The inevitable referendum blog post - what now?

I'm really sorry

A former colleague of mine is researching whether he's entitled to German citizenship because his Dad was born in Leipzig. His Dad was brought to the UK aged 3, to escape Nazi persecution. The colleague is looking into this because his own young daughters are aghast at having their opportunities to live and work in the European Union so drastically curtailed. The layers of irony are inexpressible. 

A young woman I know lives and works in London.  We met this morning, and she was in tears. She's German. She's fearful about her job and her life here. She's feeling alone and unwelcome.

Social media is full of examples of people being openly and aggressively racist towards white Europeans, and also towards the more familiar victims of such abuse: headscarf-wearing Muslims, people of colour, foreign-looking or sounding.  The result seems to have given people permission to unleash their worst selves. It's hard to practice assuming good intent.

Like another former colleague, I feel the need to keep apologising to friends and neighbours: it wasn't me, I voted remain, I stood in the rain handing out leaflets.  I'm really sorry.

A little bit of theory

In conflict resolution, there's a neat conceptual framework which helps explain how to find common ground in the face of irreconcilable positions.   PIN - Position, Interest, Need - basically invites you to ask 'what would that give you?', when faced with a positional statement. By telling each other about their interests and needs, the common ground shared by seeming opponents can be found and potentially expanded.

A referendum is a positional situation par excellence.  The question has two - and only two - possible answers, which are mutually incompatible.  

‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’

It's designed to oblige people to declare a position with clarity, to be definitive.

It's clear now that people had many distinct, different reasons for voting 'leave' - some of which were tangential to EU membership.  But the binary referendum question doesn't make nuances and reasons explicit - we have to guess the motivations.

What we need are conversations which help us understand the interests and the needs.  And I think it's best if the conversations are about the future (what country we want to become, what we want our relationship with EU to become) rather than the past (why we voted (or didn't) how we did) and who misled who.

understanding each other

I have heard a lot of remain supporters talking about the need to heal, reconcile, understand the complaints of leave supporters.  And at least one notable leave supporter, Dominic Raab, spoke on BBC Question Time today (Sunday) about the need to reach out to the 48% who are 'nervous' (14m50s onwards). 

This is not a question of wise, insightful people in one camp understanding the baffled and misinformed in another camp so that they can persuade them more effectively.  That is doomed to fail.

As Karen Armstrong says,

Do not enter into dialogue unless you are prepared to be fundamentally unsettled.

That kind of dialogue only works if people from all the perspectives want to enter into it. If they want to better understand each other.  If they actively want to find common ground and move forward together.  If they want to test and discover the

...far more in common than that which divides us.

The purpose of a new conversation

I think there is a role for deliberative conversations about two related questions.

  • What kind of relationship do we now want with the EU?
  • What kind of country(ies) do we want to build and how shall we do that?

The first is important because the mandate to leave didn't contain within it any detail about what kind of leaving people were voting for.

This second is important because leaving EU won't solve the all the problems that leavers hope it will solve, just as remaining wouldn't solve all the problems that remainers want it to.

Who could convene it?

Some people have been enjoying the idea that no-one wants to hold this particular dirty-nappied baby.  "You touched it last" is being played and it's giving rueful remainers a good laugh.  Who should lead the Article 50 negotiations?

I'm attracted to the idea of a national unity Government of some kind, a thought echoed by Giles Fraser on the same edition of Question Time.  Whether or not that is what we get, some body with the power to implement the mandate and which has some degree of credibility with leavers and remainers of many perspectives, could convene or commission this kind of process.

And if we are in the business of organising or convening those conversations, we need to be careful to scrutinise our own assumptions - 'they' only voted like that because they were misled by campaigners or the media, because they are old or poor or badly educated, or because they are young and wealthy and have degrees. Patronising and looking down on others is not a good way to enter into dialogue. If you can't keep your personal perspectives out of the room, then join in as a participant, not as a facilitator.  The facilitators will have their work cut out, helping people listen to each other with respect.

Whether or not the negotiators choose to listen to the deliberations, we need to understand each others needs and concerns with compassion and empathy which outshines what we've managed over the last few weeks.

Petitions, legal technicalities and clutching at straws

I - bitterly sorrowfully - regret the result of the referendum.  I wish it hadn't been called.  I wish the campaigns had been more honourable and honest, less shrill.  Less about rich white men deciding which of them gets to run Daddy's estate.  But I think the campaigns to seek a re-run or treat it as advisory are futile and a bit dangerous in themselves: perpetuating the positional divisions and putting off the time when we being to find common ground again.  Remain supporters look like sore losers, and that will cement the views of those who voted leave as a response to feeling disenfranchised and alienated.

What the result changes, and what it doesn't

The laws, taxes, spending programmes, climate change commitments we end up with will continue to be negotiated and decided on by politicians influenced by campaigners, lobbyists, the media and more-or-less formal test of public views.  This will continue whether we are in the EU or not.  I'm not convinced that trying to stop Brexit is the right strategy. (I reserve the right to change my mind, unlike referendum voters.)

Far more important to me, right now, is the agglomeration of individual conversations and interactions we have with each other - person to person. The referendum has shone a brutal light on divisions in our country, which are echoed and repeated across Europe and elsewhere.  How shall we live together, in an increasingly frightening and resource-constrained the future?  How shall we distribute power, agency, resources more fairly?

How shall we make sure that when the floods come, we rise out of the water carrying each other and not carrying guns?

Give your collaboration some backbone!

All collaborations need a strong, flexible backbone, holding it all together, channelling communication and letting the interesting bits get on with what they’re really good at.  I first came across the term ‘backbone organisation’ in the work of US organisation FSG, writing about what they call collective impact, but the need for a central team of some sort has been obvious throughout my work on collaboration.   

What is the 'backbone' and what does it do?

Sometimes called secretariat, host or convenor, the role of the central team encompasses three kinds of activity:

  • Helping the collaborators identify and build on common ground, and resolve differences of view (facilitation);
  • Being a secretariat – a point of contact, repository of information and supporting the terms of reference or other governance of the collaboration;
  • Project management or coordination roles in both governance-related activities, and the ‘doing’ of the work of the collaboration- although I have a big caution around this, which is explored below.

Reassuring the collaborators about how collaboration works

The central team also needs to have a keen understanding of how collaboration works, so that they can help the collaborators negotiate the inevitable challenges that arise (see series of posts on six characteristic challenges of collaboration).  They also need to be able to spot when the collaborators are relying on them too much to do the work of the collaboration – which should really be done by the collaborating organisations.  If the collaborating organisations can’t put their own time and resources into the work, then this raises questions about their commitment to the outcomes that the collaboration is seeking to achieve.  Perhaps they haven’t found joint outcomes which are truly compelling, and shouldn’t be collaborating.  The central team can help them spot this warning sign, and reflect on it.

So the central team needs skills which enable them to do a range of things, from top-notch administration to in-the-room facilitation skills and a good dose of assertiveness.

Does the backbone need to know, and care, about the issues?

Do they need technical knowledge about the subject that the collaborators are working on?  Do they need a commitment to the agenda or cause?

