Facilitate, don’t participate!

Facilitate, don't participate


I am going to let you in on the golden rule that I hold dear in my work and that is a guiding principle for all of us at Minkowski: When you facilitate you don’t participate.


From developing strategy to facilitating strategy

It is one of the more important changes that organizations want to learn how to master themselves. If strategy and vision can no longer be set in stone, because the world is changing continuously, then how do you make sure your organization can adapt continuously as well? As a facilitator I can design an intervention to get a company on the right trajectory again, but when companies truly want to become future ready they have to be able to do it themselves. Then everyone inside the organization should be able to make an intervention to course correct.


Facilitation as a basic skill for everyone

Years ago I was hired by a bank in Zürich and they understood perfectly well that their own people should be able to facilitate sessions. That way, they reasoned, they could tap into the collective wisdom and insights of their own people. The answer to the question on how to fundamentally transform can more often be found inside an organization than outside. Because that is where the change should occur: outside consultants can never be as impactful to change a culture as inside employees can. Facilitation is slowly becoming a basic skill that every employee should be trained in (and more companies are in fact training their employees for this)


Learn how to ask questions instead of answering them

So, what have I taught the employees of the bank in Zürich? One of the most important things I told them was that they were the facilitators themselves during the break-outs. That may sound like an open door, but it is a fundamental insight to facilitate a session well: when you facilitate you don’t participate! Most often when employees organize a brainstorming session, they participate just as much as they try to facilitate. This is a very natural phenomenon: they want their voices to be heard as well. However, as soon as you blur those two roles, you loose all the control to lead the session to a valuable outcome, because you loose the authority to intervene.


Facilitation for that matter is a very humble role: you are a servant to the process and you are only serving it well, when you let go of your own ‘agenda’. Simply put: as a facilitator you never give the answers, but you always pose the questions (so that the others can formulate the answers and work together to a shared outcome). When the employees in Zürich understood that, the chance of success increased dramatically.


Do you want to learn more about asking the right questions or facilitating collaboration? Then the following articles might be something for you:

How to initiate Collaboration: The Power of Questions

Without empathy there is no collaboration




How to initiate Collaboration: The Power of Questions

How to start contribution: The power of questions

How to initiate collaboration? As a leader, it is vital to pose challenging and motivating questions, particularly when confronted with crises and uncertainty. Effective questioning may help you connect with others, gain their trust, and endorse collaboration and participation in your team. The ability to ask questions is just as vital as listening when it comes to finding hidden possibilities, producing superior outcomes, and reducing unanticipated hazards. That is the power of questions.


The Power of Questions to initiate Collaboration

A famous quote from Confucius reads: “the man who asks a question is a fool for a minute, the man who does not ask is a fool for life.”  I’ve always liked that quote, but I think there’s even more to a question than just getting smarter.

Because for me, initiating collaboration almost always starts with a question. I think I spend 80% of my time preparing for a session on formulating the right questions: because a good question begs for an answer. Your brain can simply not ignore it. And thus you are activated to participate and collaborate.


Let others formulate questions 

Having people answer questions is not the only way to start an interaction. Having people formulate questions themselves is also a great way to activate them. So sometimes instead of me coming up with the questions I just let the participants themselves come up with questions.

I actually came to the realization that formulating questions is just as powerful for starting collaboration and engagement through my kids. Especially with my 13-year-old son. I think many of you will recognize the passiveness of a teenager when you ask them how school was, or how things are in general. I always got one worded answers like: ‘fine’, ‘boring’, ‘good’, etc. At first I tried to come up with better, more intriguing questions. But I always failed.

Whereas in my professional life I’m quite successful in asking questions and getting meaningful answers in my personal life I was not at all. How was that possible I always wondered? Of course one of the big differences between my 13-year-old son and a participant in a session lies in the willingness to collaborate. My son, obviously is not willing.


Developing your skills

So… In our family we came up with a ‘game’ during dinner: you spin a bottle (or fork, or knife, or whatever is at hand) and whoever the bottle points to has to come up with a question for all the others to answer. It started out with questions like: what is your favorite color (from my 5-year-old)? Or: don’t you think I should get more allowance (from my 13-year-old)? But over time the questions got more intriguing and led us into deeper conversations about life and death, love, emotions and how to deal with them, etc. And my 13-year-old is now also engaged when someone else asks a question.

So how to initiate collaboration? Meaningful collaboration almost always starts with a question.


Do you want to read more on how to develop your leadership skills? Then the following articles might be something for you:

Kickstart for a successful meeting

To change behavior: see before you act

Facilitate don’t participate