It is always exciting when you get to work with a new organization as a facilitator or learning practitioner. And at the same time you know that every group has its own everything: processes, policies, values, vocabulary, leadership style, secret handshake. So what can you do to understand that as soon as possible? And what can the organization do to help this unaccustomed Facilitator feel comfortable with her new (albeit temporary) home?

If I wanted to build on a theory of domestication that has been developed around technology (e.g. how does an iPhone go from something you have only heard about to an essential part of your life in 3 months or less – I wrote a previous blog post on this titled, “New Technology: It’s Not Just for Christmas“), how might that inform how organizations can work with new Facilitators? This goes both for groups who have never worked with Facilitators and those who are “breaking in” a new one.

The often-cited steps to domestication (which I have converted over to onboarding a new Facilitator) are:

1. Commodification: Preparing the ground for initial appropriation of a new Facilitator. This might include clearing it with the Executive Director, or the Board, and certainly the staff with whom the Facilitator will work. This includes the “design” and “marketing” of what kind of Facilitator you want, and what you expect that Facilitator to do. Do you need someone who has a background in your field, what are their Terms of Reference? How will these Terms fit into the existing tasks of the current team members. How will you tell your participants about the Facilitator, and how will this person be described? And when the term Commodification is taken in its original meaning, that is assigning an economic value to something not previously considered as such, you need to be able to put the tasks and time of this new Facilitator into financial terms. For example, is there a budget line for a Facilitator?

This step of Commodification helps to start to integrate the new Facilitator into the daily life of the organization. Although some of this will happen before the Facilitator is engaged, it is important that the Facilitator is also included in much of this, from being asked to comment on the Terms of Reference, to being introduced to the team, and their individual roles and responsabilities. And, as the Facilitator is a person and not an iPhone, she will most certainly have questions to ask!

2. Objectification: In the technology theory, this step means that the new item is positioned in the workplace and integrated into daily life, that is, it turns up in your environment consistently. This might mean that the Facilitator has a regular meeting with the team, or a regular conference call during the planning stage of your event. Hier email address and website are shared, along with all the necessary contact information, and put on the internal knowledge network where you can easily find it. Maybe a Skype invitation is sent, the Facilitator features in your Contacts list. The Facilitator becomes a part of the daily conversations around the event or meeting.

3. Incorporation: This the third stage of domestication, which means that the Facilitator just becomes a part of daily life (for the life of your event). At this point, you don’t have to try to remember to copy things to your new Facilitator. She is just on the cc line of every email that is sent out about the event. You remember to ask when decisions are being taken that might affect a dynamic, preparation or the results of a session. And the Facilitator is in the room when new aspects of the design, set up or delivery are being considered.  You are comfortable with the Facilitator, and the Facilitator is comfortable with you. Once this stage is reached, the Facilitator can continue to listen deeply around the process, to dynamics, power asymmetries, to learning from past events, and is now able to contextualise descriptions of scenarios, biographical details, and the hopes and dreams of individual team members and participants for the outcomes.

4. Conversion: And this is the fourth stage in domesticating your Facilitator. One of the well-known writers on domestication, Professor Roger Silverstone, wrote that in this final stage users want the perfect fit and an enhancement of their life and work without destabilisation. In the end, if this process goes smoothly, you will have a Facilitator that understands your organization, the internal processes and unique personalities, and shares your view of what progress looks like.

Once you get to this last stage you have a domesticated Facilitator. The investment made to domesticate can help you again in the future when you need him or her to help you reach your goals with a little updating, but overall without much additional effort.

I have been domesticated by a few organizations now, and I have seen real benefits to this – in terms of finer and more nuanced understanding of topics, quicker connections with participants through the use of their own vocabulary (read: jargon), less real time spent in session by participants trying to explain “how things are done around here” to the Facilitator, greater ability to identify negotiating points, better more provocative questions to focus discussions, and of course a reduction in preparation time needed (which equals lower budget lines to cover Facilitation). I have seen some preparation processes go from needing many days to read, meet, discuss, revise agendas, etc., to just an initial in-depth meeting, one or two agenda revisions, a pre-meeting walk through and delivery.

It is worth putting in the effort to domesticate your Facilitator; it helps them do a better job for you, and helps you get productivity enhancements and adds real value when it is done well. And with a Facilitator, you always get a full battery…

Many people say they are not good with names, and apologize in advance for forgetting yours (over and over again). However, if you are facilitating a new group, it doesn’t ingratiate you if after the first few hours you still cannot call on people by their names. Or worse, call them by the wrong names; or even worse, start to only call on the people whose names you know (I’ve seen this happen, but of course YOU would never do that!)

What About Name Tags?

Many workshop organizers kindly try to help this by using name tags. Yet somehow at the beginning of the session there are miraculously still many left over on the registration table, when every seat is filled. And it is even more remarkable how you can not read a name printed in number 10 font from more than 2 meters. Or how thoughtfully people put them on at the beginning of the workshop and then as the morning wears on, and they feel more comfortable (from your good facilitation no doubt), take off their jacket or sweater, nametag firmly affixed, and hang it over their chair. And you can forget more than 20% of your participants remembering to put them on for Day 2 (do you?) – by then everyone is sure that everyone else knows their name. Finally, if you are a facilitator that is new to a group whose members already know one another well, they will probably not think to have name tags in the first place.

So what about name plates then – those folded over paper cards, that could help, right? Well, just one change around for small group work  (and we want that interactivity) and the names are all in the wrong place. And there is also something slightly amusing about the fact that, when name plates are only printed on one side, people seem more often than not to put that side facing themselves.

So failing name tags and name plates, what else can you do to get good with names?

Use Group Introductions Strategically

Well, normally workshops start with some kind of group check-in or introduction, with participants sharing their names and organizations, or something about themselves. Just before they start this, quickly draw the layout of the room (tables at least) on the top of your agenda. Then, write down their first names as they say them, indicating where they are sitting at that time. If you jot down a key word or two, or the colour they are wearing, that can also help. “Introductions” is also the best time to ask people to repeat their names if you did not quite catch them (then write them down). In the end you have a full seating plan, and even if people change later on, you can usually remember where they started, or greatly narrow it down, and use it for reference as needed throughout the event.

Usually at some point, workshop organizers also distribute participant lists, but perhaps not to the Facilitator; they might put them in the participants packs, or they send it to you by email in advance. Make sure you have a copy on hand, whatever it takes, and keep it with you at all times when you start. You can also use that for notetaking during introductions, noting a memorable thing about each person as they speak (although I usually prefer the seating plan capture described above – it’s a visual snapshot of the group). If a Keynote presentation follows and you are in the back, use your participants list or “seating map” to practice names while the speaker has their attention (and they are not moving around).

Here’s another idea, when you write up your facilitator’s agenda, write in all the people’s names who are contributing. Even if people are giving short presentations, briefing an activity, meeting people for the bus – put in their full names and titles in bold the first time they are mentioned. Then with your agenda in hand, you can check the name quickly at any point in the session, after they have made themselves known through this contribution (you will probably be briefing them beforehand anyways).

Use It Or Lose It (Memory-wise)

You can also reinforce people’s names by using them at every possible opportunity (without being irritating, I think that is something that they teach in some job interview courses, and overused it gets cloying). After you say someone’s name a few times you usually have it. That also starts to narrow down to just a few whose names you really don’t remember or are not sure enough of to use in front of the group. At that point check your seating plan notes, or better yet, in the next break go and ask them or ask someone else for their name. Then the first chance you get, use it, twice (Lizzie, you’re next! Thanks Lizzie.)

By the end of the first half day, by combining a few or all of these things, you should have everyone’s name and be ready to work much more closely with the group from then on. It makes a noticeable of difference getting to know a group when you can call each and every person by name – helping them accept you as their process guide, inviting them personally to engage, and encouraging them to try something new and potentially take some steps out of their individual comfort zones.  Do all these things, and you will proudly be able to say, “I’m good with names.”

Any other tricks? Please share them!

Before I started a workshop recently, I checked both of the Fire Exit doors to make sure they were not locked (believe me, it happens). I also roamed around outside the workshop room to find the fire extinguisher, which I knew was there somewhere (under a table – in plain sight if you are 1 meter tall or less). I also checked with the building maintenance team to see where the rally points were in case of evacuation.

These are things I do regularly now when I work in a new venue, and check again in familiar ones. Then I’ll start my facilitation work with a group by reminding them of these safety features, often before we get to the objectives of our day. Sometimes I format this information as quiz questions, to keep it light yet still draw their attention to it – it’s amazing how many people don’t remember these features in their own buildings. (I’ll admit that I didn’t either!)

This practice is drawn directly from my work with companies. In the past few years I’ve worked more and more with large private sector groups, many representing heavy industry, in and around their own buildings. Many businesses will start their meetings with a reminder of this information. In some cases they might do something more substantial called “Safety Shares”, or “Health and Safety Shares.” I even worked in one company HQ that asked visitors to watch a video about building safety in the reception area before they were able to enter the work space for our meeting (where they then still got the Health and Safety Share).

The Health and Safety Shares that I saw were interesting in that they provided opportunities to show statistics about some aspect of safety in the company or in the country/region where it is located. For example, in one workshop a company participant lead the Health and Safety Share with statistics on how many people have accidents from falling down staircases (one UK report stated that 28,602 people were hospitalised for falling down stairs in 2007-2008). This statistic supported the company’s stringent rule (signs everywhere) for holding handrails on the staircases in all the buildings and installations – an earnest rule that sometimes made visitors smile.

In that particular workshop, which was cross-sectoral and focused on sustainability, we brought in the “E” of “HS&E” which is now what many companies have renamed their Health and Safety departments (Health, Safety & Environment). After the staircase information another participant added some statistics about how many plastic bottles are being used, to sensitise people people about waste (15 million plastics bottles are used each day in the UK!) This was presented by one of the NGO participants as the “Environment” part of the “HS&E Share” and framed as a way to help society “hold the earth’s handrail.” It was both clever and profound as a way to interpret HS&E in today’s corporate social responsibility environment.

These Shares might also be complemented by inputs from the participants on things that they see on their way to work – safety infractions or good practice – as a way to bring the messages into their daily life, rather than just norms that are followed at work. All in all, this kind of HS&E share took about 10 minutes before the workshop (we even started a little early to take this into account), and was an interesting and thoughtful way to bring both the practical personal safety aspect into the room (including how to get out of it, fast!), as well as to position the workshop discussion in a much wider social context.

If you look around you right now, do you know where the emergency exit is? A fire extinguisher? Your local recycling station?

Trainitation, Facilitaining?

When Lizzie and I went through the Certified Professional Facilitator process, there was a Trainer (with a capital T) in our group who didn’t get through (e.g. didn’t get certified). There was a clear division between training and facilitating to which the assessors were incredibly sensitive. I remember myself, in one of the oral interviews, getting caught out providing a rationale for a facilitation choice that was more about learning than about strictly moving the process to its product end. The IAF facilitation competency is to “minimize the influence on group outcomes”.

Of course this is highly contextual and I can completely understand the need for complete neutrality in facilitation. And at the same time, what an opportunity a face-to-face get-together provides to help a group develop – to learn to work together and make them better, stronger, faster in their tasks. Especially if the group will be working together again in the future. And if people go to many meetings (and so many people do), and they get enough of this “learning” through their facilitated events, they will become Super Team Members, versed on group process, and practically emerging facilitators themselves.

Building learning into facilitation seems an excellent way to build the capacity of a group to handle its own dialogues, discussions and processes in the future. And it takes some directed learning built in to do it. I definitely observe in colleagues that we have worked with repeatedly in this way develop, over the years, an increased attention to process detail, to interactivity, relationship building, and to the design part of a meeting.

This does eventually put you out of a job as the facilitator, and I think that is fine. It depends on your goal of course – if your goal is to help advance the community generally, then adding learning into your facilitation is a good way to optimise investments made in meetings. And it still takes a while, and gives you an interesting metric (slightly counterintuitive). If you are watching closely and notice that one of your partners is gradually bringing their process design and facilitation in-house, and you are getting less call-outs, or perhaps get drawn in more for coaching team facilitators, then this is a sign that your facilitation is building capacity. As long as the team knows you are there for them and can always come back to support their process as needed. This development can only be a good sign, if you are a Capacitator.

(click on the arrow below to see what I mean…)

I had a design conversation this morning for a one-day workshop that featured 10-15 participants each individually presenting project ideas, one after another. How do you make that interesting (after the third one)? Why not a pecha kucha or an Ignite (the tag line is “Enlighten us but make it quick”)?

Both are presentation techniques with origins in the design and IT world which give presenters 20 slides on autochange at 15 seconds (ignite) or 20 seconds (pecha kucha), for presentations that total no more than 5 or 6 minutes. Both are now global phenomena, yet far from being household words. Pecha Kucha has a good website with samples, and here’s one using Pecha Kucha for sustainability. Some good videos of Ignite presentations are on the Ignite Oreilly site, with more on Igniteshow).

These techniques shifts the whole emphasis refreshingly onto the story and the images and makes it much more fun and creative. One website said, “This is not your father’s PowerPoint presentation.” It all might sound intimidating, but even bad ones are really good (or at least funny and only last 5 or 6 minutes anyways.)

So there are new ways to do presentations, there is also new software for that. Lizzie wrote recently in our blog about Prezi, and what about Keynote that I recently heard enthused over by a super smart 11-year old attending a workshop with his mother (a reaction to the slideset no doubt). In fact, there are 40 listed in wikipedia under presentation programme from AdobePersuasion to VisualBee. It probably has never crossed your mind to try anything but PowerPoint, but if you only have 6 minutes to present something or if you want to get people’s attention in a long series of presentations (or just a long day), it might be worth trying a new format.

