I have mentioned before in this blog the Learning Capture process that our institution is undertaking in the months prior to, during, and after our upcoming World Conservation Congress (October 2008). I use the blog to answer some of the questions – this is question four: Reflecting on the process of designing and coordinating the Forum, what aspects were successful and could become part of the process for the next Forum? What aspects of the process are, in hindsight, not essential, redundant, or simply did not work?

When I think of the issues I am dealing with right now, coordinating a Facilitation Team for the Forum (a four day mega-event with hundreds of parallel workshops, activities, cinema, etc.), I imagine the kind of questions I might have asked many months ago that might have mitigated some of the work I am doing now. I see an opportunity for next time (we do these events each four years) that is worth mentioning around the venue selection process.

As I am working with the facilitation side of things, I would start with the same kinds of questions in this situation that I would ask of anyone organizing any activity: What is the purpose of the event? Once that was established, I would ask: How can we model our goals in our methodology? So that people get both an intellectual experience and a kinesthetic experience (that’s our left brain/right brain issue again) that grounds it firmly in participants’ life experience (at least for longer than 90 minutes.) My next question would be: What kind of a venue do we need to do this?

That would be the question sequence from my perspective. Another perspective might come from a thematic organizer – I want to get this great message out to as many people as possible – how big are the rooms and do we have translation? Or from a logistics person – how good is the venue staff – am I going to have to do everything myself, or are they really well organized? Or from an admin person – is the venue too big that I am going to have to run from one event to another and is my office near where the action is? Or from a participant – am I going to be sitting all day listening to people talk – are the chairs comfortable and is there a place I can get a coffee? Or from a facilitator – I need to involve people, are the chairs moveable, can we post things on the walls, is there open space I can use for games or activities?

Compromises might need to be made of course (hopefully not too many), however, far upstream of such an event, a useful checklist (a Reusable Learning Object) can be made of the needs and perspectives of the people that will bring such an event to life, followed by clear communication of the decisions taken. This would be an interesting way to involve those people in the very first stages of the process. Maybe the advance team, visiting the venue options early on, could invoke them in their visits – can they take a handful of masks? The organizer mask, the staff mask, the facilitator mask, the participant mask – and see it through their eyes?

Lizzie and I recently ran a 2.5 day visioning workshop using systems thinking tools in Meso-America in Spanish (see recent blog post: Want more amplification: Don’t call it training) without ever formally taking the floor. We did the design work and preparation, consulted pre-event with our local partners, and attended the workshop, and left the on stage facilitation to two fantastic regional experts. The workshop ran beautifully – it popped out, perfectly formed (to participants).

Of course, behind the scenes it took lots of work. Having a terrific delivery team is obviously the first big step, and we had that with our remarkable Mexican and Argentinian bi-lingual facilitators (you would never have imagined that they first met only the day before the workshop). The second is airtight preparation and process documentation. It’s on this latter that I want to expand a bit.

You can imagine that a workshop using systems tools would have emergent properties that we would want to take into consideration as the process unfolded. As a result, we took our very detailed agenda, and put Day 1 into the format of a Facilitators Guide, for discussion on our pre-workshop briefing day with the Facilitation Team and organizers. This Guide had the following components:

  • The overview agenda (to see the flow and build of the workshop)
  • The detailed day-to-day agenda
  • Session-by-session descriptions

Each session was described for the Facilitation team and included the following information:

  • Time schedule: Where it fits in the overall workshop schedule and what comes next
  • Goals for the session: What’s the overall objective of this session
  • Materials required: Any equipment or materials needs (aggregated later into a master materials list)
  • Preparation: What speaker briefings, flipcharts prepared (including an image of these for copying), room set up, worksheets or templates to have on hand
  • Process: Script for facilitator and process flow (timed out within the session), images of the PowerPoint slides to use and how to brief them, activity sequence withn session.
  • Facilitator Notes: Tips, and what to watch out for, and things that might happen and what to do about that (Plan B ideas).

This level of detail helped us to discuss the overall goals, flow, and individual roles of each of the Facilitators for the whole first day. It helped make everything completely explicit so that we could explore and potentially change it, which we did in our briefing, we tightened the questions, shifted things around a bit so that they made sense to everyone and then attributed the sessions to each of the Facilitators so that their preparation that night could be focused.

During Day 1, our role was to check the Facilitators Guide against what actually happened. Checking that our time allocations were close to reality, that our instructions were clear (or if not, what needed to be said in the end to make them clearer), and noted the questions that participants asked. From the day and our end-of-day debriefing with the team, we added a section to the Facilitators Guide for each session called:

  • Notes from the Meso-America workshop: Ideas and items added, and learning captured from this pilot

Also during Day 1, I wrote the Facilitators Guide for Day 2, tweaking it where possible to match the language and any learning from Day 1. We used this to allocate roles and prepare that night for Day 2. We followed the same system for the next 2 days, using the Guide for briefing, and capturing learning in our debriefing. At the end of the workshop, we had a nearly completed Facilitators Guide. The day after our workshop we had a Reflection Meeting amongst the full team of partners and facilitators. Our discussion around learning about the preparation and coordination of the meeting added the following sections before (Pre-session Preparation)and after (Annexes) the session detail:

Pre-session Preparation:

  • Selecting a workshop venue: Space needs, light needs, wall space, breaks and meals
  • Invitations: What people need to know to attend
  • Choosing 2 Facilitators: Background and roles
  • Master materials/equipment list: Aggregated from session lists for sourcing
  • Rapporteuring and reporting: Getting people and set up for lots of information
  • Onsite briefing: How to structure this
  • First day prcess pre-opening: Engineering first impressions


  • Reporting framework: To use as a template (2 options)
  • Opening speech: This will probably be the similar each time
  • Feedback form (in session): The simple form to capture participant’s reflections
  • Postworkshop participants feedback: The form to send 1 month after to capture impacts
  • General comments on design: Larger ideas for evolution of the workshop
  • Participants comments: Some quotes from the feedback forms

So, we ended up with the whole workshop, literally, in a box! One of the plans for this workshop was that it would be repeated in three regions (it is a visioning and strategic planning workshop for a major global programme within our institution, that has regional implementation particularities). This “box” is a terrific learning tool – a useful Reusable Learning Object (RLO) – that can be sent ahead to the next partners (with the output report of the workshop) to prepare more effeciently the next iteration. It provides a place to capture learning from each subsequent workshop, so that at the end it serves as a collection of learning about this methodology, for further change. It also documents the process comprehensively enough that others who are interested in the methodology, but who did not participate, can potentially replicate all or part of the process.

All this was done just prior to and during the workshop and produced an unexpectedly useful process product that literally popped up alongside the final report.

In the old days at workshops, there was a person up front speaking and everyone listened attentively. If they were not listening they were thinking about something else (a.k.a. daydreaming).

Today at workshops, there is a person up front speaking and everyone not listening is typing madly on their computer doing email.

Should we care?

Some people do care – they think that it is completely unacceptable that people are not paying attention and doing something else (a.k.a. multi-tasking). Perhaps I used to be one of those people – but not any more.

