Stand Back and Help It Happen
Once in a while you meet a
person or read something that totally changes your thoughts
about a subject. A year ago both those things happened to
me. At an emerging issues forum at our university, Ernesto
Sirolli gave a short presentation based on his experience
and his book, Ripples from the Zambezi (New Society Publishers,
1999). In it, he summarizes what he has learned about facilitating
projects in Africa, Australia and the United States. The
lessons are so simple, I asked myself the inevitable, “Why
didn’t I know this already?”
Years ago, Sirolli and a group of young colleagues traveled
from Italy to Africa to help grow tomatoes. “We knew
we wouldn’t fail because if there’s one thing
Italians know, it’s tomatoes,” he described.
However, they did fail. The people they were trying to
help quietly did what they were told and collected their
wages. But the entire time, they knew far more about growing
tomatoes in their country than the five volunteers from
Italy; the African natives just didn’t say it.
Other examples of misplaced altruism in this region abound.
The French sent a team of professors to the Ivory Coast
to test students for a high school certificate. They were
later shocked at the students’ poor results on a test
designed in Paris.
Shaken by the well-meaning but clearly ill-conceived venture,
Sirolli went back to Italy and started reading everything
he could about how projects like his should have been run.
One of the seminal books he discovered was Fritz Schumacher’s
Small is Beautiful (Perennial, 1989). He has subsequently
learned in the past 20 years that these lessons should be
required study for every quality manager, facilitator, team
leader, and Green and Black Belt. Shumacher’s first
two lessons in the book are:
If people don’t ask for help, leave them alone.
There’s no good or bad technology to carry out a task,
only an appropriate or an inappropriate one. Something big,
modern and expensive isn’t necessarily best; it all
depends on the circumstances.
We all have painful memories of trying to force help on
someone in our organizations. We know our way is better,
and if they’d just change, we could improve throughput,
reduce costs and improve quality. We want to help them change
so much; why do they resist?
We’ve all worked on projects in which the goal seemed
to be justifying new and expensive technology. There’s
a certain amount of cynical truth to the old joke that a
problem can be solved in only three ways: more people, more
money or a bigger computer. What Schumacher stressed was
that we shouldn’t take for granted our ability to
identify other people’s problems or offer solutions
that are appropriate to the situation.
Based on his work in economic development in Australia
and the United States, Sirolli states that the facilitator’s
first task is to find the passion. You can only help someone
who truly has a passion for that particular project or business.
The second task is to put it together. The facilitator
best serves not by improving the work done by the passionate
person--the true expert--but by helping fill in the other
pieces where the person isn’t an expert. Here’s
where the facilitator’s true talent can shine. The
hard work is pulling a team of diverse people together,
designing a plan in which everyone shares the work and the
rewards, and keeping everyone moving forward toward the
Sirolli also recommends that we must be passive. Our job
isn’t to talk someone into going somewhere but to
help those who have already decided they want to make the
journey. One of the key skills in being passive is active
listening. We must absorb everything we can and ask skillful
questions. Often the very act of explaining things to us
in great detail helps the presenter understand his or her
task far better. It also helps the would-be entrepreneur
understand what’s known and unknown about the project.
Sirolli stresses the absolute necessity of keeping all discussions
totally confidential. This project is someone else’s
baby, and we have no right to share it with others without
Often we can bring our business planning skills to bear.
We can help create an early rough draft to see what will
be needed and then help put the right team together to write
the complete plan. Here’s where we can truly add value
by using our contacts and past experience to create a network
of skilled people who can do their parts and begin to form
the project team or even a new company.
One of the most important traits we can bring to a project
is a love of action and wanting results. Sirolli’s
final recommendation is one of the most important and too
often ignored: Give all credit to the team; they did the
hard work. It’s their passion and their future, not
Sirolli’s advice to facilitators is to:
Find the passion.
Put the right team together.
Learn to listen more than talk.
Work in confidence.
Help create a real plan.
Build a network.
Give credit to the client.
A. Blanton Godfrey, Ph.D., is dean and Joseph D. Moore
Professor of North Carolina State University’s College