Coming to agreement

“A group who was deeply committed to their issue had shared a huge amount of experience and there was a real feeling of connection, energy and commitment in the room. And then it got stuck. Round and round we went. Action couldn’t emerge because something fundamental was missing – a signal from the leadership of unequivocal support.”

Growth - groan Zone

This kind of blockage, a feeling of wading in treacle at a crucial point in an event or process, is something we often face as facilitators. Sam Kaner has been writing and teaching about participatory decision-making processes for over 20 years [1]. Kaner invented the term groan zone, also called, ‘the zone of struggle in the service of integration’, which perhaps sums up the issue more accurately (if less elegantly!). If the emergence and sense-making phase described in our previous blog has gone well then ideas have emerged, new combinations of activities are possible, assumptions have been challenged and fresh groupings of people have formed around agreement and difference. So everyone in the group has to struggle in order to integrate new and different ways of thinking with their own.

Once power and hierarchy, not to mention gender and difference, are layered into the situation …. kaboom! If you don’t learn enough about the power dynamics in the group at the outset and clarify who has the authority to hold (or block) decisions, the process can become unstuck.

Detailed and clear preparation can help groups anticipate and get through the ‘groan zone’.   Breaking down the agenda into topics, questions and likely outcomes  are part of that preparation and inform the design of the process – and being able to let it go in the moment.

Equally important is the need to be clear about what agreement looks like. Consensus is often thought to mean ‘we all agree’. But as Sam Kaner points out, consensus isn’t so much the end point as how you get there –  ‘a participatory process in which a group thinks and feels together en route to their decision’. The agreement itself might be unanimity or majority. The process of getting there is all important – hearing objections, exploring resistance, drawing out proposals and possible ways forward, listening for the ‘sense of the room’, testing for agreement until you get there.

The good news

There are plenty of tools and methods to help the group doing its work of narrowing down ideas, prioritising,for narrowing down and sorting. As well as the many tools in Kaner’s work, the KS toolkit describes such staples as Dotmocracy, SWOT, Card Collection, and so on. The Liberating Structures resource also includes several creative and powerful tools like 25/10 Crowdsourcing, wicked questions, agreement/certainty matrix and, for long discussions on a larger scale, ecocycle planning and panarchy

r2i hackathon ideationIn many types of events there isn’t the same need for agreement, or an agreed outcome. Knowledge Sharing meetings are about people talking, learning from each other’s experience and taking away ideas to be processed individually or in teams. Good documentation and processes that help individuals or teams articulate what it is they’ve learnt and find common threads and patterns can help ensure that people come away with a sense of achievement. These often involve loads of paper on the walls – or windows, or large pieces of old wallpaper, or fabric sheets sprayed with glue – wherever they can be stuck.

Clarity and difference online

The majority of gatherings come as one event in a long series of activities and processes, involving chains of document versions and conversations before and after a workshop. Being crystal clear about the purpose of an online meeting, and preparing in detail, is even more important than for face to face meetings, as is stressed in a very accessible introductory guide to WebMeetings just published by the truly awesome Nancy White.

Some things can be easier. Online collaboration tools make it easier for people to keep track and maintain common documents and other content. We regularly use Google documents,  wikis, and MS OneDrive (yes, Microsoft have finally made a usable, publicly accessible web collaboration tool!)  These tools can serve a real-time documentation function and, paradoxically perhaps, if all participants remain online then keeping track can be easier. Conventions of version management are often more scrupulously followed online since people haven’t got the face to face contact to fall back on. There is only each other and the online connection.

Many of the tools for finding common ground and identifying difference can be used online. If people are using common tools like Google drive, which supports shared editing in real-time of presentations or other documentation, then coming to agreement can be a straightforward process. If more is at stake, there are plenty of examples from multi-stakeholder policy processes of ways to bring together and engage people who are present in meetings both remotely and physically. Many UN and other multilateral bodies are developing and using sophisticated platforms supported by formal process for responding and decision-making, especially those concerned with the Internet and telecommunications. The International Telecommunications Union, for example, has been webcasting since 1998 and integrating Remote Participation since 2009.

