This is the 7-Step Process to Execute a GREAT Learning Activity.
A brief as possible, this LP gives you only the necessary steps without any frills yet, each of these steps is important. You don’t need to obsess over every one, but take at least a few moments to focus and consider each one.
James Carter is the Founder and CEO of Be Legendary. He has spoken for hundreds of groups and thousands of people while training hundreds of new and experience facilitators on how to facilitate meaningful activities. James is also the co-author of two books with others like Stephen Covey, Ken Blanchard, Deepak Chopra and Brian Tracy. James lives in Boulder, CO with his family and rides his bike as much as possible.
A facilitator helps makes something easier.
In this case, you are making the process of learning easier. That DOES NOT mean that learning is easy!
Activities will help bring the learning to life.
As a facilitator of activities, your job is to run them well and facilitate a meaningful debrief.
Aside from teaching the material yourself, experience is the best teacher.
I like experiential learning because it shows each of us what we DO and not what we THINK we do.
Experiential learning creates incredible discussion and allows me to examine what I/we do to get at the heart of WHY we do it! Once we know why, we can more easily change the ‘what’.
If you need more information, here is a 13 page Ebook about exactly WHY experiential activities work so well, including statistics and the four key areas addressed with this kind of learning
Using the opportunity to ask questions that get participants to answer the way you want. In other words, manipulating the conversation
in the debrief so self-discovery cannot happen.
Or even worse, to use the opportunity to show everyone how smart YOU are. This process is not about you or what you know!
Creating a safe and comfortable space for self and group discovery.
You are responsible no only for their physical safety, but their emotional safety as well. If your team feels safe, they will share and learn. If they don’t, they will keep the ‘company hat’ on, tell you and the team what they want to hear and nothing will change.
Letting the team struggle is the single greatest challenge.
We are all products of modern ‘education’ which means we are very familiar with a particular style of learning.
DO NOT ‘save’ the team when they are struggling.
DO NOT ‘instruct’ them like a teacher would. This is a form of ‘saving’ the group and also make YOU front and center when the focus is on the team.
Ignore any training and/ or past experience you may have had in instruction or education as a ‘teacher’ or ‘trainer’.
Of all the elements in experiential learning, the facilitator has the greatest impact upon the ultimate success or failure of the program.
- You’re Facilitative vs. Directive.
Good facilitators know that they’re not here to “fix” anyone. They understand that they don’t always need to have all the answers. As a facilitator, you see your job as one where you help the participants expand the horizons of their awareness, and facilitate them taking responsibility for their actions, past, present, and future.
- You’re not a “know-it-all.”
Being the facilitator doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be the “authority” on the subject at hand. The amount of brilliance unleashed in your team depends on how well you let go of your need to know more than anyone else.
- Be a guide on the side vs. a sage on stage.
The way most of us were raised and schooled, we were conditioned to shut up and listen to the wisdom of the “expert” on the podium or the person “in charge.” Approach facilitation from the perspective that the wisdom in the “room” is far more potent than the “sage” in front of the room, you’ll see the participants more engaged, having more fun, and achieving greater results. Read more.
- You are rarely heard.
You ask questions, participants discuss and dialogue. You paraphrase and probe. Participants speak. Participants realize you have said very little the entire time.
#1 - Carefully Select Outcomes
Especially in the beginning, if you will be running lots of activities and/or discussion, help your team understand what they are doing with some common context.
“We are going to work on our communication today.”
First, you must know what your context is, right? So, what is the single greatest bottleneck that prevents people from being their 100%, absolute best?
Another – what does your team do REALLY well? How can you apply that to other areas?
Here is an activity (opens in a new window) to get your team to interact and also come up with the most critical topics in their eyes.
This may be the MOST important aspect of your activity. Get this wrong and nothing will go right.
Answer this question:
“What do you want people to walk away thinking, feeling and saying to themselves and one another?”
“What will they do differently as a result of your time together?”
Spend some time and really think through the answers. If you do not know, your first team meeting needs to be this and asking these two questions of your team:
“What do you want to be thinking, feeling and saying moving forward?
