Working with complexity and uncertainty seems to be a feature of everyday life in our organisations and projects. There are undoubtedly great, daunting challenges presented by working within systems that seem to be constantly changing and have many moving parts. Thankfully, there are also useful tools that can help us think through what is going on and strategise about how to best move forware – some of the most valuable are tools from systems thinking.

We have all seen, in our personal and professional lives, examples of vicious cycles where the effect of one action causes a knock-on effect that somehow loops back with a negative effect on the first, making things worse. For example, the Human Resources department is too busy to offer staff training, but the lack of capacity development opportunities makes staff members look for other work to grow. This means the HR department spends all its time hiring, and has even less time to develop a staff training programme. You might describe such things as ‘spiraling’ out of control.

You have also likely seen examples of virtuous cycles where the inverse is true and interaction of a number of interconnected variables makes things better and better, according to what you would like to see happening. For example, you develop a leadership style that encourages people to manage their own projects independently and take credit for their own successes. This empowers team members to act and gives you time for further creative learning around positive leadership (rather than spending your time micromanaging team members) and time to help those who might need additional support to work more independently.

And then there are those times where, despite your best efforts to change a recurring pattern, something in the system is resisting this change. We’ve all wondered at times, “Why does this keep happening?” This question is the sure sign of a system at work!

In the language of systems thinking, it’s all about feedback loops. We need to get better at spotting them and using this understanding to inform our actions.  Using diagramming tools, such as Behaviour-over-Time graphs and Causal Loop Diagrams (this is more fun than it might sound) can be highly valuable in helping us think through what is going on and enable us to better understand the cause and effect relationships at play. When we have a clearer picture of our system, we then have a much better chance of finding a ‘leverage point’ and a strategy to change things.

A systems thinking approach can be effective in many situations, from high-level strategic planning, theory of change and organisational development work, to improving the productivity of a team of five. These tools can help you step back and see the bigger picture, making systems more visible, the inter-connections more obvious, and the opportunities for change more apparent. And they work beautifully with groups, to communicate these dynamics, check our assumptions and agree together on pathways forward.

Our Bright Green Learning Academy systems thinking course – “Communicating Complex Challenges Using Tools from Systems Thinking” – explores how to use these tools and approaches in our work, the questions we need to ask when planning or reviewing a project, and how to ‘unblock’ a situation to make progress or generate the change needed.

“The systems thinking course helped me understand the vicious cycle I was experiencing in my business. With this new understanding, I was able to break the vicious cycle and now I have made good progress in the direction I wanted.”
Olympia Mitsopoulou Kolyris, Managing Partner, ATOM WAVE

Why not join us for our upcoming systems thinking course taking place 2 June 2017 in Nyon, Switzerland?
More information and registration.

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The Climate Change Playbook – 22 Systems Thinking Games for More Effective Communication about Climate Change

Michelle Cartín, Project Manager – events and congresses. Former Deputy Forum Manager, IUCN World Conservation CongressMichelle Cartín, Project Manager – events and congresses. Former Deputy Forum Manager, IUCN World Conservation Congress

One of my most interesting and challenging roles was Pavilions Project Manager for the 2016 IUCN Congress, which attracted around 8,000 participants. The thematic pavilions, centred on themes from youth to marine conservation, are where delegates can explore the work of IUCN and partners through informal presentations and networking events.

Nine pavilions, each with its own planning team (of up to 21 people) and very diverse goals was a lot to coordinate over nine months. The teams involved internal and external members; they were multicultural and cross-functional. Some meetings were face-to-face, others virtual, others mixed. Learning how to foster collaboration and buy-in, and get everyone on the same page was essential!

Right after the Congress, I decided to build on my experience and looked for a way to improve these group processes in the future. A key lesson I learned from the Academy is not to be afraid of debate amongst your team and how to make it constructive while staying on schedule. There are so many different views of what will work best – you need to create space for people to voice their opinions and to brainstorm. If you don’t build time for discussion into your agenda, it can backfire later. There are many tools and methods. Poll Everywhere is useful for mixed teams – ensuring everyone’s opinion is tabled when you don’t have time for open discussion, also useful when you need anonymity. Six Thinking Hats can get great results, analysing a situation from different perspectives.

