Seven openings

Almost everyone’s arrived.  Some are already sitting down, others are standing around and chatting.  A couple of people are late, but time-keeping matters.  It’s time to get started.

Suddenly you find yourself in front of a group of people – 15, or 33, or 65, or 128 of them, or more, most of whom don’t know you. You’re the facilitator and the people in the room are putting their trust in you to help them achieve something concrete by the end of the event. You want to seize moment so that the participants come into the physical and mental space for the gathering as quickly and smoothly as possible. Then you can make a start on doing what needs to be done, letting the locus of control move between you and them.

Openings are about coming fully into the present and connecting with self, others and the purpose for the gathering.  They enable people to ‘arrive’ in body and mind, relax into what’s happening, ready to engage with the work to be done.  People need to be able to meet each other as quickly and easily as possible, to form as a group and create the ground for collaboration.  Each group is new, formed in that time and place, meeting for a specific reason, and shaping its own particular identity.

Here are seven ways to open, engage and connect:

  1. Engage people as they arrive   

We heard about this from the wonderful Tips for Trainers.  It’s a simple way to bring people mentally into the workshop or meeting before it’s even started.  Prepare two flip charts and have them in the area where people are arriving, or near the door to the meeting room.  Each flip chart has a different heading, for example: a question I want to explore with others today; one thing I’m looking forward to today.  As you welcome each person, ask them to put a post-it comment on the chart.  You’ll probably find that people start chatting about what they’re writing, and reading each other’s comments.

A variation is to write a statement on a large sheet that relates to the meeting purpose.  Below it is a spectrum where people can signal their level of agreement by placing a dot.  It gets everyone thinking, and you can refer back to it in the discussions.

  1.  A warm welcome – ‘what brings us here’

Starting with presence and purpose sets the tone of the meeting. It’s the first step in creating a hospitable space where people can do their best work together, and falls to the host of the meeting (if that isn’t you).  A few words, combined perhaps with a personal story connecting to the purpose of the event is a great way to start and only need take a few minutes.

  1. Meet and greet – informal networking

Invite everyone to get up and greet every person in the room, in three minutes.  It’s simple, direct, quick and generates lots of energy!  Follow it with the next activity, named Mad Tea by our colleagues at Liberating Structures: 

  • Find somebody you haven’t met before and introduce yourself, giving your name and organisation or project, if appropriate.
  • Respond to one or two questions provided by the facilitator
  • After 2-3 minutes – on a bell, or a beep, or a clap of the hands – go and find someone else.
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Getting to know you

Examples of questions are: ‘What are you bringing that you can share with this group’; ‘what is one thing you’re hoping to achieve or learn’? Questions can also be more targeted.  For example, we asked a large gathering of sanitation specialists in Hanoi, ‘What are you doing in your work that could contribute to resolving the global sanitation problem?’ Questions like these can trigger conversations about mutual interests and possibly lead to suggestions to meet further.  Two or three rounds expose the range of ideas in the room.

You need to agree the physical set up in advance.  For the meeting of 125 people in Hanoi, where nobody knew everybody but everybody knew some of the people there, we had to negotiate firmly with the hotel staff to have chairs in two’s and three’s, randomly, around the room.  This was the best configuration for that room and that group for informal networking. ‘But it’s not tidy!’ they protested, as they rearranged the chairs into rows for the second and third time.

  1. Appreciative check-in’s

Start an online or face-to-face meeting or small group session with an opening round.  Ask each person to introduce themselves (if this is the first time for them to meet), and share one thing about themselves others may not know, and one thing they want from the meeting.  There are many variations, according to the purpose and subject matter, but the point is to bring everyone’s voice into the room very quickly, in a way that’s relevant and puts people at their ease.  

  1.  Introduce yourself – briefly, or you’ll burn your fingers!

Asking people to introduce themselves in this way may be the simplest thing to do.  If groups are larger than 10 or so, the classic problem is that people may find it hard to be brief, and each successive speaker tends to speak longer.  If there are 15 participants and each person takes 3 minutes, that’s 45 minutes, and people are probably getting restless.

