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.


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.



Some lessons from Citizens Juries enquiring into onshore wind in Scotland

I've been reading "Involving communities in deliberation: A study of 3 citizens’ juries on onshore wind farms in Scotland" by Dr. Jennifer Roberts (University of Strathclyde) and Dr. Oliver Escobar (University of Edinburgh), published in May 2015.

This is a long, detailed report with lots of great facilitation and public participation geekery in it.  I've picked out some things that stood out for me and that I'm able to contrast or build on from my own (limited) experience of facilitating a Citizens' Jury.  But there are plenty more insights so do read it for yourself.

I've stuck to points about the Citizen Jury process - if you're looking for insights into onshore wind in Scotland, you won't find them in this blog post!

What are Citizens' Juries for?

This report takes as an underlying assumption that its focus - and a key purpose of deliberation - is learning and opinion change, which will then influence the policies and decisions of others.  The jury is not seen as "an actual decision making process" p 19

"Then ... the organisers feed the outputs into the relevant policy and/or decision making processes." p4

In the test of a Citizens’ Jury that I helped run for NHS Citizen, there was quite a different mandate being piloted.  The idea is that when the Citizens’ Jury is run ‘for real’ in NHS Citizen, it will decide the agenda items for a forthcoming Board Meeting of NHS England. 

This is a critical distinction, and anyone commissioning a Citizens’ Jury needs to be very clear what the Jury is empowered to decide (if anything) and what it is being asked for its views, opinions or preferences on.  In the latter case, the Citizens’ Jury becomes essentially a sophisticated form of consultation. 

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it needs to be very clear from the start which type of involvement is being sought.

Having confidence in the Citizens’ Jury process

To be a useful consultant mechanism, stakeholders and decision-makers need to have confidence in the Citizens’ Jury process.  This applies even more strongly when the Jury has decision-making powers. 

The organisers and commissioners need to consider how to ensure confidence in a range of things:

  • the selection of jurors and witnesses,
  • the design of the process (including the questions jurors are invited to consider and the scope of the conversations),
  • the facilitation of conversations,
  • the record made of conversations and in particular decisions or recommendation,

The juries under consideration in this report benefited from a Stewarding Board.  This type of group is sometimes called a steering group or oversight group. It’s job is to ensure the actual and perceived independence of the process, by ensuring that it is acceptable to parties with quite difference agendas and perspectives.  If they can agree that it’s fair, then it probably is.  Chapter 3 of the report looks at this importance of the Stewarding Board, its composition and the challenging disagreements it needed to resolve in this process.

In our NHS Citizen test of the Citizens’ Jury concept, we didn’t have an equivalent structure, although we did seek advice and feedback from the wider NHS Citizen community (for example see this blog post and the comment thread) as well as from our witnesses, evaluators with experience of Citizens’ Juries. We also drew on our own insights and judgements as independent convenors and facilitators.  My recommendation is that there be a steering group of some kind for future Citizens’ Juries within NHS Citizen.

What role for campaigners and activists?

The report contains some interesting reflections on the relationship between deliberative conversations in ‘mini publics’ and citizens who have chosen to become better informed and more active on an issue to the extent of becoming activists or campaigners.  (Mini public is an umbrella term for any kind of “forum composed of citizens who have been randomly selected to reflect the range of demographic and attitudinal characteristics from the broader population – e.g. age, gender, income, opinion, etc.” pp3-4)

The report talks about a key feature of Citizens’ Juries being that they

“...use random selection to ensure diversity and thus “reduce the influence of elites, interest advocates and the ‘incensed and articulate’”

(The embedded quote is from Carolyn Hendriks’ 2011. The politics of public deliberation: citizen engagement and interest advocacy, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.)

So what is the role of the incensed and the articulate in a Citizens’ Jury?  The detail of this would be decided by the steering group or equivalent, but broadly there are two roles outlined in the report: being a member of the steering group and thus helping to ensure confidence in the process; and being a witness, helping the jurors to see multiple aspects of the problem they are considering.  See pp 239-240 for more on this.

Depending on the scope of the questions the Citizens’ Jury is being asked to deliberate, this could mean a very large steering group or set of witnesses.  The latter would increase the length of the jury process considerably, which makes scoping the questions a pragmatic as well as a principled decision.

The project ran from April 2013 to May 2015.  You can read the full report here.

Thanks very much to Clive Mitchell of Involve who tipped me off about this report.

See also my reflections on the use of webcasting for the NHS Citizen Citizens' Jury test.

How to facilitate when you’re the expert: podcast conversation with Jonathan Kahn

In this podcast with my friend and colleague Jonathan Kahn, we discuss the challenge of facilitating discussions when you’re the expert. Jonathan is a digital expert, founder of Together London, and organised #dareconf mini last year where I presented. 

You can listen to the podcast, download the MP3 file, or read the transcript.


Jonathan: This is Jonathan Kahn. I’m the founder of Together London, where I organize events about the people side of digital work.

Penny: My name is Penny Walker. I'm an independent facilitator, specializing in organizational change, stakeholder engagement and particularly, sustainable development. Today we’re going to be talking about facilitation.

Jonathan: What we’re going to do is we decided that we come from two different types of work. I work in digital, making websites and apps and that kind of thing, and Penny works in sustainability.

We thought it would be interesting to talk about some scenarios that we found in our work that have been challenging, and to hear the other person’s perspective on similar situations from the other industry, and ideas for dealing with that.

We tossed a coin, and Penny won. So Penny is going to be bringing her scenario to the discussion today.

Penny: Thanks, Jonathan. This is something that comes up for me very often in my work.

I’m an independent facilitator. I’m brought in to help clients with different kinds of conversations that they need to have. Very often, I’m brought in by the sustainability specialist in an organization. This might be someone who is at director level or possibly at a lower level in hierarchy than that.

They have a lot of expertise on things like carbon reduction, renewable energy, supply chain management from an environmental or social perspective, maybe they know a lot about behaviour change and how to get people to switch off the tap and switch off the lights, things like that.

They might have a lot of expertise in the environmental or social aspects of sustainability. They very often, don’t necessarily have a lot of hierarchical or power that’s given to them by being able to oblige people to do things. More often than not, they’d be an adviser rather than a ruler or enforcer. They are sometimes in a specialist function perhaps outside of the centre of the organization.

