Inventing techniques and exercises

random pens.jpeg


I was hosting a networking and learning meet up of facilitators yesterday.  I had offered to do a session (1 minute rant, which I learnt from Belina Raffy on the Sustainable Stand Up course), but we were running behind time - mostly because there was so much people wanted to say when debriefing previous exercises.  I offered to run my session another time, to allow enough time for the 'main event', but the group wanted me to go ahead with it.  So my challenge was to find a way to debrief it that didn't take too much time.

While the group was doing the exercise, my brain helped me out by inventing this debriefing structure.

  • There were twelve participants.
  • There were three questions I wanted to pose in the debrief.
  • I had a load of assorted colour marker pens in my toolkit.
  • Everyone had played both roles (ranter and listener) in the exercise.

When the group was back in a circle for the debrief, the pens were put in the middle of the circle. I asked everyone to take a pen, without telling them what would happen next.

  • If you had a red / yellow / orange pen, you answered this question: "What was it like to be the ranter?"
  • If you had a blue or black pen, you answered this question "What was it like to listen to the ranter?"
  • If you had a green pen, you answered this question "What do you take from this exercise, which will inform your work as a facilitator?"

The debrief covered all three questions. Everyone got to say something. Collectively we gained enough insight from the exercise. The debrief was snappy and we were (more or less) back on time!

There are great techniques which you can learn on courses, in books (three I've been recommending recently are: Participatory Workshops by Robert Chambers; The Change Handbook by Peggy Holman et al, and The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures by by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless), from other people.  And there are techniques you invent yourself, in the moment.

For your comfort and safety, webcasting is in use during this workshop

[This blog post was first published in March 2015 and published on the NHS Citizen site, which is now archived. See here for the blog post. and here for all Citizen Jury pieces related to NHS Citizen.]

As a participation professional who’s been lurking around NHS Citizen as it develops, one of the most exciting aspects has been the webcasting.  Even the debriefing team meeting at the end of the NHS Citizen Design Workshop in January this year (2015) was webcast from 03:56).  This is a level of openness and commitment to transparent reflection that goes way beyond anything I’ve been involved with before.  I fell in love with NHS Citizen as I watched that. 

On the other hand, when I was sitting down to design the detail of the particular event I was brought in to facilitate - the Citizens’ Jury test in Hatfield on 3rd and 4th March 2015 - I had some reservations.

Let me explain.

Transparency vs safety

In the tradition of facilitated meetings that I work in, a very high value is put on creating a safe space for difficult conversations.  When I help a group agree its ways of working (or ground rules, or working agreements) we always discuss and agree something around confidentiality and attribution.  Sometimes the agreement is that no-one expects anything to be kept confidential or to be non-attributable.  But sometimes people agree quite strong confidentiality boundaries, because they need the reassurance to feel safe enough to speak freely, without being judged by others or being punished for their views later.

Webcasting is clearly the opposite of that safety agreement: your words and your identity are available to anyone with internet access. 

So while I value the transparency and openness that webcasting enables for those not in the room during the conversation, I could also see some downsides for the jurors and for the quality of their conversation.

The choices we made about webcasting took into account other considerations too: budget was a factor.  In the end, we decided to webcast just the afternoon of the second day: the jury announcing and explaining their decision, and the reflection and learning session that came after the formal work of the jury had ended.

Ready for my close-up

So what impact did webcasting have on the quality of the conversation?

One thing that I noticed was that some of us at least scrubbed up a bit better on webcasting day than on the first day of the jury.  I found myself regretting having worn my smarter dress too early, and only having more comfortable but less flashy clothes on webcasting day.  I wonder if the cameras put us on Sunday Best, at least figuratively if not literally.  And if they did, would this be a good thing or a bad thing?  Some jurors reflected that the conversation was more managed, formal and slow during the webcast sessions: this was exacerbated by the need to pass the microphone around.  We were less relaxed and less spontaneous.

I have mixed feelings about the formality that overtook us on that second afternoon.  People were more guarded and took time to choose their words carefully, so we lost the energy and creativity of our earlier conversations.  On the other hand, I welcomed the caution to some extent because I’d become acutely aware of the way in which jurors might make themselves vulnerable during the webcast. These were, after all, members of the public pretty much plucked off the street.  Not necessarily used to speaking in public or having their words analysed after the event.  I found myself feeling protective towards these people who were not there because they had a professional perspective to offer or wanted to advocate for a particular set of interests, but because we had asked them to be there.  After all, we can all stumble over our words or say something we regret.  If we’re politicians, professionals or campaigners, perhaps we shouldn’t make mistakes and if we do we are held accountable.  But for jurors, many of whom may never have been in any kind of similar situation, their mistakes would be available to the world to see live and then immortalised for their neighbours, workmates and families - let alone NHS Citizens like readers of this blog - to watch over and over again.  

On balance, I’m glad these jurors were cautious than creative in front of the cameras, even if that slightly defeated the purpose of live webcasting in the first place. 

Other lessons

There were other impacts which we’ll need to find better ways of managing if we webcast from a citizens’ jury again. 

It’s clear from comments that the webcast viewers would have liked to see the presentations from the specialists, as well as the explanation of the jury’s decision.

The people watching the webcast wanted to know how long sessions would be and when we would take our breaks.  In the event, our first webcast session didn’t need as much time as we had anticipated, and we went into the break earlier than advertised.  This wouldn’t have been problematic if everyone had been “in the room” with us, but for people watching it was confusing and annoying that we didn’t stick to the pre-announced schedule.  I don’t want to overplay this: it is a manageable wrinkle.

And although not many people took up the option, it was great to be able to feed in comments from people who watched the webcast and get their perspective during the reflective learning session. 

Impact of webcasting on the jurors

Knowing that we were planning to webcast some of the event might have skewed our sample - the people who participated in the jury: filtering out the shyest and selecting for reality-TV stars in the making.  But nothing that we heard from the recruitment team (or saw during the event) suggests that this actually happened.  We offered the option of having a ‘no filming zone’, which people who didn’t want to be featured on camera could use.  The webcasting team have experience of making this work, but in the event no-one asked for this. 

Jurors themselves had mixed views on how to manage the webcasting.  Some thought it would be a good idea to have the cameras and microphones there the whole time, so that they would get used to them and be ignoring them by the time the webcasting happened.  Others were very clear that they wouldn’t have wanted the cameras in the room during the earlier discussion sessions: they thought this would seriously limit the openness and energy of the conversations.

Experimentation continues

The NHS Citizen team may experiment with other ways to give people a flavour of the citizens’ jury process in future events: Clive Mitchell has already started to explore the idea of using a citizen journalist instead of a webcast.

It’s exciting to be part of a team that’s so committed to experimenting, reflecting on what works and doesn’t work, and changing how things are done as a result.  And I am willing to say that on camera!


'Greening' our practice as facilitators

 Hexenring in Freiberg by unukorno on flickr

Hexenring in Freiberg by unukorno on flickr

The two worlds I straddle - sustainability and process - interweave in all sorts of ways. And one of those ways involves challenging myself, and other facilitators, about the sustainability of our own practice.  And although I've called this blog post 'greening' our practice, of course there are the social and ethical aspects of sustainability as well as the environmental ones to consider.


