Walls, windows and pillars

My dream meeting space is bright and spacious, with room to move around, armchairs or bean bags as well as tables and chairs, plenty of walls and pinboards to put things on, a garden and trees running down to a river perhaps, or even the sea.

But now I’m getting carried away!  Though I can think of a few rather wonderful places that have some or all of these qualities. I know how they’ve lifted my own spirits and I’ve

Flowers every day, Gokarna, Nepal

seen the difference to people’s energy as soon as they walk into the room.

The reality is that we often have to create hospitable and welcoming space in less than perfect circumstances. It’s all part of creating a culture of collaboration, and the conditions for great thinking.

Making sure there are areas and spaces to display the group’s thinking is an essential part of this.

A recent experience in Geneva prompted my co-facilitator Lesley Adams and me to update our checklist. Here are a few tips to share:

Assume nothing

The photos of the big and spacious room looked great. All that wall space! But when we got there the day before we were told in no uncertain terms that we could NOT put anything on the walls. No, not even masking tape.

  • On your checklist – nice walls? Good, but make sure they can be used! And if there are pictures, ask about taking them down (most venues are happy to oblige).

The ballroom was surplus to needNatural light

A few years ago I was facilitator for a Save the Children learning event held in a hotel in Egypt. I’d gone through my checklist with the person booking the venue – plenty of wall space, room to move around. After a 4-hour drive from Cairo we were shown into a huge curtained ballroom. A rather lonely looking circle of chairs in the centre. Dark. No windows. Our hearts sank. The programme manager went into action and thankfully found us another room.

  • On your checklist – another for the ‘assume nothing category’. Ask about windows, ventilation and natural light.

Boards for displaying groups’ thinking 

In spite of Geneva being the city of aid organisations and mega-exhibitions, it was surprisingly difficult to get hold of boards for group displays. In the event we begged (from the venue, who made some available), borrowed and improvised. If you can’t use the walls, there’s always the windows ….

  • On your checklist – go through your session design and determine the size and number of boards that you’ll need, how and when they’ll be used/ re-used. Ask the venue what they’ve got (they might be stowed away in a cupboard somewhere). If they haven’t got any or you need more, hire facilitation boards or borrow display/ exhibition boards from one of the organisations involved in the meeting.

Get creative

Use a washing line (or two) when you don’t have enough wall space to put up visual displays (such as flip chart posters) from groups.  The joy of a washing line is you can space things out – which works particularly well for a big group. We did this at a HelpAge International conference with large drawing created by graphic recorder Bill Crooks. We tied the rope to the (very sturdy) light fittings.

IMG_1209 copy
Spot the washing line
  • On your checklist – washing line and pegs.


We’d asked for photos of the room in a hotel in Kathmandu, so knew there were pillars in the main meeting room. This was a learning event for CARIAA , and it was important for people to see each other, see what’s happening at the front, and to move around. Pete and I spent time the day before working out the sight lines from different angles of the room, and moved the tables and chairs accordingly. The pillars were later used for displays and a creative rendition of the ‘ground rules’ prepared by participants.

  • On your checklist – if pictures of the room aren’t on the hotel website, ask someone to take some photos so you can plan in advance how to deal with pillars and other obstacles. Factor in time to work out the best possible set-up.

Static post-its and magic whiteboard flipcharts

For when you’ve got limited walls and boards. They’re expensive but are re-usable. Use whiteboard markers so the sheets can be wiped clean.

My dream scenario is the norm in the creative industries. Their’s is a culture of creativity, connection and design-thinking for real-world solutions.  Many institutions are still in a paradigm of telling, ‘talking at’ and downloading information. This lives on in the rigid seating and set-ups of many meeting rooms.

Care and attention

When we insist on, and give care and attention to the physical spaces in which we meet, we’re consciously creating the conditions for good thinking, listening and a culture of connection and collaboration.  Oh, and don’t forget the flowers.

Please do get in touch if you’d like to think about a meeting you have coming up and how we might help.

Up and talking!

