(photo credit: Marc-Olivier Jodoin, Unsplash)

Inspired by Oliver Burkeman’s Book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, I reflected over the New Year about how I had spent the last 12 months of my professional life. The concept of “4,000 weeks”, that make up (on average) an entire life,  provided a useful lens for envisioning this upcoming year, which was part of my objective for doing this particular piece of reflection.  The book made me think “time”; my foray into statistics for my PhD work made me think “numbers” instead of “narrative” for this reflection (plus I had the time tracking data).

This was another Covid year of almost entirely virtual work for independent organizational learning professionals, like me, who facilitate, train, write, and undertake MEL activities (monitoring, evaluation and learning).

Amongst the overwhelmingly virtual activities, were two exceptions of face-to-face (F2F) retreats held with local (to me) organizations in the months between Covid waves in Switzerland (September and early November). For both of these, my commute time was less than 15 minutes, one group was 8 people and the other was 20, and they were intact teams where they had complete control over logistics and could cancel, postpone, or flip into virtual format at a moment’s notice.

There were other events that were also planned to be F2F, but that took one of the other options instead of holding their events as planned in 3D. It goes without saying that all kinds of Covid protocols were put into place for those teams who did hold their workshops, but that is another blog post.

Here is what happened, with three qualifiers – 1) This represents the work that I did (and my colleague Lizzie will have a similar list); 2) this includes both paid and pro-bono work; and 3) where hours are given, they do not include preparation time (I estimate that later), only delivery. After these numbers I will include some observations.

  • In 2021, I completed 46 activities. An activity is a distinct project or workshop/event. Preparatory meetings don’t count. Many were spread over 2-5 days – however these still counted as one activity. Some five activities did not have a workshop/event attached, but were design, advisory, data collection (interviews) and/or writing. These latter five are considered “virtual activities”, but their time does not feature in the “facilitation delivery” hours accounting below.
  • Of the total: 44 activities were virtual and 2 were face-to-face.
  • A total of 269.5 hours were spent in “delivery” – facilitating or co-facilitating workshops, webinars, training courses and other events (this is “participant facing” time and does not include preparation).
  • Of the total delivery time, 242.5 hours were spent in facilitating or co-facilitating virtual workshops and 27 hours of the total were spent facilitating F2F workshops.
  • For the total virtual delivery, 219.5 hours were spent on Zoom, and 23 hours were spent on WebEx.
  • 13 virtual workshops used simultaneous interpretation (for 2 to 4 languages).
  • 77 days of this year (2021) featured the delivery of a workshop/event, and 7 of these days had two (e.g., one event in the morning and one in the afternoon).
  • These 46 activities were undertaken with 23 different organizations.
  • Total activities by sector: 8 with foundations; 16 with NGOs; 5 with government and United Nations (UN) collaboration; 3 with UN; 13 with standard-setting organizations; 1 with a university.
  • 6 activities were entirely or partially pro-bono.

How these delivery hours (workshops) were spread out over the year:

  • The top 3 months for delivery hours were: October (60 hours), November (46 hours), and May (39 hours).
  • The bottom 3 months for delivery hours were: January (0 hours), August (0 hours), and July (6 hours). These lower times were in part due to quieter times of the year and part due to my holidays 🙂
  • The monthly average over the 10 months with delivery activities was 26.9 hours of facilitation delivery.

My observations from this exercise and reflecting on the year:

1. The nature of my work has fundamentally changed. That is a lot of time to be sitting at my computer.

I used to do most of my work in F2F workshops where I was standing up all day in front of a group, and walking around a room, or zipping around a conference venue. I used to travel to and from workshops, local or on other continents through airports, around bus stations, through cities. I have absolutely had to integrate other physical activities into my days (hello online pilates and yoga, walking and cold/warm water swimming).

2. Virtual workshops for facilitators are incredibly intense from an attention and focus perspective, and you are almost entirely immobile for the duration of the event.

When you are facilitating workshops virtually you can not move around, you are on camera, you are deeply listening, you are looking ahead in the agenda for online tools you need to use, slides to share, music or timer to launch for the break, managing participants with low bandwidth, answering questions in private chat.

Large events may have a team to help with the “backstage” work, but that doesn’t reduce the intensity of work for the lead facilitator who is using the WhatsApp back channel for timekeeping or prompting team members, and the platform chat to keep speakers to time and signal changes to those speakers who are to come.

As a result, the facilitator can’t tune out to regroup, zip off to walk around, or decide to take a break. Even the scheduled breaks often have planning discussions or activities you are queuing up, or slides you are revising. You are lucky if you can grab a cup of tea in a 3-4 hour period.

3. The intensity of virtual workshops means they can be exhausting and can take more time to recover energy and focus than expected.

You think you are just spending 2 or 3 hours on Zoom, but the quality of focus needed means that you are not able to muster that kind of mental energy again in that day. As a result, it is not wise to have more than one virtual workshop per day. You can combine F2F with virtual workshops as there is more respite time built into F2F workshops (you can walk around the room as you talk, stand at the back of the room, look away, sit down.)

4. I am very competent at Zoom at this point, ask me anything.

Zoom seems to be winning the platform race. From my facilitator perspective it is by far the easiest and most flexible online workshop platform. Over these last two years, we have used many of them, and are increasingly seeing less diversity. If I can become competent so can others.

5. Virtual events can take much longer than expected to prepare.

Focusing on the number of delivery hours is deceiving. It does not reflect all the preparatory meetings to develop these activities, nor the email correspondence and any reporting (several projects had substantial reporting components).

This amounts to anything from a 3:1 to 10:1 ratio of preparation hours to delivery hours. Online workshops can easily take MORE time than F2F workshops to prepare if you are trying to do more than just hold a webinar with a few speakers that only need light briefing. A 6-hour strategic workshop spread over 2 afternoons for 250 people with simultaneous interpretation can easily take 50 hours to prepare the facilitation component, with interpretation testing, coordinating the delivery team, creating online tools and templates in languages (google forms, slides, etc.).

Another 9-hour symposium spread over three afternoons for 50 people took 72 hours to prepare the facilitation element, including 8 parallel sessions, a complex MURAL to capture outputs, numerous interactive elements, speaker videos, etc. It takes organizations some time to understand the complexity of facilitation preparation, for what seems like a very short workshop.

Based on this learning, I will…(connected to the above observations)

  1. Not skip my daily exercise and I will use my standing desk more (I got a varidesk desktop riser that lifts your computer and screen to standing position), I have a balance board (Simply Fit Board), and an under desk stepper.  I forget to use these or are too embarrassed. But I need to get over that. For workshops I can stand, for preparation meetings I can use these other movement tools periodically.
  2. Space my virtual workshops out so that they are not every day in a week. (I had a couple of weeks last year when I had a workshop every afternoon of the week.)
  3. I will certainly not schedule two workshops in one day.
  4. I will help some of the organizations I work with take over the Zoom technical elements and help them learn some of the tricks so that they can run their own events. I can help with design and providing ideas or “makeovers” to add more interactive elements or fun into agendas. But I don’t need to run all these workshops myself when they are relatively straightforward and when my role involves a lot of technical backstopping.
  5. Based on a further year of experience and data collection on the ratio of preparation to delivery hours for facilitation, I can be confident in my estimation of the time it takes to add a facilitation component to an online meeting. We still had many workshops where our estimation for preparation was significantly under what it took to prepare and deliver. This should be a thing of the past in 2022.

Overall, 46 different activities was too many for me. I love my work and I am called to support organizations that are committed to positive change. And at the same time, I didn’t always build in enough respite time between these surprisingly intense activities to reenergise, to context shift, and to get away from my desk (for exercise, for enjoyment, for day dreaming, for music, for culture).

Granted this past year we still weren’t able to do all the things we used to do to take care of ourselves, our minds and bodies – travel to see this wonderful world, visit dear friends and family, attend weddings, celebrate anniversaries, go to concerts, festivals and theatre shows…

As facilitators, we love our work helping groups solve wicked problems, generate radical new ideas, support transformational change. Out of my 4,000 weeks I reflected on one year; fifty-two weeks; five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes….there is of course only one answer to the question:  How do you measure a year in a life?  Measure in love! Measure your life in love! (oh gosh, I miss going to musicals!)

Fellow facilitators, how did you spend your year, and what will you do differently in 2022?


No-Fly Workshops are becoming increasingly popular as people become more sensitive to carbon emissions from air travel, respond to budget freezes or higher scrutiny of trips and travel, and try to profit from the time savings afforded by avoiding long flights or trips to meetings.

We know that face-to-face (F2F) meetings are good for social capital and relationship building, and can be important for achieving soft outcomes from group identity creation to shared ownership of a great collective result. But after relationships have been built, what are the options for teams or partnerships that have work to do, but also want to benefit from all these environmental, economic and personal productivity savings?

I recently had the great pleasure to work with a tri-continental team on a strategic consultation exercise during which: a) The whole team needed to share an understanding of future organizational objectives; b) Team members in different constellations needed to work together to generate key inputs; and c) These inputs needed to be shared with the whole group for further validation and value-adding discussion so that the process could go forward to the next step with everyone’s support.

This workshop would have taken a day or more to accomplish the stated goals. To execute in F2F format, it would also have produced over 20.5 tonnes of carbon from the air travel it would have needed to convene the team in one place, not to mention cost many thousands of USD in travel costs, and implied days of travel time for team members in other parts of the world – in this case, Europe and Latin America. We had bigger groups in two of the organization’s offices, and a few individuals joining from other locations.

In the end, the following virtual format was used:

  1. Four, 2-hour online workshops were held starting from 09:00 EST/14:00 GMT/15:00 CET and ending at 11:00 EST/16:00 GMT/17:00 CET. These were scheduled over an 8-day period, with gaps of a few days in between the first three calls (which helped with collecting feedback from those participating and tweaking the meeting process).
  2. Go-to-Meeting was the platform that we used for plenary discussions. MSTeams was used for small group work. The largest group always stayed in the Go-to-Meeting space, keeping that open for the duration of the workshop.
  3. A Google doc was designed to help small groups capture the outputs of the breakout discussions for each of the days (each day had a different theme), with one tab for each breakout group (labelled with the group name) created for each day. The questions to be answered through the group work on the different sheets were the same for each group in this case, although the groups could modify the questions and the framework for responding.
  4. A Word doc was sent to all participants in advance of each of the online workshops with the link to the Google doc for that session, a reminder of the Group topics, and the list of members for each group. Instructions as to whether the group would move to another room, or stay in the main room were included.

The first of the 2-hour sessions was somewhat of a pilot. We spent that session entirely in plenary using a Mindmeister mind map to capture the outputs of the plenary discussion. However, we quickly understood that we needed some further discussion on the overall framework and rationale for the exercise, so some time was devoted to a presentation during the next scheduled staff meeting. This happened to fall between Workshop 1 and 2, and had a more traditional online presentation format with a Q&A afterwards.  After that, as we were 14 people and wanted to have as much time as possible for individual contributions, we decided that small group work would be more effecient at least for part of each workshop. Therefore, for calls 2, 3 and 4, we used the following design:

  • Plenary opening (in the Go-to-Meeting space):  Welcome and reminder of the purpose of the 2-hour session, overview of the group composition and topic areas for this day, instructions for the group work, and the time to reconvene in the Go-to-Meeting space. (10 min)
  • Small group work: The largest group stayed in the main virtual meeting space. Some other people physically moved rooms if they were with one of the two larger groups in one of the offices.    Those people not in the larger group muted their microphones and turned off their cameras in Go-to-Meeting, and went onto the other platform for their small group calls (MSTeams in this case, but this could also be Skype or another). All the groups connected to the one google doc, and used their appropriate group tab to discuss and answer questions and capture notes. Each group designated a facilitator, as well as a rapporteur who would capture the discussion on the Google doc. In the bigger group, the external facilitator (in this case, me) stayed with that group and supported facilitation as needed and helped keep track of time. Some groups found that people had already included some ideas on their Google doc – this was because the Word document with the links had been sent in advance, and those who could have contributed to more than one thematic discussion encouraged to add some of their ideas in advance, with their initials.   (45-50 min)
  • Plenary exchange: After the parallel work, the groups reconvened in the Go-to-Meeting space to share the results of their discussions. For this plenary discussion, we used the “record” option for Go-to-Meeting, so that the discussion could be referred back to later. For the plenary exchange, we each clicked on the appropriate tab of the google doc to follow along as one team member shared their discussion. After each report, we took questions and comments, and added any additional thoughts to the template. As the plenary group was large, people also had the option to add comments and ideas to the google doc individually and noted their initials, so that we could get back to them if there were questions about what they added. This way it was not necessary for everyone to share in plenary – some could, and others could add their ideas in writing directly onto the Google doc.  (55 min)
  • Closing and Next steps: We had a little time at the end to take some closing comments from the host, and to talk about the objectives of the next call/the next steps in the process. We noted that the Google docs for each of the workshops were live and that people could also add ideas afterwards, again including their initials. (5 min)

This process got smoother and smoother, as people got used to the technology. We also tried a few different ways of recording the results of the small group discussions. Initially we let groups that went “off piste”  record the notes of the discussion outside the templates. But we eventually decided that it was better for people to use the templates, and answer the questions (bearing in mind that they could tweak the questions) for more task precision. We definitely saw the benefit of using this format a number of times over a few days – practice helped!

From the Facilitator’s perspective, I took some notes for myself that I wanted to share – I will want to use these the next time I facilitate a No-Fly workshop:

Before: Design
  • Design needs to be taken seriously by both the Facilitator and the hosting organization. It is tempting to think that this is like the conference calls of yore, when you just ask a question and (some) people talk. You will go miles further with a more complex design, a good discussion capture tool, and the technology and groupings decisions made in advance, written down and shared with all participating. Make an agenda just like you would with a F2F workshop, with timing to keep you on track.
  • Two hours is really the longest you can keep people’s attention online, and moving into groups keeps people engaged for that period. If you stayed in plenary the whole time you would need a break in the middle, and even with the break, two-hours in plenary would still be taxing, and guarantee a bit of attention drift for even the most committed participants.
  • All the discussion supports need to be made in advance, the Google doc, the instructions sheet (with links and groupings). This can be sent to people in advance so they can review them and have them handy.
  • Don’t make the templates too complex, and include the group work instructions at the top so that once people are separated from you in their small groups they won’t spend a lot of time trying to remember what it was they were supposed to be doing.
  • Build in extra time for some initial technical difficulties. As you will normally be using the platform that the team uses, someone from the team will likely be the adminstrator/convener of the session.  Know who your technical support person is – that is the person in the team who always knows how the technology works (in my experience, there is one in every team and probably one of the younger team members!)
During the Workshop
  • Remember that as the facilitator, your video camera will be on the whole time. People will be looking at you the whole time (in the breakouts you will stay with the big group, camera on, with your smiling face!) So think about that. Movements that you will make will be distracting, every turn of your head will be noticed, your facial expressions, your yawn, and everything else. If you are a fidgiter, you might want a stress ball nearby, as well as your water glass, your notes, your phone (on silent), your watch (also on silent), etc. all in your immediate reach so that your head is not bobbing in and out of the camera frame as discussions ensue.
  • As the facilitator in a virtual workshop, it becomes pretty obvious when you are doing something else. You can’t stand at the back of the room and take a break while people are watching the speaker. And to make matters worse (or more obvious), if you have glasses, the reflection in your glasses will show what is on your computer screen (this is the same for individual participants in front of their computers too). You are there to pay attention, support the group and deeply listen (if you are not trouble shooting or taking notes, or trying to find a participant, etc.)  – two hours is a long time!
  • Look behind you. I wrote a whole blog post about this: Look Behind You – it’s funny that I wrote this post 10 years ago, so the technology we were using is long gone, but the tips on how to manage your environment for an online workshop still apply.
  • Check your own  technology. I used a wired headset, as over a couple of hours (and as the facilitator I connected 30 minutes before the 2-hour call, so my online time was longer), my earpods can run out of battery if I’m not careful.  Also, if I have an option, I don’t rely on wifi for my connection, and have a wired cable, just to avoid any ups and downs in the wifi. You need to judge the reliability of your work environment.
  • Create your “cockpit”: I facilitated all of these workshops standing, using my standing desk. On this I have a large additional screen on which I displayed the Google doc and instructions. Beside this was my laptop with my webcam, as well as showing the webcams of all the other participants. I needed to be looking most of the time at my webcam, and still following the other documents, so they had to be in my line of sight. The workshop agenda I had in hardcopy and it was there that I took my facilitation notes by hand during the call. I had my phone on a stand-up charger just by my laptop so I could also see the skype chat (and WhatsApp). My “cockpit” had three screens of differing sizes and all my documents open or at hand.
  • Set up a communication means with the organizer. I used Skype to call and chat with my counterpart, but on reflection, during the workshop it would have been handy to have two WhatsApp groups available – one with the whole group to remind them about timing (e.g. when to come back from breakouts) and to see where people were (if someone didn’t come back, you could message them), and one WhatsApp with the main organizer so that you could ask bilateral questions, or check things as people were talking.
  • Remind people while they are speaking to speak slowly, and to pause from time to time. Similar to your role as facilitator in F2F environments, you will be helping other people jump in, so it is important that people not talk for too long. There seems to be even more of a barrier to entry for people to jump into a conversation virtually and it is harder for them to make eye contact or use the body language that they might employ in an in-person workshop to signal to the speaker that they want to get into the discussion. You will spend more time helping people contribute in this virtual environment.
  • All of the issues that would emerge in a F2F workshop will also emerge here and potentially affect people’s willingness to contribute. Whether it is trust, transparency, confidence, hierarchy – everything you as the facilitator may be keeping an eye on in an in-person workshop, you will need to keep an eye on in a virtual environment as well. Having methodologies that allow people to contribute without always speaking in plenary  – for example, using the google doc, allowing people to contribute asynchonously before and after, or even during the workshop,  in writing, etc. all these can help to manage some of these very human dimensions of collaborative work.
After: Feedback
  • It is incredibly useful after each of the workshops to have a debriefing call with the organizer to talk through what worked and what could be different next time. That helps continually modify the agenda.
  • It is also important to let all the participants know that they can send through observations on the process and suggestions, to you bilaterally, or to the organizers. Again this helps with adjusting the process.
  • I also used 10 minutes at the end of one of the early calls for people to write in their thoughts about “What worked” and “What could be different next time” on the side of the Google doc. In real time I wrote those two headings and asked people to take a moment to provide some quick feedback in real time. It just took a couple of minutes and everyone who had a reflection could contribute it without noting their name.

No-Fly Workshops have been around for a while, and they are certainly not going away. More and more people are considering this option for getting work done within distributed teams and networks, to cut carbon, costs and time. As technology advances, and our organizations invest in better platforms, so too do our motivations to learn how to use them more effeciently to get our collaborative work done.  Similar to sharing facilitation and design tips, as Facilitators, let’s try to share more and more of our “how to’s ” for these No-Fly workshops, as without all that flying around, we should have more time to do so!

The day before our recent 130 person, 3-day multi-stakeholder workshop, we were excited to learn that not one, but three VIPs would attend our opening session – two ambassadors and a minister! This was great news in terms of national visibility for the event, demonstrated buy-in on our topic, and support for follow-up on the outcomes. In addition to these benefits, such situations also give organizers and facilitators the opportunity to pull out their VIP checklists. What’s on yours?

Here’s what was on mine: Press, Protocol, People and Programming.


With VIPs come Press, cameras, lighting, cables, microphones and all the people holding them – which interestingly don’t have the same feature of transparency that they hope their news promotes. Is there a dedicated place for Press so they aren’t blocking everything?  Can you leave a front table free and reserved for “Press”? Or can you make plans for one of those many cameras to be projecting your VIP speaker on a screen so that the people in the audience can see the speaker and not just hear her?