Now I think this is fine for a number of reasons, mostly because I see it as a sign that the paradigm of learning – as centred on the choice of the individual learner – has really shifted. Imagine that I am in a workshop which has speakers who are imparting information to me. If I am interested (and if they are interesting), and if I can use this information, (and they help me understand that I can use this information), then I will tune in long enough to see if I can learn something. If I decide to tune out, I may dip back in to check up to see if my original decision (to do email) was correct or not, or if I should start listening again. Overall, I am in charge of my learning and I can choose what information is useful to me right now. Of course, I need to keep an open mind, and I will always START by listening, and then reassess at some point. This is opposed to a centrally taught system whereby everyone needs to listen (or appear to be listening) to everything.

Now of course, for an organizer and a speaker, it is preferable if everyone listens to everything, and finds everything useful. This is, afterall, why you organized this workshop – YOU think that everything is valuable. What can you do to make sure that the audience agrees?

The number of people typing emails is an interesting indicator of how well the speaker is doing, and how useful the focus of their intervention is. It is also an indicator of interactivity. You cannot type and speak, play a game, answer questions, or have a powerful, thought-provoking question capture your attention. How refreshing would this be: The Facilitator says to the participants, “You are welcome to tune in and out of any of these presentations as you find useful. We ask that you please give each presentation a chance first. If you do decide to tune out, please notice the time elapsed (was it after 2 minutes, 5, 10 minutes) and please give us the feedback. It will be useful for future programming.” Viola, permission to choose your learning yourself.

That way people would still be in control of their learning, and speakers and organizers would get more data on what people want to learn and the best way of reaching them. It would also be a powerful motivation for speakers to make their presentations meaningful.

In our organizations, who are the people igniting the passions of those around them? Who mobilizes the talents of the people they work with and builds collective as well as individual strength of others? Who are the ‘Thought Leaders’? And how are they leading thought? (See Robin Ryde’s short video which inspired this post.)

In the Learning and Leadership unit, we have been embracing invitations to design and facilitate workshops to help ‘lead’ thinking (as described in our earlier blog post: “Building Capacity in Systems Thinking: Want More Amplification? Don’t Call it Training”, August 14). We engineer experiences aiming to facilitate people thinking and conversing effectively and efficiently, purposefully mobilizing talents and building strengths. As today’s facilitators, are we the ‘Thought Leaders’ for tomorrow? And if we are, will this loaded label bring us greater success?

This week’s conference extravaganza has been an eye opener (11 workshops and breakout sessions for a 500+ person conference, with effectively 2 Facilitators). Trying to process, reflect and be appreciative about what has transpired (and blogging about it each night ) has been incredibly useful to capture learning. We came here to help create the subtle environment for generative dialogue. Instead we were working very low on Maslow’s hierarcy of needs. That’s ok, it was what was needed. Tonight I’m going to use an analogy to try to crystalise what it has felt like to be here trying to focus on process facilitation.

This week we are like surgeons to whom the patient has come a little too late.

You work very hard to diagnose the problem, try different experimental interventions; but it is late in the game and you don’t see a significant change. When you finally have all the information, you can see clearly that many months ago, this condition would have been easily treated, but now the condition is too advanced to treat. However, you are compassionate and committed to remaining a caregiver. And you spend your time now focusing on making the patient comfortable, fluffing the pillow, administering local pain relievers, helping the patient maintain dignity – generally creating a nice environment for the final days – and making sure the strongest memories that visitors and loved ones have of your patient are good ones. No level of intervention at this point, no matter how invasive, will change the patient’s outcome; so you put your energies into administering care and support, and do it in the nicest possible way. (e.g. My most significant contribution today was buying a bottle of rum for the drafting team.)

There is a real role here for preventive medicine. We need to get to the patients much earlier. We need to help establish good habits, good reflexes, good decision making, good planning, and thus good healthy, interactive workshops and peer learning sessions, and happy participants. Surgeons are trained to do amazing things, if its not too late.

Over 9 hours today, Aisha (co-facilitator for this big conference in La Reunion) and I drove one and a half hours into the mountains to heroically visit our workshops’ venues for tomorrow, and then another hour to the Thursday venues, where we:

* Visited and counted over 1700 chairs in 37 workshop rooms;
* Tested coffee makers for noise and ease of use (I will not sleep for 2 days);
* Checked at least six set of toilet stalls for paper and soap (interestingly found in most cases only in the men’s toilets, we did find soap then…);
* Shook hands with the proud Mayor of a small town;
* Remembered that, when you give 500 people the same backpack (gift for site visit), they cannot imagineably find their own again when they put them down, without a label (not a popular recollection with the person who had to go out and find 500 luggage tags);
* Noticed that there are no waste baskets in La Reunion, thus see a huge market opportunity for portable, pop up waste baskets;
* Strategized bus turnaround opportunities on one lane roads with no shoulders;
* Bought 25 magic markers, 100 squares of sticky stuff; and at least 600 boiled sweets;
* Told the person who had given logistics announcements that he had erroneously announced a bus meeting time that was 30 minutes too early (06:30 instead of 07:00) and recommended that he correct that announcement or risk getting lynched by hundreds of non-morning people at breakfast;

I could go on, but the organizing team has just walked in the door, and I need to get back into my mild-mannered facilitator clothes and work with them on the best learning designs for their large-scale workshops, and, of course, brief them to take their own TP tomorrow…

Earlier this week we ran a two day team retreat for one of our largest distributed teams. Attending the retreat was both the technical and admin staff, as well as HQ and outposted staff. That was objective 1 – giving people a sense of interconnectedness in a non-intact team, and at the same time explore the team’s diversity.

The retreat also needed to bring up and sensitively deal with issues of growth and managing a larger team. In the last few years, due to their successes, the size of the group has more than doubled, with little turnover. As a result, some of the team practices (communication, decisionmaking, trust building, everyone doing everything him/herself) that worked before with a small, tightly knit team, are no longer as effective with a larger, more functionally diversified group. That was objective 2 – air some growth and management challenges in a way that everyone can feel heard and then make some decisions about how to change them.

Finally, the group needed to think together about what’s next. So they needed to tap back into their goals, and also explore together what they needed to add or significantly strengthen in their current practice. This was more programmatic, however, they needed to bring the admin side of the team along so that any decisions made were completely operational. That was objective 3 – consider how to add some functionality to the group, but do so in a way that was realistic and feasible, and fit within the operational system they had and were building (or change it to fit).

With a mandate like that, and two days to work with, we had our work cut out for us. However, we did it, and the team was very happy with the results. Here are a few things we learned that worked:

  • We used systems thinking tools to help to guide and structure the discussions. People were delighted to use these new tools, which when applied to the operational aspects of the team’s work, were able to integrate and value the inputs of everyone there, from both the technical and administrative parts of the team.
  • The systems tools created a safe space. The diagrams helped to externalise the conversations, so that people were able to focus on an object, diagram, that depersonalised issues. People discussed trends and cause and effect: pointing their finger at the flipchart diagram and not each other.
  • The tools are iterative, so they break down what seems like a process about everything into a set of logical steps and bitesize pieces. Also because of this structure, there was no anxiety from what might otherwise be a messy process. The tools gave clear boundaries to the discussion.
  • Finally, the format of working in parallel on a number of different operational issues allowed people to focus on the ones for which they had the most passion, yet still contribute through the summaries and sharing to the work of other groups.