Or what about a completely new format for the workshop itself (or at least Day 2)? We have written about using Open Space Technology in the past (see our post Open Space for Conversation and Eating Croissants) and how that technique helps to organize and support learning. There are a range of Unconference techniques that are being used (many again conceived in the IT sector, and often focused on sparking innovation and creativity enhancements). I heard at last year’s Online Educa about the FooCamps and BarCamps that started 5 years ago and promoted as “user generated conferences”. Again the content is brought by participants, and schedules are generated by those with ideas to share and develop with others. A typical FooCamp schedule board looks like this (lots of intriguing titles – I like the scribbled out session called “Howtoons” – I would have gone to that one.)

Again, the objective is to provide those people who seem to have at the top of their Job Description: “Go to Meetings”, with a new and refreshing frame. A 2006 article about this was explicitly headlined: Why “Unconferences” are Fun Conferences: Unconferences – meetings organized on the Web or on the fly – are becoming the no-b.s. alternative to industry gabfests. The mention of “organizing on the Web or on the fly” comes from the fact that many pride themselves in being organized in less than a week, and are “evangelised” or promoted using mainly web tools. Some recent social applications include CrisisCamps held to promote relief efforts for the Haiti Earthquake. They are also short, with one day or half day formats, and a panoply of parallel, one hour sessions. (And perhaps also a driver for the creation of Ignite or Pecha Kucha type presentation formats).

All this is still a lot of talking. What about having a whole session where no one talks at all? Maybe something like a Dotmocracy session could be a calming and still productive way to spend an hour after lunch. I have seen this done for evaluations, but not as it is described here as a way to gather inputs on a specific idea. If you look at the template, it is obvious how you can use this for brainstorming, and you don’t even need those sticky dots that can be a pain to cut anyways. This looks like something that could also work with very large groups, similar to the Camps and Pecha Kuchas described above.

Maybe I am oversensitive to boring. And yet, there are productivity gains to be made from spicing things up, speeding them up, tapping into enthusiasm and creativity, and cross-sector learning from the IT sector – not just from their methods, but also from their eternal willingness to borrow, adapt and mash things up. And for Facilitators, boring is not what we want to pop into people’s minds when they think of our work (I was going to say “is the kiss of death” but that sounded rather unappreciative). At least there is no shortage of intriguing pathways to explore, these are just a few, if we want to help try to bring an end to boring.

Last Friday night I went to a birthday party that a friend of mine threw for herself. It was a nice group size, 10 women, that she had drawn from various of her different social groups. Because of this diversity, everyone knew somebody, but no one knew everyone, except for her. So she decided to play a game, as a way to bring the group together and get conversation going.

At the beginning of the party, in front of the fireplace, we all sat together searching around for things to talk about with one another, work, school, family, our origins – the usual conversation suspects. Going on in parallel, as people came in, my friend would hand them a small piece of paper and a pen and asked them to write something about themselves that was interesting and that the others might not know about them, and give it back to her. The first reaction in almost every case was, but I haven’t done anything interesting! Stumped, people held on to those papers until the very last minute when they would finally write something down and hand it back.

My friend put all the papers aside as we started dinner, and indeed there was one conversation going at one end of the table about school, and another at the top of the table about another topic, and a few people like me in the middle trying to listen to both, but not quite managing to jump in. At that point, getting our attention, our hostess announced that we were going to play our game. She told people that she was going to read one of the statements and that the table would have to guess who had done what. People laughed nervously at first, apologetically restating that they had simply not been able to think of anything very interesting. Then we started, my friend began reading the statements one at a time….and… within minutes we were in an uproar, bursting with laughter, incredulous with disbelief!

This amazing group of people had been all over the world and done remarkable things – someone was being quietly paid to go by train every Friday up to Gstaad one of the world’s poshest ski resorts to teach flute lessons to a couple of students living there (we never found out who they were), one person had competed nationally in Latin Dance competitions and danced in stage shows, another person had a long list of movie stars that she had bumped into (some literally) in New York City and great stories to go along with these, someone else had worked as a forensic DNA research specialist in Costa Rica and mesmerized us with the story of CSI-like drug-related murder that she had worked on and helped solve.

What a completely different conversation we had after that! No more super small talk, there was no going back.

With that small game, not only was the conversation brought together, giving us a shared experience, it also produced an opportunity for us to connect with each person individually, making finding further conversations topics a breeze. We also quickly went to much deeper quality connections, and more memorable ones. I will probably never forget these things I learned about these women, and when I see them next I will be able to reconnect with them in a much different way thanks to this relationship building shortcut. It was a service to social learning too, knowing more about what people do and can do, if anyone asks me for a good music teacher, I know where to send them.

This game also created lots of good energy, and that relaxed people who did not know one another. It helped us share things about ourselves that we are proud of, but that would have never come up in a normal cocktail party conversations (like taking blood samples from dismembered corpses), and gave people a real sense of accomplishment; we all left feeling much more “amazing” than when we arrived. Remarkable what a little social learning exercise can do!

If you want to do it yourself, here are the game instructions:

Materials: Squares of paper (1 per person – make sure they are all the same), pens, a bowl to put them in.

Time: 3-4 minutes per person playing.

Game steps:

  1. As people walk in give them a slip of pepole and ask them individually to write down one thing about themselves that is interesting, and that people in the room may not know about themselves. Don’t give them any examples (they won’t really need them), but you can ask them to think about their past, their home or work life, etc. Tell them NOT to write their name on the paper.
  2. Collect the papers and fold them over; put them in a bowl or hat.
  3. During dinner, or when everyone can listen and see you, announce the game and pull the first paper out of the bowl. Tell the person who wrote it not to announce themselves until someone has guessed, or the group is stumped.
  4. Read the first paper, and start the guessing! When the person has finally been guessed, ask them to talk a little about their experience, ask about context, or for a short story (this is where the good stuff comes) and let the group focus on that person for a time before going on to the next paper.
  5. People will naturally keep track of how many they guessed correctly – if you want you can have a small prize for the person who got the most correct.

Variation: In a workshop setting I use this game just after lunch or on Day 2 or 3, as on the first day if people really don’t know one another at all, they will not be able to guess. If people do know one another somewhat, you can move the game up in the agenda. With a larger group, I mix up and number the cards, and then at the start of the game, I ask people to take out a piece of paper and number it from 1 to 15 (the number of people playing), and I read through all the papers first with no out-loud guessing, simply asking people to write down their guesses. Once I have completed one reading, I go back and read them again in the same order (thus the need for numbering!) and this time, we guess and then move into the wonderful sharing and storytelling as people get to tell more about what they can do and know.

Whether at a birthday dinner or in a workshop, you just never know what a gold mine of experience, stories and knowledge you have with you in the room, until you ask, and then let the evening be naturally taken over to learning about your Amazing Group of People.

I am currently in the middle of an online sustainability learning project that includes facilitating a number of webinars (10 to be exact) for a big multi-national company with staff based all over the world. For this project, I am one of a distributed delivery team from AtKisson Associates which is located in North America, Europe and Asia, because every module features virtual events in all these three regions. Webinars are the main “person-to-person” component of this programme, so they are the anchor of the learning process (and they need to be good!)

I’ve worked with online learning in the past, such as Horizon Live (an early webinar-like platform, but with no video input or participant audio interactivity possibilities), and even earlier with CD-based, email-mediated distance learning. This is the first real experience I have had faciliting webinars that have so many bells and whistles. For this project, we are using DimDim (, which provides the slideshow, chat function, audio for presenters, recording, private chat, whiteboard, video link for the facilitator, and more. For these webinars we are adding the audio interactivity for participants through a call-in conferencing number, which I access by skype.

Needless to say, the first time I facilitated (after a trial run of course) it took me a while to get my head around all the moving parts of this delivery system. At any one moment, I could be presenting slides myself or advancing the slides for a presenter, tracking and answering chat questions, watching myself on video, private chatting to the technology support person in Stockholm, looking for my skype mute button, while trying not to cough or type too loudly, and so on! AND you have to pay attention on top of it, because you are facilitating after all and may need to bring a point back into the discussion later on. (Don’t worry, it gets easier each time to do so many things concurrently – for the video game generation this is probably no big deal.)

I’ve participated in three so far, and during last week’s webinar, anything that could happen seemed to do so technology-wise, testing our creativity, resilience, and Plans B and C on the spot. This morning I facilitated another one, and again, there were multiple, delightful surprises with Dimdim and even Skype at various times within the length of our one-hour event.

Because weird technical things happen during these online sessions, combined with the fact that I need to be fully present in terms of my attention, I find I need to prepare much more than I would have ever imagined prior to this one hour of sitting-at-my-computer facilitation. As a result, I made this checklist for myself – a non-technical checklist for facilitating a webinar. It considers things that I have noticed, about my computer, the content, my environment and myself. With these things ticked off, I am ready for (almost) anything – or at least I am not distracted by things I could have anticipated myself!

Non-technical Webinar Preparation Checklist:

My Computer
There are a number of checks that need to be made on your hardware that is not connected to any particular webinar package. For example:

  • (I assume that I have already tested the webinar package and accepted the webinar invitation.)
  • Close down all competing open programmes that may be running, and shut down any open documents, except exactly what is needed: internet and skype – (all those extraneous open windows, half written email messages and blog/Twitter/FB/LinkedIn pages need to be shut down/saved)
  • Check that the mute button on the computer is not on.
  • Unplug the extra monitor, stick to one (nothing more maddening than having to look two places at once on top of everything else).
  • Check that headphone/microphone cables are in the right jacks.
  • Make sure you have enough money on your skype account.


Whether you are the presenter/facilitator or facilitating another speaker, you will need to be able to anticipate the next slides and have your discussion questions/notes queued up and ready to go.

  • Have a copy of the printed slide set in handouts (6 per page – latest version of course).
  • DON’T staple (it’s hard to turn pages with one hand on your mouse/keyboard/pen).
  • Print slides one sided (as an exception to the rule – turning pages is also noisy).
  • Make sure the pages are numbered legibly (so easy to keep in order as you slide them across).

Environment – Ambient Noise

This is critically important, whether you are in a cubicle or a home office – the latter can be even more unpredictable, as is my case. As the facilitator, you have your audio on 99% of the time, so any kind of noise is a big issue.

  • Turn your cell phone on vibrate (even if it is across the room).
  • Move any other phones like landlines out of the room (they tend to all go off at the same time as someone tries one, and then when you don’t answer it, they try the other).
  • Put a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door (with the time frame of your call).
  • Lock the door.
  • Tell anyone in the house with a penchant for spontaneous hoovering to wait until after your call (nicely so they don’t decide that they never want to hoover again).
  • Let the cat in (especially if it likes to sit outside the office window behind your computer, meows loudly, has incredible persistence and suffers from bad timing).

Environment – Your Office

Managing and preparing the space around you is incredibly important and easy to forget until you are right in the middle of your webinar and shuffling through stacks of stuff looking for a pen.

  • Clear the desk from EVERYTHING except your slideset, one note paper and pen (everything else will be in your way at some point).
  • Add tissues (seasonal)
  • LOOK BEHIND YOU! (Use your video for this -move dead or past-prime plant, coffee cups, extraneous rubbish, strange photos, from view behind you).
  • Straighten up any pictures on the wall or put up some visual interest behind you (NOTE Business Idea: Backdrops for webinar presenters that cover messy office spaces and add pleasing, unfussy visual interest. Swiss alps, Tibetan monastery, Carribean beach view.)


You and the slideset are the only thing that people are seeing/hearing for an entire hour, have a heart and think about it from their point of view.

  • Think about what you are wearing (top half only). Can you add colour, pattern? (Same consideration as for a stand-up facilitator, but from the waist up.)
  • Comb hair
  • Apply lipstick (or increase your video contrast controls – only half kidding here – nothing like a bland, washed out presenter.)
  • Do you need coffee or water on hand?
  • Don’t forget the washroom (you won’t be nipping out during the group work on a webinar)

When I first started this checklist, I couldn’t believe how many things needed to be considered prior to facilitating a webinar. I imagined that if I had my slides prepared I could just sit down, plug in and present.

But there is definitely more to it than that – especially if you want to be able to concentrate on the content and dynamics in a virtual environment where you are getting much less sensory input. In this kind of setting many of your facilitator senses are cut off or drastically reduced -you have no sight to speak of and certainly no visual cues on how people are feeling and following. You also have very little hearing, as most of the time participants are on mute until they want to speak, and certainly none of that sixth sense that helps a facilitator in a face-to-face setting read her participants in order to know how and when to engage them and adjust the process to fit their needs.

So for webinar success, increasingly a feature of a facilitator’s work, you need to anticipate and prepare much more than you might expect. Make your own checklist or add to mine – what have I left out?

(For the checklist without the bla, bla, blah, click here: Webinar Facilitators Checklist)

Just published by Fast Future is a study commissioned by the UK Government’s Science: So What? So Everything campaign on the Shape of Jobs to Come .

The study produced a list of 20 jobs for 2030, which I thought I would share because Rohit Talwar, from Fast Future, keynoted at the International Association of Facilitators European Conference in Oxford last September. His presentation, “Dancing in the Dark: The Future Business Environment”, thoughtfully provoked us all consider how we as facilitators might keep up with the game as the institutions we work with, and the profile of people in them, potentially change.

In that context, he had us imagine a participant group with, for example, age ranges fom 18-200. He questioned how will we structure our sessions, breaks, marketing, preparation, when everyone has global internet exposure and is hyperconnected? How will we work in an extremely resource constrained world – green our events, dramatically reduce costs, save time? When there is incredible ethnic as well as other diversity in the room, how will we celebrate that as well as continually work on issues of difference and potentially tolerance? And so on. For some, parts of this future are already here.

I received this list of future jobs this morning and blogged it because I thought it was interesting to consider how facilitators and learning practitioners might flex methods now for working with all kinds of change in the future (whether it is with body part makers or not!):

The Shape of Jobs to Come list of 20 future Jobs in 2030 (taken directly from their list published on the links above today):

1. Body part maker: Advances in science will make the creation of body parts possible, requiring body part makers, body part stores and body part repair shops.

