Simple does not mean simplistic

By Twalib Ebrahim

As facilitators we are brought in to tackle organizational challenges facing our clients, as such we believe we are responsible to make things better for the staff and organisation as a whole. So to be effective as a facilitator, you need to run programmes that truly make a positive impact for the client organisation! This means that as facilitators we need to design and implement initiatives and interventions that tackles real problems and makes better the lives of the people who we are contracted to help.

There are two challenges that I have observed in this work that we do as facilitators. The first one is that some facilitators look for simplistic quick-fix solutions, which are at many times just Band-Aids instead of the needed surgery solutions! The second one is that other facilitators look for complex and complicated interventions, which are sometimes designed to confuse clients and justify the expensive charges that they invoice!

So how have we done it? Our interventions are designed to make a sustainable change in the organisations that contract us. We use conceptual frameworks that are based on enabling the individuals in the organization to reflect on themselves and their impact on the team and organization. We then inspire them to make conscious effort on improving this for the good of the organization as a whole. It starts from where most other interventions end, where the individual’s leadership is called upon to take appropriate responsibility to tackle issues that are facing the organization.

In many other interventions, a problem is identified and the appropriate action to tackle it is chosen– for example we have a problem in offering good customer service, so we train our staff and put in place those feedback tablets for customers to tell us how they have been treated. From this feedback we then re-train or look for other technology to assist, for example we decide that maybe an ATM machine will be better! In the short term this works, but in the long run we are just treating the symptoms and not the cause of the problem.

Let’s look at an example. When consulting for a bank, they asked us to help in the re-training of the customer service staff since the first training run by another consultant did not seem to have as much impact as they hoped. We ran an experiential learning workshop that started by first breaking the ice and getting participants to be more relaxed with each other and the facilitators. After creating the right environment, we got down to some genuine conversations which enabled the participants to share with us quite openly – ‘How do I treat the customer well when I am not even treated well by my boss?‘  On asking the “boss” she said ‘how do I treat them well when I am going to face it rough on my appraisal if I don’t get the numbers down? These numbers include over-time hours, number of clients attended to per hour, and so on. So I have to push my people and when they are not hitting the numbers then I can’t afford to be nice!’

In essence the client wanted one result (great customer service) but they were pushing hard on another totally different outcome (lower overtime hours – as opposed to taking the time to treat customers well, more customers attended to in a day – as opposed to each customer is treated so well that they rate the experience as excellent!). When strategies are limited primarily to simple quick fix interventions and technological solutions to tackle a specific problem, only the specific problem is resolved. The challenge is that the specific problem may be a symptom of a deeper challenge facing the organisation, and these root causes do develop into other major problems!

The other challenge in the customer service improvement example was that the client had come to us quite late in the process, if they had come earlier they would have saved a lot of money, and we would have made a bigger impact! On reflection we realized the disadvantage our facilitation practice faces is that people look at what we are doing and say – that is too simple! Will it work? Does it really have a long term impact?

What we do is simple, yes, but it is not simplistic! Before making an intervention we invest quite a bit of time to first diagnose the problem, go underneath and see what is driving it or underlying the challenge, and then go even deeper to what is the root cause of the problem. Once you have identified these three levels you then start from the root cause and say ‘what intervention is needed to tackle the root cause of the issue?’ We have realized that at the heart of the problem is a need for the concerned people to undertake a personal awareness and reflection exercise. They first must take cognizance of the fact that they are part of the problem and need to take responsibility. They need to take the first action of changing the way they are doing things, and how they are interacting with the people that they work with. They must take the time to have genuine conversations, to listen empathetically, and to act with integrity. The second step is to then look at what systems and processes need to change and how will these people change them. Finally it is to see what are the interventions they are going to make that will bring about the sustainable change in the problem as well as in the systems that it sits in.’

So when people say what we are doing is simple they only see the intervention that we are facilitating. It could be a quick activity with a rope, or getting them to close their eyes and tackle a task. This is followed up by a facilitated discussion that always unpacks the root cause of the challenge and people are even anxiously proposing solutions. Sometimes the team leader comes to us and says, ‘I don’t know what has happened! My people are speaking so openly and are willingly coming up with solutions on how to tackle the challenge!’ It almost looks magical, and some clients have even attributed this to the venue! ‘This place is magical! I must bring my people here more often!’ We have realized it’s also because we don’t charge obscene amounts of money for facilitation. For example if you look at the budget for teambuilding interventions that we facilitate, the venue always takes the ‘lion’s’ share! No wonder they attribute the magic to the venue!

We try to explain to clients that when addressing an issue in the organization, we must first start by diagnosing it comprehensively before planning any intervention. We start by looking at the symptoms of the problem and what are its immediate causes, this is what we see happening and is quite explicit. We then look at what could be contributing to what we are seeing or what the client is experiencing and these are the underlying and root causes of what is driving the problem.

Our facilitation interventions have been effective because we design and implement interventions that solve complex organisational problems going beyond the surface level into the deeper dimensions of the problem! Quoting Dr. Monica Sharma who designed the Conscious Full Spectrum Response model, ‘It is an art to simplify without being simplistic especially in the midst of complexity.’

So looking at the problem and just coming up with a solution may not tackle the root causes of your issue. For example if your challenge is in the customer service example we looked at earlier, before we even consider bringing in quick fix solutions like ‘train them on customer service tips, or bring in technology to tackle it’, we need to address the root causes, which could be that ‘the staff attending to customers are themselves aggrieved and their needs must be addressed first before asking them to offer better customer service’. They may be getting treated unfairly and yet we are asking them to ‘smile’ and ‘be more helpful to the customer!’

Our facilitation intervention makes a difference because we create a context whereby participants feel that they can freely share their concerns, and they will be heard without any repercussion. To achieve this we spend time to coach and guide the team leaders so that they speak and act in way that develops this confidence in the staff. In turn the staff is invited to share in a respectful and caring way so that the leaders can hear them in a better way. Through expertly facilitated discussions people really start to have genuine conversations, real issues are surfaced and tackled!

We are like the proverbial Swan, gliding gracefully above the water yet paddling wildly beneath the surface! We make it look easy, it is not. It takes many hours of training and development of facilitation skills and competencies, supported by coaching and mentoring. The developing facilitator really gets to understand what facilitation actually means, and differentiate it from entertainer, animator, guest speaker, or even trainer.

Truly effective facilitation is about running sustainable interventions that cater for the short-term goal of tackling issues that affect the viability of the business, but also the long-term objective of strengthening the organization to face future unforeseen challenges and opportunities. It’s about interventions that are innovative in developing interdependence through fostering expression of individual and collective wisdom. All this while still making it look simple, but it is not simplistic!

 Twalib Ebrahim is a consultant and facilitator with The DEPOT for more than 21years