There are a couple of ways in which expertise and passion can be a downside.  This may seem a bit heretical, so I’ll explain my thinking.

When a collaboration begins, then the central tasks probably need to be shared among the potential collaborators, and shoe-horned into people’s already busy day jobs.  But very soon there will be more work of the facilitation and secretariat kind than can be easily accommodated in that way.  So dedicated resource is needed.  What might happen next?  Here are some scenarios.

Organisation A is passionate about the potential of the collaboration to meet its own goals, and steps forward to offer that resource.  There’s space in its office, and a staff person is put on the case.  Very soon, all the collaborators begin to see it as Organisation A’s ‘project’.  The staff person’s line manager sees it that way too.  Organisation A becomes too influential in the decision-making, and also sees itself as carrying the other collaborators.  The commitment which led them to step forward is fabulous. But it unbalances the collaboration, which collapses back into being a set of less engaged supporters of Organisation A’s work.

In another collaboration, Organisation B is contracted to provide the central role.  They are answerable to a small mixed board of some kind, and so the decision-making continues to be balanced and shared between collaborators.  But Organisation B was chosen for its technical knowledge, rather than its skills in collaboration.  Perhaps it gave a very keen price for its services, because of its commitment, which added to the attractiveness of its offer.  Organisation B has lots of opinions on what the collaboration should be doing and either wants to influence the content, or becomes too much of a delivery organisation rather than a facilitative organisation.  The collaborators begin to view it as the sole way that the collaboration is ‘doing’ its work, and their own active commitment to using internal resources and expertise in a coordinated way to meet the collaboration’s outcomes begins to fade.  

Organisation C is a purpose-led non-profit with ambitious goals.  It decides to convene a collaboration around one of those goals.  The collaborators who come together agree with the goals, but individually are not so committed or ambitious.  Organisation C finds itself acting either as a facilitator of conversations between the collaborators (but frustrated at its inability to input its own ambitious ideas) or as a challenger and motivator to higher ambition (and therefore agreeing with some collaborators and not others, compromising its ability to facilitate).

Can one of the collaborators be the backbone?

My strong advice would be to avoid this if at all possible.  It is very hard to avoid the pressure from the rest of the organisation to ‘make’ the collaboration do X or Y.  And it’s also very hard to counteract the slide towards it being seen as something other than collaboration. 

Should the backbone have commitment and expertise in the content?

This can work, but there are risks which the collaborators and central team need to be alive to: having all the ‘actions’ dumped into the centre, and getting the balance of challenge vs neutral facilitation right.  Collaborations need both an ‘organic leader’ and an ‘honest broker’.  There’s more on how this might be done in this blog post.

Real-world collaborations

When I was writing Working Collaboratively, I interviewed a few people about this.  Craig Bennett, currently Executive Director of FOE EWNI, told me about his time convening the Corporate Leaders Group.

“If you have more than a small number of parties, then don’t underestimate the value of proper neutral facilitation and a secretariat.”

Whether that third party role should be truly neutral was less clear.  Signe Bruun Jensen of Maersk Line valued the facilitation combined with the challenge and conscience role that Forum for the Future brought to the Sustainable Shipping Initiative:

“You need that challenger role.  If you can find it in a facilitator then great – he or she can help create a sense of urgency and purpose that pushes the process along. I think the real challenge is for the facilitator – whether he or she can balance that potential conflict of interest. That’s why we ultimately decided to split the role in the later stages of the process.”

While you can buy in a neutral facilitator (if you have the resource to do so), you cannot invent a trusted, powerful ‘organic’ leader - who has credibility among the collaborators, understands the subject and has ambition for transformative solutions - if they are not already in the system.

You may be such a person, or you may need to get such a person on board. 

Jonathon Porritt, Founder Director of Forum for the Future, has been involved in catalysing many collaborative initiatives, including the Sustainable Shipping Initiative.  He said:

“You have to be able to get the right people into the room at some stage. If you don’t have that ability yourself you have to find someone who has.”

So you need that ambitious, challenging, exciting expertise. Heart, guts, brain. And you need, separately, your backbone.

 

 

 

What are your 'engagement aims'?

Three purposes of engagement - the engagement triangle

Three purposes of engagement - the engagement triangle

I love helping teams plan their engagement at an early stage of their thinking.  It's often done in a workshop, and we end up with an excellently solid shared understanding of what their engagement process is for, which then guide choices about methods, sequencing, aims for individual elements of the process and which stakeholders to engage.

One of the hardest disciplines to stick to - and yet one of the most useful - is to get really clear about the (multiple) engagement aims.

Sometimes known as the Public Engagement Triangle, this way of understanding "engagement aims" was developed originally by Lindsey Colbourne as part of her work with the Sciencewise-ERC, for the Science for All Follow Up Group.

The triangle helps the team get clear about:

  • What they need to transmit to people outside the team - more everyday words like 'tell', 'educate', 'raise awareness', 'inspire', 'persuade' also fit under this heading. 
  • What they need to receive from people outside the team - 'ask', 'insight', 'research' which might include both objective facts and opinion or preferences.
  • What they need to collaborate with people outside the team, to 'create', 'decide', 'agree', 'develop'.

There are a few more things to note about engagement aims.

Aligned with "what's up for grabs"

Engagement aims should align seamlessly with "what's up for grabs": if you've really already decided there will be a new range of water-efficiency equipment in your stores, don't ask people whether you should start selling it. Tell them you are going to.  Ask them what would make the range successful, or collaborate with them to co-design a promotional partnership.  

If you have preferences about the range (price points, supplier's sustainability credentials) then tell people about these so that their responses can take appropriate account of those criteria.

If you are entirely open-minded about some aspects, then people can have free rein to come up with ideas.

Be clear who is deciding what

If you are asking people for information, ideas, options and so on, make sure that you tell them who is making the final decision, or how it will be made. People very often mistake consultation (a receive activity) for shared decision-making (which sits in the collaborate corner). 

Voting in a local council election is shared decision-making: the number of votes completely determines who wins the seat.  Consultation on a planning application gives members of the public an opportunity to voice their perspective, elected councillors may take those views into account when determining the application.  Once the decision has been made, the planning authority will then tell people what the decision is.

In particular people interpret mechanisms which look like voting, as meaning that decision-making power has been devolved. Hence the grumpiness about Boaty McBoatface.

Consensus is a way of reaching a decision in a collaborative setting (although it is not the only one).  If you are receiving views (and then making the decision yourself) then, while it can be interesting to discover areas of consensus, it is not essential. Understanding the range of views (and the needs and concerns that underlie them) can be as useful.

The aims will change as the process unfolds

Just as the things which are fixed, negotiable and open will change over time, so will the engagement aims.  During an option-creating phase, things are likely to be more collaborative as people co-create possibilities.  You are also likely to want to receive a wide range of views and information.  Once options have been identified, then preferences and feedback are useful, but you may not want to encourage people to come up with entirely new options.  (Of course, if none of your options are acceptable, you may well need to to do this.  In effect you will be going back to being open, rather than having negotiable options.)  And when you've decided on a fixed outcome, tell people. 