2. Nano-medic: Advances in nanotechnology offer the potential for a range of sub-atomic ‘nanoscale’ devices, inserts and procedures that could transform personal healthcare. A new range of nano-medicine specialists will be required to administer these treatments.

3. ‘Pharmer’ of genetically engineered crops and livestock: New-age farmers could be raising crops and livestock that have been genetically engineered to improve yields and produce therapeutic proteins. Possibilities include a vaccine-carrying tomato and therapeutic milk from cows, sheep and goats.

4. Old age wellness manager/consultant: Specialists will draw on a range of medical, pharmaceutical, prosthetic, psychiatric, natural and fitness solutions to help manage the various health and personal needs of the ageing population.

5. Memory augmentation surgeon: Surgeons will add extra memory capacity to people who want to increase their memory capacity. They will also help those who have been over-exposed to information in the course of their life and simply can no longer take on any more information thus leading to sensory shutdown.

6. ‘New science’ ethicist: As scientific advances accelerate in new and emerging fields such as cloning, proteomics and nanotechnology, a new breed of ethicist may be required, who understands a range of underlying scientific fields and helps society make consistent choices about what developments to allow. Much of science will not be a question of can we, but should we.

7. Space pilots, tour guides and architects: With Virgin Galactic and others pioneering space tourism, space trained pilots and tour guides will be needed, as well as designers to enable the habitation of space and other planets. Current projects at SICSA (University of Houston) include a greenhouse on Mars, lunar outposts and space exploration vehicles.

8. Vertical farmers: There is growing interest in the concept of city-based vertical farms, with hydroponically-fed food being grown in multi-storey buildings. These offer the potential to dramatically increase farm yield and reduce environmental degradation. The managers of such entities will require expertise in a range of scientific disciplines, as well as engineering and commerce.

9. Climate change reversal specialist: As the threats and impacts of climate change increase, a new breed of engineer-scientists will be required to help reduce or reverse the effects of climate change on particular locations. They will need to apply multi-disciplinary solutions ranging from filling the oceans with iron filings, to erecting giant umbrellas that deflect the sun’s rays.

10. Quarantine enforcer: If a deadly virus starts spreading rapidly, few countries, and few people, will be prepared. Nurses will be in short supply. Moreover, as mortality rates rise, and neighbourhoods are shut down, someone will have to guard the gates.

11. Weather modification police: The act of seeding clouds to create rain is already happening in some parts of the world, and is altering weather patterns thousands of miles away. Weather modification police will need to control and monitor who is allowed to shoot rockets containing silver iodine into the air – a way to provoke rainfall from passing clouds.

12. Virtual lawyer: As more and more of our daily life goes online, specialists will be required to resolve legal disputes which could involve citizens resident in different legal jurisdictions.

13. Avatar manager / Devotees Virtual teacher: Avatars could be used to support or even replace teachers in the elementary classroom, for instance, as computer personas that serve as personal interactive guides. The Devotee is the human that makes sure that the Avatar and the student are properly matched and engaged, etc.

14. Alternative vehicle developers: Designers and builders will create the next generation of vehicle transport using alternative materials and fuels. Could the dream of underwater and flying cars become a reality within the next two decades?

15. Narrowcasters: As broadcasting media becomes increasingly personalised, roles will emerge for specialists working with content providers and advertisers to create content tailored to individual needs. While mass market customisation solutions may be automated, premium rate narrowcasting could be performed by humans.

16. Waste data handler: Specialists will provide a secure data disposal service for those who do not want to be tracked, electronically or otherwise.

17. Virtual clutter organiser: Specialists will help us organise our electronic lives. Clutter management would include effective handling of email, ensuring orderly storage of data, management of electronic IDs and rationalising the applications we use.

18. Time broker / Time bank trader: Alternative currencies will evolve their own markets – for example time banking already exists.

19. Social ‘networking’ worker: Social workers will help those in some way traumatised or marginalised by social networking.

20. Personal branders: An extension of the role played by executive coaches giving advice on how to create a personal ‘brand’ using social and other media. What personality are you projecting via your blog, Twitter, etc? What personal values do you want to build into your image – and is your image consistent with your real life persona and your goals?

Whether you agree with this list or not, it is still interesting to consider how things change (both with the people and the context) as a learning practitioner and facilitator, and consider how you notice this, and how you adapt your practice to work with it.

I have been spending the last weeks at my desk developing a shared “curriculum” for a trio of sustainability leadership development programmes in different parts of Africa. I find myself writing about activities that help people make impact in their contexts and communities, and about how to take ideas from rhetoric to behaviour change.

That’s what I’m writing about, but what I’m doing is actually the opposite. I’m taking action and putting it into words. And I realise as I write this shared curriculum, ostensibly from existing materials, for a global programme that has already existed for some 15+ years, how useful and unusual it is for practitioners to take this extra step in their capacity development and facilitation work. That is, to actually write their “curriculum” down, or record it in some way – to capture more than just the content, but the learning process used (the learning objectives, the frames, the questions, the activities, the timing, etc.) Here are a few reasons why I think this is useful and important in this day and age.

Finding efficiencies and economies of scale

This curriculum development exercise was initiated because of a consolidation of three existing programmes who want to create efficiencies and economies of scale from sharing past and future learning investments and practice. These programmes are located in the same “region”, but that region is Africa, and we all know how big that is. So frequent face-to-face work and oral exchange becomes less viable, and flying the one person around who knows how to do X-by-heart is also more problematic. It needs to be documented some way so that everyone can use it.

Democratising the learning process and creating on-demand resources

Writing the process learning down, or recording it in some way, helps move the learning from the expert model, where the knowledge is kept in one or a few people, and makes it available to a wider community of other facilitators (or would-be facilitators). Although distance knowledge sharing is aided by conference calls and video skype, (although still somewhat limited by accessibility), it is still rather impossible to download days (or years) of process this way, and unless you record the exchange, it is not available later when you might need it as an on-demand resource. And even if it is recorded, it is probably not tagged so not searchable later (and who will wade through 40 hours of hand-held workshop video?) I know change is coming in this area because I participated in a demo webinar of Quindi, which is a software package that aims to capture all aspects of meetings including video recording, which then is organized through tagging and bookmarking, but I have only just heard of this recently and not seen it in practice yet.

Promoting knowledge retention and exchange

When each programme team started their own training work many years ago, they probably did not anticipate that they would be in the position one day where they needed to share everything. In this global programme there were initiatives to report on curriculum, outlines were shared, presentations made, but not a lot of learning content was shared across the network and used by other programmes. As a result, I am not finding as much of the curriculum and learning process documented as I would like for this exercise I’m undertaking. It exists in the heads of the facilitators and faculty, but without a great deal of investment, that is very hard to use. Putting action into words can help document the learning process into reusable learning objects which then can be shared and really used.

I wouldn’t mind how this was done – practice and learning materials could be taped and YouTubed and well-titled, recorded into how-to podcasts, blogged, or simply written up (well-labelled -not pdfed please, what a pain to reuse!) and stored on a hard drive somewhere ready for emailing, even better on the cloud. Not only would it be useful for me, but it would be useful for anyone new (and in this time of high turnover, new colleagues are not unusual.) We would all benefit from this tacit knowledge of how things work, whether it is to build it into a new learning process, or share good practice with other parts of the larger leadership development network.

Creating Social Learning Opportunities

Writing things down or recording them in any way takes time, and it is certainly easier for a facilitator to simply have a learning framework in your head, to put together your materials and make it happen. And this immediacy can be very good for learners (but not so good for your peers – in fact, the better you are at facilitating learning activities, with your stock of tried-and-true games and activities, the less likely you are to record your process I find.) However, I think you can do both. If you want to contribute to social learning, and in turn benefit from the conversation that happens when someone can see and query your practice, then find some way to record it and make it useful to others who can then benefit from your work and grow the practice overall.

People who work in leadership for sustainable development need to help leaders make transformational change, and put their words into action, but in order to help this leadership learning community to strengthen its own practice, we also need to put this action, somehow, into words.

Many of us go to hours, days, even weeks of meetings and workshops as a part of our working life. Then when we return home have the added pleasure of trying to remember what happened and what we agreed to do.

Thankfully many of us also have developed good systems for tracking our next actions (I’m happy with my GTD practice, which 2 years after adopting is still going strong), and of course we also rely on the organizers to send out a report which further reminds us what happened and what’s next. These reports take many forms, and a good one is one that we a) actually read, that b) keeps the interest/excitement/momentum of the hours/days everyone spent together, and c) encourges follow-up on our part.

With the flurry of meetings and workshops that most people experience as part of their work process, how can you make your own event memorable? What can you add during and after the event that makes it stand out and finds a little home in the grey matter of each participant for the duration of your collaborative work?

Helping people remember is something that can be built into a workshop process. Like the deliberate process of creating a story from an experience – it helps people to organize and contextualise information, distill its meaning, reorganize it into a lean narrative, and create a product (story) with title or tag that is easier to remember and reuse later.

You can of course, literally, ask people to create stories from their experiences at the end of a workshop, and practice telling each other these stories and notice the great ones (people can always share and use each other’s stories). You can also use techniques like some we saw at the Society for Organizational Learning conference last year, which had “Weavers” (two charismatic people who opened and closed each day, Sonny and Cher style), who effectively linked or wove together what was going on in the conference into funny stories and jokes -again contextualising the information and applying it to real life in a humorous way. They created and told the stories for us in that case.

That conference also had a Slam Poet duo – Tim Merry and Marc Durkee – who by the end of each day had written a rap-like song, with guitar accompaniement, which pulled out a few of the strongest points from the day’s plenary presentations and built them into a strong refrain. To get big messages to stick, they even had a sing-along component. You can’t get much more memorable than that (600 people singing along to the key messages over and over again).

Visual facilitation and graphic recording are two practices that also help to create icons and memory triggers for participants, not to mention helping information and data creep over from our rational left to the creative right side of the brain (more brain real estate cannot be bad). The image above (of me!) was created in a recent workshop by Fiami, a Geneva-based graphic recorder and visual facilitator, who worked at the back of our room to capture the essence of the discussion in one pane images which are informed by his work in “bandes-dessinees” (which translates (poorly) into comic strips). His work creating one frame images with captions is slightly different than the main-stream graphic interpretations by visual facilitation groups such as Bigger Picture, a Danish group with which we have also had the pleasure to work.

Bigger Picture, like many of the visual facilitators who work in the tradition of David Sibbet and The Grove (often credited with first bringing strong visuals into planning and strategy processes), capture the process in murals which visually track the progress, decision, discussions of the group in real time. With this approach, at the end of the workshop, you have a large graphic artifact (literally meters of interconnected drawing) which ultimately can be reproduced as a poster for each participant if you have the budget (they are not cheap). These mural creation processes, which do go on quietly at the back of the room during your meeting, have the most impact if some time is built into the agenda for participants to interact with the visual – validate it, add their own post-its of icons and meaningful words here and there, and reflect on some of the key messages. With these visual “fingerprints” of participants embedded within it, the final visual’s utility as an aide memoire is greatly enhanced.

The number of groups around the world working in visual facilitation is growing. Many of these practitioners are connected through networks like the International Forum of Visual Facilitators and vizthink which operate globally, the latter of which includes all kinds of applied visual techniques.

Whatever you do (come up with your own!) you can increase your chances of success, longevity of ideas, and active follow-up to your workshop by being more memorable for participants. It might feel a bit risky at first, but my experience has been that participants are most thankful for the extra help making their time spent with you in the workshop more actionable.

All week I have been working with a mixed Private Sector/ Not-for-Profit group (the latter from one conservation organization) in a joint learning exercise about partnerships between these two different sectors. It was structured in an interesting way, the first two days were internal to the conservation organization, with headquarters staff joined with their regional and national office counterparts. The third day invited a wide range of interesting and interested multi-nationals, and the final day featured a more intimate meeting between those private sector partners with a more formalised relationship with the NGO, and the relationship managers from both organizations.

This was a marathon meeting for some, and almost more so because of the highly interactive nature of it – no sitting and vegging out during hours of plenary presentations. At the same time, this intense interactivity in a workshop – working in pairs, individual reflection with Job Aids, trio Peer Consult walks, Learning Cafes, Graffiti Boards, Carousel discussions – all has accelerating affects on the group development process. And if you succeed and get far enough in developing trust, open communication and comfort around authenticity in the group, what that often means is that at one point in the agenda, the group kicks out one of the exercises. I’ve seen it happen over and over again.

That happened in our meeting, and while my counterpart (who had picked that session to facilitate) was a little distressed by this, I saw it as a strong indicator of success.

How can it be successful if a group decides to not play along with an exercise, but instead tells you that this is not the right question or activity, and proposes another one? That sounds scary from a facilitator’s point of view, and this might sound counter-intuitive: if you are a good facilitator you need to be ready for that.

When a group kicks out a session, it can be a sign that the group, the network or team that you are building, is making its own decisions. It knows where it needs to go, and is comfortable enough with the relationship they are building together, and with the facilitator, to articulate that (in the nicest possible way as we experienced). The group exerts its independence and drives the conversation in another direction. Potentially this new direction involves the Elephant-in-the-Room question – that might have been perceived to be uncomfortable or unsafe early on in the relationship building process – and for which resolution is critical to overall long-term success.

For the facilitator, the right reaction, like in good improv theatre, is to say “Yes!” and go with it. Seeing a decline in dependence on the facilitator at the end of a workshop is always a good thing, and can even be built into the agenda, as the group will continue on its own afterwards, and manage its own processes. So it is an excellent thing if this independence can occur and be practiced in the safe, face-to-face environment of the workshop.

So if a group throws out your exercise, think about it, it might be a sign of a job well done!

Last week I was asked to facilitate a conference call. Sound odd?

Well, originally it was supposed to be a face-to-face meeting on sustainability reporting for a high-level company review panel. In its first iteration it had two people conferencing in from distant time zones. That meant we had to design activities that the participants physically present could do, as well as meaningfully engage the people who were virtual. We created a design and it seemed like it would work, using in part the interactivity of an internal webinar platform. However, before the meeting occurred, the format changed again.