Ednah Karamagi introduced a fun ploy: give everybody a match from a box of matches. Each person lights their match and can then speak for as long as it burns. Inevitably the first speakers suffer, but by the end people have worked out how to eke out the match, bending this way and that, so that they can speak for as long as possible.

  1.  Finding your own people – using tagging

Classify and labeling online content like blogs became an increasingly important activity as social media began its rapid growth. ‘Tagging’ was the term people used for labeling online, so when we began training Development people in how to use social media we developed a ‘tagging’ exercise to use as an opener.

In a meeting you can ask participants to give themselves a tag, using a post-it note. In a Stories of Change workshop in Addis Ababa for the CARIAA program that we co-facilitated with Blane Harvey, we asked participants to identify themselves in three ways, noting the answer on post-it notes – tagging themselves, in other words:

  • Something you’re passionate about outside professional life
  • A skill or experience you are most looking for in Stories of Change
  • The most valuable skill or experience you are bringing for Stories of Change

There are three rounds, one for each of the above.  Participants mingle and find people with the same or similar tags, and form clusters. Each cluster, and those who haven’t formed a cluster, is asked to explain why they are clustered in that way.  They could also make a pitch to attract others to join their cluster.  It’s fun and energising and is a practical way for people to find out who and what is in the space.

  1.  Spectrogram lines

Spectrogram lines are a great way for people to learn in an energizing and enjoyable way who and what is in the room  The facilitator lays a long piece of marking tape down a section of the room, or in some other way establishes there is a line. Then participants hear a series of statements in succession which will divide opinion in the room. For example:

  • The SDGs are going to fundamentally transform the sanitation sector
  • Maize can be sustainably intensified
  • Yield gaps are primarily due to non-technical factors
  • I have 30 pairs of shoes

After the first statement, people choose whether and by how much they agree. One end of the line represents ‘I fully agree’ (100%) and the other end ‘I completely disagree’ (0%). People place themselves along the line according to their level of agreement.  They could do this silently, or ask each other why they think they are at a particular spot, so as to gauge where to place themselves. After people have arranged themselves, the facilitator interviews individuals at either end and at the middle, asking them to explain to the group why they chose their position.

Other questions or statements are declared, and the process repeats. Through the movement, the conversations between the participants, and the interviews, participants share a lot of knowledge about each other and the subject matter.

Join us at the next Facilitation Anywhere workshop in Oxford on 22 – 24 November to find out more about openings and more besides!

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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.   

Consensus-Gandhi-Header-930x350

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

Online and blended – what’s all the fuss?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our digital footprints

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

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

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

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

Ending and transition

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?

meeting 01
image credit development art.com

In our first 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?
  • Facts Feelings Findings and Futures is one of many wonderful activities based on the active reviewing cycle developed by Roger Greenaway  
  • 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.Zone-of-Control15% 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! 

Commitments

tying a white threadCreating 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!)  

Evaluations

spidergram evaluationThese 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.11338568315_c035379c49_z

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.

Coming to agreement

“A group who was deeply committed to their issue had shared a huge amount of experience and there was a real feeling of connection, energy and commitment in the room. And then it got stuck. Round and round we went. Action couldn’t emerge because something fundamental was missing – a signal from the leadership of unequivocal support.”

Growth - groan Zone

This kind of blockage, a feeling of wading in treacle at a crucial point in an event or process, is something we often face as facilitators. Sam Kaner has been writing and teaching about participatory decision-making processes for over 20 years [1]. Kaner invented the term groan zone, also called, ‘the zone of struggle in the service of integration’, which perhaps sums up the issue more accurately (if less elegantly!). If the emergence and sense-making phase described in our previous blog has gone well then ideas have emerged, new combinations of activities are possible, assumptions have been challenged and fresh groupings of people have formed around agreement and difference. So everyone in the group has to struggle in order to integrate new and different ways of thinking with their own.

Once power and hierarchy, not to mention gender and difference, are layered into the situation …. kaboom! If you don’t learn enough about the power dynamics in the group at the outset and clarify who has the authority to hold (or block) decisions, the process can become unstuck.

Detailed and clear preparation can help groups anticipate and get through the ‘groan zone’.   Breaking down the agenda into topics, questions and likely outcomes  are part of that preparation and inform the design of the process – and being able to let it go in the moment.