Aims for individual activities within the wider process

Some activities are brilliantly suited to tell aims, others to ask aims and some to collaborate aims.  A feedback form on a newsletter is unlikely to elicit a well-worked up option supported by multiple parties.  A focus group isn't a good way of getting your message out. 

Here's a table of appropriate techniques.

Engagement methods and the kinds of aims they are most suited to

Engagement methods and the kinds of aims they are most suited to

Aims for different stakeholders

Depending on the kind of 'stake' they have, you will want to engage different stakeholders with different levels of intensity and it's highly likely that you will have different engagement aims for different stakeholders or types of stakeholder.

When developing a strategic flood plan, for example, you may want to tell residents and people who work in a particular area that the plan is being developed, how they can keep informed about its progress, what their opportunities are to input and in due course, what you have decided.

You will want to ask landowners, parish and town councillors and those people managing particular businesses, nature reserve, utilities and vital services what their aspirations and needs are over the time period of the plan, and for data about geology, biodiversity, demographics and so on. 

And you will want to collaborate with key decision-makers whose support and active involvement is vital for the success of the strategy - e.g. county council, lead local flood authority and so on. 

Plan and improvise

This kind of strategic, analytical approach shouldn't be seen as a way of tying you down. The engagement plan should be a living thing: not sitting on a shelf gathering dust.  In fact, it gives the team a great foundation of shared understanding of the context and objectives which makes improvising in response to changing circumstances much more successful.

 

 

5 minute meeting makeover

We know it shouldn’t be like this, but sometimes we find ourselves in a meeting which is ill-defined, purposeless and chaotic.

Maybe it’s been called at short notice.  Maybe everyone thought someone else was doing the thinking about the agenda and aims.  Maybe the organisation has a culture of always being "too busy" to pay attention to planning meetings.

For whatever reason, you’re sitting there and the conversation has somehow begun without a structured beginning. 

This is the moment to use the five minute meeting makeover!

Using your best assertiveness skills, ask that everyone just pause a moment to check the agenda before you get going properly.

The makeover questions

Here’s your checklist of questions:

  • What do we need to cover in this meeting?
  • What’s our end time?
  • Who will chair / run the meeting?
  • Who will take the note of decisions and actions?
  • Who’s here (useful if not everyone knows each other, or it’s a telecon)?

An agreed, structured meeting plan

Using flip chart or white board, record the answers to these questions.  See the pictures for a mind-mapping way to do this that I’ve found really effective. 

I always begin by putting in the fixed points: that there will be an opening and a closing.

Who and when, and the unchanging opening and closing sessions.

 

Next, establish the aims.  Keep the 'what do we need to cover' answers at the level of ‘topic’ at this stage e.g. “product launch timescale”, “expanding the team”, “budget”.

Summary titles for the items to begin with...

Then, for each item, ask the group and then write up what it is that the group needs to go in relation to that item.  Is it to share updates? To generate ideas? To choose between options? Being clear about the task(s) that the group needs to accomplish in relation to each item really helps.

...then the tasks for each item...

When all the ‘items’ that need to be covered are written up, ask what order they need to be taken in.  Number them in this order.  This might be a good point to set timings for each item.

...and the order that the group wants to take them in.

The final ‘item’ is the closing conversation. This should cover:

  • Confirming any decisions and actions that have been agreed.
  • Agreeing who will circulate the note of the meeting, to whom and by when.  This might also include identifying specific people who need a personal briefing.
  • Agreeing the date of the next meeting (if one is needed).
  • Reviewing the meeting.  I like to use a simple three-stage round of ‘To what extent did we meet our aims? What helped? What got in the way?'

When a task or whole item has been complete, give yourselves a happy, congratulatory tick.

Happy ticks when an item has been completed.

It really does take just five minutes to get a clear, agreed meeting agenda sorted out of rubbish meeting chaos.

Try it!

If you need more help building up the skills to facilitate great meetings, in-house training or one-to-one coaching might help.

A global purpose: the Sustainable Development Goals and business #2

Business can help society meet the Sustainable Development Goals (aka Global Goals). Find out more about work on hunger, health and quality education.

Thanks to the lovely people at IEMA's The Environmentalist magazine, for the invitation to write this series on business response to the SDGs.  It's given me a reason to talk to lots of people doing important work inside lots of businesses and NGOs.

The second article is now out (May 2016), and it covers goals 2, 3 and 4:

You can access the article, and plenty of other environmental news, here, either sign in with your IEMA login, subscribe or take a free trial.

Alternatively, there's a pdf of it here.   The first article in the series, giving an introduction to the SDGs and looking at Goal 1 (poverty) and Goal 5 (Gender) is here.

 

Has there been a tipping point for sustainable business?

Sustainability types were discussing the Sustainable Development Goals (aka Global Goals) in London last night, at a regular meeting of The Crowd. If you are twitter-enabled, you can search for the #crowdforum tweets to follow that way.

I've got very interested in the SDGs, since being asked to write a series of articles about how business is responding, for The Environmentalist.

There was some great conversation, and I was particularly struck by Claire Melamed's view that businesses can cherry pick (or have strategic priorities) among the SDGs, as long as a business doesn't actively undermine any of the goals or targets.  That seems a pretty clear minimum ask!

How would you tell if a goal is being actively undermined?

So how would you tell?  Perhaps the easiest is to do an audit-style check against all 169 of the targets, and spot the krill oil which is staining the otherwise spotless business practices. Some will be easier to test than others, so the views of stakeholders will probably be useful in helping see the business's practices from a variety of angles.

What are the sanctions and disincentives?

The people who spoke about this seemed to be relying on good old fashioned campaigns to bring the undermining to public attention and turn it into a business issue for the company concerned.  Which seems pretty familiar to me. One person used the Greenpeace campaign against the use of unsustainable palm oil by Nestle's Kit Kat as an example.  And that campaign was way back in 2010. Social media ensures that campaigns like this can become viral in a few hours. But in essence they are nothing new. 

Friends of the Earth's Mahogany is Murder protest outside Harrods (Jonathon Rose) 1993, and the bottle dump outside Cadbury Schweppes' HQ, 1971 (Press Association)

So far, so familiar.

Another person said "you'd have to be not in your right mind, to actively undermine any of these goals."  And perhaps she's right.  But it's clear that either lots of people haven't been in their right minds, or perhaps it's been perfectly rational to undermine social and ecological life support systems, because we are here and here isn't a great place for many of the critical issues highlighted by the global goals.  Once again I find myself wobbling between irrational optimism and chronic unease.

But let's give this optimist the benefit of the doubt, and assume that it is now rational to avoid actively undermining the goals. 

What's changed?

The claim was made, with some strength of feeling, that COP21's agreement in Paris has made a tangible difference, with analysts using climate and fossil fuel exposure to make investment recommendations.  And there seemed to be general agreement in the room that this was new and significant.  And today, two days after the Crowd forum event, comes the news that Peabody Energy (the world's biggest privately-owned coal producer) has filed for bankruptcy.  So that's one of the 17 goals accounted for. 