People often think of facilitation as being for external events but it is essential to facilitate well internally, within your teams. Fostering ownership of group work is vital if you want to be a good manager. It involves intuition, reading situations, knowing when things are not going well and being able to adapt accordingly.

You’re asked to help design an interactive and engaging conference of 200, 400, 1,500, or 10,000 people. Do you leap at the challenge or quake believing this is beyond your capacity?

Rest assured: You can do much more than you might expect, whether in side events, workshops or on the ‘main stage’ in plenary. People often come to conferences to build relationships within their professional community. Designing interactive sharing and learning into your conferences helps in building these relationships whilst also engaging with the conference subject matter and it is possible – even for very large groups.

With conferences often costing millions to stage, taking years to plan and involving large teams of organisers and facilitators (take the World Water Forum as an example – drawing more than 30,000 people!), meeting the learning, sharing and networking needs of participants is a must.

Many large conferences can seem formulaic, anonymous and unambitious. This is a missed opportunity when these events have an attentive audience of thousands of experts. Imagine what you can do with that amount of knowledge and enthusiasm – it’s an incredible resource to harness!

There are many tools and techniques that allow participants to provide genuine input and learn and share something useful, rather than listen to a long series of plenary presentations. Let them brainstorm, learn directly from their peers and be creative. The first step is to identify the results or impact you want from your event, and work back to select the best tools.

Flexibility is key. In large-scale events, people often choose what to attend from a variety of sessions in parallel (or they may choose to just have a coffee with a new contact), so you never know how many people will turn up to your sessions. You need to design each session of your event so you can scale up, or down, as needed.

There will always be speakers. But keynotes, plenary presentations and traditional panel formats can be made more interactive and stimulating by tools such as open space technology, ‘open mike’ time, TED-like talks on stage, as well as interactive audience-polling and Q&A tools.

In our last newsletter Brian McKenna described the Reproductive Healthy Supplies Coalition conference with 250 participants, which Bright Green Learning helped to design. Together we designed a programme that combined a formal agenda with creative tools that engaged participants with some great results, and closed with a moving summary by a performance poet!

We’re happy to be launching a new module on designing interactive workshops at large conferences on 6 March. We’ll be looking at what works well with really large groups, what to do when too many people want to speak at plenary, how to solve problems on site and adapt to the unpredictable. Why not join us!

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Brian McKenna, Deputy Director, Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition (RHSC)Brian McKenna, Deputy Director, Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition (RHSC)

In October, the RHSC held its 17th General Membership Meeting in Seattle for 330 participants from 43 countries. Evaluations from last year’s meeting told us participants wanted a more interactive event with more technical sessions and opportunities for discussion. We needed to be innovative – to get people to think differently.

So this year…

Participants were given workbooks that included questions to guide discussions at each session. This proved effective in getting people talking about the topic at hand.

We introduced variety to the agenda: A ‘learning café’ in which participants were able to choose from 20 different moderated discussions, focused on reducing stock-outs.  Participants were divided into groups around picnic blankets during lunch one day to discuss in a more informal setting how we could better work with and for youth.

A graphic artist recorded the discussions in words and images, and to conclude the meeting, we hired a ‘performance poet’ to capture the essence of the event in poetry. This injected some passion into what is essentially a technical meeting.

As one of the key attractions of these annual events is the opportunity to network, specially designated spaces were set up just for ad hoc conversations and meetings.

Overall we managed to combine a formal agenda with some creative tools that helped engage participants. It wasn’t perfect of course, but this year’s evaluations tell us that these innovations were well worth the effort.

For the meeting’s videos, presentations and photographs, please visit the web page.