Quite often, they need to facilitate conversations. I’m thinking of a particular situation where, there was a client of mine, Nick, he was asked by his Board to get together a cross-organizational grouping of people from different parts of the organization to talk about their current sustainability practices and policies. This organization had quite a lot of public statements about the things it would and wouldn’t do from an energy or carbon perspective.

Those things have served them well in previous market conditions but new market conditions have come about. The Board were wondering whether or not they needed to refresh and how much emphasis to give to those issues.

It was Nick’s job to convene and bring together a group of people and get them to give their feedback.

But he was a bit stuck, because he wasn’t sure whether he would really get people’s honest opinions, or whether the fact that he had this expertise and this place in the organization might mean that people didn’t necessarily tell him the truth but maybe told him what they thought he wanted to hear.

Jonathan: To reflect back what I’m hearing there, it sounds like the organization already had quite a lot of policies and public statements about sustainability, which maybe seemed relatively progressive in the industry. And Nick was this expert who didn’t have formal authority for making stuff happen, but was an advisor.

Then, what happens is the board says, “Should we still be doing all this stuff? Does this stuff all make sense?” Perhaps “Can we afford to do this,” etc. The board’s then saying to Nick, find out what people think. And his concern is, “If I’m this sustainability expert and I say, ‘What do you think about carbon emissions,’ will I get an honest answer?”

Penny: Yes, that’s a good summary.

Jonathan: Why do you think that he was stuck in that way? What was getting in the way, for him, of fulfilling this request?

Penny: I think he had the insight to see that his own position in this system, if you like, this system of conversation that he was hoping to set up, meant that he might somehow skew it or that people might not be honest because they were concerned that Nick would have a particular perspective and they would want to maybe tell Nick what he wanted to hear.

I think he also picked up that some people might worry that if they were too negative about the sustainability initiative, this might have implications for Nick’s job, and would that stop them from being honest or perhaps encourage them to be more forceful? So there was something about, did Nick need to get out of the way?

But at the same time, there was an assumption that Nick needed to be the person to convene all this, because if it was done without him, that also might be seen to be undermining of his position. So he was the obvious person to make this conversation happen. He definitely needed to be involved in some way. I think people could see that.

But one of the questions was whether or not he should be in the room while the conversation was happening, or whether in fact it should be facilitated by people who didn’t have that particular brief. The down side of that would be that there was a concern that these people might be talking about the sustainability aspects of the organization without really understanding them very well.

They might understand how they impacted on their own particular job. They might not have expertise about some of the broader questions around sustainability. That might get in the way of them having useful conversations. Where does the expertise come in, in that situation?

Jonathan: It’s interesting. It sounds to me you’ve used this word, “convene” quite a few times there. It sounds Nick’s background is a bit less about convening, more about being an expert about sustainability itself.

Penny: Yes. I would say that that’s pretty typical. People want to bring in people - give them these positions in their organization - exactly for the expertise that they’re able to bring that may not be present in the wider staff body.

Jonathan: Is it furthermore the actual organization wants, people with expertise versus the people with convening or facilitation expertise?

Penny: Yes. Well, I don’t know if this is the case in your work. I often find that that convening and facilitation expertise isn’t really valued or recruited for specifically in organizations. It’s one of those hidden skills.

Jonathan: Exactly. We talk an awful lot about collaboration to the extent that it can become a buzz word. We don’t really talk about how you do that very often. The fact that this is a different skill set from designing things, writing things, or developing things, it’s about bringing people together, learning together, finding common ground, and all that stuff.

It’s interesting. At face value this problem for Nick is that he doesn’t know whether he can facilitate while also being an expert. The second part of it that I’m finding interesting as well is that the request from the board at face value is about sustainability. If you think about what they’re actually asking for, they’re actually asking for help with facilitation.

Penny: Tell me more about that.

Jonathan: Because they want to know what the people who work in the company in the organization think which doesn’t really have an awful lot to do with sustainability as such. It doesn’t really have a lot to do with, for example, technical information about emissions.

It has much more to do with what their perspectives are on it, whether values are, whether they are aligned on that stuff. That in a sense is, “Well, you know about sustainability, why don’t you just find out what they think.”

Actually, finding out what they think is a facilitation job. It’s obviously somebody who has interests and can do that. It’s not necessarily an obvious thing or an easy thing to do if your focus of self is on the expertise as oppose to the facilitation.

Penny: Yes, which is why to be fair to them, which is why they bring in somebody like me. They know that they might need to not only buy in the expertise, also, buy in the neutrality. As an independent contractor, I’m not beholden to any of the players in any long term way in the same way that someone who’s on the staff is.

Jonathan: Although in a sense you have a sustainability agenda that’s why you’re in it. You’re unlikely to push them towards not talking about these issues of whatever it is.

Penny: Yes. That is an interesting thing that other independent facilitators sometimes challenge me about is that if you come into the field from a particular background which I did. You have some expertise. You have some contacts. That’s where your own interest and energy is.

Actually, over the years, one of the things that I’ve learned to do and have some times to explain to people is that these days, my interest and expertise is in helping other people have the conversations they need to have.

The fact that I have that background, perhaps gives me better ability to see whether things are straying off the point or not. It helps me with the language, some contacts, and knowledge of the field. Indeed, there are conversations that I will sometimes say I’m probably not the best person to facilitate this because my own opinion is too strong.

Jonathan: Almost, “it is difficult for me to keep the role. I’m triggered by this. I’m not cool about this topic right now. I’m going to choose not to facilitate this time.” I think it’s interesting that you talked about neutrality. That to me doesn’t seem to be the core problem in the sense that anyone is explicitly regarding people as being biased.

What I’m seeing Nick having trouble with this is figuring out what help he can bring to this current situation? How he can stay true to his values? How do I ask people what they think about sustainability when it’s totally obvious, I think this? That type of thinking.

The parallel from my work is bringing people who are not experienced in say, design, into design processes and saying, for example, “From our point of view we should be using plain English for this but it’s full of jargon,” and the lawyers say, “Well, jargon is absolutely essential. If you don’t have precise language, it will be totally misleading and it will be a disgrace.”

The ability to actually ask them, go on a journey with them towards what we’re both trying to do, instead of saying, “You don’t understand design and you’re wrong.”

