Trying to ensure that the brains and experience of all participants are brought into the room is one of the more enjoyable challenges of facilitation. It’s mainly a question of finding the right balance of different approaches since there are so many formats that provide opportunities for different combinations of people to share knowledge and questions. Our knowledge of those formats comes from ideas and stories freely shared by other facilitators, in person or via resource bases like the KS Toolkit. We do a lot of event facilitation using those ideas so to give back to the Commons we’re sharing here some recent workshop experience.
One element of a good balance is to do with mixing up deliberately ‘leaderless moments’, where natural leaders or burning discussion topics can fill the space, with more structured processes such as those that promote particular people as conversation guides, or even gurus, around whose ideas and presentation discussion flows. Samoan circles and Fishbowl formats can lend themselves to most points along that spectrum of options, and we happily experim
ented with two variants at the recent annual workshop of a large Sanitation programme.
At its core it’s a simple method: a small group of people have a conversation amongst a wider group of participants. The difference with panels, for example, is that the small group sit in a circle surrounded by the participants. Samoan circles are possibly the purest form of the approach. In this format the central group begin discussing the topic. People in the outer circle cannot speak unless they replace one of the speakers in the centre. If somebody wants to participate, she taps one of the current speakers on the shoulder as a sign of intent that she wishes to replace one of the current speakers in the circle. The conversation continues until the time is up or the conversation dies.
The democratising nature of the format generates a particular energy that drives people into the inner circle, in an active and engaged way. And crucially, people are able to intervene at precisely the point in the conversation which engages them, rather than having to wait and ask questions later, that then take people backwards to an earlier point. As a consequence conversation tends to flow organically– assuming of course that the chosen topic is interesting to the participants and that they are comfortable with and trusting of each other. It’s not a tool to use very early in a workshop.
The Feldman variation
The Feldman Variation
The excellent Liberating Structures group propose a variant, in which the outer circle ask questions, but not randomly. At a given point the conversation in the middle stops and the outer circle talk among themselves, agreeing questions, which they then put to the speakers. Peter Feldman, one of the main organisers of our recent sanitation workshop, proposed a variant in which there were two spare chairs in the central circle. The central speakers stayed in the ring and other participants could join the conversation by sitting in one of the empty chairs, or join by following the tapping convention to replace one of the speakers, but only those in the extra chairs.
We used the Samoan circle and the Feldman variation in the workshop, in two sessions, one focusing on Sanitation financing and the other on Behaviour change. The choice of topics meant that there were many people with ideas and opinions to contribute but it was interesting to see how the two formats operated. We used the Feldman variation for the Financing discussion, partly because we believed there was a great divergence of experience amongst participants, so having a group more familiar with different approaches operating as an expert panel seemed appropriate. The format engaged more participants in the conversation than would be normal in a traditional panel discussion, partly because the conversation didn’t always return to the experts but followed on from ideas introduced by the ‘outer circle’. However, having one group of people always present meant that the conversation was anchored by their experience and confidence in speaking about the topic.
For the Behaviour Change conversation we used the Samoan circle format. The topic and the format generated a lot of debate, lasting a full 90 minutes – at the end of a long day, and the fourth day of the workshop at that. However, the conversation ranged around the interests and opinions of participants and wasn’t anchored in the same way. Our conclusion was that in this format someone, either the facilitators or a participant, needs to step forward pro-actively, intervening to summarise, reflect back opinions so far and point out questions that hadn’t been properly answered or addressed.
The workshop was organised around wide range of activities, including two straight-forward presentation and discussion sessions, world cafes, 1-2-4-All, field visit and feedback sessions, spectrogram exercises, group discussions – and the emergent conversations above. That variety scratches all the itches – allowing participants time to listen, reflect and engage participatively both individually and collectively. It’s probably one of the reasons why participants were so positive about the Fishbowl exercises, which they were. Organising opportunities for participants to stretch both their legs and brains in stimulating conversations about issues that matter to them is a great way to earn a living!
 And apologies to co-facilitators and participants at the 2015 BDS convening, I was calling this a fishbowl!