As event hosts and organisers do you focus all your energy on designing the official programme? If so, you’re missing out. Workshops large or small offer plenty of opportunity to network ‘around the edges’ of formal sessions – during coffee breaks, meal times or waiting for sessions to start. Think how many people pass each other in hallways on their way to the next event or stand silent in food queues – so many missed opportunities!

Workshop ‘downtimes’ are ideal moments to network and learn something through activities such as info-rich treasure hunts, quizzes or demos. There are so many clever ways to encourage interaction from the simplest of tools to sophisticated team-building exercises.

Why not try these for starters?

Do you speak X?
Encourage people to get to know each other by advertising the languages they speak using badges. This works well for very large groups; you can produce hundreds of badges with key languages printed on them and a few blank ones for lesser-known languages or dialects. It’s a great way to kick-start conversations. Find out more.

Talk to me…
Use large name tags that have participants’ photo, title and home location, and a line ‘talk to me about’ with three words of their choice. A fun way to break the ice and get some interesting conversations flowing.

Fortune cookies with a twist
Place brightly wrapped fortune cookies on the tables during breaks. Instead of a fortune, write a starter question to get conversations going with the new people you have joined.

Picnic time
Avoid the awkwardness of finding someone to sit next to at mealtimes by offering a picnic. For a group of say 30 people, provide five picnic baskets and tell people to divide up and find a comfortable spot to eat, preferably outdoors. Ideal in the summer but it also works indoors!

Let us know if you’ve tried other ideas, we’d love to hear about them.

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Think again what’s going on around the talks – sensory delights offered by the experts at TED global

Christian Kranicke, Founder and CEO, Leading Edge Advisors

There are markets and countries where people have very limited access to basic financial services. With the technology available today this is simply inadmissible. I work to change this situation and empower individuals by building Digital Finance Solution (DFS) businesses in frontier economies and emerging markets. By that I mean developing businesses in sectors like branchless banking, mobile money and alternative payment systems.

When you look at the value chain in the delivery of mobile banking services, there are many diverse entities and interests. Being able to collaborate with all the players in service delivery is absolutely essential. Finding common ground and creating realistic value propositions are essential if you wish to build viable businesses.

The Academy provides effective tools to help address complex challenges. The courses have helped to sharpen some of the hard analytics needed for my job but have also had a positive impact on the qualitative side. I really appreciate digging deeper into the subject of systems thinking and exploring methods to examine the components and interaction of all elements in a defined environment. I also appreciate developing tools to improve my interrogative skills. Often the information we need from people is readily available if we just know how to formulate our questions correctly.

How do you keep a workshop of 30 people focussed and engaged when exploring a complex issue such as climate change or explaining dry internal procedures an organisation must adopt? What are some effective ways to highlight collaboration or performance issues and opportunities in a team’s work together?

We as facilitators regularly face these types of challenges and have a range of tools at our disposal to address them. But one that is perhaps underexplored is the rich world of games that can help people learn experientially and enliven the driest of topics. Simple participation games, demonstration games, simulations, quiz-based activities, role play and problem-solving exercises are just some examples of the many games that can be used for diverse purposes in equally diverse settings.

Games can range from a simple one-minute, thought-provoking icebreaker (sometimes called a ‘jolt’) to a half-day simulation exercise to help go deeper and understand a complex issue. Lizzie and I use games extensively in workshops – for team building, conveying key messages or lessons learned, problem solving, breaking down barriers or simply invigorating a stagnating discussion.

Experiential games help a group ‘learn by doing’ rather than by more passive methods such as theoretical discussions. They can be powerful when conducted in ‘discovery mode’ – where people do not know exactly how to play or ‘win’ at the outset. A carefully designed quiz or treasure hunt can help a group learn about another organisation in a way that’s far more engaging than listening to a corporate presentation! One game we find really effective is Fishbanks, a computer-assisted board game which helps groups understand the complexity of resource management from multiple perspectives. Or there’s Green & Great that helps players explore the business transition to sustainability.

There are games to suit all group sizes: mass games that can be played in a conference of 2,000 people, demonstration games that a small group can play while others watch, or participation games suited to groups of up to 30 people. A great source of hundreds of free ‘serious games’ is the Thiagi Gameblog (‘improving performance playfully’) – we highly recommend it!