Penny: Yes. Tell me a bit more about what are the parallels that you see with Nick’s situation.

Jonathan: The parallels I see are that the requests that come down, has come down from the board…it seems like they’re looking for more understanding of what the employees of the company think, what their perceptions and attitudes are, opinions, I suppose and that he is uncomfortable in the current situation.

This happens in a similar way in digital when we get a request, normally from management, it can often be from the board, to design a new service or to make a change, or to make a budget change or whatever.

The request as it stands, doesn’t make a lot of sense to us, and we have trouble with engaging in that request, while holding on to our values. We might see it as cutting corners, or this isn’t the way it should be done.

A big one that comes up often is there’s this principle of usability testing or user-centred design, which says, “Assumptions a designer makes, is normally going to not quite meet a user’s need, because they don’t really understand the user’s context, because they’re not that person and they’re not trying to do this task.”

If we can subject everything we do to actual testing with human beings and see whether they’re able to fulfil the requirements of its own language, complete the task, then we have a much better chance of tweaking, tweaking, tweaking, until it does actually work for the person.

Often in organizations, they say things like, “There is no budget for usability testing.” What happens then is the professional says, the expert says, “This will basically be contravening my values to do this. This is wrong. I won’t do this.”

The only thing that I know really, that works in this situation is to treat the request as it comes from the boss or the person up in the hierarchy, as if it was a genuine request for help. So, not a demand to comply with rules and then to follow my orders, but actually a request to say, “Would you be willing to help me?”

Just because they’ve asked you to do something with no testing, that sounds to me like they don’t understand the value of this thing. The fact that we haven’t figured out common ground, that we are trying to meet user needs. We’re trying to meet customer needs with this.

Whether or not you believe it’s the case, you can behave as if you believe it’s the case. You can go to them and say, “You’ve asked me to do this, and I want to find out where our common ground is, what we both are trying to achieve here, because I reckon we’re both attempting to achieve these outcomes for these customers.

So, can we talk about what we might want to do to achieve that. Can I take you on a journey, as much as you telling me stuff?” What we tend to do is we put executives in front of users, struggling with, for example, jargon.

When the lawyer sees that the person using the website cannot physically comprehend the words, then they’re no longer going to argue, “This is the way it has to be,” because they do not want them to be able to not comprehend the words.

They just don’t believe until they see that normal people don’t understand legal jargon, or caveats confuse people, for example. They don’t realize that until they see it. We have to show that to them instead of telling that to them.

Penny: Right. In doing that, you’re helping them to see the world from your perspective. In order that, they can see that it’s worth seeking common ground.

Jonathan: It’s funny. It ends up challenging our perspective in the end because we tend to think of them as stupid, old people who don’t get it…

Penny: [laughs]

Jonathan: A lot of the time there is a lot of prejudice and judgment that we’re holding onto as professionals, as experts, and frustration, which has got nothing to do with that boss who just said, “This seems like a good idea. Why do we don't this?”

Penny: So, you’re projecting a lot of assumptions. When you hear that request, you’re building a lot of assumptions around it.

Jonathan: Yeah. That’s an important point. Exactly. A lot of it is in our heads. Sometimes there’s all these difficult political things, like there’s a project manager in between us, or there’s another executive, or whatever. There’s this difficulty of communication and it’s broken down to, “You must do this. There’s no discussion.”

A lot of this does come down to our own assumptions. It’s very scary to go to someone and say, “I want to understand what you need here. This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I want this to work for you.”

So, we actually avoid that. A lot of the time, the judgments we have are almost like a defence mechanism against engaging with these people.

Penny: That’s interesting. What are we defending ourselves against? The possibility that we might have to change ourselves, that we might have to alter our own description of the world and our own positions.

Jonathan: I think so. I think in terms of Nick worrying about his own perspective on carbon emissions, if it’s a very rigid perspective that we must reduce by this amount and this way.

There may be an element of he’s really trying to hold on to that and he’s scared of, “Will I be undermined if I opened myself up to all the complexity around this and all the different people and all the different needs?”

It’s like, “I may have to let go of some of my red lines,” or whatever. Or the usability person has to let go of testing every single time they design something, if there are other things going around that. Just imagining that that might happen is a scary thing to do.

Penny: Yes. I think jumping ahead to what the implications for your own identity as a person…

Jonathan: Yeah. Identity.

Penny: …the values that you hold dear, all of those sorts of things can definitely come in the way of people slowing the conversation down and having a properly exploratory conversation, where they’re properly listening to other people and sharing their own doubts and uncertainties, because there’s this sense that that makes you vulnerable.

Jonathan: Identity is really core, I think, because people…One of the things that I find…the underlying question here is, “How can I facilitate when I have expertise?”

One of the things I find difficult, that people find a lot of difficulty with, and I find difficult as well, is that when we think the only thing we’re contributing is the right answer. So, “It’s only because I have 10 years' experience in designing digital interfaces that I’m invited to this party at all.”

If I then switch around to saying, “No, my role is to help people to communicate in an equal way, then I’m no longer providing the right answer. How am I qualified to even be here? Why do they even want me here?”

Obviously that’s all in my own head, but that’s something that I see a lot, that they don’t believe that they will be able to contribute without that expertise and that right answer.

Penny: I think another thing that can also reinforce that anxiety is that people think, “If I’m not here contributing the right answer, the right answer won’t be found. This group of people will find the wrong answer if I’m not allowed to put my expertise into the room.”

It sounds like we’re really understanding well why Nick feels so stuck here. What are some of the things that Nick might do practically that could help unstick this situation?

Jonathan: This is an example that if Nick were actually here he may not be exactly workable but it’s an idea from digital. In the same way that we brought the chief executive or minister into the usability lab to watch how the user was struggling with the jargon or the experience, Nick has options here around taking the request from the board at face value.

If the request from the board is “find out what other people think,” how can he actually bring the actual members of the board themselves into a process in which they are participating. They can think as well; they’re also human beings. Instead of hearing it as “I’m going to outsource it. You find out opinions and then I’ll decide what I do with these opinions. I’m going to gather feedback from the troops.”

Instead of doing that, why couldn’t you invite them to participate in a process with everybody else as equals? Talk about their own hopes and fears, about their own reactions. Then take on the role. Assume that what they mean is, “Help facilitate a discussion between me, board member, and these people who I’m a little bit scared of for these number of reasons.”

