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Welcome to Facilitation Stories, where we discover how facilitators ended up in the profession, and how facilitation methods, principles and techniques are used more widely. Brought to you by IAF England and Wales. For more information on our chapter, click here.

Feb 15, 2022

In this episode Pilar talks to Penny Pullan, Director of “Making Projects Work” and author of “Virtual Leadership: Practical Strategies for Success with Remote or Hybrid Work and Teams”, just out in its second edition, and in 2021,  “Making Workshops Work: Creative Collaboration for Our Time”.

Penny explains that Making Workshops Work was originally contracted and due to be published in 2016 but then the pandemic hit and she focused on writing the book to help people, not necessarily certified professional facilitators, who needed to collaborate.

Penny talks about seeing her role as a catalyst for collaboration, making it easy for groups to do the best work they can do.

They move on to talking about when Penny first called herself a facilitator.  Penny explains that it began when she was running a session for a group where a Senior person said in front of everyone, they were going to leave at lunchtime if the session didn’t improve. Penny opted to give the group a break and admitted to this senior person that she felt out of her depth.  They gave her some hints and tips that worked and Penny realised that there is such a thing as facilitation.

Penny recalls that what changed in that workshop was that whereas she had always been in a position of giving her perspective as an expert, in facilitation the focus is always about the group and that’s where the spotlight is.  The experience of that first workshop was helpful as she realised the importance of learning facilitation skills. 

They move on to talk about why Penny wrote “Making Workshops Work”. Penny explains that while she’s written other books, she realised that a book for those that come to her facilitation skills courses would be useful.  

Next they talk about how Penny got into virtual and hybrid facilitation.   It began when Penny was working as a Global Programme Manager. The kick off meeting in her first programme was due to be in New York but then 9/11 happened, planes were grounded and the kick off moved to virtual.  Penny had just been training in facilitation meaning that she could focus on how to apply the principles of facilitation virtually. Penny ended up writing guidelines on virtual facilitation in the company and then leaving to set up her own company including helping people work in virtual and hybrid ways.

Pilar asks about the principles Penny focuses on most that can be applied in person, virtual and hybrid.  Penny feels many of the principles are the same, what differs is thinking about the environment and technology.  In any session, you need a clear purpose, shared understanding of the goals, a time plan, knowing the roles of the people taking part.  In person but more so in virtual is knowing “how are we going to work together today?” and working out what’s right for that session.

In hybrid the key challenge is that it’s not a level playing field and as a facilitator it's thinking about how to adjust to that.

Pilar asks how Penny decided what to include in the book.  Penny says that as she has worked with so many people over the years they helped her to understand the things that other people find tricky and the things they find most useful.  She’s recognised the things that develop confidence as well as competence.

They talk about real rather than fake confidence. Penny says she didn’t put facilitation in the title of her book as the people she works with are people who need to run workshops but don’t have training in facilitation.  For them, building competence builds confidence.

Pilar pulls out from the book a list of things great groups have.  Penny explains she did some work with Dale Hunter’s company Zenergy in New Zealand.  The list is in Dale Hunter’s book “Handling Groups in Action” (UK title).  In it they bring out 16 qualities and Penny realised they are the things that great groups have.  It starts with simple things like Purpose, Culture, Safety and Trust but then moves on to things that are present when a group is really working well.

Pilar reflects on how the list is very specific and helps to think about how she can help and role model the behaviours.  Penny highlights this is something that Hunter focuses on particularly in her book.

Pilar asks Penny to share a favourite activity.  Penny picks out using an affirmation. She asks everyone to take a sticky note for each person and share a great thing about that person.  It can sound cheesy but it can help people feel really encouraged and this helps them to build confidence.

They finish by talking about Penny’s journey.  She now has the title “Master Facilitator” and is studying a Masters in Theological Studies.  Pilar asks what the title means to Penny and why she’s doing the MA.  Master Facilitator came from when Penny put in for her CPF renewal she needed to resubmit it and the Master Facilitator option had opened up and she decided to go for it. The Masters degree is because Penny has been doing some training with her Church and she wanted to really understand some of the subject matter.  She’s studying ethics at the moment and her next assignment is on comparing the ethics of COVID responses in the UK and New Zealand.  Penny is also learning Greek of 2000 years ago so she can read the Bible in its original language, and is about to start an anthropology module.  She is sure that some of the thinking particularly around ethics, will feed back into her facilitation.  Penny will be sharing some of her thinking.

To connect with Penny:



Her book is “Making Project Work Creative Collaboration for Our Time”.