As with most other elements of facilitation, games must be tailored according to group dynamics and cultural differences. We rarely use ‘off-the-shelf’ games but rather adapt an existing one to a particular group or objective, or design our own. Some people may be put off when they see ‘games’ on the agenda, seeing them as silly or irrelevant. So it’s important that the value of the games is explained and a thorough debrief is factored into your session plan, and perhaps change the title to ‘management exercise’!

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Uta Jungermann Project Manager at the World Business Council for Sustainable DevelopmentProject Manager at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development

My day-to-day work requires a lot of moderation, facilitation and – at times – mediation. Meetings, workshops, webinars or just plain conference calls fill my day – sometimes more than desired, which can be challenging. There is simply not enough time to get the actual work done.

So making the most of all types of meetings and workshops is key to advancing our team’s overall work plan and achieving core objectives.

Through the Bright Green Learning Academy courses, I have learned how to design questions that help a group achieve the agreed outcomes. I also feel better able to articulate these outcomes, both hard and soft, while fostering the group’s ownership of them.

Collaboration is central to what I do and I enjoy it, yet it is not always easy to progress at the pace you would like and keep everyone equally engaged throughout the process. The Academy has equipped me with the tools and methodologies to think through each step – before, during, between and after meetings and workshops. It has helped me to implement actions that optimise participant engagement for more robust results.

And luckily I can say that the first stress tests on applying these new skills have been successful.

How many of you have been in meetings or workshops that veer off track and become ‘talk shops’ that have little chance of reaching the outcomes that were agreed at the start? Are you often left wondering how relevant a meeting’s topic is to your day-to-day work?

As process facilitators we are called on to help a group achieve an objective or output such as a strategic plan, a partnership agreement, multi-stakeholder engagement, or policy advice. It’s important for us to be clear from the first contact with clients about what outcomes they are seeking. Only with these outcomes clearly stated and prioritised can you design methods to achieve them and measure success.

But achieving these ‘hard’ outcomes (the plan, project document or agreement) often relies on a suite of more subtle ‘soft’ outcomes such as team buy-in, learning, trust and relationship building, understanding or enthusiasm. Striking a balance between what you need the group to achieve and how everyone feels about the process is a skill that requires deliberate and thoughtful preparation and planning, flexibility and an ability to read situations as they evolve. This means keeping one eye on group dynamics and the other on the clock!

Central to keeping a meeting on track is designing excellent questions that are pertinent to the group and its collective work. Workshops can involve dozens of questions – big and small. Every question you ask has an impact on the group and questions can serve multiple purposes. We often use Appreciative Inquiry to help us frame our questions – one of the assumptions is that the act of asking questions of an organisation or group influences the group in some way. Great questions can focus minds and can provide energy (not so great ones can draw people down a pathway that confuses or bores them, or takes the wind from their sails). Questions should be carefully crafted from the start of the process and their usefulness continually reviewed throughout.

Articulating intelligent outcomes, designing purposeful questions, and balancing task maintenance with group sensitivity are core skills that the Bright Green Learning Academy can help you to build. Find out more about our programme.

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Are you a big picture person or a stickler for detail? Do you prefer to work in a structured way or to let things evolve? Are you an introvert or extrovert? Do you like to be in control or prefer others to take the lead?

Whatever your personality traits or preferences, each has an influence on how you work and interact with others. And if your job involves bringing people together to meet a particular objective, convening workshops and meetings, then knowing yourself, and how others see you, is critical to creating a harmonious and productive environment.

Your worldview, your culture, your opinions, what you do, and even what you wear, can all have an influence on people and on group dynamics. How closely you want to work with others, how much you need to relate to a group, and how you prefer others to behave towards you, all have a bearing on your performance. Identifying these preferences is important to your self-awareness and your continual development as a facilitator of collaborative group processes.

