tortured by facilitators

Two weeks ago I apparently decided a good dose of torture was in order.  No, I wasn’t dragged over red-hot coals, stretched on the rack, or had molars pulled out with a needle-nosed pliers. Nor was I subjected to “alternative interrogation techniques” like sensory deprivation or water-boarding.

No, I’m not talking about any kind of modern or archaic form of physical torture… I faced something far more excruciating – the emotional trauma that comes from coordinating a weeklong meeting for a group of 80 professional facilitators!

So please understand.  This is my rant.  It took more than a week to recover from it all, and my perspective of this reality is, well, biased and slanted.  But it is mine nonetheless.

The last week of February had us in a national meeting that brought together most of Cameroon’s international volunteers and many partners.  I was coordinating events since my favorite subject – monitoring & evaluation (M&E)  – was on the menu du week.

Man, was it ever painful!

You see, CUSO-VSO (and VSO in general) recruits highly qualified and experienced professionals – often equipped with extensive management experience, impressive advanced degrees and certifications and stacks of practical toolkits.  They’re also often equipped as passionate, committed and talented group facilitators.  This last quality is so important to our work overseas that every new volunteer finds themselves in facilitation class before leaving Canada.

As a result, volunteers here wear their facilitators’ hats everywhere they go.  Have a meeting to plan? Facilitation buzz-words fly from mouths faster than a road runner on Red Bull!

Inclusiveness.  Dynamism. Engagement. Interactivity. Results-focused. Participatory. Empowerment. Ownership.

The list goes on…

What facilitation method should we use?

Learning Café. Knowledge Markets. Focus Group Discussions. Buzz Groups. Bomb Shelters.  Affinity Mapping.  Forcefield Analyses.

The options were endless… and none of them carried warning labels regarding potential for torture!

Before the start of the national meeting the organizing team sifted through the options and puréed a blend of methods that – we hoped – would propel us towards achieving the objectives for the week – refining VSO Cameroon’s programme objectives and redrafting how we would track our progress.

Boy were we naïve.

First off, getting 80 people from the field to Yaoundé is a logistical nightmare.  Transport by rickety bush taxi and overstuffed remnants of European bus fleets is not fun.  Getting CAMRAIL to allow the purchase of 30 train tickets at once was a learning-lab for navigating bureaucratic wheelers and dealers.  Ensuring the hotel knew exactly who was coming and which rooms to reserve was an exercise in futility.

As daunting as this sounds, the real challenge started after the opening bell of the welcome session.  What’s the first thing a group of facilitators want to do?

Facilitate!

We had a schedule. We had a programme. We had picked facilitators. We had a plan of attack.

The sessions started out with an introductory presentation and then participants were briefed on how everyone would visit several small group “learning cafés” each with specific issues to discuss.

“Excuse me, but, from my experience (any alarm bells ringing yet??) the format you’re describing isn’t actually a real Learning Café.  For it to be a real Learning Café you wouldn’t have facilitators hosting each station and guiding participants through the tasks. You’d have to lose the facilitators!”

A five minute free-for-all followed on just what we should call the facilitation method we’d planned to use.  Even though the session’s purpose wasn’t questioned, we couldn’t move forward without naming the method.

That’s when the torture took on a life of its own.

While I wasn’t facilitating any of the sessions, trying to keep some people on subject looked pretty hard.  Despite all of us having had to deal with disruptive participants in our own workshops, some facilitators make really difficult participants – much like doctors make the worst patients. However, if you try to tame the manes of disruptive professional facilitators they know exactly what you’re doing and they don’t like it!

So as I said, everyone had been invited to help refine VSO Cameroon’s programme objectives and redraft how we would track our progress towards these goals.  We’d come together to explore how we could make our programmes more effective.

“You know, not everyone wants to be involved in programme planning at the same level.  The session subjects are too heavy. Can’t we let people do what they want?”

What the heck…we’re flexible and responsive to the needs of our participants. Lets just chuck the plan out the window!

Chucking the plan out the window, of course, meant undoing all the planning done over the previous month and a half.  Chucking the plan out the window, of course, meant working my tail off to reorganize the sessions, come up with new facilitation plans and find ways to rearrange the session goals so that we still got eventually to what we needed to achieve. Chucking the plan out the window meant that a string of energy-sapping 14 hour days followed.

While sometimes feeling like I was worked over by a crack team of counter-insurgency agents, luckily I realized I had a Eureka opportunity:  I had a goldmine of 80 eager and skilled facilitators in the room!  Who better to help cobble the structure back together?

A little torture by facilitator wouldn’t hurt them… would it?

Thankfully the torture portion of the week had an expiration date for all.  The experiential learning part was duly assimilated.  In the end good work did take place.

80 victims tortured by facilitators

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~ by Greg Spira on March 8, 2011.

2 Responses to “tortured by facilitators”

  1. 80 victims of professional torture or 80 professionals facilitatos – the picture I mean?

    The options were endless… and none of them carried warning labels regarding potential for torture! (sorry, I forgot to hand you the little black of faciliation by Prof Torture Faci). Ask me for next time.

    We had a schedule. We had a programme. We had picked facilitators. We had a plan of attack. – I pity you, ashia.

    Excuse me, but, from my experience (any alarm bells ringing yet??) – you forgot the issue of French Vs English – the time taken to get an operational langauge.

    The time taken to agree break time due to prayers etc

    some facilitators make really difficult participants – much like doctors make the worst patients. However, if you try to tame the manes of disruptive professional facilitators they know exactly what you’re doing and they don’t like it! (PLSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS hahahahahahahaha).

    Maybe you should just make a new facilitation guide facilitating a workshops with sessioned facilitators as participants.
    Chess man. You did a great job after all.

  2. J’aime beaucoup la photo 🙂 It is nice to see all these faces

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