In addition to potentially significantly restricting views, Press will also come and go at will. Think about their movements. Is there a side entrance they can use? A safe place for their gear? Can you brief them in advance as to where they should stand and set up?

With VIPs come Press, that’s a fact of life, and as a facilitator you can acknowledge them and ask your group to pause for a moment if need be to let them set up and do their work, so their movement isn’t disrupting you, the previous speaker(s) and activities, or absolutely everything.


Involving VIPs comes with other implications – in particular protocol about speaking order, which is one way unknowing hosts and facilitators can accidentally put their foot in it. This can be different country-by-country and even sector-by-sector. If you have an international set of VIP speakers, you might run into this confusing mix of protocols. However, go with where you are – most will defer to the host country in case there is any discrepancy in norms between who goes first and who goes last, for example. In some countries, the most important ranking official goes first, and in other countries, this person always has the last word. Don’t make any assumptions here, get advice!

Not only speaking order, but official titles can also be sensitive. Whether it is the honorific, or the longest possible form of the Ministry or High Commission’s official name, you need to get this just right both in the programme and orally when introducing them. Name cards or “Table tents” for the speakers can be very helpful in this case. If you don’t have them and if you are not local, or have less than 200% confidence that you have exactly the right information, invite the local host to introduce them, to make sure that everything that needs to be said about them is said in their speaker introductions, following the right order. This is protocol, respect and also – oh, yes, remember the Press? – this is all being recorded for posterity.

Almost always, the VIPs will want to see the speaking list BEFORE they come, which is good, because correcting a speaking order or an official title has caused many a hurried agenda reprint in the past, and you don’t want this to hold up things or take up all your time (especially in hotels where printing big numbers can be a major roadblock).

VIPs’ packed schedules also can mean uncertain arrivals, with minute-by-minute SMS updates from aides about traffic and ETAs, necessitating one dedicated point of contact on your team standing by, phone in hand. Even before your VIP arrives, there is the need to communicate and check all these important elements with necessary briefings which also must fit into the VIP’s crowded timetable and thus might literally happen outside your workshop door while participants await your guest(s). And there can be LOTS of people waiting for them…


Legions of followers are another feature of welcoming VIPs, swelling your ranks for the opening session and providing big numbers for room size and catering (and the group photo if you take it quickly enough!) But these people normally disappear at the coffee break, leaving many half-empty tables and seats, and your room feeling a bit barren. You want to welcome them, and at the same time, keep your core participants together. Can you have a couple of rows of empty chairs at the side, back or front, to seat these guests and then remove them at the break? This is often not 5 or 10 chairs which you could easily stack in the corner by yourself during coffee, but can be more like 30 or 50, so alert the hotel conference staff in advance about this to get help. Remember to bring these chairs back in for your closing, particularly if there is a high-level element, as there often is when you start with one.

The organizers might also offer an opportunity in the registration process for people to indicate if they are coming only to the opening/closing, or staying the whole time, so that you can adjust your participant count numbers accordingly – not printing too many worksheets, or job aids, and adjusting catering for the rest of the workshop. Sometimes the numbers of this category of participant, coming to support and hear from the VIPs, is surprisingly large and can make a big difference to, and impact on, different aspects of your workshop.


Taken together, this means that your programme and facilitation design needs to be highly flexible, not too tight and rigid. You can still have your timing planned out and a logical sequence. But you need a firm Plan B, particularly for delays (from short to really long) or even last-minute changes or no shows.  Do you have some blank name plates and an appropriate black marker that you can use to quickly write in a new name? Do you have an activity that can be done with the group while they wait? For example, can you “officially” schedule table introductions for just after the high-level opening, and then move them up if your VIPs are VLPs (Very Late People). Can you have a discussion/ reflection question ready? One that can develop into a rich conversation or be cut off quickly and picked up later when the door swings opens and the security and aides walk in, to a hail of flash bulbs, preceding your much-anticipated speakers?

VIP participants can influence your workshop, meeting or conference in many useful and distinctive ways, don’t let them also be unexpected!

I just finished From Ideas to Action: Bring ideas to life through Ideation and Prototyping – my first of two courses with IDEO U for the IDEO Foundations in Design Thinking Certificate.

The final project for this online course, run over 5 weeks with hundreds of participants from all over the world, was to create a pitch for a product or process that you had worked on through the Design Thinking steps of ideation, rapid prototyping, and iteration – and to reflect on your learning.

We use elements of Design Thinking (DT) in our Bright Green Learning work regularly, from different visual brainstorming techniques (lots of cards and post-its), to prototyping ideas through approaches such as the  LEGO Serious Play method (see my blog post What’s in a Brick? Using LEGO® for Serious Stuff“) and drawing/storyboarding, so I was eager to follow the IDEO Design Thinking courses to get additional ideas and tools, and a vision of their whole DT process.

I found the course to be excellent, video- and assignment-based, with ample feedback from other participants (built into the course requirements). I did get some useful new tools and a better understanding of the elements of each step. And some of the most profound insights came by observing and reflecting on myself in my role as a facilitator in these human-centred processes.

One big aha was to step out of my own way!

What I noticed? For the most innovative ideas to be generated, I needed to pay attention to some very subtle constraints that I might be putting on the process myself!  This is not the grumbly participant who doesn’t want to draw, the person on their phone all the time, or the person who already has the best idea and is completely certain of that. No, these constraints take the form of unecessary parameters that I build into the process that are based on my own mental model of how things should roll out to get results. These very subtle decisions that I am making as a facilitator and process leader might be inhibiting those participating, limiting the number of ideas and the innovation that emerges. Whew, that’s tough to accept!

Here are 4 obervations I had about self-imposed constraints in the Ideation process (generating initial ideas):

Unecessary Limit 1: The “right” ideas

In “brainstorming” sessions in the past I have not actively encouraged wild ideas from participants, but only realistic ideas, or at least I didn’t proactively encourage people to think of things that were really out there. In my testing of different ideation techniques, including some that I already use, I saw that wild ideas can spark others to have ideas that are a stretch, and that usefully fill the gap between boring and too far out. Now I will give people permission and encourage them to try to throw out some crazy ideas. There is always a prioritisation step next that will see the idea “everyone wears panda onsies” move down on the list (maybe, or who knows, maybe not!)

Unecessary Limit 2: Stopping short of great

I saw in my ideation testing that there are cycles to ideas generation. The first cycle squeezes out all the easy ideas, a veritable flurry of things that are already on the tops of people’s minds. The second cycle gets the crazy ideas. And then if you can pause long enough, even when people seem a little bored (when I as the facilitator would notice this, get nervous, and say, “OK, done, let’s move on”), with some prompting, you can get some really great, further honed and synthesized ideas. It was my observation that in each cycle you get less ideas in number, but the quality/innovation increases.

Unecessary Limit 3: Who’s invited

The third observation was around who you ideate with. For my product (unlike my normal professional work), I worked with a mixed demographic – that is, older and younger people (even very young people) from 8 to 55 years old. Of course your group depends on your ultimate product/process users, but how can you expand this past the usual suspects? I should not have been amazed at how creative the responses of the younger people were. They were not usually the final answers, but they certainly informed them and they expanded the continuum of possibility and fun factor considerably. (If you can’t have younger people in the room, then perhaps using the “Putting yourself in other people’s shoes” ideation method could help people tap into their inner teenager!)

Unecessary Limit 4: One thing at a time

Finally, the last observation is a very small thing, but could potentially have considerable impact on what is produced during an ideation session. Normally I would ask people to stop writing and listen while others are presenting their ideas, making a clear distinction between these two steps of generating and sharing. I might have enforced this with a look or a mention (very teacherly of me!) In these tests, I did not say that; in fact, I said that if someone’s idea gave them a new idea, they should quickly note it down before it was forgotten.  I noticed that people listened differently to report-backs of their peers’ ideas, and that these ideas in turn sparked further new ideas in the listeners. Allowing people to continue to write and think during the report backs, in addition to listening, produced some additional great ideas to work with.

My take away: Make sure you, as the facilitator, are not creating rules that subtly inhibit your ideation process! Ah, even after so many years of practice, the learning never stops…

One of the hardest things about using LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® method (LSP) is just getting people to try it!

Imagine walking into the workshop room and sitting down at  your spot to see, with your water glass, pen and paper, a small mixed bag of 48 LEGO® bricks – a LEGO® Exploration Kit. What’s running through your mind?

You might fall into two categories of people, the first one who says “Cool! Let’s play! No PPT – finally, not your ordinary workshop!” or the other one who says, “What? This is serious business, and time is scarce. Skip this silly stuff and let’s get to work!”

But before you even get into the room, there is a whole discussion that needs to happen with the workshop host in advance, where the Facilitator might get one or the other of those reactions after proposing LSP. During this conversation the Facilitator will need to explain the benefits, and give a little of its background…

Whose idea was it?

In the late 90’s, confronted by the tidal wave of video games that were taking kids away from their bricks, it was LEGO® itself who founded the LSP process, with a couple of IMD business school professors, to help the company think creatively and re-imagine itself.

The method worked, beautifully. Today LSP has a growing community of certified LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® method facilitators connected together in an Association of Master Trainers, of which I am proud to be one!

Who’s using LSP and why?

I would say that LSP is becoming fairly well known in the private sector, many of the facilitators I met at the recent LSP community meeting in Billund, Denmark – the home of LEGO – worked with businesses, but not all. It seems to be just beginning in the NGO and inter-governmental/United Nations world, where I find myself working most. I’ve run LSP processes now with a number of first-time user groups, here are three illustrative examples of the organizations and what they wanted to achieve:

  • a large international conservation NGO’s resctructured leadership team was undertaking a visioning process, and wanted to understand the features of a successful team in the future structure;
  • a global reproductive health supplies team wanted to identify organizational priorities and explore efficiency and effectiveness in delivery;
  • a small sustainability Think Tank wanted to focus on building excellent internal and external communications, and identify capacity and skills needed to do this.

The applications of LSP are vast, from strategic planning, design thinking, product development and marketing, rapid prototyping ideas, work process re-engineering, prioritization, as well as softer goals such as identifying what makes a good team member, how to build trust, and how to resolve conflict.

How can you do THAT with LEGO®? Thinking with your hands

The basic LSP process involves four steps:

  1. Asking a question
  2. Building a model (with the bricks)
  3. Sharing and explaining your model
  4. Reflecting on meaning

This four-step process happens over and over in an LSP session, with various other rules and parameters sometimes added. The process provides the builder the opportunity to think about her/his answer to the question (and the questions can be incredibly complex or blissfully simple), and then to use their hands and the bricks to build a metaphor that illustrates their answer (not a literal answer, but a metaphorical answer). Often people build as they think, they re-build, they explore their answer as they think and layer meaning onto the bricks. This process, of turning thoughts that might have started out rather vague, into 3D objects, helps people become more concrete about their thinking.

This nuanced work would be hard with a pile of only the traditional rectangular and square bricks, so the LSP brick sets are full of metaphorical pieces in addition to these – flags, mini figures, animals, flowers, propellers, etc. – to release the creativity of the builder. You still have to get familiar again with how things snap together, and even working with metaphor, so a skills building component is always included in an LSP session.

A number of Core LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® application techniques have been developed by the Association of Master Trainers. These are illustrative of some of the most commonly used and thus most documented applications, and build on one another:

  1. Building individual models and stories
  2. Building shared models and stories
  3. Creating a landscape
  4. Making connections
  5. Building a system
  6. Playing emergence and decisions
  7. Extracting simple guiding principles

These generic techniques can be applied widely to different team and organizational goals, and are customised through the framing and question that is asked (What are our blind spots? What will our organization look like in 5 years? What does a perfect co-worker look like?), and normally involves some sequencing, where models are built and deconstructed (also a good lesson in letting multiple ideas come and go) with a strategic set of relevant, thoughtfully framed questions.

What changes in the individual? 

There is some nice research underway exploring the value of LSP in working settings, and the changes that can occur in the individuals and teams participating. Some that we heard about and discussed at the LSP Community Meeting included:

  • helping people enter a more reflective and thoughtful state, rather than getting off-the-cuff answers that might be the first ideas that pop into your head, thus the easiest ones, and perhaps not the most creative ones;
  • helping people appreciate other perspectives – building the different models individually and sharing them helps people see what other people see (literally);
  • helping people explore sensitive issues – building a model and using the model as a metaphor, even holding it or pointing to it as one speaks, helps to externalise the issue from the builder, making it easier to explain and less risky. The thinking has already been done, so people are not trying to think and talk at the same time;
  • helping people develop more creative confidence – to feel more confident being creative in the workplace, especially in a rapidly changing environment where innovation is needed, both at the organizational level, as well as in terms of products and services.



It definitely takes courage to try something new, but I can report that all the groups that I’ve worked with using LSP have loved it, for the uniqueness of the process, the fun and engagement it provides, and ultimately for the deeper insights and creative results it produces.


As trainers and facilitators, we need not necessarily be confined to working in our native languages. We have probably all had experiences working with translators (who translate the written word) for materials and interpreters (who translate the spoken word) in meetings using both simultaneous and sequential interpretation. But normally these opportunities are confined to more formal presentations and settings, where people are sitting down with headsets bolted to tables or connected to a little fiddly box, and often to shorter timeframes.

What if you wanted to play a game, run a quiz, or get people on their feet for an interactive exercise, in Russian, Arabic or Japanese? (these are languages that at least I do not even notionally speak)

With our Japanese partner, Change Agent Inc., and a fantastic, local bilingual Co-Facilitator, I had the great pleasure recently to lead three days of Bright Green Learning Academy workshops in Tokyo with an impressive group of 30 Japanese Facilitators and Trainers. Our training courses are highly interactive and experiential, and it was a training about facilitation and working across cultures.  It was fascinating to plan how to run the workshops very effectively in a language that the lead trainer (me) didn’t speak at all. It worked remarkably well due to a number of actions taken in advance and during the workshops. Bear in mind that to do this well, it takes a lot of extra work, but if your goal is real learning exchange, then it’s worth it.

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

To make this work, preparation is absolutely key. You cannot simply show up, speak your language, and let the interpreters do all the work, using your English slides, flipcharts, and materials. Everything needs to be translated in advance, including:

  1. Participant Materials – This is obvious – everything the participants get needs to be translated into their language.
  2. Facilitation Materials – If your co-facilitator speaks your language, you might not need to translate all the facilitation materials. But you will want to go through your Facilitation Agenda in great detail with your co-Facilitator to make sure he/she completely understands the content and process, as they will then be able to answer questions without asking you.
  3. Job Aids – All the handouts, group work sheets, quizzes, etc. will all need to be translated. It is helpful if you number your English versions, and then have the same numbers and layout (as much as possible) for the translated versions, so that you can hand them out while giving instructions, and are certain that they are the same documents.
  4. Flipcharts: Instructional and Templates – In advance (like months in advance), I sent through photographs of all the flipcharts, both those that had group work instructions, and those that small groups use to fill in to guide their group work and record their answers. See below for an example. I thankfully had photos of all of our flipcharts from other English delivery of the courses, so could send those along for translation and creation in Japan.  When I got to Japan all the flipcharts had been made beautifully, and were recognizable as they were exactly the same as the English versions in look. When I had to refer to them, such as the schedule, either we put a few words of English on the Japanese version (as below), or I put an English version of the flipchart below the Japanese to orient myself. When I introduced it, though, I used the Japanese and just kept an eye on the English to make sure I was in the right spot!

Note that it takes longer than you think to translate all these materials well, and format them nicely (and in some cases print them). All these materials need to be sent weeks and months in advance if possible. It is also important to have a professional translators, which Change Agent had, so that the translations were done particularly well, something always appreciated by participants.

Delivery with Interpretation

With all your materials translated, and with a mirror English set in your hands, you are ready to start working with the interpreters. On the day prior to the workshop, it is useful to set up a meeting with the interpretation team so that they have a chance to ask you questions.  The excellent Japanese interpreters I worked with had been provided with both the English and Japanese translation of the materials and had carefully gone through it highlighting concepts, acronyms, phrases that they needed some further information about. This meeting took us about an hour, and also included their tips for me on how to work successfully with them.

In our case, as we were a relatively small group, in a small room, I was the only person with a headset. When I spoke, the interpreters would consecutively translate into Japanese. So I needed to speak slowly and chunk up my inputs so that they could follow. When a Japanese participant spoke, or my co-facilitator, the interpreters would simultaneously translate into my ear. So for the participants, when they were interacting with each other and with me this was seamless, and almost immediately I could understand what they were saying. In order to do this, the interpreters would move around the room to be close to the speaker and use a small whisper mic into which they would simultaneously interpret into English what was being said. They used a clipboard to cover their mouths when they spoke into their small hand held microphone (about the size of an iPhone) and could do it so quietly that no one noticed or heard them speaking, except me through my ear piece! This meant that when I spoke, it doubled the time needed, but when participants were speaking, there was no additional time needed in the agenda. That was an incentive for me to keep my inputs concise, and pacing felt more natural.

With a highly interactive agenda, including lots of movement and format changes (we were delivering facilitation training so walking the talk) this worked well, as participants did not need to speak into microphones, nor wear headsets. I also did not need a microphone, as long as the interpreters could hear me clearly. They did use a microphone themselves when they were consecutively translating my words, so that they could be heard easily by all the participants in the room.

A couple of tips from the notes that I made during our workshop:

  • Wear something with pockets as you still need to put the little control box for the headset somewhere (that lets you turn up the volume, and turn it on and off to save battery – check the battery!)
  • Meet up with interpreters in advance, not only to allow them to ask questions, but also so they can get used to your voice and speech patterns.
  • Keep eye contact with the interpreters during your session. They will give you signals when you need to slow down or explain things further, or if they need a little more time to translate what you said.
  • Check in with them regarding their hours, break times, and things they may or may not do. (Not in this case, but once I had interpreters tell me a little late that they would not translate videos, thus making our small group video report back exercise rather challenging.)
  • Also see if there is anything that drives them crazy – when I work  in French and English, two languages that I speak, I have had interpreters ask that I only speak one language and not mix them mid-sentence, which can be tempting to do. In some cases, there are two interpreters, one who translates into one language and one who translates into another. So when they see me take the microphone or stand up, that would be a visual signal and they would know what language I would be using and the related interpreter would be ready. This doesn’t work if you keep switching languages! This is not always the case, but a conversation with your interpreters in advance will uncover any of these things.

All in all, it is amazing to be able to work effectively in many different languages, even if you don’t speak them. Taking particular care of the preparation and delivery with translation and interpreters can help you make sure that you achieve your goals, your participants achieve their goals, and that your words and materials are not irretrievably lost in translation!

Great events get attention, achieve results, and create momentum towards your goals. We all want great meetings, workshops and conferences. Having a list of VIPs who are attending your event helps demonstrate the importance of the topic and the work you are doing. As a result, organizers can focus a lot of energy into woo-ing the head of this or that. At some level that makes sense, as these people have positions of influence, they command large budgets and staff. They also attend other high-level meetings where, when they speak, their interventions are recorded into the official minutes of the meeting, and potentially help influence others who command large budgets and staff to act and support your effort from their lofty level of the hierarchy as well. Great!

However, the expectation and current paradigm is that the VIP participant always gets the prime real estate, that is, they will open the Conference and speak, potentially at some undetermined length, in plenary. This can sometimes pose a problem as you squeeze in more and more VIPs who want to attend.  There are only so many hours in the workshop day, and if you fill all the hours with official speakers making pre-prepared speeches from podiums on stages, you will run out of working time, quickly start to lose your eager audience and potentially jeopardize the impact of your event. You definitely don’t want to risk losing the buzz and energy and results that were promised when the VIP originally agreed to attend, and that they would talk about later.

Maybe I am being a little melodramatic here. Yet, it bears taking some time in the design stage to think about what you can offer your VIP participants that is an alternative to several hours of speeches at the onset of your exciting meeting. What are some other options?

