Converging on common ground – or not

As a facilitator of meetings and gatherings, it’s a great feeling when it’s going well and awful when you run into the sand. There’s nothing quite like the first stirrings of unease as you realise a session isn’t going to plan. And speaking personally, that reaction stirs a prickling of sweat glands, a stirring in the stomach, natural components of the fear response.

Our FacilitationAnywhere wiki links to sample workshop methods for each phase

Reflecting on the process of coming to agreement, which is the next ‘phase’ of our loose six part model of ‘typical’ events, brought me to remember how often tensions are raised in these sessions. The process of prioritising, selecting and re-prioritising, means some people will have to give way on ideas they value. It is also the key exit route from the ‘messy middle’ which is another way of visualising Sam Kaner’s ‘groan zone, which we described in our earlier post on this phase.

Keep Calm and Carry On

25/10 Crowd Sourcing is one of those creative methods from the Liberating Structures people, designed to both stimulate new thinking within a group – using a form of quick brainstorming – and help a consensus form about the most promising ideas. It’s a curious method, almost algorithmic in the way it tries to use a rapid process to bypass deeper reflection and questioning that can slow down, or interrupt a group’s convergence on what is common.

“First, every participant writes on an index card his or her bold idea and first step. Then people mill around and cards are passed from person to person to quickly review. When the bell rings, people stop passing cards and pair up to exchange thoughts on the cards in their hands. Then participants individually rate the idea/step on their card with a score of 1 to 5 (1 for low and 5 for high) and write it on the back of the card. When the bell rings, cards are passed around a second time until the bell rings and the scoring cycle repeats. This is done for a total of five scoring rounds. At the end of cycle five, participants add the five scores on the back of the last card they are holding. Finally, the ideas with the top ten scores are identified and shared with the whole group”

keep-calmI’d had warnings from that ace facilitator, Ewen Le Borgne – about how easily the process can go wrong. Ewen’s response to most things is to laugh, which is a great way to deal with problems and stay in touch with other people in the room. The problem with the 25/10 method seems to be that the apparently straightforward sorting process is unusual: it’s mix of allowing people to talk about an idea, and then asking them to simply score the rest on a rapid appraisal. There is some movement too and music is meant to help.  But when the process broke down during a large event we were working on last month, it suddenly made it all worse.  There was too much noise and even more confusion about when the music should be on or off. So there we were, meant to be starting round two of the five scoring rounds and some of the ideas cards already had three or four scores on them. Uneasy looks, prickling of the skin: we had to laugh, and my first reaction – scratch out all the scores and start again – was quickly corrected by the group to the more logical and easier start the scoring again on the other side of the card. Dunh!

And like magic, a quietly-spoken participant, not at all one of the most vocal during the earlier three days, started making sensible suggestions during the rest of the process, but talking very softly, almost into my ear (confession: I tend to panic over numbers and counting, early educational trauma!). It was both an intensely practical way to help the group, via helping me, and also very calming for me. As a result we ended up with a series of ideas that the group in general found the most interesting – the method does work.

Can you hear what’s in my head?

My learning, not for the first time, was that however clearly you think you’ve given instructions always remember that you will have thought through any specific activity carefully and several times. Whereas for participants it may be the first time they have heard the idea. So have visual support – flip charts or projected slides – and summarize, and check, and check again. A great lesson for all facilitators in the perils of communication is the tapping game spelt out in a lovely piece that cropped up in an email exchange in the ever stimulating KM4Dev community:

Elizabeth Newton …. (in a game) … assigned people to one of two roles: “tapper” or “listener.” Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday,” and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song.

Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. The tappers got their message across one time in 40, but they thought they would get it across one time in two. Why?

When a tapper taps, it is impossible for her to avoid hearing the tune playing along to her taps. Meanwhile, all the listener can hear is a kind of bizarre Morse code. Yet the tappers were flabbergasted by how hard the listeners had to work to pick up the tune”.

Don’t Panic!