Penny: I think that I can see how powerful that would be and I’ve experienced the power of that from time to time. I think it takes quite a lot of groundwork for everybody to feel confident that people will speak their truth in that situation. I’m sounding perhaps more sceptical than I want to, because the troops, as it were, might feel equally uncomfortable about speaking their truth in front of the board.

Jonathan: Also if you’ve never facilitated before and you put yourself in this really high-stakes situation, it can go wrong if you jump in. I actually heard a story recently of somebody who had got the CEO on a meeting which was not really ready for the CEO to be there and it had gone really wrong for that person. They were OK, but starting with the big-stakes thing cannot work. So I can think of a halfway thing.

Penny: Let’s hear about that, because I think that would be very interesting.

Jonathan: The halfway thing is, if you think about that as, shall we say, the radical option that you want to get to, before you get there, the question I would want to ask is to sit down with the people who’ve asked you and say, “Can you tell me what you’re hoping to get from this? What is it that you want to understand? What is it that you don’t understand?”

Just interview them. You can always put that from the perspective of, “I am not actually sure what it is you’re asking me and I would like to participate in this in a way that it means you and I are working together. And right now, I’m not quite sure I understand. So can we work that out?”

For your point of view that’s about building trust. So you want as much trust as possible and you want to be able to go into this without having this worry about what they really want or what they’re going to do with it, whether you can trust that the outcome of this process you are working will actually have an impact, etc.

You can always sit down with the person as if they’re human being and say, “Tell me what you’re hoping for here, what you’re afraid of, what you want, and what an outcome is that will work for you. You may actually be able to find a not quite so demanding version of what I just said that still involves them in some way. Lower stakes.

Penny: One of the other ways that I found that helps to build the confidence of the troops in this scenario is to give them an opportunity to have these conversations amongst themselves without either the hierarchy or the nominated expert in the room, so that they begin to be more confident, challenge each other, refine each other’s thinking. And then get to the point where they decide how they would like to share that thinking with the expert and with the hierarchy.

They might do that either through requesting that, say…I’ve been in situations where they’ve requested that the independent facilitator feedback on their behalf. I’ve also been in situations where they’ve nominated the more confident or articulate people among them to feedback on part of the group.

Or they’ve made posters so they can let their written, considered words do the talking for them as the prelude then maybe to some freer conversation, so that they almost are putting forward their interim thinking in order to then have a conversation that gives them a bit more confidence that they’re doing that in a controlled way. They’re not going to panic and say something they’re likely to regret. That can boost their own confidence.

Jonathan: There’s a world of things that you could do in the situation. I think the thing you just outlined there with people getting together in small groups and deciding what they want to do. The prerequisite for that to work is going to be trust. And I think there’s this underlying thing in this scenario about will they really say what they think? His fear is that he’s not going to have the trust he needs.

I think in terms of my suggestion to engage directly with the people asking you to do the work, the board, if you can make your job to bring as much trust to this process as possible, then there is a universe of things you could do.

As long as you can stand up to those people who you’re going to ask to work together in groups and say, “This is why we’re asking you to do it, this is why we care, and this is what we’re going to do as a result.”

You believe that this is true and you can’t believe that they’re going to believe you but you believe that there’s a chance that they’re going to buy it and you’re coming from a place of authenticity, they will be able to see that. Even if they are suspicious, they’ll be able to see you’re coming from a place of authenticity.

In a sense it’s almost like you’re working with the boss people to work out what you’re happy to do, and then you’re going to do that for real. You’re going to do that from the heart. That will come through to whoever you’re trying to engage with. Whatever the situation and the hierarchy and the history is, they will be able to see the way you are communicating at that moment.

Penny: Yes. Bringing your personal authenticity to it. Jonathan, we’re almost out of time. Is there any final words that you might say to Nick or people who feel they identify with that situation?

Jonathan: I think the thing I would say to Nick is that probably none of our solutions are exactly what you need, and that’s OK. I think engaging with the fact that there is a conflict between the expertise you bring from what you know and your ability to bring a group together or help a group work together to come to their own conclusion, is a very, very common challenge that a lot of people face.

It’s OK to find that difficult and you do have the resources to deal with that if you want to. My tip-tip-tip is treat commands from the hierarchy as if they’re cries for help and you can go in whenever you want to and assume the best of intentions and assume that you have common ground, even if you’ve got no evidence that suggests that.

And try and find out how you can work together, how you can find a common aim with this person who’s asking you to do something. Then hopefully from that you will be able to act with trust. Trust for the group and trust for yourself, and come from this authentic place when it doesn’t really matter where you end up, because people believe that the process was an honest one.

Penny: Excellent. Thank you.

Jonathan: Thank you very much Penny. That was good fun and I hope we can do that again.

Penny: Me too.


Criteria: deciding the basis on which the decisions are made

Prioritising among competing options is a feature of so many processes that I end up facilitating. It's certainly a key question in some current work.  

  • Which of the wonderful new project ideas for a radical disruption of the food system should be worked up in a scoping or R&D phase by this fabulous social enterprise? [Strategic planning day, mid March] 
  • Which issues should go forward to the Citizens' Assembly in the experimental action-learning phase of NHSCitizen? [Citizens' Jury, early March]
  • Which of the recommendations in a consultant's report should be the focus of a forthcoming workshop? [Planning meeting with a client team, mid February]

So there are a couple of things for the process designer to ponder here.  One is the tools the group might use to help it discern its priorities (dotting? multi-criteria analysis? diamond ranking?). Another is the criterion (or indeed multiple criteria) they choose to apply.

Tools I like 

So what are the tools that can help a group prioritise?  There are a few that I like.  

The first one (pros and cons) is a prelude to making a decision.  Its role is to slow down the deliberative process so that people don't assume a 'position' too early.  Nice and simple too: stick up some flip chart paper, one sheet for each of the options under consideration (write the options on so it's really clear).  Divide each sheet into two columns, one for pros (or 'what I like' or 'strengths') and one for cons (aka 'what I don't like', 'weaknesses').  Give everyone pens and sticky notes, and then there's a bit of a free-for all as people record their ambivalent views against as many of the options as they want.  The group quickly gets a snapshot analysis of every option, without anyone needing to be forced to be 'for' or 'against' an option too early in the process.  