  • If no plenary is a deal-breaker what about the Closing Plenary? Sharing what’s next and why this was an important meeting? Especially if that person might be from a country that is hosting another event further along the process.
  • There is always an Opening Reception, what about giving a short (but pithy) speech as the first toast? (Co-) Hosting is an honour you can bestow.
  • There might be a Welcome Dinner or Closing Dinner, another opportunity to make a speech. Call them Gala Dinners, have a head table with reserved seating, and arrange to have your best table moderator or facilitator there to make their experience fascinating and focused on messaging about the event. The speeches can also be spread out during the meal: starters, main dish, dessert. They should be short (toast-length) and not in a long line of speakers.
  • Set up a green screen or other video area and invite your VIP to make a short video statement about your event, what she/he expects and what they will do afterwards to promote your goal. Put the videos online, and show them during the event, make a closing video compilation that features your VIP speakers sharing their excitement for your work.
  • Can there be a High-level Panel? Put your most competent moderator on the job to interview them and draw out their learning and experience in your field – and as an added bonus, they don’t even have to prepare their speech in advance! (but make sure this is a real panel discussion and not just a string of individual speeches followed by 10 minutes of Q&A with the audience – not a “Panel Discussion”) If they are a character, they can also be the Moderator chosen to host the panel.
  • Can VIPs sign an MOU with your Programme, with another partner, with each other in a Marketplace area, or at a special featured point in the programme? You can bring out the conference paparazzi, capture some great images for the website, feature and applaud their initiative.
  • Are you offering any Awards? Can they present the Awards and prizes? Along with the media and photo opp, they can share some of their thoughts about the conference, competition and the winner and about their country/programme/initiative.
  • You can also feature some separate events for them and the other VIPs – a High-Level Reception (with a few speeches), a High-Level Lunch with their peers to share their own challenges and opportunities they are finding in relation to the work you are featuring at the conference. This is a perfect opportunity for them to share their learning, identify opportunities to support your work and share that thinking with their high-level peers, etc.

Don’t let these golden opportunities slip past, they are excellent opportunities to get glittering testimonials, quotable quotes, wise tips from your champions on how others can become champions too, etc. In fact it is easier to get these more valuable nuggets of wisdom from your VIPs in any of the above alternative contexts than in a Plenary opening speech, which is bound to be written in advance (potentially by someone else), read from a script, and riddled with protocol and acknowledgements and thank you’s. Something about them got them to their VIP status, and if they are with you at your event, they are there to apply their magic to help you achieve your goals. Consider giving them some other options than that 10 minutes, in a long list of speeches at the very formal and often rather dry onset of your event.




We just completed our Bright Green Learning Academy training course on “Using Interactive, Experiential Learning Games in Meetings to Communicate Messages (and have fun!)”  and part of our course includes selecting, adapting or making a new game and running it for the group – going through the stages of game administration:

  • Preparation (parameters, people, space, materials, set up, practice and testing)
  • Framing (why are we playing this game?)
  • Briefing (instructions, objectives, “rules”, safety)
  • Play (observation of dynamics, “rules” enforcement, role of participant observer, etc.)
  • Debriefing (what’s the point? Good questions to connect game experience to reality and action, discussion to co-create meaning. )
  • Deconstructing (break down)

It was wonderful to see the participants take on new games, work them up and then deliver them for the first time in the course. We know there is the Power of 10 when it comes to creating and mastering games (e.g. you need to play a game 10 times before it is bullet-proof, tweaking all the way), so there was a good opportunity during the games demonstration to generate tips for game administrators. Here are a few that I came up with:

  1. Watch safety considerations, particularly in games where people are moving around (safety includes both watching chairs and cables and other obstacles in the room if you are inside, curb and pedestrians if outside, but also the physical abilities of participants. For the latter, create roles for people who might prefer to be participant observers – what should they watch out for to report back in the debriefing?)
  2. Write down the “Rules” or instructions if they are at all complicated. If there are only 2 rules or no rules, then don’t bother (you can repeat them as needed), but if there are a number of rules or parameters to your game, put them on a flip chart and keep that in the room. If you are using this game for the first time, or times, this will also keep you tight and to the point in your briefing.
  3. Master the space when giving instructions and briefing – this is more of a feeling of confidence that game administrators need to give (remember participants have never played this game and in some cases might have some anxiety about what will happen and what to do). This includes using an instructive tone (think manager talking to construction crew),  accuracy and word choice, clarity of speech. Go for crisp and clear instructions so that there is no doubt about how to start, which can inhibit the early stages of the game. If instructions about how to play are a little woolly it can allow for widely different interpretations of the instructions.  It is important to remember that, in some games, just ONE word out-of-place can affect the whole outcome of the game.
  4. Practice until you get your instructions to the point where you don’t get blank looks and that ONE word doesn’t creep in.
  5. Watch your framing. If you are playing in discovery mode (that is, where people don’t know what to do to “win” the game, but are playing it for the first time), you might not want to give too much framing except to say that the game will help us experience something important that we are or will be discussing. If you are playing in confirmation mode (where people do know the right behaviour and are practicing that), then you can be more explicit with the framing.
  6. Don’t let participants analyse too much the game at the onset – there is a temptation for the game administrator to ask for questions after the briefing. In some cases this will open the floodgates of questions, analysis of this and that, exploration of options, check this and that, and before you know it the timing is up and you haven’t played. If there is a technical question that is fine, but encourage participants to start and try more or less right away after your good, clear and concise briefing, as most of the time this is where the learning will happen. It’s better if they experience the dynamics of the game, rather than discussing it forever first.
  7. Let the participants contribute to the debriefing. As eager as you may be to share the “punch line” for the game, use a good questioning sequence to let participants identify what happened, why, how it manifests in real life, and what to do about it.  You can perhaps repeat and reinforce the key points at the end, but don’t lead with that.

Games provide a wonderful moment for participants and teams to break out of the usual context of workshops or training, to use their brains, bodies and senses in different ways, and can be powerful learning experiences when they are administered in an equally powerful way!

(our next Games workshop in the Bright Green Learning Academy schedule is in autumn 2017, join us to learn more about using learning games meaningfully in your workshops and meetings!)


  • Breakout room 5 (the one on the other side of the building) is out of flip chart paper!
  • Where’s my Key Note Speaker?
  • Anyone seen the group work template for Table 3 (after 2 hours of hard work), it’s not in the stack?
  • The online location for saving the country screencasts has changed to…
  • Impromptu Facilitation Team meeting after the last session today!

The bigger the event, the bigger the venue, the bigger the facilitation team, the more coordination and communication is at the core of success. And the more running around (literally) you have to do as the Facilitator and the Facilitation Team to keep things together and progressing smoothly. That obligatory non-stop flurry of movement was the case, that is, until we all discovered this great workshop application for WhatsApp (or your other favorite smartphone group communication app).

At a recent large event, we had 11 Country Teams, with 11 Country Facilitators,  a number of technical content experts, and a Secretariat support team. I wrote a Facilitator’s Manual that included context, instructions, facilitation agenda, and session-by-session instructions/timing and tips for the Facilitators.We diligently held our essential briefing meeting on the day prior to our 3-day event to go through it.   We had several end-of-day debriefing sessions scheduled in advance. As the Facilitation Team Lead, I had done all I could to ensure that the Facilitation Team ran smoothly during this large event. But we all know, that stuff happens, things change, and there are externalities (Is the Deputy Minister coming?) that keep you perpetually on your feet.

A Few Simple Steps for Set Up

You might already have used WhatsApp at a workshop or large event, so you know how simple it is to set up. For this event we had two WhatsApp groups – one for just the Secretariat to talk amongst each other. The other was a larger group including the Secretariat, Facilitation Team, and the Technical Experts. This was a regional event with people from many countries and, we barely noticed, that everyone in our group had a smart phone, everyone already had the free WhatsApp app installed (quick to do for those who don’t), and the venue -a large hotel in a tropical country over 10,000 km from my office in Switzerland- had great wifi everywhere on the premises.

We put up a flip chart during our Facilitation Briefing Meeting asking for cell phone numbers  (you can also ask for numbers by email in advance). Then we set up a new WhatsApp Group with an obvious name (many people have multiple groups going on simultaneously – so give it an obvious name like “Facilitators/Tech Experts”). Voila – ready to go!

Communication Plus…

The expected use for a messaging app is obvious, to send messages before (“We start in 15 minutes, can you come to the room”) or during ( “Going forward, please make sure to use the podium for your presentations to ensure our colleagues seated at the back can see you better”) the event. And we had lots of this kind of chatter, with ideas contributed by everyone, that was helpful to make the event run smoothly.

So our first uses of WhatsApp were the ones you would expect:

  • 1. Instructions: Give instructions, information and remind people of things (as above).
  • 2. Questions: Provide a way for Facilitators and Experts to ask questions both in the plenary room (“How much longer do we have on this exercise?”), and when they are away with their groups (“Can someone bring me more flip chart paper in Room 5? Quickly!”) Tip:  You need to designate roles for first responders to these kinds of pleas. You don’t want people shouting in the virtual wind, or still having to send a runner back to the Secretariat office for supplies.

But the step change came in some different uses of WhatsApp…

  • 3. Capture and Archive Outputs on the Cloud

We always use some capture tool for group work. This can be a flip chart template, an A3 template, a Job Aid of some kind, a handout. Something that has the guiding questions, instructions and a place for the group to capture the results of its discussion. These artifacts are frequently collected for further analysis and use by the organizers, posted  on the walls so everyone can view them in a structured “Gallery Walk” or viewed individually later, or serve other uses. Sometimes the group needs to keep them (like their Action Plan) but the organizers would like them too. So we simply asked all the Facilitators to take a photo of their group’s completed template after each session and put them on WhatsApp. With phone cameras so high quality today, these photos were perfect for archiving on our thread.

Multiple benefits: The group could keep the physical artifact of its group work with them (or lose it, no problem – the Facilitator has a back up image that they can easily find on WhatsApp); there’s no need to run around the room or rooms and collect them; there’s no need to carry piles of paper back to the office after the event (or to your room at the end of the day); and the host organization and all the facilitators can see what other groups are producing without exhausting plenary report backs.  I also took photos of all the plenary work which was posted on pinboards and flip charts, and anything else that was created and might be useful in session or later on and posted that on WhatsApp. No need to worry about writing being too small for the Facilitators to see in the back. That’s in session, afterwards as the thread is on the cloud, when you get home anyone can refer back to, and use, anything produced.

Tip: You can ask Facilitators to label their photos clearly when they put them on WhatsApp, e.g.  “Country X Group Work Session 3” and some people will do this. But it’s not essential if you  ALWAYS put this information on the template itself. For example, in the header of the page or the top of the flip chart, include the session number and session title and a field to write in the country or group number. This makes for easy recall and archiving.

  • 4. Collecting Images of the Event

In large events, I almost always propose a slideshow in the closing session that features photos of the event – fun photos, working photos, the group photo, team photos, etc. to remind people of their journey and highlights of the event. Sometimes organizers say, “We don’t have the human resources to give someone the role of photographer.” So in the past we have compromised and asked participants to send their photos taken during the workshop to us, to an email address given on the screen in the opening session, or to post them on twitter. Both of these can yield a few photos, but people get busy and forget, leaving you with precious few on the last day. But using WhatsApp and asking the Facilitators to take photos and post them directly on the same thread produced TONS of images to use, and it collected them all in one place (no extra step of having to send them by email to someone and cutting and pasting them out of multiple individual email exchanges or searching a Twitter thread). So the only role to designate was someone to grab the best photos taken by everyone from the shared WhatsApp thread and put them into a PPT slideshow on the final day. People are always happy to snap photos on their phones, and your Facilitators are everywhere. We had a wonderful “competition” to take the closest photos of speakers’ quizzical expressions and highlights of our event in session and outside. Added bonus: This also makes illustrating the Final Report and website easier, all the photos you need are there in one place and on the cloud, so anyone can use them after the event.

  •  5. Matching Expertise and Need in Real Time

In our event, we had our 11 countries working on action planning in parallel, and a number of technical experts on hand to help. We set up Open Space sessions, and thematic sessions, but sometimes a team needed an input right now – please send expert X over to Table 3 or Breakout Room 6 pronto! We used WhatsApp to help the technical experts be efficient – instead of walking from room to room or table to table to see if anyone had questions, or having a table or room rep run to find the Expert, the Facilitators could just post on WhatsApp their need and the expert could come directly to them, saving lots of unnecessary to-ing and fro-ing.

Easier Sharing, No Bursting Suitcases, and the Report Writes Itself!

When you capture everything on WhatsApp  – the outputs of the workshop, the images and high points, the questions people have, the needs articulation for expertise – it puts all this information in the hands of everyone on the WhatsApp list automatically (no need to wait for the report for a reminder), it does this digitally (no need to stuff papers into your suitcase and no worry about losing essential outputs during the event or on your way home), and it organizes it chronologically so the report writing is much easier.

Using WhatsApp at a large event could  herald a step change in facilitation.

It’s a step change for Facilitators in another way too – if you counted on all that running around the plenary room and hotel to make your 10,000 steps a day, you will now need to go to the hotel gym treadmill to meet your step goal. The nice thing is that you will have time to do that now because the communication, coordination, capture and collection side of the event is running itself!


(Just a note: If you are interested in learning more about designing and facilitating large group workshops and conferences, the Bright Green Learning Academy has a dedicated course on this: Working with Large Groups: Designing Interactive Large-Scale Workshops/Conferences/Congresses. See our course schedule here. And we’ve written a great deal about large-scale events on this blog!)

Every time I facilitate I make a Materials and Equipment List. This is for me to think through exactly what we need on hand, and also to share with a partner or host when you are sourcing these items locally.  This is a two column list that can be an aggregated list of everything needed for the whole event, or can be broken down by session. For procurement, the aggregated list is easier to use and share.

The Equipment List is  normally made up of things that you need to request/order from the venue. These things normally have a price and the venue team will put them in the room as they are, for the most part, too big to carry around (not always, as there are mobile projectors, and people may use their own laptops, etc. )

The most traditional items are fairly evident and can include:

  • LCD Projector
  • Computer
  • Screen
  • Connector (between computer and Projector if using a Mac)
  • Flipcharts (with ample paper)
  • Pinboards (with pins – especially useful if you can’t post things on the walls)

The Materials List includes all the things that need to be brought in or sourced to run the various activities that you will facilitate in the workshop or meeting. Items on this list can be more problematic to describe when you are sending the list off for onsite sourcing. You might go back and forth describing this and that with a very conscientious counterpart who wants to get exactly the right materials (which is really excellent!)

To aid this, I thought I would make a pictorial summary of some of the things that most frequently show up on my Materials List. These include:

  • Facilitation Cards: These are made of thick paper in different shapes and  colours (for brainstorming and multiple uses). There are plain-backed cards, cards with sticky on the back (self-stick), and today there are static cards that will stick on walls and windows. Here are the most common shapes and sizes (click on the photos to see detail):

  • Tape: Needed especially if you are using the non-self stick Facilitation cards, or to put up flipcharts, etc. There are two kinds that we use – masking tape (the opaque one) and cellephone tape (the clear one):

  • Post-it Notes: This has replaced Facilitation Cards in some exercises, and can be used for many other things in a workshop. There is a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colours:

  • Sticky Dots: These are used for prioritisation, giving feedback etc. Note that dark colours are better than lighter colours and size matters:

  • Markers: Again they come in a range of widths, the selection of which depends on your activity and what you are writing on (a flipchart or an A5 card):

  • Other materials: These are often frequently needed (by me!)

With this list, you can make sure that you have everything you need to execute the workshop activities you have planned, and if sourced onsite, your luggage won’t be as heavy as it might otherwise be.

This of course doesn’t mean that you don’t need to bring anything – see an earlier blog post called, ” ‘ Conference Organizers Providing Everything’: Packing List for Team Facilitation. Just in case…

Rural spring landscape with dirt road

You just finished your exciting learning workshop, the walls are plastered with carefully completed templates, there is a stack of A3 sheets from group work, a pile of cards that captured individual reflections to salient questions, e-templates were filled in. Learning was captured, key messages identified, ideas prioritized. Lots of learning and exchange filled the hours of the workshop, the artefacts demonstrate this and they are in your hands…

The question now is, what can you do with it? Read more

You are speaking, facilitating, moderating, or MCing at a BIG event.

You are in front of dozens, hundreds, a thousand people, and you are introducing people with big names and long titles.

The lights are bright, the video camera rolling, surrounded by a buzzing room full of eager participants. Can you remember all those names, important titles, their honours and awards, and in the right sequence up there on stage?

You need some notes! But you don’t want to hold those crinkly printed white papers, or a handful of index cards that might accidentally flutter down to the floor like snowflakes, mixing themselves gleefully all around your feet.

Here’s an easy DIY craft for the holidays (she said only partly kidding, because when you really need them you might not have the time or patience to make them, or the right materials, so think ahead!)

You need just a few simple supplies:


  • Rectangular facilitation cards in the color of your choice – maybe a different colour every day, one that matches your clothes, or the branding of the event?
  • White paper to cut to size.
  • Scissors
  • Glue stick
  • Hole punch
  • Pen
  • Ring (that opens, I bought a pack of these in an office store)
Make your cards: 
  1. Cut the papers to size so they fit into the middle of the card and don’t leave too much extra space, but a nice frame (remember people will see this in your hands).
  2. With the glue stick, stick the white paper on the card on one side (leave the back blank OR put your logo or the event logo on the back.) I think a plain colour back looks less fussy.
  3. Punch a hole in the upper left hand corner – try to put the hole in the same place for every card so they aren’t uneven in your hands.
  4. Put the ring through. Click!
  5. Number the cards (still helpful so you know where you are.)
  6. Write your notes on one side of each of the cards.
  7. Feel happy that your notes look good, they won’t get out of order, and you will remember everything to make things run smoothly and give you peace of mind!

Happy Holidays and Happy Facilitating from Bright Green Learning!!

I had the great honour and pleasure to be the process steward for a multi-stakeholder consultation recently around a complex new idea (which is exactly when you want and need a multi-stakeholder consultation) in the sustainable development field. The issue was one that had significant potential environmental, social, economic and political implications that people and their organizations felt very strongly about. In the room were representatives from a number of sectors – multi-national corporations, government officials, NGO and civil society actors, etc.-, and the potential for a good deal of power asymmetry to be expressed.

Pre-work for the consultation had shown a diversity of opinion on our topic. This 2-day face-to-face meeting needed to surface all the reactions, opposition, ideas, and suggestions from this diverse group of experts in order to make the idea more robust, more applicable and have more chance of success. Among our desired outcomes, we wanted to be able to anticipate and address the wants and needs of the sectors and organizations that could be implementing it in the future. We were clearly discussing a good idea with a lot of potential, thus the good turnout to the invitation to join, and the high level of attention and engagement of the people in the room.

The consultation process was designed to maximise the contribution that every individual participant could make, their opportunities to provide comments to each aspect of the idea, and the time they would have to explain the rationale behind their input. The focus for the committee presenting the idea was to listen deeply, be curious and ask good probing questions to further their understanding. At the foundation of this consultation was the firm belief that any question, input, challenge from the group could only make the idea better, more appropriate and more applicable in its second iteration. So we needed maximum authenticity and a safe space to share what might be opposing views.

This post isn’t actually about the process that we used to do this – that’s another article that I will write at some point. This post focuses on an observation that provided some powerful learning for me about the assumptions we all hold and bring into our processes and work with other people.

The first day of our consultation went very smoothly. The group was high-level, well prepared and worked together diligently to provide comments, document them – discussing, analysing and developing some very useful key messages from their small group analysis. There was laughter periodically in the room in spite of the seriousness of the topic, great questions were asked, the wall templates were filling up with colourful nuggets of incredibly useful and thoughtful contributions. Everything looked rosy.

