Why You Should Avoid Plenary Like The Plague

A struggle in designing a facilitated process is deciding how much time to keep groups in plenary (one large group) as opposed to working in small groups, pairs, or individuals. During design, one person (often your client) may want to use the plenary to advance their own ideas. You hear, "They really need to understand this," and "If I explain it well enough, we could save a lot of time," and "They're smart people. They should just get it." Ultimately, this cheapens the value of others' perspectives. Not only that...  

  • ...it drains the introverts. Although introverts are good listeners, listening in a large group of people is exhausting. 
  • ...it frustrates the extroverts. Extroverts engage by thinking things through verbally. That can't happen if they have to sit still and be quiet. 
  • ...it blocks production. If only one person is speaking, no one else can contribute to the shared pool of knowledge, bottle-necking idea generation. As diversity and inclusion guru Joe Gerstandt says, "One speaker can lobotomize a group."
  • ...it fosters social loafing. Plenary puts people back into the grade school mental mode of "chalk and talk:" sitting back, passively listening, getting bored, or checking out mentally. Even after the plenary session ends and group work begins, it's difficult to shift out of this mode and start contributing.
  • ...it builds evaluation apprehension. Not many people like being publicly judged. The larger the group, the greater the fear of speaking out. 
  • ...it shorts the learning process. Facilitator extraordinaire Nancy Reuscher uses the metaphor of the marathon to describe the learning process. When you're in the middle of running a marathon, you're hating life. You're thinking about the pain and exhaustion and how far you still have to go. When you get to the end, you forget all that and are feeling great at having accomplished something difficult. Someone who's finished the marathon can't drag others who are in the middle of it to the end just by explaining it. They're caught up in their own condition. Everyone has to get through it on their own and in their own time. 
  • ...it disengages. By sending the message to be in receive mode, you are tacitly stating that the group's ideas and input are unimportant.

Worst of all, it defeats the fundamental purpose of bringing a group together for a facilitated session. Following Peter Senge's modes for decision making, it takes groups out of the Co-create mode and slams them into the Tell mode. When that happens, it's no longer a facilitation. It betrays the reason they came together in the purpose. It's become a lecture. And high-performing professionals with minds of their own don't get engaged by being lectured at. 

Future Visioning

If you want to get people to freeze up, ask them, "What does your future look like in ten years?" Unless they're psychics, strategists, or futurists (see: Faith Popcorn) and they're whole life is future thinking, chances are folks'll give you their best impression of deer in the headlights.

People need a concrete container to fill with the abstract concept of a future state. John Ward of Many Minds calls this "useless sense-making." My favorite method is the Grove's Cover Story Vision. It plays out like this:

"Imagine a point in time, ten years from now, when you've accomplished every goal you've set out for yourself. You've achieved your vision. You've successfully executed your strategic plan. You've delighted your customers and employees. You're living the dream.

"In fact, you've been SO successful that your favorite industry magazine has decided to feature you in their next issue. For the next hour in groups, you're going to design that issue. Which magazine is it? How does the cover story headline read? What does the cover look like? What are some of the images associated with the article? What are the quotes - what your customers and other stakeholders saying about you? What are some of the metrics? What are the sidebars - the human interest stories, or the impact your success has had?

"Work in groups at your table. You have a template, magazines to cut pictures out of, markers to draw with, tape, scissors... everything you need. Spend a little time brainstorming up front, then we'll hear from each group."

 The Grove's Cover Story Vision visual template

The Grove's Cover Story Vision visual template

The Grove has an alternate version of the Cover Story Vision called In The Movies. After having used both, I prefer the Cover Story Vision because it's easier to conceptualize producing a magazine article than a movie.

In March 2015, Heather Martinez and I were invited by a friend to help a girls' high school soccer team do some future visioning. We designed another version of the Cover Story Vision, modeling it after a school yearbook. We took the team through a series of guided questions: Imagine yourself on graduation day. What do you want your year book to say? What do you want your friends to write to you? What clubs will you have participated in? What were you voted most likely to do? 

It's easy for participants to conceptualize their visions of the future if they have a concrete container of a visual template like the Cover Story Vision. Once the container is filled, it's not difficult to derive the components of the vision necessary to lay out objectives and goals.

Here's a copy of the yearbook template Heather and I designed, please use it!