The second is diamond ranking.  This is particularly good when there are lots of options, a large group and you want some conversation around the ranking.  It's not so good if you need a continuous ranking of all the options, but great if you just need precision about the top and the bottom of the ranking: for example as a way of going from a long-list to a short-list. 

And of course there's dotting, sometimes known as dotmocracy.  I'm quite a stickler for not calling this 'dot voting' as voting is, to me, a decision-making process whereas I prefer to see dotting as a way of aiding and informing decision-making: it's the conversation around the snapshot which is important. The group decides what the result means.  There's more here

Most complex - and appealing, in my experience, to academics, engineers and those who want the prioritisation to be based as nearly as possible on objective analysis - is the use of multi-criteria tools. There are plenty of ways of doing this, using paper-and-pen or more technology-based approaches. This kind of analysis is common, for example, on interview panels and can be useful if the decision-makers need to demonstrate how they came to their decision. 

My logical brain agrees that multi-criteria analysis should be a good way of analysing options - especially where traceability and transparency are important - but my heart absolutely sinks at the idea of facilitating it.  I'd love to hear from facilitators who enjoy using this kind of approach so I can stretch my skills here.  I see a number of difficulties with multi-criteria analysis: 

  • The time it takes to analyse all the options against the criteria.  People flag. They get bored and the quality of attention dips.  So perhaps it is an approach best used when there are only a small number of options or criteria.
  • The complexity of the process can introduce inequalities. Some participants may have a keener appreciation of the significance of the relative weighting criteria. It feels like a process where a sharper logician stands more of a chance of getting the outcome they want than an equally legitimate stakeholder without a PhD.
  • Not all criteria are equal.  The process design choices have to include a (prior) decision about weighting criteria relative to one another (or not); decisions about how to translate judgements into points for qualitative criteria; agreement on sources of information for those criteria which have objective or quantitative content. That's a lot of process to agree as a group, before applying the tool itself.
  • People game it or ignore it anyway, if it doesn't give the result they want. 

Where do the criteria come from? 

A crucial question for the facilitator / process designer, is where do the criteria come from, that the group then applies? Do the criteria get handed to the group by some other group or person, ready-baked? Does the group begin with a blank sheet of paper and devise its own criteria? Or a bit of both? 

Pre-cooking saves time (unless the group doesn't like or understand the criteria, or like or understand the people who came up with them, in which case it doesn't).  Some groups hate starting with a blank sheet of paper.  This is definitely a design choice that needs to be made with the group, even if the group's preference is for someone else to hand them a set of criteria to apply. 

Coming up with criteria and being clear on how to apply them is actually harder than it looks. Sharing assumptions (and flushing out crossed purposes) about what the criteria mean is crucial.  I have been in groups where it turned out that some people thought a high 'score' for a particular criterion was a good thing, and others thought it was bad thing.  Does everyone in the group agree that a particular criterion is a pass/fail test, or do some people see it as a consideration rather than a deal-breaker?

I've also been in groups where people have been invited to 'dot' their preferences, without clear agreement about what the prioritisation question is.  So some people were putting their dots against "the most important" option, and others against "the options we should talk about this afternoon". 

Prioritising = DEprioritising 

In my experience, this is the thing groups find hardest to do. Mostly, people want to be nice to each other. They don't want to disrespect other people's ideas: at least, not in front of each other. They don't want the fight that they fear will come when they say: we aren't going to do this.  So they merge ideas so as to retain them.  They end up with as many priorities at the end of the process as they began with, just grouped under fewer headings.  This may ease the pain in the short term, but if there really is a limit on how many options can be taken forward, their lack inability to deprioritise will come back to bite them.


How can a facilitator help in this situation? I think there's a responsibility to reflect back to group where its deliberations have led, and invite the group to discuss how successful it has been in meetings its stated aim of deciding among competing options.





What kind of workshop? Some metaphors

I've been working with a small client team to design a workshop.  The client team see lots of weaknesses in the current set-up that the group is a part of.  As the fighter pilot said when surrounded by enemy planes, it is a target-rich environment.  So where do we begin? 

We discussed jumping in and asking the biggest, baddest questions about the group's role and existence.  We played around with focusing on process tasks like revisiting terms of reference.  We thought about starting with easy wins.

The someone suggested a garden metaphor: the group and its work is a garden and - so he thought - the implication is that we want to do something evolutionary not revolutionary.


It got me thinking about the different kinds of interventions you might make in a garden - which could be radical as well as incremental - and we used these metaphors to help us reach a clearer common view about what the workshop should be like.

Dreaming of warm sunny evenings

Especially at this time of year, when nothing much is growing and the days are moist and cold, many gardeners will be dreaming of long summer evenings with a glass of wine and artfully placed candles. Scents and seating and shade. We could use the workshop to dream about the desired future, building a rich shared vision that inspires us during the hard months ahead. 

Rip it up and start again

Not all interventions in gardens are evolutionary.  People sometimes decide to completely remodel their garden: hard landscaping, tree removal, new soil, the works.  So a workshop could work on new plans: where to put the pond, as it were.  And people could even move on to project planning: when to get the diggers in.

Weeding party

Or the workshop could be like a work party: lots of practical immediate stuff to get on with: weed the borders, turn the compost heap, sew the broad beans and repair the fence.

Using metaphors helped us decide

Tossing these options around helped us decide on the kind of workshop we wanted, before we agreed on the detailed draft aims.  We went for the weeding party. Trowels at the ready!

What metaphors have helped you, in designing and planning workshops? 

That might happen, and it would be fine!

I've been doing some more one-to-one facilitation training this autumn, with someone who is a natural. It's been a real pleasure from my perspective, as most of what I've been suggesting has been practically useful and made sense to the person I've been working with. Which is always nice!

The four sessions we had were spaced out so that three came before the crucial event which was the focus of the training, and one came after. 

In the first session, we mostly worked on crafting really helpful aims for the workshop: making them crystal clear and (where this made sense) empty of content.  What do I mean by that?  For example, changing "agree to set up a working group on X" to "agree what action, if any, to take on X".

In the second session, we worked on design: which tools, techniques or bits of process would best help the group meet the aims.