This is our second blog about how we designed a Forum for 80 stakeholders involved in ocean observation across Europe to share thinking about how to develop a more integrated observing system.

The webinar that took place a week before the Forum itself set tone for the day.  It also meant that we could give plenty of space and time on the day for people to connect and do some good thinking together – and come up with concrete ideas for what should happen next.

For this to happen, people need to meet in a space where they can talk easily and move around. An auditorium with raked seating had been booked, but on our advice, the team found Area 42, an arts and meeting venue with large flexible spaces (and a plentiful supply of pinboards) that we were able to make our own.

Here’s our design and what happened on the day.

Designing for an ‘ecosystem’

Keeping in mind our ecosystem metaphor, the design of the Forum took people through five stages, physically moving from one stage another, in different parts of the venue:

  • Welcome! Up and talking – within 10 minutes of opening the Forum, people were up on their feet having mini-conversations (in response to prompt questions on the screen), starting to get to know each other and warm up for the day.
  • What brings us here – essential context for the discussions – three 12-Infographic chatminute presentations provided the global perspective on ocean observing, the need for an integrated system across Europe and how EOOS can respond to that need, leading into the critical questions for the Forum.  After this, there was a chance for people to share initial thinking – with reference to infographics on EOOS on the tables.
  • A walk around the 7 critical questions – everyone moved to a different area in the venue for a carousel poster session to familiarise with the 7 critical questions.  A host with each ‘critical question’ welcomed participants as they rotated round the posters, outlining and adding to the main issues in conversation with the visitors.
  • Focus in on the critical questions – participants chose which they wanted to focus on, and convened in small groups after lunch to share ideas and propose ways forward for EOOS.  Hosts facilitated the discussions, with the help of rapporteurs.  Key points were recorded onto large pre-prepared templates (and written up by the rapporteurs).


  • What are we thinking now? Funding is a core theme, and in the last part of the day a number of participants were invited to share their perspectives. Instead of the tables, the group returned to a large circle of chairs, with a moderated exchange in a ‘fishbowl’ at the centre. Closing reflections from a selection of stakeholders pulled together the emerging issues.

Tips and learning

You might be wondering where the facilitator was in all this?  In short, my role as the lead facilitator was up front as a guide to the day, each stage at a time, and keeping an eye on things from the side as the discussions got underway.  Plus of course the other things we facilitators do – from making changes in the moment through to moving the furniture.  Along with lots of hands-on support from the EOOS team and Pete, here are two of my main tips for being a solo lead facilitator for an event this size:

  • ‘Two heads are better than one’ – work with another facilitator in the design stage. Pete and I brought different but complementary perspectives and ideas that enabled us to put together a design that worked.
  • Define and devolve the roles – logistics, communications, hosting of small groups, ‘anchoring’ of large group sessions were all shared across the EOOS team and steering group.

My other two tips are for the small groups – hosts and templates

  • img_2069.jpgTopic hosts for the critical issues’ carousel and small groups gave context, focus and direction to these discussions. EOOS steering group willingly took on this role, with practical support from the team and facilitator.
  • Large (A0) printed poster templates for the poster carousel and small groups provided a)  summaries of key information and b) a means to capture key points.

Towards a cultural step change

There was a fantastic level of engagement throughout the day, continuing into the drinks reception afterwards.  This was the fruit of many months advocacy and communication by the EOOS team, visionary leadership and great team collaboration.

Without ocean observations we are living in the dark’ was stated at one of the group discussions, but ‘a cultural step change is needed to break the silos between multiple stakeholders’.  Several participants said how much they enjoyed the day, and the energy and sustained levels of attention throughout the day suggest that that cultural step change is well under way.

Do get in touch if you’re planning a large event and want some advice and/or facilitation!



Oceans observing – from silos to ecosystem

This is the first of two blogs about how we co-designed a space for 80 stakeholders involved in ocean observation across Europe to share thinking about how to develop a more integrated observing system. Here we share our design challenge and how a webinar kick-started the discussions.

