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Powerfully Resilient Virtual Teams – Lessons from Global IAF Leaders

Power of Faciliation 2

Over the last 2.5 years, an international team of 15+ IAF facilitators including graphic/visual practitioners from five continents and 8 time zones have been co-designing a book called The Power of Facilitation. It is about to go to press this week as an e-book and next week as a print book.  I wanted to share the incredible process that we went through together as an example of facilitators working together as a powerfully resilient and motivated team.  

I use the word “resilient” deliberately. In these times of pandemic, protests, perilous natural disasters and difficult politics, we need to work as teams. We need to be able to endure and sustain through all these unprecedented global, national, local and personal difficulties. The team I’m about to talk about went through several difficult moments. Yet we stayed together and never fully lost our momentum. How did we do it?

What can we learn from this experience and apply to all teams? 

If you’d rather watch the video, we don’t include all the details in the written blog, but it is a good overview of all the lessons learned as an international virtual team.

Why did we do this project?

First here is a little context about this team project. 

We wanted to show the breadth and depth of process facilitation. It is a relatively new profession.  The IAF, for example, was only founded in 1994. Before the 1990’s, facilitation was not a well known term and it was used sparingly in unique situations. Today, facilitation is a ubiquitous word that almost everyone has heard. Still, many do not know what it really means. Nor do most understand its powerful positive impact when done well. For example, I’m currently working in Saudi Arabia co-teaching 20+ healthcare professionals about facilitation. Most were familiar with the concept of interactive training; almost no one really knew what “contentless” facilitation was about. Now they are learning about it and practicing it (virtually!), and most see its tremendous value in transforming the health care sector. 

Graphic by Kailin Huang

It seemed important to our book-writing group of IAF members to express that facilitation could be used everywhere by everyone.  We wanted to showcase examples of how facilitation could be used in groups and as individuals.  My chapter for example called, “The Power of Facilitation for Self-Reflection, Change and Personal Growth” is about how to use professional facilitation methods to plan out your own life and work.

Who did this project?

All of the contributors to this book have been deeply and intensely involved in the profession of facilitation for many years, some for decades. Many of the authors have played pivotal roles in IAF leadership. Some of us are IAF Hall of Fame inductees. Some of us have been past or current presidents of the IAF. We all have our own specialties. Some of us work extensively in the corporate world, others in healthcare, not-for-profit sector or government. Each of us is deeply passionate about the impact that process facilitation can have on shaping a better world for every human being. Kimberly Bain of Bain Group Consulting near Kingston, Ontario, Canada, past president of the IAF, was the initiator and project manager. She was the glue that kept us together, kept the project moving forward and actually got the darn thing published! She called all the meetings and helped us through times and decisions that would have caused us to break up or not accomplish our original goal.

How did this project start?

Kimberly individually invited 10 people that she had come to know and respect through the IAF. She had worked with some of us so much that she was even able to suggest the topic of what our chapter might be. We had our first meeting on May 10, 2018. We met every few weeks or few months depending on the specific tasks at hand.  I think we met at least 25 times for a few hours each time. We invited 4 visual practitioners from around the globe to join us a year later.  We ended up with 15 final authors and visual practitioners.

What did we actually do as a collaborative book writing team?

Here are some of the things I remember. They may not be 100% accurate.  But they will suggest to you what are the key milestones that a project team has to go through. 