I was getting very nice feedback from people at the end of the day and during our group dinner. And then the question came.  A member of the idea committee asked earnestly, are people being too nice?

Where’s the clash? Where’s the conflict? Are people giving their real opinions? This took me a little aback. I would say in a very useful way. It gave me the opportunity to think about assumptions (which I always enjoy) – all the different assumptions that people hold that are creating the reality we are sharing. Including me.

I could see that the assumption on the part of the person earnestly questioning if we were getting what we needed, was that difference in opinion in their experience was signaled by overt public disagreement, which can lead to passionate speeches, high emotion and possibly visible conflict in a face-to-face meeting of minds. This was clearly absent in our process so it caused a question mark to pop up for this person and then a desire to go around and check with people to see how they felt about the environment we had created to provide inputs. Hmmm, interesting.  I felt my face – was I wearing rose-coloured glasses?

For me, as the process steward and facilitator, my assumption was that people were happy because they were able to provide their viewpoints in a structured and constructive way. So the absence of open conflict was a sign that the process was providing them this opportunity, and so they were satisfied and comfortable, able to both provide their views and get to know each other and laugh from time to time. I actually very rarely have any kind of open conflict in my workshops and processes because I try to use different methodologies that aim to capture all inputs (rather than those of the loudest or most persistent), provide anonymity when needed, value inputs through multiple levels of discussion and analysis that allows people to work with ideas rather than refute them. I use Appreciative Inquiry to inform my question articulation and keep the pace moving and visually stimulating, and mostly out of long, open, unstructured plenary sessions where speechifying and checking your email is tempting, and the feeling that you are not making progress is tiring.

So the question made me usefully pause and notice again my assumptions and gave me an opportunity to check in with the group. This was a good idea for all – it would help me understand if the process was providing space to capture opposition to our central ideas (rather than being designed  for harmony at the cost of good input), it would help the person who feared that the lack of open and vociferous dissent meant that people were being too nice (and that nice meant no opposition); it would reinforce our principle for participants that all views were appreciated – the good, the bad and the ugly. We wanted them all!

I decided not to just ask the BIG question to the group in plenary at the beginning of Day 1, as that would be a risky format to do it and in that situation people might not feel comfortable to single themselves out and speak up in the awkward silence after such a question so early in the morning. So instead for the next set of discussions around the inputs, which were a little higher level and bigger picture, we asked for the “elephant in the room” (things that have not been spoken but need to be spoken) as well as key messages from their analysis and small group discussion.

The addition of that little question worked very well. It was an unexpected visual, amusing and energising question at that moment in the consultation (we were talking about biodiversity and had already spoken about elephants once in a more realistic context). Groups could identify one big elephant or a herd of small elephants. It invited everyone to think about what might be some of the underlying and potentially unspoken or softly spoken issues, at any level, of our consultation.

It also gave another way to analyse the patterns of the contributions, and it allowed us to see if there was anything new that we had not heard rumbling up before, or if the elephants identified now were more thought-through conceptualisations of things that had been emerging but perhaps not yet fully formed in all the different discussion activities as we went along. We found more of the latter which was heartening and also found it to be a valuable way, towards the end of our consultation, to help summarise and crystalise collectively the most important action areas for the idea moving forward.

It’s not often that you get a stop-and-think-question like, “Is this going too well?” that helps you test your assumptions (and those of others) while you still have everyone in the room. In the end, the consultation went well, the energy in the room was high, and we got those comments, ideas, gaps and elephants, with and without my rose-coloured glasses.

(I love the fact that I really do learn or re-learn something new every day…)

You might be the Facilitator, in charge of weaving together threads of themes, helping people make sense of complexity, ensuring time for reflection and assimilation of concepts, framing and debriefing activities that will help participants share their thoughts or co-create radical new ideas. You might be on stage bringing energy to the group when they need it and watching participants to make on-the-spot modifications to match their needs and interests. 
You might even be introducing the Minister, Ambassador, Permanent Secretary and CEO. Effectively you are there to make sure that the investment of tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in convening the right people for this workshop or conference is fiscally responsible and has the results that ensure a return on investment by the hosts. That’s your job as Facilitator.
And you might also be doing the following:
  • Finding volunteers to translate job aids into different languages;
  • Printing and making photocopies of job aids in two languages (and finding paper for the copier and then taking it completely apart to clear the paper jams);
  • Putting the job aids on the 25 tables in the plenary;
  • Making the background PPT slide set that runs behind the programme (giving it to technicians and changing it as things change);
  • Clearing the tables of cups and other ephemera and replenishing materials needed on the tables;
  • Putting the chairs back around the tables and smoothing table cloths before the next plenary so that it looks tidy and inviting to participants;
  • Taking care of things people leave in the room (walking lost and found – phones, cables, USB keys…);
  • Making signs to indicate the breakout rooms locations;
  • Getting people into the rooms on time.
  • Standing in front of said signs to help people find their rooms;
  • Finding interpreters for parallel sessions;
  • Performing materials husbandry tasks – dividing up materials needed by parallel sessions and delivering them to the rooms at the right time, finding lost markers, saving enough materials for the last sessions;
  •  Finding the rapporteur to hand over the written results from the working groups.
  • Double check everything and field what quickly becomes Frequently Asked Questions.

So you also might get to do these things at your large event. These details make a difference you know; they contribute to the visual aesthetic of the event; they signal care, respect and professionalism; they make the event feel smooth to participants and reduce any anxieties that can come between attendees and their learning and contribution to the event. 
It’s definitely not a problem to do them and you are certainly willing to pitch in, and they need to be done. By you? These important roles could also be assigned in advance of the event to other team members who could do them sometimes even more quickly and easily than you – the operative word here, that might occur to you exactly in that moment you are taking apart the photocopier for the second time rather late at night, is definitely in advance
To enable this better division of labour it is great to think systemically about the event in the weeks before and make a check list of all needed roles to assign before your big meeting and conference (as with a small one, these things don’t take so much time, but with 180 people then that is a lot of tables to straighten up after a plenary) and then ask who might like to take them on. There might be a short list of roles already that you can add to from what you know about what makes large events work.
As the more time that is needed for these things, the less time you have to focus on, and prepare for, the participant-facing facilitation work you will do – not to mention grabbing a couple of minutes of your own to clear your mind, rest a little in the hubub of the conference, refocus your thoughts and look at the scenery that might just be outside your meeting room…
Facilitating large groups? Here are 3 more related posts: (Module 10 in our Bright Green Learning Academy is also on this topic)
  1. When Numbers Soar: Working with Large Groups
  2. Going Large: Tips for Running Facilitation Teams at Big Conferences
  3. Building Peer Learning into Mega-Events and Conferences

Plan A and B crossed, Plan C take over
In June I had the opportunity to work in Sweden at a wonderful event on the seaside. I got the job because a friend of mine who usually worked with this group was unavailable.

Unfortunately I had another event scheduled until 6pm the day before in Switzerland which meant that I needed to leave my event promptly, drive the 30 minutes in rush hour traffic to the Geneva airport, take a flight to Copenhagen, and there make a 35 minute transfer onto the last flight of the day to my Swedish destination. I would arrive at midnight, and my event started at 8am (outside the city).

What could go wrong? My Swedish counterpart there asked a good question, what if… What was my plan B, she asked? Well, effectively I was already their Plan B as their regular facilitator couldn’t make it, so what was my Plan C, in case any of those many moving parts to get me to the event in time, didn’t actually move.

That is a great question that we should always ask ourselves as facilitators (or trainers, or any person on whose participation an event may hinge). What if we fall ill, miss that flight, get taken to the wrong venue in a city we don’t know?

Now, I have in the past run a plenary session with a dizzyingly high fever, covered in sweat and practically swooning in the blurry spotlights  in front of me (this was at a UN conference in Damascus many years ago – with organizers with a “show must go on” attitude. It was nothing that a huge dose of antibiotics and 2 days in my hotel bed afterwards couldn’t “cure”.) But I have also gotten a call at 05:30am on a weekday from my colleague who was desperately ill, and then found myself standing in a workshop room a couple of hours later picking up with a surprised group where she left off. (That was the source of another couple of blog posts – Facilitators: To Your Health! and Managing Exceptions – The Resilient Facilitator. I also wrote a blog post from the perspective of the stand in – Flu Season! Facilitators Prepare to Step In!)

So sometimes the Grin-and-Bear-It approach can work, or if not, calling a colleague with whom you have a good working relationship and a shared approach. It’s definitely worth contacting your network and making some reciprocal agreements in advance that can help in such emergencies – both local and international.

What else can you put into place as a Plan B or C? One thing that we always do is we develop a “Facilitation Agenda” which is a very detailed description of the process that we will use for the workshop. It includes the sequence of items and speakers, their titles and the titles of their presentations (for introducing them). It includes the group work and activities sequence, the timing and any roles. It can also include mock ups of job aids, flipcharts that need to be created on site, and any other process considerations (how to run the quiz, how to set up the room, etc.). Our Facilitation Agenda documents are very complete, and very long, but they also provide any experienced facilitator all they need to pick up the process and go on with it. A materials and equipment list completes the process pack.

It is also good to make sure that this Facilitation Agenda is developed with your counterpart in the organization, so that they know exactly what the process is, the rationale behind it and the expected outcomes. This helps them better hand this over to a substitute facilitator if need be or even, if they are happy to do it, take on this role themselves, or find another internal person to do this as a last resort.  You can even anticipate this with your counterpart and identify another process person within the organization to have a talk with in advance, as your Plan B.

Thankfully, in my case, the winds were with me. My workshop in Geneva ended promptly on time, and as luck would have it, I shared a taxi to the airport with a Norwegian participant who knew all about the local transport system where I was going. He told me all the ways to get to my destination in case I missed my connecting flight – from renting a car and driving the 3 hours north, to crossing the bridge from Denmark to Sweden and taking the train after midnight. Both would get me there in time for my event. Armed with bountiful Plan B’s, and after a brisk run from gate-to-gate in Copenhagen, I made all my connections and showed up in good shape for my event, much to the relief of my Swedish counterpart who stayed up very late until she received my “I’m here!” text message.

It’s definitely worth coming up with contingencies before you really need them. I heard a TED talk recently by a Canadian neurologist Dr. Daniel J. Levitin (it was about the importance of pre-mortems, inviting us to plan ahead for stress), who reminded us that when you’re stressed, your brain releases the hormone cortisol which makes your thinking fuzzy.

You don’t want to be fuzzy-headed trying to develop your Plan B. Well in advance, when you are calm,

  • 1) Get your network of potential stand-in facilitators in place (local or otherwise);
  • 2) Make sure your process is well documented to the final detail (Facilitation Agenda);
  • 3) Brief your counterpart (so they are fully aware);
  • 4) Know all the alternatives (routes and all);
  • 5) Wear good shoes and travel light.

Chances are you won’t need these things, but if you do, you will be happy to have your Plan B, C, and D in place. It turned out to be a beautiful summer day for an event in Sweden!

The conference centre staff were confronted this morning with the following appeal – PLEASE DON’T TOUCH THE PAPERS – written in foot-high capital letters, and strategically placed in front of the door to our workshop room, the walls of which were plastered with flip chart templates, timelines, prioritised project lists with actors designated – the golden nuggets of our intense working meeting. 
Before leaving the room the night before I also took photos of everything, even though the next day we would work together again, further develop the ideas, layering additional information and meaning over our previous day’s outputs.
In the past, I would have waited until the end of the workshop to take these photos, so as to have the final artifacts, organised and polished. But not any more.
At a 3-day workshop in Paris last month in a beautiful new hotel we were also working visually. The walls of our meeting room similarly featured the colourful results of our first 2 days of work and discussions, decisions and ideas. The outcome of this strategy meeting was critically important in the life of this group. We were excited as we left the room the evening of Day 2 to have the few hours on our third morning to carefully review our work, synthesize and prepare the outputs and ambitious work plan going forward. 
I guess you can tell where I’m going with this… for the first time in my professional experience, right in the middle of a 3-day workshop, we walked into the meeting room an hour early on the morning of Day 3 and were confronted with the brutal reality that the night cleaning team had taken down and removed absolutely everything from the walls, all our flipcharts posters, templates, papers from our tables and all of our workshop materials! It could have been any other empty meeting room in the hotel. In a very controlled, surprisingly calm and professional way we freaked out (then we got to work).
You might think that this was a bit of an overreaction, but if you are using a visual discussion methodology that collects and organizes outputs on flip charts, posters and templates, and a group of 15 people and the host organization has collectively invested 320 person hours (effectively 2 person months of time), tens of thousands of Euros in logistics costs (having flown in from all over the world), and the equivalent monetary figure for their professional time, then having these documents removed is a very big deal. 
We hurried to recreate the results from our handwritten notes and memories, the hotel having been quickly alerted about the loss. An agonizing 15 minutes later, we were relieved to hear from the hotel staff that a thorough search of the cleaning closet produced a bag of our flip chart sheets and materials – the new night staff member had been told to clean the room, had taken the instructions literally, but clearly had not felt confident to throw everything away. 
We re-posted our slightly crumpled flip charts, taking the opportunity to reorganize them, and were done 10 minutes before our participants arrived. I took photos again, and learned a lesson – make records as you go along rather than at the end, just in case!

Colloque BIOFILMS 5 à Paris.

They cost millions to put on and convene the best and brightest of a community – how can you channel that collective strength for collective impact and, in the end, how can you tell?

I just returned from 7th World Water Forum in Korea, where numbers of attendees were reported at 41,000 people. I also worked at the 6th World Water Forum in 2012, with 35,000 people. That’s a lot of talent in one place.

Is there an Expectation of Learning and Impact?

It is interesting to think about the cost-benefit for individuals and organizations for participation in such an event. If you were on the Learning Team for such an event (do these events have learning teams – maybe that is Suggestion #1!), what might be some of the ways to first, identify desired learning (organizational and individual level), foster that learning through design and format, help record outcomes for monitoring and sharing, and see what changes people are making based on their learning and participation?

I’ve seen and worked with some different approaches and, taken together, they make for an interesting thought exercise and potentially an opportunity. Here are a few ideas for consideration.

1) Use a Facilitation Team to ensure interactive learning in Conference Sessions

Conference don’t have to be panel after panel of 9 speakers giving their ideas from a podium of behind a table and a short Q&A (IF the speakers don’t go over their time) for those bold enough to stand up in front of hundreds, or lucky enough to get the attention of the person with the roving microphone.

Interactive learning is possible even for very large groups, and even in theatre set up (although round tables are MUCH better – this can work for 400-600 people in a ballroom, at least it has for us in the preparatory meetings for the 6th and 7th World Water Forum.) I have written a blog post about facilitating large groups (When Numbers Soar: Facilitating Large Groups) and it is certainly possible with good design and professional and confident execution. It might take a moment to flip your audience from passive half-listening/texting observers to active contributors, but once you have their attention the opportunity engage and crowdsource ideas, suggestions, solutions, etc. from such a large group is incredible.

A good facilitation team can also help create consistency and support reflective practice throughout the event, when these questions and practices are built consistently into the agenda of events. With the whole facilitation team introducing this in all parallel events.

2) Introduce a Conference Activity Handbook

At another large conference I facilitated recently, we created an Activity Handbook that was put into each conference pack, and had a couple of different purposes. First, it guided participants through the conference, each session had an entry that engaged the participant in some way, from a place to write their goals for the event (Session 1), to places to record answers to specific technical questions, a self-assessment that started one session, a quiz to warm up on another, an action planning template for the final Session (to record follow-up to the conference of people, ideas) etc.

The resulting Handbook once completed, was a take-home artifact from the conference that reminded the participant of his or her learning, thoughts, ideas, and actions. It also included other key information – contact information, URLs of resources, etc. all in one place. But unlike any Conference brochure, this participants interacted with daily and became a living record of THEIR event.

Even in a larger event where people are moving around to different activities all the time, such an Activity Handbook could be helpful to guide people through their experience and structure reflection. If there are facilitators, they could start and end their sessions with a reflection question recorded in the workbook (“Open your Activity Handbook to page 16 and take a minute to reflect on what you want to learn today – make a few notes for yourself and I will give you a couple of minutes to share this with the person sitting next to you”,or “What was the most important key message from the sessions you attended today”, “What is one thing you might do to follow up on something you learned today?” etc.)

If people need an added incentive to complete their Activity Handbook, offer a completion gift to those who complete their book, such as a mug or water bottle with the conference logo, available in the exhibition area at Stand X – ask people to come towards the end and show their completed booklet for this gift. (There was such a gift at the recent World Water Forum, although you only needed to answer a few questions to get it, but almost all people I spoke to found their way to the exhibition hall stand with their voucher to collect it). As people get these items in their conference bags anyways, why not give them a little homework to get it?

3) Ask Organizers to Develop and Participants to Contribute to Next Action Plans

One of the features of the World Water Forum process was the expected output of an Implementation Roadmap (IR) from the different thematic streams of the conference (every conference seems to have an organizing principle of some sort – often thematic). The organizers’ reporting templates from the different thematic sessions were made consistent with this and individual session organizers were asked to collect ideas from participants in their sessions that could be integrated into a thematic IR.
The idea of this Implementation Roadmap was to capture in one place all the ideas and actions that stakeholders attending identified and felt are helping achieve some desired change in their subject area, so that they can be executed after the conference and this execution monitored. Each IR had one or more coordinating organizations who volunteered for this role (because it is central to their work), and participants in their sessions could indicate how these Implementation Roadmaps could improve, if they wanted to be involved in follow up, and what they could contribute.

Of course this only works if there is engagement and good coordination prior to the conference, real interactivity in the sessions (see Facilitation above) and if there are resources made available (time, energy and potentially funds) for this follow-up. The organizers must take this seriously and support it. More information on the IR process can be found on the 7th World Water Forum website. As this event is each 3 years, Coordinating organizations can be asked to report on progress and results from their Implementation Roadmap work. Central coordination over the interim period to keep momentum is an important additional role for the main organizer. Without this, probably only a small percentage of these would produce results, based on the sheer will and investment of the thematic coordinators.

4) Follow Selected Individuals for a Conference Impact Study

We did a Curriculum Impact Study at LEAD International when I was the Director of Capacity Development there and this was a really interesting and effective way to see how a learning experience impacted individuals participating in the programme. This could be an interesting addition to a large conference M&E and learning process, and help answer the questions – what changed? and was it worth it?

In the LEAD process, we identified a select cross-section of participants (different countries and different sectors – we had 18 in total), and invited them to participate in our study. This process took some time, so they had to be aware of that and committed (in the case of a conference, could they get a reduction on their conference fee by participating?) We started prior to the formal learning events, and went on for a designated period afterwards.

The study started and ended with an interview that we administered. The initial Orientation Interview included key questions that established a base-line of the individual and their organization, and identified an issue or issues that they and their organization would be dealing with over the next two years where they might apply their learning, etc. After the initial interview (also to explain the process), the exercise was journal-based (there were three Journals) with key reflection questions at periodic points that were triggered by dates, reminders, and email. The journals were collected and analysed (and returned) and case studies following the learning and learning application process of the individuals were written (not using the original names and organizational names).

This impact study provided a more detailed way to understand the impact of the programme on their professional and personal lives. Based on your overall goal of a conference (such as more conservation impact on the ground), such a study could help understand what participants do to prepare, engage during and integrate into their practice afterwards. It also helps identify places where the organizers can support participants more – maybe the preparation needs to be more directed and different, maybe the sessions need to be more interactive and engaging – as people spent most of their time in the exhibition hall (or maybe more needs to be programmed there), or more support in identifying or using the learning, etc. This kind of impact study of individual’s experience with your mega event can give insight into this.