For financial reasons, for time reasons, and for environmental reasons, the organizers decided to hold the meeting entirely virtually, and yet, they still wanted interactivity and a facilitator. Why a facilitator for something that would end up as a modified conference call? Surely someone from the team could convene the call and walk the group through the agenda? It turned out to be a good idea to have a facilitator. Here is what we learned…

First, having someone facilitating the call helped the team hosting it to concentrate entirely on what people were saying (the content), rather than focus on process -and I can tell you that it is hard to do both for a virtual event. In the end, we decided on a blended format – we used a webinar platform to show a Powerpoint slide set which we could control in our HQ office. Then we added a phone-based conference call so that we could talk to one another, as we went through the slides. So my facilitation included managing the telephone (calling on people, mute button, helping people come in and out, getting technical advice), as well as paying attention to the webinar slide show questions and the transitions (thankfully I had someone else changing slides, I just called them and facilitated their content.) I was surrounded by technology, and still it took just a few minutes to get used to it so it would run smoothly. (Note: We did a thorough test of the system a week before the event.)

Second, having a facilitator also meant that another layer of structure could be incorporated into the virtual meeting and there would be someone there to handle that extra complexity. Rather than asking the question to the group and then opening for comments -thus having people jump in at the same time and potentially speak over top one another (the case in both conference calls and in meeting rooms), I managed the inputs by having a list of participants beside me and calling on people by name. I varied the order so it wouldn’t get too monotonous, and each person got the chance to comment on each question without fail, or say “Pass”. And I could go back to people if someone built on their answer in a way that might change their comment. This way there was no stress on the part of participants about how and when to jump into a conversation, as it is in open conference calls, and no fear of interrupting people. We set some norms at the beginning around brevity and conciseness and people seemed to be happy to support these. Because they were called by name each time, they always knew who was saying what.

Third, we added another interesting facilitating feature of this virtual meeting. We took the decision to send out the slide set in advance, and to design it as a job aid. Instead of just descriptive information, we used the slide format and made it more instructional, guiding participants through the agenda. We included the various questions for discussion and formatted them into something that could be used as a preparatory worksheet for participants with places to fill in answers, and visuals (matrices, scales) to capture responses to different questions. For example, one question included a continuum, which we put on a slide, numbered the options along the continuum (1 to 5), and asked people to place themselves along it in advance with a cross. When we got to the call, we showed the continuum on the webinar and asked people to tell us where they were using the numbers as a guide for precision puroses. We collected these orally and made an aggregated visual continuum for the group and report.

Having the slide set also meant that the few people who for some reason (firewall, etc) could not access the webinar, could follow along on their printed slideset, using the page numbers. Because it was a worksheet, everyone had been able to think about their answers to the questions in advance and have a place to record them for use during our call. We got brief, considered responses and the participants got a practical way to prepare. Because people knew they would be asked each question they could hold their comments/questions and elaborate on their previous answers in the next question.

On final reflection, we are not sure that a face-to-face meeting would have produced very different results. Certainly it would have taken more time for a number of reasons. We probably wouldn’t have sent through a worksheet in advance with the exact questions, and as a result, people might not have prepared as much. Also the quick feedback (supportive/opposition) and the spontaneity of facilitated face-to-face meetings might have encouraged people to speak longer as they took the cue from the group to define their points of view as well as their role/value in the group. Our virtual meeting took exactly 2 hours, and I think it would have been twice that at least for F2F meeting. And we still had good interaction, with people listening to each other (that might also have been because I was calling on them in different order, so as to not miss your turn you had to pay attention and not just lurk and do your email in the background- although I didn’t do that on purpose!)

Conference calls and webinars are getting more and more popular for the reasons cited here. Consider establishing a facilitator role, and some facilitation structure to help your meeting be te most productive learning environment possible.

For an event that combines product designers, technology experts and policy makers, you want to move into as many innovative “integrative” spaces as possible. That takes buy-in from all parties, as well as lots of courage!

On Tuesday, the second day of a 2-day international conference on sustainable products and services in Essen, Germany, we took the familiar format of “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” and converted it into “Who Wants to Be a Sustillionaire” (credit to the CSCP team for the title!) We used this modified format to do something interesting and new for plenary reporting on a series of 5 parallel workshops, in which 200 people from 29 countries took a set of project ideas to their next stage of development.

Many conferences have a combination of plenary sessions and parallel workshops as a part of their design. The challenge is how to bring in the learning and outcomes from the parallel work back to the whole group in a way that is not a boring sequential set of oral reports from the workshop organizers.

It’s an interesting decision about whether to do plenary report-backs at all. Really large conferences don’t bother. Medium-sized ones with community-building goals, often try. And it is a challenge for organizers and facilitators to do this in a way that is engaging and not sleep-inducing (heaven forbid adding into the mix the after lunch snooze-time zone.)

One compelling reason to do after-workshop reporting, is that it ups the stakes in terms of quality outcomes. If you need to report back to 200 people what you accomplished during your 2 hour session, you put some extra effort into it and want it to be good. Another pro is that it promotes more authenticity in reporting, as you have your whole group of 40 or so participants in the room witnessing and hopefully validating your description of what came out of the event.

So there are some good arguments around why to try to bring some of the flavour and learning from parallel sessions into a plenary setting. We decided to do it.

So back to our game session, “Who Wants to Be A Sustillionaire”. We thought it would be interesting to get each of the Project Incubators (the titles of our parallel workshops) to give us two questions, in the familiar multiple-choice format of the game show. We would combine them all into one game round which would be delivered by Powerpoint in the plenary after the conclusion of the parallel sessions.

On each slide we had the question, and then an A, B or C choice. The next slide had the same question with the right answer highlighted. There were 10 questions. Each question was asked to the audience by the game host (in this case it was me), and their answers were collected in different ways. After some of the questions (at least one per workshop) I asked someone from that particular Project Incubator, either an organizer or participant, to tell us a little more about the question’s answer and in doing so some of the results of their workshop.

It was ambitious, we got some laughs, and good humoured responses. In retrospect, I would do it again. Here are some of the things I learned about the conversion process, converting the game show format to the learning format, that I would consider next time:

What I liked:

  1. I could administer the game from the audience, I had a lapel mike and walked through the audience as I asked the questions which were shown on the big screen at the front of the plenary. I also had a hand mike, so I could either ask the group to respond, or I could ask individuals the questions. It made it more spontaneous.
  2. The quiz was at the end of the conference, so I knew many people by that point, and when I needed to pick an individual to answer a question, I knew who might be happy to answer a queston in front of a group of 200 people, and who might add a little extra humour to their answer.
  3. I thought 10 questions was about right, I would not have wanted more (perhaps a few less, but generally, the 10 questions went pretty quickly).
  4. I thought it worked well to collect the answers in different ways. For some I asked the audience to stand if they thought it was A, B or C; or asked them to raise their hands; or ask individuals. I could also lightly play on the ask the audience, phone a friend etc. (although no one took me up on the latter). I couldn’t easily use 50:50 as we always had 4 answers.

What I would try or do differently next time:

  1. I would number the questions (1 to 10), so as the game host, I could tell when we were getting near the end and raise the drama.
  2. I think I would put the questions in order from very easy to hard, like in the game show. Ours were mixed, and all of them had some funny answer choices, which was good, and at the same time made the questions continue to be rather easy. Next time, I would make the first ones very funny and easy, and then get gradually harder so that people didn’t automatically know the answers. It might give me more opportunity to get discussion going within the audience and not just between the audience and me.
  3. I would vary the kinds of questions – we used a template to make it easier for the session organizers to give us their questions. We even gave them some samples, and then asked them to give us the wrong answers in advance and then give us the right answer after their session. I think having different kinds of questions, and different numbers of answers (e.g 2, 3, 4, 5) might have given more variety, and therefore be easier to animate.
  4. I was a good idea to have question “stems” (e.g. What are the priorities for…? What is the role of…?) which were sent in advance (5 days) to the organizers who could use them to frame their questions. In the future we could go back to the game show for some familiar stems, to even further connect the audience to the energy of the tv game.
  5. I would build in a little more time between the end of the workshops and the quiz in plenary – we had a courageous 30 minute coffee break to collect the final answers, check through them and run the game. It did feel like the quiz was very fresh which was great, and perhaps little more time would help iron out any little hiccups, let us look over the quiz as a whole for the build in difficulty and drama, and give us a test period. A lunch break time length would be great.
  6. I might add a final question that is not directly related to the indvidual workshops but was a comment on the overall goal or message of the conference – that could be the 1 million Euro question.
  7. Adding monetary figures overall to each question might have added some fun, at the end I could have asked who wanted to donate their winnings to the Project Incubator follow-up (hopefully everyone would have raised their hand!)

These are some of the things I learned from the experiment to convert a game show into a conference reporting game. It was infinitely better than stand up reports, gave some interesting energy to the end of a lively conference, and gave people a shared experience that could continue to bind them together (more than sitting shoulder-to-shoulder together and listening to podium speakers).

I think it also showed the organizers in a good light, as courageous and willing to try something new. It promoted the idea that there are always new ways to do routine things, things that we might do without giving it much thought, especially in a familiar setting (in this case, like a conference). How can we keep from going on autopilot and missing out on the innovation and energy that comes from trying something different and new? And for sustainability, we will take all the innovation and energy we can get!

A major cross-cultural collision occurred at the end of a recent multi-stakeholder dialogue I was facilitating.

The offending word: Report.

In the final feel-good stretches of a dynamic multi-sectoral, heretofore generative dialogue, progress screamed to a halt when this six letter word was uttered. The precipitating question, expected to be purely rhetorical – Can we issue a “report” from this meeting?

The room was immediately divided between loud answers of absolutely YES, and absolutely NO. Faces contorted, side conversations bubbled up around the room (ok, maybe I am being a little melodramatic, but not too much). Confounded, I took a quick poll. We found that the private sector representatives weighed in heavily on the NO side. But what about transparency, the NGOs said?! Transparency is fine, came the business answer, the problem is we didn’t DO anything to report on. (Chilly silence, after two long 10-hour days.) But, we spoke for 2 days on lifecycle improvements, made some agreements and got some great ideas, claimed the NGOs. But we set no targets, have no deliverables or budget figures, countered the business partners, let’s work together now and issue the Report in a year or two. A year or two!! The NGOs were mystified…

Ahhh, the penny dropped. Report, I thought, that’s the problem. In a company, a Report (with a capital “R”) means End of Year Report, Annual Report, Shareholders Report. They involve hard figures, money, progress, dates and demonstration of concrete targets met. For us, NGOs, however, we write activity or process reports (with a small “r”) all the time, for communication purposes among our wide and varied constituencies, to keep people abreast of issues and activities often while they are happening, as a means to engage our staff and partners in ongoing consultation. Very different notions of that word “report”.

OK, let’s try this again. I asked the group, “Can we send out a meeting summary after our workshop? “ (No R word this time). Unanimously approved, collision tidied up, traffic flow back to normal.

(Note for my Facilitator record: Sometimes I expect and prepare for cross-cultural differences when I am working with groups that include two or more national (or sub-national) cultures; I might not expect the differences that can occur between institutional cultures. These can be as strongly adhered to, and incredibly different, as working with international groups, and present surprises for a facilitator such as the one described above.)

Imagine you are using an amazing venue for an upcoming, interactive conference of around 200 people (or any number for that matter), and you are visiting it for the first time. What would you want to know? Imagine that the venue is not a purpose-built conference centre, but something like a World Heritage Site, a venue that models the content of your conference in some way, but might not have the systems in place as professional conference centres do. That makes it even more important to ask the right questions the first (and second time) that you visit. Here are a few things that I would want to know prior to putting the final touches on the design of any event:


  1. How do people get there? Do they have maps and directions available?
  2. Is it accessible by public transport, and is there parking for those who come by car?
  3. Is there a preferred taxi service serving the venue? What is the contact information?


  1. Do they have staff to set up the venue and individual rooms the night before? Can the organizers get in there early (e.g. the day before) to check room set up and post signs?
  2. Can the staff change the room set up during the day, or must the morning set up last for the entire day? If so, how long does it take to change a room?
  3. What kinds of tables do they have? Round, rectangular?
  4. What kinds of chairs do they have? Fixed to the ground? Fixed together in rows? Movable? Can they be moved by the workshop organizers during the day for small group work, etc., if they are moved back?
  5. Can the organizers post signage for the workshop? Or does the venue have its own signs and post them? What are the rules about posting signs (if any)?

Meeting Rooms:

  1. Are there any limitations to room set-up formats? If so what are they? Can the venue take a suggested set-up format from the organizers (such as cabaret style for breakout groups) and use that, or do they have fixed set up formats?
  2. What are the capacities for the plenary room and breakout rooms, in theatre style, cabaret style, etc?
  3. Does the venue have enough chairs and tables for simultaneous set up of plenary and breakout rooms so there is no delay in set up?
  4. Can flip chart paper and other posters be put up on the walls? If so, is there a preference for fixation (blue tack/sticky stuff, masking tape, etc.)
  5. If nothing can be fixed on the walls, do they have ample flipchart stands, and possibly pinboards (with pins), for the workshop organizers to use?
  6. How are the acoustics between rooms? Can you hear people speaking in the corridors? In the neighbouring rooms? What if microphones are used?
  7. If common spaces are used for workshops, how are the acoustics in the common space? If people are clapping, or talking amongst one another, does that sound travel to other corners where potentially quieter conversations are being held? Are there live barriers (plants, etc.) which might be used to divide common spaces?
  8. If organizers use interactive exercises, or games in their workshops, are there any limitations to using open or common space for these?
  9. Are markers provided with the flipcharts, or do these need to be brought in by the organizers?

Registration and Welcome:

  1. Is there a registration area that can be used to greet people and provide them with their documentation and badges? Where is it? Can it be set up in advance? (the night before?)
  2. If there are any VIP needs (special access/doors), security, or separate waiting areas, what facilitaties are available?