The report that resulted from the event included the diagrams and captured the creativity of the process for next steps. It was actually a good read, a quality that all workshop reports should have. And it has spawned a number of processes around the outcomes that is making this team one of the leaders of change in our institution.

What do you see when you go to the circus? You see the amazing daredevil acrobatic teams, the perilously high tight rope walkers, the perfectly synchronized performing ducks… What you don’t necessarily see is the lifetime of concentrated training the acrobats have undergone, the many hours a day the jugglers practice, and the fact that the lion tamer is actually missing a thumb.

The incredible amount of preparation that it takes to pull off a thrilling, memorable and meaningful performance is what my organization is experiencing right now in the preparation of its quadrennial global Congress. Expectations of 8,000-10,000 attendees have raised the stakes for putting on a really exceptional event. What that means for us is not only getting the logistics right, but also engaging the audience – our colleagues, partners and visitors – in many different, exciting ways.

Some people might be born with the ability to juggle flaming torches while standing bareback on a cantering horse (in sequins no less.) For others, it takes some practice, preparation and a good deal of help. The same is true for our events. So, for the first time at a Congress, we have engaged an international team of professional facilitators as advisors, who will work with 54 of our colleagues leading on different Secretariat sessions. This facilitation team will help the leads to think through their events and make suggestions as to interactive tools and techniques that they might use to get their messages across and novel ways to engage the audience. Whether it is Open Space Technology, Conversation Cafes, or newly designed large group games, the goal is to see how we can break through the fourth wall between those on stage and those in the bleachers, to reach them, touch them, challenge them, learn from them, and engage them in our work.

Because this is rather experimental, we are going to capture our learning throughout the preparation as a part of the M&E process. So more will appear on this blog on the Congress Facilitation Advisory Team and its work to help us prepare our Greatest Show on Earth -suddenly I’m craving popcorn.

The start of any workshop normally includes a tour-de-table where people introduce themselves and say a few words about their expectations and why they are there. If you are going around in a circle, you can figure out how long it will be until your turn. Then you calculate how many people you can actually listen to before you need to think about what you are going to say. At that point you tune out in order to come up with something that sounds interesting and intelligent, until after your turn. After your turn, you replay your intervention a few times in your head to convince yourself that it was a good contribution and made you look good. Then you tune in again. Out of the 20 or so participants, you ended up hearing about half or less.

As a facilitator what can you do to get people to register the interesting information about each other that will start to connect them at a personal level, allowing you to move the group towards more and more powerful, creative, potentially intense and exciting discussions? People need to feel comfortable with the other group members for that; it can be a bit risky in the group process sense. How can you catalyze that process?

There are of course many ways to do this. What we did last week, with a small group of people who will be working together for two years on a project at a distance, was to give them a team quiz.

No one said that you had to listen the first time, maybe some of them did not. However, the next morning after their introductions on Day 1, they received a pop quiz about the team to complete titled, “Were You Listening?” Match the person to their musical instrument (who played the bassoon, the piano, the guitar?) Who studied philosophy in university? Which two people do not speak Portuguese (because almost everyone else in this group does)? Who coined a well-known conservation term? Who started their career in the civil service? Ten multiple choice questions captured some of the interesting things about this new team, taken from the things that they had said about themselves in the previous day’s introductions.

If they did not pick it up the first time, then this was the second opportunity to absorb the information. And this time, going through the answers of the quiz and discussing them further, everyone was listening.

You might remember Gregory Stock’s “The Book of Questions” (1985) which was a small book of 200 short, provocative questions that you can think about yourself, or use at dinner parties or other social situations. I have used it in the past to create rather disruptive questions to ask participants in workshops on ethical decision-making, as the questions in this book deal with values, beliefs and life (in most cases they are a bit too strong for the workshop room, so adaptation is needed). But the notion of using purposeful, thoughtful, thought provoking questions to lead into a topic is an alternative to simply presenting the topic, or a statement and asking people to discuss it (where do you start and where does thi go?)

Here is a question sequence adapted from “The Book of Questions” that I have used in the past to get people thinking about ethics and values (today with my more asset-based thinking, I am not sure I would use this, but offer it as an example). First question: If you had a cockroach in your kitchen, would you kill it? Second question: If you had a butterfly in your kitchen would you kill it? Discussion: What is the difference between a butterfly and cockroach? Why does a beautiful creature merit more compassion than an ugly one? What values are we using here to drive our decision-making? Where do these values come from? etc (roughly adapted from Question 25) We could just give a lecture on ethical decision-making. However, people might be more personally involved in the topic when you start with questions like these.

I read recently about a new set of question cards that been produced for dinner parties, that sounds like the questions are a little less controversial but equally engaging. (If I can relocate the URL I will add it in comments.) You can look for other sources of good questions, or good stubs, or kinds of questions. You might never use the question the way it is originally stated, but it might give you ideas to adapt. You are looking for an unusual question, one that makes people stop and think deeply, get some energy out of it, and say, “Now that is a good question!”

Or you can have your group come up with the questions. After lunch energisers each day might be one of their own questions. For example, after the introductions at the beginning of the workshop, once everyone has given their biodata, ask the group to stop for a moment and think about what they heard, about the group, the things people have done, their goals and aspirations. Task them to each think up a thoughtful, thought-provoking question that they would be interested to ask the group that gets a vibrant discussion going. Maybe share a couple of examples. Then have them write them on a card and collect them (they can be anonymous if they want). Each day, or at intervals during your workshop, ask someone to pick a card and give the group 10 minutes to have a wonderful discussion using their own powerful questions.

I sat down this morning to design a workshop agenda for a group that I now work with frequently. Looking at their goals for the afternoon brainstorming session, the same techniques came to mind that I often use for this kind of thing. They are interactive, productive, create great artifacts for recording, and participants love them. Great, right?

But I use those techniques alot and I was not so excited about this first draft of the agenda. It reminded me of a management training workshop I attended last year. The overall design was good, but it seemed to me that the trainer was on autopilot. The delivery was too mechanical, the trainer did not appear to be excited, experimental, learning herself – that affected my experience.

When you are working with a group as a trainer or facilitator, no matter how watertight the session design, you are ultimately the primary vehicle for their experience, optimising their contribution, managing the emotions they go through as they explore new ideas, and potentially challenge old assumptions, and work with them to harness the energy they need to try out the options generated.

At some level you need to model this too, try some new things, experiment and show the excitement you get from new ways of working and thinking. Anyways, I want to be able to look ahead to the workshop and feel excited about it (not bored!)

So I picked up Thiagi’s “100 Favorite Games” and have had a good time adapting a few of these activities to this groups’ needs. After all, if I am the vehicle for this group’s afternoon brainstorming, I might as well give all of us a good ride.

