Social Learning and sense-making in events

“One day a woman went hoeing in the field. Before she started hoeing she put her baby under the shade of a tree. Whilst she was working in the field some baboons came and stole her baby.”  The constantly original and creative Charles Dhewa grabbed instantly our attention during a session at the 2011 IFAD ShareFair as he told one of the Bantu narratives he describes in his powerful paper, “Traducture and Sensemaking: Experiences from Southern Africa“. We were working together in a session exploring sense-making as a process, and the stories were triggers for us to reflect on how different people take different meanings from a single prompt.

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Dhewa developed the sense-making framework illustrated above that embraces the complexity of this process, especially when working with people from different cultures and with widely varied experience. The paper explores the dimensions illustrated above and it’s a good introduction thinking about the role of a facilitator in working with large and small groups of people as they sense together and shape ideas and new meanings from their discussions.

As we described in our first blog on sense-making and emergence, the process of collective learning and making sense of what is emerging is probably the most complex part of a workshop. Several popular and well-tested facilitation techniques can be used to support these processes, including:

  • World Cafe, where participants have rounds of conversations on linked sets of questions, with ‘hosts’ at tables recording the progressively richer exchanges.
  • The wide range of variations in storytelling methods
  • The different approaches to Appreciative Inquiry, with their emphasis on seeking the affirmative and positive as the basis for considering future actions
  • Future Backwards or Backcasting – taking people out to a future they construct, either or both ideal or nightmare and then considering how they will or did get to that future, as the basis for thinking about what they might do next

We’ve gathered together a wiki collection of resources and links sorted by the six typical event phases that we use loosely to structure our Facilitation Anywhere workshops (the next one is 22- 24 November, 2016) which we share with participants at the workshops. Of course anyone who’s prepared to contribute one or two resources  can also join the wiki!

Out of the corners of our eyes

The exercise with the Bantu narratives above illustrates that an indirect or sideways approach is often effective in enabling groups to feel their way to emerging ideas and common ground. For example, the graphic facilitation techniques we described in the previous blog are extremely effective in providing participants  with a picture of links between and clusters of ideas, as are more traditional approaches using cards and post-its, clustering and sorting them into groups.  Similarly, frameworks to enable free-flowing, participative conversation techniques like Fishbowls or Samoan circles, where participants both participate and observe the passage of ideas, provide material to be reflected on and processed. And of course reflection takes time. Scheduling activities in two parts, that allow participants time – often overnight – for processing of ideas and   conversations, can enable new conjunctions or understanding of balance between priorities to emerge.

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Ecocycle planning is another great, practical Liberating Structures synthesis of approaches – itself an example of an emergent idea. The picture above illustrates how we used it with a new program, the merging of two existing grant portfolios, as a way for participants to map their work in relation to each other and the overall program. The placing of the activities necessitated reflection and discussion among teams, but the most valuable conversations followed as participants questioned and discussed both individual placements and the emerging pattern of investment.

What about you? Please share your stories: what are your best, or worst, experiences of working with emergence and sense-making?

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Ideas that spark and take life

This is the third blog of this current series  describing some of our experience in meeting and event facilitation. We’re focusing on how to foster and encourage those spaces and times when groups find their creativity together, spark off each other and generate ideas that are entirely new or re-visions of current thinking. It seems such an obvious and straightforward process, and there are gazillions of relevant approaches and methods in resources like the KS toolkit. We suggested some ideas of our own when we first blogged about this phase in an event. But all too often the post-it notes are written up (or photos shared) only for the energy to dissipate and the promising ideas to wither in the storm of everyday pressures. The challenge is to create an environment that provides the best chance for the most realistic or promising ideas to take life beyond the event.

Time, time, time – just give me a little more time

The challenge can be envisaged in three parts. The first is the process of engaging and energising participants in creative ideas generation. Many of us find we do our best thinking and reflection in the moments when there’s nothing much going on – in the shower, out walking or on a long journey. One of the reasons that generating ideas is a relatively easy task is that meetings and events are a luxury in most people’s lives, especially if they have a facilitator ‘holding’ the process.  Once people find that time is allocated to simply thinking and being creative with other smart and committed people, they usually relish the opportunity.