  • We reviewed what we could offer individually and collectively and decided on the container or structure that this project would encompass.
  • We honored that different people would have different capacities and abilities to produce the project deliverables in a timely manner. When this did not happen, we tried to be extremely accommodating and offer assistance when needed. Several of us had writer’s block. Some of us had deeply personal competing events in their lives. Some team members had to leave the project and not be included in the authorship due to these personal hardships or competing events. This was deeply sad for all of us.
  • We told each other that it was fine to expose our early drafts of writing and drawings to this team and not be offended or insulted by anyone’s comments. We realized that this would be a growth opportunity to gain insights from a wide international perspective.
  • We had to make decisions about how to organize the book so that the writing sequenced nicely. We came up with the idea to invite visual recorders to add beautiful graphics to each chapter and showcase what visual practitioners can do to enhance the written word. Typically, visual practitioners do this to enhance the oral word when they are onsite with groups.
  • We learned to incorporate new people into our group even though many of us had been working together for a long time.
  • When we lost some authors, we had to decide how to replace the invaluable material that we had lost. Sometimes it meant adding something to existing chapters. Sometimes it meant writing more chapters ourselves. Other times it meant getting a brand new person to add something that it would be easy to add at the last minute. Thanks to Kimberly for asking her husband, also a key leader and facilitator, to do that! Kimberly also did the bulk of that time-consuming, last minute added work. I think we could have shared that last workload better but  with the pandemic, and switching our clients to go online, everything became harder.
  • We struggled with how to bring our project to the world. Would we self-publish? Would we go with a tried and true publisher? What were our other alternatives? Would it just be an e-book or more than that? Would we collaborate with IAF and offer it under the sponsorship of IAF? How would we promote ourselves? What would be our Twitter handle? Did we need a website? These are all very difficult questions because they involved finances, emotional ties, limitations and implications for each of us and the profession.

What were the learnings?

I never thought it was possible to write a book with many people I did not know across the world, some of whom had never published their writing.  I thought Kimberly’s idea was a beautiful one but I really didn’t expect to succeed this well. Nor I did not know Kimberly’s ability to drive home a project. I should have known given all the incredible battles she had to deal with while president of the IAF.

Below are lessons from myself and two visual practitioners. Everyone else on this team was too busy with client work and preparation for International Facilitation Week next month (Oct 19-25, 2020). Others offered feedback to this blog and enthusiastic kudos via our project management tool, Basecamp.

Lessons from myself, Barbara, one of the authors:

KEEP THE TEAM ACCOUNTABLE – It takes a GREAT project manager to hold the vision and keep a disparate group of busy leaders moving forward. She was firm, but compassionate, fair and inclusive. She wanted to finish this book much earlier, but let that goal go for the common good of the group. Every meeting, we gave ourselves a deadline to get closer to e.g., writing the first draft of our chapter, getting several of our group to review each chapter, re-write the chapter, do the first draft drawings, approve the drawings, etc. We tried to be accountable to everyone not just the project leader. 

BE OPEN AND RECEPTIVE – Like any good facilitator, we have learned over decades of practice to trust the process and trust the group. Although we each did have our individual chapters, we knew we had to create a common thread throughout all of the writing and images. We needed to create cohesiveness and consistency. Imagine writing a book with 15 people! I remember submitting my first draft and for a long time no one had the time to review it. When I finally did get that feedback, it felt so affirming to have someone read it and care enough to give very good constructive changes. I understood that it would mean a fairly major rewrite but it did not matter. What mattered was that I got helpful feedback. 

When I reviewed chapters of my colleagues, I had to put on a very open and curious “hat”, and imagine how the writing would be heard by people who perhaps had never been deeply immersed in process facilitation. I tried to give as many affirming remarks as I did suggestions for change. My co-authors and co-image makers also took this approach. This made it safe to receive each others’ perspectives and make the changes needed for a better product.

Graphic by Kailin Huang

PREPARE TO BE ASTONISHED – I think many of us go through life expecting we have to do things by ourselves. Many of us have thought that we’d like to write a book but we never do. If we were writing on our own, it would easily take several years. When you have a good leader like Kimberly, who provided the container for us to do this work, and you have colleagues who are forgiving, humble and yet unafraid to work at the global leadership level, anything is possible. We accomplished something that is  way more than this book. We shared our passion and complete confidence in the ability of our profession to change the world. This underlying purpose and dedication is what kept us going.

