Accidental Learning

By Mark Watkins

Nov 05

Here’s what a facilitation workshop taught me:

Imagine if you will a well positioned and planned facilitation of a leadership team. They have had a pre-read and are looking forward to the session. The session format and outcomes are clear, the deck is prepared and we are ready for any eventuality and to ‘smash it’. The session started well, we had a sponsor that believed in us and participants who respected us already, we had opened strongly and warmly and framed in the background was a slide with photos of the team. What could possibly go wrong?

And then it happened! It was akin to being a whitewater instructor. The group was picked up and set off on a gently flowing river. Unbeknownst to me, I would place my paddle into the water and trigger the boat to veer to the left towards the white water and a waterfall and at the same time almost capsize the boat. Fortunately, the group hadn’t realised we were now going into an uncharted river!

I had asked a question. An ordinary question that changed the course of our journey. The question itself was “What questions do you have?”  10 minutes went by, then 30 and finally we were 1 hour and 5 minutes into the 90-minute session and we had were 10 minutes into our planned approach!

I know all about priming, framing and asking boxed questions. I have been running coach training for 20 years and work with groups on the powerful use of questions. I often share the principle ‘The quality of the question determines the quality of the answer’, and yet at that moment I asked a succinct, simple and open question that changed the course of the session dramatically. There are many alternative questions I could have asked to achieve the intended outcome e.g. “Are there any questions you have of me as your facilitator?” and we would have been done in 3 minutes.

Here’s my learning: Be careful what you ask. Be mindful of the intended outcome and frame participants with the right question. Despite this, I managed to stay calm and the group had a good experience. It could have been better, but it worked out OK in the end.

As is often the case, I learned from a mistake. Check out this movement if you want to know how Millennials are leveraging this whole concept to another whole level – LINK. Mistakes are okay if we learn from them and we are kind to ourselves as we reflect on them.

What mistakes have you been learning from in the last few weeks? What questions are you asking of yourself and others, and what would make them even more powerful for you and for them?

Take care,


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