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How to facilitate like Gandalf

Since starting Wizard Innovation Labs in late 2020, I have often been asked “why did you name your company ‘wizard’? Is it something to do with Harry Potter?”


While Harry Potter was very popular among my peers growing up, that’s not what inspired me to choose that name. I called my company “Wizard Labs” for two reasons.


The first is that I originally offered table top role playing as one of the team building activities (still do if anyone is interested!). And secondly, I liked what the role of wizard represented in tales such as Lord of the Rings and the legend of King Arthur (Disney’s Sword in the Stone being one of my favourite retellings). Gandalf and Merlin were guides. They came alongside the heroes of the story and helped them reach the goal in front of them.


How do these tales relate to a consultancy that facilitates creative problem solving? Well, one of AJ&Smart’s laws of facilitation: be the guide, not the hero. And that is the role we take on at Wizard Labs.


As facilitators, we don’t take over and solve the problem. We use tools and techniques to equip the session participants to solve the problem themselves. The participants are the hero. The facilitator is the guide, even if their involvement does seem like a little bit of magic.


The facilitator is the Gandalf to the participant’s Fellowship. The Merlin to the participant’s Arthur.



Why is this so important?


Like in Lord of the Rings, your team is made up of a diverse group of people each representing their own expertise, perspective and experiences. You have elves most interested in the elvish perspective. You have humans most interested in the human experience. You have dwarves most interested in the dwarvish expertise. And you have hobbits most interested in when second breakfast is. The facilitator, or wizard, is included to take on a neutral role.


A complaint I often hear about the Lord of the Rings story is how little difference Gandalf makes to the overall story. However, throughout the story he is there facilitating the actions of others. Spurring on Frodo to start the quest. Protecting the group from distractions like the Balrog. Flying in with eagles to bail out the Fellowship. 


This is the type of role a good facilitator can play. They aren’t there to use one type of expertise to solve a problem, or to champion a certain perspective, or to rely on certain types of experience. They are there to enable each of the team members to bring their own expertise, perspective and experience to the table. They help combine the best of what each team member brings to get richer outcomes. And they enable the team to move forward together toward the desired outcome.


Why can’t one of the team be the guide?


Many teams reach out to me for ideas on particular exercises or formats to facilitate their own sessions. They nominate one team member to facilitate. This team member then either doesn’t contribute during the exercises or has to balance the role of facilitation (guide) with the role of contribution (hero). This means that team member, who may or may not be an expert in facilitation, has to navigate the tension between the hero role and the guide role.


There are certain settings where this works really well. For example, regular meetings and sessions that are part of a team’s everyday operating rhythm can benefit from a team member facilitating, or rotating who facilitates. Think standup, weekly team meetings, regular retros and short-term planning sessions. These are sessions where participants are generally more familiar with how the process will run so the facilitation load is lower and the expectations are clearer. 


An independent facilitator is more valuable are when the stakes are higher, the perspectives are more divided or there’s a real need for a very different approach. Having an independent facilitator can help navigate these complexities. Think sessions such as strategy development, long term planning, innovation sessions, and team culture interventions.


At the end of the day, any type of session can be facilitated by one of the participants. But it’s worth being conscious of the trade off being made when teams choose to do this. The facilitating team member may not get the chance to contribute in some exercises and their perspective and expertise may be lost. Or they may go to one extreme or the other when presenting their own ideas - either overly conscious of not favouring their ideas, or pushing their ideas to the detriment of the overall outcome. Lastly, they may be caught up in some of the usual team power dynamics which may prohibit them giving useful, apolitical guidance.


What if a team needs an outside hero?


The other scenario that flies in the face of the “hero, not a guide” principle is when teams expect the facilitator to be the hero. Again, some occasions call for this approach. One mentor of mine described a continuum of facilitator involvement. On the most active end of the continuum, the facilitator creates and drives the solution, taking on more of a hero role. On the more neutral end, the facilitator is completely passive, only present to keep the process moving. In between is a broad range of facilitation styles.


Of course, team’s may have particular challenges that call for an outside expert, or a more “hero-like” facilitator. This is where you should find a facilitator that is a specialist in a particular topic relevant to the problem you’re looking to solve. For example, getting an experienced developer to facilitate a technical design forum. Or having an organisational psychologist facilitate a culture building session. Even then though, sometimes it works best to have both a neutral facilitator and an expert participant.


What has all this got to do with Wizard Innovation Labs?


I called my company Wizard Labs because my goal is to be the guide to your team of heroes. I strongly believe that most corporate teams have all the skill and expertise they need to achieve the objectives set out in their strategy. However, I have also seen many teams at some of the biggest companies and most envied start-ups struggle to harness their team’s skill well enough to reach those objectives.


In many instances, the missing link is simply having the right guide to help the heroes complete their quest.



 

As well as finding the right guide, you can supercharge your team's success by reflecting on what works and what doesn't. Find out how well your team uses this critical tool for performance improvement by taking this 90 second quiz: Are your retros broken?