“We will live or die by our critical reflection and ability to internalize learning”, said Darren Saywell, Wash Director, Plan International, in a recent online Q&A on sanitation. That “there is an over-emphasis on Knowledge products and outputs and not enough emphasis on the reflection and learning processes that produce sustainable change within projects and organisations” is something we’ve long argued.And in the KM work we’re doing with a large sanitation program, we explicitly built in activities that foster a self-consciousness about learning, believing that in this way the process of learning is enriched and has a better chance of becoming embedded in how people work and interact (and thereby increasing the likelihood of sustainable change). But it’s precisely this kind of critical reflection that is so often squeezed out of operationally demanding jobs. One programme grantee illustrated the point by recounting how he’d hardly noticed an important innovation when it passed by in an email. It took a visit to the site in question to engage his attention and jog his memory about the email.
We’ve engaged the inimitable Nancy White to work with us on this Learning about Learning process. While talking about preparations for the recent annual convening of programme grantees Nancy suggested we, the organisers, be, “on the watch for those moments when reflection and learning is visible and to note when it’s happening, in what context, why and as part of what process” suggesting that, “understanding these things may help us better architect time/space/structure for learning”.
The portfolio manager, Jan Willem Rosenboom, rose to the challenge wonderfully, agreeing to lead group conversations and reflections about learning. Senior staff agreeing to lead and model the process is all too rare, and his stepping forward set the tone for the event. Jan Willem introduced an intriguing approach to the process, known as art-form conversations, developed by Brian Stanfield of the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA), with whom he’d worked in Kenya and Europe.
At the end of Day One Jan Willem held up one of the flowers sitting in the middle of the tables in the room and asked people to contemplate it, describe what they saw – list its’ attributes. You can imagine the looks in the room, but people began contributing. We were then asked to think of how it related to other flowers that we’d seen, compare it. The group (nearly 50 people) was getting restive, a bit ribald, but answers kept coming. Next, what name would we give it: guffaws and some gently mocking answers, including the ‘Rosenbloom’. And finally a question about what difference this might make to our how we use flowers in the future, at events or at home. There was less reaction, people were acknowledging the process underway, which was reinforced in the next question, “so what did you learn from that process?”
The group had been taken through an aid to reflection, developed by Stanfield, summarised below
e.g. What can you see?
e.g. Where have you seen something like this before?
e.g. What does this mean to you?
e.g. How might this principle be used?
The process was instructive in itself but, more importantly, triggered a reflective conversation about learning, with participants noting things like the fact that knowledge is contextual, that our previous experience defines what we see, that we all have different reactions to the same thing, and so on. Jan Willem closed with a request for participants to reflect on their learning on that first day, first alone, maybe noting some things down, and then chat to another. The whole process worked well with the group, people were quiet and reflective by the end of the session.
And once the tone was set the process continued throughout the workshop. The second day was taken up with field visits, which were discussed in a feedback session at the beginning of Day Three. At the end of that session, just before coffee, Jan Willem asked people:
Give me a word, or phrase that you remember from presentations?
What surprised you?
What would you like to learn more about?
What are we learning?
Where do you see that can influence your work back home?
Again, the simple process encouraged people to reflect on both the activity and on their own learning processes, which triggered the reflection from one participant that it is very “difficult to be influenced outside our expectations and learning frameworks”.
Small reminders continued: one lunchtime there was encouragement to think about a question that was triggered in the sessions and to share them with one or more people. Another lunchtime participants were encouraged to think about whom in particular would be a good person to have a conversation about the issues of the day.
And what difference did it make?
The workshop was designed to maximise opportunities for exchange, conversation, discussion, story-telling. Overall feedback has been very positive, people appreciating the opportunities to dig deeper into issues, share experience, exchange ideas and build relationships. And while we don’t have objective evidence – it’s not something that would come out from an evaluation survey – my own experience of facilitating and participating was that there was a richness of texture to the exchanges, a greater criss-crossing of exchange than in many workshops. And the high profile leadership meant that learning about learning was explicitly on the agenda, an issue that we’ll follow up in other blogs.
There is a nice description of its genesis in the book “The art of focused conversation: 100 ways to access group wisdom in the workplace” by Brian Stanfield . Googlebooks has the relevant excerpt.
In a previous blog we explained the context and genesis of the workshop. In the session we put our overarching question to participants after we had introduced the concepts and process: ‘How does sustainable change happen, and how can learning about change be applied at scale and in different contexts?We then asked participants ‘think about a situation where something has changed over the past two or four years, at team, project or organisational level’ and then ‘tell the story of how that change happened’
Where, when and in what context did this happen? Paint the picture in words or on a flip chart
Who was involved?
