My time with my tribe

Five or six years ago, a couple of the guys from Enterprise Architecture (EA) paid a visit to the information services (IS) group where I worked as a solutions architect. They were on a “road trip”, they told us, visiting each IS business solutions group in the company to help us identify our target architecture.

I didn’t know we needed help. I didn’t know we needed a target architecture. But I didn’t care; I was too intrigued by the box of markers, sticky notes, and other materials. This was the “facilitation box”, I was told.

That workshop – the intriguing process the EA guys led us through, the fun we had, and the robust, organic result we obtained – infected me with the facilitation bug. I volunteered or was invited to attend a handful of other such workshops, on a variety of topics, over the next couple of years – until I joined EA and got a chance to lead workshops, myself! I took some of the same training the other EAs had completed, and learned that the apparent magic they worked was actually technology – the Technology of Participation (ToP), to be precise, created by the Institute of Cultural Affairs, and provided in Canada by ICA Associates.

The Gathering of the Tribe

Before long, I left EA, and then the company. But I continued to call myself a facilitator, and to find opportunities to use the skills in the context of my work as a consulting IT architect. An architect can spend a lot of time facilitating: conducting stakeholder interviews, running future state planning workshops, chairing meetings of communities of practice, leading design or code reviews, etc. By the end of 2014, I was even thinking: Could I ever make a living primarily as a facilitator, rather than as an IT architect?

As I was researching this exciting and daunting path, I learned that the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) would be holding its 2015 North American regional conference in Banff, Alberta – right next door to Calgary, where I make my home. I decided I had to make time for something so timely – so I registered for IAFNA 2015. I was one of a “tribe” of 140 (or so) delegates joining many wonderful presenters and organizers for prepared sessions, peer discussions, and social events, from May 14th to 16th.

My impressions of IAFNA were many, and my notes, copious. The conference ended just a couple of days prior to this writing, so I have barely begun to sort out everything I learned, or what I will use in my work, or how. I will include a few thumbnail sketches, here, and may delve into some of these concepts and tools in more depth, in future posts.

Process innovation (and the role of ELMO)

I attended a full-morning session with the warm and engaging Michael Wilkinson of Leadership Strategies, on facilitating the strategic planning process. Michael somehow managed to distill the key content of a three-day course into three hours. He introduced us to the Drivers Model, in which stakeholders assess the Current state, characterize their (future) Vision, and identify the Barriers which they must overcome. I was impressed with the comprehensiveness and clarity of the model, which also includes all the following elements (among others):

  • Goals (broad, “infinite”); together, these comprise the Vision
  • Objectives (specific, finite, S.M.A.R.T.) – the results that we must see
  • Critical Success Factors: conditions which we must create
  • Strategies: activities to undertake in service of the Objectives

I am familiar with other strategic planning models; none is quite as detailed and refined as the Drivers Model (it seems to me, at first blush). The distinctions it makes will definitely help me to tailor my strategy-oriented workshops.

As a bonus, Michael also introduced us (those who hadn’t heard the term) to ELMO: “Enough! Let’s Move On.” But Michael’s ELMO was trumped, quite vividly, in the very next session I happened to attend.

ELMO in Banff
ELMO in Banff

Jennifer Bentley and Belinda Honigfort, IT requirements analysts representing Nationwide Insurance, walked us through an expedited IT project launch process Nationwide calls “Rapid Alignment”. Basically, Rapid Alignment ties each phase of review and approval of a project charter (which defines the key elements and parameters of the project, such as scope, approach, and estimated timeframe and cost) to a storyboard, which is presented and discussed, panel-by-panel (or slide-by-slide, when developed using PowerPoint), with the stakeholders. Large-format printouts are used (laid out in sequence on the wall, beforehand), so any changes can be noted directly on the printed panel.

Having first oriented the group to the “rules of engagement” – for example, no smartphone use during the session – a facilitator keeps the process moving, using tools such as ELMO, in which any participant can call for closure on the current discussion topic, if a majority of others agree. (Each of us came away with a laminated ELMO face – one of the best items of swag I can remember!) Once consensus (defined as, “I can live with this and support it”) is achieved on a particular panel (perhaps with noted changes), there is no going back; thus, the “story” has to be clear, complete, and told in a linear fashion.