Sea picture

Wondrous and beautiful, our oceans dominate Earth’s natural systems.  Like countless others I was captivated by David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 series on BBC television.  I was enthralled, but also dismayed at the scale of the impacts of human behaviour on the oceans and the life within them. David shares a central message of the series as he wishes good luck to a tiny leather back turtle on its way to the sea.   “Everyone of us may think we live a long way from the oceans, but we don’t.  What we actually do here has direct effect on the oceans.  What the oceans do then reflects back on us.  It is one world and in the first time in the history of humanity … one species has the future in the palm of its hands”.

So when asked to facilitate a gathering of ocean observers in March, of course I jumped at the chance.

From silos to ecosystem

Everything we know about our vast and complex oceans is provided by ocean observations and marine research – end-to-end systems which supply essential data and analyses to a range of users to further our understanding about the oceans, and to meet society’s needs.

There’s a problem though. Current ocean observing systems in Europe exist in silos, with  observations carried out by a multitude of actors at national, regional and pan-European levels.  Measurements are taken for various purposes, over disrupted time scales, and to different standards.

Leading European providers of oceanographic and marine data recognise that a different approach is needed to meet 21st century economic, social and environmental needs. They’re envisioning a single and connected European Ocean Observing System (EOOS), that will allow all users and implementers of ocean observations to find the information and help they need.  Instead of silos, their envisaged framework is an ecosystem approach to the management of Europe’s marine resources as a fundamental requirement for sustainable Blue Growth.

With support building across the ocean observing community, the EOOS team wanted to bring together a cross-section of stakeholders in ocean observations across Europe.  The EOOS Forum 2018 would be a place for ocean science managers, researchers, policymakers and private companies to share ideas and perspectives on critical questions for the strategy, and to continue to build momentum for an integrated system.

Our design challenge

Here was our challenge – how to best engage the thinking, ideas and energy of 80 people, so that they’d learn about and contribute to shaping EOOS – and come up with coherent outputs to feed into the strategy and implementation plan.  And do this all in one day!

It was clear to us that a business-as-usual type of meeting wouldn’t work. A core principle for EOOS is to engage providers and users across disciplinary and sectoral boundaries – as an ecosystem. The Forum would need do the same. Taking the idea of an ecosystem, our design principle was to give maximum time to interaction between participants, right from the start.

‘Sneak preview’ – a lunch-time webinar

This started with a lunch-time webinar just over a week before the Forum. 29 people joined to hear three short, punchy presentations designed to share essential information about the need for EOOS and open up questions about funding and sustainability.

Many of those online contributed comments and questions via the text box on the platform, which was moderated by a senior member of the EOOS team. A link to the webinar on the EOOS website meant that those who missed it could listen before coming to the Forum. Here’s what it looked like to those online!

This was my first full online facilitation of a webinar using Adobe Connect. We had our own little ecosystem for the webinar – the platform itself, me as the main facilitator, Pete providing technical support, three excellent speakers, our EOOS colleagues as content moderators. Here are some top tips from this successful session for others thinking about doing the same:

  • Always have a technical support person to handle people not connecting, voice issues etc
  • Webinars take a lot of preparation, scripting the event itself, confirming roles and doing ‘dress rehearsals’
  • It’s essential to do a technical practice/ dress reheasal with each speaker
  • Split roles – tech support, online facilitator, note-taker, content moderators who pick up the quesions
  • Using the chat (text) box for questions and comments when there are a large number of people online is a great way to increase participation.

In the next blog you’ll hear about what we did and how we did it. What we can tell you is that there was an amazing energy all throughout the day, intense discussion, no end of networking – and concrete results to shape what happens next to make the vision of an integrated European ocean observing system a reality.

Please get in touch if you’d like to include a webinar as part of your next event, or if you’d like a bespoke training on online facilitation. 

Dialogue for impact – preparing the ground

In our last blog we shared some of the creative challenges in co-designing CARIAA’s research program annual learning review (ALR), which is taking place in Nepal on 3-6 May. The Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA) aims to build the resilience of poor people to climate change by supporting a network of four consortia to conduct high caliber research and policy engagement in four ‘hotspots’ in Africa and Asia.

