Earlier this month I was able to tune into the MORS Community of Practice for a talk by Adam Frost from the Studies, Analysis, and Gaming Division of the Joint Staff (J8) on game facilitation. Frost’s office is responsible for many high level policy games (including for the Chairman as mentioned in this article), so the talk was given from the perspective of running games for very high level policy makers at the strategic level. That said, much of Frost’s advice resonated with the training I’ve received, as well as my own practical experience, and I believe his advice is broadly applicable.
Frost intelligently started the session by facilitating a short discussion on what makes for good and bad facilitation—no mean feat when over half the participants were on a phone line and he had no list of participants! The group identified some patterns in poor facilitation, including:
- losing control of the room or letting someone else take over
- asking the wrong questions
- having an agenda or obvious point of view that biases the outcome of discussion
- having a facilitator unwilling to adjust to reality in the room
- “dead air” or obvious gaps in the discussion that drain energy
Similarly, signs of good facilitation include:
- asking the right questions
- successful synthesis, particularly that which leads participants to novel conclusions
- player immersion, indicated by signs like players’ willingness to play past the deadline
- energy and pacing
- redirecting conflict and emotion into productive discussion
One point that came up early in discussion was what the division should be between a game and a facilitated discussion. To my mind, facilitation is a skill that is needed to lead all kinds of discussions, from meetings to strategy sessions to games. It ensures that the conversation produces the desired end products, and that everyone leaves the room more or less alive. The structure of the discussion that the facilitator adheres to and the end results are all that is different.
One overarching comment was that good facilitators aren’t remembered; they fade into the background of the discussion, which is what folks remember on leaving the room. This notion came up in many ways over the course of discussion, and I think it is a particularly helpful reminder for inexperienced facilitators. The goal of facilitation is not to make an impression on senior leaders, teach, or to show off how much you know—rather it is to collect information from others so it can be processed by the group. As a result, many of the tips and tricks for facilitation mentioned by Frost and other participants depended on not having an ego and being willing to say dumb things in order to move the conversation forward. As a result, in many cases it can be better for the facilitator not to be an expert so they don’t have a reputation to maintain.
This also means that age need not be a barrier to being a facilitator, I’ve seen young facilitators who were very effective because they allowed the participants to teach them over the course of the discussion. However, it takes a very particular mindset to let go of your own ego, and that mindset takes time and practice to achieve.
Frost then moved into a more formal briefing. He first discussed the difference between the roles of the game director and game facilitator, summarized in the table below:
||Ensures the game meets the purpose and objectives laid out by the sponsor or client
||Ensures that the discussion in the room is productive
||Supports director; should be a part of the design team from as early in the development process as possible
|Game Design— Process and Rules
||“What questions do I need to answer?”
Determines best method/mechanics of the game to meet purpose and objectives defined in conversations with the sponsor
|“How do I ask the game director’s questions of the participants?”
Determines how the flow of conversation can best meet the director’s vision, including what questions need to be answered at each stage of the game in order to move forward
|Game Design— Roles
||Determines the right types of roles to include in the game, based on the purpose and objectives of the game
||Determines who are the right participants, matching individuals with designed roles; knows the background of the participants and anticipates how it will shape behavior during the game
|Game Room Setup
||Ensures game materials are available and correct, including slides
||Ensures layout of room will support the discussion, including location of different teams, seating chart, etc.
|During the Game
||Makes sure the game is meeting objectives; makes changes to the design to account for unexpected problems that are preventing the game from achieving objectives
||Ensures the game “goes”—that participants buy into the game process, and that discussion stays moving and on track with game director’s vision
||Designs the adjudication process
||Ensures participants understand and don’t fight the adjudication process—that is, “sells” it to participants
This division also comes with an interesting, and not necessarily intuitive, division of responsibility/credit for the game’s outcome. The room generally agreed that good facilitation may be able to save a badly-designed game, and bad facilitation can sink a well-designed game. That may make the facilitator more responsible for the game’s success than the director, even though they are rarely the project lead. Because of this, game directors can get lazy and dependent on the skills of a good facilitator to ensure the success of a game. One specific example of this is the development of the questions to be answered at each step of the game. These should be the purview of the director, but too often fall to the facilitator.