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Climate Change and Social Learning project workshop on evidence gathering

We get energy and inspiration when the question or issue has heart and meaning.  The Human Centred Design approach starts with an exploring situation and issue through the experience of the people most affected, and through this clarifying the critical question.  Asking ‘ how might we … ‘ becomes the launch pad to generate tons of ideas – ‘ideation’, in short – when nothing’s ruled out.  At this stage, the facilitator’s role is to create a creative positive space, and provide a simple structure for ideas to emerge.  You’ll also be managing the materials, displays and documentation, and perhaps providing examples from elsewhere.  Ideo have a fantastic resource, with lots of ideas. Note that facilitators are the default provider of simple or fancy stationary so we all have our standard travel kit, like this one.

Graphic Facilitation

karen-small-to-large-1How to capture ideas as they take shape? Pete Cranston says, “writing as someone with the very limited drawing skills illustrated opposite, I am lost in admiration of those that can listen to discussions and reflect both their dynamism and the content as it develops in clear and beautiful graphics”.  Nancy White developed the wall-drawing below during several hours of discussion (on Knowledge Management, with a team of  Sanitation specialists). The central point, however, is that even simple drawings like the one of the right can serve as a mirror to group conversations (in that case about how organisational change and Knowledge Management). For a facilitator, a graphic-recorder’s vantage point is an excellent place to gently comment, ask checking and summary questions, or note patterns and sticking points.

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Sifting, sorting and prioritising

This second stage normally follows  brainstorming or similar idea-generation activities, which may include using shaped cards or post-it notes. As ‘experts’ in their own content, participants have a key role in grouping and clustering the ideas.  This is important for sustaining ownership and shared responsibility for outcomes.  Here, the job of the facilitator is to provide (and guide) a clear process, such as the ICA’s consensus workshop method, which can be found alongside other processes in Brian Stanfield’s The Art of Focused  Conversation.

Another fun and creative method is the 25/10 crowdsourcing pioneered by Liberating Structures. A word of warning: this activity seems straightforward – writing an idea on a card, passing the cards quickly around a group of people and scoring when the cards have been passed around several times. This is a slightly more complicated process than participants may be used to from the more normal flipchart and card-based processes, so people can easily get lost. It’s a great opportunity to test how good you are at giving and checking instructions!

Taking it forward

Ideas take life when the people who are involved feel personally engaged and committed, and are supported by a clear process that marries learning and action.  At the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) we introduced a three-stage reflection on change. First we focused at the level of collective change, inviting participants to:

  • ‘Reflect individually on a story of collective change in which you have been involved – part of your work, or separate, that illustrates how change works, and how have you been learning in that change’
  • Meet with two other people and discuss what leads to change’

And then, on an individual level, the subsequent invitation was to:

  • ‘Reflect individually on your own learning history: what can you learn from success or failure  that will help you act differently how to act upon learning in an event without falling in the same trap
  • Share it with another person’

In the third stage participants returned to the thematic groups in which they had been working and were invited to:

  • ‘Reflect and discuss in the thematic group what you will  do differently and record conclusions on mini-posters (with contact info.):
    • Personally?
    • Organizationally?
    • In the theme group?
    • Beyond (more collectively)?’

The thinking was shared and further processed in plenary and small group discussions. Together we found that by connecting to, and sharing, personal experiences of change, peoples’ thinking and conversations became strongly anchored into a sense of reality and a perception of what’s possible.  The next step from this is specific, achievable actions – such as prototypes to try out and learn from.

It’s crucial to take time to process how conversations can have influence beyond the event. Variations on Open Space approaches are a good tool for enabling groups to identify common interests, often different to existing workgroups or current projects, and then develop ideas and plans to progress new agendas. Often Open Space simply ends with a series of notes, perhaps stored online, relying on personal interest for follow on. Follow on is more likely if the event includes time for several  rounds of group discussions, allowing stronger groups to emerge, gather new followers and make plans. And building in a final public discussion of prospects for action, in plenary, can strengthen motivation and the socialisation of the ideas with the larger group.

