Every great advanced collaborator has a skill or attribute that makes him or her unique. I have an American colleague whose special skill is moral authority. He speaks and acts as if he is channeling God and the collaborators are in awe of him. A French colleague’s secret is his charisma. He overflows charm and good humor and his participants want so much to like him, and be liked by him, that they give him great latitude in his facilitation. A Taiwanese colleague benefits from a phenomenally analytical mind and the ability to express complex ideas with simplicity and conviction. (These skills can also be traps – providing the magic solution to whatever challenge the facilitation process presents, regardless of that solution’s fitness for the participants and their challenges.)
My own special skills are persistence and experimentation. Never give up. I frequently find myself channeling Will Smith and his treadmill analogy: “The only thing distinctly different about me is that I am not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period”, said Smith (http://bkle.in/1QuvMCn). No sponsor team or group of participants can outlast me. If a group even suggests that they can keep at it longer than me, I kindly remind them that I have worked with Somali presidents, Sudanese warlords and four star generals and they very quickly back down.
Since persistence isn’t a wild card, but a least common denominator, my wild card is that I can experiment and innovate during every facilitation without fail. I manage to carve out possibilities, from a tiny surprise like a bike ride on the beach, to a real time software test with 600 people, to entirely new facilitation models and approaches. About 80 percent of these fail, but because my insatiable desire to experiment is known and frequently empowers participants, I am able to continue.
Although I sometimes refer to these individual characteristics as collaboration style, I believe that they reflect the unique skills of the facilitator; skills that can be cultivated by identifying intrinsic strengths and building on them intentionally.
The Skill Worth Forgetting
I’ve saved for last the one skill that can get a good collaborator into trouble: problem-solving. Some people are great at looking at a complex problem and immediately seeing the solution. They are often impatient with how long it takes others to see what to them are obvious answers. But it is not their impatience that makes these people poor collaborators. It is simply the fact that they see the answer at all that disqualifies them. A good collaborator should be the last person in the room to see the answer. A good facilitator keeps all plausible options open far longer than anybody else and feels real surprise and gratitude when the group finally settles on the ‘right’ answer.
Although I rarely suffer from excessive insight, I am occasionally asked to lead a workshop about a topic that I have deep knowledge of. In my days as a consultant I was considered an expert on digital transformation. Alas, I once facilitated a two-day event to redefine the customer experience and digital footprint for hundreds of external-facing websites converted into one portal. As hard as I tried to keep my mouth shut, my deeply-held belief that I knew what path they should take undermined my effectiveness as a facilitator and the event achieved only a small fraction of its potential.
The Advanced Collaborator as Disruptor
These skills add up to disruption. Paradoxically, the advanced collaborator makes things easier by getting in the way. The facilitator is the rock protruding from the stream, creating eddies, cross-currents, and rapids while at the same time offering a foothold to whomever wants to cross that stream.
Conversations have a natural flow; they start when catalyzed by a new idea and then they tend to decline in energy and focus as they proceed. They meander and only occasionally reach a useful destination on their own. The more people in the room, whether active in the conversation or merely witnessing it, the less likely it is, unassisted, to go anywhere. So our job is to forestall that entropy by constantly thinking about all the alternative directions – directions, not destinations – that the conversation could go and then, at what feels like the right moment, throw a barrier in its way. The barrier might be a story or a challenge or a metaphor; anything that disrupts the inertia that the conversation has accumulated. Then we observe whether our diversion has added energy or taken it away; whether it has helped the participants discover new meaning and new perspectives in their conversation or simply caused confusion. When we get it right, the disruptions we insert into the flow will help it move in a more constructive direction.
To be effective disruptors, we need to find a middle way between a conductor who, unlike us, has a musical score she needs to stick to, and an explorer, who is simply searching for what is out there. We don’t have a score, but we do have an agenda; we don’t follow a random walk, but we’re not certain of the destination. So our job is to shape a conversation – moment to moment – with the greatest possible potential. Then it is for our participants to capitalize that potential.