And the third session was where it got real: going through the draft design and running little thought experiments. What if someone doesn't like this bit of process?  What if people can't easily divide themselves into the two groups the process depends on?  What if the round of introductions overruns?  It became clear in this session that the trainee had a lot of fears about things "going wrong" in the workshop.  I chose to make these fears the agenda for our session.

focus on fear?

I realise that I have an important relationship with fear. It's the emotion that butts its way in and uses up my energy. I know that a lot of people have this too. And a lot of people don't. So when I'm coaching, it's important that I notice when I feel afraid and consider whether it's my own fear, or something from my client that I'm picking up. And I know that many coaches would rather choose to work with the pull (enthusiasm, dreams, hopes, visions) than the push (what you want to avoid).  I try to avoid focusing on the negative, but in this session fear seemed so clearly to set the agenda!  I decided that to ignore the fears would be stubborn and unsuccessful.

What are you afraid of?

So we listed the fears on a flip chart, and then categorised them into three broad types: things that could be managed through preparation (e.g. design tweaks, process alternatives, 'things to come back to' flips, prepping a friendly participant to model brief intros); things that could be responded to 'in the moment' with body language and words that the trainee could practice in advance (e.g. interventions to respectfully request the conversation moves on); and things that might happen but would be fine. 

In my mind, this third category had echoes of Nancy Kline's possible fact assumptions: to which the response from the coach or thinking partner is "That's possible. But what are you assuming that makes that stop you?"  (For more on this, see Kline's classic Time to Think.)

And that would be fine

So the trainee's feared scenarios might come to pass: the group might decide at the start of the day that they wanted to add in a new chunky agenda item. And that would be fine. 

The always-negative-person might complain and grouch. And that would be fine.

My trainee might be at a loss to know what to do at some point in the day. And that would be fine.

This part of the session was all about taking away the fear of these possibilities, and replacing it with curiosity, confidence or some other more positive emotion.  Coupling that less fearful mindset with thinking through what she might do equipped her to be the great facilitator she turned out to be on the day itself.



There are phases, in collaboration

One of the useful analytical tools which we've been using in training recently, is the idea of there being phases in collaborative working.  This diagram looks particularly at the long, slow, messy early stages where progress can be faltering. 

Learning sets, debriefing groups: learning from doing

I've been helping organisations learn how to collaborate better.  One of my clients was interested in boosting their organisation's ability to keep learning from the real-life experiences of the people who I'd trained.

We talked about setting up groups where people could talk about their experiences - good and bad - and reflect together to draw out the learning.  This got me thinking about practical and pragmatic ways to describe and run learning sets.

Action learning sets

An action learning set is – in its purest form – a group of people who come together regularly (say once a month) for a chunk of time (perhaps a full day, depending on group size) to learn from each other’s experiences.  Characteristics of an action learning set include:

  • People have some kind of work-related challenge in common (e.g. they are all health care workers, or all environmental managers, or they all help catalyse collaboration) but are not necessarily all working for the same organisation or doing the same job.
  • The conversations in the 'set' meetings are structured in a disciplined way: each person gets a share of time (e.g. an hour) to explain a particular challenge or experience, and when they have done so the others ask them questions about it which are intended to illuminate the situation. If the person wants, they can also ask for advice or information which might help them, but advice and information shouldn’t be given unless requested.  Then the next person gets to share their challenge (which may be completely different) and this continues until everyone has had a turn or until the time has been used up (the group can decide for itself how it wants to allocate time).
  • Sometimes, the set will then discuss the common themes or patterns in the challenges, identifying things that they want to pay particular attention to or experiment with in their work.  These can then be talked about as part of the sharing and questioning in the next meeting of the set.
  • So the learning comes not from an expert bringing new information or insight, but from the members of the set sharing their experiences and reflecting together.  The ‘action’ bit comes from the commitment to actively experiment with different ways of doing their day job between meetings of the set.
  • Classically, an action learning set will have a facilitator whose job is to help people get to grips with the method and then to help the group stick to the method.

If you want to learn a little bit more about action learning sets, there's a great briefing here, from BOND who do a great job building capacity in UK-based development NGOs.

A debriefing group

A different approach which has some of the same benefits might be a ‘debriefing group’. This is not a recognised ‘thing’ in the same way that an action learning set it.  I’ve made the term up!   This particular client organisation is global, so getting people together face to face is a big deal. Even finding a suitable time for a telecon that works for all time zones is a challenge. So I came up with this idea:

  • A regular slot, say monthly, for a telecon or other virtual meeting.
  • The meeting would last for an hour, give or take.
  • The times would vary so that over the course of a year, everyone around the world has access to some timeslots which are convenient for them.
  • One person volunteers to be in the spotlight for each meeting. They may have completed a successful piece of work, or indeed they may be stuck at the start or part-way through.
  • They tell their story, good and bad, and draw out what they think the unresolved dilemmas or key learning points are.
  • The rest of the group then get to ask questions – both for their own curiosity / clarification, and to help illuminate the situation.  The volunteer responds.
  • As with the action learning set, if the volunteer requests it, the group can also offer information and suggestions.
  • People could choose to make notes of the key points for wider sharing afterwards, but this needs to be done in a careful way so as to not affect the essentially trusting and open space for the free discussion and learning to emerge.
  • Likewise, people need to know that they won’t be judged or evaluated from these meetings – they are safe spaces where they can explore freely and share failures as well as a successes.
  • Someone would need to organise each meeting (fix the time, invite people, send round reminders and joining instructions, identify the volunteer and help them understand the purpose / brief, and manage the conversation). This could be one person or a small team, and once people understand the process it could be a different person or team each time.

For peer learning, not for making decisions

Neither approach is a ‘decision making’ forum, and neither approach is about developing case studies: they are focused on the immediate learning of the people who are in the conversation, and the insight and learning comes from what the people in the group already know (even if they don’t realise that they know it). In that sense they are 100% tailored to the learners’ needs and they are also incredibly flexible and responsive to the challenges and circumstances that unfold over time.


Agree to differ


I'm listening to Matthew Taylor's Agree to Differ on iplayer.  It's hard not to get caught up in the subject matter - in this case fracking - but I'm listening out for process.

I agree with Matthew Taylor's contention that in most media coverage of controversial topics "the protagonists spend more time attacking and caricaturing each other than they do addressing the heart of the issue".  I also think that the orthodox approach, which is to set up discussion and disagreement as debate, with winners and losers and settled points of view, may be entertaining but is rarely a way of finding the best understanding.

