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It’s Not Monty Python: You’re the Facilitator, You Stop the Scene

Justin Mertes
October 19, 2020

I’m a big fan* of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Particularly, I’m a fan of the sketch comedy troupe’s refusal to submit to traditional sketch comedy rules. Take Graham Chapman’s The Colonel for instance… The Colonel would interrupt scenes when things got “too silly.” The sketch would be getting sillier and sillier and maybe, just maybe, the audience would be lucky enough for The Colonel to show up and break up the show. “Get on with it!” he shouts on one occasion. Another time he announces that “[the] sketch started off with a fine idea and now it’s become far too silly.”

Right, stop that! Stop that!

Sometimes I think it’d be quite nice for The Colonel to be a real person, a superhero of sorts. Perhaps a pleasant family dinner has veered far-too-political and The Colonel could step in and say, “Stop that, stop that—this was a great cheery time but now you’re all babbling about things that’ll end up frustrating each other!” Or, as a parent, for The Colonel to interrupt a child telling the Longest Story Ever by saying, “That’s it, you’ve gone on too long. Get on with it!”

*Note: when the library was out of their VHS’s, I’d make my way to the computer, and read full scripts of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Somehow it was just as funny as watching them.

 

As a Coach at Crema, one of my primary responsibilities is to facilitate workshops. Sometimes they’re week-long Design Sprints or 2-day-long engagement kickoffs, other times they’re a 3–5-hour long reprioritization session or strategic summit. Regardless of the workshop, it’s my job as a facilitator to prepare an agenda that points towards a specific purpose—every single exercise must move us one step closer towards that goal.

The trick is, few-and-far-between are the workshops I facilitate that end up being 100% accurate. They almost inevitably need to flex and adjust. To quote President General Dwight D. Eisenhower,

“In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Or, to quote Mike Tyson,

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

So it is with facilitation—you roll with the punches. You plan so that you can tweak those plans.

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He should’ve planned to be punched in the mouth, then he’d’ve been ready.

Some exercises end up being shorter than you plan, occasionally we kill two birds with one stone and don’t need the next exercise, and sometimes we realize we need to delay decisions until a further date. These are all helpful & necessary reasons for the workshop’s agenda to shift.

There are some reasons the agenda begins to shift that are less helpful, however. One participant may be talking far too much, or another participant may continue changing the conversation to something other than what the group should be focusing on. At this point, it sure would be nice to have The Colonel appear. “Didn’t you look at the agenda, you twit?” The Colonel would shout. “You’re wasting our time!”

Indeed, having The Colonel enter meetings that are “too silly,” “too off the path,” or “too long-winded” would make our jobs as facilitators far easier. But The Colonel will never show up. If you’re the facilitator, it’s up to you. You are The Colonel.

This often comes at a personal cost. Some common reasons a facilitator may simply let these things happen are…

  • They’re afraid that you may hurt the feelings of “the accused”
  • They’re insecure and lack the confidence to interrupt other professionals
  • They’re younger or more inexperienced than the team and feel it’s not their place

Indeed, it isn’t easy to stop someone mid-ramble and say, “Excuse me, I think what you’re saying right now may be more appropriate to discuss offline… we have a fairly strict time table today” or “I’d like to table this conversation to make sure we provide the other participants time to engage.” It takes courage, confidence, and a bit of nerve.

But remember, you’re the facilitator. Your job is to make sure that everything is serving the greater goal. You have to make it happen.

Several weeks ago, I was facilitating a pivotal strategic summit for a large team. As we progressed through the summit, our team quickly started noticing that we weren’t on the same page as their team. Moving forward would’ve been a waste of time because we didn’t know if we’d be moving forward in the right direction at all.

I called a 10-minute break and quickly hopped on a call with my team. I confirmed with the team that “it’s not just me, right?” They agreed. I suggested that the best step forward would be to scrap the rest of the workshop and have a small 4-person call to flesh out these details.

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Pro tip: wearing The Colonel’s outfit helps with tricky client conversations.

To this end, I called the client team lead and told them I’d like to cancel the workshop in order to flesh out this misalignment. The four of us that needed to remain had a fairly intense and personal “war-room” where we leaned into the discomfort that was creating a lack of clarity.

It wasn’t fun, but it was necessary… and it was my job to make the call and communicate it.

Even in the last week, there are several examples of times I’ve had to ask someone to let others talk, call on those who aren’t contributing, and cut off invaluable conversations. There are all kinds of tricks to doing it, including trying to wait until someone is done talking to change the subject or having a “parking lot” for conversations that should be continued at another time.

Ultimately, though, it still comes down to you as the Facilitator.

The Colonel won’t show up, so you need to.

Justin Mertes is a Coach Design and Sprint Facilitator at Crema. If you have any specific questions about facilitation, workshops, or Design Sprints, or simply want to get in touch, reach out to him on LinkedIn.

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