Other future visioning methods:

  • Have participants perform a skit of a mock CNN interview taking place in the far future where participants talk about their huge success.
  • From Trent Wakenight, have participants give two minutes of an acceptance speech for an award they've received as a result of their success. 
  • Postcards from the Future

Principle: GEPO and FPO

"Good Enough, Push On" (GEPO) has two uses. First, it can be used as a meeting principle to respectfully close a topic that has run out of intellectual steam. "Let's GEPO this." Second, it can be used as a design principle to counter balance the healthy but wasteful tendency to make something perfect. Not everything needs to be a Cadillac. Good Enough, Push On. 

"For Position Only" (FPO) is a rough iteration to get client feedback, before wasting time and effort that may be headed in the wrong direction. Here's what Seth Godin has to say about it:

When creating a layout, designers put low-resolution, imperfect, non-final images, all marked "for position only." They exist to help the client understand the gestalt of the piece and to give feedback.
They're temporary, parts of a whole ready to be replaced with the real thing once the big picture is locked down.
And the concept works in just about every project, every conceptual structure we seek to put together.
We act 'as if', then we worry about the polish at the end, not at the start.

GEPO is all about closing a conversation or task when enough energy has been given to it. FPO is all about keeping a conversation or task open, but pausing to check assumptions and get feedback. 


By Mia Liljeberg

Visual practitioners include graphic recorders, visual thinking trainers and graphic facilitators. Visuals are being used more in business communication, and this has provoked interest among business leaders.

There is plenty of research showing how the brain processes information. Vision is our strongest sense for capturing information: we remember in pictures. This is why storytelling is so efficient - it creates images in the heads of the audience. We remember more of what we see than what we hear, and we remember even more if we are engaged. Facilitative leadership  enables the team to engage in several ways; what we do, we remember.

Rosanna von Sacken, a visual facilitator, coach and practitioner listed ways in which graphics and visuals can help in facilitative leadership:

  • include diverse perspectives,
  • inspire contributions as participants see contributions on the board,
  • engage and excite people as the “picture” emerges,
  • connect the dots to bring the bigger picture into view or focus,
  • visualise disagreements
  • create common understanding,
  • clarify issues as they emerge,
  • enable talk about sensitive topics
  • generate ideas, innovation and solutions,
  • build relationships indirectly.

Multi-dimensional leadership is about collaboration, transparency and involving all levels in difficult conversations and in participatory decision-making. According to Rosanna, leadership is no longer just top down directives. Facilitators bring “head” skills, “heart” skills and “hand” skills into more prominent play. More focus is being placed on relationships and expressions of appreciation, without which results may not be as full and rich as they could be.

Facilitative leadership, like visuals and graphics, can be applied to many different fields, disciplines and professions. Traditionally, leaders are sent on training programs, such as communication, time management, how to delegate. These training areas do not necessarily consider cross component combinations and applications. Effective facilitation skills, on the other hand, provide the cross-over between these components.

Rosanna uses the metaphor of a fruit bowl: the bowl is like the facilitator, the container that provides the space and holds the different kinds of fruits together. The facilitator designs the processes to reach the desired outcomes, designs the tools and processes to be used and how best to engage the participants.

Facilitative leadership can be learned and developed. With more millenials entering the workplace, the need for engaging, entertaining meetings is growing, and more organisations are seeing the value of facilitation and setting up internal facilitator pools.

It´s easy – you can do it!

Anyone can learn and develop their facilitative leadership skills. Learning can typically be achieved in 3 ways, Rosanna says:

  • through reading,
  • by observing others or
  • by practicing and doing

Facilitative leadership is best learned this way, through application and practice in real or simulated scenarios, with feedback provided by experienced and trusted facilitators.

The bonus of using visuals in your facilitation is that it also adds fun to the work.

Visuals help the group to listen better as they receive on two channels, auditory and visual. They also engage the group and open up communication to get to the real essence of the dialogue.

There are no neutral visual decisions. All visual decisions are either helping you or hindering you in getting your message across. It could be the colour, the proportion, the direction etc. Metaphors are a good example of visuals that hold a lot of added meaning, but can also limit thinking due to the limitations of the metaphor.

Facilitative Leadership is a competency that can help you get results in so many situations, in your organisation as well in your private life. To facilitate is to connect people and ideas and real results.

So where do I start?

  • Invite participation through questions, using whiteboard, post-its and other tools so many can be engaged at once
  • Reduce your airtime to let others increase their airtime.
  • Think about the decision making process and the decisions to be made, which ones are negotiable and which ones are not. Make sure it is reflected in changed ways of presenting information.