Equally important is the need to be clear about what agreement looks like. Consensus is often thought to mean ‘we all agree’. But as Sam Kaner points out, consensus isn’t so much the end point as how you get there –  ‘a participatory process in which a group thinks and feels together en route to their decision’. The agreement itself might be unanimity or majority. The process of getting there is all important – hearing objections, exploring resistance, drawing out proposals and possible ways forward, listening for the ‘sense of the room’, testing for agreement until you get there.

The good news

There are plenty of tools and methods to help the group doing its work of narrowing down ideas, prioritising,for narrowing down and sorting. As well as the many tools in Kaner’s work, the KS toolkit describes such staples as Dotmocracy, SWOT, Card Collection, and so on. The Liberating Structures resource also includes several creative and powerful tools like 25/10 Crowdsourcing, wicked questions, agreement/certainty matrix and, for long discussions on a larger scale, ecocycle planning and panarchy

r2i hackathon ideationIn many types of events there isn’t the same need for agreement, or an agreed outcome. Knowledge Sharing meetings are about people talking, learning from each other’s experience and taking away ideas to be processed individually or in teams. Good documentation and processes that help individuals or teams articulate what it is they’ve learnt and find common threads and patterns can help ensure that people come away with a sense of achievement. These often involve loads of paper on the walls – or windows, or large pieces of old wallpaper, or fabric sheets sprayed with glue – wherever they can be stuck.

Clarity and difference online

The majority of gatherings come as one event in a long series of activities and processes, involving chains of document versions and conversations before and after a workshop. Being crystal clear about the purpose of an online meeting, and preparing in detail, is even more important than for face to face meetings, as is stressed in a very accessible introductory guide to WebMeetings just published by the truly awesome Nancy White.

Some things can be easier. Online collaboration tools make it easier for people to keep track and maintain common documents and other content. We regularly use Google documents,  wikis, and MS OneDrive (yes, Microsoft have finally made a usable, publicly accessible web collaboration tool!)  These tools can serve a real-time documentation function and, paradoxically perhaps, if all participants remain online then keeping track can be easier. Conventions of version management are often more scrupulously followed online since people haven’t got the face to face contact to fall back on. There is only each other and the online connection.

Many of the tools for finding common ground and identifying difference can be used online. If people are using common tools like Google drive, which supports shared editing in real-time of presentations or other documentation, then coming to agreement can be a straightforward process. If more is at stake, there are plenty of examples from multi-stakeholder policy processes of ways to bring together and engage people who are present in meetings both remotely and physically. Many UN and other multilateral bodies are developing and using sophisticated platforms supported by formal process for responding and decision-making, especially those concerned with the Internet and telecommunications. The International Telecommunications Union, for example, has been webcasting since 1998 and integrating Remote Participation since 2009.

Dealing with difference and disagreement online is hard. Visual and other non-verbal cues are often absent or unclear unless there is high quality equipment and good communication channels.  The specific attributes of online meetings referred to in earlier blogs, such as extended response times, attention spans or comprehension difficulties, can cause acute problems where there are tensions or challenges. It requires more deliberation from a facilitator – ensuring consistent turn taking, regular check-ins, allowing time for rounds of conversations about key issues. Good facilitator skills in listening, echoing and summarising and synthesising are absolutely crucial.

Do you have any stories of how you sailed through the groan zone?


1. Kaner’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making should be on all shelves or e-readers!

Emergence and sense-making

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!

Reflecting reflections

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:

OBJECTIVE Facts e.g. What can you see?
REFLECTIVE Reaction e.g. Where have you seen something like this before?
INTERPRETIVE Implications e.g. What does this mean to you?
DECISIONAL Actions e.g. How might this principle be used?

This blog from ace facilitator Martin Gilbraith is a good introduction. And here’s a story of how ORID was used in a workshop in Hanoi to encourage and support reflective processes.