There are some obvious, relatively easy things we can do to improve the direct impact of workshops and meetings.  At a recent IAF England and Wales meetup, we built a list of the things we are already doing: our 'easy hacks'.  Lots about resource-efficiency: reusing, refilling and recycling the paper, pens and other stationery we use. The IAF list also touched on travel - choosing a venue which is easy to get to by public transport and finding ways to make lift-sharing possible.

And venues sometimes do their bit too - the pictures after the list are from NCVO's meeting rooms in London.  If you're providing food: local, seasonal, plant-based and watch the waste!  I worked with a client recently who specified that all catering should be vegetarian. One venue excelled themselves, even including a vegan blackberry jelly.  The other clearly couldn't believe the request, and included ham and tuna sandwiches in the lunch. 

The jumbo in the room

And I'm glad that we picked up travel at our IAF meeting, because it really is the jumbo in the room.  This guide to running 'greener' meetings by the ICLEI contains the startling statistic that over 87% of the CO2 emissions associated with a particular conference were due to transport.  That paper we worry so much about? 0.5%. The inventory was done on an international conference in Brussels, which is a bit different to a workshop for people who are based nearby. But that's the point. Consider the distances and travel modes carefully.  How much can be done by meeting virtually?  How easy is it for people to get to venue by public transport?  Can you help people who need to drive, to car share? If people walk or cycle to the venue, is it safe to do so?  Make sure the details about where the event will be held are helpful to non-drivers.

Bang for your buck

There is a trade off between the benefits your participants get from the event, and the (negative) sustainability impacts it has.  Help your client ensure that the event has really clear aims (free download), is well designed and organised, and that participants get a fabulous experience which was worth it! 

A comic take on this

I explored the environmental impact of facilitation in the wonderful Sustainable Stand Up course I did recently.  See this video for what I found out.

follow this up

Here are some places you can find out more:

Thanks for ideas and leads

I got a great response from a couple of LinkedIn groups - Sustainability Professionals and the UK Facilitation Network. (These are LinkedIn groups so you need to be a member to see the posts.) Thanks in particular to Adrian Tan for pointing me towards the ICLEI guide mentioned above.

All About Change! Discussing pro-environment behaviour change with psychologists

 Pistacchio cupcake,  Marjolein Knuit

Pistacchio cupcake, Marjolein Knuit

It was great to spend a day with environmentalists and psychologists, at the IEMA/British Psychological Society conference on pro-environmental behaviour change.  All of the presentations and associated materials are here.

The British Psychological Society (BPS) has an Occupational Psychology chapter, and that's where its Going Green working group lives.  They are on twitter too, here. It's great that people with real insight into what's going on inside our funny old heads are bringing that expertise to these problems.  I wish we'd heard more from the psychology experts, like Jan Maskell, alongside the inspiration offered by a scan of macro level massive changes (from Andrew Simms) and a personal story of redemption and individual action (Simon Jordan of #5ThingsClear).  From IEMA/GACSO network, myself and Vincent Neate led more interactive sessions, where people got to have some fun talking together and applying the frameworks.

 Jan Maskell's diagram

Jan Maskell's diagram

Jan briefly touched on how a psychological approach fits in with interventions and categories of public policy.  Really interesting territory - bridging the gap between 'leaving it up to us' and 'leaving it up to them'. I'd have enjoyed exploring this in more detail.

Creating change through individual behaviours

Not all of the sustainability outcomes we want to bring about are best approached through individual behaviour change, and to suggest so can mean that those with substantial power (political leaders, organisational leaders etc) are let off the hook.  But assuming individual behaviour change is likely to be helpful or necessary, then here are some criteria for pin-pointing the behaviour you want to influence.

  • Enthusiasm - there should be a buzz of enthusiasm about the kind of changes you are looking to bring about.  Everyone is trying to reduce plastic use at the moment.
  • Agreed - there will be experts who can give a view as to whether the new behaviour is viable, and stakeholders who need to agree to support it.  There's no point getting everyone to bring in reusable cups, if the people who run the catering in your office can't fit them into their machines or haven't been given the go-ahead to use them.
  • Simple - the new behaviour should be simple to describe and to do.
  • Improves Impact - the new behaviour should actually make a psoitive difference to the outcome you are working towards, without big environmental or social downsides. 

Think you might have trouble remembering this checklist?  It's EASII.

Six sources of influence

I offered this satisfyingly neat model, originally developed by Grenny, Patterson, Maxfield, McMillan and Switzler and described in detail in their book Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change.

Having run through the model, people got into groups, chose a behaviour that they wanted to encourage, and worked on how they could use the six sources of influence to maximise their changes of success.

I have written about this model and how it's been used elsewhere, including here and here on changing travel behaviour, and here on the role of 'critical mass' for some pro-sustainability behaviours.

The handout is here, so do use this model to help you change behaviour where you are.


Putting on my clown's trousers, with Sustainable Stand Up

 Game for a laugh: photo by  @SteveCrossPhotos .

Game for a laugh: photo by @SteveCrossPhotos.

Contemplating ecological apocalypse, and being really really angry with the bozos who are letting it happen, can make us sustainability people pretty dull conversationalists. 

In a bid to learn some new ways of delighting people while helping them stare into the abyss, I enrolled in the marvellous Sustainable Stand Up course, run by my old friend and colleague - and all round laughter fairy - Belina Raffy with support from Dr Steve Cross.

About the course

There were six of us on the course, and we met in a rehearsal room in London's glamorous London Bridge area. There were also on-line classes where we connected using a video conferencing platform. There was homework. There were improvisation exercises. I now know enough comedy theory to analyse why my sides just split.

Other comics-in-progress were from NGOs, think tanks, innovation agencies and academic institutions.  All of us had sustainability-related work - not just the eco-side, but the social side too.  We were mostly from different organisations, but it also works as a team course - see this blog post from Raid Naim.

Some of the exercises we did could make a direct transfer to coaching, facilitation and training work - I particularly loved how the '1 minute rant' helped me see a new way of dealing with 'difficult' participants in facilitation settings.

Letting go to make room for the better ideas

One of the unexpected learnings for me was recognising how easy it was for me to let go of OK jokes or adequate ways of setting up and landing particular jokes, because I'd thought of something better.  I wrote and discarded at least double the amount of material I eventually ended up using.  While I do make changes and discard things in other areas of my work (and life) this can be a slow, hard process and is often accompanied by feelings of blame or shame: I tell myself a better person wouldn't have had the weak idea, only the stronger one.  For reasons which I can't quite pin down, letting go of weaker jokes for stronger ones was so much easier emotionally.  I really hope to bring that lightness to the process of coming up with and improving ideas in my wider work.

About the show

We all did our sets on a Saturday evening, in a pub near Kings Cross in London.  The sense of camaraderie was strong and we all helped each other get used to the mics and the lighting before the crowd arrived.  We were each able to recruit a handful of pals to whoop and cheer for us in the basement comedy club, and we all gave our best performances that evening: something about 'this is it' sharpens you up, and you definitely are in a relationship with the audience in a way that is hard to imagine in rehearsal.

Without the prospect of doing our sets in front of (supportive) friends and strangers, I wouldn't have worked so hard on my set, and taken the feedback so seriously.  The performance and the associated jeopardy makes a huge difference.  (See 'who will catch me when I fall?' for more on not being paralysed by fear.)

If someone invites you to their Sustainable Stand Up gig, and you have any interest at all in laughing about the silly and frustrating aspects of sustainability, DO GO!

