What the power to pivot says about your facilitation style

Jackie Colburn
4 min readMay 9, 2023

Guiding groups successfully requires responsiveness. Whether you facilitate workshops regularly, or frequently find yourself in the role of meeting leader, this necessary skill can often be the difference between a stellar session, or one that misses the mark.

Here’s why it matters, and what the power to pivot says about your facilitation style.

1. It demonstrates adaptability

Even the most intentional, expertly-crafted workshop designs can’t anticipate exactly how a session might need to deviate to better support the group’s needs.

I was recently leading a multi-day strategic workshop when, halfway through our agenda, a key leader pulled me aside to share a concern that changed the course of our time together.

I had about 25 execs working in several small groups to generate and refine ideas when the aforementioned leader approached me.

They were worried that the ideas emerging were going to have a lot of interdependency and create redundancies or issues if teams stayed in their own lanes. We quickly discussed which ideas seemed to have overlap, then I decided to give the team a short break so I could come up with a new game plan.

I didn’t have this detour on the agenda, but I knew that creating the desired outcome for the group meant pivoting, and quickly.

When the group returned, I had a new approach that didn’t require a total revamp for the day, but added an activity that I designed on the fly to address the issue. I created an “exchange program” of sorts to reduce potential redundancy. I paired groups that had overlapping ideas, then asked each to send an “exchange student” to their partner team to learn about their work and report back to their home team to inform adjustments.

In this case, adaptation meant thinking on my feet and reaching into my facilitation toolkit for a method that could support the emergent needs of the group (even though it wasn’t on the agenda to begin with).

2. It shows that you know how to read the room

Just like we sometimes need to adapt our methodologies, so too must we pivot in the face of human dynamics. It’s common to encounter distracting behavior, cultural tension, and team politics when leading groups of people. Even the best laid plans can be derailed by unruly attendees. But if you know how to read the room and balance IQ with EQ, you’ll be able to guide the group in the face of challenges.

Here’s a relevant example of this issue that came up for me while leading a Design Sprint not long ago. Even though the whole team had been prepped in advance and made aware that the Sprint was a big commitment that required undivided attention, one person didn’t seem to get the message. We’ll call him “Important Guy.”

Important Guy arrived late on our first day together, and on his phone. Rude, but forgivable. I was ready to move forward and brought him up to speed and asked him to stay present.

But then, Important Guy had to step out. And later he had to leave for a lunch meeting. And then he told me he’d need to leave early the next day for golf.

This was the tipping point. I needed to make the call: I could either avoid confrontation and let Important Guy continue to be a distraction, or I could prioritize the needs of the team.

I decided to pull Important Guy aside and said, “Look, I understand that you aren’t able to be fully present, but your in-and-out behavior is disruptive and unhelpful to the team.”

I gave him the option to either bow out for the duration of the Design Sprint, or shift his role to that of an observer. That meant he could stay in the room so that he’d be informed and aware of the work, but it also meant no talking, no interrupting group flow, no adding perspective along the way.

And it worked. He chose to observe parts of the day and kept quiet, no longer disrupting the group. While it wasn’t ideal, calling an audible ultimately kept the rest of the group on track to reach their desired outcomes.

Reading the room is so important in facilitation because it keeps you tapped into the people, personalities, and energy of the group. From those observations you learn critical inputs that help inform required pivots.

3. It shows that you aren’t afraid to be vulnerable

Receptivity and flexibility are important, and so is the vulnerability to adjust if something isn’t working out as you’d imagined.

I always encourage facilitators to trust their plan / design, but to not be afraid to head into uncharted territory if you know in your gut it’s what the group needs. This absolutely requires vulnerability — pivoting in real time can be scary! But it’s irresponsible to muscle ahead just because the plan says so.

If this sounds overwhelming to you, do what I did in my first story and call a 10-minute break so you can get your plan together without the pressure of doing so with the group in front of you.

I promise that part of making your workshop a success is responding and making adjustments in real time. It keeps people at the center of the work, and shows that you have their best interests and outcomes in mind.

Has something like this happened to you before? If so, how did you pivot? Share your stories below, and support my work by leaving a few claps + forwarding this to a peer.

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Jackie Colburn

Weekly resources for facilitators and leaders. Learn tips and methods to run better workshops, accelerate teams and uncover new ideas. www.jackiecolburn.com