Collaboration and conversation

Collaboration and learning together is the life blood of CARIAA and so dialogue and conversation is at the core of this year’s ALR. In this blog we share what we’ve been doing to prepare the ground for the conversations to come, experiences that will enrich our next Oxford FacilitationAnywhere training workshop in June.

‘Conversation’ is right there in the purpose of the ALR, which is about understanding how the research emerging out of CARIAA can bring the SDGs ‘into conversation’ with national planning processes. Hearing some of the research finding so far has been exciting and moving – we have a vivid sense of the huge potential to really impact the lives of the people who are most vulnerable to climate change.

Dialogue is all about tuning into this sense of potential and bringing different perspectives together for what William Isaacs calls a ‘living experience of inquiry within and between people, but without actually knowing what will emerge. In practical terms, what will this look like?  How do we shape up an agenda and create processes to literally ‘bring into conversation’ the needs of researchers, who want to hear more from each other about the science, and the other element of CARIAA’s purpose –  to influence policy.

Shaping the agenda

We’ve been working on two levels. Firstly, the event design or ‘indicative agenda’, which has involved designing sessions that we hope will enable different kinds of conversations.   For instance:

  • A 45-minute Davos-style moderated panel with five contributors to start the event with a high-level perspective on the ‘demand’ for CARIAA findings, and to set the direction of travel for the week
  • Thematic sessions, focused on SDGs, as we described in the last blog, comprising 4-minute introductory speed talks that will be followed by three rounds of knowledge-cafe style discussions around presenter’s posters .  These will provide an opportunity for a deeper dive into the science.  The idea is to then move to conversations at tables to share what’s emerging and to start thinking about policy implications; and finally a short wrap-up with key insights.
  • There’ll be three more sessions to reflect more generally on what people are learning about ‘collaborative synthesis’ – the term used by CARIAA to describe how different researchers within and between consortia learn about and blend their investigations and findings.

We also need to make sure that there’s space for people to make sense of what they’re hearing, and at a meta level to pull together or ‘synthesise’ the emergent insights.   So, there’s also a ‘pause for thought’ session for people to mix and mingle, look at posters, talk (or do nothing!). Field visits in Kathmandu on the third day are also an opportunity to reflect and connect with colleagues.

The other level has been to start the dialogue and engagement ahead of time. We had high hopes for the four online pre-meeting sessions on each of the themes.  We wanted to give researchers and RiU colleagues a chance to start reflecting on the implications of the research for policy. In the event, time constraints meant that the sessions were more modest but no less valuable, offering critical support and feedback to presenters on how best to use their 4 minutes. And of course, having heard all the presentations within the themes, those at the online meetings will inevitably have begun to think more about connections and relationships.

And that’s just what we’ve been involved with! The majority of the approximately 80 participants are also preparing their contributions to all the other activity streams in the ALR, with colleagues in Kathmandu and Ottawa grinding through the detail. We’re looking forward to meeting them all and engaging with their work, which we’ll describe in a later blog.

Letting go

We’ve been planning and designing, listening and shaping an agenda for the conversations. With just over a week to go, we’re now letting go and looking forward to seeing what happens. True dialogue is all about being open to the unexpected, listening in such a way as to hear unanticipated possibilities. Not knowing is part of the excitement.

We’re up a mountain for a few days, back with more soon.

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

Dance and the rhythm of groups

Hard times require furious dancing’ writes Alice Walker.  We danced the night away with friends and strangers at a ceilidh, with the wonderful Kismet, who played, called the moves and guided us through the evening.

Dancing brings people together.  Holding hands with strangers in pairs, eights and circles, spinning and circling in joyous rhythms from around the world, we touch our common humanity.

Photo: Licensetoceilidh.co.uk








As in a dance, when we come together in groups and the rhythm is right (and of course being out of synch at times), more becomes possible.  This is even more important when there are differences and disagreements between us.  We need to be able to have those difficult conversations so that differences don’t become fixed into rigid positions, and conflict generates new ideas and energy instead of hostility, fear and anxiety.