Go on, go on, go on, go on

Thinking about doing it yourself?  Do! There are Sustainable Stand Up courses coming up in London and Berlin.  Keep an eye out for other dates and locations.

Am I funny now?


Here is my set.

Paying attention to the mood

os flowers.jpeg

When I first met with Brigid Finlayson and Carolina Karlstrom, to see whether we could work together to create the first She is Still Sustainable, we talked a lot about the kind of event we wanted to make it.  And our conversation focused a lot on mood, atmosphere, emotional tone: we wanted it to be “warm, safe, friendly event which is refreshing, inspiring and supportive”.

When I’m training facilitators, I spend a lot of time banging on about aims.  Get your aims clear, and your event design will follow.  And your aims will include task-focused aims like the things you want people to know, or tell you, or decide together during the event. 

 They will also include ‘mood’ aims.  Do you want to spark curiosity?  Do want to challenge people?  Does it need to be sleeves-rolled-up and focused on action planning?  Coaching approaches like the Thinking Environment, and facilitation approaches like the Art of Hosting, encourage huge attention to the physical environment when designing an event.

The feedback we got from women who came to She is Still Sustainable told us that we’d done a pretty good job creating the mood we were after.  They said:

“I felt warm and supported”
“inclusive and engaging”
“thought provoking”
“the chance to talk to women my own age about our storylines, personal and professional, without judgement and with great interest and compassion” 

What did we do?

Here’s a few of the things that contributed to the mood:

  • We tried to write all our communications with those intentions in mind: emails, linked-in posts and eventbrite page told people what to expect, and were written with a smile on our faces!
  • We gathered biographical information and photos from participants in advance, and circulated them ahead of the event.
  • We bought flowers for the tables.
  • We set ground rules that supported sharing - “keep people’s confidences” – and were gentle – raising an arm for silence, rather than shouting or ringing a bell.  This worked like magic!
  • We addressed the difficult topics of diversity and despair head-on in the agenda – the difference our differences make, looking after ourselves while we look after everything else – demonstrating that conversations about those things were welcome. 
  • We made time in the agenda for structured networking and small group conversations – sharing life stories in pairs, co-coaching, open space sessions.
  • We were open about our own stories.
  • As an organising team, we treated each other with kindness and respect, and were supportive of each other. 

The open space sessions, where everyone gets a chance to set the agenda and be part of the conversations they are most drawn to, included groups talking about things which wouldn’t get a look-in at a traditional sustainability conference: age; sustainability as a female-dominated profession; despair; moving into sustainability from a different career; writing your own hero’s journey; balancing the ‘performance’ of ambition with being our authentic selves.  This is testament to people feeling safe enough to share quite personal things.  (There were also the more expected topics e.g. building a different and sustainable economic system; how to define the vision of the society we want; fantastic elevator pitches; should organisations have a separate sustainability department.)

 Open Space topics, day one

Open Space topics, day one

 Open space topics, day two

Open space topics, day two

Did it work?

For most people we did create the atmosphere we intended, and on the whole it was a hit – 84% gave the event an overall 100% rating.  But it didn’t completely suit everyone.  Feedback included:

I left feeling a little conflicted - while I felt warm and supported I did not feel particularly energised or inspired. The only analogy I can think of was that it was a bit like taking a warm bath ... I usually prefer an invigorating shower. It wasn't the wrong feeling at all, just one I enjoy on occasion rather than regularly!

I’m still pondering whether we can have both. 

Over to you

What do you do, deliberately or inadvertently, which creates a mood? Share your perspective in the comments.

Doing the work in sustainability that we want to do

Lots of the women who came along to She is Still Sustainable said that the highlight was a co-coaching exercise we ran, using a solutions focus approach.  People paired up and coached each other, asking positive, future-oriented questions about the sustainability work they wanted to do. The instructions are here.

 Co-coaching at She is Still Sustainable

Co-coaching at She is Still Sustainable

I’ve used this co-coaching exercise in other contexts recently too, for example training people in running better meetings, with a volunteer pastoral care team who offer confidential listening in a community setting, and working with a group who wanted to get better at being a peer support team for each other.

There are two things I want to reflect on about this:

  • The power of a solutions focus approach
  • How easy it is to teach people to coach each other this way

The power of the positive

There is an unexpected novelty for most people in creating a vision of how you want things to be, appreciating and identifying what’s got you so far towards it already, and then finding the small, doable actions which will take you ‘one point further up the scale’.  It’s refreshing to focus on solutions, when we more usually prioritise problems, barriers, failures.  Culturally we are encouraged to ‘learn from our mistakes’.

Of course if we make a mistake it is great to at least get the benefit of learning from it.  But we can also learn from our successes!  And there’s something uplifting and motivating which comes from remembering and building on what works.

It’s easy to use this approach

In workshops and training courses, if you can find 45 – 60 minutes, you can get your participants co-coaching. 

The first step is some guided visioning – and I usually do this as a whole group.  I invite people to sit comfortably, closing their eyes if they like.  Depending on the focus of the event, I’ll invite people to imagine that they wake up one morning and a miracle has happened!  They are (for example):

  • Doing the sustainability work they want to do, in the way they want to do it;
  • About to run a perfect event;
  • The best pastoral care team member they can be;
  • A fabulous peer team.

Quick summary

 Solutions focus: scaling

Solutions focus: scaling

I talk them through their day, pausing to give them time to really think their way into it: What does it feel, sound, smell, taste like? What do they hear, say and do?  How do they feel?

Having built up this detailed vision of the ‘future perfect’, I invite them to identify where they are on a scale of 1-10, where 10 is the future perfect and 1 is its opposite. 

I then invite people to get into pairs (if it’s an odd number, I join in), and do the next steps in the process. I talk through what those steps are, and back this up with a handout.  I let people know how long they have for the exercise: I like to ensure there’s no less than 15 minutes each way – 20 – 25 minutes is even better. 

I check for questions, and then let them get on with it.  I discretely check in with everyone approximately half-way through the time, to ensure they have swapped roles.

It’s all in the handout. 

Being a great change maker

My experience with this solutions focus co-coaching exercise has been overwhelmingly positive, so much so that I’ve included it in both editions of Change Management for Sustainable Development.

Try it!   

On the spot, in the room

Any fool can design a workshop. What really tests you is having to redesign it part-way through.

You’ve done a great plan, and prepared your materials.  You know how you’d like the space laid out, and your workshop will take the group on a journey towards a convergent, satisfying conclusion.

And then it all goes horribly wrong.  Nasty surprises throw your plans into disarray.  You need to redesign and you need to do it NOW!

 On the spot: Skitter photo

On the spot: Skitter photo

For some of us, this is our worst nightmare as a facilitator.

How can you make redesigning on the spot your most satisfying skill?

Why would you redesign?

I can’t be the only facilitator who carries blu-tack, masking tape, selotape, Velcro stickies, map pins AND thumb tacks in my toolkit.  Alongside the thumb drive with a backup version of the presenter’s slides on them, and a print-out in case we need to recreate the slides on flip charts.  Not to mention painkillers, plasters, tampons…

But sometimes, despite these contingencies, we still need to redesign. 

I was training facilitators recently, and we spent a good chunk of time looking at redesigning and contingency planning.  They generated a list of reasons why you might need to redesign a workshop once it had already started.