We are great fans of wikis, and other forms of online documentation as ways to both enrich meetings or gatherings and lay the foundations for future action. The Climate Change and Social Learning (CCSL) project built up a rich online resource using both a wiki and other tools such as Yammer.com. The wiki was a key resource for all events, which were planned collectively and publicly, recorded in real time and then documented with notes, photos, graphics and links to other resources. The richness of the wiki pages for the CCSL event pictured above, for example, illustrate how the documentation process itself is a way to encourage and embed planning for action, as well as continuing as a rich resource for participants long beyond the event.

What’s been your best experience of a meeting or event that has successfully transitioned from the protected space and time of a gathering into action and change back in the everyday? Come are share with us at our next Facilitation Anywhere Workshop, when we’ll explore these and full range of meeting phases, is on 22 – 24 November, 2016.

 

 

Posters, presentations and speed geeking: finding out what we know

The seven openings to events that we described in our last blog are a first step in ‘bringing people’s voices and their different experiences into the room, in a spirit of curiosity and learning’. We used that phrasing when we first blogged about our Facilitation Practice last year to describe what happens as you move from openings to a logical next phase in gatherings: ‘finding out what we know‘.  The Tagging and Human Spectrogram exercises we described in our last blog get people curious and interested, and lead naturally into richer conversations in which people find out about each other.

What shall we do about Presentations?

Presentations have a bad press among a lot of development people exhausted by the round of conferences and workshops and generally also among facilitators. The issue here is one of framing and organisation:”what if we re-imagine conferences and meetings as gatherings where people can connect, learn and have the conversations that really matter“, was a blog response here to Duncan Green’s rant about awful events. We described a simple but effective approach to sharing, a variant on speed-networking. Three-minute snapshot presentations from people of what was inspiring about their work meant that in less than an hour everyone knew the best of what was happening across a range of projects.

Presentations become  engaging and energising when people are limited to a fixed time or number of slides, or by using a timer approach like Pecha Kucha.  This also offers a compromise for those who value the security or  ease of powerpoint.  When there is a lot of detail to present, doing it this way allows for different approaches to communication and learning. For example, in a recent annual meeting of the CARIAA program, which involves four large, complex research syndicates in detailed and current climate change research, each syndicate gave a 10-minute introductory presentation very early in the three-day event.  A bit like  a TED talk, it meant that each of the senior scientists and their teams produced rich, engaging and dynamic communication that set the scene and sparked off a range of questions and follow-up conversations.

Posters and Galleries

In both those events the presentations were followed  by a ‘market place’, with  posters and other information for more in-depth discussions.  The Building Demand for Sanitation (BDS) program, on the other hand, started with the posters.

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Prof. Bilqis Hoque talks about women leaders in local Government at a BDS convening

The way it’s organised and managed has evolved over the five years of the program:

  • Each of the grantees, many with large multi-year collaborative projects, prepares a poster according to a pre-agreed template. For a recent BDS convening this had  four headings:  Progress Update, Learning, Partnership, Change and Innovation. The suggestion was the posters should preferably not exceed 36 x 60 inches (3 x 5 feet).
  • The posters are put up around the walls of the room(s) the previous evening or during a time allocated around a natural break.  This means that if the venue doesn’t like things being stuck on the walls, something like sticky walls needs to be brought in by the facilitator.
  • The participants then have 30 – 45 mins to simple wander about, to view the posters, ask questions for clarification, and prioritise those they’d like to explore more deeply with the hosts.
  • There are then three or four rounds of detailed conversations, between 20 and 30 minutes long, when participants join a particular poster and have a conversation with the hosts – who may do a short introduction to their content (illustrated above).
  • The posters are all photographed and the pictures shared online afterwards.

We’ve used posters, or a combination of introductory presentations plus posters, in a wide range of events. The process is engaging, keeps people moving and awake (it’s key remember the impact of jet-lag on the early part of some events) while providing an ideal context for learning and knowledge exchange. People ask precisely what it is they want to know, when they want to know it, and of a person who is likely to be able to answer it immediately, or provide references. The posters stay on the walls, too, which means that people can view or follow up at their leisure.