It these conversations were a dance, what would they be like? How would we move through them?

In a dance, each person has a place and a role.  So too, in a work or other situation where people have a common interest – though all too often roles aren’t clear, and views and feelings aren’t known.  Before coming together as a group, start with asking, listening and learning about what’s important.  In our role as facilitators, by doing this we’re already including everyone and listening is key.  Our openness and curiosity help to build trust and relationship, which starts to create a shared field of understanding. This practice of attending to what’s present – described by Otto Scharmer and colleagues as ‘co-sensing’ – also enables us to identify themes and questions to bring to the group when they meet.

We build on this when people come together, from the moment they walk into the room.  At the dance, there was a welcome at the door, decorations, tables round the room and an open space for people to gather and talk (and dance!).  The first set dance was easy, everyone could do it, we felt relaxed and were looking forward to the next one.  The equivalent in our group is to connect, hear all voices right from the start, agree what we’re here to do and then get going.

Sometimes we danced with a partner, sometimes in a four, sometimes in an eight.  In a group, mini-conversations between two or three people have everyone engaging at the same time, and meeting as a six or an eight enables people to share and develop their thinking together.  Facilitators can help people develop their own listening and enquiry skills in by giving simple guidance – such as having each person speak in turn before opening out the conversation.

There was also wild dancing! When there are strong views in the room and things are heated, people need to know it’s ok to express different views and feelings.  But this isn’t about letting rip, knocking into or hurting each other. Firm, compassionate facilitation establishes the conditions for respectful behaviours – such as ‘criticise the idea not the person’, and providing space for everyone to speak in turn.  Listening circles and conversation cafés are ways to do this.

We don’t know what will emerge, and as facilitators we need to embrace not-knowing, while tuning into what is taking shape.  That might be helped on its way with moments of quiet, alternating with sharing, writing, drawing or literally modelling what’s there.

The evening’s dancing ended with a line and a circle, the music slowed and we came to stillness.  And then the talking started again, with good-byes and good wishes into the night.

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


Wise decisions

The UK’s ‘Brexit’ referendum is an object lesson in how not to engage citizens in participatory and sustainable decision-making.  It breaks every rule in the book and the consequences of a process that has divided the country and stoked intolerance are still unfolding.

Debate and voting is the norm for decision-making in Western democracies.  Majority voting is used even with highly controversial issues. After all, it’s relatively quick: you have a debate and the different sides argue and defend their position with a view to making the best case (demolishing the other side if possible).  People vote, the majority wins and the decision is implemented.  Simple.  But creating winners and losers doesn’t make for wise or sustainable decisions.   


Yet there is no shortage of experience, wisdom and guidance on how to conduct inclusive, respectful debate and dialogue with people who have different views and perspectives.  This is fundamental to healthy democratic process across society – whether in public fora, business, the voluntary sector, community groups.  

What would it be like if our public conversations and decision-making were conducted through deliberation and consensus?  At the heart of consensus is a respectful dialogue between equals. It’s about everyone working together to meet both the individual’s and the group’s needs – working with each other rather than for or against each other, something that requires openness and trust.  Have a look at the excellent short guide to consensus by Seeds for Change.

Bringing people together to talk about contentious issues and where there are strongly held views requires care and sensitivity, and rigorous attention to process, including how you’ll make decisions.

Here are a few thoughts – we’ll be exploring these and more in the Facilitation Anywhere course in November:

  • Take some time to reflect on your approach, your values as a hosting group and how you’d like these to show up.  Who’s in your group?  How do you expect to work together?  Are you committed to investing the energy/ time that’s needed?  How you work together will be felt in the wider group.  The mutual learning approach developed by Roger Schwarz connects mindsets and behaviours to results with groups.
  • Do your homework, talk and listen to everyone who’s involved, to understand and clarify the issue.  As Brexit showed, the presenting issue (the EU) may not be the one that people feel is important (eg pressure on public services).
  • Describe the issue and frame the purpose for the meeting/ conversation and the core question(s), and share it with everyone who’s coming to the meeting/ gathering.  They’ll already start to feel heard, and helps get them engaged before coming into the room.
  • Think about how to create a safe environment where people are able to participate at their best.  The welcome at the start, opportunity to connect and get to know each other, share expectations and agree on ways of working provide the ground for trust and openness.
  • Facilitation skills for dialogue (the Dialogue Kit from the Aurora Now Foundation provides detailed guidance) and consensus include: active listening and enquiry, suspending judgement, summarising, synthesis and forming proposals.  