  • Technical issues - e.g. projector fails;
  • Your speaker or some other important team member is late;
  • An unexpected expert, senior leader or other significant stakeholder turns up;
  • Lower (or higher) number of participants than planned for;
  • Something takes longer than planned;
  • The group wants to add something to the aims or agenda;
  • Your realise there's a better way to meet the aims;
  • The format isn't working e.g. a plenary is being dominated.

I can imagine (and remember) these happening!

Real redesign

At an internal workshop with a regulated utility recently, we had a beautiful process which assumed that the three pilots trying out a new approach, would have a lot of things to action plan individually.  It turned out that the most pressing topics for discussion were the cross-cutting enabling context which the organisation needed to provide, to let the pilots flourish.  So not much point keeping them in three sub-groups for the hour that we’d scheduled.  We conferred over lunch, and redesigned the afternoon, complete with new slides and room layout, so that they could have the conversation that wanted to happen.  I was working with a very experienced support facilitator and there was a good level of trust in the client / facilitator team, meaning we could use the lunch break knock ideas around, decide what to do and then implement the new design fast.

Planned redesign

Sometimes you plan in the flexibility, because you know that you don’t know!

Last autumn, I designed and facilitated a workshop for a household name business with a reputation as a pioneer in sustainability.  They assembled an amazing group of thought-leaders together with young future leaders and key decision-makers in their business.  Over two days, we did lots of cool and interesting things, leading at lunchtime on the second day to an enormous clustered set of answers to the question “what should we look at in more detail this afternoon?”  The group used sticky dots to show their areas of most interest.

The client / facilitation team spent lunchtime agreeing six topic areas, each with its own tailored questions beautifully written out on flips, which the group then worked on for two hours in the afternoon.  We knew in advance that we would be designing and prepping for the afternoon during lunch.  We expected that the session would include small group work and we knew the maximum number of groups our team and the space could accommodate. We knew how much time we had. But we couldn’t anticipate how many topics, what they would be, what kind of questions we'd want the group to ask themselves in relation to those topics and whether we would be working on different topics or all on the same topic. 

How would a world-class fabulous facilitator approach redesigning a workshop?

I wanted to make the trainees feel really positive about redesigning things, so we spent a bit of time thinking about what helps you to redesign really well, and what gets in the way.  We pictured how a 'world class fabulous facilitator' would approach rapid in-room redesign. 

The group decided that the fabulous facilitator would be comfortable with change, confident and positive about their new plan.  They would have a level of detachment - no-one is doing to die if they do a less than fabulous job!  They would be calm, light-hearted and authoritative.  They would use their quick-thinking skills to choose from a range of tools which are appropriate to help the group reach its goals: keeping the bigger picture in mind.  They communicate clearly so the group accepts and is also confident in the new plan. We talked about the different circumstances in which the group might be involved in the redesign - sometimes the group won't even realise that a redesign has happened.  Sometimes they will need to be actively involved in choosing the way forward.

Yes, and

There's some useful insights into becoming comfortable with making choices rapidly, from the world of improv.  I'll blog about these another time but in the meantime here's a list.

  • Yes, and
  • Listen, observe
  • Trust, assume good intent, assume genius
  • Stay in the moment
  • Make others look good – play to enjoy, not to win
  • Be bold, mis-take cheerfully, embrace the unintended

6Ts, considerations

When you are redesigning, you need to pay attention to the same considerations as when you do your initial design - it's just that you have fewer choices and more fixed points.  You know who your team are, what the room is like, how much conflict there is and so on, instead of having to make assumptions. (6Ts comes from 3KQ's foundational facilitation training.)

So you need to rely on techniques you are familiar with and more than ever bear in mind the rule of thumb - if in doubt, chose the simplest technique which will do the job.

You can do this!

Redesigning 'on the spot' is something that many new facilitators fear. Don't be afraid! You probably have done this before, so you know you can. Now you can get ever better at responding beautifully in the moment to the unfolding reality of the conversation you are helping to emerge.




Celebrate your achievements!

One of the lovely things that we did at She is Still Sustainable last month, was to build a wonderwall of our achievements.  And wow! What a lot we have achieved.

Some were very personal – surviving divorce, arranging funerals, raising children.... 

Some had enormous reach – training 100s of facilitators, systems change programme with Sierra Leone Ministry of Health to improve community health,  part of a team delivering a sustainable London 2012...

Some were very tangible – writing books, setting up organisations, creating community gardens, renovating a house to high eco-standards, building an environmental showcase house on Trafalgar Square...

 Browsing the wonderwall.

Browsing the wonderwall.


When we’d browsed the wall of achievement and organised it a bit, we cheered and applauded our collective fabulousness, and thanked each other for our contributions.  It was very moving to be looking someone directly in the eye, and expressing gratitude for what they had done so far, and to have their thanks in return.

It's like a long hike. We’re part way along this journey, and have climbed high enough to deserve a rest. We take in the view, spotting the landmarks we passed earlier and remembering the tough stretches where we doubted our ability to go on.  There is further to travel, and we know we can do it, because we have come this far.

Process notes

The process: we gave everyone big post-its and marker pens, and asked them to think about their achievements and choose three to write down.  We encourage people to put aside any British reserve or modesty – this is a time to blow our own trumpets!  A wall had been prepared in advance – lined with flip chart paper – to receive the post-its.  We encouraged grouping but with a light touch and we didn’t push this: there around 40 women so nearly 120 achievements, and we didn’t want the process to detract from the amazing array of sustainability successes.

 Remembering our achievements

Remembering our achievements

What difference do our differences make? Some thoughts on diversity in the sustainability profession

diversity globe.png

She is Still Sustainable was more workshop than a conference, but we did have two speaker panel sessions.  Like other She is Sustainable events that came before ours, this included a presentation on some of the facts and figures showing the systemic disadvantages women experience in the workplace. 

Gender discrimination - it's not you, it's the system

First up on the panel, Becky Willis reminded us of the gap in pay and power between women and men in the UK.  Gender discrimination happens:

  • The gender pay gap is 13.9% for full-time workers
  • There are more men called John than women running FTSE 100 companies (17 Johns, 7 women)
  • 54,000 women are forced to leave their job early every year as a result of poor treatment after they have a baby
  • 78% of newspaper articles are written by men
  • 74% of the House of Lords are men
  • ….. Yet 20% of men aged 25-34 say gender equality has ‘gone too far’
  • (and women speaking out are routinely ridiculed)

Published a couple of weeks earlier, IEMA’s 2018 survey of its members – environment and sustainability professionals – found that there is a 14.1% gender pay gap, which is 2.6% less than it was in the previous survey but still higher than the national average.  Women are also under-represented in senior roles (the survey found 77% of ‘leadership’ roles are held by men), and in senior membership grades.  As a Fellow of IEMA, I am in a tiny minority: 84% of the Fellows who responded to the survey are male. 

Not just gender

When we were approaching speakers for She is Still Sustainable, we were challenged to think more widely than gender.  What about women of colour?  What about lesbian and bisexual women?  We broadened our panel to include people who could speak from personal experience and give us some analysis: Lisa Pinney MBE is an Area Director with the Environment Agency, an LGBT+ ambassador and until recently was a trustee of LGBT+ rights organisation Stonewall. Angela Francis is Chief Economist at the Green Alliance and shared her experience of growing up as 'the only mixed-race girl in the village' (apart from her sister).  As was ruefully pointed out, while it was wonderful to have so many mid-career women in the room, we were an overwhelmingly white crowd.  I can’t speak confidently about our diversity along dimensions of sexuality and class, but my guess is that that we were not a very diverse group.  We have more work to do to make these events inclusive of all women working in sustainability.