Food and breaks:

  1. What kind of lunch is served? Sit down, served, buffet? If the lunch break in the agenda is short, how can the venue assure that people can eat quickly?
  2. Can all 200 people eat at the same time, or do they need to eat in smaller groups? If the latter, how long is one sitting and how many people can be served?
  3. Where are the coffee breaks served? Can they be outside the meeting rooms to minimize noise?
  4. Can the whole group break for coffee at the same time, will there be a back up at the coffee area? Or are there multiple stations that can serve people quickly, so that 15-30 min is enough for every one to have coffee?
  5. Check the menu options for lunch and coffee breaks-what choices are available? Can they serve special diets (vegetarian, caffeine-free, lactose or gluten-intolerance, etc.) Do people need to notify of special needs in advance? How much in advance?
  6. Is there water available in between breaks and meals?
  7. Is there smoking in the venue? If not, is there a designated smoking place?

Communication and Equipment:

  1. Does the venue have internet access or wifi? Is it free? Is there a code? Are there capacity limitations (e.g. number of people connected)? If so, what are they?
  2. Are there printing or office facilities available for the organizers, for last minute copies, etc. Or for speakers with last minute changes to their presentations?
  3. Are there any cell phone restrictions or limitations in the venue?
  4. What are the cell phone numbers of the key venue service people? Can we have a list of who to call for service, technical, or other issues during the conference?
  5. Does the venue provide equipment such as PPt projectors with laptops (connected to the internet), overhead projectors, video projectors (as needed)? How many of these are available? Are there technical people to help with set up?
  6. Is there a sound system for the plenary, is there a technical person for set up and monitoring?

Breakdown and closing:

  1. What are the organizers expected to do prior to leaving the venue, in terms of venue breakdown, clean up, etc?
  2. Can anyone at the venue answer questions about return transport, flights, train schedules, etc. or help changing or getting bookings?
  3. Is there a place where participants could leave or deposit feedback forms prior to leaving?
  4. Is there a place where participants can leave their luggage on the second day prior to leaving? Is it secure? How do people get things out again if they leave at different times during the day?

No doubt there are more. These are just things that I have seen over the years in conference centres (both things I liked and things that impeded our process because they were not available or there were limitations that we had not been aware of in advance of our meeting.) No doubt there are more. I like to say that we (facilitators, trainers, organizers, and participants) can work with anything as long as we know about it in advance. Sometimes you get a real test, but I can tell you that there is nothing like a freaky parameter to get your creative juices flowing!

I’m facilitating a Partners Assembly today in Brussels, and I’m awake early going over my agenda – the flow, the segue ways, the objectives and outcomes that we want overall and from each of our sessions. I need to know this agenda inside and out, and I realise that this is a lot about confidence.

Agendas for workshops, training courses, meetings, even work days for that matter, are just words on paper. They are words that a potentially large number of people share (we have 60 today but you might have 250 people), and they depend on strong group norms for people to follow them.

So the agenda says that the opening is at 09:00 and coffee at 10:30, or the discussion question is this or that – people could actually easily do whatever they want, not follow the little numbers or words on that paper called an agenda, and simply do their own thing for your 8 hour day (and sometimes people do, as we know.) But the fact that so many people actually do stand up at 10:30 and go for a coffee, and come back at 10:45 for the next session, depends a lot on confidence. Confidence that the agenda makes sense, that the topic and time spent is worthwhile, and that someone is in charge of what might otherwise be an 8 hour free-for-all.

So when you are leading such a workshop, as facilitator, what you are doing is giving people that confidence as the leader of the group in that particular context. It comes through your voice, through your body language, your level or organization, your complete knowledge of what people are doing at any given moment (must not get caught with your pants down not knowing what room Working Group 2 is in) and why (and you will be challenged over and over about the rationale for x or y). And of course you also need to be flexible, because as the group develops over the day, you will want to gradually hand over the invisible programme to them, so that the confidence that started with you, transfers over to the organizers and the participants, and they become the masters again of their process and the outcomes, and ultimately the application and follow-up.

But at the beginning of the day its me, so back to my agenda, and building my own confidence in proposing it and making it happen for a group of 60 people willing to donate 8 hours of their time today to the International Year for Biodiversity 2010.

This week I was asked to facilitate a session on “Brainstorming” for the monthly meeting of the Geneva Facilitators Network (linked to the International Association of Facilitators which certified Lizzie and I last December as CPFs). It sounded like a relatively easy brief, however it proved to need some deeper thinking to make it interesting and a learning experience for the network members who would attend.

The previous week at IUCN we had hosted a Facilitators Demonstration and Learning day and one thing I noticed was that some techniques and materials cause some fatigue from participants from simple overuse. This poses a challenge when you want people to be brainstorming new ideas – if presented with a usual way of doing things, it might not add that extra stimulus to get people thinking beyond the easiest interpretation of the question.

So to start our brainstorming session I put cards on the table and markers and stood at the flipchart and asked the group to brainstorm a list of the “most common brainstorming techniques”. Without too much enthusiasm, they easily generated a list of about 7 of the techniques we all use all the time. The one I was using was the first mentioned (open question, call out, flipchart capture), the next was using cards or post-its (for individual work, collection, grouping, labeling, prioritizing), then came a few others (card races, autumn leaves, wall graffiti charts, a few others), and we had our list.

At that stage I had some rather rhetorical questions – which I asked myself first in my design considerations – why do the top brainstorming techniques get used so often? And if we want a brainstorming technique to help groups generate new creative ideas, what is our opportunity to model that in our brainstorming session? (After our intensive Facilitators Demo last week and some workshops I had run recently, I never wanted to use markers, cards or flipcharts again!)

So the next step of our sequence was to have a discussion around three questions related to brainstorming: 1) What are the most important conditions for successful brainstorming and what can hang up a brainstorming session; 2) What are the most important things a facilitator would need to consider to choose or design/adapt a new brainstorming technique for a group? And 3) What are the crucial next steps after a brainstorming session?

But I didn’t think that running a similar idea generation exercise would get us really thinking, so the groups got the following task:

1. We each picked a card which put us into three groups: hearts, diamonds and spades.
2. Each group had a place in the room (pre set up) with a table and a bag of items. On the bag was the Ace with their suite and one of the three questions (above).
3. Their task was to take 15 minutes to: Design a brainstorming session that would help the group answer their question, NOT using ANY of the common techniques that we had generated in the previous session, and using at least ONE item from the bag. They would have 10 minutes to run their session.
4. People didn’t know it in advance, but the bags had in them an eclectic mix of plastic dinosaurs, cows, balls, blindfolds, musical instruments, as well as the standard cards, tape, scissors and scrap paper.

So I timed out their 15 min and each of the groups had their 10 minutes to run their sessions – and what entertaining and unusual sessions we had!

The results were very thoughtful. The debriefing conversations which followed the three demos served to supplement the answers to our questions. This worked well because they were based on our shared experience of these brainstorming sessions, and as a result they were much deeper and layered than I imagine they would have been if we had simply stood at our flipchart and shot out ideas, or written them on cards for clustering.

In our reflection we went back to those three questions, and asked ourselves about our own process to generate the ideas as facilitators, and also our experience as participants. What did we see as the conditions for good brainstorming and what hung us up sometimes? (e.g. things like lack of clarity on the question or the process, although this generated quite a lot of discussion as some of the facilitators felt that broader questions initially might produce more creative left-field responses an not lead people in one direction or another and ). What did we take into consideration ourselves when adapting or creating new techniques for our colleagues (things like familiarity with the group, their level of trust and risk openness, etc.), and finally what needed to happen next after the brainstorming (here we went from the mechanical in-session follow-up like defining roles and reporting, to the softer side like commitment to action of the group, and celebration).

We finished with our take-aways as facilitators – which included my own – never underestimate the creativity of any group to take on an unusual task and make something interesting and useful for themselves out of it. As long as you hold the goals firmly and with respect, people are happy to trust the process and might get even more out of it than anyone expected. Which is usually one of the reasons groups engage facilitators in the first place.

When do you get the opportunity to watch and participate in the work of 10 different facilitators in one day? We did yesterday by hosting a Facilitators’ Demonstration and Learning Day (see previous blog post: Facilitators Demonstration Day – Bringing Together Supply and Demand).

We had professional facilitators coming from the Geneva area, neighbouring France, and even the UK. We also had a number of facilitators and trainers participate as observers. These practitioners joined 18 of our colleagues in this learning day.

Because it is unusual to get to see so many facilitators in a row, I couldn’t help noting down a number of good and interesting practices that I observed, and wanted to put them on the blog for sharing and future reference (not in any particular order, and obviously from my personal perspective):

  • Labelling: Get stickers or address labels with your name/company on them, and put them on your markers, cables and materials. Then they don’t get confused with those provided in the venue. And if other people help you clear up, they’ll be able to tell what’s what.
  • Branding: Two groups had printed large post-it notes that they used for brainstorming cards etc. with their company names on the bottom.
  • Signage: One team had a flipchart sized sign printed with their organization’s name/logo which they put up in the room.
  • Colour: I definitely noticed when teams used colour – things like markers (more than the standard red/green/blue/black), cards, ppts, and believe it or not, even what they wore. I was surprised how bright colours on people’s clothing positively affected my disposition to the task.
  • Job Aids: There seems to be a line between job aids that are too hand-done and “cottagy” and too slick and somehow “industrial”. I think a combination works well, perhaps hand written flip charts, and printed hand outs? Or something in between. Printed things seemed to tidy up tasks.
  • Table Settings: Home magazines put a lot of effort into giving people ideas of how to lay tables for special dinners. When this happens in a workshop setting, people notice and appreciate it (like an open box of new markers, post-its in the middle, a creativity toy, etc. nicely laid out in the middle of the table for the group). I once heard about a Disney creativity meeting set up, with a placemat for each person, drink, playdough, pens, etc.
  • Economizing Supplies: I appreciate it when people use a whole flipchart for notes as they speak, and not write one or two big words and then turn over the page. Maybe it is my environmental background. Actually, that drives me crazy.
  • Handwriting: I think that facilitators either do, or should, take courses in handwriting. It makes a huge difference when you see great handwriting on a flipchart. People can also practice writing legibly fast – there could be a competition on this at a Facilitators Convention. Of course this also goes for participants. One Facilitator yesterday said he used the “Heineken Rule” when asking participants to write on cards. If he couldn’t read it, they had to buy him a beer.
  • Letting People Read: If you use cards, I like it when facilitators ask people to write large enough on cards so that people can read them on their own from a distance. It saves time.
  • The Power of Nice: I think I am very sensitive to what I perceive as “nice” behaviour from the facilitator, that is genuinely caring for the participants, wanting to be helpful, guiding and supporting. I personally respond very well when I see that.
  • Innovation: It is great to see people innovating on current practice, a little surprise dynamic, way to organize a group, new rules for a familiar game, etc. That keeps it fresh.
  • Working Towards Congruence: It was interesting to see people demonsrate facilitation and then in a short debriefing bring out the methodology and rationale. I realised that it is very hard to talk about Facilitation. I guess this could also be called “Actions Speak Louder Than Words”, a principle that can be applied to nearly anything.

This was a full 8 hour day of on-your-feet activity, and at the same time presented great opportunity for observation. People came away with a great overview of approaches, styles and techniques and some excellent local contacts. Thanks to the generous spirit of exchange and learning, we had an incredibly rich experience with our Facilitators Demonstration and Learning Day.

When engaging a facilitator to contribute to a critical process you’re developing, you want to have one of the following: 1) A very strong recommendation from someone you completely trust, or 2) To have participated in/witnessed/appreciated that facilitator’s work personally.

Well, our unit is able to give strong recommendations for people we know well, but even we are limited in the number of people we are able to recommend. Because we normally work together, Lizzie and I, we don’t often get to work directly with many other facilitators. We may know people who belong to our local or international networks, but don’t often get to fully experience people’s work in order to be able to give a nuanced impression of it. So how can we increase our own, and our colleagues, exposure to great facilitation and the many styles and forms that that takes all in one go? We bring the facilitators to us!

Next week we are organizing a Facilitation Demonstration and Learning Day in our office.

This is a full day session, featuring 8 local facilitators, each of whom have 45 minutes to show us their personalised approach, tools and style. There are no wrong answers here; within a rubrique of 5 broad categories, we have asked them to facilitate a group of us (20+) through a short process, so we can get to know them better as potential facilitators. To help guide the day, we gave the facilitators 5 categories from which to choose: strategic planning and review, multi-stakeholder dialogue, partnership building, leveraging networks, and team development. This will help them get to know us better – we picked processes that are common for our organization, the substance and texture of which our audience will provide, giving good insight to our visiting facilitators into the kinds of issues and challenges we deal with every day in our organization (and that they would be dealing with when working with us).

The audience is us – we are the market, the demand, that is smart future buyers of good facilitation expertise. We invited our colleagues to participate so that they can see these facilitators work themselves. And they can then also recommend them to other absent colleagues, or at least help them triangulate opinions.

We had a great response to our invitation within the facilitation “supply” in the Geneva area. So much that we had to choose, and then were able to invite the others and a few guests to participate as observers. In this case, each of the 8 facilitators gets to decide how they would like the observers to participate – actively or silently. We will make a “fourth wall” behind which a gallery of observers can sit, or they can break through it and actively participate, if the facilitator has an approach that works with a larger group of diverse people and so chooses.

We will also be making a list of local talent, so that facilitators who could not attend can still be featured as potential providers of this service in the future. We have already had requests for that list.

We did not have a budget for this and didn’t want to ask people to pay to participate, but we did not want that to stop us. So we are running this event at nearly zero cost, well, our unit is sponsoring coffee breaks for the group. We are using one of our institution’s onsite meeting rooms, will use our self-service cafeteria for lunch, and both our colleagues and our facilitators are donating their time to this joint learning day.

We’ll learn more about them, they’ll learn more about us, and hopefully this day will herald some interesting collaboration in the future from matches between the local supply and demand that might not have otherwise occurred.

