At the end of our longer workshops, people often remark about how knackered we must be, facilitating such an intense meeting. It does take a lot of energy, both physical and mental. While we’re running the meeting, we don’t think of it as a big deal; it’s just part of doing the job. But it is interesting to hear participants congratulate us on our “non-stop energy.” We’re impressed with the energy they expend, too.
Adrenaline helps, and gives a fine edge on a shorter one or 2-day workshops, but facilitating a 5-day Sandpit or Ideas Lab requires more than adrenaline to provide the energy expended at the event. The real measure of the amount of energy spent is to assess the energy loss on the weekend following; I personally am shattered for a number of days, sometimes at the expense of family, hobbies and other clients. Once we ran two Sandpits back to back and I swore I’d never do it again, until we did. (But I swear now that I’ll never do it again.)
Why does it cost a lot of the facilitators’ energy to run a sandpit? Could we run a successful sandpit at less energy cost? I think there are two critical facets of facilitation, and both require significant energy. First, we are “giving” our energy to the participants, we’re the battery that participants can tap into to raise their own energy levels. This can be essential to getting the most out the short amount of time they have together. This is a very visible form of energy, a physical energy, much like the brightness of a light bulb.
The second form of energy consumption is far less obvious. In order for a sandpit to be successful it has to flow and adapt according to the needs of the people (and objective of the event) at any moment. In order to do that, the facilitators are not only thinking of the current activity, but also the multiple alternative next activities and the possible twists and turns that the event might take on its journey to its final destination. This requires an invisible mental energy that never switches off during an event, whether you are in front of the participants, meeting with the client, having dinner, in bed, doing morning yoga exercises, you are always thinking about the next step.
Just to make things even more tiring, Sandpits are attended by some of the smartest (and most intense) people on this planet, people who specialise in scientific topics that lay-people won’t easily understand. Yet as facilitators we have to continually double check that these people aren’t just talking about the “same old stuff” but pushing themselves beyond even their own understanding into new territory. Imagine doing air-traffic control, at Heathrow airport, in Chinese. Sometimes that’s what it feels like to run an Ideas Lab.
It is interesting that in this day and age of climate change we are all very aware of the discussions about “energy conservation” and we make a concerted effort to turn off the lights of an empty office, to walk rather than drive to the shop, and turn down our house temperature by a degree or two. But what about our own physical and mental energy conservation? This is not unique to facilitators; energy drain is a real problem for everyone these days as we are increasingly pushed to be more productive in less time with fewer resources. What can we do to conserve our personal energy? How can we keep a reserve for the unknown that could be waiting for us around any corner? If you have spent all your personal energy (physical and mental) today, what are you going to do in a crisis?
There is no straight forward answer to this, and everyone has their own bio-rhythms to attend to, but to start I would suggest that we need to be even more vigilant about restocking our personal energy. That means making a little bit of time for ourselves, taking time out to do things that make us happy (shooting baskets, tinkering in your shop) and giving yourself a little bit of space now and then that allows you some solitude and time to think.
That’s good every day advice, and sometimes easier said than done. But it becomes especially important when you’re a participant in a Sandpit or Ideas Lab. Here are a few tips to help maintain your energy during one of our 5-day workshops:
1. Move seats now and then. Different views, different people, different perspective all help to lift flagging energy. As the old saying goes, “a change is as good as a rest.”
2. Take breaks. We usually start an event by explicitly informing participants that during our time together “suffering is optional,” meaning we encourage participants to take responsibility for their own comfort. It usually raises a few laughs, but never ceases to surprise me how many people forget to “opt out” when their need for a pause doesn’t correspond with the scheduled break.
3. Don’t eat too much. Five days of hotel breakfast, lunch and dinner can be pretty heavy going on the average person’s constitution. While I am at a Sandpit, I try to eat similar foods and quantities as I would do in a normal working week, and that sometimes includes skipping lunch and taking a walk in the fresh air instead.
4. Do dance. Sometimes a workshop venue does offer the chance to dance in the evening. It’s paradoxical that although your head says you would be better off getting some sleep, your spirit knows it is energised by an hour or two of dancing. If there’s no dancing, take a walk, go for a run. It’s good for your body and your brain.
5. Borrow from and share with others. There is a collective energy in the room. If you’re feeling tired, sit at a table with an animated group. If you’re feeling inspired, share your enthusiasm with people who look a bit worn out.
6. Go with the flow. It’s surprising just how much energy we consume when we are troubled by uncertainty. Sandpits are safe places, trust the process and feed off the excitement rather than be drained by the worry.
7. Be aware of other people’s natural styles. Not everyone works like you, and they might be exhibiting their energy levels in very different ways to you; some people can be thoughtful with great energy, others can be loud when they are tired.
8. Don’t be grumpy when you get back home. It’s not their fault you’re so worn out. Being grumpy is a vicious circle of energy consumption. (On this point, do as I say, not as I do.)
It’s true that attending a week-long workshop produces a certain amount of unavoidable fatigue. That seems to be the trade-off for having so much uninterrupted time to think and being able get to a deeper level of networking and idea-exchange with the others attending the meeting. It’s a good idea not to give yourself a bit of downtime before you return to your desk, and even then, to leave room in your schedule for that first day back. That way you can ease into your routine, or, use the time you’ve left unscheduled to follow up on new contacts and ideas that emerged from the workshop.