Speed Geeking and Knowledge Carousels

This is one of the oldest tools in the Facilitator’s kitbag, and take many different forms. In essence it’s a more formally or tightly organised form of Gallery Walk. ‘Presenters’ are allocated a short, fixed time to engage with groups of participants. They start with a brief pitch – 3o seconds or one minute to the whole event – and then there is a strictly-managed series of short sessions where participants choose to visit those they find interesting.

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Pitching to the crowd at a CTA Plug and Play Day

The exercise can be very informal – presenters in parts of the room, or at tables, or in break-out rooms – or formal, as in the Plug and Play days pioneered by CTA in its work to promote and learn about the uses of Information and Communication Technologies in Agriculture. In the latter, illustrated above, the whole day is given over to a series of presentations, attended by 100 – 300 people in total. The facilitator spends a lot of time in preparation but on the day itself is more of a timekeeper or MC (‘master/ mistress of ceremonies’). This role can be shared with other participants, of course.

There are trade-offs. Posters take time to prepare, time which is often hard to find among busy and often cash-poor projects. But Powerpoint presentations, especially short ones, can be quick to prepare and share afterwards.  How do you manage that trade-off, in ways that maximise both engagement and communication without creating a heavy load for participants? And of course we’d welcome hearing about your ideas and experience if you’re interested in joining us at our next Facilitation Anywhere workshop in Oxford on 22 – 24 November.

Seven openings

Almost everyone’s arrived.  Some are already sitting down, others are standing around and chatting.  A couple of people are late, but time-keeping matters.  It’s time to get started.

Suddenly you find yourself in front of a group of people – 15, or 33, or 65, or 128 of them, or more, most of whom don’t know you. You’re the facilitator and the people in the room are putting their trust in you to help them achieve something concrete by the end of the event. You want to seize moment so that the participants come into the physical and mental space for the gathering as quickly and smoothly as possible. Then you can make a start on doing what needs to be done, letting the locus of control move between you and them.

Openings are about coming fully into the present and connecting with self, others and the purpose for the gathering.  They enable people to ‘arrive’ in body and mind, relax into what’s happening, ready to engage with the work to be done.  People need to be able to meet each other as quickly and easily as possible, to form as a group and create the ground for collaboration.  Each group is new, formed in that time and place, meeting for a specific reason, and shaping its own particular identity.

Here are seven ways to open, engage and connect:

  1. Engage people as they arrive   

We heard about this from the wonderful Tips for Trainers.  It’s a simple way to bring people mentally into the workshop or meeting before it’s even started.  Prepare two flip charts and have them in the area where people are arriving, or near the door to the meeting room.  Each flip chart has a different heading, for example: a question I want to explore with others today; one thing I’m looking forward to today.  As you welcome each person, ask them to put a post-it comment on the chart.  You’ll probably find that people start chatting about what they’re writing, and reading each other’s comments.

A variation is to write a statement on a large sheet that relates to the meeting purpose.  Below it is a spectrum where people can signal their level of agreement by placing a dot.  It gets everyone thinking, and you can refer back to it in the discussions.

  1.  A warm welcome – ‘what brings us here’

Starting with presence and purpose sets the tone of the meeting. It’s the first step in creating a hospitable space where people can do their best work together, and falls to the host of the meeting (if that isn’t you).  A few words, combined perhaps with a personal story connecting to the purpose of the event is a great way to start and only need take a few minutes.