In his own blog, Matthew writes about the origins of the radio series:

‘Imagine’ I thought ‘if we applied the kind of techniques used in mediation to shed much less heat and much more light?’ Vital to that method is requiring that the protagonists resist caricaturing each other’s position – something which immediately inflames debate – and focus instead on clarifying their own stance.

So what is the process that Matthew has followed in this refreshing radio programme?

  • Matthew is cast in the role of mediator, and our mediatees in this opening episode were George Monbiot and James Woudhuysen - one in principle at least in favour of fracking, and one opposed to it.
  • There was a round of introductions: personal, anecdotal and focusing on the very early inspiration rooted in childhood experience.  Matthew himself didn't provide the same kind of introduction: he's facilitating the conversation, rather than joining in. This helped to humanise George and James: it's hard to take against these small boys with the mutual connections to woodpeckers (you have to listen to it!).
  • Each mediatee was invited to give a short opening statement, uninterrupted. A bit like a courtroom or staged debate, but also with echoes of the uninterrupted opportunity to speak that you might have in setting up a "thinking environment".
  • We were told to expect exploration of the things the protagonists disagreed about.  This might seem counterintuitive: if what's being sought is agreement, how does exploring disagreement help. But wait...
  • George and James were asked to summarise back the essence of each other's argument, and to find something in it that they do agree with.
  • After a round of this, our mediator then summarised back what he'd heard about the remaining disagreement, and George and James had the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings in the summary.  James took the opportunity a couple of times.
  • At one point, Matthew sets out a ground rule, in response to James starting to say something outside the process: "The one rule we have here is that you're not allowed to say what you think George believes."  Nicely done, and an interesting insight into the process being followed.
  • This process was then repeated for a second area of disagreement.
  • So for each key part of the topic, we heard about areas of agreement (e.g. "in favour of nuclear and renewables" and "neither of you sympathetic to NIMBYism") and we understood more precisely the remaining disagreement.
  • At the end, Matthew summarised back what would characterise the most extreme positions - investing in or protesting against fracking. Which I found a bit strange as the sign-off: perhaps the demands of the medium for positions and opposition were too strong to be ignored.

Linearity in an aural medium

I wondered about the limitations of radio (or other aural-only media) in that you can only focus on one thing at a time: no post-it brainstorms or mind maps here, where all facets of a question can be presented at once.  I find this very useful in face-to-face facilitation, for getting everything out on the table from all perspectives, before beginning to sort it.  Does the "one-at-a-time" nature of speech reinforce the sense of opposition?

Well done Matthew Taylor for bringing a different approach to understanding a controversial question.  Future episodes are on vivisection and the future of Jerusalem. Catch them on BBC Radio 4 Wednesday's at 8pm and Saturday at 10.15pm, or on the iplayer.


Advice for the newly freelance

I have found myself having a lot of coffees with people who are on the path to self-employment. As someone who embraced this particular type of freedom over 16 years ago, I have a thing or two to say! Some of these neophytes have taken voluntary redundancy amidst organisational shake-ups. Others are responding to new caring responsibilities. Some have just tired of trying to change organisations from within.

I just love these conversations.  It's great to be asked for advice on a subject dear to your heart and about which you think you have something useful to say. And it appeals to the coach in me: asking questions to draw out what they really want from the change: their dreams and ideals; boundaries and fixed points.

Advice from experienced freelancers

So I asked around on twitter and some linked in groups, and got some great responses.

Most were about networking for support and leads:

"It takes a long while to build consultancy relationships, so start early, and keep feeding in new possible clients to your portfolio so that you have always got an eye on one year from now as well as the now." Christine Garner

"I would suggest that your first piece of paid work (and your second...) will come from your network rather than any 'advertising' or external marketing you might do. The people who know you will be the ones to trust you first - and to tell others about you." Mark McKergow

"I was advised (many years ago) to have a great, but short, answer to the question, 'What do you do?' My answer was 'I'm a developer, I develop people!' That often prompted a deeper discussion led by the other person, that occasionally led to work. So much easier than a long ramble about what I actually did." David Shepherd, AMED member

"Start with the people you know, and build from there." Edward Kellow

"Reach out to friends and acquaintances in consultancies/agencies, become their associate. This will multiply ways you get work." Adam Garfunkel

"After 25 years in the field, I became self-employed 5 years ago. If I can summarize in one word, it is Contacts. Maintain and expand your list of contacts. Stay in touch with them, such as with a newsletter. Let them know you have your own firm and will give them the same level of service you have in the past (with perhaps, lower overhead). Get out there." Marc Karell, Climate Change & Environmental Services, LLC

"It could fill a book! But perhaps the most important lesson I learned was that going independent should not and does not mean going it alone! If the work does not involve other people, find other people to interact with around the work. Get a coach to help step outside the work and think. Join an association. Get associates. These things helped me not to be isolated and continue to help me infuse my work with new, creative ideas and insights, and to not spend all my time in my own head!"  Chris Grieve

Some were about the kind of work you do, and how:

"Stay true to your own values [so you] project that you feel good about what you do" Christine Tuson

And some were very practical:

"Remember to invoice them and make sure they pay." Christine Garner.

"Work out what income you need and how much work (in paid days per year at different rates) you need to do to achieve it, and use that as a personal KPI." Christine Tuson

"Especially for women, don't charge too little." Julian Walker

And I can't resist linking to Sarah Holloway's blog post on the same topic, with her deeply practical "when you see a loo, use it".

Glass half full?

I'd offer some contrasting advice on the 'diary too full' point. I know I have a weakness in saying 'yes' too readily, so I have practised saying no and enjoying the downtime. It's time to spend with family, on community activity, or just clearing out the cupboard of mystery (everyone has one).

I'd agree more with these comments:

"Downshift. Make your home earn money. When you have gap days you don't need to panic, it may be better to take that as a reboot yourself day. Oh yes, and enjoy the freedom it gives you. Good luck." Nicola Baird

"Learn how to say no. when I first went freelance, I was terrified of ever saying no for fear of never getting work again, so found I over committed and worked silly hours. Took me years to have the confidence to say no."  Pippa Hyam.