5) Design a More Deliberate Learning Programme

All of the above need good design, preparation, coordination, guidance, consistency across a complex event with many moving parts. Lessons? This needs coordination, guidance, and consistency, and a central team with an overview of the learning goals and enough advance time to prepare the different elements so that the experience is reinforced throughout the conference.

Of course, this also costs money, but then you just invested millions to get everyone there. Doesn’t it make sense to invest a little more to make sure you get as much impact out of the conference as possible?


As learning practitioners we play many roles – we are process designers and facilitators, panel moderators, skills trainers, advisors, team coaches, and sometimes we are MCs (Master of Ceremonies), helping weave together the different learning threads of a larger event.

I recently took on this role at the Women’s Forum, having done this on a number of occasions with other groups. This event had high production values, with beautiful lighting, a 360 degree stage, video cameras and screens in all directions recording and simulcasting, professional makeup and a “Madonna” mike (as they called it), and, I might mention, 1500 people watching every move you make (or at least the intention to).

I personally find this role – Master of Ceremonies (we couldn’t come up with a satisfying gender neutral alternative -any ideas?) – more than a little nerve wracking. To get to a place of comfort in this role I tend towards over preparation. However, I won’t apologize for this; that’s what it takes for me to do a good job in this high visibility role. I want to help make participation meaningful for everyone in the room, add value and interest – spark curiosity and maybe some surprise to grab attention, and help connect the dots of the event for people. Now that I have done this for a number of events, I thought I would record and share my tips for preparing and delivering as an MC. I divided my reflections into four parts: what I do in the weeks before, the day of the event, moments before, and onstage.

red seats
Weeks Before

1. Get the Programme: Be proactive and request early versions of the Programme and keep in touch with the Programme manager about changes. Make sure you always have the latest agenda (this can change daily nearer the event when speakers and moderators cancel at the last minute, or even miss their flight). You don’t want to introduce the wrong person in front of 1000 people. It might be tempting to wait until things settle to do this, but don’t; it will be a big job to get on top of it and identify the main threads all at the last minute. Plus your antennae will be up for interesting facts and initiatives in all the other meetings you attend and newspapers you read, and new ideas will come to you as the programme and its key messages percolate in your brain.

2. Build Your Background: Read about the speakers and the conference themes. This research can be considerable if you are the MC for the whole event as I was, with 13 different sessions, themes, panels and speakers. I estimated that it was like giving 13 Toastmasters icebreaker speeches in 3 days, each one taking some 5 or more hours to prepare (research, collect ideas, write, edit, make notes, brief speakers/moderators, practice, practice, practice).YouTube is a great place to listen to other speeches given by your speakers, to hear their perspective and main messages, and to see how other MCs and moderators have worked with them.

3. Get Inspiration: Once I had my session themes I looked into a number of directions for inspiration. TED is a great source, in fact I spent the week before this event at TED Global in Rio and found some good leads for interesting facts and angles. The news and current events is an obvious source and I read newspapers and periodicals cover to cover (even sports!) for a change in the weeks before the event, as you never know what facts or questions might come up on stage.

4. Make a Notebook: This is actually a step the “maker” and tinkerer in me enjoys. This year I used an A5 sized notebook, with the pages that you can take in and out along those plastic discs (because things will change!) Use any notebook that you can change the order of the pages and put new ones in easily. Use dividers by day, and then within the days each session has a page. At the top I have the title, timing (when to meet speakers, time of session), list of speakers with their titles, the objectives of the session, notes on the choreography (if there is a sequence to introductions, if there are chairs or if the speakers stand, etc.) and then my script (see below). This makes it easier to practice session by session and quickly check details if there is a question (how will you introduce me) or a change in the programme. Carry your notebook around all the time and use post-its to note any ideas that pop up on the appropriate session page, to integrate later.

5. Write Your Script: I always write out my scripts completely first, then edit them and tweak them repeatedly, as I am more of a writer than an off-the-cuff speaker. I write out the narrative word-by-word first, including interaction with the audience (and put this in my notebook). Then I start to boil it down to bullet points with sub-text, and then the final step is to define headlines/key words to trigger my memory of the associated text.

Note that I always build in interactivity (mapping the audience, introduction to your neighbour, etc.) early in my scripts to liven up the participant experience and engage the audience but also to give me a moment to look at my cards if need be. It shortens the length of what you have to commit to memory before you can pause and regroup/breath/centre yourself once onstage. So I write these breaks into the text. I also include short stories/vignettes that I can tell as they are easier, once you launch into them, to remember and tell than a list of facts. You want your introductions to be thought provoking, meaningful, and relevant to the audience. It should make then want to hear and think about the next session and not choose instead to go and get a coffee or stand in line for the photo booth. It’s not as easy as you think.

black cards
6. Prepare Prompt Cards: In all the photos and videos of me as the MC at the Women’s Forum, you will see that I have notes in my hand. They are my bullet points and key words written on black card stock and cut to hand size. I write on them with a white pen. This draws much less attention than white, dog-eared, A4 papers flapping around as you wave your hands. At TED Global I noticed Chris Anderson and Bruno Guisani had small cards in some sessions, held with a single metal ring on the upper right hand corner, so you can flip cards easily and quickly as you are talking. They also from time to time had a bright red Clip board. All of these things work, and look good, choose your favorite, prepare them in advance, and if there is any doubt that you might forget the three line title of the fifth speaker on the panel you’re introducing, use them!

Put what you need on the cards, after practicing you will know the places where you trip up or forget or get the two parts of someone’s last name turned around (people care about this!). The cards I hold on stage have some of this bullet point text (especially the transitions – opening words and closing words for each idea/story), and the key words written larger that I can glance at if needed.

7. Practice!- Once I make my cards, I carry them around and practice everywhere in the days before and during the event. I take them with me to cafés, I pace in my hotel room, I go through tricky text transitions, or complicated names, or super long titles ( and there will be many) before I go to sleep and before I get up. You can do this with your eyes closed.

Doing this will also help you revise and change word order or transitions so the words and narrative seems more natural. Once you are familiar with the written script, you will be able to slow down and get comfortable as you know where you’re going with the text. And this will make that last minute additions or name changes less of a problem (e.g. when a speaker asks you to call him or her by their nickname rather than their formal name just before going onstage, etc.)  You want it to be super smooth and easy onstage and this takes a lot of work! I had several speakers ask me if I was using a teleprompter, which made me smile. Maybe it’s my line of work, but I haven’t seen one of these yet! ( I have heard of an iPad app, and have seen moderators use ipads once in a while, but I will probably continue to do this the old fashioned way for now).

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The Day of the Event

1. Confidence and Looking Good– I will venture that this applies to anyone getting on a 360 degrees stage ( or any stage where you are being watched by a thousand plus in the room, any number on simulcast, and then for perpetuity on the internet.) We all have our strategies. I got my hair done professionally, it’s the only time a year I do! There was a professional makeup station in the Speakers Room, where we convened for our Speakers briefing 30 min before going onstage, because the lights and filming can do funny things to your features and complexion.

You need to think about what to what to wear (stage and mike friendly clothes). I was always on my feet and walking up and down the steps before and after speakers, interviews and panels. For women, low heels are definitely best and your feet will thank you at the end of the day – I stand up about 10 min or more before the scheduled end of any session just in case it stops abruptly and you need to hustle up (elegantly of course) on to the stage. You don’t want any tripping. For the microphone, if you have a hand mike no problem, but I try to avoid that as I want to be able to clap and I will also have my cards in my hands. So a Madonna mike works best, and for that you need a belt or some hidden way to fix the Madonna mike to the back of your clothing (jacket, belt, or camisole). The sound team also discouraged earrings (actually taking them off me) as the can can clank or get caught in the mike.

I try to wear something interesting and colorful, even a little sparkle if you can get away with it ( I’m thinking more of necklace or pin than full length evening gown and tiara). This goes for all speakers but especially the MC as people see you over and over again on stage all day. Remember that they will be looking at you at 8:30 in the morning and 8pm at night, and tired or hungry or in need of caffeine, you can at least try delight both minds with your words and eyes with your turquoise and magenta scarf.

2. Speakers Briefing: As noted above, having a scheduled meeting of speakers directly before the event is incredibly useful and serves a number of functions. First, it lets you check that all speakers are present- there’s nothing like introducing someone who is stuck in traffic 3 km away. Second, it lets you go through the mechanics of the session with all the speakers together. You might have done this before with the panel moderator or even all the speakers, but it will only be when they see the stage and the huge audience sitting around it that they will really want to know who walks on first, what chair they should sit in and how long they can talk. Finally, it lets you check name pronunciation, title accuracy and give them confidence in how you will introduce them to the audience and frame their session. And of course it lets you establish some rapport and remind them of your name so they can talk to you on stage and thank you by name. These little touches make the session seem more friendly and less formal or staged – that makes the audience feel more comfortable and the discussion going on in front of them more accessible.

3. Bring Food: You may not have time to, or want to, stop for the scheduled meals. It is hard to “grab and go” when you are the MC as everyone knows you and you will get stopped for an interesting chat everywhere you go. If you need to prepare, you might rather eat your Power bar in your room.

girl holding a bag. closeup
Moments Before

1. Where are Your Cards? At this stage you are still keeping the prompt cards for the next session in your hand and now only thinking about one session at a time, literally relegating anything from the next few sessions to the back of your brain and the past and upcoming cards to your bag.

2. Your stuff– When you’re onstage you don’t have any place to keep your stuff, bag, other papers, lipstick etc. Find that place first, so you are not looking under every chair for it at the end of the session, because as soon as you stand up, someone else will sit in your empty chair (even with a reserved sign there is something oh so tempting about a front row seat) and by the end of the session you will have sat all over the place. Bring the minimum, and put it under the chair of your neighbour or someone you know who will not be jumping up all the time to take the stage. This might seem like a small point, but it will take up residence in a small paranoid spot in your mind that you need to be totally zen and not worried about your handbag.

3. Take a deep breath: Ok, you are about to walk up those steps. Breath deeply and smile. You might want to do some Amy Cuddy “Power Posing” to get you ready and confident to go onstage. I also write at this stage on my first card at the top in big letters “SLOW”, “BREATH”, “PAUSE”, for obvious reasons. If that’s the only thing I register in the bright lights and 2000+ eyes! then the rest will go much easier. Then you step up, confidently…


1. Voice/Body: As there are books written about this, I will only repeat two pieces of advice given to me by Lizzie the first time I did this big stage work: 1) Pause before starting and look at the audience (I am an MBTI ENFP and tend to open my mouth first and think later, this helps enormously); and 2) Emphasize at least one word in each sentence. It can literally be any word, but do that and it immediately adds interest, voice inflection, and give you a natural pause (breath, think, collect visual feedback). Even if you only do this at the onset of your introductory remarks, it will help with flow. Try it!

2. Try to Enjoy Yourself! I have to tell myself this over and over, and to be honest it starts to be true only about 1 hour into the day, when feedback starts sinking in. I know intellectually that it is a great privilege to have this role, as well as a great responsibility, and that the role should be fun and I should try to enjoy it. But it takes me a while to get here. Once I start seeing positive reactions with my own eyes and hearing it from others, then the mantra starts to have the desired effect. And this calmness and sense of enjoyment is critical for me to calm the voices in my own head so that I can deeply listen and connect into the richness of what is going on onstage.

And there you go!

I can not emphasize enough how important good event structure and design is. When you are done, thank that terrific Programme manager  for their months of effort in Programme development, identifying timely topics, the right speakers and developing the briefing notes that were sent out in advance. (Thank you Jennifer!)

Being the MC isn’t just memorizing titles and names and the sequence of sessions. In its best and most helpful form, it is a guiding, weaving and connecting role. It helps people understand why the topic is interesting and important for them, why they should listen and why they should care. It connects the different sub-themes into a powerful whole. In creating meaningful frames, it helps the audience connect to the broader narrative of the overall conference, and invites them to draw their own learning. This is the work of the MC from my perspective.

A gentle warning, this kind of work is both mentally exhausting (you are probably the only person in the room that is present and deeply listening 100% of the time) and physically exhausting (reread shoes part). And it is at the same time incredibly gratifying to support collective learning, one thousand people at a time, in this way. If you get the offer, take it, and bear in mind that it is more than just walking on stage on a very exciting day.

With thanks to Guest blogger: Cristina Apetrei 
Back in January my friend Gillian and I were planning to go together to a Common Cause workshop, but we both cancelled last minute due to work obligations. When six months later I did manage to attend a similar event, she was very eager to hear what I learned and kindly invited me to write a guest blog post to share my experience with all of you.

Common Cause is an initiative started in 2009 by several NGOs in the UK who wanted to engage in a broader conversation about the values at the core of our society and what is needed in order to get more public engagement around various global (sustainability) issues. In an initial report – Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values (September 2010) – they looked at social psychology and cognitive science to investigate the relationship between values and behaviour. Later some of these findings were summarized in the Common Cause Handbook – which I recommend as a quick introduction to this discussion, although the full report is much richer.

The main practical conclusion is quite simple: An organization might well be striving for a certain idealistic goal, but it will not be very effective as long as it communicates in a language that enhances values which conflict with that goal. Therefore, we should always pay attention to how we frame and contextualize our messages, and be on the lookout for the implicit values that are being reinforced

Common Cause also says that some values are held more easily together by the same individual. To give an example, a campaign that frames the installation of solar panels as a way to save money on the energy bill reinforces the so-called “extrinsic value” of “wealth”. This value however is in conflict with values such as “protecting the environment” or “equality” that would be required for deeper engagement with the issue of climate change.

But value communication goes beyond the text of a campaign or the copywriting of a website; it also includes the context of an event or the overall culture of an organization. No communication is value-neutral, the Common Cause report argues, so try to nurture intrinsic values (self-transcendence, see Figures 2 and 3 How Values Work) rather than extrinsic ones (self-enhancement) if you want to see behaviours aligned with bigger-than-self goals.

Of course, one may read between the lines an implicit moral dimension here, suggesting that some values would be preferable to others, and this remains an open point for critique and debate. Nevertheless, I believe that the Common Cause approach at the very least makes us aware that not only are our behaviours determined by our values, but also that our actions shape the cultural value landscape that we are part of. As activists or sustainability workers, we are reminded that change does not happen in a vacuum, but requires a certain set of conditions to be met in our environment.

This has implications also for the work of a process designer and a facilitator, whose art is precisely about creating a space that is favourable to a positive outcome. I try to give a few lessons below:

1.      1. Think about the implicit frames and values of the participants
a.   Understand existing frames: Consider not only what each participant sees as the problem and the solution, but also the cultural frames that they may be employing in their evaluation. What stories do they have about the issue at hand, who is to blame in their view, who should take responsibility and why?
b.   Understand values: What underlying values do these frames elicit? Are these values compatible? Is the spectrum of values represented around the table very broad and what could be common ground for a solution?
2.       2. There may be more space for agreement than it appears
One of the findings of the Common Cause report is that people are not selfish, but value intrinsic goals more than their own interest. Also, appealing to people’s intrinsic values will over time reinforce them, while appealing to conflicting values will create confusion. If we take such insights as premises, how could the problems (or the difficult points) be reframed in a way that allows participants to more easily see the common ground?

3.       3. The context of the facilitation session  and dialogue matters
The space in which an event takes place also embeds certain values. To the extent to which you can influence the choice of the space and its setup, consider the following questions: Where does the session take place? Is it in a sumptuous room or is it on neutral ground, in an environment that makes everyone feel equal? What about group dynamics: who are the actors organizing the event and what is their relationship to the rest? Is there a speaker dominating the room or are hierarchies being reduced?

Whether you are working as a researcher, consultant, activist or facilitator, I hope this post will make you a bit more aware of the subjective fabric behind words and inspire you to think of your own role in promoting some values over others.

(From Gillian: Thanks so much to Cristina – also a Fellow Balaton Group Member –  for her intriguing post and report back from the Common Cause workshop – it sounds highly relevant, particularly to the communication and convening work that we all do continually in the sustainability community. Next time I will try to attend myself!)

Our last post in this series of Suggested Facilitation Strategies is on ensuring that you valuably and dependably guide the process and the group; and that still hand over to the group, fostering ownership and self-reliance. This is a critical skill for any Facilitator.

Consider the following:

(1) Checking-in with the client and group is key.  Help them reflect on what they are achieving and how they are progressing with their outputs as well as their hard and soft outcomes.  

(2) In some cases you might like to introduce models (such as Tuckman’s Theory of Group Dynamics) and ask them where they think they are at the start.  Then see if they think they progress towards different stage(s) during the event.  

(3) Design activities towards the close of an event that have increasingly less presence of the facilitator, such as a session using a self-facilitation technique (such as a ‘talking object’ which is passed among participants by participants, or a ‘Samoan Circle’ in which participants control who is ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the speaking circle at any moment).

(4) Conclude events with the group determining its own next steps and summarizing itself the progress made (rather than helping them with this), as well as reflections to one another in a ‘closing circle’, heightening group identity.
General conclusions
Continue to think into and work on your learning edges.  Write these down.  Consider the strategies suggested here and others you can identify upon individual reflection or conversation with peers about learning to best improve your facilitation practice – using your personal preferences to the full where they strengthen your practice and managing your preferences where they entail risks.

Return to the start of the series > 1 of 11: Suggested Facilitation Strategies: Me, My Behavioural Preferences & My Facilitation Practice

As the Facilitator, how to you make sure your desire for harmony doesn’t skew the process when debate may be beneficial / necessary? Or you might be just the opposite – how do you make sure your desire for debate doesn’t hinder agreement and moving forward?

Here are some things to consider:

(1) Explore potential areas of conflict in advance.  Check with the client what is likely to be contentious and why.  Inform yourself as much as possible about the potential conflict, and determine with the client what conflict needs to be carefully avoided (e.g. careful wording so as not to aggravate sensitivities) and where it is essential to address the source of the conflict in as safe a space as possible. 

(2) When debate and potential conflict is on the cards, design for it using great techniques for exploring contentious issues whilst maintaining a generative group process.  If people aren’t provided with an environment to share contentious issues, they will likely emerge nonetheless – and if they feel the process is repressing the emergence of issues they may throw out your process providing you with little room for manoeuvre.  It’s safer to design for it.

(3) Co-create principles for your time together, and hold people to these (e.g. making sure comments are constructive and solutions-oriented, listening to one another and trying to understand the perspective of others).  Giving these a number, you could then task everyone in the room with the job of ensuring adherence to the principles, asking people to hand a card with the corresponding number on it if ever there is an infraction.  (This takes the pressure off you being the only one in the room trying to manage the conflict.)

(4) Challenging participants to think with different ‘hats’ – exercising / flexing different thinking muscles and showing their intellectual dexterity.  (De Bono’s Six Hats is a great example, others include using tools from Systems Thinking, and methodologies such as Thiagi’s Point-and-Counterpoint activity.) ‘Externalizing’ thinking is central to many of these techniques. 

(5) Use techniques to ‘externalize’ thinking.  This helps participants move from an emotional state where it is about me and my issue (versus you and yours) to ‘an issue’ which is a little more ‘out there’… something happening in the system, amongst many other interacting things happening.  Getting all the information ‘within’ or ‘held’ by participants ‘out there’ – and especially written somewhere for posterity – is a great way of re-assuring people their concerns are being heard.  It also opens them up to better hearing what others are saying, and they look at the system of interacting bits and pieces (‘variables’) with a more objective perspective – as can others.  This often creates an environment for more generative conversation to follow.  Such techniques may be getting people to draw what is happening in the system as a series of causal loops.  Or use sticky dots to respond to statements and then stand back and look at results, and explore reasons for those results (rather than stating one’s own position).

(6) If conflict does emerge unexpected, have a break taking people ‘offline’ and rethinking how to proceed.  Determine whether resolving the conflict is essential to achieving the desired outcomes or not (sometimes it is between just two people on a related but tangential matter), and plan accordingly.  Note: in some instances, you can create a sub-group for people to debate a specific point or resolve a specific conflict, whilst the rest of the group work on something else. 

