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.
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.
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.
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”
I’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”.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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:
The fundamental level of exploring and sharing practice around designing and facilitating events and workshops
The reflexive level – a process in which we will all be reflecting on our experience during the course
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:
What does it mean to be a participant and a facilitator in f2f, online and blended environments? (a reflexive question)
How can we maximise engagement making full use of participatory f2f approaches and digital tools or channels?
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. In 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.
The year end has got us thinking about the flow of experience from beginnings through to endings and transitions, and how the best of our experience and learning can enliven and enrich the next stage of our lives. So too with gatherings. When a meeting comes to an end, how can we best support people to make that sometimes tricky transition back to the workplace?
In ourfirst blog in this series, focusing on the ‘openings’ of an event, we talked about a key early task for facilitators being to help people ‘arrive’ in every sense of the word. At the start of a gathering we help people transition from the clogged busyness of the everyday so they can focus on their shared purpose and agenda. When a group spends time together, committed to a common agenda and prepared to relax into a more creative frame of mind, together they can make a kind of magic when they find or combine ideas, untangle the knots that block progress, and release energy for joint action.
Meetings and gatherings at their best open up space for focused conversation and exchange, thinking and reflection on the issues and questions that really matter to the people in the room. These are luxuries under normal operational pressures. All the more important then to intentionally create spaces that allow for emergence – that unpredictable and magical thing that happens when ideas and thoughts combine and something else takes shape.
So a good ending really matters. It completes a cycle of learning, energy and engagement so that people can more easily make the transition back into the realities of working and everyday life. Ending is a process, and includes drawing together key learning, deciding on actions and personal commitments, reviewing the event process, saying thank you and good-bye, and bringing everything to a close.
Here are a few ideas about how to do this.
There are all sorts of practical ways that people can draw together their learning and decide how they’ll put into practice what has emerged during the event.
Probably the most commonly used methods are those to do with making lists, prioritising, action planning. ‘Getting on Brilliantly’ is an intensely practical set of resources and ideas for effective meetings (and was the trigger for our own decision to structure our training programme around a set of six typical phases within meetings.) There is a free PDF download as well as a book available from Amazon.com that includes a CD. The resource has a useful collection of models and templates for Sorting Priorities and Planning for Action, cleanly structured and presented like all the other sections.
W³ or ‘What, So What, Now What is a typically snappy distillation of related ideas from the Liberating Structures team. After a shared experience, you ask “WHAT? What happened? What did you notice, what facts or observations stood out?” After all the salient observations have been collected, ask, “SO WHAT? Why is that important? What patterns or conclusions are emerging? What hypotheses can you make?” Then, after the sense-making is over, ask, “NOW WHAT? What actions make sense?
In her article, ‘Changing the Organisation One Conversation at a Time’Lisa Kimball talks about the ‘hypoglycaemic effect‘ of good meetings, an enthusiasm and buzz that leads to ambitious plans and lists, as well as a crash on re-entry to an unchanged world of work?Avoid unrealistic action planning by getting clear on where you can have most influence.15% solutions is an activity that helps participants focus realistically, based on Peter Drucker’s proposition that most people have about 15% control over their work situations.
Most of these activities work well in online meetings. And if shared online documents or platforms are part of the event then there is the added advantage that ‘there is only one truth’, a record visible and accessible to all participants. Properly done, a set of notes on a wiki or platform like Google documents gives all participants the bulk of their meeting report already compiled!
Creating space for people to make their own personal commitments follows naturally out of the above and helps consolidate intentions, and can have a strong emotional resonance. Participants can write a postcard to themselves, which the session hosts post back to them. Another idea spread out a random collective of photos and invite people to choose one that resonates for them, using this as a means of reflecting on what they are taking away with them. Borrowing the custom of two people tying textile loops around each other’s wrists while each declares their commitment to action is a gentle and surprisingly powerful way to help people make commitments they will keep (especially with the instruction that people must retain the loops until they have at least begun the action!)
These are important for participants as well as the event hosts – serving as a focus for quiet reflection, while providing valuable feedback on the gathering itself. There is a huge range of options – from written evaluation (do this in the room before people leave) through to the more creative possibilities such as a song or a story that captures the highlights. Roger Greenaway has masses of ideas. As ever, having people physically active energises what can often be a process that dampens enthusiasm and connection. For examples, see the spider-gram activity illustrated above or the use of a spectrogram line for a ‘walking evaluation’ as illustrated below. Online, using polls is a quick and easy way to get feedback in the moment.