Jennifer and Belinda closed by showing us the impressive savings in time and cost Nationwide has achieved in the couple of years it has been using Rapid Alignment. Facilitation pays!

Going Digital

My Friday at IAFNA ended with a session that served as both a tantalizing taste of something new, and a reminder of something I had almost forgotten. Paul Penny of INTJenuity (yes, Paul confirms he’s an INTJ – like me) showed us what Facilitating with Digital Mind Maps is all about.

Mind mapping has long been used as a technique in brainstorming and in making “shared sense” of a complex topic under discussion. Only recently, however, have software and display technologies made mind mapping using a digital tool a feasible option in “real time” facilitation sessions. Using Mindjet MindManager with his Macbook and portable HD projector, Paul showed us what a natural and intuitive format a digital mind map can be for both the design/structure of a facilitated session and its results. Mind maps can be alternately hierarchical and nonlinear, show both summary and details, and can be used both to analyze and to synthesize information.

Workshop design mind map template (copyright INTJenuity)
Workshop design mind map template (copyright INTJenuity)

Personally, I was reminded that I own MindManager – and that I haven’t been making much use of it, lately. Whether or not I eventually find myself using a digital mind mapping tool during a session I am facilitating, I will definitely use it, offline, to organize my own thoughts, learnings, and designs. In fact, while writing this, I have decided to use MindManager to record and relate my takeaways from IAFNA, merging them with the knowledge and skills I already have, in a map of my personal practice of facilitation.

“Magic” and “technology” (redux)

I started my Saturday with Jo Nelson, a “hall of famer” in facilitation circles. This was the first time I had the pleasure of encountering Jo, in person, though I had certainly heard of her through her affiliation with ICA Associates. She gave us all a copy of her “master compendium” of facilitation tools and techniques, as well as the template she uses for “orchestration” of facilitated events (including a box for each “movement” of the “symphony”). Together, these materials comprise a “magic facilitation toolkit”. (Of course, a fair bit of it is branded “Technology of Participation”. Facilitation is both art and science.)

Jo invited us, in our small groups, to “play with” a couple of the 70-odd tools, and to plan a brief (imaginary) facilitated session using the template. This is a good place to state my admiration for my “peer” delegates (most of whom are patently my betters). In every session, I was struck by the tremendous wisdom and talent of my fellow participants, almost all professional facilitators, many of whom had 20 or 30 years of experience. I’m sure it was a pleasure for the presenters, too, to guide groups with such respect for the process and profession of facilitation.

Walking the line; staying the course

Of course, a room full of facilitators is not the typical group of stakeholders in attendance for a workshop. A facilitator has to work with groups and individuals that may be skeptical – or downright distrustful – of the process, the facilitator, or certain other participants or factions within the group. My last two sessions at IAFNA both dealt with the disruptions that threaten facilitated events – and what the facilitator can do about them.

In Walking the Fine Line Between Creativity and Chaos, Lise Hebabi of Intersol presented a framework defining four categories of challenges to an event – Rebellion, Revolution, Power Grab, and Coup – based on whether the challenge is led by an individual or by the group as a whole, and whether the target of the challenge is the process or the facilitator. Lise offered possible strategies (Ignore, Deflect, Acknowledge, Confront, etc.) for dealing with each category of crisis, and had us share stories from our own experience, along with what worked – or didn’t – to get things back on track.

Dr. Rebecca Sutherns entitled her session Staying the Course When Things Go Sideways: Increasing a Facilitator’s Agility. Similar “nightmare scenarios” as in the previous session were raised and discussed; in addition, Rebecca had us consider the non-human factors – e.g. environment, logistics – that can torpedo a session. Rebecca collected our input and sent us a compendium of our best strategies and her own, after the session.

Though they dealt with unpleasant situations, these sessions were imbued with humour. We laughed along with our fellow facilitators – our fellow tribespeople – as they relived being told, “We don’t do sticky notes,” and related the sheer panic they felt when they realized the “room” where they were to conduct their workshop had no walls. (That’s when they discovered that the floor can be a facilitator’s best friend.) Key learning: Anticipate, prepare, and always bring a Plan B.