(7) Remind people from the start of the event of why they are in their room and the commonality of their objectives.  Keep coming back to shared objectives.

(8) If you are a subject matter expert who likes to debate, this aspect of the facilitation role may be particularly challenging. Not only do you need to maintain your neutrality; you also need to know when to stop debating (which may be something only a few of your participants are doing anyway) and to move things along.  Again, remind people of why they are in the room, coming back to shared objectives, and how the process is going to get you there.
Related blog posts:
Practicing Creating Conflict: 

Some Facilitators find it a challenge to keep track of group maintenance (how they’re feeling) when they themselves are getting swept up in the content of discussions; and others find it hard to focus on the task and content of discussions when they’re getting swept up in the group dynamics. Maybe you have experienced both at different times. What are some things you can do about that?

(1) Ask the group about the progress it is making with reference to the desired outcomes. 

(2) AND ask the group about how they feel about this work. 

(3) Some people are naturally intuitive when it comes to the maintenance side of group processes.  Others need some help picking up on cues, as well as some tips to change the energy and dynamics in the room.  If you are less intuitive in this area, you can always ask the group how they feel. For example, Are they energized or tired?  Do they feel ambitious or cautious? Creative or constrained? Then you might get some information and consider how you need to shift gears. 

(4) Create yourself a prompt sheet of ideas! Have some tricks up your sleeve for changing energy and dynamics.  It might be as simple as taking a break, getting some coffee and fresh air, or changing the physical environment (such as by going outside, or rearranging seats). If you’ve been doing lots of group discussion, perhaps take a break for some individual thinking time or watch a short video talk (have some short ones aside).  Ask people to draw what they are thinking or pick and image (have a mixed deck available) which reflects their mood and do some ‘presencing’ to get people back in the room.  Jump around.  Clap.  Make noise a task: such as tasking people with creating a 30 second musical reflection of the event so far using only what they find on their tables.  Have some quick games up your sleeve (we find a great source is the Systems Thinking Playbook) to highlight a relevant point from the event so far.  Consider different scenarios (from people tired and flagging to people playing and laughing too much and not applying themselves to the task) and options for each.

(5) If you know you have a bias towards ‘task’, practice wearing a ‘maintenance’ hat in group opportunities.  In situations where you are not officially ‘facilitating’, try and turn down your ‘task’ hat and tune into group maintenance, thinking specifically about what is happening in terms of group dynamics and what interventions or design choices you could make to strengthen the process for the benefit of group maintenance. 

(6) If the reverse is true and your bias is towards maintenance, try and practice wearing your ‘task’ hat.  Try and step out of your ‘modus operandi’ and flex other thinking muscles.  And note the great things other people do that you might like to incorporate into your own practice.

(7) If you struggle to follow the discussion sufficiently, consider strategies to help you ‘tune in’.  For example, perhaps decide to take notes at a flipchart so that you can structure your thinking – creating a mind-map of the keep points emerging from the discussion.  And if that doesn’t work and an element of group dynamics is really distracting you (e.g. some voices are not being heard and others are overbearing), chances are others may also be struggling – in which case you could go with a different methodology (maybe break from plenary into groups to discuss either the same questions in parallel or different questions according to their interest). 
(8) See also the points about summarizing and synthesizing above.  Use the strategies suggested there, getting others to summarize things for everyone (you included) and using lots of templates that you can review as necessary.
(9) Invite others to review your event designs with you – with knowledge of ‘you’ in mind.  And invite others to observe you in facilitation delivery mode and provide you feedback.  Additionally consider providing feedback forms (or other mechanisms) at the end of each event, providing people with opportunities to help you improve.
Related blog posts:

For a Facilitator, there is definitely an art to knowing when you should summarize and synthesize discussion for the group; and when it would be better to have the group summarize and synthesize. Here are some suggested strategies for how to work with the difference:

(1) Summarize progress in the process towards achieving desired outcomes to make it more apparent.  For example: “We considered numerous potential project ideas and then, concerned about how to prioritize these, generated a list of criteria for prioritizing.  These were then applied to the ideas, resulting in the selection of the following as the top 3 to take forward…”

(2) Structure your agenda to elicit synthesis from participants as you go along, so that you can steer clear from synthesizing subject matter yourself.  This is a point that some facilitators may debate.  We feel, however, that as the process guide, the facilitator should steer clear from summarizing subject matter and substantive content discussions (and never produce reports!).  Instead, structure your agenda with regular moments designed in, during which participants summarize and synthesize as you proceed through logical, iterative sessions. 
(3) Guide participants in summarizing and synthesising by providing time for reflection (individually and in groups) and rather than asking one person to do the work, distribute the task, potentially using a funnelling approach, where the individuals reflect on their own, and then at tables participants share their reflections and come up with 3 key points, and then these 3 key points are shared in plenary, and then in plenary participants are invited to suggest the key patterns or trends emerging across all the different interventions.
(4) Provide templates to capture synthesized ideas – asking clear questions and providing space for key points to be written in.  Having well-structured templates to capture information makes any post-event summarizing or synthesizing much easier later (for participants).

(5) Use methodologies for synthesizing and summarizing. For example, rather than having an open discussion on various controversial statements, write the statements on sheets around the room and invite participants to place a sticky dot representing their position from strongly agree to strongly disagree, along with a place to write open comments.  Then assign randomly mixed small groups to analyse the various results sheets and describe reasons for the results, and suggest implications for going forward.  This way, rather than lengthy conversation, you quickly and effectively provide everyone with the opportunity to express their perspective, and distribute the role of analysing and summarizing to sub-groups of participants.  You could then combine this with a carousel discussion, where participants add to the work of previous groups doing the analysis and synthesis.

(6) If you feel you really need to summarize (because someone’s gone off on a tangent and you need to bring them back to the task at hand), do it as a question rather than a statement.  For example: So do I understand correctly if I say that the 3 next steps are x,y, z?  Or simply invite someone else to paraphrase for you:  So, could someone please summarize or paraphrase that for me in a few words that I can capture on this flipchart?   (There is usually someone in every group who prides themselves on their ability to synthesize!)

Related blog posts:

As the Facilitator, how do you go about striking the right level of visibility and intervention in your workshop – walking that fine line between saying enough and not saying too much?

Here are some suggested strategies:

(1) Prepare a script for yourself (and edit this during the meeting).  Whether you tend to say too much or too little, this can really help.  Write out key points to communicate to the group about the desired outcomes of the meeting as a whole, the process and methodology of each session, and questions to put to the group to check in on progress.  This will help you make sure you keep on message and say enough, without saying too much.

(2) Repeat yourself without being overly repetitive.  When it comes to groups of people with diverse language skills and learning styles, it is really important to reinforce your messages without repeating yourself in a time-consuming and tedious fashion.  Consider, for example, writing the outline agenda on a flipchart sheet in the room which you keep coming back to, ticking off as you progress through the sessions, and reminding people of the logic of the agenda – connecting what you’ve done (lightly) with where you are heading next.  Similarly, have your desired outcomes visible in the room for reference. 

(3) Be careful about those brief briefings. When briefing a specific session, remember that people digest info in different ways. Some people understand better reading than just hearing what you’d like them to do, whilst others need to talk about something to make sure they have understood.  Write up (on a flipchart or slide) details such as questions for discussion, how much time they have, what and how they should capture the discussion, and how they will share it with everyone afterwards.  Having briefed the session, ask participants in the group to summarize back to everyone the task, checking whether anyone else understood it differently.  And/or ask questions to the group test whether they are listening (e.g. So, if we have 30 minutes, at what time are we going to reconvene – according to your watch?)   

(4) Aim to ask questions rather than make statements.  Asking a powerful question you can make a great intervention, leading participants down a path of questioning, whilst allowing them the space to respond as a group.  If you aim to ask questions rather than making statements, you are less likely to say too much, and participants are more likely to listen to what you do say.

(5) If you have a tendency to take an overly visible (and vocal) role in a group, design in more small group work and less plenary… You can’t be in all small groups at once! 

(6) Be sure to focus what you do say on the process.  Beware speaking about the content, unless relating the content to the process and progress on the task.

How can you have confidence in achieving the desired outcomes when you’re not a subject matter expert; and also when you ARE a subject matter expert (but your role is as facilitator)? Consider the following:

(1) Remember that it is better to know little about the subject matter but all about designing a great process to achieve the desired outcomes, than to know everything about the subject but little about process! Mastering the art of client briefing conversations and designing great, detailed agendas are key.  

(2) Remind yourself that facilitators do not need to be subject matter experts (and often are not!) What facilitators need to do is ask the right questions to the client (who may or may not be subject matter experts themselves).  It is paramount that you fully understand – and are sufficiently conversant in – the context of the meeting and what it hopes to achieve.  It is the role of the participants in the room to bring the required expertize.  Your role is to guide the process.

(3) If you are a subject matter expert, think about how you can contribute your expertize before entering the workshop room – both in bringing your expert knowledge to the agenda design process, and potentially through your contribution to other preparatory steps.  For example, contribute to a presentation or video to be screened in the session, or reply to a pre-session participant survey, the results from which are used to focus the conversations.  As facilitator – guiding the process – you contribute greatly to the shaping the direction in which the group thinks and progresses, especially through the questions you ask.  Consider how you can do this appropriately, respecting the trust placed in you as a neutral facilitator.

(4) Check-in with the group, as the meeting progresses.  If you feel happy with the energy and results, ask the group:  I feel good and happy about the progress so far, how about you?  If you feel frustrated and feel that they are too, sometimes it may helpful to acknowledge this and simply suggest taking a break whilst you have a rethink.  You may find it was just fatigue and that people come back refreshed and thinking more clearly with renewed energy and confidence in achieving the desired outcomes.

Related blog posts:
No Such Thing as a Pointless Question: The Impact of Simply Asking

Leveraging the Wisdom of Crowds in our Organization

How do you feel comfortable with a group you know (too) well; and create rapport with a group you don’t (or barely) know (without making it all about ‘you’)?

These strategies might be interesting to explore:

(1) Be really clear about your role as facilitator (see above points about building confidence and contracting).  If you are facilitating a group that you know well (potentially your colleagues, partners, peers, etc.) make sure they know what to expect and what not to expect from you as you put on your facilitator hat, as your contribution to the meeting will be quite different to how you would otherwise.  

(2) Bring your character and personality to the role, whilst being sensitive to neutrality – for example, avoiding anything that would ally you with some participants and potentially highlight or create a divide between you and others.

(3) Remember that you really don’t need to know all the individuals the group you are facilitating; you just need to know enough about them to make sure that you design an appropriate agenda!  Some facilitators like to study participant lists in advance; others prefer not to look at it at all (finding it less intimidating when you don’t know who’s who).  And you don’t always have the opportunity.  If you would like to get a sense of who is in the room without going person-by-person for introductions, prepare some questions for the intro session and do a mapping exercise giving you and all participants a better sense of who is in the room (e.g. stand if you come from the private sector / NGO / government / region x / have expertize in y / have more than z years experience in this area / have been involved in this process since the start / were on the drafting team / are new to this / etc.)

(4) Whether it’s a group you do or don’t know, explore whether or not the group has already collectively established ‘principles’ or ‘norms’ for working together.  If not, consider designing this norm-setting activity into your event, providing a sound basis for collaboration and opportunity for those with diverse learning styles and cultures to express their behavioural preferences.  Alternatively you can simply ask people how they like to learn and work.  Or in some situations you might consider introducing a diagnostic tool as a basis for launching such a conversation (such as MBTI, Strengths Finder or FIRO-B).

(5) Feature conversations around developing a common language (especially with a group of people you don’t know or that don’t know one another), to ensure that there is shared understanding.  This is not only from the perspective of linguistic difference, but also in terms of diverse use and understanding of words (as seemingly simple words such as ‘report’, ‘operations’, ‘project’ can have very different usage and implications depending on team culture, organizational culture, sector, etc.)  Producing a glossary of often-used terms may protect you from making any blunders, and save the group from much wasted time, energy and potentially even conflict.

(6) Whilst you ought to maintain neutrality on the content of the group work, you can show enthusiasm and emotion (if you judge appropriate) when it comes to the progress group is making on their objectives – both in terms of outputs and soft and hard outcomes.  After all, you want them to succeed with achieving their objectives and so celebrating their success (and yours!) is something most participants will be happy to do with you.  Show confidence in their ability from the outset; check-in with them as you progress.  Ask them how they feel.  Vocalize some of your own observations about their progress.  Make a comment to show you care, such as revealing the concern you had felt for a moment.  You don’t need to turn on the tears or the laughter to bring in emotion.

Related blog posts:
How (Not) to Have a Terrible Meeting (Norms / Principles / Freedoms)
Cross-Cultural Collision Caused by One Word: 

Sometimes it is the methodology that is a challenge. How do you go about choosing methodologies that (a) are appropriate and motivating for the group; and (b) interesting for you?

Here are a few strategies to consider:

(1) Work with your client (and potentially the participants in advance of the event) to learn about the participants – their experience in meetings and workshops, as well as their learning styles and cultures.  Can the client provide you with specific information on participants?  Or is the client drawing on (sometimes unreliable) stereotypes in the absence of first hand information?  Remember that there are always exceptions to the rule / stereotype.  

(2) Find out about the groups’ experience with facilitation.  Have they ever had a professional facilitator? Do they have a different facilitator every week? Which methodologies are they familiar with?  Which are their favourites and why?  With which are they bored / fatigued? Are they sick of facilitators “trying too hard” and making it more about the methodology than outcomes? What is their appetite for trying new things?

(3) Assess whether it’s appropriate to try the latest, creative idea you picked up and have been eager to test-run; or whether the group is taking its first baby-steps towards an interactive and participatory approach, and they need a softly-softly approach for now (small group discussion may be a revelation!) – until you have built their confidence in you and expert facilitation practice.

(4) In general, try to design into the agenda a variety of approaches including individual work (which may be silent thinking time), conversation in pairs, small group work and (usually minimal) plenary discussion.  And be attentive to the sequencing so that even if someone won’t speak in plenary, they may have already had the opportunity to shared their ideas in a smaller group context and others who are more vocal can then carry their contributions forward in plenary.

(5) Look to design activities that provide participants with choice in terms of the way they approach it.  They might surprise you with their creativity!  For example, if you need to do a quick visioning exercise, rather than prescribing the means by which people need to report back a small group conversation to the group you might ask them to produce one of the following of their choice: a graphic representation, a series of behaviour-over-time graphs, a newspaper front page, a webpage, a keynote speech, a slogan, a role-play, a poem, a rap, a mime, a shop window, a UN notice board, or to come up with something totally their own.

(6) If you’re a “learner”, keep things interesting for you by signing up to facilitation blogs like www.welearnsomething.organd e-newsletters, such as Thiagi.com for workshop games, or follow facilitators on Twitter for tips and tools.  Join the International Association of Facilitators, or a local branch near you.

(7) Remember that methodologies are only as good as the questions you ask.  Whilst you may be keen to have some fun and try something new, the most important thing to focus on is whether or not you are asking the right questions, in the right way. 

Related blog posts:
10 Different Ways to Do Anything?  Get Inspiration Everywhere http://welearnsomething.blogspot.ch/2011/04/10-different-ways-to-do-anything-get.html
Me and My Multiple Intelligences.  We and Ours

This set of suggested strategies aims to help you in designing a thorough and detailed agenda that is (a) structured, logical and outcome-driven; and at the same time (b) flexible, allowing for flow and emergence. Here are some things to consider:

(1) Make sure you are really tuned in to the detail of ALL of the desired outcomes for the event.  Often clients have a notion of these.  However, rarely are these articulated in a sufficiently nuanced fashion.  For example, rarely is due attention given to both to the desired outputs (such as a written vision statement, an action plan, a letter to policy makers), the ‘hard outcomes’ (such as consensus going forward, decisions taken, items prioritized) and the ‘soft outcomes’ (such as sense of ownership, enthusiasm and energy for going forward, improved relationships between group participants).  Prepare yourself well, ensuring clarity around these objectives AND how they are prioritized by your client and participants.  

(2) Share the desired outcomes with the group at the start.  Then keep checking in with the group on progress towards these achieving these.  If you are making good progress, great.  If you are not, assess (perhaps with input from the group) whether or not what you had planned is going to get you there, and then determine whether you proceed as plan or adapt accordingly.

(3) Check your design is sufficiently structured by asking yourself (and possibly others) what you would expect to get out of each session, giving some examples of how the diversity of participants would answer the questions posed.  If this isn’t crystal clear, think further about the questions and sequencing of sessions.

(4) Plan an iterative process that is – by design – both structured and highly emergent – where the outcomes from one session naturally flow into the next, and determine the focus of conversation.   For example, you may have a tightly timed-agenda with sessions progressing from plenary presentations to table discussions to reflections in plenary to voting on the most important points to small group work on those points.  Highly structured?  Yes.  And at the same time what the group prioritizes to focus conversation on is entirely up to them. For this to work, just remember that it is imperative to be very clear about the logic of the structure and the questions you use to guide the thinking of the group in the early sessions.  Note also that transitions between activities takes time.

(5) Schedule a session where participants determine the agenda – for example, how about incorporating a session in the agenda drawing inspiration from Open Space Technology?  Participants can openly propose table discussions and then other participants choose from this marketplace of offerings which conversations they join. This can be very valuable when people come with something they desperately want to share or discuss with others, but which doesn’t fit perfectly in the logic of the agenda and achieving the desired outcomes.

Related blog posts / links:

This set of suggested strategies is focused on building (a) your stature and confidence as facilitator; and (b) building the confidence of others in you as facilitator. Here are some things you can try:

(1) Model good facilitation practice from your earliest conversations with clients, building confidence from the start.  Prepare for your conversations with clients, considering how you will facilitate the conversation(s) with them.  Be clear on the objectives for your preparatory conversations, as well as the outputs (e.g. physical products such as a design brief for the event) and outcomes (such as a decision regarding the future collaboration).   Consider how much time is available and how you will use that time together.  In some cases you will be having this preparatory conversation with a client group, so you may also like to think about activities you can use to efficiently gather the information needed, as well as to build their confidence in your competencies.  

(2) Consider asking someone else (in authority) – the meeting Chair or host – to introduce you and your role as facilitator, vesting you with authority guiding the process.

(3) “Contracting” (agreeing what you will do and will not do) is key.  In the preparatory stages, you will have already had a contracting conversation with your client. Upon opening the event, re-contract with participants regarding your role as facilitator.  Have a conversation with participants to explain the role you have been invited to assume, what you will bring and what you expect from participants.  

(4) In order to help you with contracting with the group, prepare checklists for yourself and/or a script to be sure that you cover the key points you would like to make.  You may also like to put key points on a flipchart sheet that remains in the room as a reference document.  In the process, acknowledge any technical / content knowledge you have.  At the same time, explain that as a facilitator your role is to manage the process and not the content, and that (even if you have technical expertize) you will defer technical questions addressed to you to others in the room. 
(5) Highlight the content expertize of the participants (you may like to ask a few questions to the whole group to show this – such as asking them to add up all the hours of professional experience with the topic at their tables and then totalling this in plenary, or asking them the number of hours of engagement with the group project / initiative so far, and/or doing a quick mapping exercise to show representation of different stakeholders among participants.)  Honouring the expertize of participants and differentiating your role as a facilitator in this way will reassure them that you will continue to do this throughout your time together.  