Early on we asked people to stand up if they had caring responsibilities, and then if they didn’t have caring responsibilities.  It was roughly 50/50 split, which was a surprise to me: as someone who checks up on the health and happiness of my children and my parents, it was a useful reminder that not everyone's circumstances are like mine!

Reporting on pay gaps

The Environment Agency has an active LGBT+ network, and its recent gender pay gap report shows a really interesting level of attention being paid to understanding how not being male, white, straight and able-bodied impacts on pay and progression.  The Environment Agency also looked at the differences between people who self-identify as religious or not.

ea pay gap screen shot_LI.jpg

TL:DR – the Environment Agency’s headline gender pay gap is around 2.5%, very similar to its disability pay gap of 2.6%.  Its race pay gap is higher at 3.3%. (All these figures are the ‘ordinary hourly pay gap’.)  Its ‘religion and belief’ pay gap is -0.2% - those employees who have a declared religion earn marginally more than their colleagues with no declared religion or belief.  Unhappily, the pay gap for LGB employees is 6.2%.  All these figures are the ‘ordinary hourly pay gap’. The report contains information on bonus payments and representation at different levels of the organisation.

What is exciting about this report, for me, is that it exists at all at this level of detail.  I assume that the leadership is paying attention.

What did I take away from this?

That as a profession, we have absolutely no room for complacency – and lots of room for improvement, regret and shame.  We can and should be paying more attention to the diversity of our own profession and movement – for our colleagues, for the people we are working with to solve sustainability problems, and as part of our contribution to meeting Sustainable Development Goal 5 (gender equality) and 10 (reduced inequalities within and between countries).

Who gives us permission?

road signs.png

In a recent coaching session, my client was exploring whether they had permission to do something. And, in an uncertain and fluid situation, how they would know whether they had permission or not. What if they misread the signs?

We developed a two-by-two matrix, to sort out the possibilities. 

 Permission 1

Permission 1

If you realise that you have permission to do something, then that's the best place to be: empowered, confident in your mandate, and able to forge ahead.  If you have permission but don't realise - or don't believe - that you have, you can disappoint the people who are expecting you to show leadership.  If you think you have permission, but others don't agree, then conflict can arise. You waste your time and in this client's words, it's a right headache.  And if you rightly believe that you don't have permission, then you can at least recognise that it's not your problem.  Unless you wish you did have permission!

 Permission 2

Permission 2

We also looked at what the implications are if you like or don't like the amount of permission you have.  If you have permission, but wish you didn't, then you need to ask yourself whether you have permission to say no!  If you wish you had permission to do something which others haven't given yet, then you have an engagement and advocacy pathway in front of you, to get the permission you want.

Who gives us permission?

Sometimes there really is a person or institution with power which formally and explicitly gives or withholds permission.  But so often, all of this is happening in our heads. Who is the real person whose views we are assuming we know? Can we replace our assumption with some actual conversation?  They may surprise us! 

Who is the imagined person we are waiting to hear from?  It may be a voice we have carried with us from our earliest childhood, which we can experiment with ignoring or challenging.  We can give it new things to say.

And if the 'permission' feels significant but we don't know where we stand, we can play with scenarios to find a way forward in the face of uncertainty.



What has the snow revealed?

The Beast from the East has blanketed much of the UK with its beautiful sparkles, covering up roads, railways lines and in some cases front doors. 

 Olivier Bataille,  flickr

Olivier Bataille, flickr

But the snow has also revealed things that aren’t usually seen: particulate pollution, uninsulated roofs, space which could be reclaimed from traffic for pedestrians and cyclists, and the impoverished nature of our soil.

what snow reveals.png


The pictures show, clockwise from top right:

  • Snow in London with particulate pollution, caught by Tony Juniper and posted on twitter.
  • 'Sneckdown' - the true path of traffic shown in snowy conditions - in Canonbury, north London, pictured by Ben Addy of Sustrans. There's more on 'sneckdown' here.
  • Roofs bare of snow, because of the amount of heat escaping. A recent raid in Keighley, Yorkshire on a cannabis farm in an attic space was prompted by eagle-eyed police seeing the roof didn't match its snowy neighbours. This picture, however, is from Delft police in 2015
  • So-called snoil (a term seemingly coined by George Monbiot this week) snow mixed with soil, blown into drifts in a country lane in Staffordshire.  Another example of police photography. An arresting image showing how loose and thin soil with little organic matter to hold it together is so easily eroded by wind and weather.

As you look around the sites your organisation occupies or is responsible for, what has the snow revealed about its sustainability aspects and impacts?

Making the invisible easier to see

Less easily photographed, the recent weather may have revealed other things which are useful to know, about sustainability and resilience. 

  • How easy (or hard) is it for your organisation to carry on working when transport is disrupted? What are the implications for travel-related carbon emissions, or flexible-working?  For resilience in supply chains?
  • If your organisation is a big user of gas, was it able to respond to the National Grid’s call for a reduction in usage.  How easy or hard did you find it matching energy demand to supply?
  • If you had a snow day, how did you spend your time? What did you choose to do, when you were given the gift of eight extra hours to use exactly as you like?  Remember this when you are feeling low, demotivated, burnt out: perhaps spending a couple of hours exactly as you please will feed your flame.

Personal resilience - three ways to build yours

 Wind Swept Tree, Fereneze Hills,  cc-by-sa/2.0  - ©  wfmillar  -

Wind Swept Tree, Fereneze Hills, cc-by-sa/2.0 - © wfmillar -

One of the things that came up again and again when I was talking to people about the new edition of Change Management for Sustainable Development, was supporting ourselves as sustainability professionals and as change-makers.  This diagram shows three key pillars which support us. It was in the first edition (2006) and felt even more essential when I wrote the second edition.

 Support yourself: three pillars, Walker, Change Management for Sustainable Development, 2006, 2017

Support yourself: three pillars, Walker, Change Management for Sustainable Development, 2006, 2017

Support yourself - three pillars

Fortunately, many of the things which help you to do this will also bring you other benefits which are easier to justify – in traditional organisational and management terms – like developing new skills, developing others, networking with potential clients or suppliers.


Perspective is about learning from the doing. Every day, week or year you will have done things which pleased or disappointed you. Your actions may have moved things closer to a sustainable development path, or you may have tried and failed to do so. You don’t have to reflect on every single thing you do (or fail to do) every day. But taking some time out to think about what’s worked well and what’s not will help you to do better next time.

Perspective is also about stopping yourself from getting stuck. If you only ever see the big picture, then you’ll miss out on the chances to make some of the thousand little changes that will bring sustainability closer. If you only ever see the details, you’ll miss out on the mid-course corrections that are needed, and never see the progress you’ve made along the route. Sometimes the optimist needs to see the emptiness in the glass and the pessimist needs to see the fullness.

Give yourself a break

Marry perspective with giving yourself a break, by having a laugh at failures (see the wonderful Sustainable Stand-up)  and celebrating achievements. Or take a holiday which combines relaxation with some other kind of activity or learning – music, drawing, bushcraft skills, yoga.

Time off and time out are essential – this is a long-distance path, not a sprint. Recharging your batteries is not self-indulgence, it’s part of the plan.

