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.

ccsl-evidence-gathering-1
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.

wp_20151001_16_44_26_panorama

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.

 

 

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