Wildwood retreat

So just over a month ago – just after landing back from my few days in Brisbane – I spent a few days down at Wildwood Retreat in Pennyroyal Valley with twelve other people.

We came together to talk about – and experiment with – various tools and techniques of group facilitation.  The retreat was arranged by Viv McWaters (@vivmcw) and Johnnie Moore (@johnniemoore), who had also just flown in from a couple of weeks of facilitation in the Solomon Islands and other places.

As much as it was about learning and doing stuff, it was about relaxing and having fun. I was there as Matt Moore (@engin_eer) had invited me. (Thanks, Matt!) Although I did already know some of the other people there, it was also a great time of meeting new people. It was also the first time that I had picked up a guitar for over a year – Geoff Brown (@geoffbrown3231) very kindly didn’t protest when I borrowed his every time he put it down!

Wildwood was a bit run down, as it was actually on the market, and the owner was no longer resident on site. The catering was excellent, and the location marvellous, but the nights were getting cooler, and the wood fire heating was rather short of fuel. Some of us tracked down some wood, and Geoff kindly wielded the splitter. Given my experience with wood fires at Blackwood, I got the Coonara going on the first morning there, and kept it stoked up for the duration. (For which I was christened “fireguy” by Johnnie.)

One of the highlights was the evening that I was sitting around fiddling with the guitar (or guitaring, I guess), and Johnnie suggested we improvise a song. After a bit of work, we got a chorus going, and improvised as many verses as we could as the others came into the room – and then ran away to the other end of the room as quickly as they could!

The tune was Waltzing Matilda – the best-known tune – and the chorus was as follows:

Facilitation of deep conversation.
Our congregation at Wildwood Retreat.
If we all make our way to
Deep in the Otways
We’ll have a confabulation, won’t we?

I guess you had to be there.

So what did I learn? I did pick up some facilitation techniques. But I think that I learnt more from Johnnie’s style and approach to facilitation.

Johnnie’s approach to facilitation is one that could best be called informal. Shawn Callahan (@unorder), another friend and long-term colleague there, has blogged his thought on the retreat here, with a very thoughtful piece on Johnnie’s approach. Shawn quoted this as “notice more, do less”.

I personally found this approach incredibly refreshing. After learning a few techniques elsewhere recently that place great emphasis on planning and preparation, I was beginning to feel that my preference for putting the emphasis on “making it up as I go along” was perhaps somewhat frowned upon.

Not that I don’t plan – in fact, I often plan in great detail, but I am always prepared to modify the plans to meet the need of the audience and the context at the time of delivery. (There’s a military term for this: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy” – although the use of the term “enemy” is not really appropriate in this context!)

There was a strong improv theatre flavour to what we were doing – and not only in the song. As Shawn has written, the emphasis was on emergence. Emergence is what happens in complex adaptive systems – and a group of people together, involved in cognitive work and interacting, make a complex adaptive system.

One example of how complex patterns emerge is in the movement of a flock of birds.  It has been said that the birds only follow three very basic “rules”:

  1. Fly towards the centre of the flock
  2. Match speed with the birds on each side
  3. Avoid collisions

Yet from this simple set of procedures, amazingly complex and intricate patterns of movement arise.

Improv theatre also follows a set of basic rules. Michelle James (@CreatvEmergence) once wrote about this in the blog article Improv Theatre and Complex Adaptive Systems. (I’m not an expert on improv myself – although I did take part in a rather fun improv exercise at trampoline last Saturday!) Michelle lists a set of seven “rules” of improv, and particularly notes that when the players break these rules, it makes for bad theatre. The emergence is lost:

So, what make it “look hard” when it is not working so well? Simple: any violation of the principles. If one of us tries to orchestrate, or worse impose, our own agenda or plot on the piece. If one of us tries to be the “star” and take too much focus. If even one of us is not present to what is unfolding, moment-by-moment. If one of us worries about the plot, and starts to figure out how to “save” it. If we expect that someone should respond in a certain way. In short, anything that gets us out of the moment and what is emerging – and into our controlling heads.

So I see this as support for Johnnie’s “notice more, do less” facilitation approach. You need the groundwork there first – you need to have an understanding of the group of people involved, and some sort of plan or general direction. You need to do the “Hosting”. But the rest is up to the people themselves.

Let the results emerge.

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