We wrote a blog post recently called Don’t Outsource It! Learning from Reporting, which talked about why the facilitation design team should NOT take on the reporting role in a workshop. Keeping the role in the contracting team helps internalise rather than externalise the learning from the event and process. We wanted to follow up with a practical design on how to do that. Below is a description of a sequence that we used recently at a retreat, which was designed also as a team activity to further support the group development objective of our event. Reporting was not an add-on, but a session in our workshop.

The 2-day retreat had 20 people from a distributed team (people located in 3 geographical locations), that had not worked together as a Group before. So practice doing that, in a way that promoted good intra-Group communication, sharing roles, and co-creation would be a great way to model the desired behaviour of the Group in the future. This reporting task could help do that if we structured it with this outcome in mind. The process design would be important: We needed a way to distribute the roles so that it was equitable, showed the contribution of everyone to the final group product, and produced a useful and internally-owned synthesis of the discussions and outputs generated during the retreat. Here is a description of the sequence designed:

First, identify the key outputs/report sections: Our first step was to take the agenda and identify the sessions which would have outputs that would need to be collected (think quality, not quantity). We lettered these (A-Z) and wrote them up on a flipchart matrix, with the Session numbers and titles of the topics upon which the lucky person would report, and leaving a space for a name. The reason we used letters for the outputs was so it would not get confused with the sessions numbers. Some sessions had multiple outputs, so to share the load, these sessions would have more than one rapporteur for different identified pieces.

Second, prepare your materials and space: Next we created a set of cards with A-P (in our case, as we had 16 inputs to the report) written on them. We prepared our flipchart matrix(as above), and we cleared an open space in our room where the group could make a circle. Finally, in our set up, we picked a number from 1-21 (the number of participants), and wrote it on a small card which we put in our pocket.

Third, brief and set up the reporting exercise: We told people that we would practice creating a group product by sharing the rapporteuring role among the team to create a product from our meeting that would be useful for the Group’s future work together.

Fourth, run the activity: Then we went into our activity sequence, described below…

  1. To begin, we asked people to join us in the open space, and then to self-organize themselves into a circle chronologically by their Birthday (months and days, not years). We found the person with the birthday closest to 1 January, and we asked them to start there and go clockwise to make a circle. Once the group self-organized, we checked the order by sharing the birthdays to see if we had it right. Some interesting and amusing patterns always seem to emerge.
  2. Once the circle was complete, starting with that first January person again, we asked each person in order to say a number between 1-21, noting that we had already picked a number and it was in our pocket, and that we would stop once the number was picked. We went around the circle until someone guessed that number (people could not duplicate numbers already said, and the group kindly helped people to remember what was already picked). We showed them the number in our pocket to verify the winner.
  3. At this point, we showed the group the flipchart matrix with the reporting tasks lettered from A-P, and said that now we would be drawing role cards. That lucky guesser was then the first person to draw from the A-P lettered set of cards, each of which corresponded to a reporting task, which were turned to their blank back so the selection was random. People continued to pick a card around the circle until each of the A-P cards had been selected. Now the 16 reporting roles were distributed completely randomly. And there were 5 people left. Those people were asked to get together in a corner and decide who amongst them (or which two people) would be the Report Compiler(s). That is, the person(s) who would receive all the inputs from the 16 rapporteurs and create the final report for the group. This group went off for a few minutes to decide on this.
  4. Just before breaking up the circle, we wrote the names of the people who had drawn the A-P cards on the “roles” flipchart, so that the Compiler had a record of who was doing what. We all agreed on a date to get the inputs in, and then the process was set, and simply ran by itself.

Throughout the event, we wrote the names of the rapporteurs at the top of any flipcharts or artifacts that the group created. At the end of the event, people took their materials from the sessions for which they were responsable (so room clean-up was extra easy!), and we reminded people of the deadline in the final session. A week later, the report was finished (probably much faster than if one poor person had to write up all those flipcharts).

A great group product was created, and many more people got to think about and put their fingerprints on the different outputs and ideas that the team retreat created. Rather than a report that sits on a shelf, a learning output and process was designed that lets the group practice working and creating together, just like they will be doing from that point on. (Nice design Lizzie!)

I wonder if Harrison Owen knew, back in 1989 when Open Space Technology “escaped” (as its put in the Open Space history), that it would become a facilitator’s favorite? Not only because it helps groups identify the most meaningful topics at the moment (rather than speculating on that weeks in advance without the main beneficiaries in the room), to take ownership and responsibility for the running of those salient conversations (and implementing any outputs), and also gives time for facilitators to take a long break and think about the next steps in their programme.

We used Open Space Technology yesterday, as a part of a 2-day workshop focused on peer learning and workplanning. We picked OST (as it is called in short hand) for a few important reasons, which had to do with timing in the workshop and the kind of results needed.

First, it was the morning of the second day of the workshop and we had invited 6 external partners to come into this particular session. Each came in with a variety of viewpoints and ideas on how this team could interact with their agencies, and suggestions for the team’s future work. We could have had them make detailed presentations and then have a traditional plenary Q&A.

However, the core team members came from all over the world and their contexts and length of experience in implementing the shared programme were incredibly diverse. In order to foster this diversity of interests and needs in the room, we wanted to take the discussion out of a plenary session, where only a few quick people would get their issues heard sequentially, and into a format where people (participants and speakers) could tailor their own discussions. And because there would be a lot of these, we needed to be able to cover a lot of ground and get many questions answered and themes discussed in a short period of time. So for both efficiency and respect to the multiple objectives in the room, OST was good choice.

Second, because this was the last day of this group’s work together, we needed to start to put this back into the group’s hands. The final hours of any facilitated intervention is time in a group’s process when they need to take back the content, as well as the responsibility for follow-up. No longer do they need or want a loud facilitator’s voice mediating their every action. While this might be appropriate when the group is just forming, and many people are quiet and finding their voice and role in the group, this external direction is not necessary or even particularly helpful when the team needs its internal leadership to (re-)emerge, and to take full commitment for outputs and next steps. OST is a good choice for this situation as the structure is set up front, and after that there is no intervention needed by an outside facilitator.

For anyone who might be tempted to try this interesting technique, here is how we set up and ran our Open Space Technology session, which we adapted as a part of a longer workshop, and what we learned.

Getting Some Input: Normally OST sessions are not preceded by presentations, they start with the people in the room, they identify their own questions around the announced theme and the agenda is set based on these topics. For us, we needed to integrate some new information that people could use as a part of their conversations, so our 6 invitees were each invited to make focused 5-minute presentations using only 5 slides, on their priorities, how and where they work, opportunities for collaboration and some questions for the group. In spite of the immediate reaction prior to the workshop to a 5 minute rule (what can you say in 5 min??) we found that the speakers did an excellent job synthesizing and keeping the background to a minimum, and easily made it within their 5 minutes (which we strictly enforced by tight timekeeping from the back.) We did not take any questions at the time, instead we then invited the participants, AND the speakers, to put their questions and areas to further explore on cards, which we then clustered and popped into our time schedule.

Make Time for Scheduling: We ended up having many ideas for parallel discussions, some of which seemed to go logically together. We scheduled theme collection just prior to a coffee break and then while participants were out we did the clustering exercise, grouping like questions, and then when there was more than one question, we assigned two hosts for that discussion. In our coffee break we programmed a series of twelve conversations; three sessions of four parallel conversations for 30 minutes each. This clustering process produced some additional learning – scheduling on your feet takes time. In the agenda we didn’t commit to the length or number of sessions, giving only approximations (e.g. 30 min or 40 min sessions, with either 2, 3, or 4 in parallel), as we were not sure how many suggestions of topics we might get. Allowing ourselves this flexibility enabled us to see the number and diversity of questions submitted and decide on our feet how many conversations we would need to schedule, and whether we would achieve this by adjusting the session length and or number of parallel conversations.

Adding value through grouping: You often get more questions/themes than you have time or slots for, so you’ll need to cluster these. This takes time. We made 12 slots available and received 20 questions. We used 25 minutes to cluster and make the schedule (this was 10 more than the coffee break, but we let people come back late!) We found it useful to have someone familiar on/hand to validate our clustering, as we were not content experts. And next time we would schedule a long (30 minute) coffee break between collecting the questions and beginning the Open Space Technology session. This extra time could be used to clarify the meaning of any questions with the writers if necessary. For this reason we had everyone write their name on their cards.

Inviting self-facilitation: We find this process useful as it distributes responsibility for balanced participation to all members of the group. In an OST process, the small group conversations don’t come with a facilitator, although each session might have a host (the question-raiser), so everyone is invited to ensure time is spent listening to everyone present who wishes to contribute. The context is conducive to this: people are seated at tables (in our case) and there are no flipcharts (though we did provide “graffiti sheets” on the tables – paper and markers). This produced nice conversation circles with people speaking to one another, instead of group orientation towards a flipchart and someone tasked with writing or leading

And also welcome from the Facilitator’s point of view…

Refreshing yourself: OST provides a nice opportunity as the Facilitator to take a few moments to relax and grab a tea, croissant and some precious fresh air. In this process, participants come up with the questions (not you or the client), so they in their conversations can answer clarifying questions about these. They are also free to determine the desired outcomes of the conversation, even the length of time. The posted schedule helps them even take control of the time and close one conversation and open new conversations according to the designated time. We found we could easily leave them to it and take the opportunity to refresh ourselves, eat our croissant, and think strategically into the next steps and stages in our workshop process.

Note: We found some useful tips from the OST website on openings and closings which would be useful for framing and wrapping up a session.

Every 4 years our Members elect a new Council, and we have our brand new Council meeting this week! We will be working very closely with them, and for many in this important group, this is their first time visiting our headquarters. As an introduction, we could have given a one-hour PowerPoint presentation on our organization, followed by Q&A. We could have shown the organigram and a list of our departments, and the names of the heads. We could have even added in photos of the teams that are doing various things. But we didn’t. Instead we organized an Interactive Tour…

Yesterday afternoon, at the end of their first day of the Council meeting, 33 Councillors were organized into four “Tour” Groups. Each group had two of our Young Professionals who acted as Tour Guides, complete with an individual Tour routing for their group, a Fact Sheet hand out of our organization to use along the way, and a lot of energy and enthusiasm. The Tour was divided into three parts. Part One was a whistle-stop tour through the building. Our many units and teams, including our Regional Directors who were attending the Council meeting, had a stop on the tour, for a total of 12 stops all over the main building (upstairs and downstairs and into the far reaches) that the Councillors would make in the first 60 minute period.

Each stop had a host who gave the visiting “Tour Group” a brief 3-5 minute overview of the team and its work. Some offered snacks and drinks, give-aways, pamphlets and brochures, and an opportunity to meet all the members of the team. In that short time, they gave them a flavour of their work and encouraged them to come back for more in-depth discussion in Part Two of the Tour.

Part Two of the Tour was a 60 minute opportunity for the Councillors to go back on their own or in small groups to the places in the building where they would like to dig deeper and have more in-depth discussions. Part Three was a group dinner, with all 170 people participating, with decorated tables all over the cafeteria, in the hallways, lobby and all the central meeting spaces.

The first two parts took 2 hours, the third went on for some time I understand. And you can imagine how much more in-depth the conversations were, after having been given insights of the work of the many various teams, identifying follow up questions, and putting names to faces in the first stages of the Tour.

The feedback was excellent. The Councillors enjoyed the opportunity to get out of the main meeting room and explore the building and see people in their workspaces. They got to tailor their experience by going back and having more in-depth discussions where they wished. All the teams got to meet the new Councillors face-to-face and vice versa, which should make it much easier in the future to approach one another. It demonstrated the hospitality that people feel, and the good will that comes with visitors.

We also learned plenty about doing such a tour in a building with some 150 staff. First of all, overall scheduling was great. Having the joint dinner immediately after the Tour provided an excellent opportunity for people to both reflect upon and digest the information they received, and still have time to find people in a more relaxed environment to ask further questions.

Another bit of learning: there is an opportunity next time for face-to-face briefing for the speakers (we did it this time by email). Tour Guides noticed that some people are so enthusiastic about speaking opportunities that it is hard to catch their eye to call time at the 5 minute mark. Clear briefings with the speakers about time allocations and how to organize content might have been useful for this messaging. Even with such a briefing, some speakers might still find it a challenge to give an overview in 3-5 minutes. Either more time for Part One of the Tour could be useful (and consolidating some of the stops might create this time) and/or encouraging all the speakers to create a few clear messages, and use some props or multi-media for additional information. For example, the person speaking about our new green building project (see my previous blog post on Reframing Our Big Dig ) had three points, a short handout and piece of the unusual recycled concrete to pass around. She still had time to take a few questions. Another host spoke to a rolling slide set of colourful images in the background. We saw all kinds of tricks to get lots of information into a short time span, without having to talk too fast!

In all, the Interactive Tour was a success and much appreciated as a way to get to know each other a little better. This was our opportunity to welcome, exchange, share and set the stage for good collaboration in the next four years.

This morning our Director General invited the headquarters staff for a World Café on our institution’s Organizational Development and Change process. Fifty-four of us met in the cafeteria to participate in the process. Here are some of our “hot” reflections on the event.

World Café is an innovative way to think collectively about an issue, with conversation as the core process. In our case, 12 conversations happened in parallel, and after each of the four rounds we took some highlights from these conversations. With interesting, rather iterative questions, you could feel the energy build as people made connections and meaning for themselves and others. Here are the questions we used:

  • What is your vision of a highly relevant, efficient, effective and impactful IUCN?
  • What underlying assumptions have you had about how we, in IUCN, work? How might these need to shift?
  • What can we do to help identify and embrace opportunities for IUCN’s organizational development?
  • What patterns are emerging from the three earlier conversations? What are the implications for you and for us?

The results of the discussions will feed into our organizational development and change process, through the people in the room, their teams and our individual action. Additionally the process itself will help us move towards some of our articulated goals around creating a culture of dialogue, interaction, and an enabling environment for innovation and cross-pollination of ideas.