Dealing with difference and disagreement online is hard. Visual and other non-verbal cues are often absent or unclear unless there is high quality equipment and good communication channels.  The specific attributes of online meetings referred to in earlier blogs, such as extended response times, attention spans or comprehension difficulties, can cause acute problems where there are tensions or challenges. It requires more deliberation from a facilitator – ensuring consistent turn taking, regular check-ins, allowing time for rounds of conversations about key issues. Good facilitator skills in listening, echoing and summarising and synthesising are absolutely crucial.

Do you have any stories of how you sailed through the groan zone?

1. Kaner’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making should be on all shelves or e-readers!

Emergence and sense-making

When people meet in groups they begin to think and feel differently, whatever the purpose of the gathering. In our second blog we talked about how our own ideas are being challenged and enriched as we design the Facilitation Anywhere training course. This process is amplified in groups. We think about and change our ideas – whether about each other, the specific work context or program, the subjects being discussed, or even ideas or subjects entirely unrelated to the workshop but in the forefront of our minds.  In the collective learning that happens in groups (often referred to as social learning), people recognise shared beliefs and what they have in common, begin to shape new concepts, identify their differences and come together around what they can agree on.

Being the facilitator

Making sense of what’s emerging is probably the most complex part of a workshop or event, for both facilitator and participants. The facilitator needs to notice and reflect on what’s happening and, in consultation with the organisers, share this with the group to help trigger further conversation. Facilitators play a central role at this stage, not because we’re driving the event, but because it’s one of the key moments when, as the person ‘holding the space’, we have the potential to add most value.

Practically speaking, this  isn’t something you can do on the first morning.  After surfacing ‘what we know’, now’s the time to start to sense into what’s emerging, give people space to reflect and see what insights, patterns and themes are taking shape.  It’s necessarily messy, often chaotic, frequently uncomfortable and can also be exciting!  As facilitators we have to call on all our internal resources to be in tune with the group, stay centred, listen and adapt to what’s arising.  Let go of the choreography and improvise!

Reflecting reflections

Of course you have your design, even though you know you’ll almost certainly have to adapt and change it. A useful tool to have as a framework for sense-making, that also enables improvisation, was developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) over forty years ago. Commonly known as ORID the simple format is summarised below:

OBJECTIVE Facts e.g. What can you see?
REFLECTIVE Reaction e.g. Where have you seen something like this before?
INTERPRETIVE Implications e.g. What does this mean to you?
DECISIONAL Actions e.g. How might this principle be used?

This blog from ace facilitator Martin Gilbraith is a good introduction. And here’s a story of how ORID was used in a workshop in Hanoi to encourage and support reflective processes.

Insights and shifts happen when people  are listening together and are open to what’s arising.  Conversation cafe, world cafe (left) and fishbowl create spaces for this kind of sharing and enquiry into emerging questions. Have a look at the Art of Hosting for ideas for convening and hosting emergent learning. All three methods are also reviewed in the KS Toolkit, and the great Liberating Structures folks have their own variants.

Nobody knows you’re a dog online

Sense-making is one of the areas when the differences between face-to-face and virtual gatherings are most obvious, especially for the facilitators. Not being able to see reactions between people, on their faces, in how they move, glance – or glare – at each other, for example, makes keeping track of what is emerging much harder. Rachel Smith of Grove calls the channels available for communication the collaboration bandwidth. Technology defines what channels are available – the collaboration bandwidth – in the virtual world, and there is a wide range of possible channels. Thinking about how these types of connections might affect sense-making is a good example of how we need to prepare specifically for online or blended events:

text chat the narrowest of channels: requires constantly checking in with participants, encouraging people to comment, while explicitly and regularly leaving space for reflection and comment
phone/voice as above, plus hearing voice adds hugely to the ability to stay collectively in touch as people think with each other
voice & chat (or text based web tools like meeting now we’re getting real: the sense of connectedness and awareness enhanced through consistent visual reinforcement and the purposeful engagement of people in reflective processes, as well as the opportunity to comment in real-time or at agreed points in a meeting
video & audio adding another dimension: even in low resolution, furrowed brows or grins are immediately visible
video & audio & chat the difference between face-to-face and virtual begins to reduce: careful meeting management can blend the two modes
multi-channel room + presentation (webinar) Probably a step backwards, often to death by powerpoint
multi-channel room + presentation + text opens up interaction possibilities, though still a step backwards in terms of collective awareness of where people are at
multi-channel room + presentation + text + whiteboard participation many web-conferencing platforms have this as the standard configuration, which allows for a rich variety of facilitation options – though we need to remember the basics of managing online connections (an issue we covered in an earlier blog, pointing to a great resource from Susan Stewart )  
multi-channel room + presentation + text + audio/video participation The high-end option – if you can’t deliver effective, blended meetings with this level of resources, then you need a training programme!