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:

text chat the narrowest of channels: requires constantly checking in with participants, encouraging people to comment, while explicitly and regularly leaving space for reflection and comment
phone/voice 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 many web-conferencing platforms have this as the standard configuration, which allows for a rich variety of facilitation options – though we need to remember the basics of managing online connections (an issue we covered in an earlier blog, pointing to a great resource from Susan Stewart )  
multi-channel room + presentation + text + audio/video participation The high-end option – if you can’t deliver effective, blended meetings with this level of resources, then you need a training programme!

A good, general introduction to the issues is provided in, ‘20 Tips for Facilitating Virtual and Blended Meetings’ from Grove.com.

Generating and shaping ideas

All meetings are different, as different as the people within in them. So in our sense-making of the processes and practices that help to foster fun and engaging events, we’re acutely aware of the risks of talking about a ‘typical’ flow of activities, as we’ve been doing in the first and second of these blogs. Having shared that caveat, we’re going to continue! This blog looks at another stage in the progress of a workshop or event – generating and shaping ideas.

You’ve got the information out there, and you’re getting clear on your challenge and the opportunities. It’s tempting to jump straight to solutions, and stay safely in the comfort zone of the tried and tested. Striking out and taking a different pathway, into those unknown places of the imagination, where weird and wonderful ideas reside, opens out new possibilities. The best ideas have a way of appearing at funny times, and there are lots of tools to help, from the simplest brainstorming, through to the panoply of design thinking methods, such as those shared by IDEO. The key thing is to create the conditions for the unexpected to happen.

Resources

2007-07-13-brainstormingBrainstorming is one of the oldest and best known methods for generating and sharing ideas. Though as this wonderful cartoon comments, anything other than the lightest of touches in facilitating the process can be crushing!

Since we’re sharing resources, this cartoon comes from the superb Rob Cottingham, who gets even more karma-points by licensing his work as creative commons.

Another very rich source of resources, ideas, innovation and support comes from the bustling folks at Liberating Structures. They’re more than a resource – they’re almost a movement. They’ve gathered together on their site (and in their training programmes) a collection of approaches and methods designed to, “introduce tiny shifts in the way we meet, plan, decide and relate to one another…. (putting) the innovative power once reserved for experts only in hands of everyone”. Some of the ideas you’ll recognise as old favourites, others were certainly new to us, and others are carefully worked variations. Another major strength of the site is that they have defined a useful and practical format to enable people to understand how they would use the methods in events or workshops.

As with so many methods, they can be adapted for different situations. For generating ideas we like particularly 1-2-4-All (which you may know as cascade!); 25-10 crowd sourcing and the riskier but therefore potentially more fun and releasing of creativity, improv prototyping. And they’re also systematically exploring how to adapt methods to working online.

Being a facilitator

Our job is to hold the sense of possibility for the group.  Internally, that’s about suspending judgement and being ok with not knowing what’s going to happen.  Outwardly, that helps us create the ‘container’ – the space where people open out and draw on their imagination and creativity to access their best thinking and ideas.

The advantages of being online rather than face to face

We so often characterise online or blended meetings as problematic, needing special preparation and attention to the technology and how people will interact. However, there are also many benefits and advantages to being present online rather than physically present. We ran some experiments recently during a wonderful exchange of creativity and experience, the AgKnowledge Innovation Process ShareFair (yes, bit long but it made sense at the time!). We were using the event to work  – play – with different modes of presence. Some of the sessions were organised as blended, combining face to face with online channels. Pete was working at the event in Addis Ababa while Isobel attended some of the sessions remotely. We used Adobe Connect for the blended sessions, illustrated below, recordings of which are linked in this blog.

SR blended meeting

In the context of ‘ideation’, we observed that brainstorming, for example, worked faster online than face to face: there was an immediate record of what had been written into a chat window, online participants were able to type at their own speed, without drowning out others, and the process was less reliant on a facilitator to manage participation, record the findings. Use of polls also allowed a more or less instant prioritisation of ideas, without having to fiddle about with dots or bits of paper.

In your experience, what’s the best way to carry forward both the tangible and intangible elements of the ‘container’ into online spaces?

 

Finding out what we know

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

River of life

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

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

Presentations can be fun too, really!

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

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

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

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

Being the facilitator

Curious, collaborating, challenging, creative…..

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

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

mutual learning

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