Wanna be a Facilitator? Toughen up!

I just read a great post by Robert Burton on LinkedIn titled 5 Common Tabletop Exercise Mistakes.  Robert gives a good review of the common issues that can doom a TTX from the beginning.  Go check it out!

My addition to his post reflected on the need for good and strong facilitation.  I figured it would be worthwhile to develop a separate post and expand on that a bit.  Facilitation itself is certainly an art – be it for a meeting, a workshop, or a tabletop exercise.  I would offer that while there are similar skills, abilities, and traits that will lend to success for all these applications, there are also some differences.  Facilitation for all applications requires that one speak up, follow an agenda, clearly communicate, and give everyone a chance to participate.  Charisma helps carry things along.  In some instances, you also need to be tough.  In a meeting, you have to be tough to enforce sticking to the agenda.  In a table top exercise, you need to be a little tough with the participants.

We’ve certainly all witnessed poor exercise facilitation.  They facilitator doesn’t follow the MSEL, tells their own stories, leads participants to answers, and puts up with softball answers that don’t tell much of anything.  Remember, the ultimate purpose of an exercise is to test plans.  Plans are executed by people.  We are testing the plans through these people.  If we aren’t getting good answers, we aren’t meeting our goal of testing the plans.

In one of the best table top exercises I ever witnessed, the facilitator provided injects, as expected, to a group of agency department heads.  The facilitator had a very distinct position in the agency, though… he was their new director.  He requested that we put together a TTX focusing on agency response plans.  When we asked who he wanted to facilitate, he said he would do it.  Now there are certainly pros and cons to this, but he was the boss, and the results were quite eye opening.

As follow ups to the injects, participants were asked questions such as ‘What is your role?’ ‘How would you respond to this?’ and ‘What would you do next?’.  This is how participants should be drawn out to obtain good information.  Additionally, facilitators should consider asking ‘Why’ when participants give certain responses.  (Check out my post Ask Why 5 Times – I explore the power of this question a bit more).  Do they think their response was a good idea or is it actually called for in a plan?  ‘Who’ is another good question.  It’s easy for participants to throw out generalities in response to questions (i.e. We would do x.).  Well WHO specifically would do it?  And WHY? And what if they weren’t around?  What does the plan say?

After getting a few answers he wasn’t very comfortable with, the new director then lobbed in a heck of a hand grenade – Show me.  This threw participants for a loop.  Now, I will grant you that this is rather unorthodox in a TTX, although not completely unheard of.  Given his position, no one was going to challenge him, though.  Out scampered one person.  A few more questions, then the phrase again – Show me.  Out scampered another person in search of another binder.  In the end, some had supported their claims, others did not.  These were great lessons learned.  We found holes in plans, necessary connections between plans, and a need to update plans and train people on those plans.

After this exercise, I learned lessons myself and approached facilitation of future exercises very differently.  I began asking more questions as follow ups to participants’ responses.  We dug deeper and found out more – so did the participants.  Sometimes they don’t like it, and sometimes you feel like you are being antagonistic.  Obviously you don’t want to create an unpleasant experience for anyone, but if they aren’t able to handle a few tough questions from an exercise facilitator, they certainly won’t like handling them from their boss, their bosses boss, or the media.

Bottom line, if you are going to facilitate an exercise, toughen up.  Ask follow up questions.  Get clarity on the answers and don’t let participants get away with easy answers.  If participants squirm a bit, that’s OK.

What are your exercise facilitation experiences?  Any best practices to add?

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

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