Other voices suggested that the 17 goals will set a broad context for action by policy makers and government, helping business decision-makers have more certainty about what the future holds and therefore being more confident to invest in goal-friendly products, services and ways of doing business.  On the other hand, people noticed the apparent disconnect between the UK Government's pledges in Paris, and its action to undermine renewables and energy efficiency, and support fossil fuel extraction, in the subsequent budget and policy decisions.

Another change was the rise of the millenials, who make up increasing proportions of the workforce, electorate and buying public.  Their commitment to values was seen as a reason for optimism, although there was also a recognition that we can't wait for them to clear up our mess.  (As someone who still clears up her own millenial children's mess, while said young people are jetting off and buying fast fashion off the interwebs, I am perhaps a little cynical about how values translate into action for this generation.)

And the final bid for what's changed, is the recognition and willingness of players to collaborate in order to create system-level change.  And the good news on this is that there is a lot of practical understanding being shared about how to make collaboration work (Working Collaboratively is just one contribution to this), and specialist organisations to help.

So has there been a tipping point?

Lots of people were insisting to me that there has.  There were few negative voices. In fact, some contributors said they were bored and in danger of falling asleep, such was the level of agreement in the room.  I was left with the impression that we're getting close to a critical mass of business leaders wanting to do the right thing, and they need support and pressure from the rest of us to make it in their short-term interests to do so.

So is it back to the placards, or sticking with the post-it notes?

Just listen

Earlier this year I went on a short course on Thinking Partnerships - part of the stable of approaches developed by Nancy Kline of Time to Think fame.  This course was run by Linda Aspey, of Coaching for Leaders.

The Thinking Partnership approach

There are a few aspects of the Time to Think approach which are worth noting: the ten components of a Thinking Environment; the uncovering of limiting assumptions and the use of incisive questions.  I've found these powerful in coaching and other situations.

But the thing that really struck me on the course, and in the practice sessions I had with other participants, is the power of just listening.

Actually, it's not just listening.

It's paying "generative attention": promising not to interrupt; focusing on the person who's doing the thinking - whether they are thinking aloud or silently; exuding a warm neutrality, neither praising nor dismissing what they say.

This kind of listening has a powerful impact on the person who is being listened to. In that space of acceptance and ease, they explore and solve their own problems. It is rather marvellous to be the mirror for someone who is combing through the tangle of their confusion or distress: doing (almost) nothing, and yet catalysing such great work. And having the privilege to observe them doing it.

Listening as support

In another part of my life, I'm a member of a volunteer community support team.  We promise to listen confidentially (within the usual boundaries) to people who need some kind of support through a hard time.  We don't offer advice.  For some of the team, the idea that 'just listening' could be enough was hard to accept at first. It feels awkward. It feels like such a minor intervention.

Our team leader shared some wonderful quotes on listening:

Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don't have to do anything else. We don't have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen.

- Margaret J. Wheatley

Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.

- Shel Silverstein

You can practice deep listening in order to relieve the suffering in us, and in the other person. That kind of listening is described as compassionate listening. You listen only for the purpose of relieving suffering in the other person.

- Thich Nhat Hanh

Sharing expectations for an unusual conversation

This kind of conversation is unusual. It's not the turn-taking social interaction which we're used to. When we're doing this kind of supportive listening, it's not our job to make things right for the other person.  And it's not their job to make things right for us.  (This heartbreaking piece by Decca Aitkenhead describes how she learnt to reassure her friends that she was coping bravely, following a devastating bereavement.)

So it's a good idea to invite the other person to this kind of conversation - to explain that you're planning to listen and not interrupt, and not to give advice or share your own story - and for them to accept or decline the invitation. 

For the community listening, we have a simple form of words to help people know what to expect:

We aim to offer a confidential listening service, so we’d expect that you will do most of the talking and [your community listening team member] will do most of the listening. We’re not there to share our own stories, make judgements or offer advice. We will listen, maybe ask questions, and point you towards other sources of support if that’s appropriate.

Observing culture

I had some tantalising opportunities to discretely observe organisational culture in action earlier this week, when I was an in-patient for 36 hours.

Artefacts

My bed had a good view of some double doors, leading to another ward. There was quite a lot of equipment in front of the doors. There was also a woven red cloth barrier (not just flimsy police tape) across the space reading "do not enter except in an emergency ". I could see a matching barrier on the far side of the doors.

Schein's "artefact" exhibit one. (For more on Schein, see: http://www.penny-walker.co.uk/…/a-z-of-csr-change-management)

What about the "observable behaviour"?

Staff regularly ducked under both sets of tape to use the doors. According to their uniforms (and lack of them), this was staff of a range of specialisms and levels. I didn't observe any staff doing so in pairs or groups. One looked slightly shamefaced when they caught my eye. No obvious emergencies were underway.

I observed about a dozen staff ducked under the barrier, at least two making the return journey as well, in the 36 hours I was there: some of the time I was asleep, or away from the ward for tests.

Espoused values

The clear "espoused value" was to not use the doors, with exceptions for emergencies.

Lots of staff were prepared to openly (although perhaps not in sight of other staff) disregard the combination of message and barrier. The barrier had not, however, been removed.

Basic underlying assumptions

I didn't get a chance to ask anyone about what was going on, but I have a few ideas. I'd be interested in your ideas and interpretations!

But as Schein himself was eager to stress, the observer is not the best person to interpret the meaning of the artefacts: people from inside the culture are best placed to do so.

Who are "we"?

When people are collaborating or working in groups, there is sometimes ambiguity about where things (like policy decisions, research briefings, proposals) have come from, and who is speaking for whom.  If you are convening a collaboration (or being a “backbone” organisation) this can be especially sensitive.  Collaborating organisations may think that when you say “we”, you mean “we, the convenor team” when in fact you mean “we, all the collaborating organisations in this collaboration”.  Or vice versa.  This can lead to misunderstanding, tension, anger if people think you are either steam-rollering them or not properly including them.

Who are 'You'?   

In general, think about whether to say “you” or “we”.  When you use "you", there's a very clear divide between yourself and the people you are addressing.  This is often going to be unhelpful in collaboration, as it can reinforce suspiscions that the collaboration is not a coalition of willing equals, but somehow a supplicant or hierarchical relationship.

Who are 'we'?

“We” is clearly more collaborative, BUT the English language is ambiguous here, so watch out!

“We” can mean

‘me and these other people, not including you’ 

(This is technically called ‘exclusive we’, by linguists.)

 Or

‘me and you’ (and maybe some other people).  

(‘Inclusive we’, to linguists.)

If you mean ‘me and you’, but the reader or listener hears ‘me and these other people, not including you’, then there can be misunderstandings.

For this reason, it can be helpful to spell out more clearly who you mean rather than just saying ‘we’.

What might this look like in practice?

These are examples from real work, anonymised.

In a draft detailed facilitation plan for a workshop, the focus question proposed was:

"What can we do to enable collaborative working?”

It was changed to:

“What can managers in our respective organisations do to enable collaborative working?”

The ‘we’ in original question was meant to signify “all of us participating in this session today” but the project group commenting on the plan interpreted it as “the organisers”.  The new wording took out ‘we’ and used a more specific set of words instead.