Prepare for crickets and be prepared to go first – be vulnerable, be honest, be open.
In the end, every single activity is about change – what am I / are we going to do differently? If you look at change this way and get your team to see change this way, everyone will embrace change as something positive.
#2 - Pick the Right Activity
When you are picking your activity, there are many considerations:
- How many people?
- How much time?
- Inside or outside?
- What kind of room? If you only have a conference room with a BIG table, for example, that will severely limit the activities you can run.
- What is the general trust level within the group?
- How sophisticated is the group in this kind of discussion and activities?
- How willing will they be as participants?
- Have you tried some kind of ‘team building’ in the past that went wrong?
These are somewhat simple but you would be AMAZED at how many managers neglect to ask themselves simple questions like this and end up with disaster.
EVERY single activity, when done correctly, is a ‘team building’ activity. Don’t worry about that.
In Step #1, you should have identified exactly what being a better team looks like – focus on that and not simply being a better team. When I hear that from someone, that is code for “I don’t really want to work too hard to help them be a better team.”
Find something more narrow, a bit more tangible, that you can identify, discuss and modify or change behavior to create some kind of change.
Glance through these:
#5 – Wrong Activity, Wrong Time
There are MANY different activities to select from and each of them has their own place. You use the right one at the right time a MAGIC – the best discussion you have ever had as a group. Yet you use the wrong one at the wrong time and it’s like someone volunteered everyone to go to the dentist for a root canal.
#4 – No Application to Work / Life
Spending time away from making money or saving money – the only two end results of every employee – means that you need to make the time matter and make sure the participants can apply what they have learned. You don’t have to directly apply it to work even. But they need to be able to learn something AND have a way to make a meaningful change, even if that change is very small. If every person makes one small meaningful or positive change, that adds up!
#3 – Make it a Quasi Therapy Session
Make it a focus on Personal Issues or a way to confront a small group of trouble makers. This inevitably creates a ‘bitch’ session that is very hard to stop. We have been hired more times than I can count because two or three people had a personal issue and the manager did not to deal with it directly. Instead, they decide to have a ‘team building’ session! Everyone knows why they are there and resent it. Please, please, PLEASE do not put your people through a team building session unless you are there for the entire team to learn and do something different as a result.
#2 – Focus on ‘Getting out of our comfort zone’
It is inevitable that some individuals will be pushed out of their comfort zone and almost everyone at some point. That is a given. But pushing people beyond their comfort zone should not be the goal. When is that the goal at work? Typically we need to be out of our comfort zone to learn in an experiential way. Or, at least learn the fastest. That is why immersion learning for language works so well. In order to be back in your comfort zone, you have to learn REAL fast. So getting out of your comfort zone is good but only as a way to create a better learning environment and not as the goal.
#1 – Focus on ‘FUN’
Fun is great. I LOVE fun. But if that is all you are doing, you are NOT building a team. You just had a great time. And maybe have a couple of cool stories. But that is all you have. And there is a place for that. There is also a place for taking everyone out to a ball game or bowling on a random afternoon. But that is simply having a good time together and NOT team building. Call it something, but do not call it ‘team building’. That is easily the #1 way good team building gets a bad name.
#3 - Control the Environment
You may not have control over everything, but you would be AMAZED what you can do.
100% of my activities are in a new place for me and I have to be incredibly creative.
Since a confused mind says ‘No’, I do not ask for permission – ever – from a facilities person, an office manager or someone else who may say ‘No’. Because they will about 90% of the time. They don’t understand what you are doing, why you are doing it, how you may impact others and the facility, so it is only natural for them to say no. Yes, I get into trouble sometimes, but I also meet new people too.
I also do not ask the participants what they would like too often. You will get a mixed response and someone will be upset.
