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A Birth Story: How EntrepreNerds Begot the Participatory Facilitation Model (Part 1)

I had been spending the past two months preparing for this day and yet my heart skipped a beat when all eyes focused on me. “The moment of truth is here” I thought, “if I botch this…I won’t botch it! I can do it, just be present and roll with the punches.” I psyched myself up.

The day was March 1, and it was the very first EntrepreNerds book discussion. I was excited, nervous, and I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing! I was making everything up as I went. Diligently preparing as I might, there was no manual to follow, no formula to success. Pushing me forward was only the drive that I couldn’t not do this and faith that “I have what it takes.”

The First EntrepreNerds Book Discussion

We had a full house that first session. There were 23 nerds sitting in a large circle in the backroom of Old Firehouse Books. Their lunches perched on their laps, Getting Things Done just within reach on the floor, and notebooks out. We were a studious bunch.

I took a deep breath, looked at the overly complicated agenda I had printed out for myself and began the discussion. After a brief welcome, we began a round-robin of introductions. The goal, after-all, was to get everyone to contribute to the discussion. I definitely did not want to do all the talking.

We had lift off. Participants were sharing insights gleaned from the reading. Professionals were expressing challenges implementing David Allen’s recommendations. Peers were giving each other advice and feedback. Notes were frantically being scribbled on paper. And I did my best to keep us focused while allowing the conversation to evolve organically.

It went well, but I did not pitch a perfect game. There was one participant that shared a critical remark about the book, which I glossed over. His comment was beyond valid, verging on profound, yet it caught me off guard. I could see after that, his demeanor changed and he became disengaged. It was a learning moment for me.

Lessons Learned on Facilitating

There’s a positional authority that a facilitator holds in a group. But you lose any power associated with facilitating the individual once a participant chooses to disengage. It’s classic really, position does not always equal leadership. But sometimes, those of us in positions of authority forget this fact.

My own practice as a facilitator did not start that day in March. I formally began facilitating when I was fifteen. I led meetings in my youth group and co-chaired my drama club. Later, I led class discussions as a TA in college. I was lucky enough to not only receive leadership training beginning in high school, but to actually gain real life experience in leadership roles (that’s where the real learning happens).

So, my journey was well underway when, 16 years later, I started EntrepreNerds. And yet, that day was a new beginning for me to deepen my practice in ways I could never have foreseen. I’ve pondered this over and over again: how do you get participants engaged, present and committed to the purpose of a meeting? I’ve had many conversations on the topic with my mentor, a master facilitator and seasoned leader. I have read (no surprise there), practiced, experimented and reflected.

From Chaos to Order

Over the last 20 months, EntrepreNerds book discussions have evolved into a “simple yet profound” program (so says David May, Fort Collins Chamber President). Where there was once no formula, a framework has emerged. And critical to that framework is the style of facilitation. It is a style I began calling Participatory Facilitation last winter, and it blends the theory of transformational leadership with a process and practice of facilitating.

I worked with Karina Mullen, a talented graphic recorder and facilitator, to create a model of Participatory Facilitation. Her exceptional skills helped me to both formulate and simplify an otherwise complicated concept. After all, one of the greatest challenges for any entrepreneur is putting to paper the systems and processes that reside in our noodles.

Creating this model is a necessary step in realizing my vision for EntrepreNerds. And in doing so, I’ve found that it is not only relevant to EntrepreNerds, but is valuable to leaders, managers, facilitators, and teachers alike. It has been because of this encouraging reaction, like giving candy to kids, that I decided to share this model with the world as open source!

A New Era of Business, Giving it Away

The concept of open source started with software development.  You may be familiar with some open source programs like Mozilla or OpenOffice.  In these examples it means that the software is free to “license” and use, and the source code is visible to anyone to use or modify.

The idea is taking hold in other business ventures as well.  Some of the modern business aficionados I admire have demonstrated tremendous value and benefit for making their work open source.  For example, Alexandar Osterwalder developed the Business Model Canvas, an innovative one page business planning tool which he made open source.

Some people have told me not to share this model as Open Source: “That’s your intellectual property, you’ve got to protect that” they say.  And there’s a part of me that feels that. It comes in the form of fear and “smart” business practices.  However, when I stopped to really think about it, I realized that protecting my work from a place of fear does not align with my values nor my purpose.

Making this model open source is a way for me to add value and demonstrate a deep commitment to fulfilling my purpose.  I also believe that open source lends itself nicely to continuous innovation and collaboration, two qualities I strive to embody.

So, this concludes the “birth” story, if you will, of EntrepreNerds.  I’ll publish part 2 of this installment in the coming weeks where I will share a basic overview of how the model of Participatory Facilitation works!

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