A draft workshop report contained this paragraph:

“We do not have an already established pot of money for capital programmes that may flow from this project. One opportunity is to align existing spend more effectively to achieve the outcomes we want.”

This was changed to:

“[XXX organisation] does not have an already established pot of money for capital programmes that may flow from this project. One opportunity is to align existing spend more effectively to achieve the outcomes agreed by [YYY collaboration].”

Both uses of ‘we’ were ambiguous.  The first meant ‘The convening organisation’.  The second meant ‘we, the organisations and people involved in agreeing outcomes’.  

The changes make this crystal clear.

Cometh the "our"

 The same ambiguity applies with ‘our’.  For example, when you refer to “our plan” be clear whether you mean “[Organisation XXX]’s plan” or “the plan owned by the organisations collaborating together”. 

Acknowledgements

This post was originally written by Penny Walker, in a slightly different form, for a Learning Bulletin produced by InterAct Networks for the Environment Agency as part of its catchment pilot programme.

For more exciting detail on 'clusivity', including a two-by-two matrix, look here.

 

 

 

 

 

Ritual and joining an established group

Yesterday I was at a family funeral. The rite was one I'm only a little familiar with: enough to follow, but not enough to know what was coming next. It's made me reflect on the rituals - acknowledged and unnoticed - that we perpetuate in groups and professions. So comforting and affirming for those in the know. Provoking anxiety, confusion or ridicule in the newcomer.

There was a written 'order of service', which included the information that no doubt seemed useful to those who wrote it - the things that would be different, or special, about the event. The things that would be the same as they always are, were not included. Which makes sense if you are already part of the group and you know what those things are, and means you are very lost if you are there for the first time.

What do we take the time to explain to people who are new to our way of working? What do we consider so self-evident that we don't think explanation is needed? How do we respond when someone asks or seems lost?

What do we open our minds to when we first join a group? What do we do to show we are interested and curious, yet a bit lost? What do we attack, without having the patience to observe and attempt to understand?

Decisions? Decisions!

This blog post pulls together some resources that I shared at a workshop last week, for people in community organisations wanting to make clear decisions that stick. Groups of volunteers can't be 'managed' in the same that a team in an organisation is managed: consensus and willingness to agree in order to move forward are more precious.  Sometimes, however, that means that decisions aren't clear or don't 'stick' - people come away with different understandings of the decision, or don't think a 'real' decision has been made (just a recommendation, or a nice conversation without a conclusion).  And so it's hard to move things forward.

I flagged up a number of resources that I think groups like this will find useful:

  • Descriptive agendas - that give people a much clearer idea of what to expect from a meeting;
  • Using decision / action grids to record the outputs from a meeting unambiguously;
  • Be clear about the decision-making method (e.g. will it be by consensus, by some voting and majority margin, or one person making the decision following consultation?) and criteria.
  • Understanding who needs to be involved in the run-up to a decision.
  • Taking time to explore options and their pros and cons before asking people to plump for a 'position'.

 

Sustainable Development Goals - what do they mean for your business?

In September 2015, the United Nations agreed a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals.  Covering everything from gender equality to the ecology of the deep oceans, they form a comprehensive description of the key challenges we face in making sustainable development a reality.

The UN sees businesses as a key player in meeting the goals. Why should business bother? And where do you start?

I'm writing a series of articles for The Environmentalist exploring these questions, and the first one is out today (11th February).  It introduces the goals, and looks in detail at Goal 1 End poverty in all its forms everywhere and Goal 5 Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

You can access the article, and plenty of other environmental news, here, either sign in with your IEMA login, subscribe or take a free trial.

Alternatively, there's a pdf of it here.

 

InterAct Networks - thank you for a wonderful ride

For over fifteen years, InterAct Networks worked to put stakeholder and public engagement at the heart of public sector decision-making, especially through focusing on capacity-building in the UK public sector.  This work - through training and other ways of helping people learn, and through helping clients thinks about structures, policies and organisational change - helped organisations get better at strategically engaging with their stakeholders to understand their needs and preferences, get better informed, collaboratively design solutions and put them into practice.  Much of that work has been with the Environment Agency, running the largest capacity-building programme of its kind.

History

InterAct Networks was registered as a Limited Liability Partnership in February 2002.

Founding partners Jeff Bishop, Lindsey Colbourne, Richard Harris and Lynn Wetenhall established InterAct Networks to support the development of 'local facilitator networks' of people wanting to develop facilitation skills from a range of organisations in a locality.

These geographically based networks enabled cross organisational learning and support.  Networks were established across the UK, ranging from the Highlands and Islands to Surrey, Gwynedd to Gloucestershire. InterAct Networks provided the initial facilitation training to the networks, and supported them in establishing ongoing learning platforms. We also helped to network the networks, sharing resources and insights across the UK. Although some networks (e.g. Gwynedd) continue today, others found the lack of a 'lead' organisation meant that the network eventually lost direction.

In 2006, following a review of the effectiveness of the geographical networks, InterAct Networks began working with clients to build their organisational capacity to engage with stakeholders (including communities and the public) in decision making.  This work included designing and delivering training (and other learning interventions), as well as setting up and supporting internal networks of engagement mentors and facilitators.  We have since worked with the Countryside Council for Wales, the UK Sustainable Development Commission, Defra, DECC (via Sciencewise-ERC see p10), Natural England and primarily the Environment Agency in England and Wales.

Through our work with these organisations InterAct Networks led the field in:

  • diagnostics

  • guidance

  • tools and materials

  • new forms of organisational learning.

After Richard and Jeff left, Penny Walker joined Lindsey and Lynn as a partner in 2011, and InterAct Networks became limited company in 2012.  In 2014, Lynn Wetenhall retired as a Director.  

Some insights into building organisational capacity

Through our work with clients, especially the Environment Agency, we have learnt a lot about what works if you want to build an organisation's capacity to engage stakeholders and to collaborate.  There is, of course, much more than can be summarised here.  Here are just five key insights:

  • Tailor the intervention to the part of the organisation you are working with.
  • For strategic, conceptual 'content', classroom training can rarely do more than raise awareness.
  • Use trainers who are practitioners.
  • Begin with the change you want to see.
  • Learning interventions are only a small part of building capacity.

Tailor the intervention

An organisation which wants to improve its engagement with stakeholders and the public in the development and delivery of public policy needs capacity at organisational, team and individual levels.

This diagram, originated by Jeff Bishop, shows a cross-organisational framework, helping you to understand the levels and their roles (vision and direction; process management; delivery).  If capacity building remains in the process management and delivery zones, stakeholder and public engagement will be limited to pockets of good practice. 

Classroom training will raise awareness of tools

There are half a dozen brilliant tools, frameworks and concepts which are enormously helpful in planning and delivering stakeholder and public engagement.  Classroom training (and online self-guided learning) can do the job of raising awareness of these.  But translating knowledge into lived practice - which is the goal - needs ongoing on-the-job interventions like mentoring, team learning or action learning sets.  Modelling by someone who knows how to use the tools, support in using them - however inexpertly at first - and reinforcement of their usefulness.  Reflection on how they were used and the impact they had. 

