Learning events and the privilege of being facilitators

Designing a Research Program Annual Learning Review

Sometimes we have assignments that involve working with people and being present at events so interesting and impressive that we’d pay to attend as participants!  We’re facilitating the third Annual Learning Review (ALR3) of the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA) program in Nepal this May.

This is the first blog in a series where we will share our experience of co-creating the event design and facilitating the four-day programme, partly as a lead-in to our next FacilitationAnywhere training workshop this June. In this post we briefly describe what makes CARIAA such a remarkable initiative and some of the immediate challenges in putting together an agenda with the potential to enable participants meet its ambitious goals.

Hot-spots and collaboration

The combination or scale and depth is one of the things I find so impressive about CARIAA. The program, “aims to build the resilience of poor people to climate change by supporting a network of four consortia to conduct high-calibre research and policy engagement” in what it calls hot spots, in Africa and Asia. The program focuses on three type of hot spots in Africa and South Asia: semi-arid regions; deltas; and glacier and snow-pack dependent river basins in South Asia. Each of these hot spots combine vulnerability to the extreme effects of climate change as well as a large concentration of poor populations. Hot spots are seen as a lens for research on common challenges across different contexts.

glacier source of indus
The West-Vigne glacier is a headwater of the Indus © Ahmad Abdul Karim

Pause for a moment and unpack, ‘snow-pack dependent river basins in South Asia’. “The Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region, the source of ten large river systems of Asia, provides water and other ecosystem services to more than 210 million people living in the mountains and over 1.3 billion living in the plains” The HI-AWARE consortium, who are hosting ALR3, is therefore working across Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh, undertaking original research and seeking to find common threads and original solutions across that enormous region. The other three consortium are similarly engaged in attempting to both synthesise research findings across their own huge focus areas, and with HI-AWARE also to find common threads that can be shared globally.  There are other similar programs, including larger ones like BRACED, but it’s this determination to do more than simply share results and hold joint events that makes CARIAA different: it’s such an ambitious undertaking, and in a seven-year program.

Research on climate change adaptation demands collaboration. So the different consortia bring together researchers and practitioners, from the North and the South, with different backgrounds and expertise, to create and share knowledge.  This consortium-based model is itself innovative and not yet seen as mainstream in research for development. It emphasises collaborating and learning within both within and between the consortia involved in the Program, as well as with other initiatives. So another striking feature of the Program is the embedded mechanisms in place for knowledge exchange across the four consortia, aiming for syntheses of emerging research findings, and a structured learning process over time.

2017 – a pivotal moment for climate change adaptation

CARIAA runs until 2019 and is jointly funded by IDRC and DFID.  Nobody predicted the radically altered landscape of climate change debate and investment in which the program now operates, with foundational concepts and programs under threat. We were part of the facilitation team for last year’s 2nd CARIAA Annual Learning Review  which brought together over 80 participants from 15 countries for three days in Wageningen, the Netherlands. in 2016 there was still potentially time for consortia to alter direction in the program, perhaps undertake additional work in an area of research, for example. So the focus in the 2016 ALR was to try and identify new and emerging themes for common research across CARIAA as well as to  improve the systems and processes that enable collaboration and synthesis to take place. The event concluded with a number of concrete proposals for cross-consortia collaboration.

This third Annual Review (ALR3) comes at a key moment. Research findings are beginning to emerge, while there are 18 months remaining to exploit CARIAA’s potential contribution to climate change adaptation policy and practice, in the hotspot regions where it is most needed, but also globally.  So ALR3 aims to stimulate conversations between researchers and Research-into-Use specialists from across CARIAA to identify what CARIAA will be able to contribute that can have impact in this new context.

‘Dialogues for impact’

ALR3 is organised around, “understanding how the research emerging out of CARIAA can help bring the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into conversation with National Adaptation Planning processes”. Abstracts received in response to a call for contributions from consortia have been grouped into four themes, each corresponding to one of the SDGs: Mobility (as a subset of SDG 10: Reduced inequality), Water Security (SDG 6); Gender Equality (SDG 5), and Urgent Action to Combat Climate Change (SDG 13).

 Who said it was going to be easy?

There will be 70 – 80 participants.  Understanding and integrating the range of needs and interests is a crucial first step.  In CARIAA this has meant several groups of people have already engaged in thinking about the event, including:

  • Project officers from the two donors, playing a central role in organisation
  • Principal Investigators, prominent figures in their fields, who lead the four consortia
  • Consortia members working on an increasingly important Research into Use thread, including many communication specialists
  • Researchers who will be presenting their work, as well as other people who will be contributing during the event

And of course each of those people are very busy, in contexts that are constantly changing. As facilitators we come in from the outside, and need to find connections and approaches so that we can construct working drafts for the agenda and session designs. At this stage our role is to listen, shape an emergent agenda and help move the conversations forward, while not being in the centre of things.

