Improve Your Facilitation by Using the PO Technique

One of my favorite tools to use when I am facilitating a meeting is PO, which is short for provocation operation. Edward de Bono coined the word PO for use in the lateral thinking process. The idea of PO is to help move thinking or a discussion onward by allowing out-of-the-box thinking. It is used to introduce an idea; to sort of say, “This may sound crazy in and of itself, but maybe we can use it as a starting point for a discussion.”


When to Use PO

PO is a wonderful tool for facilitators to use in meetings, especially in discussions seeking solutions. Before use, it must be introduced by explanation and example if the group is unfamiliar with it. I begin by explaining that the group wants to help find one or more solutions to the problem. Since the goal is a solution, and there isn’t one yet, we start with a problem description. I then encourage the group to share ideas about solutions. Some, I tell them, may be direct while others may be discussion-starters. I ask them to precede the latter with PO.

Consider a discussion at a widget maker. They see sales dropping and have evidence that it is because their widgets are priced higher than those of the competition. The facilitator explains PO and asks the group for ideas.

We could use cheaper materials.

We could stress the quality in our marketing.

PO, we could give them away for free.

PO, we could raise the price even more

While the last two ideas may seem a bit far out, indeed they could lead to useful solutions. The idea of giving them away for free might lead to a discussion about other ways to monetize the widgets and thus using advertising revenue (on the widgets, say) to supplement a lower price. Likewise, raising the price might inspire a discussion about marketing the widgets as a niche product to justify a higher price.

Although admittedly contrived, the example illustrates the use of PO directly.

Benefits of PO

When I explain PO, I also stress that ideas introduced with PO are not to be judged. Likewise, I write those ideas on a flipchart or display as I would any other idea. Sometimes they spark immediate discussion, and sometimes we come back to them as we review other suggestions. So, implicit in using PO, and part of why it can be so valuable, is that it lets members of the group share thoughts without the others attacking it.

Another benefit I have found is that participants who might otherwise hold back tend to feel less inhibited and are thus more likely to contribute.

Who is Edward de Bono?

A friend in college introduced me to de Bono by sharing Lateral Thinking with me. As an engineering student taught mostly to be disciplined and logical in my thinking, this offered the additional option of thinking without restraint. De Bono has written 57 books and taught courses on thinking to organizations around the world. He is known for helping people improve their creativity and thinking skills. I have many of his books on my shelf and I re-read them regularly.

Hopefully, this post has inspired you to use PO in your facilitation. If you do, please share your experiences with us on Twitter @learningtree – we’d love to hear how it goes!

To your productive facilitating,
John McDermott

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