I spend a lot of time facilitating all kinds of sessions: icebreakers, brainstorms, leadership conferences, town halls--even company picnics. And, in my spare time, I coach my colleagues to help them improve their facilitation skills.

So every time I come across a best practice or a dismal failure, I pay attention. After all, facilitation is really difficult: People are so independent and opinionated that it's hard to get them to participate in a slightly unconventional activity, even if that activity promises to help them be more innovative or solve a tough problem. I need all the help--inspiration or lessons learned--that I can get.

That's where Lynda Barry and the Cranky Crayon Exercise come in. 

Don't know Lynda Barry? In addition to being a renowned artist and cartoonist, Barry has also built a second career teaching creativity. In fact, she is associate professor of art and Discovery Fellow at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Barry has written a book--called Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor--about her experiences teaching various courses at Wisconsin.

As Barry writes: "I always start my class with a coloring assignment: using crayon to color three pages from a variety of coloring pages pinned to the wall." The instructions are to pick three pages, then color them densely, "trying to get as much of the crayon on the paper as possible."

The assignment comes with a degree of difficulty: "Students find it frustrating because crayons are surprisingly hard to work with. Getting solid color takes work. The crayons break easily, the wax won't lay on the paper evenly, and fingers, hand and arm get sore." But despite the obstacles students usually then have some fun doing it.

Until . . . one semester when Barry's students hated the assignment. 

They completed the pages. But when the finished work was pinned to the wall, even though all of the pages were colored just the way Barry assigned . . . "all the joy was gone. Something was wrong."

Barry wondered: "What happened? What changed this assignment into drudgery?"

This: Barry provided very specific directions. "I told them to color hard in order to do it right. And go straight to using force--thinking I was showing them a shortcut."

The mistake? Giving her students the answer "took away the way of coloring they would have found on their own.

"By telling them just how to do it, I took the playing-around away, the gradual figuring out that brings something alive to the activity, makes it worthwhile, and is transferrable to other activities."

Here's the thing about the best facilitation: It leads to self-discovery. If the objective is simply to tell people what to do, you could just present a PowerPoint. But facilitation opens the experience so participants learn as they go.

As Barry writes, "I realize now the best results came when I gave no instructions except 'spend time on the assignment.'" 

And then she reminds us about the fairy tale about the two clever brothers and the youngest who is simpleton. "The brothers take shortcuts, but the simpleton wanders, gets lost, encounters other worldly beings. He treats them fairly, takes them seriously, and, by his very nature, he gains the kingdom in the end."

Barry's sage advice? "The fastest way to do it, the most efficient way to do it . . . is the slowest way." 

Published on: Mar 27, 2019
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