Graphic Histories

Graphic histories are one of my favorite graphic facilitation acitivities. Nothing encourages storytelling, camaraderie, and a sense of culture like cocreating a graphic history. The Grove Consultants is the best place to start to learn to facilitate graphic histories.

Here are some examples of graphic histories I've done.

Principle: The Roller Coaster

Participants of any group process will experience a wide range of emotions. The principle of the roller coaster is a metaphor for those emotions. Use it to help groups objectively talk about what they may be experiencing. 

Women's leadership quotes

More leadership quotes via Jim Ward:


In Celebration of National Women's Day


* A woman with a voice is by definition a strong woman. But the search to find that voice can be remarkably difficult. Melinda Gates


* Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the President's spouse. I wish him well! Barbara Bush


* The fastest way to change society is to mobilize the women of the world. Charles Malik


* If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman. Margaret Thatcher


* A woman's guess is much more accurate than a man's certainty. Rudyard Kipling


* Extremists have shown what frightens them most: A girl with a BOOK. Malala Yousafzai


* Woman is the companion of man, gifted with equal mental capacity. Gandhi


* Modern invention has banished the spinning wheel, and the same law of progress makes the woman of today a different woman from her grandmother. Susan B. Anthony


* Nobody can make you feel inferior without your permission. Eleanor Roosevelt


* If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. Mother Teresa


* Women are the real architects of society. Harriet Beecher Stowe


* believe that it is as much a right and duty for women to do something with their lives as for men and we are not going to be satisfied with such frivolous parts as you give us. Louisa May Alcott


* How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes! Maya Angelou

Even more leadership quotes

Again from Jim Ward:

1. The great thing in this world is not so much where you stand, as in what direction you are moving. ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

2. If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way. ~ Napoleon Hill

3. Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion. ~ Jack Kerouac

4. Unless you choose to do great things with it, it makes no difference how much you are rewarded, or how much power you have. ~ Oprah Winfrey

5. There is a great man who makes every man feel small. But the really great man is the man who makes every man feel great. ~ G. K. Chesterton
6. Everybody can be great... because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

7. You were put on this earth to achieve your greatest self, to live out your purpose, and to do it fearlessly. ~ Steve Maraboli

8. You were born with potential. You were born with goodness and trust. You were born with ideals and dreams. You were born with greatness. You were born with wings. You are not meant for crawling, so don't. You have wings. Learn to use them and fly. ~ Rumi

9. Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great. ~ Mark Twain

10. Our key to greatness lies in who we are which we can give to other people in a way that when they walk away from us, they are able to say in their hearts that they have taken away something with them quite extraordinary. ~ C. JoyBell C.

11. You must expect great things of yourself before you can do them. ~ Michael Jordan

12. As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world - that is the myth of the atomic age - as in being able to remake ourselves. ~ Mahatma Gandhi

13. Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us. ~ Wilma Rudolph

14. Man's greatness lies in his power of thought. ~ Blaise Pascal

15. If a man has any greatness in him, it comes to light, not in one flamboyant hour, but in the ledger of his daily work. ~ Beryl Markham

16. Your greatness is revealed not by the lights that shine upon you, but by the light that shines within you. ~ Ray Davis

More Leadership Quotes

Via Jim Ward: 

* "You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand." --Woodrow Wilson

* "The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things." --Ronald Reagan

* "A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent." --Douglas MacArthur

*"The task of the leader is to get their people from where they are to where they have not been." --Henry Kissinger

*"Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you'll be criticized anyway." --Eleanor Roosevelt

*"Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right thing." --Peter F. Drucker

*"The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers." --Ralph Nader

*"Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality." --Warren G. Bennis

*"A leader is a person you will follow to a place you would not go by yourself." --Joel Barker

*"A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit." --Arnold Glasow

*"Leaders think and talk about the solutions. Followers think and talk about the problems." --Brian Tracy

*"Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it." --Dwight D. Eisenhower

The Paradoxical Commandments

-via Jim Ward, Senior Army Operations Advisor

The Paradoxical Commandments were written by Dr. Kent M. Keith in 1968 as part of a booklet for student leaders (when he was only 18!)
For more than thirty years, the Paradoxical Commandments have circled the globe. They have been put on walls and refrigerator doors, featured in speeches and articles, preached from pulpits, and shared extensively on the web. They have been used by business leaders, military commanders, government officials, religious leaders, university presidents, social workers, teachers, rock stars, parents, coaches, and students. Mother Teresa thought the Paradoxical Commandments were important enough to put up on the wall of her children's home in Calcutta.  