People recharge their batteries in lots of ways – listening to a great piece of music, going to a show, drawing, meditation, running, cooking a meal for someone, walking in the countryside. And there are things that can just make you feel good about yourself – finally finishing that niggling job around the house, doing a good turn for someone, getting in touch with a relative or old friend.

What are the things that feed your flame?

Open your schedule and book in one thing – even if it’s just 10 minutes’ worth – for each of the next seven days.

Make time-off possible by getting really good at delegating, engaging others in implementing things, and plan for your successor(s).


Inside or outside your organisation, find like-minded fellow travellers to share the journey with.

Talk and listen with these people to help you reflect and learn, and to give each other moral support.

And as you network – formally and informally – build up the kind of listening and coaching skills which mean that the conversations are useful and effective, rather than descending into being superficial or a moan-fest.

Still conversations

My own offering to build resilience, alongside one-to-one coaching, is the seasons of Still Conversations for Sustainability Leaders which let people think aloud, with supportive peers, about the hard questions of sustainability.  These have been very special, with a quality of connection which is outside the normal superficial, competitive conversation you get at conferences and other events. More like a mini-retreat.

She is (still) sustainable

I'm also involved in the wonderful She is Sustainable – for women working in sustainability, in particular the version aimed at women with a couple of decades of work under their belts: She is Still Sustainable.

Other options for 'association'

Network with others who are also making change for sustainable development.  As well as structured and informal opportunities to share experiences, networks can help when you need to build alliances or find people to give your efforts external credibility. You can find people like this in various ways. These are just some ideas:

Look after yourself!

However you do it, please look after yourself. You can't be your best self if you don't.


Facilitating and convening when you're not neutral

facilitating slides.png

Many organisations in the sustainability field do their best system-changing work when they are collaborating. They recognise this, and they seek out collaborators who, like them, want to make more change than one organisation can do working alone.

They understand the power of collaboration so well, that they put resources and staff time into facilitating and convening it.

And they find themselves in a challenging situation - playing the role of convening and facilitating, whilst also being a collaborator, with expertise and an opinion on what a good outcome would look like and how to get to it.

Why is it a problem?

When you have expertise and a point of view on the topic being discussed, and you're also the convenor or facilitator, it causes three kinds of problems:

  • You are insufficiently neutral (or are thought to be) when you are playing the 'honest broker' role, helping the rest of the group discover their consensus.  The decisions made unravel, because they are not deeply owned by the group.
  • Your point of view and your expertise are lost to the group, unless someone else can contribute them on your (or your organisation's) behalf.
  • The people you have convened don't see themselves as collaborators, rolling their sleeves up to get on with real work after the conversation. They see themselves as consultees, telling you what your should do after the conversation.

These problems are not insurmountable, but they are real. Understanding that they are an inherent feature of being a non-neutral facilitator/convenor helps you to anticipate them, spot them when they occur and mitigate.

Thinking it through as a team

I work with a lot of organisations who are in this position, and recently I ran a half-day masterclass for one of them. The masterclass began with me setting out the problem, and then the group shared their actual experiences and discussed what they wanted to do about it.

Here are the slides, suitably anonymised.

Once you understand the typical challenges, you can decide which situations need that additional neutrality, which really need you to be 'in' the conversation, and come up with ways of making sure that happens.  There are some ideas here.

I'd love to help other organisations think through these dilemmas and make their own choices about them.

Looking back, looking forward

It's the last working day of 2017 for me, and of course I've been looking back and looking forward.

It's a lovely thing to do. Identifying the highlights of the past year, and dreaming just that little bit more ambitiously about the year to come.

Still conversations

In 2017, I experimented with still conversations: a peer-learning, coaching-inspired way of giving sustainability leaders the space to reflect and think aloud, so that they can go back to their work refreshed and inspired to make more change for the rest of us.  In 2018, these will run again and they will be a key part of the work I do to support change-makers.  People who need to build their own (or their organisation's) resilience, and who want to make more change, are welcome.

Change Management for Sustainable Development

Change Management for Sustainable Development was published by IEMA.  In writing it I got to interview some of the best in the business - in-house leaders who want to build a better world and know how to transform an organisation from the inside-out. In 2018, I'll be sharing more of these insights through blog posts, webinars and with clients.

CPD for me

I was honoured to be made a Fellow of IEMA in the summer.  In October I joined hundreds of other facilitators at the IAF's Europe, Middle East and North Africa regional conference in Paris. What a wonderful event! I learnt so much and was able to share some of my own expertise with facilitators from all over the world. My CPD next year will be a bit 'out there' - I'm taking part in Belina Raffy's Sustainable Stand-Up communications course.  And yes, there will be a show in late May. Come and laugh with / at me!

She is Sustainable

One other highlight from 2017 was She is Sustainable - a warm and supportive event organised by women working in sustainability, where older women shared their life stories and hard-won wisdom with younger women just starting out on that journey. I was so inspired by facilitating the open space sessions. In 2018, working with some other wonderful sustainability women, I'll be putting on She is Still Sustainable. This sister-event will be for women who have been around the block a few times, working in sustainability and related fields, who are ready to take stock and plan their next adventure.

Change through clients

Throughout the year I worked with clients who are campaigning, innovating, convening and collaborating for sustainability. The kinds of things I helped with included organisational development and strategising, capacity building around facilitation and engagement, designing and facilitating workshops, coaching... I am looking forward to stretching and being stretched by ambitious, imaginative clients in 2018, and helping them make change!



Change management for sustainable development - 'a coach in your pocket'

CMSD cover 2017.jpg

Are you an environment or sustainability specialist, working to help your organisation step up to its role in bringing about a sustainable future?  Want to make more of an impact? I want you to as well! Which is why I was so pleased when IEMA invited me to write a second edition of Change Management for Sustainable Development.

And when one of our peer readers said "it's like having a coach in your pocket", I was really happy, because that's exactly what I wanted it to be.

It's published today!

Huge thanks to all the wise, insightful and generous practitioners who shared their experiences with me.

There is a free download for IEMA members, and non-members can order an e-copy (£10) or a hard copy (£25 /£15 for members).

Surfing a wave of change - #OurBluePlanet

 Green Sea Turtle,  NOAA

Green Sea Turtle, NOAA

The BBC's brilliant Blue Planet 2 has certainly sparked a great conversation about how delicate and beautiful our planet is, as well as showing us how fragile the ocean ecosystem - on which life depends - is.

Today, the BBC has launched #OurBluePlanet - aiming to get 1bn people talking about oceans and how to protect them. This blog post is a contribution to #OurBluePlanet, and it's about how you - as an environment or sustainability professional, if that's what you are - can surf this wave of change.

Surfing a wave of change

In Change Management for Sustainable Development - out soon from IEMA - I write about some different approaches to making change in organisations. One approach is to 'surf a wave of change'. Notice what else is attracting attention and getting things moving. Use it to advance the sustainability conversation.  Get traction for your green action by harnessing the energy that's already on the move.  The public's concern and new appreciation of the blue planet is just such a moment.

Your existing initiatives

At the very least, you can let colleagues know how your existing environment and sustainability initiatives help protect oceans and allow them to recover. Whether it's reducing carbon emissions, cutting effluent, moving towards a circular economy or sustainable fishing (and I'm sure you can think of other connections), so much of what you already do is connected to #OurBluePlanet.

If you are working on the Sustainable Development Goals (Global Goals), then you will know that SDG 14 focuses on Life below Water.