What happened – list the key steps in the process?
What happened next, was the change institutionalised (embedded in the organisation or project), or is it still being worked through, or did the learning and drive to change disappear e.g. management structures for institutionalising reflection, such as set time within meetings
What can other people learn from your example that they could use in other situations?
The process was outlined as follows:
In small groups, brainstorm some examples
Choose one story and develop it in more detail, capturing key points on a flipchart or post-its: diagrams are good
Share the story with another group and identify any common themes and critical factors – what had to be present for the change to happen. Was the change maintained beyond the original context – and if so what made that happen?
Sharing back – in plenary if there’s time, or as posters on the wall – summary of the story and key learning points that could be shared beyond the project or organisation
Half of the participants were either EMW staff or partners of their CHOBA program. The other twenty or so people came mainly from INGOs present at WEDC. We’d done some preparation with EMW staff. Theirs is a fascinating story to tell, since they have been developing an Output Based Aid program now fully funded on a payment-by-results basis. This video is a recording on an EMW Project Officer, Nguyen Van Ngoc Tien, telling their story, translated on the go by Nguyen Hong Hanh, Senior Monitoring, Evaluation & Research Officer at EMW
There were other stories in the room, for example:
Jonny Crocker, from the University of North Carolina, working a related WASH project with PLAN International, on his learning about how to cut through the formalities of large organisations to be able to engage directly as a researcher with project staff
A great story from UNICEF about the positive impact of handing control of developing M&E systems over to national staff (you’d have thought not a lesson that still needs learning!)
Reflections on the reflections
One of the challenges of working in this way relates to the age-old tension in KM4Dev between product and process. Learning is a process, as is reflection. “Being ‘busy’ creates a mindset that is not conducive to innovation and creativity. Time to discuss, reflect and generate new ideas is the ransom that quality demands.”1. But without concrete outcomes, like reports, action points or stories – like this one – people are often uneasy about the value of these kinds of sessions. And part of the challenge is that the learning is as likely as not to become evident or relevant well after a particular workshop. We deliberately ensured that Kathryn Harries’ excellent materials were available to participants as a handout, to ensure that there was something immediately concrete to take away. And we hope to track the outcomes of the workshop with East Meets West staff in the months to come, following up on the event and asking about people’s own perception of what happened and whether useful learning took place and, most importantly, whether what happened as a result. And when we have completed this set of blogs we will follow up with other participants as well.
In terms of learning from the workshop, all the organisers were pleased that the majority of the responses in the post-workshop evaluation form were positive. We ourselves recognised that we came to the event with our own objectives, some of which overlapped and some didn’t. So the format and activities were necessarily a compromise, which meant that we too came away feeling positive but not entirely satisfied. Simply from the point of view of workshop facilitation I (re-) learnt some lessons about using story telling
Not everyone is a good story teller: it’s not always easy to condense important events over a period of time into a short, compelling narrative and some people are better than others at identifying the elements that will engage an audience, from amongst the detail, and even fewer people are natural raconteurs in front of an audience.
Everyone is ready to have a go, which is the fun of the event
Using graphics is essential. Again, some people are better at visuals but most people can display a story at least as well as they can tell, it, and most people do best in a combination of the two, as illustrated in the video
Those who regularly reflect both on their own and with others in a social, critical reflection process, find it easier to find examples and construct stories. But it’s a challenging exercise for those who haven’t that experience to do so in the constrained time of a workshop
The group sharing was too short in our own workshop: we should have left people for longer, simply telling stories to each other, rather than pushing them as early as we did to construct one illustration. The ‘group’ story would have emerged more naturally and easily after a longer small-group period and people would have had time to listen and learn, to engage and question
The next in this series of blogs will be about the CHOBA experience in Vietnam, based on interviews with EMW staff and their key partners in the Vietnamese Women’s Union.
For the second day we set up a process that we hoped would put people into a different, more reflective, frame of mind as they approached the third thematic break-out session. The framing for the whole day was asking people to think about what they would do differently after the workshop at four levels: personally, in their organisations, in the context of their thematic groups – i.e. with those people gathered in the room – and, possibly, more widely.