(6) Share with participants select elements of the process design (at appropriate moments) and why these have been chosen, ensuring them that expert time and thinking has gone into this.  In doing so, explain why the process design element is in the interest of the group.  For example, if you have planned some small group work, provide the rationale for doing so (perhaps giving some figures about number of minutes each person can participate if each makes a statement in plenary) and how it is the responsible way of honouring the experience everyone can bring and maximizing the knowledge sharing and learning during your time together… after all time is money :)

(7) Build your confidence by practicing in safe environments

(8) Don’t give yourself too much to say in the opening moments.  Plan a methodology or an exercise that gets participant voices in the room whilst you relax into the role.  (For most facilitators, it’s the first few sentences that are the hardest…)

Related blog posts:

There is no one perfect Facilitator profile. Whilst the International Association of Facilitators (www.iaf-world.org) describes 6 Competencies of a Facilitator that we must all master, when it comes to our profiles we can be extrovert or introvert; we can be thinkers or feelers; we can be debaters or peace-keepers; and so on.  What is key is that we know who we are, and that we have strategies in place to ensure that who we are affects our facilitation practice… for the good.

In our “Facilitation by Design” training programme – run within organizations convening many stakeholder conversations – we expressly address how who we are affects our facilitation practice.  With reference to the diversity of diagnostic tools and assessments that participants have engaged with prior to the training, we consider behavioural preferences and explore what this might mean for our work as facilitators. 
Take, for example, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) that suggests psychological preferences in how we perceive the world and make decisions; the Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation instrument (FIRO-B) measuring interpersonal needs and preferences with regards our interactions with others; and the StrengthsFinder personal assessment tool that identifies individuals’ top talent themes.  Reflecting on behavioural preferences – as illuminated by these tools and many others besides – we ask: “How are our preferences manifesting in our facilitation practice?” “How are they affecting how each of us works with groups in a facilitation role?” 
Building on these reflections, each participant then identifies three “Learning edges” or areas on which they would like to focus particular attention in order to strengthen their facilitation practice.  Possible strategies for doing so are suggested.  

In a series of 10 blog posts to follow, we will share insights into recurrent learning edges for facilitators and, for each, some suggested strategies for strengthening facilitation practice.  

Recurrent Learning Edges For Facilitators

Having worked for the last 20 years in and around the Geneva area in the training and facilitation field, after a while you get to know the good places to hold workshops and meetings.

I wanted to put these all in one place for easy use for myself, and for others, as I get asked frequently for recommendations for good venues in the area. This list includes Geneva, as well as the La Cote area – the lovely band of French-speaking Switzerland between Geneva and Lausanne, along the lake.

I focused below on the rooms, food, accommodation availability and access.

If you know of any others, please let me know, I am always delighted to find a new place that is conducive to groups working together in workshop formats!

  • Chateau de Penthes  – This workshop space is near the United Nations in Geneva, but just outside of town in a quiet environment. I have used several times the refurbished attic space (called the “Grenier” on the website for groups up to 50 or so around round tables. They have a nice kitchen that can serve lunch on the spot downstairs or across the park. There is a convenient bus stop and parking. The website appears to only be in French, but I would be surprised if the management did not speak English – try the info practique (practical information)
  • CICG (Centre International de Conferences Genève)– This is a large scale conference venue just in the middle of the United Nations complex. I have held mostly larger events here (100 – 175) in both rooms with fixed seats, and also a nice open space where you can put 18 round tables or more. They are fully set up for simultaneous translation and are also accessible by bus or parking.
  • Le Cenacle – This venue I only discovered in the last couple of years as it is across the lake from me and well hidden away from the busy city of Geneva in a quiet park in the  Malagnou area of town. I have used it for smaller groups – 10 – 30. An additional benefit is the accommodation space, where people can stay. I have used the downstairs “basement” rooms which are very serviceable, if a little dark on winter days – both have natural light and exits to outdoors for group work outside in the park. Good parking and bus access.
  • John Knox Centre – I haven’t been here for a few years, but for a period was frequently using this Centre, located within walking distance from the UN. Like Le Cenacle, it has accommodation, meeting space and a simple cafeteria. It often houses students, so has a very informal feel to it.  I have always used the Meeting Room Flory, an interesting circular room, for my groups which tend to be around 30 – 35 people.
  • International Environment House – There are rooms available in the International Environment House, which is in the Chatelaine area of Geneva near the airport. There are a number of resident organizations here (from UNEP and UNITAR, to the Ecological Footprint Network, etc.) who have access and I have worked here through these partners, but there also seems to be possible access to external users, through GEN – the Geneva Environment Network.

As you start to leave Geneva you have:

  • Ecogia (Versoix)  – I wrote a whole blog post about this wonderful, purpose-built training and workshop facility located about 15 minutes outside of Geneva – If Trainers Designed Training Centres. Of note, is that it is the training centre for the International Committee of the Red Cross and they get calendar preference.
  • Chateau de Bossey (Celigny) –  Still a little further from Geneva (about 20 minutes out by car) is this gem of a chateau which has a wide range of workshop and meeting rooms in the old building (chateau) as well as a newly developed building that holds much larger groups. I have used this venue for small meetings from 10 people, up to groups of 75 in the new building. It has ample accommodation space as well, which is good as it is located in a more rural and quiet setting. It has a wonderful terrace with a view of the lake and mountains, and a very nice cafeteria that can easily serve large numbers (there are often multiple groups there).
  • Best Western Hotel in Chavannes-de Bogis – This hotel is 15-20 minutes outside Geneva on the main motorway to Lausanne (they have an airport and train shuttle to connect people coming from Geneva). The conference facilities are varied, with a big room (we recently have 70+ people around round tables comfortably) and other rooms that can be combined or used as smaller spaces. The hotel staff is very helpful and flexible, and can change room set ups during the day as needed (for our workshop we had drumming in orchestra format in the morning then the round tables and they did this quickly at coffee break). The staff is bilingual and happy to meet and work with organizers and are happy for groups to use the whole hotel – from the rooms, coffee break area (all day coffee break), outside spaces and restaurant for activities. They do nice receptions outside in good weather, with a beautiful view on lake  Geneva from their terrace. 

And further out you have

  • IUCN (Gland)  – In the small town of Gland, about 30 minutes outside of Geneva, sits IUCN’s Conservation Centre, the headquarters of this international conservation community. The Centre also has meeting facilities which I have used extensively throughout the years (as I used to be the Head of Learning there). From small groups to up to 200, in the main conference room, IUCN has nicely appointed rooms of all sizes.  I often use the Holcom Think Tank, which has a beautiful view of the mountains. The photos of the rooms all have rather formal set ups, I mostly use small rectangular tables with 8 people around them (the equivalent to round tables). Access is by road or the Gland train station (just a short 8 minute walk away) and there is an excellent cafeteria which can serve and cater in other parts of the building as needed.
  • Le Courtil (Rolle) – Right on Lake Geneva, Le Courtil is a conference centre with both meeting rooms (many with a remarkable view) and accommodation. Rolle is about 40 minutes outside Geneva and Le Courtil has parking and can be reached by train with a little walk. I have not used the train for access but I know many people do. Others hire small buses from the local taxi companies for access. The restaurant here is very well regarded with family-style buffets with many interesting choices (let’s face it, nice meals at workshops are important!) The rooms are in the chateau or annex and are mostly for smaller groups up to 30 – 40 or so I would say. The website seems to only be in French, but I know that the management are fully bilingual, so write or call their contact number for more information.

Well, that’s my list of Geneva-area workshop and meeting venues – if you have anything to add, let me know!


Most multi-stakeholder processes convene a diversity of opinion around complex issues. They do so with the express mandate of surfacing these different perspectives and working with them – maybe even transforming them – to become the building blocks with which to construct an agreed and robust solution for an important challenge that the parties care about and would like to see change. Big!

In addition, often the goal is to build something together that not one of the organizations could build successfully alone. Sometimes they need help. A neutral facilitator in the role of Chief Process Designer can work with the parties to help lay the foundation for a long lasting, stable outcome. This construction process takes authentic consultation and building a way forward together as the only real solution. And the intention to construct this solution together needs to be held strongly by all sides.

However the gulf in the landscape between the organizations involved in a multi-stakeholder dialogue can be wide and strewn with obstacles that need to be cleared away before a new shared “structure” (project, programme, idea) can be created.

This clearing and the co-creation process that follows doesn’t just start in the workshop room of the multi-stakeholder dialogue event. It starts from the first conversation that breaks ground for this new thing you are building together  – in the preparatory meetings, the calls, and the emails, that are the design discussions for the overall process.

These initial design discussions offer a wonderful opportunity to build trust, to try to understand these different perspectives and to work together to create an agenda or a concept note – effectively the “blue prints” for the process –  that all parties can be happy with. If you are not watching closely however, this preparatory stage can also become an environment which may model what you don’t want to happen in the workshop room of your consultation process.

How can you see the preparation stage as a virtual “hard hat zone”, where everyone needs to be careful and notice potential pitfalls and other possible obstacles that might make your work together less smooth or according to plan? You need to make sure that the pattern and tone of the preparatory dialogue and exchange is what you seek overall in your process. Everyone needs to watch that the attitudes and opinions (even at this initial stage of concept notes, budgets and agendas) are being expressed, shared and received in a way that assures creativity and co-creation instead of precipitating reactions that are more positional (because it is easy to take a position in an environment of so much difference.)

One important thing to look out for is your own stance as a facilitator. Even the facilitator can become a party to this. For example, the facilitator might be tempted to flash their “Chief Process Engineer” badge, and dig in their heels on the process design when suggestions for changes coming in don’t seem to work from their own expert frame. If they don’t notice their own positional stance, this can further exacerbate a fragile situation, or if they can be aware enough to notice it, name it and change it, it can be enormously helpful to group learning in the process.

We want people in the end of our design process to be happy with the blueprints we’re drafting together, whatever they end up being. Just the same as at the end of our consultation process we want people to be happy with their collaborative work and proud of the beautiful new thing that they built together.

If you think about it, the kind of workshops we go to, and run as facilitators and learning practitioners – our strategic planning meetings, our team development sessions, and brainstorming events – are not traditional workshops. The walls are not lined with physical tools, and in the room there are no hydraulic lifts and pneumatic drills, engines and massive circuit boards in sight. (I am working today with a group that is learning about how to do public private partnerships between vocational schools and companies in the heavy duty construction vehicles industry in post-conflict countries – all aimed at decreasing youth unemployment. The event has sparked my thinking…).

When we are doing this work, we walk into empty rooms. There might be chairs and tables, but the tools we use are for the most part invisible. We are lucky when something has been written down on paper, but this is not always the case.

These more ephemeral workshops can involve long hours of people talking. They can go here and there and all over the place (not our workshops of course, but those other workshops). And it is up to us, the hosts or the facilitators, to create a structure that helps us to use our invisible tools to create things, fix things or get some very specific things done.

The more “in the clouds” the discussion has the potential to be (whether a very broad or theoretical question, a visioning exercise, and even learning something specific from masses of experiences), the more creating a clear structure will help keep people on track and focused on the goals and products desired. And the more they will trust a process and goal that might seem daunting or slightly incomprehensible at first.

What are some of the ways a facilitator can help create structure, or make it make it much more visible, from a wide open space of 8 hours and an empty 10 m x 8 m room?  Here are 5 things I did during this workshop:

1.Created a physical schedule – I did this to help me structure my introduction to the agenda, I left this in the room and referred to where we were in the schedule after every break, and it helped people to see the flow and trust the process, that we would get where we needed to go in the end. Everyone had an e-copy of this in advance, but my experience is that people use it (the electronic version) before the event to see if they really want to attend, but during the event, people stop looking at their agenda’s (unless they want to know when the break is!)

2. We are here: This might seem silly to you, but this little marker, that I move every time we go from one session to another, helps mark our progress and march through the agenda.

3. Structure the time with sound: I always carry a bell, or use my iPhone if I have a microphone, to help signal when things are changing, when activities are done, when groups need to change or when the break is over. This just helps to signal boundaries on activities that help people hear and trust that timing is being measured.

4. Number things: In these kinds of workshops I tend to number everything. I number the questions that the speakers will answer, number the tables for group work, number the sessions on the agenda. It helps as shorthand which can give time savings, it helps see the length and scope of things, and it helps give structure to the space or discussion.

5. Make Templates: Help structure the capturing of data, by making flipchart templates, A3 templates, A4 templates, listening cards, etc. – you can even border the paper, to create containers for the many ideas that come from the groups’ work that will help shape the products you want to generate. It gives the feeling of structure (and also gives structure, keeps people on track and makes sure you are all answering the same question, and not some memory of a question you read orally 10 minutes ago).

In our workshops, we structure the wide open spaces of our minds and imaginations, our words and ideas, to help us get clearer about, and achieve, our goals.

In the end, we facilitators are architects of air. I love that idea!

This is an occupational reality that I need to remind myself about from time to time related to the work facilitators do. The resulting advice that I give myself may also be pertinent for trainers, event planners and staff members with bosses using “just-in-time” management or a firefighter approach to work.

You are invited to join processes when they are very important.

Leaders, teams and organizations invest in external support and help when the outcomes matter greatly – they need to gather information for the next submission of a critical funding proposal, they are bringing all their dues-paying members together for an annual inspirational meeting, once in every five years the Board meets to do strategic planning, they are trying to develop a historic industry standard through a multi-stakeholder process. These events can be milestones in the sustainability of an organization.

What if you, as a facilitator, have all of these things happening in the same month?

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen all the time, but it can certainly be the case that you have two or three big projects winding up very close to one another on your own calendar. Each one heating up in the weeks just before – potentially all at the same time.

It is important, as the Facilitator, to put yourself in the host organization’s shoes and not be surprised when calls run over (maybe by as much as 1.5 hours), when they really want to see you and not just have a conference call, when they are eager to talk through an idea with you  even at 11pm at night or on Sunday morning when they are having their last preparatory team meeting. The event you are helping them with might be THE event of the year for them and they will be putting every ounce of effort into it. And they will make many exceptions to make sure it is absolutely perfect, which is great, and will invite you to make them too.

What can facilitators do to manage these exceptions? 3 things immediately come to mind:

  1. Build in Resilience: This particularly in the form of time. Don’t schedule 15-minute interviews 15 minutes apart, don’t take meetings in 2 cities with only as much time as it takes to get between them in between, etc. Things will go over, they will be delayed because of last minute things on the host organization’s side, they will be postponed because the programme is not quite developed yet, etc. Building in resilience to take these changes (which may be last-minute-before-the-event for them, but be all the time for you, the facilitator) means keeping space in your schedule and in your head to work with these exceptions. 
  2. Husband your Resources: Try to maintain your routine even amidst these exceptions. Eat properly, exercise and above all SLEEP! Don’t wind up going to these very important events with a sleep deficit. This is another way to build in resilience so that too many late nights in a row don’t render you less than your usual creative and calm self. I wrote a whole blog post about this: Facilitators: To Your Health! 
  3. Planning, Planning Planning: And of course, this is perhaps the obvious one, but easy to short cut when you might be contacted late in a process, or when organizations are eager to save funds (understandably in the current global financial climate many sustainability organizations are particularly sensitive to this). This might sound counter intuitive, but more time budgeted for planning and preparing your event can easily mean less time needed for last minute fix-its for mission critical meetings. And again, good planning and preparation will build resilience into your system, because with all the known things planned and organized you can be more open to fielding the unexpected whether before or during the event. And unexpected things will happen – expect them! (These can be rather extreme –  I was holding an international learning event with 250 people in Moscow when 9/11 happened, we stopped everything and devoted a full day to dialogue to try to understand what was going on in the world from many international perspectives – from this, to a handful of people losing their luggage thus taking out one of your support staff members for a while to deal with that.)
All of these things take some effort in the short term, but have long term benefits. For facilitators, like the ecosystems or humanitarian aid or precious metals our host organizations are managing, building in resilience makes our work more sustainable. 

As facilitators (and human beings) we make all kinds of assumptions about what people want out of the workshops and processes we help them run. Some of these assumptions might be around getting results, or at least the sheer volume of results we can help a group of people generate over a day or two.

It is typical at the end of our workshops that the walls are covered
with flipcharts, completed templates, prioritised ideas, timelines, and next action sheets. We regularly put groups to work on key questions and then
after reporting seek from the group their observations about the
results  – what patterns do they see? What additional meaning can they
derive when you put all this work together? We ask for reflections and take away messages. We might capture these nuggets of insight on cards or paper,  and quickly we have mountains of data that we facilitators
assume are equally and fantastically valuable to the hosts of the event.

While these ideas and summaries look like gold to us, we might instead
encounter a programme manager who looks at the wealth of raw data and
asks at the end of the workshop, “What am I supposed to do with all this?”

Well, unless the process needs to be minuted for transparency or
accountability reasons (and sometimes this might actually be the case), I see no reason why every single post-it note or flipchart needs to be typed
up and put into a long, dry verbatim report, that potentially no one will use. Sometimes a simple photo report (like the ones I make in Penultimate – see blog post Fast and Easy Workshop Reports with Penultimate) will do as the archive of raw outputs. This can then be crystalized into a more useful and meaningful short report, with decisions and next actions concisely summarised.

We all need to remember that workshop activities can serve different purposes. Some might produce concrete written results, but some might be designed to produce softer, more intangible results, such as team development, warming up for a creative brainstorming, or helping to shift mindsets or attitudes. These latter activities might come and go with no written trace, with results only to be experienced in a more harmonious working atmosphere or a particularly innovative outcome later on.

Some discussions might be most useful for peer learning, so people might take their own notes of what is most useful to them. If the group has a central repository for group learning, this could be still be archived for on-demand learning in the future. In which case perhaps only highlights, contact /persons and places to go for more information need be captured in a searchable format (sent by email and/or uploaded on an online platform).

Sometimes the results produced are for the participants and sometimes they are just for you. For the latter, it might be most useful to let “results” pass in an ephemeral way, or with some discreet note taking on a notepad by the facilitator or project manager. Such as the answers to the following questions: How easy was it for you to contribute to this exercise? What did you enjoy about the day, what would you like to be different tomorrow? No need to capture these things on a flipchart. Unless of course you want to refer back to it again at the end of the next day to see how you did, but that seems heavy handed unless the process of the day was a train wreck (and hopefully that would NEVER be the case).

So as facilitators we might sometimes get a little carried away with
writing things down and capturing everything.

And our host organisations might get carried away too. It might be the case some times that our counterparts  think they want to know something but really they don’t have the latitude to make the changes that might arise from a highly generative exercise. Or they might be working with a different timeframe (short term vs. long term) or they might have other parameters, such as budget or human resources, that pose boundaries that need to be carefully explained to a group before it starts its work. As without careful consideration of these, the results are rendered almost useless.

So the discussion of results forms an important part of the
consultation stage of a facilitation design process. It needs to happen at the overall workshop level, but also for each session and activity. Facilitators much check their assumptions –  this conversation is a time
where the facilitator listens deeply, and asks good questions. For
example, for a session that aims to share “best practice”: Where will the good practice lessons generated go after the session? Is it for individual participants’ learning or should it be captured and archived? If the latter, then where will it be archived and in what format? Who will use this later? How will the results be fed back into the process in the future? And so on.

I think we should always be very clear what results we want from a
workshop discussion, an exercise, from group work, etc. Every session conducted should have a purpose, and the answers/outputs/results are in some way useful for the process.  Without this the whole exercise can become very expensive  busy work. Whether results are captured for long term use, or whether the discussion just helps move the group mentally from A to B, this should be crystal clear to both the facilitator and the workshop host.

Whenever you are convening people you should always want results; whether they are written down or not doesn’t always matter.

As Facilitators sometimes we get asked to prepare reports from our workshops. Normally we at Bright Green Learning encourage the teams to do this as report preparation is an excellent learning opportunity and helps the team to process the results of the workshop in a more in-depth way. (See our blog posts: Don’t Outsource It: Learning from Reporting and More Learning from Reporting: Using Reporting for Teambuilding)

And it is true that when you use very interactive workshop methodologies, the meeting room after your workshop can look like this:
 Penultimate Blog room
With walls covered with flipcharts, cards and post-its people usually say “what can I do with all this?”