Greater change

While colleagues are interested and motivated, help your organisation respond by showing them the changes they make - strategically and operationally - to improve their ocean impact further. You are the one with the expertise, so use it to identify genuinely impactful initiatives.

What difference does the business model make?

 Photo: Lego city,  Sonny Abesamis

Photo: Lego city, Sonny Abesamis

There's a lot of talk about the need for new business models, for sustainable development. What might make one business inherently more sustainable than another?  What kind of businesses are embracing their special role in bringing about a sustainable society?  Or helping us transition?

We in the sustainability movement sometimes struggle to understand the concept of a business model at all.  What is a business model?  How do you distinguish between one model and another?

What I've learnt and who I've learnt it from

This post is a bit of an exploration of what I think I understand about business models, gleaned from listening to people like Stephanie Draper and David Bent from Forum for the Future as well as helping the Travel Foundation and the Branson Centre for Entrepreneurship straddle the fields of start-up businesses and sustainability.  I'm also drawing on what I've learnt from working with the inestimable Julie Brown and Growing Communities on their grass-roots bottom-up start-up programme, ably assisted by the entrepreneurial advisors at UnLtd.

Follow the money

It seems to me that there are two different ways of thinking about business models.  One is about the governance and questions around who benefits from the business. The other is considering who is paying whom to add what value at each stage.  Those both sound like pretty tricksy concepts which you might well see on bullsh*t bingo, so I'll expand on them a bit here.

Who invests, who owns, who benefits?

On one side, we have private companies where investors put up the money and expect to get a return:  which might be that their capital grows (I invest £500 in a business and when I sell my share of the business I get £1000 for it) or that they get a dividend (I invest £500 in a business and every year I get a share of the profits, say £75 a year).

The growth in the capital or the income depends on how well the business does.

Depending on how risky the business seems to be, I might only invest my £500 if it means that I own half the business.  This is the kind of negotiations you see on Dragons' Den, where the potential investors strike deals with the candidate businessmen and women, demanding a bigger slice of ownership than is initially on offer.

Another way of raising capital for private business is through loans, which get paid back at an agreed interest rate, which is negotiated with an eye on the risk of the business not being able to pay the loan back (defaulting). The loan may be secured with a mortgage, in effect making the investor a potential owner if there is a problem paying back the loan.

There are also businesses with a sort of hybrid relationship with their investors and shareholders: like community-owned renewable energy businesses which raise capital by issuing shares, but the rate of return is capped.  See for example those linked to Energy4All (this is not financial advice).  These companies are run for profit, but the return to shareholders is limited by the rules governing the company, and the remaining surplus is reinvested or donated.

And then there are completely not-for-profit businesses like Growing Communities, which funds its activities largely through trading (selling stuff).  Growing Communities is owned by its members (box scheme customers), and any surplus is reinvested in the business.  In the case of Growing Communities, reserves built up over a number of years have been used to part-fund activities like its start-up programme, which supports other communities to set up their own financially self-sufficient sustainable food schemes.  The original capital to set up Growing Communities came in two forms: sweat equity (free labour and in-kind contributions from the entrepreneurs who set it up) and advance payments from customers (members) who paid for vegetables before they were sown!  I know, I was one of those veg buyers.

Not forgetting co-operatives and other employee-owned organisations, where ownership is shared among the people who work in them (or have some other relationship to the organisation, like being a customer or a 'member'), either equally or in ways which mean that one person can own a bigger slice of the organisation than someone else.

You can see immediately that different kinds of people are going to be interested in being investors in, and owners of, these kinds of businesses.

And you'd expect to see the 'rules' or assumptions about what returns investors could get, to be written down quite clearly - in share offer documents, articles of association and so on.

Interestingly, one of the special aspects of being a certified B-Corp, is that while businesses can continue to be 'for profit', their governing documents need to incorporate sustainability, so that they are also 'for benefit'.  This is explained in detail here. The point is that the directors of a B-Corp will have a mandate to consider 'who benefits' in a wider way than implied by the questions 'who owns' and 'who invests'.

Who is paying whom, to do what?

The other way that people use the term 'business model', is understood when you follow the money: who gives money to whom, in exchange for what?

The what is 'added value'.

So in a really simple retail situation, I pay a stall-holder at the farmers market to receive some delicious vegetables.  Here's a service example: someone pays me to design and facilitate a workshop. 

A slightly more complicated example: I pay a monthly standing order to Freedom from Torture, who in turn provide medical and therapeutic services to victims of torture. There's no real exchange here (I get a newsletter, but I often can't bear to read it...).  The organisation has told me enough about its effectiveness in a field I care about, that I am in effect paying it to do something that I want to see done, but cannot do myself.  This particular charity also gets money from grant-making bodies, which is likely to be tied to the provision of specific services or achievement of specific outcomes, which don't directly benefit the bodies which are making the grants.  So this is a 'benefit at a distance' from the perspective of the people providing the money.

Once you start to look at organisations this way, all sorts of questions jump out:

  • How can Twitter and Facebook, and similar businesses, provide free services to individual users? Because advertising and data mining.
  • How do Uber and Airbnb make money? Taking a cut from the people who provide the actual driving or hosting.  So why do those people pay money to Uber / Airbnb? Because they receive a service: visibility to customers who want a convenient way of locating and paying for their services.
  • Who would be paying who to do what, in a circular economy? It will depend on the interplay of a few factors: the comparative costs of using 'waste' as a raw material versus using 'new' raw materials; the comparative costs of 'disposing' of the waste, as opposed to processing it and transporting it to the people who want to use it as a raw material; the particular regime of regulation and taxation surrounding these things.  You might see the organisation which is generating the waste, paying for it to be taken away and dealt with.  You might see the organisation which is making the new product, paying the recycling organisation to provide it with raw materials.
  • What about 'payment for ecosystem services'?  This is the idea that, for example, a farmer might be paid (by whom?) to enable more water to be stored on their land during very wet periods, to help reduce down-stream flooding.  The payment might represent income lost by, for example, not being able to harvest crops from a flood plain. Or it might represent costs incurred by planting trees on land which otherwise wouldn't absorb so much water.

My reflection is that it's not enough to understand how physical resources might flow through a system, or who/what might benefit from a different way of doing things: when faced with a novel business idea, it's important to understand who might pay whom to do what.

Is one business model better than another?

There is a lovely dissection of business models for social good, by David Floyd here (warning: contains llamas). 

At a very exciting but top secret (OK, Chatham House rules) workshop on the future of sustainable business that I ran recently (October 2017), the participants from a range of backgrounds, including multi-national consumer goods businesses, got quite close to recommending alternative ownership and governance structures as being fundamental to business being truly 'for good' - because of the 'patient capital' needed to underpin them, and the need for leaders to be able to consider wider benefits than the financial benefits to owners.



In-house facilitation networks - what makes them work?

 Post-its by  Erwin Brevis

Post-its by Erwin Brevis

Inside some organisations, there are networks of facilitators who design and run better meetings.  Perhaps you are in such a network, or have worked with people who are. Perhaps you've designed and run training for people who go on to be part of such a network.  These are, for the most part, people who facilitate either as a part of their job (and are given management support and time within their job to do this) or on top of their day job (having to carve out time informally, and doing it because they love it). They are not generally full-time facilitators.

I was asked to share some insights about facilitation networks, for SALAR, the Swedish Association of Local Government and Regions. This was done as part of some work that Edward Andersson is helping them with. A link to my presentation is at the bottom of this post.