One November in New Jersey I was working 20 top HR executives from GE and our space was not what they said it would be and when I arrived I found an incredibly cramped space with almost no room to walk and zero change of an activity. So, during a break I set up my trust activity (Trust Walk with mouse traps) in the parking lot. Oh boy, were they surprised when I told them we were going outside into the 30 degree weather and THEN asked them to take off their shoes! Guess what? Every single person walked without shoes. They were so moved by the experience – so far beyond what they would have dared do – we ended up debriefing the activity standing in the cold. Naturally, as we were finishing, the facilities manager told me to never to use the parking lot for anything other than parking without written permission. 🙂
In the end – do what is best to have the greatest learning opportunity for the participants and you will make good decisions.
Control as much of this as you can and consider each piece.
For example, I was running a conflict activity in a small training room and 30 minutes before the activity, I turned up the heat and left the door open. As soon as everyone was there, I closed the door and front-loaded the activity (more on that later) to be sure to give the room time to heat up.
By the time we started the activity, it was HOT, but no one really noticed. But it had a big impact upon the authenticity of the group – LOTS of conflict and, of course, lots of discussion about what went wrong, what went right and what we will be doing different. I was told not to touch the thermostat anymore. 🙂
During a perception session, I ran the activity in a busy hallway in an office building. The participants were very nervous and somewhat embarrassed because people were looking at them, some pointing, some laughing. The environment contributed greatly to the discussion later because the participants were concerned about the perception of others in the office building.
The environment is just another tool to use to enhance the activity. Use every single edge you can to make the activity better. Better, more authentic discussion will follow which means better solutions and changes.
#4 - Frame the Learning
Framing is how you present the learning activity prior to beginning. This could be weeks in advance (for a retreat, for example) or a week before (to ensure everyone’s calendar is clear, for example). Framing is also how you present what you are doing and will create a particular mindset.
If you send out an email to the team with the Subject, “Next Week’s Trust Team Building Activity”, you are probably hampering progress if this is your first time. If this is your 10th time, that may easily put people in the right ‘frame’ of mind.
Think about the learning activity from your team’s perspective and what they may be thinking before they begin. What is going through their mind? Here are some likely mindsets:
- Some fear of unknown
- Dread from previous poor activities
- Frustration being taken away from work, again
- Excitement of doing something different
Based upon what you know of your team, ‘frame’ out the activity to help them embrace what you/they are doing.
Framing out the learning in advance is called front-loading. Basically, telling your team what they will be learning before you begin.
Front-loading can be beneficial for a few reasons, but it is especially beneficial for newer facilitators to help stay on track during the debrief and redirect the team back to the topic without being TOO directive.
You can read more about front-loading here if you are planning to do this.
Acknowledge to your team they are busy and provide clear guidelines and expectations and stick to them. This is especially important if you have not done this kind of learning/activity before. Here are some areas to address:
- What will you be doing? Look at front-loading here.
- How much time will it take? Make sure to stick to this!
- How this is different/similar from what you have done in the past.
You can read up more about how to prepare the group here.
#5 - Execute Activity
NEVER go into an activity with only one activity at your fingertips. Any number of things can happen that will derail your activity and/or make it impossible to run.
This is especially true if you are using any kind of technology. There have been dozens of times when technology fell through and I would have been left with nothing, looking really dumb, if I did not have a back up.
In one example, the power turned off in the entire office building in New York City. We all walked down 15 flights of stairs and went to a nearby park, ran a completely different activity, had a great discussion and the executive team said it was the best ‘team building’ they had ever had. Why? In the office, we were restricted to conference rooms with many distractions and a consistent frame of mind. When we went to the park, everyone sat on the grass in a circle – just human beings – and had a much more natural discussion.
There are LOTS of activities that require no materials, or something VERY simple, and will allow you to look like a superhero when things go wrong.
Just be sure you have a backup!
Take 5 minutes and review these during the planning process and right before the activity.
Below are the 10 Pitfalls to Avoid and you can review detail on this PDF. Download Now!
Pitfalls – DO NOT do these:
- Let one person dominate the discussion.
- Be mysterious
- Do not set ground rules for discussion.
- Ignore emotional land mines.
- Be the ‘Sage on the Stage’.
- Ask participants to share something you are unwilling to share.
- Leave no time for discussion.
- Facilitate when terrified.
