Build a structure to lean on

In online spaces, there seems to be a stronger need for a person or a system to give time form, make things happen, and make sure that everyone is heard. There is a big role for facilitation — how do you nurture the process?

The role of the facilitator, that kind of braiding of the voices is really important, and that is probably more important than a hierarchical leader. It’s more like a web, you know; there’s a Weaver, or maybe more than one Weaver, who makes sure that everybody is able to be woven into the pattern.

— Syrus Marcus Ware

Whatever structures of roles, responsibilities and leadership make most sense for your group and project, on the spectrum of hierarchical or lateral, planning is good. No matter how good you think you are at winging it, winging it online can be surprisingly disastrous. You can always cast aside a plan in order to follow where the moment leads, but time and patience work differently online, and it’s best to be prepared.

There can be more hierarchy to navigate online, for sure. I think it’s just because of having to organize all the thoughts and written bits and visual bits, and somebody has to be that top of the umbrella.

— Laakuluk Williamson Bathory

We all have to make an agreement, because the scenography of leadership isn’t there – there’s not somebody standing in front of everybody in the room, everybody’s democratized in the view, which I think is good.

— Ian Garrett

Robust, energetic debate with lateral leadership where it’s every person for themselves is limited. It’s kind of weirdly formal, more formal. Or not, and then it’s just a mess.

— Moe Angelos

Things to try on: tools, activities and resources 

  • Prepare or contribute to a structure, a system, a plan. Online working can easily fall flat if it’s not kept moving.
  • Timers are great. So is time keeping. Setting time-limits on particular tasks can be both productive and put everyone more at ease in the work.
  • Notice all of the collective little intentions that make something work.
  • Consider what kinds of leadership best serve your process and how you might contribute to the leadership, as any member of the group.
  • Consider your groups’ agreements and commitments. If you are facilitating, what are the people you are guiding expecting from you, and what are the agreed upon goals and outcomes of your work together?
  • Some of leadership is invisible work.

Consider how things happen

    • Generous authority is a concept described in The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker: “A gathering run on generous authority is run with a strong, confident hand, but it is run selflessly, for the sake of others. Generous authority is imposing in a way that serves your guests… find the courage to be authoritative in the service of three goals: Protect your guests, equalize your guests, connect your guests.” Parker suggests that sometimes, in efforts to let the group govern, leaders abdicate responsibility and leave the group in unproductive chaos. There are ways of taking more and less space while still taking the responsibility of leadership.

We need to make adjustments to our communication styles in order to successfully be able to engage everyone, remembering that it’s not about you saying your piece. It’s about the group communicating.

— Dawn J Birley

Small things have big impacts

  • It’s amazing to me the amount of impact that invisible facilitation can have. In 2015 I made this thing called Facebook Relay Interview, inspired by Jacob Wren’s Relay Interview. It was a game on Facebook where one at a time, each person posted a question addressed to another person, that person answered and then, in turn, would ask a different person a different question and so on. It was set up so that there was a public sign-up sheet to play, and if you got asked a question, your question would go to the next person on the list. Every time someone posted an answer to a question, I would just send a little note saying “thank you for playing” and tell them the name of the next person to address their question to, even though the names were on a list for all to see. It went on, one question per day, from May 11-July 1 but then, when I went offline for a month, the question-a-day pattern halted. When I stopped managing it, it didn’t work anymore. I hadn’t thought I was managing it at all! Those little messages were keeping the game going. — Erin Brubacher

Notice the limits and strengths of the medium

  • Consider what you do together, and what you do apart. An in-person day in the rehearsal hall or studio might be eight hours. But spending eight hours in an online room is a different proposition. Try going out into the separate worlds of your homes or neighborhood and coming back together. What types of activities are more productive for you to do together and what can you invite people to work on apart? The work day might still be eight hours devoted to a project, but there might be less collective workshop, and more homework, where individuals generate materials to bring back to the group.
    • You might do different things at different points in the process than you would in a physical room. You might have more solo homework and you might earmark certain things for a time when you can physically be together. You might find creative experiments that offer new experiences you wouldn’t have had IRL.