Use trainers who are practitioners

People who are experienced and skillful in planning and delivering stakeholder and public engagement, and who are also experienced and skillful in designing and delivering learning interventions, make absolutely the best capacity-builders. They have credibility and a wealth of examples, they understand why the frameworks or skills which are being taught are so powerful. They understand from practice how they can be flexed and when it's a bad idea to move away from the ideal. We were enormously privileged to have a great team of practitioner-trainers to work with as part of the wider InterAct Networks family.

Begin with the change you want to see

The way to identify the "learning intervention" needed, is to begin by asking "what does the organisation need to do differently, or more of, to achieve its goals?", focusing on whatever the key challenge is that the capacity building needs to address.  Once that is clear (and it may take a 'commissioning group' or quite a lot of participative research to answer that question), ask "what do (which) people need to do differently, or more of?".  Having identified a target group of people, and the improvements they need to make, ask "what do these people need to learn (knowledge, skills) in order to make those improvements?".  At this stage, it's also useful to ask what else they need to help them make the improvements (permission, budget, resources, changes to policies etc). Finally, ask "what are the most effective learning interventions to build that knowledge and those skills for these people?".  Classroom training is only one solution, and often not the best one. 

Learning interventions are (only) part of the story

Sometimes the capacity that needs building is skills and knowledge - things you can learn. So learning interventions (training, coaching, mentoring etc) are appropriate responses. Sometimes the capacity "gap" is about incentives, policies, processes or less tangible cultural things.  In which case other interventions will be needed.  The change journey needs exquisite awareness of what 'good' looks like, what people are doing and the impact it's having, what the progress and stuckness is.  Being able to share observations and insights as a team (made up of both clients and consultants) is invaluable.

The most useful concepts and frameworks

Over the years, some concepts and frameworks emerged as the most useful in helping people to see stakeholder engagement, collaboration and participation in a new light and turn that enlightenment into a practical approach.

I've blogged about some of these elsewhere on this site: follow the links.

  • What's up for grabs?  What's fixed, open or negotiable.
  • Asking questions in order to uncover latent consensus - the PIN concept.
  • How much engagement? Depending on the context for your decision, project or programme, different intensities of engagement are appropriate.  This tool helps you decide.
  • Is collaboration appropriate for this desired outcome? This matrix takes the 'outcome' that you want to achieve as a starting point, and helps you see whether collaborating with others will help you achieve it.
  • Engagement aims: transmit, receive and collaborate.  Sometimes known as the Public Engagement Triangle, this way of understanding "engagement aims" was developed originally by Lindsey Colbourne as part of her work with the Sciencewise-ERC, for the Science for All Follow Up Group.
  • Who shall we engage and how intensely? (stakeholder identification and mapping)

Three-day facilitation training

As part of this wider suite of strategic and skills-based capacity building, InterAct Networks ran dozens of three-day facilitation skills training courses and helped the Environment Agency to set up an internal facilitator network so that quasi-third parties can facilitate meetings as part of public and stakeholder engagement.  The facilitator network often works with external independent facilitators, contracted by the Environment Agency for bigger, more complex or higher-conflict work. This facilitation course is now under the stewardship of 3KQ.

More reports and resources

Here are some other reports and resources developed by the InterAct Networks team, sometimes while wearing other hats.

Evaluation of the use of Working with Others - Building Trust for the Shaldon Flood Risk Project, Straw E. and Colbourne, L., March 2009.

Departmental Dialogue Index - developed by Lindsey Colbourne for Sciencewise.

Doing an organisational stocktake.

Organisational Learning and Change for Public Engagement, Colbourne, L., 2010, for NCCPE and The Science for All group, as part of The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)’ Science and Society programme.

Mainstreaming collaboration with communities and stakeholders for FCERM, Colbourne, L., 2009 for Defra and the Environment Agency.

Thank you for a wonderful ride

In 2015, Lindsey and Penny decided to close the company, in order to pursue other interests.  Lindsey's amazing art work can be seen here.  Penny continues to help clients get better at stakeholder engagement, including through being an Associate of 3KQ, which has taken ownership of the core facilitation training course that InterAct Networks developed and has honed over the years. The Environment Agency continues to espouse its "Working with Others" approach, with great guidance and passion from Dr. Cath Brooks and others. Colleagues and collaborators in the work with the Environment Agency included Involve and Collingwood Environmental Planning, as well as Helena Poldervaart who led on a range of Effective Conversations courses. We hope that we have left a legacy of hundreds of people who understand and are committed to asking great questions and listening really well to the communities and interests they serve, for the good of us all.

 

Facilitation and justice

I’m going to be thinking a lot about justice over the next few months, as it’s this quarter's theme at the weekly meeting of like-minded locals that I go to, at Newington Green's Unitarian chapel New Unity.

Today, we heard an extract from a sermon by Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, which was picked up in later years by Martin Luther King Jr and Barack Obama. 

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight, I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

And we reflected on what we can each do, to move us further along that arc.  More words from religious sources, this time in the Jewish tradition (Rabbi Tarfon):

"It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are you at liberty to desist from it" 

What does this mean for facilitators?

What is the justice that we can seek to advance, in our work?

When the content is 'just', or not

We may choose, or be lucky enough, to work with groups whose content concerns what we consider to be justice.  Whether this is structural and social justice, questions of inter-generational justice of the kind that climate change throws up; or justice in the realm of victims and perpetrators and the criminal law; or justice as right relationship and fair dealings between people in dispute with each other. 

Or we may find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of helping groups get better at doing something we don’t entirely agree with – their ideas about fairness and right action may be different to ours.  We may be faced with hard choices at this point – time to remember our mandate! Did we come to the group to serve it as its facilitator, or were we contracted for some other role (mediator, arbitrator, content expert, trainer...)?

But in this post I’m interested in how ‘justice’ manifests in our process, as content-neutral facilitators.

'Just' process

There’s justice as fairness / equality, and there’s justice as getting some kind of outcome that is considered to be ‘deserved’. 

And when we look at equality, there’s equality of opportunity and equality of outcome.  And when we look at inequality, there’s systemic or structural inequality (manifested as patterns of unequal outcome for e.g. women, people of colour or marginalised ethnicity, people with disabilities, people with non-straight, non-cis sexuality and gender, people with fewer resources or unfavoured class status) as well as what might be going on in the room, in individual conversations and transactions.

I’d argue that underpinning our entire profession is the assumption that it is better (more just) for people’s truth to be heard than not.

A few aspects came immediately to mind:  the opportunity to have your say and be listened to with respect; power balancing so that those who are habitually dominant are not privileged in the conversation; ground rules or working agreements which reinforce a culture of openness and listening; reflecting back to the group when individuals or types of individual are being heard more or less than others.

Gently stretching our mandate

I think there are some greyer areas, where we can gently exercise our mandate more actively in pursuit of ‘justice’. 

Asking the client about the values or principles which they want to see manifested in the conversation and conclusions might prompt them to consider the subject matter through a lens that might otherwise remain unused. 

Asking for clarity on the rationale for who gets invited to be part of the conversation, and whether the rationale has been applied objectively, can help to bring in marginalised voices.  I write more about stakeholder identification and mapping here.