Rob van der Berg, of the Global Environment Facility Evaluation Office, who had co-sponsored the workshop and led a key thematic group of evaluation of climate change, introduced the session with a five minute ‘TED talk’ style speech from the floor. He spoke without notes, passionately, about the extraordinarily gloomy outlook for the environment over the coming years. All, all the indicators – of bio-diversity, of sea temperature, of pollution, of climate-change related event – are spiralling downwards. The GEF has $20 billion for corrective action: the need is for trillions of dollars. Participants were asked then 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. (5)
Meet with two other people and discuss what leads to change (20)
Then 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 (10)
After coffee the participants returned to their thematic groups.
What does a third loop look and feel like?
On Day One the three of us did a nonsensical but fun introduction to the idea of triple loop learning, based on the iconic British class system sketch from the 1960s, in which each of us represented a loop. Ironically, I realise I approached the planning mainly in loop one and two mode, and hadn’t reflected enough myself, hadn’t really gone into third loop mode. So I hadn’t grasped a key point about the relationship between the three loops which is that there is an exponential increase in the complexity of the process as we move from first to second to third loop. That means that the process slows, also exponentially.
Thinking Fast and Slow, the tremendous book by the Nobel Prize winning Daniel Kahnemann, talks about the mental and physical energy required to do complex tasks: we can’t drive effectively, walk slower, burn more calories if we focus on difficult tasks requiring what Kahnemann calls System Two thinking. Loop three thinking occupies different parts of our thinking processes, some foreground, some background. Writing this blog is a reflective act, but it is anchoring me to current processes that reflecting on a long walk wouldn’t. So it is the product of those slower, more reflective processes.
As we approached the final stages, considering what could come of the workshop, one of the participants reminded us that having no immediate outputs would be appropriate, indeed normal: that taking on board reflections that come out of a process designed to encourage deeper, non-operational, non-quotidian thinking will often take long time to surface. As an activist type I’d anticipated this kind of reaction from reflectors, but it’s hard not to feel disappointed when the actual outputs from the event seemed no different from any other event. Meanwhile, there was a lot of very positive feeling in the room, during our walking evaluation, and a many concrete proposals for future collaborations and other actions. People will be going out, ‘to do stuff’, as they were encouraged to do in the conference closing. And, with the IDS climate change team, we’re going to follow up in 3 months which will be an interesting exercise in itself: it’s rare that we follow up longer term, systematically – although it’s a common Next Step from workshops.
Development people default to project mode, framing responses and concepts in terms of a planning framework, action oriented, timebound, constrained by project definition processes. Part of that is a mindset, part of it is simply the product of the constant requirements created by project plans and operational realities, that people ‘see’ in lists and planning frameworks. That’s reinforced by a typically insightful reflection from Liz Carlisle of IIED, that many busy people, especially at more senior levels, tend not to engage a lot with new ideas or people. Meetings, conferences, workshops, tend to be with people engaged in similar programmes, or networks: so being creative and innovative in workshop settings calls on relatively unfamiliar processes, and a sometime stale knowledge base. Therefore thinking about learning itself, about how change happens in a personal way requires a step sideways and out of daily life which is hard to achieve in a two day workshop. In our After Action Review Andy Newsham, the organiser, and I agreed that we needed at least a third day to match our ambitions.
As someone who promotes and takes part in social reporting from events, I was brought up short by the realisation that we make that pressure worse by tweeting, blogging, wiki-ing during the event: although our social reporting outputs are to some extent reflective, commentaries, holding up a mirror to processes and interacting in a different space to the physical, by running those streams we immediately anchor ourselves in the present and engage those parts of our brains which I associate with second loop learning. This blog, on the other hand, is the product of something different, which is interesting to me at least: we often stress the importance of blogging as a learning tool, for sharing, but it is only since I started blogging regularly here and for the Diplo Foundation that I have recognised the value of structuring reflections as a communication. That’s critically important for those of us who work as consultants since we often don’t have a team with whom we reflect or an organisation with various learning and KS processes. Pier Andrea Pirani, the other Euforic Associates and I work both together and separately, but even when we work together it’s often online, so we relish the times when we meet and have time to share ideas.
‘Slow Knowledge’ and what would I do differently?
Not be so linear, since triple loop thinking isn’t linear, in the sense of having to pass sequentially between each stage.
Given, that and the issue of complexity, time and attention discussed above, I would start with a ‘loop three’ type exercise: get the reflection process started from the outset, and then constantly return to that process in short, intense bursts.