Since we (the Learning and Leadership Unit) are the ‘process people’, we captured some of our learning about holding a World Café in our institution. Here is what we thought went well, and what we would do differently next time. We are also sharing our learning with the World Café online community at the request of David Isaacs, one of the authors of The World Café book. (More knowledge resources on The World Café can be found on the Society for Organizational Learning’s website here.)

What worked well with our World Café:

  • The process brought lots of positive energy to a conversation about change;
  • People appreciated being listened to;
  • Mixed groups combined different teams and levels within the organization and gave opportunities to get to know new people (when we asked the group if this process had given them a chance to speak to someone they did not know, almost every hand went up);
  • It was hosted by the Director General and connected to a real internal process where people had questions and a desire to contribute;
  • It linked with an in-house tradition – Wednesday morning sponsored coffee – a weekly coffee morning for staff supported by our Learning and Leadership unit and the Human Resources Management Group to promote internal dialogue and informal learning;
  • We held the World Café in our cafeteria, so instead of trying to transform a formal space (like a meeting room) for informal conversation, we went right to the organization’s kitchen literally for these conversations, which changed the interpersonal dynamic. There was kitchen noise and the sound of coffee machines making it all the more real;
  • We did not use a flipchart to take down the “popcorn” ideas between each round. We wanted to avoid to externalising the ideas and actions too much and directing the focus away from the group. Instead the comments came from within the group, were given to the group (and not a flipchart), and stayed with the group. We did, however, record them all for future use, which we will share with participants, among other ways through the use of a wordle (take a look at this application that creates beautiful word clouds, if you have never seen one)
  • We distributed an “ideas form” to give everyone the opportunity to share some of their top ideas with us afterwards. We handed this out just before the end and also sent an email for people who wanted to send us some ideas electronically. People did a great personal prioritisation for us and themselves, and the act of writing it down also helped people to go through the synthesis process and create a set of potential next actions that might help them remember what was most useful for them.
  • We put flipchart-sized graph paper on all the tables as grafitti sheets. People used them for recording ideas. Added benefits: the gridded paper (instead of plain) made it seem more like a checkered table cloth, and the white paper reflected on people’s faces making the photos better!

What we would do differently next time:

  • In a room not made for speeches (i.e. a cafeteria), accoustics can create challenges for facilitating and hearing ideas from the tables between rounds. To address this we used a soft whistle to get people’s attention and asked people to stand up when sharing their ideas. Next time we would get a louder whistle (!) and we would contract lightly with the group in advance to quickly conclude their conversations when they hear the whistle.
  • In our briefing, we would emphasize further that the host is responsable for ensuring interactive conversations, but not necessarily for recording or reporting back. At the beginning, making this clear would have helped our host volunteers come forward more quickly.
  • Whilst the vast majority of participants stayed throughout, a few people trickled in and out due to other commitments, which was fine. We might have created better messaging to ensure a crisp start. Only a few people had participated in a World Café before, out of our 54 participants; now that people know how it works the next time we might not notice this.

We got some terrific ideas and comments out of our World Café, including many thanks for running such a process internally. People seemed to be happy to take this kitchen table approach to connect and make new meaning together around our organization’s future. And this open process provided plenty of opportunity for everyone’s ideas and concerns to be laid on the table – besides the kitchen sink – which was nearby anyway.

During this week’s workshop (see previous post) we have been acting as Developmental Facilitators, that is facilitators who have as one of their main goals building the group’s capacity to deal with its own issues. As such, the interventions made are aimed at helping the group deal with task and maintenance (group dynamic) issues. These interventions are often made in the form of declarative statements rather than questions, so that the group does not necessarily feel the need to answer to the facilitator, thus drawing him/her into their discussion. But rather considering the interjection and then deciding together if they want to act on it or not (apparently 50% of the time, these interventions are appropriate and useful to the group.)

I captured a number of good intervention statements made this week during our work and thought it would be useful to post them…Imagine that you are with a group that is working on an important project, and you have someone sitting with you observing your work, and they say the following, what would you do?

  • You might find it useful to summarise the objectives and outcomes you expect from this meeting.
  • I see a difference among team members in engagement and ownership of the results of this workshop.
  • Everyone’s putting out ideas, but no one is linking them together.
  • You stated your set of objectives at the beginning of the meeting. Are the behaviours we are seeing going to help you get there, or will they get in the way?
  • It seems that you need your team’s support to make this project work. You might want to find out what support they need from you to participate.
  • You sound defensive to me. You might consider how your own attitude about the proposed change is filtering down to your team.
  • This specific issue seems to be coming up repeatedly and may signal some underlying concerns. If you ignore them now, will you really be able to function effectively as a group on other tasks?
  • A moment ago the group decided to go in this direction and you agreed. Are you going to reverse that decision now, and if so what’s the implication for what you want to get done today?
  • You might want to change chairs and paraphrase what you heard the other person saying.
  • There’s clearly a lot of emotion in the room.
  • I sense some fear in the group around dealing openly with interpersonal issues and wonder if that is blocking progress on the task in this group.
  • When you speak to each other rather than me (the facilitator) I notice that you have more clarity on the task.

These kinds of statements are interesting to keep in mind to tickle the memory about different ways to intervene in groups. They go from safe to very risky and always need to be chosen and crafted thoughtfully. Having said that, these kinds of interventions can be useful whether you are a facilitator, leader or team member – anyone interested in getting a group to think about how it is working and what the members could consider to help them move to a higher level of awareness and performance.

How counterintuitive is that? Practicing how you can create conflict in a group process? Most people, and certainly most facilitators, go to great lengths to avoid conflict, seeing it as counterproductive to achieving some task.

Just imagine for a moment that exactly the opposite was true…

This week we are holding a workshop called “Beyond Facilitation: Intervention Skills for Strengthening Groups and Teams.” This is our second year to hold an adapted version of a Group Process Consultation training workshop. I wrote about the first one held last year at our institution in a post called “You have the right to remain silent“.

Playing with creating conflict has become a leitmotiv today, the third of a four-day training course. We started with an organizational simulation called Lego Man. What may look on paper like a simple team building game, actually does a good job of simulating in 90 minutes a full production process, from conception, understanding the task, defining roles and deliverables, creating a strategy for the process and delivery, making some decisions, and then actually assembling the final product (the Lego man) with some standards to adhere to. Interestingly, one of the learning points from this simulation, noted by our lead trainer Chuck Phillips, is that the teams who provoke conflict among their members are the highest performers (measured by time to construct the Lego man).

But what do people think about this notion of precipitating conflict? For the most part, people’s immediate assumptions about conflict is that it is bad – that it is fighting, and it’s personal, and to be avoided at all cost. Because of this, the standard reaction to mounting conflict is to smooth it over, calm it down, or simply ignore it. Team leaders may do this, team members may do this, and facilitators may do this. Everyone may actively take a part in suppressing conflict. But what that response does, it’s suggested, is to rob from a group an opportunity to confront and consider a difference in opinion, approach, or methodology that may in fact be the key to moving successfully to a higher level of performance or understanding.

Of course there are different kinds of conflict. The kind we would want to precipitate would be from bumping up against people’s assumptions and ideas. This is where conflict can get a team to a new and different level, test assumptions, create new options, and as a result potentially come up with a faster, more effective result.

So we practiced today some of the skills needed to start an ideas conflict – to keep it from becoming a fight – and then to help the group guide it to that moment where paradigms shift and new possibilities arrive. That is what we have been doing today – our best to not let our working groups stay too polite.

Appreciative Inquiry must be powerful, it even got veteran facilitator Chuck Philips of Sapience, to change his frame – or maybe it was my complaining about the title of his brainstorming session last year: How to Have a Terrible Meeting (a.k.a. H.T.H.A.T.M. – see my blog post on this at:

This year, for our Beyond Facilitation Workshop, he surprised me by running a new activity called H.T.H.A.F.M. – How to Have a Fantastic Meeting. And you know, it was just as powerful as its alter ego (although maybe less cathartic!) See the rules on last year’s blog post, and change as your temperment dictates!

Monday was an exhausting day. By the end of it we (and four other candidates) had each undergone two intensive 30-minute interviews, conducted a 30-minute facilitation demonstration (that had to achieve concrete results within that brief time frame), and participated actively in 5 other such demonstration workshops. By the end of that very long day, a team of four assessors took into consideration these elements plus a previously submitted three part, 15-page written application and a preparatory telephone “client” interview and email exchange (with one of our assessors to prepare for our demo), and then decided, based on a set of 18 competencies, if we would become Certified Professional Facilitators (C.P.F.) Whew!

This certification process is conducted by the International Association of Facilitators, a global network of facilitation professionals with national and local chapters worldwide. Their certification programme aims to peer assess and test facilitators’ knowledge and experience in both design and delivery of facilitation services, as well as maintaining a professional knowledge base about the field (our blog helped us here). As the basis of this process, IAF has developed as a community their Core Facilitation Competencies that are grouped under headings such as: “Creating Collaborative Client Relationships”, “Planning Appropriate Group Processes”, and “Creating and Sustaining a Participatory Environment”. Within these categories are 18 sub-items such as: demonstrating collaborative values in processes, engaging those with varying and different learning/thinking styles, and recognizing conflict and its role with group learning/maturity, and so on.

And in undergoing this process, we realised that is so challenging to assess these things in general, and in particular in a “laboratory” environment. So much of the work we do is highly contextual, and our practice very individualised, based on hours, days, months of relationship building with our “clients”. Whether we sit down when a group works, or lightly participate in a group activity, decide to ignore collegial bantering, or focus on visual rather than analytical tools, there is no clear right or wrong in facilitation. That’s what makes certification of his field so challenging, and why this assessment process is so heavy. For 6 facilitator candidates, five peer assessors were needed for a whole day (not to mention preparation and follow-up reporting), working as a group and in pairs to find evidence of all 18 of those competencies, in many different ways and in their many inflections. Thankfully, in the end, these assessors are peers and know very well how challenging it can be to demonstrate in a day, skills that often have taken years to develop.

It was an intense and thought-provoking process, and especially fascinating to understand what this international body finds to be important capabilities for people to have to join their ranks of Certified Professional Facilitators. For us, who use facilitation as one of our learning tools, along with many others, it is nice to know what is at the top of this game for the IAF, and to be acknowledged as a part of that group. We were very happy to pass through. Lizzie and Gillian, C.P.F.

Here’s an observation about human beings speaking in workshop settings: Some people will walk up to the front of the room and quite happily chat away to the group.

Other people, however, will walk up to the front of the room, start to talk, and immediately lock their eyes on you, the Facilitator, and only look at you for the whole of their presentation. Forgetting somehow the other 40 people in the room sitting right in front of them. This is a little bit perplexing for everyone except the speaker, who doesn’t seem to notice.

What’s interesting is that you can do something about this without saying a word or even (almost) anyone noticing. You simply walk slowly and quietly around the outside edge of the room, while the person is speaking, to the middle of the back of the group. You won’t disrupt the flow at all. The speaker’s eyes will follow you the whole way. And then you stop and stand there. Viola, the person is now talking directly to the middle of the group. Even if he is still looking directly at you, at least he is not talking sideways, craning his neck or otherwise looking away from the group.

Of course to use this trick, you need to notice that the person has locked onto you. So you need to be attentive to the speaker. Normally I find this happens when someone is not confident in the subject matter, or simply not comfortable speaking in front of a group, period. So a smiling nodding face (yours) is a comfort and a safe place to look. However, once you do notice, it is time to take action – start walking slowly and don’t worry, you are being followed. Good for the speaker, good for the group, kind of flattering, and easily and gently corrected.

I have several other blog posts that are queued up, but as I left the office yesterday to come to Zurich to facilitate a 2 day stakeholder dialogue, I noticed the following – A facilitator can run an interactive and exciting event with only the following few items (with flipcharts in the room a given):

  • Markers: 1 very thick for making templates (black), 4 regular (different colours for Carousels)
  • 1 small stack of meta-plan cards (different shapes and colours for note taking, ideas generation, question gathering, time keeping, room signposting…)
  • 1 Roll of masking tape (the obvious)
  • 1 deck of playing cards (Pick a card: for dividing groups, selecting speakers, identifying rotation order)
  • Selection of sticky dots (different colours for voting, prioritisation, designating teams and tables)
  • 1 whistle (train whistle of preference: to get people’s attention, to change rounds, to start action)
  • 1 ball (for self-facilitation of reflection, for teambuilding games, for stress relief)

Have facilitators survival kit, will travel. It can take almost any last minute agenda change in style…

We have just finished facilitating three internal retreats in the last 10 days as a part of our organizational development and change process. Two were with new Groups that are being constituted by combining smaller internal teams for greater synergy, effeciency and “network-based delivery” of our institution’s conservation goals. The learning that has occurred through these facilitated Group discussions, about how things work and change in our organization, has been incredibly valuable for both strategically planning action and building these new teams. Our Learning and Leadership Unit will also become part of a new Group in the next couple of months and will no doubt have a similar retreat. The question is, do we facilitate or participate?

Facilitators have many opportunities to influence the outcomes of the processes in which they are involved, if that’s what they wish to do. Before the process, they help to design the agenda and frame the key questions; they pick the sequence that might highlight one issue over another (what gets the after lunch slot?); they identify the technique and capture method used (does the discussion create an artifact for further use or not?) During the process they choose how to brief an exercise; they choose what to highlight in the opening and closing reflections; choose the order of the speakers (including the Q&A); and influence who gets a few moments more airtime and who gets reigned in. After the process, if the facilitator is helping with the reporting, comes a whole raft of other opportunities to influence the outcomes of the process. At all of these points a facilitator is making a decision (albeit a shared decision) that influences the process somehow.