We had a very productive retreat last week and at the end of it, there was a palpable sense of identity as a team. That was one of our goals, to build this team, along with the imperative of the design task that precipitated the idea of a retreat in the first place. When a retreat was first suggested a few weeks ago, it was met with nervous laughter, and comments which conjured images of a group hug (teambuilding seems to have become a bit of a punchline). So one challenge was to structure the retreat in a way that built the team, but did not have any recognizable “teambuilding” element.

Of course, teams that have worked together for a while are more comfortable with activities that explicitly explore the personal and behavioural side of team members and their inter-relationsips. With teams that are at an early stage, perhaps teams in name only, then a gentler approach seems to be more appropriate while trust is built.

I have read recently some revisionist teambuildng literature by McKinsey which argues against the touchy-feely kind of teambuilding front-loaded onto a retreat or meeting (the Gordian Knot or Squaring the Circle type activity – the titles speak for themselves). Instead they find that the teambuilding effect is greater when the work comes first and then space is opened at the end of the retreat to discuss how the group worked together. Therefore, reflection on how the team works and how it could improve its performance is based on a real work experience, rather than a simulated experience. We used this approach in the retreat and it seemed to work well, aside from the fact that time and attention at the end of any event are scarce resources. I found that people were much more willing to explore the process of working together after having had two days of structured work and some unstructured discussions, rather than having that group maintenance conversation in abstract at the beginning.

We paired this final process discussion with the StrengthsFinder, which people took in the breaks during the retreat (it takes about 30 minutes to take the online questionnaire and the results are instantly delivered). We each shared our top strength and how we felt that this strength had manifested itself in our contributions and behaviour during the retreat. We made a few joint comments to people, appreciating their specific roles in some of the key change moments in the meeting, and then generally discussed how we had worked together to achieve our goals. The discussion from next steps and task passed smoothly through to our process, in spite of having had limited focus in the past on what makes us all tick, separately and together. We even used a ball at the end so the group could self-facilitate the discussion. At that point, this was no issue. I could not have imagined introducing that at the beginning of the meeting when the urgency of the task, the tentativeness of group cohesion, and my reputation as an interactive facilitator were clearly in the “wait and see”category.

I still think there is a place for some of the more game-based teambuilding activities, perhaps with teams who are already formed and have specific issues or new ways of working that they want to explore. But with newly forming teams, and teams that are perhaps allergic to agendas with mysterious activity titles, I think that the get to work, and then talk deeply about how you did it approach is the way to go.

Setting group norms for a meeting that everyone can help to uphold can be challenging. We have all done those exercises at the onset to establish the rules that we want people to follow in order to have a productive meeting. Here are two alternatives to this straight-forward activity that might give the conversation more life. The second one comes directly from our “Beyond Facilitation” workshop last week.

First, using the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) approach, you can ask people what kind of “Freedoms” they would like to have, rather than rules or things that people should not do (rules are made to be broken, after all). For example, “Don’t be late” turns into the freedom to be on time, etc.

Second, you could set up an activity to identify “How to have a terrible meeting” (AI practitioners close your eyes…) You can ask the participants at the onset to think of all the things that they see at meetings that lead to poor or weak outcomes. List those on a flipchart, have a laugh, and then number them and post them in a obvious place in the room. During the workshop, whenever someone or the group does one of those things, notice it by number, “I think we might be doing number 5 here: not listening, what can we do about that?” That might help the participants take the responsibility to ensure that you actually don’t have a terrible meeting.

This week we are hosting a 5-day workshop, “Beyond Facilitation: Intervention Skills for Strengthening Groups and Teams”. We have 19 people here from within our institution and other facilitators working around the world, from the UK to Zambia. We are using Group Process Consultation (GPC) as our foundation for learning more about how we can help teams be as highly performing as they want to be.

I have written a few posts about GPC from a previous worksop I took earlier this year which describe this approach, No Hiding Behind Our Desks and Understanding What We are Bringing to the Party. This time however, it feels different. It’s not a different trainer, we are working again with Chuck Phillips, who is one of the founders of this approach and has been working with groups on it for three decades. It is not the content; I thought it was perfect the way it was (one day shorter) for my colleagues and the other facilitators. I think it is about the participants. The participants at the NTL course that I attended last April were all private sector OD/HR people and very much “people-people”. This time however, we have a greater mix. There are plenty of “people gathers” – people who are high on the FIRO-B (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation–Behavior) instrument’s Inclusion and Affection continuum, and this time we also have some people for whom the touchy feely parts of group work give little energy or motivation.

This group I found much more representative of the diversity and complexity of real life teams, and as such provided an additional layer of learning for me. As a facilitator, and someone who is sensitive to participation and inclusion in groups, my tendancy is to get fixated on someone who is not speaking, not sharing, not participating – assigning that behaviour to discontent in the group – and then do everything I can to get that person involved. But one of these more reflective colleagues noted today that sometimes he just does not want to talk, or doesn’t have anything particular to add to the conversation at that moment. If the facilitator jumps on him for not talking, that will probably irritate him enough to keep him from talking in the future. That is learning for me, people have differing needs for inclusion in a group, both expressed and desired. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not engaged or contributing, it just means that they don’t feel the need to talk all the time to do so (like me).

Imagine that you need to inform people in a workshop setting about your organization (or another topic for that matter.) Option A: You can make a PowerPoint presentation for 20 minutes and have a Q&A discussion after it for another 10 minutes. But how much will people learn about your subject and how much will stick with this “information push” approach? Here is an Option B for this more traditional method.

Last week we ran a workshop with our organization and an external partner which had as one of its aims getting to know better the two organizations and the people working there. We had our slot in the opening session to introduce the partners and we considered Option A for a moment and decided that it did not really optimise our time, nor give the sense of interactivity and co-learning that we wanted to be representative of the partnership. So instead, we decided to take the same amount of time (perhaps add 10 minutes) and run a quiz.

We asked both partners to come up with a set of questions that made the points that they wanted to come across in their introduction. From our side, we wanted to share our special network structure, our decision-making process, the global nature of our staff and partners, how many of our resolutions deal with the particular sector that this partner belonged to, etc. From their side they wanted to share some key points of their mandate, their sustainability goals, the number of years that our organization had collaborated with them on smaller activities, and more. We structured a quiz of 18 questions (multiple choice, simple fill in and Yes/No) that only a mixed team from both organizations could possibly complete. So five tables of evenly mixed teams each took the quiz.

What happened was a wonderful peer-learning exchange table by table that transferred much more information between participants than we could have ever hoped to give in a centrally run PPT presentation. And people wanted the information, they discussed it, colleagues from the same organization debated the answers, added anecdotes, and shared their insight about the two organizations. That took 20 minutes, the same amount of time as our Option A input. And it was a lot easier for us to present (we literally just handed it out and the participants did all the work.)