Typing them up is the first thought, and that can take a very long time and often be challenging to organize (this of course is also part of the learning process from the workshop – identifying what is useful input and important for the next steps in the project or process and what is not.) In my experience, you will rarely get a volunteer willing to do this! I also find that typed flipcharts, when they come back to you in Word format, can lose a lot of the context, feeling and creativity that went into the workshop brainstorming and discussions that produced them.

Another option is a Photo Report, and this has been done for a while. I remember when we took photos with our digital cameras, then downloaded them off the data card, pasted them into PPT and then inserted the photo slides into Word documents, fighting formatting and creating mega-heavy documents that in the end we had to distribute by USB stick as they wouldn’t pass as attachments. (I will fully admit that even then this was probably not the most effective way to do this). Things have gotten a easier with smart phone and compressed files etc.

However, EVEN easier now is the winning combination of an iPad, writing stylus and a nifty app called Penultimate.

Ipad and stylus
Penultimate was recently acquired by Evernote, which I also love, although even before this partnership I was a Penultimate fan.

To use Penultimate for a quick and easy Photo report, you just need to start a new Notebook in the app:

Start a new Penultimate Notebook

Once you are in, you can take photos of your flipcharts, your cards work, your exercises using the photo icon on the page of your notebook.
Penultimate photo icon
Once you have the photo there on your page, you can resize it, change direction, copy it to multiple pages, and best yet, you can write on or around it (as above!)

I use my notebook to create a living memory of my workshops, from both the content point of view, and the process. For example…

I capture notes and maybe an important slide from a presentation that I want to remember:
Penultimate screen with writing
I capture a workshop exercise in action with some of the highlights of the discussion (and you can write more neatly than I did here!):

Penultimate REnatus

I record the results of a card activity theme by theme:
Penultimate cards

I can remember how I set the exercise up and how it ran:
Penultimate Exercise
And more!

The number of functions is pretty rich for the purpose of creating a Photo Report from a workshop.

As you can see you can select from a range of 10 pen colours (including white and yellow for writing on dark photos as on some of the photos above). There is also a selection of three line thicknesses, so you can make titles stand out or put emphasis on particular words or images. If you make a mistake you can undo it, or change your mind and re-do it. If you like lined paper, plain paper or graph paper, you can change it at any time.
Pen icons
As you can see, I use the photo function most heavily. Once I take the photo I always change the size of the photo, move it around, and sometimes put multiple photos on a page (see an example of this in the photos above). If you really need to read the text however, then 1 per page, expanded will work best.

You don’t even have to worry about taking your photos in order. I walk around and snap images of key flipcharts or processes with my iPad  when I have a free moment during my workshop, and then I reorder them afterwards with the drag and drop feature – which is very much like you would use to change slide order in PowerPoint in the slide sorter view.  If you forget your iPad, you can also use your iPhone for the photos, but then you have to upload them to your iPad photo archive by email afterwards and then insert them one by one into your Penultimate Photo Report. It takes more steps, thus more time, but is relatively straight forward – it also means that other people can send you photos to incorporate.

Once you are happy with your Photo report, you can send it as a pdf by email (if it is not too too big – it can actually quickly get too big for this in my experience), or you can open it in Dropbox and then share the folder, other options include Skitch (also an Evernote product) and Day One (a journaling app). Because I am also an Evernote user, I have it sync to Evernote and then I can just share the URL for that Evernote file by email with my workshop participants. This step will take some fiddling around. I open it in Evernote on my iPad, then open Evernote on my ipad where I then see my Photo Report. Then I sync my computer Evernote until I see it there too. At the end of all this it is easy to use the “Share” button to get a URL that you can paste into an email. It sounds more complicated then it is!

Overall, if you are pretty quick with your photos, and then any notes you want to make on them, you can do it all in about 15 minutes –  an immediate and super quick memory of a workshop. If you want to make it very pretty and take it on like a scrapbooking exercise, then of course it can take longer, but it feels creative and fun! Gone are the hours and hours of typing up flipcharts into massive, boring Word document Workshop Reports – of course, you could still let someone else do that after you send your Penultimate report. They will thank you for making it more manageable than struggling with a huge roll of unruly flipchart sheets and a teetering stack of facilitation cards!

stack of old papers

Sometimes I develop the first draft of a facilitation agenda for a partner’s workshop from scratch after a consultation, and sometimes I am sent the first draft to explore and work with further.

When the second scenario is the case, as it has been for the last few workshops I have done this month, I noticed that there are a number of things – details and what might seem like very small things –  that I consistently look for (and often find may benefit from tweaking).

I just looked through the last five Zero Drafts of agendas that have come to me and here are the top 3 areas where I rather consistently noticed things and suggested alternative pathways…

1) Timing: This is one of the first things I check when I receive an agenda and tends to be a place where more questions need to be asked, such as:

  • Is the timing realistic? 
  • Is there enough time/too much for presentations and discussions and activities?  Are the presentations way too long and discussions way too short? Is there enough time to add up the results of a vote or cluster the cards you collect so people are not just sitting and watching you do something?
  • Is there any discussion or reflection time built in at all? 
  • Is the incremental timing put in and does it add up? E.g. Within a session block is there detailed timing for the introduction to the session, presentation(s), Q&A/discussion, briefing of an activity, activity and presentation back? Or is it all lumped into “1 hour”? What about the time it takes to load last minute presentations, or for speakers to walk to the front of the room and get settled? Or for people to convene into smaller groups?
  • Is the placement of the breaks and lunch appropriate in the agenda? Are the gaps between them too long or short? Are the breaks realistic considering where they are geographically in the venue and how long it takes for people to get to them? Buffet versus sit-d own lunch?
2) Questions and Language: The second thing I look at are the questions that launch activities and discussions and I ask myself: 
  • Are they appropriate, understandable and crisp? (We don’t want our participants saying “What?” after we read the question to them)
  • Do the questions get us the information we need to know for our expected outcomes of each session?
  • If they are intended to promote discussion, are they interesting, open questions?
  • Does the language used to frame the questions take participants in the right direction? (I am a fan of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) and tend to redraft questions into this format – here’s an example of where I did an AI “Makeover” on an activity to take it from STUPID to SMART)
  • Are the questions answerable? Can I answer them myself? If people want an example, do I have one?
  • Is the timing sufficient/too much for answering the question?
3) Variety and Placement of Activities: The next thing I do is zoom back up and look at the overall flow of the workshop and its various activities. I look for the following:
  • Is there a logical build of the session – e.g. does it have the Welcome, Introductions, Context Setting, Peer Exchange, Work/Task, Application, Reflection, Closing, in the right order,whatever that might be for his event? 
  • Is the flow incremental enough to give everyone the same starting place and bring everyone along?
  • Has any one facilitation technique been overused? Are participants spending all of their time with post-it notes, or presentation followed by Q&A?
  • Is there variety in media used – PPT, video, storytelling, Pecha Kucha, Ignite, Prezi?
  • Does the activity match the output needed? For example, if we need reflections and agreement from the whole group on an idea, does the activity allow everyone to comment and make the idea more robust? (or does the Zero Draft only include a short plenary discussion where the bravest and loudest 10 participants will take the floor and the other 50 will stay silent – at the end of that you can’t say that the whole group agrees!) 
  • Are there sufficient “capture tools” – that is, are there flipchart templates to support group work, listening cards to capture questions when presentations are numerous or long, individual worksheets to record ideas where plenary time is not sufficient for some reason? 
  • Does the activity sequence use the whole room or vary where the participants are positioned if possible? Can there be variety in facing the front, working in small groups in the corners, leaving the room all together for a Pairs Walk?
After these big ones, there are a number of other things I check out when I am working from a partner’s Zero Draft for a workshop, especially when I will be doing the delivery myself (and even if not, they should be clarified for any facilitator who will stand up and make the workshop run smoothly):
  • Is the language used consistent – when referring to documents or results (Action plans, timelines, etc.)?
  • Are there session numbers and are they sequential (I always assign session numbers as it makes signposting for participants easier and the planning discussions with partners more accurate)
  • Do I understand all the acronyms? (often not the case, and even google will give you 25 different versions of them)
  • Is it clear who is doing what? Are the names of the people responsible for different parts put in – I always add a separate column to my Facilitation Agendas to document who is speaking, or facilitating or chairing at any given moment.
  • Do the names of the speakers/contributors have titles and organizations? I will need that to introduce them.
This exploration process can take a couple of hours to really work through an agenda in great detail and ask these questions, and if need be to make some suggestions on what to add or what to change on the Zero Draft. 
Sometimes these kinds of questions can take partners by surprise as it is normally not the level of detail that they are focusing on when they put together their initial agenda. Facilitators, be gentle. For many, groups processes are a jungle and a trip into the unknown. After all, that’s why they came to seek advice from a facilitator in the first place!

Like feel-good movies, Jane Austen novels, and rocky waterfalls heading for their pools, workshops are often built around divergence and convergence.

Everything starts well enough, our heroine and hero bump into each other, there’s a fancy dance or a lovely stream meandering through a meadow, our workshop begins with laughter and high expectations and settles into its comfortable context-setting phase. Eventually Mr. Darcy jumps into a pond and things are looking bright.

Then we start to brainstorm, our stream gets a bit faster and it crashes over the waterfall across hundreds of rocks as it plummets. Mr. Wickham rides off with a younger sibling and all seems lost. Our brainstorming produces lots of complex messages, ideas and contradictions. Time is tight and we have to stop for lunch.

Will it ever come together? Will there be a lovely cool pool at the bottom of the waterfall? Will there be a wedding at Pemberley? Will we get some resolution to our strategic workshop problem that no one seems to agree upon?

Well, therein lies the craft, at least when it comes to workshops and matters of Regency-period novels (waterfalls are nature’s choice, sometimes workshops seem like that too).

How can you get that convergence, after blowing something apart so thoroughly to explore the broad diversity of participant views, or to probe taboo matters of sexual politics in the 19th century? Or for some geologically unknown reason (to continue with our waterfall metaphor here because I liked that picture up there and it kind of works).

To get convergence, you definitely need time (especially if you do not have gravity on your side). Depending on how much divergence there is, you may need hours, many pages and many chapters, to pull things around. And if you don’t have this time or page count, or can’t get this, what results – that open or almost done feeling –  may feel slightly unsatisfying. Instead of coming together in a deep blue pool, the waterfall disperses and filters through gravel out of sight. Lady Catherine de Bourgh wins out and Elizabeth stays home alone tatting into her golden years. Our workshop thoughts and ideas stay on 20 flipcharts instead of being synthesised into one perfect one.

I just left my workshop. We spent a lot of time today exploring many important issues, getting pages of great ideas, and diverging satisfyingly throughout the day. But for each big issue, we got close but could not quite reach the convergence we craved. Time was definitely an issue, we didn’t quite have enough of it, not quite enough chapters to let our thinking take its natural course, and a couple of surprise additions. Perhaps less issues to tackle would have been better with more time to get them to the happy end of their story, to their deep blue pool.

We still have tomorrow, but I go to bed tonight feeling a little like our heroine is still sitting at the window expectantly. With some good behind-the-scenes work, a little redesign, and some bilaterals, I hope we will see Parsifal coming up the lane tomorrow…  (yes, I have to admit, I googled the name of Mr. Darcy’s horse!)

Say you run a small social enterprise that is services-based  – like a small learning and process facilitation group that works on sustainable development issues for instance. Then you really need to work to manage the throughput of projects so that you can maintain high quality, uphold your social values and work within the capacity of the team. 

That might sound easy, and it is, if you have a good underlying policy for the kind and amount of work you accept. We sat down recently and made a checklist of things that we would like to be true in order to say “yes!” to projects. 

Because we are working mothers part of our social values include time for children and families, our sustainability values help us focus in on environment and development projects, and our learning edge means that stretching for partners and us is also a goal. Because we’re small, we need to watch the scope of work, and because we work in multi-faceted processes, we know that sometimes there are tradeoffs, 

Here’s the checklist we generated. When these things, or the majority of them, are favourable, we can say YES! 
  • The project deadlines and events don’t clash with important family birthdays, events, school holidays or another booked event;
  • There is sufficient time between facilitated event delivery dates to recuperate energy, change gears (and change clothes) i.e. not back-to-back events – we’ve done some of these and they are hard!
  • The project aims to contribute to sustainable development – this can be broadly defined (environment, natural resources, green economy, population, climate, conservation, etc.) and can be any sector (business, government, UN, international NGO etc);
  • The project has potential to be high impact – that is, there is scope to maximise the outcomes through our input (e.g. good learning or process design, good facilitation and delivery etc.) This is important because sometimes we get asked to “preside” over or only moderate at events and are brought into a tight process in the very final stages, then our contribution or ability to use our tools for learning is small and cosmetic. In this case, we should probably turn it over to someone who specialises in more formal moderation or stage work;
  • The project stretches us in some way, and also if possible the project partner.  We love to learn, both about sustainability subjects as well as using new tools, or learning about new partners and sectors. We also like to bring new things to our partners;
  • It is within our capacity and scope. Although we do regularly put together teams to deliver larger projects, we need to make sure that the scope of work fits within our current capacity to deliver, even if that is just taking on management for a larger team;
  • The reporting for the event-based project is conducted by the project team. We are happy to contribute ideas for a final report for an event, but we don’t take on event report writing for a number of reasons which are written up in more detail in these blog posts (effectively it externalises the team’s learning): Don’t Outsource It! Learning from ReportingMore Learning Through Reporting: Using Reporting for Teambuilding and more provocatively Why Your Facilitator Can’t (Always) Listen
  • If there is travel involved, it meets out travel policy. This includes cabin indications for long-haul flights and travel days coverage for long journeys so that we can work along the way. This is most important when there is a period of heavy travel, and because with small children we prefer to spend the least number of days away from home and so don’t tend to add on a couple of days before an event to relax and recover after a long trip; 
  • Our small size also means that at the moment, we happily provide costing estimates for projects on request, and that on larger bidding processes where substantial design inputs are needed to bid, we tend to send these on to others in our network of facilitators and trainers; 
  • The project fees comes within our standard rates. We have a sector-differentiated rate schedule that we use and maintaining this helps us to do a quantity of pro-bono work annually, whether it is adding a couple of pro-bono days onto a contract for an NGO of CBO (community-based organisation) partner or run a full workshop for a non-funded network or other event (like our TEDxGeneva Change event last year) or provide design inputs or advice, etc. 

    In addition, and this is not so much a criteria but an added bonus, we also love working repeatedly with the same partners, which lets us use our learning from past projects to make the onboarding process shorter and more economical for the partner, and lets us go further with more nuanced knowledge of the dynamics of the organisation.  

    When all or most of these are a “Yes” then that makes is easy for us to say “Yes!” 

      First of all, I wouldn’t dare give any tips about what exactly to do when you have Presidents, Vice Presidents, members of a Royal Family etc. involved in your event. In my experience, every country has its own preferred protocol, and you can be sure that these high-level people also have a team around them who can help you understand and follow it. Normally if you send an invitation that is accepted by one of these people, the response will come from their office and potentially with these protocol instructions – if not immediately, then ask, you will absolutely need it in designing your sessions with them!

      I did however want to make some observations about what kinds of things might be involved in working with protocol for these high-level speakers (as often they are coming in and out of plenaries to address your group.)

      I recently worked on a large event on hunger, nutrition and climate justice which brought together 350 high level policy makers and decision makers with  farmers and herders and fisherfolk (mostly from southern countries) to connect the policy landscape with the actual landscape. As work in the policy arena storms ahead on the post-2015 Development Framework and the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), the event aimed to help those involved at the intergovernmental level base their work on a better understanding of the rights and realities of the lives of the people most affected.

      It was an exciting event and because it had lots of buzz, those high-level invitations were answered positively, and the event was hosted by the country’s President, and attended by a past President, the Deputy Prime Minister, another country’s Former Vice President, and many Ministers from all over the World, heads of various UN Agencies, etc.  So there was a lot of work to make sure that all the the right protocol was followed and also built into the design of the event.

      Here are some of the things that I noticed that we needed to include in our preparations:

      • Get Their Full Titles – There will be an official way to introduce and call upon these highest-level participants. You will need to get the official title for their first introduction (and it might be very long and include His or Her Excellency or the entire official name of their country that you rarely hear spoken). However, after the initial introduction, often they can be called a shortened form of that. There will also be personal preferences, so even if official protocol says one thing for the shortened form, check with one of the office members to see what the person likes to be called. Some high-level people are more informal than others and like to go from the very long title to something much simpler after that (I noticed this especially with some of the younger European Royal Family members in other events, but it was also the case in this event.) Again, their teams will tell you that. And finally, even if they wish to be called something more informal, anything written into an agenda or on the screen needs to remain their full official title.
      • Ask About Seating Arrangements and Accompanying Individuals– There will be a sequence to seating that is usually determined by the hierarchy of people on the stage, so again you can ask about that. There might be some change, as we had, because it can be the case that your session is long and one of the high-level participants needs to leave early for another meeting that outranks this one, so make sure you know what is happening for each of them on either side of their speech. We also noticed that some of the highest level decision-makers will need to have other people with them, even on stage. It could be a spouse and/or a uniformed person who ostensibly carries documentation, etc. We had both of these, so the chair set up on stage needed to reflect this. Seating for some people who wish to stay for more of the session needed reserved front row seats by the door with signs labelled with the person’s name and again, we needed to know this in advance and get those signs on very early before any very keen participants arrived.
      • Fix Timing to the Minute– When it comes to having in the highest level of speakers in a country, at least in this case and in others I have encountered, the timing of the sessions needs to be done down to the minute and needs to stay on that time. Often the person(s) are in a holding room prior to their stage intervention (unless they are in the front row), and it can be the case that the protocol determines that they cannot wait at the door while the previous speaker stops (at all or for more than a few seconds). So you will need, as we had, a signal system between the MC and a team member in the front row and another at the door, and the person who is walking the high-level person down from the holding room. All this needs to be set up in advance (the signal – we used a discreet thumbs up.) Cell phones with the person in the holding room and at the door were also helpful and for over 10 minutes before the highest level speakers came on, we were texting to try to determine how we were doing on time, where the person was, etc.  In the end, it worked smoothly, the doors opened, he came on stage and started his speech.
      • Don’t Expect Interaction On Stage – For the highest level speakers, interaction will be contained (for the most part) with the MC or other speakers on stage. This can take some time in an agenda that is minute-by-minute, as often when they come on stage, they will stop and shake hands with everyone else already onstage before taking the podium. This was the case for the highest level in-office speakers, but for other speakers who were past high-level office holders, there was also unfacilitated and informal interaction during our event. One former Vice President stayed afterwards and spoke to participants and had many photos taken, another past President attended the whole event and was totally engaged in discussions and shared meals and stories with participants. At one event some years ago, which featured a speech by a high level member of a Royal Family, she kindly wanted to meet our 100+ participants afterwards and we needed to set up the greeting area in a particular way (with small tables for waiting by country), with guidelines that we all followed on what to do for greeting, and instructions on how that part of the visit would flow. We practiced with all 100 people in advance, with a very good humoured member of her office, which was actually quite fun. (One additional element of this ceremonial visit was finding a place for a helicopter to land at our venue.)

      It is always exciting for participants to have the opportunity to be addressed by very high-level participants, and as noted above, this will always come with some how to instructions by their helpful offices. These inputs can be ceremonial and also contribute some additional gravitas to an event, they can help bring attention to your event from the Press and others, they can underline its importance and help connect what you are doing with what is going on at that level of decisionmaking. And an added bonus might be a warm handshake and a thank you from someone you have only seen in the news, as I received at this last conference, which is always nice to receive.

      (For more information on the conference see: The Dublin Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Climate Justice)