Lessons from Rosanna, one of the visual practitioners:

LET GO – There were 4 visual practitioners involved in this project. We all have different drawing styles and experiences. I was sure that we also had different perceived meanings of the chapters. Before we were each assigned two chapters to draw, I was worried about the overall consistency in the look for the book – the layout, the lettering, the drawing styles, etc. I had to try to let go of my concerns and desire to control different aspects of the drawings. It was easier once I acknowledged that our ego can get in the way and we were each given two chapters to visually summarize with clearer parameters.

TRUST – The authors I did the drawings for gave me total and complete trust and artistic freedom to draw whatever and however I interpreted their chapters. I was given free rein to illustrate the chapter summaries as I made meaning of them. For this kind of work, we, the visual practitioners, try to limit the editing to two rounds, because typically clients would want more edits than that and it could get out of hand. So I was somewhat surprised that for one chapter, there was absolutely no editing required, for the other, only one minor change was requested. This level of trust was graciously embraced by all.

NON-JUDGMENT – I mostly had interactions with the authors for my two chapters, Trevor and Malin Durnford and Kimberly Bain, and the other visual practitioners, but I can see that the whole team supported each other unconditionally. From the emails and shared messages, most of which were openly shared, I could see that not only the visual practitioners but everyone was very generous and non-judgmental. Offerings of feedback were encouraging and gentle in tone and in nature. It was amazing to witness the give and take, the open reception of feedback and willingness to move.

Lessons from Chitra, one of the visual practitioners:

COLLABORATION BY CONVERSATIONS – A  lesson learned from this international group of committed authors and leaders in facilitation, was how conversations steer Collaborative Project decisions. Varying time zones are a challenge, yet having teams of two authors per Chapter, ensured synchronous conversations could be had with some representation from all chapters, even if all members couldn’t join. Basecamp as a document and message sharing platform was ideal to update oneself on the process, asynchronously, especially when Visual Practitioners entered the scene, much after the writing of first drafts had started.

EMERGENT LEADERSHIP ROLES – Another lesson was on how leadership shapes up, evolves and flows around stronger roles such as “Collaboration Anchors” in a group where there are multiple leaders. Kimberly, took on that role for the longer duration of the writing and publishing process for the authors, while I saw Rosanna and Kailin, play that part for Visual Practitioners, early on, when styles and guidelines were being established with their icon Illustrations. Gradually, with closing of the chapters, other anchors emerged when website and social media decisions were taken. These emergent roles, carried through the efforts with consistency and commitment. 

VISUAL TRANSLATION PROCESS – One of the first calls with Visual Practitioners, helped us understand the Authors’ collective intention of what they expected from our work as graphic facilitators and not traditional book illustrators. “How were these two processes different?” This was something to ponder and understand as a visual practitioner. It was not easy to break away from traditional habits of Illustration, where multiple rounds of dialogues with the author is inevitable in shaping up and refining the finished visual from thumbnails, pencil sketches and colour samples etc. The author in a traditional book Illustration process, invariably directs the visual with their imageries. Yet, what emerged was a hybrid process unique to this collaborative book.

We were clear that the output is a book Illustration with specified guidelines. Yet, the visualisation process was one of capturing the essence of the Chapter and doodling out words, as we would, while listening to them in a Live Talk or Workshop (as first impressions). The drawn output was then refined with dialogues with the author, as we would in a post-event stage, where errors and gaps in the visual representation are addressed and fixed. The visual interpretation however, is unconditionally accepted. 

In the two chapters that I Illustrated, the authors started a dialogue based only on the visual interpretations represented as first impressions. One of the two chapters needed additional help from the authors in interpreting the central theme in their text, since their language was already abundant with many visual metaphors. 

The graphic facilitator and illustrator in me, took turns to step forward and deliver the best for the situation. The aim of the former is to simplify the complexity by drawing immediately relatable visual themes. The latter is concerned with nuances of the craft of representational drawing (semantics), refining for better readability and designing knowing the constraints of reproduction.

Resources

Our ebook and print book will be available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart, Powells, Bam, etc.  Books can also be purchased directly from the Bookbaby ‘Virtual Bookshop’.  

Also check out and follow us on our new and not quite finished website: https://facpower.org/

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Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

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