Frost also noted that responsibility for data capture (whether through note-taking or other means of recording game events) should be a third role. I can speak from experience: thinking that you can capture notes while facilitating will be a lost cause. You just cannot listen to the speaking participant, think about the next question(s) you will ask, and kept the session objectives and schedule in mind at the same time you are trying to keep a written transcript of the discussion!
Frost then delved more deeply into the characteristics of a good facilitator. This included:
- Facilitation is not command. You are guiding, not telling. (Relatedly, facilitation is not teaching in the normal sense, though it does share some similarities with Socratic-style questioning.) This means that it can be an uncomfortable role for senior leaders, particularly from the military, where leaders are used to a very different role.
- Facilitators need not be senior. In fact, Frost mentioned several times that he has found his relative youth to be an asset because it allows him to “play ignorant” and draw better explanations from participants. I’ve had similar experiences, both with age and with being an “outside” civilian who can ask for more details about military tactics and strategy. That said, Frost also highlighted ways in which his facilitation style differs from more senior facilitators, including needing to stand in order to hold the room. Time to practice and experiment is critical to figuring out what will, and will not, work for you!
- As a facilitator, your opinion does not matter. The goal of a game is not to affirm that you are right; it is to bring the group to consensus on a decision, and you need to have the mental flexibility to let the discussion go where the participants want. Most of the community of practice agreed that floating an idea as the facilitator can be a way to bring missing ideas into discussion, but whether the group runs with, or abandons, the idea is up to them. Another way to think about this is that the facilitator can be a foil for participants’ ideas, but shouldn’t be an advocate for any idea themselves. Likewise, in some cases, you can set up questions for particular people based on a general idea of what they will say, but, as Frost put it, “if I know exactly what the person is going to say the game is going to feel scripted.” That said, particularly when participants have specific, narrow expertise or are introverts, it can be a good way to get folks engaged in the discussion.
- Have a strong opening. In the first few minutes, you need to establish why participants are in the game; set expectations about how the game will proceed (purpose and schedule of the game); and provide the minimal critical information participants need to set the scene for initial game discussion. This information is usually in the game read-ahead, but it’s a safe bet participants haven’t read or remembered it. That said, overviews of the scenario should be short (1 slide not 13), as more details take time from discussion.
- Anticipate participants’ tendencies. This includes common patterns of behavior (military participants won’t contradict a senior officer; policy and intel participants want to get a lay of the room before they speak) and how to manage them (ask senior leaders to speak later in the game; let people know what question you are going to ask them before you put them on the spot). Relatedly, as a facilitator, you want to make the participants look good by setting them up for success, so it is critical to let folks know you are going to call on them and give them time to think about the question.
- Always have a question to ask to keep conversation from dying out, but don’t use it unless it has died. This question should be short, and have a question mark at the end. You talking as the facilitator both takes time away from participant discussion, and can make you look uncertain. Anyone who has ever been to a DC think tank event knows what this looks like!
- End on time. This requires that the facilitator pay attention to the game, and as some sessions run long, develop a plan to make up for lost time. This is particularly important the more senior your participants are.
- The facilitator sets the room’s energy level. As a facilitator, you need to seem enthusiastic and motivated, or you will lose participants. A trick I learned is to think about the volume of your voice, size of gestures, and general energy level when you are chatting with someone at home, and contrast it with the way you talk in a large, noisy room like a bar. When facilitating, you want your energy to be right in the middle—definitely more than a quiet conversation, but not so much that you seem like a crazy person!
The discussion concluded with a brief discussion of how to gain skills as a facilitator. The group generally agrees that facilitation is a practical skill that is best learned by doing. However, a few folks (myself included) spoke in favor of formal coursework on facilitation. In my experience, facilitation training often feels silly at the time, but can be critical to learning good basic practice. I left the discussion believing that coursework can be helpful in getting from bad to competent — but to get good, you need talent, mentorship, and practice.