The Paradoxical Commandments
by Dr. Kent M. Keith

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.

Leadership Quotes

* A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done,
his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. —Lao Tzu

* You manage things; you lead people. —Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper

* The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to
say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant. —Max DePree

* Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality. —Warren

* Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way. — General George Patton

* Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you
become a leader, success is all about growing others. —Jack Welch

* You don’t need a title to be a leader. –Multiple Attributions

* My own definition of leadership is this: The capacity and the will to
rally men and women to a common purpose and the character which inspires
confidence. —General Montgomery

* Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, the raising of a
person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality
beyond its normal limitations. —Peter Drucker

* Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can
change world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has. —Margaret Mead

* The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born-that there is
a genetic factor to leadership. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is
true. Leaders are made rather than born. —Warren Bennis

* He who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander. —Aristotle

* Become the kind of leader that people would follow voluntarily; even if
you had no title or position. —Brian Tracy

* I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce
more leaders, not more followers. —Ralph Nader

* The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do
what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with
them while they do it. —Theodore Roosevelt

* Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is
no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous,
skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.
—Harry S. Truman

* The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say
yes. —Tony Blair

* The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. It’s got
to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You
can’t blow an uncertain trumpet. —Reverend Theodore Hesburgh

* The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but
not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble,
but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.
—Jim Rohn

* Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their
personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can
accomplish. —Sam Walton

* A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough
decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not
set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and
the integrity of his intent. —GEN Douglas MacArthur

* No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get
all the credit for doing it. —Andrew Carnegie

* Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want
done because he wants to do it. —General Dwight Eisenhower

* Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will
surprise you with their ingenuity. —General George Patton

"If you can hear my voice..."

Say (in your indoor voice): “If you can hear my voice, clap once [and then clap your hands once]. If you can hear my voice, clap twice [and then clap your hands twice].”

You will usually have enough people join in after the first and second clap that the rest of the talkers will realize something’s going on. By the time you get to “clap three times” they should be with you. If not, you may want to start over with “clap once.” 

Thanks Lisa Nelson for this great attention getter!

Sticks of tape!

When I'm not lugging around my giant multi-day facilitation kit or even my shoulder bag, I like to go as light as possible. That means bringing nothing more than a roll of paper and a hip pouch with markers. But a roll of tape doesn't easily fit in a hip pouch, so it ends up being just one more thing to carry. 

By accident, I discovered a solution. I like to "tab" strips of tape to make them easier to peel off the paper, saving me from having to dig at it with my fingernails. It turns out that those little tabs make it possible to stack pre-torn strips. What you get is a block of tabbed tape strips that are about the size of a pack of gum. This fits easily in a hip pouch, and it means I can leave the roll of tape behind. This is also a great way to leave tape with a client* for them to hang charts after the event.  

*Heather Martinez has another great way of leaving behind tape. She wraps it around rubber wine corks. 

Setting up a Simulation

This is the best set up to a simulation I've ever heard:

"In just a moment, we're going to ask you to take part in a simulation. It's going to be unreal. We're doing this so that we can expose the dynamics you face in the real world in the safety of a laboratory. Don't role play. We want you to show up as yourselves. We want you to tell the truth. We want you to be in the moment. We want you to be present.

"But there's one thing you're not allowed to say. I'm going to say it now, to get it out of the way. What you're not allowed to say is, 'This isn't real.'  

"Yes, we realize we're asking you to take on a role with little or no training. Which of course, is nothing like the real world.

"Yes, we're asking you to work with people with whom you have little or no existing relationships. Which of course, is nothing like the real world.

"Yes, we're asking you to join an organization midstream with little or no historical context of the organization. Which of course, is nothing like the real world.

"Yes, we're asking you to be responsible for achieving tasks with little or no understanding of what those tasks actually are. Which of course, is nothing like the real world.

"But the one thing you're not allowed to say is, 'This isn't real.'

"And with that, let's get started."

Energizer: It Could Be Worse

Here's a quick energizer that uses improvisation and constructive language. 
Set up the group in a circle or in pairs. The first participant says something innocuous, such as "I almost overslept." The next participant says something, such as "It could've been worse. You could've been late." Then the next, or other, says something worse, such as, "It could've been even worse than that. You could've been in your underwear." And then the next person tries to find something worse than that. And the game continues until everyone has a chance to contribute.