Gillian Martin Mehers and Lizzie Crudgington of the Bright Green Learning Academy describe their respective preferences and how these influence their work, and the strategies they use to amplify or manage them.


I’m an extrovert on the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) and a ‘learner’ (using the Strengthsfinder vocabulary) and enjoy leading discussions. As someone who likes to learn new things all the time, I can draw on many different facilitation tools and techniques that I have used over the years. However, this means that I need to be careful to check with those I’m working with to make sure they are comfortable trying something new. They might be at a different stage of the collaborative process, where even breaking into small groups, away from the security of a plenary discussion, might test the comfort levels, trust and confidence of participants. So I need to manage my enthusiasm and eagerness to always be pushing into new territory in terms of methodologies and approaches.

I am also strong on the ‘inclusion’ trait (according to the FIRO-B diagnostic tool), which means that I like to be included and have a formal role in a workshop or meeting. I have a genuine desire to work with people, to help them achieve their goals, but I need to be conscious of not taking on too much of a role that could reduce the group’s sense of ownership in their process and results. In designing a workshop, I always build in a gradual ‘handing over’ of leadership so that the energy and momentum for follow-up rests with the group, and not with me as an external facilitator. Thinking about how your behavioural preferences reveal themselves in your facilitation work takes effort and introspection, but this awareness can help make you a better host and (temporary) holder of the process!


Different to Gillian, I’m an introvert on the MBTI and prefer not to be the focus of attention, so at the start of a session, I’m keen to get participants interacting with each other as quickly as possible (and shift the focus from me). I don’t feel a particular need to be included, this shows up on my FIRO-B test, but this may make me seem disinterested! It’s important to realise how others perceive you and perhaps adjust your behaviour accordingly.

Overall, it’s important to play to your strengths for the good of the group. Although I enjoy interacting with people, as a facilitator, I don’t feel I’m there to be the constant centre of attention. I do what I need to do to achieve the session’s objectives from the sides of the discussion, more as an objective process designer, guide and observer. That way, I find it easier to manage conflict if it arises. Sometimes in a heated discussion a verbal punching bag is needed and I’m happy to act as one if that’s what it takes to move ahead!

I’m what is called a ‘maximiser’ in Strengthsfinder language which means that I want to make everything as good as it can possibly be. I like to put my energy into turning something good into something great. So I like to push a group to achieve more than they set out to. But that means constantly ‘checking in’ to make sure they are comfortable with going the extra mile as sometimes the ‘just enough’ point is still a little distance from where I might, as a maximiser, be happy to take them.

It is important to be aware and continually adjust to evolving situations and group dynamics. It’s a continuous and fascinating process of evolution!

Read more…

I’m the Facilitator – How might you be affecting your facilitation work?
Me, my behavioural preferences and my facilitation practice – What are some common ‘learning edges’ – skills to strengthen – for facilitators and conveners? 

Nora Cantini – learning and development professional

Coming from the learning and development profession, I felt I knew myself quite well. I am not a particularly structured person; ideas tend to come to me as I go along, and in facilitation roles, I thrive more on the people interactions and less on the agenda details. But thanks to the exercises we went through in the ‘self’ and other modules, I realised that being more systematic and specific about defining ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ learning objectives actually increases my chances for greater outcomes. It also helps me align better with the leaders, sponsors and co-facilitators of the events I’m designing.

I’ve worked in both private and non-profit sectors and the working culture varies greatly. In the private sector, it’s all about quick results and people are often very task focussed, regardless of feelings and opinions. This can mean staff agreeing to an action plan publicly, but privately, they are not on board, to the detriment of motivation, and paradoxically, productivity. What I’ve learned is how to facilitate sessions that achieve results whilst building teamwork and buy-in, without losing time.

I look back on some of the rigid, formulaic meetings I have attended and see how I would run them completely differently now. The Academy sessions have equipped me with the tools, methods and skills to make meetings more interactive, varied and productive while catering for the diversity of preferences and personalities in the room. The quiet ones often have the best ideas – let’s make way for the hidden diamonds!