We’ve been working on ALR3 for six weeks and a ‘Beta’ version of the event programme is coming together a full month before the event, earlier than in many similar situations. In the next blog we’ll be sharing some of the success factors that have enabled our progress.

And we haven’t time to get back up into these mountains, “the water-towers of Asia”, but we’ll at least see some!

FA image raw

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


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.


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.


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?

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.

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.


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.

Nairobi 13 BDS convening gallery walk.JPG
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.

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.

Online and blended – what’s all the fuss?

We’re not alone in wanting to explore the opportunities and challenges of holding events online, or blended face-to-face (f2f) and online. Suddenly the web is full of courses and primers on how to do it, like this first in a series of webinars from the deeply experienced Martin Galbraith, or this one on virtual collaboration from Grove. And in our blog on Coming to Agreement in meetings we highlighted the great resource on web meetings just released by the wondrous Nancy White.FB knows Im a dog Everyone’s talking digital.

Today was the online introduction to the three-day Facilitation Anywhere course, which begins next week. It was wonderful to meet the participants, after all our preparations, and we’re both excited – and properly apprehensive – about next week. After several introduction exercises, increasing the bandwidth as we went along – from text chat to video and audio – we introduced some of the concepts underpinning our design.

Apart from big, all-purpose events, most gatherings engage a group of people with a common purpose. This could be a product they need to develop together, or some planning, or some ideas they need to work through in detail, or a programme they want to share experience and learning on. But of course a whole range of personal, emotional, social and organisational currents operate in and around the formal agenda.

As with all those events, we see the Facilitation Anywhere course happening at broadly three levels:

  1. The fundamental level of exploring and sharing practice around designing and facilitating events and workshops
  2. The reflexive level – a process in which we will all be reflecting on our experience during the course
  3. And the level of a specific ‘topic thread’ around blended and online learning.

We’re proposing three enquiry questions as a way to connect these levels, and frame the process and our learning together:

  1. What does it mean to be a participant and a facilitator in f2f, online and blended environments? (a reflexive question)
  2. How can we maximise engagement making full use of participatory f2f approaches and digital tools or channels?
  3. What are the core conditions for effective f2f, online and blended gatherings? (including people, processes, tech and self)

Our digital footprints

As we start it’s interesting to reflect on our own experience over the months we’ve been thinking about and designing the programme, since we come to the event with very different digital trajectories.

Isobel: “I’ve been facilitating groups for many years, but until now I haven’t done much online, apart from using Skype.  Sometimes we just need a push, and the course has given me that.   The last few weeks have been a steep learning curve, doing a whole lot of new things at once – blogging with Pete, using googledocs, making a start with online facilitation, and getting used to a new computer.  It’s reminded me what resistance to change feels like – I’ve had it in spade loads!  Getting out of the comfort zone and into the learning zone is what we’re often asking groups and teams to be doing.  It feels really important to be doing that myself as a facilitator, especially as I’m now seeing what’s possible when combining core process skills with skilful management of different communication channels.”

Pete: “I’ve been involved with things digital since the introduction into UK public education of the early mass-produced PCs in the mid 1980’s. rm380zIn the 1990’s I began working online, riding the Internet wave into Oxfam GB, infuriating some and enthusing others (only a few at first) with email and talk of global networks. I’ve been using online communication channels since that era. I’m still an enthusiast, less for the tech. itself than for what it can enable people to do, especially how it can link, connect, enable people to collaborate and communicate”. So I’ve always enjoyed experimenting with and learning how to integrate social and online digital media into events I facilitate.

We’ve both been living the process of blending deep experience in face-to-face facilitation with online technologies, feeling what it’s like introducing and being introduced to the possibilities opened up by the new digital platforms. We’re looking forward enormously to exploring the issues with the participants, and will be reporting back here on how it goes – what people say, how we’ve learnt and what is changing about our own practice.

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!

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?


Finding out what we know

When we’re working together we need to have access to relevant information. Finding out what we know is partly to do with getting the relevant information on the table – the data and facts. But it’s also about tapping into the stuff that’s less tangible – the knowledge that’s wrapped into people’s experience and memories – and making this visible. In other words it’s about bringing people’s voices and their different experiences into the room, in a spirit of curiosity and learning. It’s that process we’re exploring in the second of the seven broad categories we’re using to help organise the material the Facilitation Anywhere training programme.

River of life

This combination of tangible and intangible is often best surfaced using a visual metaphor such as a journey, timeline or map. Pete worked for the wonderful Ewen Le Borgne (seen below taking a photo) on an end-of-project review meeting in Ethiopia (the first five years of RIPPLE EthiopiaRiver of Project Life - sharing

Simply drawing a river on rough paper, and having people put up significant moments that represented the progress of the project – and the connections, links and people with whom they worked – enabled current and past members of the project team to come back together quickly. The group was energised and spent a long time sharing and laughing after the model had been constructed. And as we went onto the rest of the workshop it was striking to see how much had come into the room with the exercise – the memories, tensions, high points and disappointments that had characterised the process were there to be ‘used’: to be talked about, to form the basis for planning and learning lessons for other projects. (More about River of Life in the KS Toolkit we shared in our last post).