Don’t forget to choose a place to meet that will feel welcoming, is away from distractions (email etc) and is a pleasant environment.  

Even better if there’s an outdoor space where people can get some fresh air, walk, stretch. We have that at Hawkwell House in Oxford, so please do join us in November for the next FacilitationAnywhere course we’re offering with INTRAC.

Conferences reimagined

I was so stirred up by Duncan Green’s latest rant on conferences that I posted a comment (my first!) on an alternative to panels and powerpoints.

2010.04.10.ppt and interrogation

What if we re-imagine conferences and meetings as gatherings where people can connect, learn and have the conversations that really matter. What if organisers see themselves as hosts, inviting people into a welcoming and hospitable space? Event hosts sometimes need to be reminded that thinking it through, getting people interested ahead of time and good design and preparation is an essential investment of time.

It was wonderful to see 60 climate, health and other academics immersed in conversations at an event I co-designed a couple of months ago.  They’re systems thinkers and their research cuts across traditional academic and disciplinary boundaries.  The traditional methods (formal presentations etc) just wouldn’t have worked.

People were up and talking right from the start, meeting new colleagues through a variant on speed-networking.  In less than an hour everyone knew the best of what was happening, with 3-minute snapshots of what’s inspiring about their work.  After that there was a ‘market place’ with posters, information and conversations.  In the afternoon there were more in-depth discussions in an adapted open space.

It was a bright and open space, everyone wanted to be there, and there was an open-heartedness and generosity between people.  We thought a lot about who was coming, what they wanted to do and the simple design worked.  The people in the room did the rest.

This is the kind of thing we enjoy introducing in our Facilitation Anywhere courses, the next of which is on 22 – 24 November in Oxford.

Good questions

Asking good questions is one of the things going into the Facilitation Anywhere ‘kit’.  Participants on the course in January brought particular issues or situations they wanted to practice facilitating.  They helped each other clarify the question they wanted to explore, and in the process got beneath the surface of the issue.  After this they chose a method to have the conversation and away they went.

When we really care about the issue in front of us, we often just launch into it.  That’s fine.  But the risk is we get bogged down in the problem, get anxious about getting things done and jump to (the wrong) solutions.

What could be different?

Something different happens if we pause and ask, what’s the issue here, in a nutshell?  What’s the question we want to explore?  What might be different when this is resolved?  Asking questions that invite people’s reflections in a spirit of enquiry has a way of opening up our thinking, generating ideas and building connections.

Questions are there in everything we do as facilitators and getting to the right question is core skill – from understanding the context and clarifying intent through to reflecting on key learnings.  In her fantastic resource, Questions That Work, Dorothy Strachan offers six guiding principles for creating and asking questions:

  • Customize for context
  • Create inviting questions
  • Ask with sensitivity
  • Accommodate risk
  • Prepare participants for tough questions
  • Ask follow up questions

Facilitation Anywhere participants brought their skills and something more.  With their own and our questions, they brought listening, curiosity, interest, openness and trust.  The group created together a space that made something possible.

Words create worlds

If ‘we live in the worlds our questions create’, as David Cooperider and the other creators of Appreciative Inquiry believe, then the kind of questions we ask matters.  ‘… The practice of asking positive questions not only brings the best out of people and organisations, it also amplifies and magnifies the most positive life-giving possibilities for the future’(1).

What’s your question today?

(1)  Encyclopaedia of Positive Questions, Using Appreciative Inquiry to Bring out the Best in Your Organization, 2002, Whitney, D et al