Science facilitation is art, not science

Science facilitation is art, not science

Science is all about asking questions, discussing ideas, and learning from people with an interest in the science problem in question.  Engaging people for their opinions and thoughts is the art of science facilitation.

Science facilitation is elicitation

In the professional world of business analysis, ‘elicitation’ is the term given to the task of gathering the thoughts, opinions and knowledge of people. Doing this well is not as easy as simply asking direct questions to a group.  Simply because someone has a strong opinion or loud their voice do not mean their ideas are of high quality or value. The art of science facilitation is to expose the best ideas as opposed to the strongest opinions. For this task, there are many approaches and many techniques. Knowing what they are, when to use them and how is a key skill of a professional business analyst.

To be effective as a scientific workshop facilitator you do not need to know the detail of the science in focus.   Knowing the science is the role of the workshop participants, not the workshop facilitator.  As the workshop leader, all you need is a basic understanding about the general problem. A facilitator who asks ‘basic’ questions can help participants stay focused on the workshop purpose. It is the job of the facilitator to get those participants to focus on achieving the outcomes of the meeting.  This is more about art and technique, than it is about science.

The unequivocal and universal rule of science facilitation

Never waste people’s time. This is my one and only universal rule of science facilitation and elicitation. This is the rule that should never be broken and is admittedly, one that is exceptionally hard rule to adhere to. It is the thing that separates the best facilitators from the rest. If any participant walks out of a workshop thinking, ‘that was a waste of my time’, then to some degree, I have failed in my duty as the facilitator. These are some of the more common reasons why meetings waste people’s time:

  • The meeting does not have a clear and meaningful purpose.
  • The wrong people are in the room. They do not believe they have a stake in the purpose of the meeting.
  • The workshop design did not enable and empower participation from everyone in the room.
  • The facilitator failed in their duty to make the participant feel listened too and included in the conversation.
  • The workshop becomes a lecture or death by Powerpoint presentation.
  • During the workshop, the plan needed to change, but the facilitator do not enable this.

The foundations of successful scientific facilitation

For me, there are just three things I need to know before any science elicitation activity.

Meeting Purpose: Why is the meeting being held?  Why should people give their highly valued time just to come to another meeting?  The purpose of the science facilitation workshop must be clear for all participants.  A single workshop should have one and only one purpose and be shared with all beforehand.  If you find your meeting has multiple purposes, then ask if your purposes are actually activities or outcomes.  If you do have multiple purposes for your meeting, I recommend dividing it up into distinct meetings and consider the participant list for each.

Meeting Outcome:  At the end of the meeting, what is the desired result?  Do you want to have collected unsolicited feedback on some scientific model?  Are you looking for agreement on some scientific process? Are you reviewing some specific content?  In a single workshop you may explore many outcomes, so long as they are all related to the purpose.

Participant Outcome:  Each person should walk away from the meeting with a feeling of worthwhile.  The outcome that participants will achieve is the major hook as why they should be willing to come along.  This satisfies the universal what’s in it for me question.  To achieve a individually valued outcome is the reason people will turn up.

With these three things in hand, the important task of workshop planning becomes relatively straightforward.  The meeting purpose will identify who are the appropriate participants and the meeting and participant outcomes will inform which facilitation techniques will be best. The workshop plan is fundamental for ensuing that you achieve the desired outcomes are achieved within the time available.

Elicitation is art, not science

In no way would I consider science facilitation, a science. There is no-one universal method and never will you get the same result.  Even if you repeated the facilitation activity with the same people and same methods, the result would not be the same.  People and knowledge do not work that way. Science facilitation is not a scientific process, it is an art.

This is a skill of which there are huge variations of talent. It has tools, techniques and instruments, which a skilled practitioner may use to create meaningful and purposed conversation. Those without such talent, can use the very same tools and create a horrible mess that often requires considerable cleaning up to repair relationships and reputations. It requires a wide understanding of people and facilitation techniques.  It requires the facilitator to be able to always be one step ahead and willing to change the workshop plan on the run.  The task requires the ability to read people and assess if the meeting is drifting away from the purpose, and knowing how and when to bring things back in to line.  Sometimes, it requires a strong and authoritative command to end often interesting and valuable conversations, so that people and the meeting stick to purpose and time.

Yes, for me there is no doubt.  Science facilitation is art, not science.

Carl Sudholz is the founder at AGContext and specialist in the integration of information technology within organisations. He holds two degrees, is a certified Business Analyst and a Director of the Australia Chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis. Carl’s expertise and experience spans 15 years serving public, private and non-for-profit organisations to take control over technology.