The most entertainment came with the “scoring” of the quiz – we went through each question at a good pace (we had the answers in advance) and for each one asked the tables or specific people for their answers. Then we had some open debate, complete with shouting from across the room and good-humoured disagreement. We had prepped one person (the key organizer) from each team to be the final authority – they could point to location of the answers (website, by-laws, mandate, etc.) Bonus points were given for extra information, more detail was added for some questions, and at the end, points were tallied (very loosely) and the winning table got the prize. Well, every table got a prize (a bag of chocolates to share) as it was hard to be very accurate with the final scores, and that was not really the point. Total time for Option B – about 40 min. Every table got almost every question correct so they learned our key points, people got to know each other much better, and to have a real experience (in a compressesd time) working together to accomplish something that neither group could do entirely alone. In this activity, everyone was the “expert” not just the presenter, and it set a great atmosphere of informality and sharing for the rest of our workshop. For the extra 10 minutes between Option A and B the return was worth it.

There is certainly some significant debate about how much people remember from different training or workshop experiences. I just read a provocative blog post from Will Thalheimer refuting the various data, pyramids and cones that have helped the experiential learning community substatiate its methods for years. However, he does not necessarily refute the fact people learn differently and the more diversity in learning methods that you use, the more chance you have of creating (longer) lasting impact, or change, which is usually the objective of all learning activities.

We are starting to talk in our team about creating physical memories for people from our sessions, or at least asking the question of how we can create a physical memory. This includes how to use everything from the venue, the choreography of the sessions, the outdoors, the activities, the adrenaline rush, and more to build that physical memory. Focusing on these things does not replace the desire to help people remember the content of your session, but might provide interesting opportunities to reinforce messages and create a sense of congruence both mental and physical that might help learning stick and give them the positive feeling and enthusiasm for the subject that encourages them to take it further (or to look favourably on follow up).

One current opportunity for application has come up in our organization. We are about to create Innovation Teams to start testing some new IT and management processes and to usher in a culture change within the organization. These teams need to be able to test and learn some new tools and technologies, innovate around their adaptation to our organization and then get excited enough about them to help others learn to drive this system-wide change internally. That strikes me as a wonderful opportunity to make the meetings of these teams innovative not in name only, but to use the physical environment to help create that all over experience. If they are designed with this in mind they can give people that boost by the end of the experience that has them walking away saying “that was a great event!” and having that be not just a cerebral, but a full body comment.

About twenty minutes ago I was driving to work when out of the bushes and into the middle of the road jumped two Swiss Policemen in bullet proof vests, they practically stopped my car with their bare hands. They wanted my permit and papers NOW. My hands were shaking, and I couldn’t think while I fumbled around to find my documents. Geez, I couldn’t even speak and as far as I could tell I hadn’t done anything wrong (I was even driving 10 km UNDER the speed limit at that point).

The night before last I was standing in Nestle’s HQ in front of 25 corporate leaders there for a workshop of a network we are coordinating. For the first 5 minutes, a similar thing occurred, a blast of nerves and a random connection between my brain, speech and hands. We were prepared, everyone was there, and the environment was fantastic, no clues there.

It strikes me that good speakers and perhaps good criminals have this figured out. What kind of mind exercises can you do before you go to face great authority to avoid momentary multi-sensory collapse? It doesn’t happen to me very often any more, I think my estimation of authority is changing as I get older, but when it does it is memorable and certainly something to work on.

It turned out to be a random police check (with lots of NYPD Blue drama added in), and the Nestle event smoothed out a few minutes later, but for that initial “Oh no!” send in your tips!

No matter how hard you try to have a dynamic, interactive feeling to a workshop, if you are in a room where the furniture is all facing forward and bolted to the floor, people’s assumptions are that they are there to sit still and listen, and not to look at each other and talk.

We have just launched our New Learning workshop, our room is a banked auditorium – very nice, very wired, not too big and very quiet at the moment. Of course, we are at the introduction and context setting part filled with short presentations. And we will get to work hard to change the dynamic once we move past this part to participants’ introductions, which I will facilitate next. Needless to say, I was delighted to notice that the chairs do swivel.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post (Experience in a Box) about an interesting kit of materials that could be used to help people move through their learning cycle, from “analysis” to “experimenting”, by building and simulating their ideas.

I used this on Thursday in our in-house Facilitator’s Training Course (Module 4: Working with Space and Context). Earlier in the session we had given our facilitators scenarios to use to practice their introductions – the contracting piece – when you introduce yourself to the participants, share your goals, and frame of the workshop/meeting. Later we used those same scenarios with the Combi box to physically “build” the workshop rooms where those scenarios would most effectively take place. As they built their spaces (with sticks, wooden blocks, game pieces, modelling clay, etc.) each team talked through the various reasons for a certain room set up – based on the meeting’s purpose, what they knew about the group, cultural considerations (given in the scenarios), etc.

We could have had general discussions in plenary about different kinds of room set-ups. However, that would have been passive learning for many, and perhaps too theoretical to be really useful. It would have been a few of us sharing our experiences, rather than strengthening the experience of others. The act of building the ideal workshop rooms in miniature with the materials allowed people to test different options together, talk about how one might work better than another, and make decisions, and then share the artifact of their discussion with the rest of us in a very short time.

This turned out to be an interactive, productive and fun exercise to give people more than just a notion, but some “experience” in setting up workshop spaces to contribute to their desired outcomes. Next step – moving those chairs for real! (Also, as a side note, not many of their final room set-up plans looked anything like those traditional ones in the image attached – they might have started that way, but in the process of their discussions their designs turned out to be much more innovative…)

This week we went to a meeting of a Swiss-based Knowledge Management Community of Practice called “Think Table”. This one-day gathering was packed full of games, experiences, discussions on topics such as storytelling (Story Guide: Building Bridges Using Narrative Techniques” prepared by the Swiss Development Cooperation-their webpage has many other related free documents to download), facilitation (our contribution), monitoring and evaluation for knowledge management, and “rapid prototyping”.

Rapid prototyping was a particularly interesting tool, and it fit in with our recent preoccupation with getting people at work to be thinking about their Learning Cycles. This tool presents an opportunity to go further with the experimenting/experience part of the cycle through actually building a process and then simulating and walking through the various steps, before documenting them more formally on paper after the experience.

Manfred Kunzel from the University of Fribourg presented the activity, asking four small teams to each construct the following scenario: “opening the door to sell black ThinkTables to schools in our community”. He gave us each half a box of supplies, small blocks, game pieces, sticks, post-it notes, other representational objects, and instructed us to build and then simulate the various seps in the process. After our initial “what?” reaction, we got to the task, and the discussion which followed helped us move through the essential stages of both project planning and execution (simplify the task, organization and set up, exploration and modelling, develop the plan, and execution). Apparently you can build any process in about 40 minutes, although then it can take several hours afterwards to formalise the process (map it, write down the steps, assign roles, etc.)

I have one of the boxes on my desk now, and already have plans to use it (you could probably create your own box). I thought it was a brilliant way to get people to think about something they want to do together, agree on it, build it, and then practice how the various stocks (money, people, ideas) flow around their system. It doesn’t replace real life, but sometimes you can’t practice building a bridge, or running a Congress of 10,000 people. At least this way you can create that environment on a much smaller scale and then run around in your simulated environment, saying what you would say, going where you would go, and seeing what kinds of things you might run into on the way.

