here is a strategic planning template listing common steps (which do not necessarily have to be done in this order) and methods.

I have facilitated many strategic planning sessions, mainly with small not-for-profit organisations, so this template is aimed at them. Download a PDF version here.

Strategic questioning


Fran Peavey’s chapter on strategic questioning is one of the best descriptions and instructions on the questions and the sequence of questioning facilitators can use to get people to think and act imaginatively and strategically. I think this was written in the 1990s, but her opening paragraph still rings oh so true.

In these days of constant change, and the need for even more change if we are to live peacefully in a healthy environment, we ask ourselves:

  • “How can our organization weather the tides of constant reorganisation and restructuring and still maintain a clear vision of its mission?”
  • “How can I make decisions about my future that will draw from the most interesting alternatives?”
  • “How can we participate in the creation of social change?”
  • “How can a new vision arise in our organizations and societies?”

Download the chapter here.

What is different about Associate Degrees?

Not many people have heard of Associate Degrees although this is gradually changing as more information is getting out there and graduates of Associate degrees spread the word about how great they are.

So let’s get formal. This next paragraph is from a conference paper (the abstract actually) that my colleague, Helen Smith and I wrote for The Learner Conference in 2014.

The Associate Degree in the Australian Qualifications Framework (the AQF) aims to prepare graduates for both paraprofessional work and pathways to further learning. In other words, at the end of this qualification a student should be confident that they could decide to go and get a job in their chosen field, and be successful in that job, or continue on to a Bachelor Degree for which they should have considerable credit.

Helen and I noted that the dual aims of the Australian Associate Degree present a particular challenge for program designers and teachers in higher education: assessing and teaching across traditional academic boundaries.

Educational teams and managers are designing learning and assessment strategies to bridge the vocational/academic divide, and this means a new orientation to the theory/practice relationship and to the way this is realised in assessment and learning practices.

It is a very exciting space to work in.

I have outlined in a previous blog how work-based projects can be framed by scholarly practice.

Here is piece I wrote about observing Associate Degree student presentations. They had completed their design projects and were then talking about their experiences and their learning.

The very best presentations addressed the assessment criteria and presented garments not as simply “show and tell” (“I quite like this”), but with an analysis of the design and why it works as design. Such students brought a conceptual understanding to the process, and may have discussed historical derivations or political and social values that influenced them. They described how the design changed over time and why. They could articulate the links between mood boards, aesthetics and how the design worked.

They referenced design in other disciplines such as visual arts, architecture, film, photography etc. They could talk about the essence of the piece, especially the signature piece, and its technical and design challenges. The signature piece was an expression of their personal values, aesthetics and philosophy. They were not afraid to take risks with experimentation. And they could explain all this and were comfortable with the language of design.

It was such a pleasure to listen to such presentations and witness such holistic learning!

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