- Step in and ‘save’ the group when they are struggling.
- Have the answer to every question.
A mistake of rookie facilitators is not leaving enough time for good discussion. This is usually an accident as the activity takes longer than they think.
The JUICE is in the discussion. This is where the ideas for change will occur and where the learning happens. Make sure you leave time for this!
Do whatever it takes to ensure you are not terrified.
- Nervous – good.
- Afraid – good.
- Outside your ‘comfort zone’ – good.
- Terrified – very, very bad
Typically what this means is that you have left the planning until the last minute, forgot to check your materials and something is missing or some other kind of ‘user error’. Yes, I am pointing the finger at you because you would not be terrified if you had taken the time to prepare yourself. I am also pointing the finger at me because I have been there myself.
Are you terrified right now?
If so and you still have to run the activity, follow these instructions:
- Read through the ‘What Method’ for debriefing and How to Ask Great Questions. Make a quick cheat sheet.
- Make sure you know the basics of the activity.
- Don’t worry about what will happen during the activity and focus on creating great dialogue. No matter success or failure, there is something to learn and you will create that.
- Don’t beat yourself up. Learn from this and do better next time.
#6 - Debrief
For a SUPER simple method, and perfect for beginners, here is the ‘What’ Method. The questioning strategy could not be more simple:
- So What?
- Now What?
Get full description and discussion around the experience.
- “What happened during the activity? “
- “What did you / the group do?”
- “What were your reactions?”
Add meaning and create dialogue.
- “So what does that mean to you?”
- “So what does the way the group responded mean for our work environment?”
Create application for what was learned.
- “Now what?” Seriously, you can ask that simple question!
- “Now that we can see some patterns in (insert here – communication, trust, leadership, etc), what are you going to do differently moving forward?“
If you want, you can read about more sophisticated debriefing techniques – ABC’s and DIGA
Two rules to remember:
- Follow a debriefing method. This will keep you on track.
- Ask open-ended questions.
A close-ended question leaves only a simple answer, typically ‘Yes’ or ‘No’:
“Did you like the activity?” Nods and crickets.
You will accidentally ask closed-ended questions, I guarantee it. Just follow them up with an opened question.
“Did you like the activity?” Nods and crickets – aw shoot, James mentioned this! Follow up with:
“What did you like about it?” And then BE QUIET. Be patient and do not ‘save’ the group. If feels awkward to you, but they are thinking… Just wait! They will begin to speak, I promise.
Read this article to learn more about asking better questions.
Here is a MAGICAL question. Commit it to memory:
“Would you mind if I share an observation?”
They will give you permission and then you share your observation. Your observation can be related to the topic to help guide the discussion in the right direction.
#7 - Follow up and Reinforcement
If you are running a one-off activity over 60 minutes as some kind of ‘refresher’ or Lunch-N-Learn or perhaps you are running an activity prior to a brainstorming session, follow-up and reinforcement may not be necessary.
However, I will tell you this is rarely the case.
If you want to move your team to the next level, require a dedication from them and create a mechanism to hold one another accountable to the dedication.
Come up with list of specific actions that could be taken. Don’t go crazy on this, but spend enough time to get all the ideas on the board.
Debrief Question for Follow Up:
- “Of the potential actions, which are you willing to 100% dedicate yourself to in order to create the change you said was important?”
- Mention one suggested action at a time, “On a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being highest, show me your dedication level to each other with your hand.” Have someone add up and average them.
I use the word ‘dedication’ here specifically and I always have people raise their hands. I want a physical symbol that people are committing to the change. If you do this anonymously, people who do not agree will just go back to what they were doing.
This small, important step is the foundation of change. Each small dedication, when accountable to it, creates a foundation of trust among the group.
One possible follow up is the 10% Miracle. This helps people commit to a 10% improvement in the team agreements.
If 10 people agree to a 10% improvement, that is actually a 100% improvement on the overall team!
However, what that REALLY means is that 9 times out of 10, I will do the very thing I agreed NOT to do. So, we need to create new assumptions or a negative spiral will result and the effect of your learning activity will be negative too.