A good, general introduction to the issues is provided in, ‘20 Tips for Facilitating Virtual and Blended Meetings’ from

Generating and shaping ideas

All meetings are different, as different as the people within in them. So in our sense-making of the processes and practices that help to foster fun and engaging events, we’re acutely aware of the risks of talking about a ‘typical’ flow of activities, as we’ve been doing in the first and second of these blogs. Having shared that caveat, we’re going to continue! This blog looks at another stage in the progress of a workshop or event – generating and shaping ideas.

You’ve got the information out there, and you’re getting clear on your challenge and the opportunities. It’s tempting to jump straight to solutions, and stay safely in the comfort zone of the tried and tested. Striking out and taking a different pathway, into those unknown places of the imagination, where weird and wonderful ideas reside, opens out new possibilities. The best ideas have a way of appearing at funny times, and there are lots of tools to help, from the simplest brainstorming, through to the panoply of design thinking methods, such as those shared by IDEO. The key thing is to create the conditions for the unexpected to happen.


2007-07-13-brainstormingBrainstorming is one of the oldest and best known methods for generating and sharing ideas. Though as this wonderful cartoon comments, anything other than the lightest of touches in facilitating the process can be crushing!

Since we’re sharing resources, this cartoon comes from the superb Rob Cottingham, who gets even more karma-points by licensing his work as creative commons.

Another very rich source of resources, ideas, innovation and support comes from the bustling folks at Liberating Structures. They’re more than a resource – they’re almost a movement. They’ve gathered together on their site (and in their training programmes) a collection of approaches and methods designed to, “introduce tiny shifts in the way we meet, plan, decide and relate to one another…. (putting) the innovative power once reserved for experts only in hands of everyone”. Some of the ideas you’ll recognise as old favourites, others were certainly new to us, and others are carefully worked variations. Another major strength of the site is that they have defined a useful and practical format to enable people to understand how they would use the methods in events or workshops.

As with so many methods, they can be adapted for different situations. For generating ideas we like particularly 1-2-4-All (which you may know as cascade!); 25-10 crowd sourcing and the riskier but therefore potentially more fun and releasing of creativity, improv prototyping. And they’re also systematically exploring how to adapt methods to working online.

Being a facilitator

Our job is to hold the sense of possibility for the group.  Internally, that’s about suspending judgement and being ok with not knowing what’s going to happen.  Outwardly, that helps us create the ‘container’ – the space where people open out and draw on their imagination and creativity to access their best thinking and ideas.

The advantages of being online rather than face to face

We so often characterise online or blended meetings as problematic, needing special preparation and attention to the technology and how people will interact. However, there are also many benefits and advantages to being present online rather than physically present. We ran some experiments recently during a wonderful exchange of creativity and experience, the AgKnowledge Innovation Process ShareFair (yes, bit long but it made sense at the time!). We were using the event to work  – play – with different modes of presence. Some of the sessions were organised as blended, combining face to face with online channels. Pete was working at the event in Addis Ababa while Isobel attended some of the sessions remotely. We used Adobe Connect for the blended sessions, illustrated below, recordings of which are linked in this blog.

SR blended meeting

In the context of ‘ideation’, we observed that brainstorming, for example, worked faster online than face to face: there was an immediate record of what had been written into a chat window, online participants were able to type at their own speed, without drowning out others, and the process was less reliant on a facilitator to manage participation, record the findings. Use of polls also allowed a more or less instant prioritisation of ideas, without having to fiddle about with dots or bits of paper.

In your experience, what’s the best way to carry forward both the tangible and intangible elements of the ‘container’ into online spaces?