Setting aside time in the agenda or process for the group to explicitly consider its criteria for decisions gives an opportunity for assumptions to be shared and questioned, including assumptions about whose interests need to be considered.  Helping the group to understand the different decision-making methods (single decision-maker, majority decisions, vetoes, consensus) before they agree which to use brings unspoken assumptions about fairness and power to conscious attention. There’s more on that here.

Knowing our own prejudices

We need to be very aware of our own prejudices: who do we marginalise, dismiss or consider to be 'other'?  Where might we over-compensate, and swing the pendulum too far?  When do we judge the conversation and the points being made, according to our own (flawed, personal, partial) standards of justice?

Working in teams, especially diverse teams, can help us see our own blind spots.

 

Lost in translation?

Facilitators, trainers, speakers and others have been sharing their tips on working with interpreters and translators.  Thanks everyone.   (And thanks to Ian Andersen for reminding me that spoken language is interpreted, not translated!)

Here’s some of the advice collected so far: please let me know more about success with interpretation and pitfalls to avoid, in the comments or by email.

Cut the content

Ian Ellison, who heads up sustainability at Jaguar Land Rover and is a colleague of mine over at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), suggests you focus on key messages and be prepared to say less than normal. 

“Live translation into Chinese was my most illuminating experience - I cut the content by about 60% to allow for translation and clarification. In the end I realised that's what I should present normally - it was much clearer and more memorable.”

Cut the process

The same advice comes from process facilitator Cameron Fraser.  He says “Plan to do less. Everything always takes longer with simultaneous translation.” 

This is for everyone’s benefit.  “It’s also very tiring for the facilitator, and probably the participants as well... watching someone for expressions and body language, and listening to their tone of voice in order to have a better sense of their thinking, while hearing a different voice in your ears, is very demanding intellectually.”

Team up

Cameron also suggests working with a co-facilitator. 

“I always like to have a co-facilitator. This helps deal with the fatigue issues. In an ideal world the co-facilitator speaks the second language (assuming it’s only one) so they can provide a sense of how accurate the simultaneous translation is. Remember that translators rarely have direct experience of the business at hand. The translation may be technically correct but missing the nuance that people doing similar work in the same language share.”

Slow it down, keep it simple

Martin Gilbraith, on twitter as @martingilbraith, says “Be careful not to speak too fast for the interpreters to translate!” 

Also from twitter, Orchard Alerind aka @rcdl works most often with sign-language interpreters.  Orchard says that interpretation takes time and that technical vocabulary will need definitions.  Stick to Plain English principles, and try to avoid the kind cultural references which will just confuse people.  It’s this kind of stripped-back approach which means that two foreigners speaking a lingua franca will understand each other better than one native speaker conversing with a second language speaker.

Build in more time to allow people to digest what you've said, says Mark Simpkins, who has worked in aviation and aerospace. Mark suggests pausing for "15 to20 seconds, where nothing is being said to allow it to be digested. Also, check understanding more regularly."

Do the paperwork

Flips, handouts, slides.... all your written material needs thinking about too.  Chris Grieve advises:

"Provide supporting written material in advance: copies of any papers and ppts, instructions for activities, discussion questions. Provide participants with key documents in their language, including a glossary of terms, if budget and time permit."

Prepare with the interpreter

The likelihood of needing to use specialist terminology means that it’s really useful to prepare ahead of time with the interpreter.

Engineer Helen Udale-Clarke, has worked with teams of interpreters. 

“It's particularly challenging for technical lectures/presentations, where you are using very specific technical terminology or jargon. Often translators work in teams and switch during your lecture, and it can get confusing for the listener if different translators use different terminology. So a glossary of key words ahead of time can be very useful, as it (a) can help them to identify the most appropriate translation and (b) means they are more likely to be consistent with their translations. Good for the translator and the listener.”

Claire Boyles of Success Matters helps people set up their own small businesses and is a professional speaker.  She advises that you talk to the interpeter before you start, partly to check out what speed they can cope with.  “Unless you're talking very fast you shouldn't have to modify yourself too much, if you've got a good translator, but quality of translators will vary.”  Claire recommends that people check out the “Speakers Corner” facebook group which includes lots of people with experience of speaking to multilingual audiences.

You can still be creative!

Stuart Reid is an organisational consultant.  His experience shows that you don't have to be tied down to an ultra-planned script.

I ran an improvisation training event earlier this year, and had a very enjoyable experience with simultaneous translation.

The thing that helped me most was being able to meet and talk to my translator ahead of time, and send her descriptions by email of some of the games I was going to be playing. The most important part of that was to help her understand the *purpose* of the exercises - what I was intending to do with the group and why.

My translator also moved around the room with me and stayed in my line of sight so that she and I could make eye contact. That way she could let me know if I needed to pause for a while to let her catch up. I also had to learn how much I could say before needing to pause.

Most of the participants spoke Turkish, but occasionally one would reply to me in English. I needed to pause before continuing the conversation, to give my translator time to translate the reply back into Turkish for the benefit of the rest of the participants.

Understand the equipment and its implications

Some interpreters work with headsets, so only those who need the second language receive it.  In other situations, the interpreter will be repeating what you said to the whole room.  If you have a sign-language interpreter, they need to be very visible.  However it is being done, there will be delay before the audience hears your nugget of wisdom, hilarious joke or crucial piece of instruction.

It helps to know in advance what equipment will be used, and how it works in the venue.  Make sure there’s time built in for the equipment to be checked. 

In one piece of work I did, there was four-way simultaneous interpretation.  The microphones and headsets were built into the tables, which were bolted to the floor.  There was no possibility of getting people to move around or form small groups.  (Plus, the interpreters had a very good union and insisted on two-hour lunch breaks, so the meetings had to have two-hour lunch breaks as well.)

Consider who’s interpreting for whom

Think through who is going to be speaking, and listening, in which language.  If you’re a presenter speaking one language, and the whole audience speaks another language, you’ll need someone to interpret your presentation or instructions into their language.  But when they’re working in small groups, they won’t need interpretation.  You’ll then need interpretation to understand their feedback or questions to you.

Sometimes, the group speaks multiple languages.  There may be sensitivities and power dynamics around this.  I have worked in bilingual groups where everyone understood language A, but only some of the group spoke or understood language B.  Both were official languages.  Those who couldn’t speak or understand language B felt excluded and marginalised, even threatened, when it was being used.  The interpreter was there to translate language B into language A.  Why did anyone use language B, when everyone could understand and speak language A?  Language A was seen by some as a colonial language, and was the second language of some in the group. Speaking language B was both an assertion of reclaimed power and ‘two fingers’ to those seen as incomers.  I had long conversations with my (bilingual) client about how to handle this, including getting her suggestions around ground rules, whether to have mixed small groups and whether to request group feedback flips to be written in language A or not.

Ground rules

Depending on the kind of event, you may want to agree some ways of working with the group which take account of different language needs.  These should ensure that everyone is able to understand what others are saying or writing.  For example, think about how people can access interpretation outside of plenary sessions.  People who can speak in more than one language can be guided to consider others’ needs when making a choice about what language to use. 