  1. Meet and greet – informal networking

Invite everyone to get up and greet every person in the room, in three minutes.  It’s simple, direct, quick and generates lots of energy!  Follow it with the next activity, named Mad Tea by our colleagues at Liberating Structures: 

  • Find somebody you haven’t met before and introduce yourself, giving your name and organisation or project, if appropriate.
  • Respond to one or two questions provided by the facilitator
  • After 2-3 minutes – on a bell, or a beep, or a clap of the hands – go and find someone else.
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Getting to know you

Examples of questions are: ‘What are you bringing that you can share with this group’; ‘what is one thing you’re hoping to achieve or learn’? Questions can also be more targeted.  For example, we asked a large gathering of sanitation specialists in Hanoi, ‘What are you doing in your work that could contribute to resolving the global sanitation problem?’ Questions like these can trigger conversations about mutual interests and possibly lead to suggestions to meet further.  Two or three rounds expose the range of ideas in the room.

You need to agree the physical set up in advance.  For the meeting of 125 people in Hanoi, where nobody knew everybody but everybody knew some of the people there, we had to negotiate firmly with the hotel staff to have chairs in two’s and three’s, randomly, around the room.  This was the best configuration for that room and that group for informal networking. ‘But it’s not tidy!’ they protested, as they rearranged the chairs into rows for the second and third time.

  1. Appreciative check-in’s

Start an online or face-to-face meeting or small group session with an opening round.  Ask each person to introduce themselves (if this is the first time for them to meet), and share one thing about themselves others may not know, and one thing they want from the meeting.  There are many variations, according to the purpose and subject matter, but the point is to bring everyone’s voice into the room very quickly, in a way that’s relevant and puts people at their ease.  

  1.  Introduce yourself – briefly, or you’ll burn your fingers!

Asking people to introduce themselves in this way may be the simplest thing to do.  If groups are larger than 10 or so, the classic problem is that people may find it hard to be brief, and each successive speaker tends to speak longer.  If there are 15 participants and each person takes 3 minutes, that’s 45 minutes, and people are probably getting restless.

Ednah Karamagi introduced a fun ploy: give everybody a match from a box of matches. Each person lights their match and can then speak for as long as it burns. Inevitably the first speakers suffer, but by the end people have worked out how to eke out the match, bending this way and that, so that they can speak for as long as possible.

  1.  Finding your own people – using tagging

Classify and labeling online content like blogs became an increasingly important activity as social media began its rapid growth. ‘Tagging’ was the term people used for labeling online, so when we began training Development people in how to use social media we developed a ‘tagging’ exercise to use as an opener.

In a meeting you can ask participants to give themselves a tag, using a post-it note. In a Stories of Change workshop in Addis Ababa for the CARIAA program that we co-facilitated with Blane Harvey, we asked participants to identify themselves in three ways, noting the answer on post-it notes – tagging themselves, in other words:

  • Something you’re passionate about outside professional life
  • A skill or experience you are most looking for in Stories of Change
  • The most valuable skill or experience you are bringing for Stories of Change

There are three rounds, one for each of the above.  Participants mingle and find people with the same or similar tags, and form clusters. Each cluster, and those who haven’t formed a cluster, is asked to explain why they are clustered in that way.  They could also make a pitch to attract others to join their cluster.  It’s fun and energising and is a practical way for people to find out who and what is in the space.

  1.  Spectrogram lines

Spectrogram lines are a great way for people to learn in an energizing and enjoyable way who and what is in the room  The facilitator lays a long piece of marking tape down a section of the room, or in some other way establishes there is a line. Then participants hear a series of statements in succession which will divide opinion in the room. For example:

  • The SDGs are going to fundamentally transform the sanitation sector
  • Maize can be sustainably intensified
  • Yield gaps are primarily due to non-technical factors
  • I have 30 pairs of shoes

After the first statement, people choose whether and by how much they agree. One end of the line represents ‘I fully agree’ (100%) and the other end ‘I completely disagree’ (0%). People place themselves along the line according to their level of agreement.  They could do this silently, or ask each other why they think they are at a particular spot, so as to gauge where to place themselves. After people have arranged themselves, the facilitator interviews individuals at either end and at the middle, asking them to explain to the group why they chose their position.

Other questions or statements are declared, and the process repeats. Through the movement, the conversations between the participants, and the interviews, participants share a lot of knowledge about each other and the subject matter.

Join us at the next Facilitation Anywhere workshop in Oxford on 22 – 24 November to find out more about openings and more besides!