So: Am I a Facilitator, now – or still an IT Architect? Yes, and yes.

Toward empirical IT governance

Overheard in a discussion among presumed Enterprise Architects: “I know that’s the principle – but what’s the standard?”

That took me back – back to the heady days I spent facilitating workshops designed to capture principles that “ought to” govern the IT development process (including definition, design and sustainment) at my then-employer. I’m sure it comes as no surprise that my title was Enterprise Architect.

The process was exhilarating; I found I loved designing and facilitating the workshops, just as I had enjoyed participating in similar workshops as a subject-matter expert. Reflecting on it, now, however, I question the premise – and a cherished premise, it is – of the primacy of principles. After all, we were capturing the opinions of individuals asked, essentially, to predict the future (not in detail, but in general).

One could depict the model (while lampooning it, a bit, to be sure) using the following diagram:


The “right” set of broad Principles influences Standards – by their nature, more specific, focused and “actionable” – which are reflected, in turn, in the IT Systems & Processes of the organization. This isn’t ridiculous or hopeless – but, when it operates in just one direction, top-down, it’s a bit like balancing a pyramid on its point.

Instead of, or in addition to, the abstract approach reflecting Enterprise Architecture, we need a complementary process reflecting Computer Science – with the emphasis on “science”.

The scientific method is more bottom-up than top-down. It upholds the primacy of empirical evidence – what’s actually happening. The scientist may start with a hypothesis – but can just as easily start with direct investigation and experimentation.

(Computer) Science

As depicted above, the scientific method accepts only Empirical Evidence as “gospel”, establishing a body of Theory only to the extent that it assists in understanding or explaining why we observe what we observe, and not something else. At the top of this pyramid teeter extremely powerful, yet fragile, Laws. A Law predicts the future – often, very precisely – but must be abandoned (or radically reformed) the moment we find its predictions to be misleading.

Almost every scientific discipline has discovered Laws. Computer Science is no exception; consider Moore’s Law – a good example not only because of its renown and the reliability of its predictions (so far) – but also because of its limitations and its ability not only to predict future outcomes but to influence them, at their source (in this case, the behaviour of organizations that create the very artifacts that comprise the domain of Moore’s Law, itself).

If we were (informally; we’re technologists, not scientists, by trade) to “do” Computer Science within the domain of our own IT organization, what would that look like?

First, we’d gather the empirical evidence. What is actually happening in our shop? How do we evaluate proposals, green-light projects, select and implement systems? What are our support and sustainment processes (both heretofore documented and – especially – undocumented)?

Next, we’d try to articulate why things work the way they do in our shop. What are the general themes and trends we’re seeing? Can we spot commonalities among “data points” we would have assumed were unrelated? If so, what do we see when we extrapolate? Does the resulting “curve” fit the “data”?

If so, we’ve hit upon theory that fits our observations. We may even articulate a (tentative) law. For example, we may discover that – as counterintuitive as it seems – that our support team’s costs seem pretty much fixed; that they vary hardly at all with the urgency and severity of the “tickets” (reported issues) to which those costs are allocated. Intriguing! It would seem the “Law of Fixed Support Costs” applies in our domain.

That such a law would apply might naturally disturb us – and we might launch a deeper inquiry into what it is about our support processes that doesn’t “care” about urgency or severity. Perhaps we’ll find that the phenomenon is an illusion – a side-effect of “bad science” on the part of those who report issues and/or enter support tickets; we may find that nearly every ticket is entered with a high urgency, for example. Conversely, we may find that our shop, by its nature, just works that way; perhaps we’re very small, with most issues requiring the attention of the same support people, who have to consult the appropriate subject matter experts in the resolution of nearly every ticket – resulting in a fairly high and invariant overhead. In this case, the discovery of the “Law of Fixed Support Costs” might inspire us to sign a fixed-cost support contract with a service provider.

To sum up: Top-down Enterprise Architecture may have its merits, and ideally can influence behaviour – but (Computer) Science (performed validly) will reflect more reliably what’s really going on. Use a Computer Science-based approach as a check against the “solution in search of a problem”.