I have long loved the traditional South African choral song -‘isicathamiya’ – of Joseph Shabalala and his group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The group has spread the message of peace, love and harmony for 47 years, and teaching people about South Africa and the culture of the Zulu people. So great has been their success and popularity that they have performed at many musical award shows, the Olympics, South African Presidential inaugurations and Nobel Peace Prize Ceremonies.

A few nights ago I had the great pleasure of seeing and hearing them live for the first time. One thing I think anyone who has seen them live would agree is that the performance of this group stirs something in you. And not only the music, but the presence of these artists and the way they dance. (Their movements are derived from the tradition of the mine workers of South Africa and the ‘tip toe’ steps they used so as not to disturb the camp security guards during their weekly singing competitions.) Beyond the beautiful harmonies, this is powerful, moving stuff.

Reflecting on this and a call from organizers of the World Conservation Congress (Barcelona, Spain, October 2008) for event proposals, I’m wondering how we can harness the role of music in such events and more generally as we work? How can we use music to ‘stir something’ in participants and help move us to better work together in co-creating sustainable solutions to the challenges we face? Put on the music of your choice and share your thoughts (including your musical recommendations)…

This post was contributed by Caroline, a member of our Learning Team, and today our guest blogger. She writes about a recent strategic planning meeting we held to develop our main programme goals for the next four years. She writes…

In the first morning of our 3-day meeting, 25 people gathered for the first time in several years. So many updates, so little time! To have formal presentations of the work done and ongoing activities from all participants and all parts of the world would takes hours (if not days!), yet in one hour all people were updated sufficiently for the time being, and equipped with the knowledge of who to go to find out more. How? Speed Up-Dating! To prepare for the activity, everyone wrote a few words about what they wanted to discuss on their name badge. Then, the hour was divided into eight segments (15, 10, 10, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5 minutes) which the facilitator timed, and in those time periods people were invited to find other people with similar discussion themes, or ones they wanted to hear more about.

What happened? Once the activity officially started, half the group went straight to one place – there was an obvious lead speaker who initiated discussion, but questions were soon being fired and the group reached a discussion stage a lot earlier than if it had been a formal presentation. People started offering their own experiences (potentially feeling more comfortable about this than if they were in a formal presentation setting). The conversation was rich, and there was input from nearly all participants. Elsewhere three people had found a computer and logged on for a 1-to-1 tutorial about an online toolkit, given by the author to someone really keen to learn how to use it. The two could engage in a productive conversation about it, tailor the explanation directly to the learner’s needs, and both got much more value out of the session than if it had been in a larger group.

These were just 2 examples of groups that formed in the group … the room was buzzing with activity in other group formations as well.

So why did it work? Everyone was given a role as learner – rather than changing roles back and forth between learner and presenter, the responsibility was put onto all learners to identify what they wanted to discover, to decide how best to do this, and to source their own learning opportunity themselves. As soon as someone feels ownership or responsibility over something they are part of, they invest in it more, and are more keen to see success. Basically the learners are actively investing in what they take away, and choosing to learn – two recipes for success that were proven in this occasion!

On the morning of day three of a workshop launching a multi-million Euro strategy, we asked more than fifty international participants to write on a few flip chart sheets what they wanted to continue working on, what they wanted more of and what they wanted less of. Top of the ‘more of’ list was a desparate plea for more work on the integration of the various components of the strategy, which seemed to be working at cross-purposes at times. Responding to this, we quickly rethought the agenda of the day and after lunch we posed the question: “When fully integrated, what will the strategy look like to you, visually?”

Organized in groups of five to eight people according to language and role (as representatives of geographic, thematic and coordinating teams) and equipped with flipcharts and coloured pens, the room was soon buzzing with energetic activity. For the next forty minutes, we watched as each group worked and re-worked their ideas on paper. In most groups imagination was captured, creativity unleashed and collective ideas were caught easily in pictures that seemed to grow organically and colourfully from the page. For others, the process was rather more awkward, with wordy explanations and cravings for the diagramming tools in PowerPoint.

At the ‘great unveiling’ a representative from each group explained their drawing, as well as the process by which the group arrived at it. This was followed by a larger group discussion, exploring observations about the drawings and the exercise itself.

One thing we noticed was that after the exercise, integration was no longer a problem. Having gone through the exercise to work together to visualize what integration looked like, it became apparent that it would be possible and that collectively it would take form as the process of working together unfolded, as demonstrated by the exercise (after an initial 10 minute struggle, teams worked together to figure it out.)

The visualization exercise worked to dissipate the fear about this complex part of the strategy. At the same time it was captured in a creative and fun way. For some people for whom integration was not an issue, this exercise seemed like a waste of time. For others for whom integration was a preoccupation, it dispelled their fear and let them move on to concentrate on other parts of the programme with greater confidence and energy.

Was the exercise a no-brainer or a right-brainer? Actually, it doesn’t matter too much. For the group as a whole, we noticed that immediately after the exercise the integration issue was no longer an obstacle. That worked for us!

A week ago, whilst on the train returning from a week-long workshop, I was skimming through the feedback forms and surprised to read the comments of one participant. A recommendation for next time: “Less touchy-feely”. For a while I’ve been wondering where this comment came from. In a literal sense there was no physical touching or feeling of ourselves or one another. The closest we came was a group drawing exercise (more on that in another blog post). And as far as tuning into personal or group feelings – a light “How is everyone feeling about the workshop and the progress we are making?” was as far as it went. I think my ideas of touchy-feely must be a little different to others. So, please tell me, what does touchy-feely mean to you?

This week Lizzie and I are at a workshop on livelihoods and landscapes, which is being hosted by one of our organization’s largest programmes. We have 50 participants from all over the world, and to start our introductions in an interactive, exciting way, we decided to structure a “Speed Meeting” activity.

In this activity, each person was asked to draw up a short list of other participants that they would like to meet (people they did not already know well) for a series of five short, 8 minute speed meeting. Initially each person identified 10 potential partners which was used to inform the matching process. After we matched the pairs, we gave people back their own, individual Speed Meeting card which listed their 5 meetings. The process started with a “Go!” and then partners switched every 8 minutes until everyon got to speak to their 5 matches in the time available.

This activity has just finished and I am writing this blog post in our “knowledge marketplace”. What seemed like a good idea, and still does to all the participants who thoroughly enjoyed the activity, actually took three people about 2 hours to do the matching process. It was incredibly complex to record everyone’s preferences and to match the pairs to satisfy as many people’s wishes as possible. We managed in the end, and what did we learn about this activity?

  • 50 people is probably over the limit to do a matching process, 25 would be maximum suggested using a self-selection process.
  • Ask people to pick their top 5 (not 10) so there is less data to work with. Otherwise, there is really too much information! In the end we were only able to match 3-4 out of the list of 10 for each person anyways.
  • Finally, test ambitious activities first (I did a version of this a few years ago, but this was much more complex due to the size of the group). This is probably the biggest point, we used a lot of session time generating an appropriate matrix to capture the data for the matching process. Time we could have usefully applied to other things.

In spite of this, in the end it worked very well; people are happy, and it lifted the energy enormously. AND we have three facilitators who have learned the hard way that testing new activities before the workshop is absolutely worth the time it takes, and ultimately saves time during the event itself!