Find out more

The European Commission's Directorate General for Interpretation provides interpreters for over 10,000 meetings every year. So they've got a lot of experience to draw on.  Their helpful guidelines are here: http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/scic/working-with-interpreters/index_en.htm Thanks again to Ian Andersen for sharing this link. 

Admire and enjoy!

Yes, it will add stress and complexity to be working with interpreters.  And we can learn so much from their skill in thinking in two languages, considering nuance, improvising and concentrating, and having access to a diversity of world views. And through their skill, we can talk and listen to new people, forming relationships across cultural, ethnic and linguistic boundaries.  What's not to love about that?

The morning after the night before - debriefing events

A lot of projects have been completed in the last couple of weeks, so I've been encouraging clients to have debriefing conversations.

Although I always include some kind of debrief in my costings, not all clients find the time to take up this opportunity.  That's such a shame!  We can learn something about how to bring people together to have better conversations, every time we do it.

Structuring the debrief

I've been using a simple three question structure:

  • What went well?
  • What went less well?
  • What would you do differently, or more of, next time?

This works in face to face debriefing, telecons and can even form a useful way of prompting a debriefing conversation that takes place in writing: in some kind of joint cyberplace, or by email.

If we haven't already had a conversation about immediate next steps, then I'll add this fourth question:

  • What do we need to do next?

Referring back to the aims

Since, for me, the aims are the starting point for the design process, they should also be the starting point for the debriefing conversation.  To what extent did we meet our aims?  What else might the client team need to do in next weeks and months, to get closer to meeting the aims?

Evidence to draw on

It's really helpful for the team to have access to whatever the participants have fed back about how the process or event worked for them.  Sometimes we use paper feedback forms in the room, sometimes an electronic survey after the event.  Quantitative and qualitative reports based on this feedback can help people compare their intuitive judgements against what participants have said. 

In other situations, we make time in the process for participants to have their own conversation about how things have gone.  A favourite technique is to post up a flip with an evaluation question like "to what extent did we meet our aims?".  The scale is drawn on, and labelled "not at all" to "completely".  Participants use dots to show their response to the question, and then we discuss the result.  I often also post up flips headed "what helped?" and "what got in the way?".  People can write their responses directly on to the flips.  This is particularly useful when a group will be meeting together again, and can take more and more responsibility for reflecting on and improving its ways of working effectively.

What's been learnt?

Some of the unexpected things to have come out of recent debriefs:

  • The things that actually get done may be more important than the stated aims: one workshop only partially met its explicit aims to develop consensus on topic X, but exceeded client expectations in building better working relationships, making it easier to talk later about topic Y.
  • What people write in their questionnaire responses can be quite different to the things you heard from one or two louder voices on the day.
  • A debriefing conversation can be a good way of briefing a new team member.

And the obvious can be reinforced too: clarity on aims really helps, thinking about preparation and giving people time to prepare really helps, allowing and enabling participation really helps, good food really helps!

 

Magic whiteboard - you never forget your first time

So first of all I have to get this off my chest: a big GRRRRR! to venues which don't let you post up paper using blu-tack or white tack. Especially those which don’t have alternatives like exhibition boards freely available.  You are making it much harder for me to provide a service. 

Too often, as facilitators, we don't get the choice to avoid using venues like this because the client hasn't involved us early enough in conversations about what kind of venue is suitable.  There's more on venues here.

But, a couple of weeks ago, this annoying situation meant that I got to use magic whiteboard for the first time.

Magic!

In case you're not familiar with magic whiteboard... it is thin, flexible sheets of plastic - think 'plastic paper' - that come on a perforated roll like giant, unabsorbent loo paper.  You tear off a sheet and place it against a flat, smooth wall.  And it stays there, adhering through the magic (physics) of static electricity.  You can write on it with whiteboard pens, and wipe them off to reuse the sheets. You can also stick paper on, again using the power of static.

Practicing and preparing

This was a big, important workshop for a high-profile client, so I wanted everything to go without a hitch.  So I practiced ahead of time in my office. 

I wanted to find out how long the sheets would stay up. The answer is, two weeks and counting.  Will it also stay up reliably with paper clinging on?  Yes for A4 sheets and post-its, not with flip chart paper. 

I wondered how well the ink would show up.  I practiced with a couple of types of whiteboard pen, and found Pilot's Wyteboard Board Master are bright and dark enough. (Added bonus - you can get refills for the ink. See here for other adventures in refilling pens.) Other kinds of pen were clearly too pale to be of any use.

I wondered if I could prepare complex graphics and instructions ahead of time, and bring them with me.  I do this regularly for workshops, to save time on the day. But no, the ink smudges when the sheets are rolled or folder. Unsurprising, as part of the point of whiteboard pens is that they can be cleaned off the surface.  I may test this again with permanent markers, if the need arises.

How did it work?

In short, very well! 

The magic whiteboard was used for a large 'wall' for the open space space / time grid. We had three time slots and thirteen spaces.  Two rows of seven sheets were hung portrait style, with session times and space labels written on paper and stuck on.  Over the course of the organising plenary, proposals for sessions, written on A4 paper, were added.  Then people came and signed up to sessions, and the paper and magic whiteboard sheets clung to the wall without any hint of falling down. 

 

So yes, I'm hanging on to the rest of the roll, and will be using it again if I need to.

Do you #Dare?

The rather fabulous #DareConf is back in London next month.  It's taking place at the Arcola Theatre, which is properly local to me and a wonderful eco-building (think solar panels, wood-fired heating, DC microgrids - eh?!) and community space in its own right. 

So I was really happy that my friend and collaborator Jonathan Kahn invited me to do a session with him at #DareConf 2015.  We'll be in conversation, exploring what a facilitator can do to help a group find shared goals by discovering underlying needs.  Jonathan is really interested in power - how we wield it, how we give it up.  His facilitation style owes a lot to non-violent communication, and I'm learning loads from talking with him about the challenges and options when working in groups. 

(Regular readers will know that I'm really interested in anxiety and fear - how we display it and what we do to manage it.) 

This is a return visit for me, because I had fun sharing ideas on finding consensus at #DareMini last year. The live webcast was a new experience and means that people who weren't there can still check out "Stop assuming, start asking questions: how to turn conflict into collaboration".

#DareConf grew out of Jonathan's background in the digital profession and styles itself "people skills for digital workers".  Other contributors are firmly from this field: Rifa Thorpe-Tracey is a freelance digital project manager and organises SheSays BrightonLaura Morgan is Head of Product at Comic Relief (no, I'm not sure either).  And Holly Burns is a content strategist at Instagram, which I know is cool because my daughters (who don't do twitter or blogs) use it regularly. Although possibly not as cool as snapchat.

So as you can see, although I'll be hugely out of my depth digitally-speaking (plenty of opportunity for anxiety) I will at least be a local (plenty of opportunity for power) who knows which bus to catch and that people should pop round the corner to Dalston Eastern Curve Garden for a spot of bliss when we're done.

So if you're one of my neighbours - or even if you're not - do check out #DareConf.  Early bird discount until 7th September.