Do you sometimes feel like you’re winging it?  

Do you get started on something big and important, and then have that ‘heart in your mouth’ moment when you realise that things are totally not going your way, at all? Maybe someone asked you a question that you have no clue how to answer. Or perhaps a group discussion has moved in a completely new direction, and you have no idea about the topic now being covered. Or maybe something outside your control has swooped in making your plans seem completely impossible. 

What do you do? 

Do you stop and say, ‘this is not what I wanted to happen, I’ll come back later’ or do you tread water, get through it? Perhaps delve deep into your memory banks or your tool-box of techniques and come up with something unexpected? 

I like to think that winging it is an art, a skill even. It’s an ability to dig deep and come up with something regardless of the starting point. It is that hidden activity, often close to mild panic that means you can look like a swan on top of the water, whilst paddling frantically, unseen beneath.  

Winging it is a key skill

Winging it, aka flying by the seat of your pants (a phrase which apparently comes from aviators in the Second World War who often had to fly in poor visibility with few instruments to help) is actually a key facilitation skill. Thinking on your feet is another way of describing it. Facilitation, unlike training (where you are providing known content to a group of people) is full of unknowns. The content comes from the group that you are working with and sometimes this is laden with surprises. And unless you are somehow telepathic there is no real way of knowing how this is going to pan out. So being able to take the situation that appears in front of you, and to run with it, requires a very well-developed ability in the skill of winging it. 

It is a good thing to be able to wing it. It shows you can think on your feet, that you can think outside the box, be adaptable and flexible and work well under pressure. As the last few years have proved, you can have the best plans in the word but it is the ability to cope when things go wrong that enables you to hold things together. There are undoubtedly more people are winging it than we realise. Many a seamless plan is underpinned quite carefully by a series of twists and turns, some probably quite sharp bends and some recalibrating along the way.  

Winging it is hard work!

Winging it takes a lot of energy, brain power and creativity – it’s hard work to wing it well! But if you can, then you can cope with all kinds of uncertainty, you can pull on your resources and keep moving when your best laid plans lie in tatters. 

Now, the question you might be asking is: do I enjoy this state? The answer might be a surprise, no, not exactly (see above – winging it can be hard work!) But it is something that facilitators are generally speaking incredibly good at. Which is very handy indeed. 

This skill is something that is probably needed on some level in most workplaces. There is definitely the “plan your dive, dive your plan” element needed in many situations. But there is a balance between plans that are set in stone, and having no plans as all. It is not about completely making it up as you go along. It’s that sweet spot in the middle, where there is room for organic movement in what you are doing, without breaking things. It is the ability to respond well when things move in an unexpected direction. That wiggle room when things need adapting quickly. 

So, what can you do to ensure that you are flexible, adaptable and able to wing it when needed? Drawing on some key facilitation techniques, some suggestions are: 

  • Be clear on where you want to get to, what you are trying to achieve and what your goals are. These may change as time goes on, but knowing what you want in the first place is important. Goals can and do change, but if they are never clear then how can you adapt? 
  • Always be massively over prepared. Yes, this might sound counter-intuitive, but the key to be being able to fly by the seat of your pants is to know as much as possible in advance of the situation. Do as much as you can beforehand to understand background of what you are doing and you’ll find yourself fairly un-flumox-able.  
  • Be open to the idea of the need for sudden change. It’s well known that generally speaking human beings don’t like change. But expecting and anticipating that it is on the horizon will stop it being such an enormous surprise.
  • Think through the possible “what could go wrong” moments, then when and if they come it won’t be a complete shock and you may have created some mental fall backs. 
  • Know that there is probably a lot more winging it going on than you realise! Don’t assume that everyone around you is flawlessly doing things according to plan.  

If you don’t think on your feet, work quickly, adapt and reset things may well fall apart. It’s better to do something. Sometimes this will mean saying “hang on, let’s pause as this is not going the way we thought”. Carrying on regardless unaware of the need for change is not an option. 

Add a splash of experience, and you’ll be a professional winger before you know it.  

Of course, there is a lot more to facilitation than just being able to wing it. But throughout my career, some of the most productive and interesting sessions seem to have been those which forced me to bring my winging it skills to the fore. Those workshops where you are responding to unexpected things that come up, using your judgement to shift and change when different situations that come up.  And that is what it is all about.  

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