Facilitation as an essential skill for participative approaches to decision-making

SALAR's interest came from their desire to revitalise dialogue between citizens and local government, in order that decisions taken at a local and regional level are much better informed by people's experiences, insight and preferences.  When bringing together a group of citizens to discuss contentious questions like whether and how best to welcome refugees, or what to do about school provision or local transport services, you need a skillful facilitator who can both design a good process and facilitate it 'in the room'. 

And the in-house facilitator network I know best - at the Environment Agency* - arose because of exactly this impulse: the need to have much better conversations with stakeholders (both professional stakeholders and communities) about important questions like pollution control, flood risk management and protecting water quality. (The Environment Agency also has a framework contract for Stakeholder Engagement, Advice and Facilitation Services, known as SEAFS, which has professional independent facilitators on it.)

Facilitation for internal conversations

There are also in-house facilitator networks which focus on internal conversations, rather than inside-outside conversations.  They help out with specific initiatives or projects - like whole-staff conversations in the run-up to the development of strategic plans - or can be called on for smaller conversations, like project planning or to sort out a problem.  Some organisations choose to take a very focused approach to their facilitation, by training facilitators in a specific methodology like agile or design thinking.  Others will equip their facilitators with a wider range of tools. 

Inter-organisational networks

There was a period in the UK when the stars aligned, and there was enough political focus on the role of citizen participation in local decision making that all sorts of public bodies - police, emergency services, health, education, local government and so on - needed to build their capacity to facilitate conversations with stakeholders and the public.  A solution which emerged - developed and championed by InterAct Networks - was to train facilitators from a number of different organisations which all covered the same geographical area.  So someone from a county council, a health authority and a community group might work together - with no money changing hands - to facilitate a workshop on behalf of an education authority.  And when the county council needed external facilitators, they could call on others in the network to help out.  This was one (cash-cheap) way to address the need for independent, neutral facilitation, where the facilitator does not have a stake in the outcome of the conversation.

At its height in 2004, there were between 15 and 20 such inter-organisational networks swapping facilitation resources and playing that neutral facilitator role for each other. Often, the in-house facilitators would would alongside professional independent facilitators who would lead on process design while the network members played support roles, for example facilitating table groups in larger workshops.

When I went looking for these kinds of networks again in 2017, I couldn't find any of the original networks still operating.  (I did find a different inter-organisation facilitator network, trained by Dawn Williams of Sage Gateshead, informally swapping facilitation services between museums in the North East of England.)

More in-house networks

After my work for SALAR was completed, I found out about some other in-house networks.  This was at a fascinating panel discussion as part of the (IAF) International Association of Facilitators conference in Paris, in October 2017.  We heard from four organisations about their internal networks: DHL Express Russia, Airbus, Decathlon and ENGIE Global Energy Management.  DHL Express Russia has trained 200 in-house facilitators!

Peer-learning networks

As well as networks where the purpose is to build an organisation's capacity to design and run better meetings, there are networks which are essentially there to facilitate peer learning between people who want to improve their facilitation skills.  There are loads of these, and they fall into two categories: alumni of a particular training course, e.g. Art of Hosting or TOP; and 'all-comers' peer learning, like the learning meet-ups organised by the IAF in the UK.  These are much more likely to include 'all comers' than to be confined to a single organisation.

What makes them work?

There are six key lessons that I took from talking to people who run successful networks and also to those with insights into networks that haven't continued:

  • Management support for network members - people need support from their managers to do the training, and then use their new skills for the benefit of colleagues and the wider organisation.
  • Coordination doesn't happen by magic. Networks are never 'self-sustaining'. Coordination, leadership, administration takes real people real time. It can be 'hidden' within someone's day job, or done on top of the day job, but it still needs doing.
  • The network must have a clear purpose (peer learning; advocating for the use of facilitative approaches; swapping of facilitator resources), and that purpose must meet a real organisational need (otherwise management support will not happen).
  • For peer learning networks, people need to think about four things: whether there is an 'entry level' of minimum knowledge, skill or training; how to support members in actively using their skills; encouraging reflective practice and peer or 'client' feedback; and building in face-to-face refreshers where people share skills, learn new ones, and problem solve for each other.
  • For 'swapping' networks, whether intra- or inter-organisational, even stronger organisational support is needed. There need to be guidelines for quality control, a protocol for receiving appropriate requests for facilitation support, and time for coordination.

What do you need to think about?

When setting up a facilitator network, the initiators need to think about:

  • its purpose - is it about facilitation skills which may be used in any situation, or about promoting public engagement or participative decision-making? is it primarily there to enable continued learning and skills development, or to provide (semi) independent facilitation for each other's teams (swapping facilitator resource)?
  • its boundaries - do all the members need to be from the same organisation? or to have gone through the same training?  Is there a minimum level of skill or training that they need, to be able to offer themselves to facilitate for others in the name of the network?   If there is 'swapping' of facilitators, there are some additional questions: how will 'clients' know about the resource, and how to use it well? How will requests for facilitation be filtered and allocated?  How will facilitators get feedback?  Does it matter if some members never make themselves available to facilitate in this way?
  • the organisational context - consider and explore things like: senior level sponsorship; the learning and development or professional development aspects, and how to get support from this team; making it part of people's 'day job'; if it's about promoting and enabling public and stakeholder engagement, consider how the organisation can integrate public engagement into the decision-making or policy-making cycle; whether or not the organisation has access to external professional facilitation support, in addition to its in-house network, and how this may dovetail with the network.
  • its coordination and management - how will the network get the resources to do the coordination and management; how will the coordinator(s) / manager(s) have a mandate from the network members, or from the organisation; who 'owns' the network, and can make decisions about its future?

Find out more

My presentation to SALAR is available here.  It's a powerpoint slide show, .ppsx.  This page should help if you are having trouble viewing it. The presentation is in three parts, and the participants had a chance to discuss the questions between each section. (For process geeks: we then had Q&A via skype, and doing it this way enabled me to stick to my no flying experiment.)

Get support

If you'd like to talk about setting up or revitalising an in-house facilitation network, do get in touch.

*Along with colleagues from InterAct Networks and 3KQ, I have trained in-house facilitators at the Environment Agency, and worked with them to facilitate workshops involving stakeholders and the public.

IEMA's Leading the Way Conference

iema leading the way conference.png

Are you coming to EMEX next Thursday 23rd? Or to IEMA's Leading the Way conference, which is running alongside it?  

I'll be hanging round the IEMA stand in the morning, and then giving you all some sneak peeks at the shiny new improved and fully updated second edition of Change Management for Sustainable Development. I'll be joined by the wonderful Jane Ashton (TUI Group) and Vicky Murray (Pukka Herbs), with Nick Blyth from IEMA to help us out and some surprise guests.

Stop by and say hello!

Thanks for coming. Thanks for the work you choose to do.

It was great to see so many sustainability change makers at this event, and if you came along you'll know what I mean about saying 'thank you' to each other.

We were also joined by Tim Balcon of IEMA, Tony Rooke of CDP, and Alan Knight of ArcelorMittal. 

These are the slides that I used to introduce the forthcoming second edition of Change Management for Sustainable Development. As they describe, the book is interactive, built from stories and practical advice, with exercises with allow the reader to reflect and note down their own insights and answers. I really hope it's useful to you.

(Updated 29th November 2017, to add additional speakers and link to slides.)