At the moment, I am at an NTL (National Training Laboratory) course on Group Process Consultation. We are learning about how to use this technique to help groups guide themselves to be more effective in their group processes.

It is different than pure “facilitation” in that the Group Process Consultant (GPC) doesn’t do any of the up front work for the group (no standing at the flipchart, no developing ground rules, no notetaking). Instead the GPC’s work is focused helping the group perform those tasks itself. The Group Process Consultant will observe the group’s work and intervene periodically to notice and mirror back to the group some information and ideas about how the group is going about its task and what kind of group “maintenance” is needed for the participants to feel engaged and satisfied with the process. This particular technique is designed to reduce the group’s dependence over time on external help (like a facilitator) to achieve its goals. To me, it seems a little like being a group “psychologist.”

In our opening day yesterday we spoke about how the course would be multi-leveled all the time. We would be working at the cognitive level by talking about theoretical models, methodologies, etc. We would be exploring the behavioural level through noticing what we are learning and practicing as a GPC. And we would be talking about the personal level and trying to understand as a Group Process Consultant “what I bring to the table”. So how can I be aware of myself in a process, how can I manage my assumptions, and notice how I react to things and how that might affect the group. Chuck Phillips, the course’s trainer, explained that in Group Process Consultation, “The delivery of the process is the delivery of ourselves. We are the process intervention.” So we are also trying to understand our own mental models and make sure they don’t get in the way of our work for a group.

We also don’t want anything to get in the way of learning this week; even our learning environment is set up to help this. We are in a room with 20 soft chairs on wheels (which we use to scoot around into different discussion groups), but no tables. The trainer noted that when there are tables, people tend to hide behind them, or use them as a barrier between themselves and what is going on in the room. We can’t have that, so no tables.

That might be an interesting feature of one of the rooms in the Learnscape we would like to develop at work. It would be nice to have a space to use where nothing is a barrier to process. A small exception might be made, however, for … footstools.

I have not lost total faith in formal training or workshops as learning delivery tools; Jay Cross’ comments to the last blog post have also confirmed that every tool has its appropriate use (and every learner his/her own learning preference). I would also say that training has become less and less “formal” over the years. Good workshops now regularly have interactivity built in, with discussion techniques and games used to help participants find their own meaning through guided experiential learning.

This thought reminded me of an excellent resource for facilitators and trainers: the Thiagi Group’s website on “Improving Performance Playfully”. If you look under Free Resources there are many activities that can help take the formal out of training. Even lectures (if you have to have them) can be interactive; there is a list of 36 things you can do with lectures to make them more fun in the Interactive Lectures section. One of them is called “Bingo” – have a look!

I have had a few people ask me about the value of facilitating other people’s workshops. What does that contribute to the grand scheme of things?

What Facilitators do that is visible to participants (that is, stand up in front of a room and guide discussions/give instructions), is probably about 30% of the work of a Facilitator. Another 30% of the time is spent working with the event holders in advance to help them clarify what they want to get out of their session, how they want people to feel at the end of it, what kind of physical outcomes they need for the next step in their process, and how can they structure their inputs to have maximum impact. The good Facilitator guides this inquiry too.

The next 30% block of time is spent actually designing purposeful workshop activities and their sequencing, making decisions about the choreography, group sizes, energy ebbs and flows, and how to capture all that into an agenda for interactivity, creativity and fun. Further discussions with the host team can help everyone share learning and experience about what works in different situations and contexts.

The final 10% of the Facilitator’s time is spent in final details. Do you have your handouts ready? What other materials do you need? What are the segue ways between key activities? What is the opening script? (These are the things that can keep you awake at night.)

The overall goal is not to just to move people around a room for a day. A good Facilitator is a process person with their eye on outcomes and learning – there is reason for every interaction, what is it and how can a process be designed that makes those conversations easier, smoother, and more productive? After all, facilitation comes from the Latin word “facil” which means to make something easy. Good facilitation means making group dialogue, decision-making, information sharing, and learning processes easier and more effective for everyone: your workshop hosts, your participants, and yourself. If you care about your organization, want it to have the greatest possible impact in the world, and learn the most from its daily interactions, then being a facilitator is one good way to help.

We are just going into a week of facilitating learning and conversation activities and no doubt we will have some learning to share on this blog. Here is the first post for the Facilitator’s Notebook:

Lights, Camera, Action: Working with Star Speakers

Here is a lesson that I absolutely need to learn as a workshop facilitator: No matter how well you brief a plenary speaker who is a subject matter expert, no matter how much you discuss their presentation and the key points, or even how frank you can be with them about keeping it short and to the point – if you give them X (pick any number from 10 to 100) minutes for their presentation, they will go over the time.

So what, you might ask, is an additional 10 minutes here and there? Well, when you have 3 speakers on a panel who do that, that is 30 minutes over time, and where do you make up that time? In the discussion. So instead of a nice 45 minute discussion where the audience can actually share and exchange their opinions on the topic, and ground their learning in their own experience, you are down to 15 minutes. One or two participants with two-part questions will finish that off nicely.

What is it about standing in front of a rapt audience (or even a few rapt people in the front row) that woos our speakers to the limelight? That puts stars in their eyes and genuinely compels them to put on a really good show for their audience? And how can we manage all that good intent as Facilitators?

Short of creating a scene, cutting someone off mid-sentence, or sending out the gaff, there is not much you can do. Obviously if it is extreme, then extreme measures are called for (see previous sentence). However, normally it is not extreme, it is just those extra 10 minutes that you really wanted to use to get people thinking, connecting and conversing about the topic. Here are a few things you might try:

  • Telling people they have 15 minutes to speak and building 20 minutes into the schedule (maybe speakers expect this and that is why they do it? Where did they learn that?);
  • Using timecards (green card – 10 minutes to go, yellow card – 5 minutes to go, red card – STOP)(AND some speakers are very skilled at focusing on a different part of the room than where you are wildly waving your cards);
  • Appointing a chair for the panel that is not afraid to tell people to finish up and can do it diplomatically (Chairs can also, however, be tempted into the same limelight with lengthy introductory and final remarks);
  • Designing a session to follow a plenary that is either expendable or contractible (like coffee break and lunch – make sure that they have been allocated enough time to absorb this eventuality, otherwise prepare for revolution);
  • Asking people to make their presentations ahead of time online, or by paper and then having them present to only take questions from the audience (you have to manage participants expectations to get away with this)
  • Don’t include any plenary speakers, or at least don’t stack them up – stick with one keynote speaker if you wish to have one (this is actually a serious option);

Frankly, designing your workshop to absolutely account for this, and being able to effectively manage with run overs is probably the best place to start, especially if you have an incredibly engaging speaker. It is a pity to cut off a unique learning opportunity for people, and a good facilitator will know when to let things run over. Plan for it in as many ways as possible, especially by allocating substantial discussion times (even after they get cut down) so that this critical part of the learning process is always there to help people follow your star.