So what do you do, how do you stay cool and in touch with participants in the event while you interpret what is happening and consider options? The stakes are high as a facilitator: you’ve walked into a room of people claiming the right to lead, steer, shape, bring people together through process over hours or days. Participants have agreed to that new relationship, But it’s a fragile one, especially if you are external to the group of people in the room. Participants’ confidence is slowly gained and quickly lost.

A first level of response is to make sure you can tap into your own normal, learned coping mechanisms to fear. Do you breathe deeply, smile to yourself as you remember how you’ve managed similar situations in the past, hum a tune, walk a bit faster? Whatever works for you works, but be ready because it will happen!

A second level of response, at least personally, is to remain honest and open about the process, talking to and connecting with participants. Ask what’s happening, check that participants are feeling the same as you: often, if you’re using a method or approach you’ve used before you may be identifying problems before they are apparent to the participants, happily engaged in the activity. In the example above, I was helped enormously by the fact that this was the third occasion I’d worked with many of the participants in the room, so we had a level of mutual trust. And this activity was on the fourth day of five, so we’d also worked through normal group formation processes, and were performing well.

Finally, if it’s not working – accept it and move on, which of course means having back-up plans in place. All facilitation planning needs to include back-up activities for such eventualities. During our Facilitation Anywhere courses, as in all joint work, we discuss progress and listen to feedback during the days, and meet in the evening to plan, and re-plan.

For example, at the CARIAA annual convening earlier this year mentioned in the blog on ideation, the target was for the consortia to identify new and/or emerging ideas around which research might coalesce and, crucially, form groups to take ideas forward – and then make plans that could carry on beyond the event. It was quite a large group of around 100 people most of the time, so we used a variant of Open Space. Building on earlier activities in which participants had presented in plenary, in smaller groups and on posters, we offered space for participants to suggest what they would like to talk about and possibly work together. We set a series of time slots, and arranged for constant check-ins, to gauge progress, allow for people to move between ideas, and coalesce around those with the most potential. It’s wonderful to co-facilitate in such complex situations. Working in a team with Blane Harvey and Marissa Van Epp,  both experienced and ready to experiment,  meant we all shared the tension of having to re-think and adapt. We had to constantly adjust the programme, and keep in touch with all participants, over the key central parts of the three-day event. The resultant event was probably 60-70% recognisable as what we had originally planned, and even then a lot of the detail was different.

So what’s your route out of the messy middle? Please share your ideas



One thought on “Converging on common ground – or not

  1. Ewen Le Borgne November 3, 2016 / 10:55 am

    Hello Pete,

    Thanks for this gift of yours – not just this post but weekly updates on this blog, it’s really great work!

    I wish I acted the way you depict in your post – laughing everything off and off everything. But there’s been moments when I’ve been really frozen, panicked, and not being particularly full of laughter ha ha ha.

    But as you pointed out in your post, for me two important axes of flexibility are:
    a) to plan well – as Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Paradoxically, the more I plan, the more I’m ready to let go of the plan.
    b) to be very straightforward about the process and the flaws that exist in that process. Facilitation is -to me anyway- also a subtle yet powerful way of erasing barriers between people, and even as a facilitator it’s good to show that we are humans, fallible and cognisant of our flaws. It creates a more human bond, stronger trust I find. And that’s also one of the essential messages of Kaner’s ‘groan zone’: sometimes you just have to muddle through really unpleasant moments but if it’s ‘in the service of integration’, it’s not a bad thing…
    c) related to the above, I find also that self-deprecation and humour are a great way to deal with these moments when things falter simply because ‘we don’t know it all’. If one of the group norms or principles is that learning means failing and that the road to improvement leads to many failing moments, it takes some of the seriousness of falling off…
    But easier said than done, so I find finally that d) working with a co-facilitator is a great way to get some respite and also some feedback on things that work or don’t. It’s a good way to bring in a new dynamic if relationships get hurt on a particular exercise.

    Keep these posts coming, I’m loving this!



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