You can put a body on the screen, but that’s another type of work, and that’s not a type of work that I know much about. I’m willing to experiment with it, but it’s not what I do. Instead I’ll say: we’re going to go dance outdoors for an hour without stopping and then come back together online.

— Claudel Doucet

Case Study: Paprika Festival, Erum Khan

Established in 2001, The Paprika Festival is a Toronto based youth-led professional performing arts organization with year round programs and opportunities specifically aimed at supporting and developing the next generation of artists. Each year culminates into a performing arts festival with new work shown by the young artists.

I co-facilitated the 2019-2020 cohort of the TD Creator’s Unit, alongside Tijiki Morris. The unit’s central focus is about collaborating on a devised project, with extra emphasis on incorporating multidisciplinary elements. As a group, we met once a week for three hours. We learned early on that getting to know each other and making something together (for many, it was their first time making anything), these meetings needed to be planned out thoroughly. Our process began in person and then went to Zoom once the pandemic hit. As something that was already in deep motion, moving online felt both fluid and very challenging.

  • Create a guiding itinerary
    • Prepare clear and ready notes: Having a piece of paper next to you with a designated time set for each activity for the entire duration of the session is crucial in not feeling lost in the void of online facilitation. At the beginning of these sessions, it often felt like a one-way conversation, with us needing to steer the ship and figure out how to even share space before getting into a rhythm. Essentially, it felt like starting the program over and getting to know each other again. Setting the exact time, hour by hour, of what would be discussed, and the max amount of time allocated for each activity, kept us from being bogged down in our own insecurities.
    • Be Transparent: Sending the participants this itinerary before the meetings also allowed them to prepare in advance and come in with ideas / discussions without feeling put on the spot.
    • Be Consistent: Tijiki reflected that “having a repetition of certain rituals and practices grounded the group into knowing how these meetings would be structured (eg. spend the first 15 min in check-in, followed by 15-20 min doing a physically guided meditation or stretch, then sharing what task/work each participant had completed individually, leading into that present week’s tasks). It helped to keep a flow going and got the participants to know how to automatically jump in if they were late or missed a session.
  • Be adaptable
    • Modify your expectations: With a rigorous schedule, also comes the need to be flexible. Online working is tiring. It glitches. Even with a few hours designated for a weekly session that felt too short in person, staring at a screen for that long demands much more from us. Knowing when it’s time to call quits and being okay with not getting it all done, can have a longer sustainable effect in a process than forcing something. This was something that took us a while to understand. With the demand of a strict timeline, rushing us to use up every minute we had together, our group burnout was impossible to ignore. How do you get work done, while also trying to make sure everyone was having fun and simultaneously learning about collective collaboration? So instead of pushing everyone to their limits, we considered a new strategy: make the meetings shorter and have the group meet again on their own — without us, the facilitators, there. This not only got them to have more frequent time spent together, it provided them with the opportunity to be with one another in a way they maybe couldn’t with the “official leaders” present.
    • Work with what’s there, not with what’s missing: Allow the medium of being online and on screen to take a primary role as the means through which to create, rather than framing it as the obstacle. As a group that had already created a lot of work and experiments together in person, we decided early on to make our online way of working feel fresh and new. This meant creating a lot of new work, and not forcing the pre-existing work that we made together in person into an online adaptation. We focused on cultivating multimedia components, from audio recordings to video captured through the participants phones, and even recorded some of our Zoom meetings. This allowed us to build a library of media to work and play with. For instance, in one session we screen shared some of the videos captured by the participants (one was of a city view captured through a moving streetcar, and another of a shadow puppet against a wall) then asked two participants to improvise dialogue on top of the video they saw. It reinforced a collaborative spirit that we worried would be lost if everyone was doing their own thing in their own spaces rather than together in a room. All these multimedia elements became prompts for anyone in the group to draw from and add to.