The participant’s journey at a large-scale conference can be an interesting one. People travel to the venue, they walk into a bustling and colourful conference venue (exhibitions, restaurants, meeting spaces, and all), then they walk into their first of many small workshop rooms and basically sit there (different small rooms of course) for 75% of the conference. The room size might change, the speakers might change, and still, most of the conference goer’s experience can easily be sitting in seats listening. Research shows that retention rates from listening to presentations are low and generally decline over time. Not to mention the fact that when you sit shoulder to shoulder in a room you rarely get to know whom you are sitting beside. In a plenary keynote presentation last September, I asked a group of 300 people to raise their hand if they knew both of the people they were sitting between. Only a few people raised their hands. This was on Day 3 of the Conference.

We spend a lot of energy thinking about communication to conference participants and the media around the event to make it colourful, interesting and engaging; how can we make sure that this does not stop at the workshop door? After all, that is where most people spend their Congress-going time. Believe me, I know, I am sitting in a Conference planning workshop myself today…

The facilitator of our discussion asked the group to give her bullet points, but the man from Rwanda told her he would only give her stars…

Can it be, Ischomachus, that asking questions is teaching? I am just beginning to see what is behind all your questions. You lead me on by means of things I know, point to things that resemble them, and persuade me that I know things that I thought I had no knowledge of.

— Socrates (Quoted in Xenophon’s “Economics”)

I am sitting in a hotel ballroom with 140 people at a conference titled, “Capacity Development Strategies: Let the evidence speak” and the level of some of the participants has dictated a certain room layout and format – we have a head table with four speakers and 140+ people sitting shoulder to shoulder behind tables in the room. There are a number of international speakers sharing their knowledge about issues such as: Capacities for local development, Capacity development at work, etc. When the speakers are finished with their interventions, they stop, and the chair asks for questions from the audience. A couple of questions are asked and answered. They come from different people and are unconnected. The Rapporteur works to identify threads and lessons from the session. The purpose of the meeting is to draw some new insights from the speakers and the group about these critical issues, and to exchange knowledge so we can all learn.

If learning is the goal, and this formal room layout is a given, how might we best work with this format for optimal exchange?

One possibility might be to structure the Q&A session differently. How different might the post-speaker discussion be, if the speaker asked the audience the questions instead? Would it be more focused? Would it help people in the audience connect what the speaker said with their own experience and help them share their opinion? Would it focus the discussions and shed some new light on the subject for everyone with more contributions from the floor?

We use the Socratic method in workshops to lead people into discussions on issues that help them explore what they already know and build on it with the experience of their peers. Could this method work in this ballroom as well? And if we were using this ballroom for what it was built for (dancing, celebration, conversation) would we be interacting and sharing more?

If you read the blog post on 19 October, this title will sound familiar. That blog post was inspired by a discussion with a few colleagues after a staff meeting. Some ideas were already popping up on how these kinds of gatherings could be even more interesting and contribute to good dialogue within the institution. We decided to take this a step further and use our own communications unit meeting to generate additional creative ideas, and then to share them with the team who is responsible for our staff meetings. We imagine that these ideas will be read with as much enthusiasm as produced them!

Here was our question: You just went to a great staff meeting – you left excited, energised and hopeful. Tell us – what happened?
We first worked in pairs to create our stories, then shared them with each other. Here are some of the ideas that emerged:

• The staff meeting has changing chairs/facilitators – sometimes the DG, sometimes other management, or staff members lead the meeting.
• A different programme/unit hosts each staff meeting and uses it as a creative event. They use visuals (ppt or video with little text) as people enter the room to promote or update people on their programme. They run a warm-up, facilitate the news and reporting, and use a few minutes of the time for an “ad-break” on their programme. We give an award to the best staff meeting of the year at the Christmas party (people vote for it). Sometimes departments partner to put on their staff meeting so as to encourage cross-department collaboration.

Format of the meeting
• At the beginning of each staff meeting there is a 5-minute warm up to get people’s attention (breathing, tai chi, something fun etc.)
• The free coffee morning is changed to right after the staff meeting to encourage people to talk about the meeting and what they heard.
• There are different formats using interactive exercises for discussion components. For example, people make one minute interventions and then go into different corners of the room and invite people to discuss further, so they are “opt-in” discussions.
• Creative sharing is promoted in the staff meetings, and discussions are held that generate ideas about things of interest to staff, that explore a major issue, or use voting for more inputs by staff.

Reporting and updates
• Reports are not always made by the Heads; other staff members also get to report.
• Reporting uses more visuals, including “advertisements” of new products of which we are proud. Little text is used in the visuals, and more emphasis is put on pictures, cartoons and things to remember.
• Reports are delivered as if they were news items – answering the question, “What’s attractive for people? What is newsworthy?”
• The reports have a limit of 2 minutes (some people say 1 minute!) and a bell or a timer goes off when the time is up.
• The reports are interesting, humorous, engaging – the audience “votes” at the end of a report by clapping and that instant feedback incentivises the staff reporting.
• In reports, some parameters are set – such as that people cannot talk about “where, when or who”, only about “what they have learned and the key messages to staff.” Reports are forward looking and not backward looking, giving staff an idea of what we want to achieve and inviting engagement and discussion.
• Not only technical people take the lead; we also hear from general management, finance, cafeteria, etc. We consider what is interesting to ALL the staff.

Updates on non-programme and non-work activities
• Staff share what is going on in management – using the meeting to achieve even greater transparency on current debates in management.
• Space is given to support staff to share their news items.
• An “open-mike” system is used to allow people to share their news.
• Each staff meeting includes both work-related reports and also updates on people’s lives: births, announcements, weddings, etc.
• Staff meetings include 5 minutes at the end on social aspects such as how to make life exciting in our area (local events, announcements etc.)

Certainly there are great staff meetings in other institutions, what other experiences are out there? Even this 20 minute creative exercise was an example of how a staff meeting can give energy and contribute to our learning about how to do things differently.

Last week I ran a short workshop on facilitation for 8 people within our organization. Four days after the workshop, to follow up with them and tap in on their learning, I sent an email with three questions:

1. Have you noticed anything in your work that we talked about in the workshop (that you might not have noticed before)?

2. Have you done anything different or differently based on something you heard or learned at the workshop?

3. If you were going to conduct the workshop, or if we were going to do it again, what is one thing you would change?

I was very surprised that one person wrote back saying that she had not noticed anything new after our workshop. As a facilitator, what an opportunity this response provided me for reflection!

How could this response give me some new insights about learning? How could I redesign the workshop so that I get a different response to this question in the future? What could I do differently? I thought of three things:

1) I could find out more about people’s experience with facilitation prior to the workshop (I asked them this in the first 15 minutes of our session). Then I could make sure that there is something new in there for everyone. This still might not help them see something new in the few days after our session if they do not find themself in a “facilitated” context.
2) Perhaps I could wait longer to ask this question, or ask it several times. So that people have more time to link what we talked about over to real situations.
3) Or I could ask a different question: I could embed the notion that participants will notice something by asking, “What is one new thing you have noticed in your work that we talked about during the workshop?” Then they can actively look for an example, and by looking they will probably find one, perhaps more, and create a longer learning process for themselves and potentially more value from their participation.

Maybe with all the “noise” going on around us, we just don’t notice these small learning moments sometimes? Noticing them definitely takes practice…