And of course what makes a great facilitator (and one who gets chosen and invited back) is someone who does this incredibly responsably, with fairness and equity, the best intentions of the group in mind, and with an eye on the common higher goal. A facilitator who contributes can be very beneficial. For example, a facilitator who knows a group well can address key interpersonal issues gently and consistently, one that is experienced can provide great added value by incorporating their learning over the years about leadership and good practice; and one well-connected internally can contribute by tapping into larger institutional issues across many parallel processes. So a facilitator at some levels can facilitate and participate.

However, there are clearly limitations to a facilitator’s participation, especially on the relationships and team building side of these processes. For example, as facilitators it is not appropriate to work through your personal relationship issues with team members, or devote time and energy to helping the team really get to know you, your opinion about issues, and how you like to work. In retreats forming new Groups and aggregating existing teams, getting to know one another, sharing hopes and dreams (and maybe fears) as full participants in a shared process are criticial features to success.

So I think that when it comes time to have our own Group retreat, we might help out with the agenda and report, but for the actual event, we will be looking for a good outside facilitator. Then we can be more of ourselves and help our new colleagues get to know us as future team members, including our opinions about what would be best for all of us as fully vested partners in our process. We need to be a part of the change – to facilitate and participate (but not always at the same time).

We found out rather late in the preparation for our major Congress that we could not stick anything on the walls during any of our workshops. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth at this announcement as many had planned terrific interactive sessions needing many sheets of flipchart paper that they wanted to paper the walls with during their 90 minute sessions. However, a crafty workshop designer can work with anything, even the tightest of parameters. Here is one innovation that hatched as a result of this rule – the human flipchart.

Well, everyone was wearing lanyards with their nametags anyways. Take a few volunteers, clip on some blank paper, and some tape, give participants their cards and viola – your interactive activity works, gets even more people involved, and not a sticky blue mark on any wall.

Not optimal you might say, but you never know when you are working in a space with apparently precious walls, the famous carpeted walls, or even no walls for that matter (how nice would it be to do your session under a big tree?) Give a good workshop designer a parameter in advance and with a little creative thinking they’ll design for it. Everything is possible…

Lizzie to Gillian: OK, I think we have everything we need for the retreat except the rope and the blindfolds…

Don’t get too excited, this is Gillian and Lizzie preparing for a 2-day organizational development retreat. We are going to play a communication game called “Islands” . We spent today finding planks, plywood sheets, beanbags, and bricks – more titilating details on how it went later…

Today I found myself in the bleachers of, can you believe, the 5th circus performance in under a month. I have serendipitously enjoyed: one national Swiss circus, one regional Swiss circus, one opening of the World Conservation Congress (which involved four perilous circus performers – I am going to count that), the none-other-than Cirque du Soleil, and a final circus performance of my 7 year old, who takes circus classes after school. That is a lot of circus (circi?) for one person.

Today in the 3-hour perfomance of the regional Swiss circus, I thought to myself, how can these performers distinguish themselves from all the other jugglers, acrobats, and unicyclists? Audiences today, with so much access and exposure, must be the toughest crowds. (Even for those who do not go five times in a just over a fortnight.) How do they keep it fresh and new?

I thought this as I watched the young man on the unicycle. What was so interesting about his performance was what he did NOT do. He did not actually sit on the seat and ride his unicycle around the ring (at least not for more than the first 5 seconds). After that he hopped on it, he threw it up in the air, he rode it sideways without the seat or pedals, and other equally inexplicable things, none of which involved him riding that unicycle. It was a prop, a foil, a bouncing agent, a propulsion unit, something to hold his hat.

Cirque de Soleil was the same – incredibly innovative with what might seem standard circus fare. The juggler was there, with red balls, but he never threw them up in the air. He bounced them off a briefcase, up and down an umbrella, over his head and in and out of his hat. Those juggling balls never touched his hands, but they juggled none-the-less.


Lizzie and I spent 3 hours Friday afternoon working through the design of an upcoming offsite workshop, an important one, involving senior management and a critically important issue. This 2-day workshop would effectively launch a 4-year process. The workshop had exciting things in it, but by the time we got to the afternoon of Day 2 in our design, we were yawning. We still had a few items to cover, but the way they were currently designed was too much of the same good thing. No more groups, no more cards, no more creative carousels, or flipchart template work. We had put in our visualisation, we had light role play to show different perspectives, people had worked alone, in pairs, trios, quads and in plenary. We moved the room set-up around four times. We needed some inspiration, so we stopped.

What would those circus people do with some flipchart paper, markers, meta-plan cards, and balls? Would they have people write their aspirations for the future on flipchart paper, make huge paper airplanes with them and then shoot them out the second floor to see which goals get us the furthest? Would they take those cards and draw items on them that they would put in a time capsule to be opened at the end of the 4-year process that we are planning? Seal them in a box for those amongst us to open at the end to see what life was like in our institution in November 2008? Maybe no agenda item at all, and no materials (some of the most interesting Cirque de Soleil performances were just 2 people and nothing else), maybe a walk outside and an Open Space session to simply deal person to person with any outstanding items.

Inspiration. Who better to get it from than performers who can eternally come up with new things to do with the human body (or briefcases, stools, or trained poodles for that matter.)

Our second lesson as facilitators working the World Conservation Congress had to do with the benefits of continuity. For some workshop leaders, they had one facilitator help them with design, then another one work with them on the actual sequencing and delivery. For other workshop leaders they did their own design and then enlisted the help of one of our facilitators just prior to the event. For others, they made their request for facilitation help during the event.

In most of the cases what we learned was that overall the events where the same facilitator helped with the design, the delivery programme, and then did the actual facilitation for the group, the result was much better. The continuity, the relationship building, the iterative conversation that could slowly educate both on the topic and the process, and the clear “contracting” piece (the social contract of who is doing what), all meant for a more powerful, streamlined final product.

Next time, we will do more to get these matches, between workshop leaders and their facilitators, set up earlier and keep the partners together throughout. Each facilitator has their own preferred tools, their own style and approach they feel most comfortable with – so it makes sense to ask people not to pop in and out of the process, but to sign up for the whole “programme”.

We are here at the World Conservation Congress Forum, which started officially yesterday, One of our activities is coordinating a facilitation team of six who are working on 38 different sessions with session organizers. As this is the first time that we have done this, I thought we would capture some lessons along the way.

The first lesson came through loud and clear in our pre-conference meeting of the Facilitation Team: Design work, education (about different facilitation styles and interactivity tools), and trust building (to try those tools) is a challenge to do virtually.

Our facilitation team and their session leads were all over the world with very little if no chance to meet. So we needed to work differently. We didn’t take as a lesson not to do the prep work virtually, but the fact is that no one had ever done that before -on either side. Normally when you bring in external facilitation help you meet first and do the creation work jointly and use that process to build rapport (at least at the beginning of any partnership).

We found that email was creating long time lags between question and response, it was too either too sparse (missing the info that one side or the other needed) or too long. Many started to pick up the phone or skype and found that a time saver and voice2voice helped with some of the trust-building. I guess video conferencing would have helped even more although we did not try that. As would have a small video library of facilitation techniques that people could see first so not everything would be left to their imagination. If I would have thought ahead about this I would have brought a video to record those activities at this Congress and had them on hand for the next one!

We were onsite early, so have set up F2F meetings with everyone here prior to the events. That is helping, although in a few cases it is coming late for this important interpersonal side. For facilitation collaboration, we need to think about how to use a virtual preparation stage most powerfully. As our teams become more and more distributed, actively seek the intercultural benefits of working with colleagues in other places, we work more from our homes, and try to limit our travel carbon footprint, all these things provide an opportunity to think more in-depth about what it means to take facilitation (at least the prep stage) virtual.

My previous blog post on this topic was ridiculously long, especially for the topic. So I am trying again:

Micro-Lit is the latest trend – the ultimate in pithy reductive literature. Why write a book when 6 words will do?

What ideas might this trend give us for our learning work? What about asking for thoughtful abbreviated responses to feedback questions? Avoid long qualitative anwers and boost creativity. Introduce synthesizing exercises for useful skills building. E.g. Pick one word that summarises how you’re feeling right now? Or let small groups create a 1 sentence review of a speaker’s presentation, rather than a 10 min summary report back. Recapitulate the previous day with a haiku. You get the idea: Multiply meaning and minimize words.

Think short and come up with the perfect triple entendre.

We are coming up to our major Congress, now two weeks away, and working on our assessment instruments among other things. We feel keen to gather as much data, information and feedback as possible from the thousands of participants attending to help us learn more about them, their ideas and opinions, and to make decisions about future work and future Congresses. But what are we going to do with all that information?

Lizzie and I spoke yesterday with our Monitoring & Evaluation officer about a draft feedback form for participants attending the set of 54 Learning Opportunities (skills building workshops) that will be held on site. We asked everything we were interested in in an innovative way, so that the form was a learning intervention in itself, helped people tap in on what they were learning and practiced summarising it for people (e.g. If you met a colleague in the corridor on your way out of this workshop, what would you tell them that you learned?) Our M&E colleague usefully pointed out that our questionnaire was mostly qualitative and would generate reams of results that would be time consuming and costly to crunch. Did we want to think of a few ways of getting high quality and more importantly shorter responses?

Yesterday we received an email from a former colleague and fellow blogger, Michelle, asking for an activity to help teach the skills of synthesizing and making summaries which she could use in a communications course she was giving. We had never really done that and it struck me as a challenge; synthesizing is indeed an essential knowledge management skill, useful for everyone. How can we help people take lots of information and crystallize the most essential elements for themselves and others?

I read a recent article on the new trend for Micro-lit, which is both an art form in itself and a practice of using just a few words to synthesize, what in otherwords, would take many other words. This has been inspired by the oft-cited 6 word novel that Hemingway wrote on a dare: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Now there are 4 word film reviews, 12-word novel contests, etc. The trend must be a backlash from today’s information overload, as well as people’s increasing comfort writing text messages, using Skype Chat, Twitter etc. People are getting better at saying a lot with just a few words.

So how can we take advantage of this – well, for our assessment we decided to ask people a few questions in a different way, such as “What 5 words would you use to describe this learning opportunity?”, and for Michelle, I suggested a couple of synthesis activities, such as writing a Haiku that summarizes a session participants had earlier in the training (I’ve had participants write systems haikus), or to pick an article out of the newspaper and write a one sentence review. Or what about a 6 word bio for yourself?

As writers, bloggers, trainers, facilitators, and colleagues the words we generate compete with the steady flow of information that sweeps through our lives. We need to think more about the other end of that information production process – to what others can do with that information – and to help them out a little by synthesizing our selves, and potentially helping them to do it too through the questions we ask.

So why is this blog post so long? Maybe I should have written a 5 word blog post instead:

Think more and write less.

We have been to two local network meetings this week – one for trainers and one for facilitators working in the Geneva area. We go to meet people, to contribute something and to learn about the particular topic they are discussing. Last night at the facilitators network meeting we created an interesting taxonomy of icebreakers and introduction exercises, organized by application (group size and level of formality needed). At the trainers meeting we had a demonstration of the power of people’s energy fields- both the impact of your (positive/negative) thoughts on you and on others around you.

At these meetings, I also find myself learning something about these fields of practice more generally, through observing how the community members talk to each other, how they model their messages in demonstrating skills and knowledge to each other.

One thing beamed out at me this week. In these professions, there are some golden rules. One of the most important ones, one which sounds simple but is incredibly subtle, I believe, is: Be nice.

Whether you are facilitating or training, when people come together for any purposeful reason, you can be sure that in addition to their pens and papers, they bring with them a range of powerful emotions. They could be curious, excited, exasperated, stressed, bored, or all of these things at once; and you, as their process leader, get to create an experience for these people as individuals and together that works with all those feelings.

Whether you use facilitation or training as a blunt instrument or a fine tool, everything going on in that room is precipitated or mediated by you. As you feed back and summarise, it is also filtered by you. As you guide and build the process, it is directed by you. How people feel at the beginning, middle and end, is somehow affected by you. Where are you? Standing at the front or side of the room, moving in and out of their line of sight? What are you doing while that person is speaking, are you grimacing, talking to someone else, asking hard questions, smiling, affirming, paying complete attention. Are you modelling the behaviour that you want others to have in your session?

We want to walk into a room of nice people. We ask people to open up and dig deeply inside themselves for ideas, answers and questions. We ask people to stretch, to nudge themselves out of their comfort zone to learn and experience behaviour change. One of our responsibilities surely in intervening in these processes is to bring our good will and good intent, and leave aside everything else, but our genuine desire to help others. I really think one of the golden rules for process leaders is: Be nice. Be deeply and genuinely nice. And I think everyone can feel it when its there. I am thinking about what that means for me – think about what that means for you.

How can we talk about applying learning without turning off those who are petrified by talk of taking action? This challenge leapt out and stared me in the face last week.

When we take time to interact with business people on the topic of business and biodiversity, we hope that they will be energized and better equipped with what they learn to return to their businesses and lead change. But leading change requires taking action. And talk of taking action… well, apparently this isn’t something that energizes everyone; Quite the opposite. So what did we come up with? – A series of appreciative questions which imply taking action, but don’t explicitly state so.

• Is your business strategy more focused on addressing biodiversity risks or opportunities?
• What more could your business do to mitigate the biodiversity risks and/or capitalize on the opportunities?
• If your CEO asked you for one suggestion on how to improve your business’ biodiversity strategy, what would you suggest?

The room buzzed. Suggestions sprung to the surface. And lively conversation continued into dinner, with learning translated into fresh ideas for leading change!

See Doug Johnson’s Blue Skunk Blog for “10 Commandments of Panel Sessions”. This post seemed particularly relevant for what we are about to do at our upcoming Congress in 4 weeks – that is, hear lots of panel discussions. These strike me as sensible ways to steer panels so that they do what they are meant to do (which I guess is to present a lot of information to a lot of people in a short amount of time.) Learning should also be a top goal, and I think following these “commandments” will get us a little closer to that one.

Thanks to my colleague Wiebke in our Brussels Office for sending this along (fyi she also keeps a blog, on “perpetual learning and other pathways to peace”.)