Bringing the gathering to a close follows on naturally. Wherever possible we like to close with the group sitting in a circle, and give everyone a chance to share a closing reflection. If time is tight this can be as brief as ‘three words’, with the hosts thanking all those who’ve made the event possible, from the logistics through to the participants themselves.
Online the risk is that the closing can feel rather distant, since people can’t see each other, so protecting time in the last part of the session to have people comment or say things is extremely important.
“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.”
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 . 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.
In 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?
When people meet in groups they begin to think and feel differently, whatever the purpose of the gathering. In our second blog we talked about how our own ideas are being challenged and enriched as we design the Facilitation Anywhere training course. This process is amplified in groups. We think about and change our ideas – whether about each other, the specific work context or program, the subjects being discussed, or even ideas or subjects entirely unrelated to the workshop but in the forefront of our minds. In the collective learning that happens in groups (often referred to as social learning), people recognise shared beliefs and what they have in common, begin to shape new concepts, identify their differences and come together around what they can agree on.
Being the facilitator
Making sense of what’s emerging is probably the most complex part of a workshop or event, for both facilitator and participants. The facilitator needs to notice and reflect on what’s happening and, in consultation with the organisers, share this with the group to help trigger further conversation. Facilitators play a central role at this stage, not because we’re driving the event, but because it’s one of the key moments when, as the person ‘holding the space’, we have the potential to add most value.
Practically speaking, this isn’t something you can do on the first morning. After surfacing ‘what we know’, now’s the time to start to sense into what’s emerging, give people space to reflect and see what insights, patterns and themes are taking shape. It’s necessarily messy, often chaotic, frequently uncomfortable and can also be exciting! As facilitators we have to call on all our internal resources to be in tune with the group, stay centred, listen and adapt to what’s arising. Let go of the choreography and improvise!
Of course you have your design, even though you know you’ll almost certainly have to adapt and change it. A useful tool to have as a framework for sense-making, that also enables improvisation, was developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) over forty years ago. Commonly known as ORID the simple format is summarised below:
e.g. What can you see?
e.g. Where have you seen something like this before?
Insights and shifts happen when people are listening together and are open to what’s arising. Conversation cafe,world cafe (left) and fishbowl create spaces for this kind of sharing and enquiry into emerging questions. Have a look at the Art of Hosting for ideas for convening and hosting emergent learning. All three methods are also reviewed in the KS Toolkit, and the great Liberating Structures folks have their own variants.
Nobody knows you’re a dog online
Sense-making is one of the areas when the differences between face-to-face and virtual gatherings are most obvious, especially for the facilitators. Not being able to see reactions between people, on their faces, in how they move, glance – or glare – at each other, for example, makes keeping track of what is emerging much harder. Rachel Smith of Grove calls the channels available for communication the collaboration bandwidth. Technology defines what channels are available – the collaboration bandwidth – in the virtual world, and there is a wide range of possible channels. Thinking about how these types of connections might affect sense-making is a good example of how we need to prepare specifically for online or blended events:
the narrowest of channels: requires constantly checking in with participants, encouraging people to comment, while explicitly and regularly leaving space for reflection and comment
as above, plus hearing voice adds hugely to the ability to stay collectively in touch as people think with each other
voice & chat (or text based web tools like meeting words.com)
now we’re getting real: the sense of connectedness and awareness enhanced through consistent visual reinforcement and the purposeful engagement of people in reflective processes, as well as the opportunity to comment in real-time or at agreed points in a meeting
video & audio
adding another dimension: even in low resolution, furrowed brows or grins are immediately visible
video & audio & chat
the difference between face-to-face and virtual begins to reduce: careful meeting management can blend the two modes
multi-channel room + presentation (webinar)
Probably a step backwards, often to death by powerpoint
multi-channel room + presentation + text
opens up interaction possibilities, though still a step backwards in terms of collective awareness of where people are at
multi-channel room + presentation + text + whiteboard participation
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.
Brainstorming 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!
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.
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?