Presentations can be fun too, really!

Presentations are at the other end of the spectrum for finding out what we know.  Well-organised, visual, strictly-timed  presentations that are integrated into participative activities can be very effective in bringing large amounts of information and data into meetings, both online and face to face.  Though, as we all know, long, turgid, over-factual and droning presentations outnumber good ones. Banning powerpoint can work with an audience ready to experiment but there are lots of situations where participants expect and value formal presentations, especially important for national staff who haven’t attended many international meetings.

The nightmare for a facilitator is that ‘please facilitate this agenda’ job, where by the time the facilitator is engaged, the organiser has already contacted loads of presenters, who are busy preparing 50-slide decks. Ewen Le Borgne is a model of someone who ‘works out loud’ and his blogs are a constant source of ideas and provocations. Here’s one describing exactly that situation and how they managed it.

Online, you have 60 – 90 seconds to keep my attention

For online meetings the issues are more acute.  All of the above applies but there are all the other issues that matter when the meeting is not face to face. Here’s an excellent resource, suggested by the peerless Nancy White.  Susan Stewart highlights just how careful we need to be if we use these traditional tools in online meetings or webinars and provides some very useful rules of thumb for comparing face to face and online activities.

Being the facilitator

Curious, collaborating, challenging, creative…..

Through the collaborative process of developing the training programme we’ve had to find out what we each know, both practically in terms of approaches and methods but also, more significantly, what we know works and how we know it. This latter exemplifies the more intuitive, deeper set of ideas that have to come into the room in meetings and workshops if the participants are to exploit to the maximum their experience and wisdom. We’re curious about how each other works and we’ve also found that working together has been wonderfully challenging, of each other’s comfort zones, old assumptions, regular ways of doing things (“I always start with…..”). In the same way, we need to enable participants to position themselves outside their normal way of being at work:

  • to locate their ‘beginner’s mind’ – come with a curiosity about every new venture, make no assumptions, begin afresh and ask lots of questions, to bring a spirit of curiosity into the space
  • to recognise and adopt a stance that will maximise shared learning, well put in this snippet about Mutual Learning

mutual learning

What are you curious about? What could you do differently with your group this time?

Facilitation Anywhere – who are the Facilitators?

Oxfam WWS Oct 13(2)Openings

There are 35 (or 350) people in the room – how do you start smoothly, connecting and bringing people into the room and the task?

Facilitation Anywhere – face to face and online – is a new training course we’re putting together with INTRAC. We’re using seven broad categories to help organise the material and the event. Openings is, unsurprisingly, the first category. In a series of short posts we’re going to share to share some of our reflections as we design the programme. We’ll be noting two sets of ideas:

  1. We’re selecting some of our favourite methods and tools from our personal archives, which we’re going to collate for the course, in a webspace. So we’ll share one or two resources here.
  2. Preparing the course is triggering lots of reflections about our own practice, which we want to share.  We’ve been asking ourselves, ‘When I facilitate, who do I become and what am I bringing of myself to this role? Who am I as a facilitator?”


We’ll start with one of our resources of choice, the KS Toolkit, which has a great selection of icebreakers, and much, much more besides. Many of the icebreakers listed in the Toolkit can adapted to start online meetings. But here are some online-icebreakers suggested (and tested) by the very excellent Joitske Hulsebosch.

Being the Facilitator

We know that people want to both enjoy themselves and do some serious work when they attend events. Imagine: participants have arrived and are in the room, wondering about those they don’t know.  But are they really here?  The world they’ve just left behind is crowding out everything else. All the unanswered emails (and the child with a runny nose) and the endless list of things they have to go back to.

Helping people ‘arrive’, in every sense of the word, is part of what we do as facilitators.  What does it take to stand up in front of 30 to 300 people and help them be fully present?   We think that starts with ourselves.  It’s all about getting centred and grounded, so that we give people a sense of confidence in us as we embark on the work we’re about to do together.
So, how do we get ready?


  • Before the event I develop a checklist, usually using an online resource like Google docs to cater for online meetings. I share that with the organisers and continually edit it as we design and plan to make sure we’re as ready as we can be
  • For very large meetings I get used to the mike and the size of the room and numbers by talking to people as they come in, asking them to sit with people they don’t know. That assumes we’ve got control of the room and its layout: it’s more difficult if there are tiers of seats in a lecture theatre – terrible venue for a participative meeting!


  • Writing up colourful charts and getting the room ready help me get into the right space, and I always try to sit quietly in the room before anyone arrives.  My biggest fear is going blank, so I don’t go anywhere without my A5 note-book with outlines for each session on post-its, and a pencil behind my ear.
  • Then it’s a matter of relaxing and chatting to people as they arrive and letting it all happen!

What do you do?  Do you do your own centring exercise or go over checklists?