Following a request from a couple of participants, we added in a rapid Knowledge Cafe type process on Day Two morning (pictured here), when people moved around ‘stations’ within the large plenary room, visiting and hearing about the other thematic groups outputs from the Loop One and Loop Two processes. Another participant commented, when we were in the middle of our ‘Loop Three style’ conversation that she’d found that mixing of themes the most useful because in her experience, meeting people outside her specialism is what made her think differently, challenge her assumptions. So I would ensure we built in both thematic work – making sure people have an opportunity to dive deep, develop their story – and cross-thematic work.
“In much of my own work, within and outside IKM emergent, I engage with the Knowledge equivalent of Fast Food: new technology mediated communication and knowledge sharing, blood-pressure raising snacks of Tweets, Blogs or Blips, where the consumption only encourages more consumption.”
Mike Powell often describes IKM emergent as promoting slow knowledge, analogous to the Slow Food movement, an approach to Knowledge centred on reflective, deliberative enquiry; marinating and melding multiple ingredients; and to be consumed respectfully, appreciative of the rich diversity of ingredients. In much of my own work, within and outside IKM emergent, I engage with the Knowledge equivalent of Fast Food: new technology mediated communication and knowledge sharing, blood-pressure raising snacks of Tweets, Blogs or Blips, where the consumption only encourages more consumption.
So I leapt at the chance of something more nourishing, spending the first day of the AgKnowledge Africa event with other members of IKMemergent and KM4Dev organising and facilitating learning sessions on face to face knowledge sharing.
A word on AgKnowledge, extracted from Peter Ballantyne’s introductory press release: the ‘AgKnowledge Africa’ Share Fair brings together 300 innovators and supporters to examine and exchange promising tools and approaches that help spread and apply Africa’s agricultural and rural development knowledge across the continent and the world. Together, the participants are a truly multi-stakeholder group, including farmers, extension workers, rural development agents, advocacy and development NGOs, international agencies, national and international research institutes, womens’ networks, academics, development projects, governments, private companies and the media.
Discussion and learning will be focused around 4 themes: Agriculture and water; Agriculture and climate change; Land; and Livestock. Cross-theme discussions will look into the opportunities of reporting, indigenous knowledge, value chains, mobile phones, geospatial information and data, telecentres, and other emerging issues. A learning day provides opportunities for participants to get up to speed on some latest tools and approaches’.
For the Local Content stream in IKMemergent, the Fair is the next stage in our continuing project aimed at better understanding, supporting and promoting the importance of local knowledge processes, the role of knowledge in development at local level, and the value and nature of locally produced content. We have been sharing and documenting examples of how communities and intermediary NGOs create, capture and share local content on this blog and will be reporting from the fair here and using other social media tools. If you yearn for a quick snack, look for the tag #sfaddis on Twitter.
Day 0 of the Fair was a Learning and Training day, the majority of which was given over to digital tools. But the organisers – including IKM emergent, since the programme is sponsoring 30 participants at the Fair – recognised the importance of providing space to discuss and exchange ideas on more traditional knowledge sharing approaches, in many ways more common and appropriate for the community level development activities on which the Local Content stream focuses. The facilitators were a mix of people who have been working with the Local Content project and vintage KM4Devers. We used Open Space as a way to allow the participant groups to choose from a menu of standard KS tools and suggest their own, which brought to the surface a rich mix of options: story telling, after action review, peer assist, fish bowl, testimonials, energisers, icebreakers (the KStoolkit is a good aggregate resource for these kind of techniques).
For me, once we had facilitated the open space, it was an opportunity to sink into a more reflective space, a story telling session wonderfully facilitated by Roselinie Murota of SAFIRE (who’s been involved in several strands of IKM emergent). It was quintessential slow knowledge and, even without a fire and the smell of cooking, as part of the open space dynamic, more and more people were attracted to the group on the grass, telling stories about stories, arguing and learning, nodding and laughing. In the rest of the ILRI campus people were wrestling with Google, blinking at video-editors, sitting at computers learning how to use technology to be social. Here is Rose summarising what she took away from the sessions.
And yet…. this is a blog, that was a blip: new media continues to sweep across the world. The challenge I take away from the story telling is to find ways to use the new technologies to tell stories, engage with slow knowledge. Tim Davies’ work storing and analysing the patterns of Tweets and Blogs from the Internet Governance is an interesting signpost. This very, formally too long a blog post, might be another. Try an experiment: follow #sfaddis on twitter, or on Delicious, and see if or how you can sense-make from the cascade of McK-snacks.