My advice

These are my top tips:

  • Network, use your contacts, tell people you are available, ask them for help and ask them what help they need.
  • Spend a little time daydreaming about your perfect, ideal work and then tell people that's what you do / what you're looking for.
  • Trust your own judgement - if you don't seem to have the whole picture, keep asking questions; if the client seems to have missed something, mention it.
  • Don't be scared of the money conversation - clients expect to have to talk about it!
  • Know your own limits, be it term dates and sports day, or the sectors / kinds of creepy people you don't want to work with and stick to them - you are the boss!
  • Do things that challenge you and get support from fellow independents.
  • Find great places to have client or networking meetings for free - in London I like Kings Place and the Royal Festival Hall.


Over the years, I've got great support from a few organisations which are great for networking, both online and face-to-face: AMED; IAF; IEMA.  I have also started to check out meet-ups - an online way to find and set up networking events. For example, I've gone along to collaboration meet-ups in London.  Check out what’s available in your area.

More advice, your advice?

Please do add your own experiences, questions or tips, in the comments below.


How we do things round here

Organisational culture. Where to begin? Like behaviour change and values, it's one of those phenomena of human experience that promises to unlock sustainability if you can only work out how to harness it, but tantalises by just not being reducible to simple rules or mechanistic predictions.

The canny editorial team over at The Environmentalist invited me to write a two-part feature to introduce IEMA members to this scotch mist, and I love a challenge like that.  Even though I know the result will be partial and full of holes, I'd love to help people begin to navigate this treacherous territory with a few useful landmarks.

So I had a go, and part one is available here and part two here.

Essential sources

The research and planning process for the article was fun too, once I'd decided to focus right down on something manageable. (After all, this was for a 1,400 word feature, not a thesis.)

I chose to re-read Edgar Schein's classic Organizational Culture and Leadership. The resulting mind map of notes is two A4 sheets of close tiny handwriting. I also finally got round to properly reading William Bridges' Character of Organisations, which I was introduced to by Lindsey Colbourne (I still have your copy Lindsey!) when she was helping Sciencewise think about designing approaches to public dialogue which match the organisational cultures found in Whitehall Departments and government agencies.  Her insightful background research report on the "Departmental Dialogue Index" is here and the summary paper containing the diagnostic tool is here.

Schein's book is wonderful for its stories. I enjoyed being alongside him as a reader, as he gradually realises how little he understands the organisations he is exploring. He opens himself up to not knowing, thereby allowing himself to hear the new (more accurate) interpretations of the behaviours and artefacts.  There's something of the anthropologist about him, understanding organisations by being present in them as a participant observer.

Bridges' approach starts from a framework more commonly used to understand the individual - the MBTI's contrasting pairs of judging / perceiving; sensing / intuition; extraversion / introversion; thinking / feeling.  He takes this and looks at how it might manifest in organisations.

This is arguably a less intellectually rigorous approach than Schein's. I definitely find myself drawn to the open-endedness and ambiguity of the anthropologist. But there is also something attractively pragmatic in Bridges' work. And the book contains a questionnaire that readers can use to assess an organisation - good for people (and organisations) which like applied theory.

Sharing TUI Travel's journey

Many thanks to Rosie Bristow and Sarah Holloway who took the time to talk to me about how understanding organisational culture within TUI Travel helped them to tailor their sustainability work to be more effective.  As well as reading about this in my article, you can see the enthusiastic buy-in they've generated here.


It's success, Jim, but not as we know it: sixth characteristic

"Success may be different..." is perhaps the most exciting of the challenges for me, because I have seen such different reactions to it.

Sixth of six

This post is the final one in a series of six, covering the six characteristic challenges of collaborative working.

Success may look different to what you expected

The sixth characteristic challenge is that you just don't know what you're going to end up with.  And it would be a mistake to try to predict it too precisely, which makes project planners and budget holders in some kinds of organisations very twitchy indeed.

The thing is, that even when you can see the potential for collaborative advantage, this may be quite uncertain, speculative, indirect or long-term.  Because it depends on finding willing and able collaborators who want the same (or complementary) outcomes.  And as we have seen in the other characteristic challenges decisions are shared. Which means that you can't predict, let alone control, what the successful collaboration will look like.

This applies to the what, the how and the who.

An open mind, but not an empty mind

Until you've reached agreement with at least one other organisation or group about what you want to achieve, you don't know what you'll agree on.  Until you've decided together how to work together, you don't know how you'll work together.  And until you've agreed who to work with - and they've agree to work with you and each other - you won't know who you'll end up working with.  Of course, have some intelligent and well-informed guesses or working assumptions - don't have an empty mind.  But avoid being trapped by your research and early planning - maintain an open mind.

Messy play

Collaboration is an intrinsically ‘messy’ and uncertain process as the outcomes and solutions tend to shift in the light of unfolding events and opportunities.  Even once you have agreed what you want to achieve, you will still need to share decision-making about what the action is you'll take together to achieve the outcomes you want.

Sounds a bit risky....

Some organisations just hate this.  Their internal culture is one of clear prioritisation of resources, delivering against targets, husbanding their budgets carefully and not having a penny to spare for things which can't be guaranteed to deliver.  They won't release funds until the deliverables have been planned in.  They see the staff time invested in the speculative early stages of collaboration as unjustifiable, when there are urgent priorities which are part of the day-job waiting to be completed.  While this is understandable - especially if public money is being spent under political scrutiny - it is very problematic when much bigger gains might be made through collaborating.

Organisations with this kind of culture need to judge the level of resources to put into working collaboratively on a particular outcome, and weigh against competing demands on staff time and budgets.

Can't we just make them collaborate?

However eager for collaboration we may be, there will be situations where there just aren’t suitable organisations to collaborate with.  For cultures where wielding power (hierarchical, financial or regulatory) is deeply embedded, this inability to just make others do what you want can be exasperating!  When your senior people see collaboration as the answer, they may get very grumpy if at the quarterly reporting meeting you say "well, we tried, but at the moment no-one else wants to achieve what we want to achieve".

Managers need to accept – and to convey to their staff - that you cannot make people collaborate.  The team may need to learn to see ‘no thanks’ as a positive outcome: framed as “we agreed with them not to go any further on this”, rather than “that was a failure”.

And keep open to the possibility that you may need to use other ways to achieve the outcomes you want – for example through regulation (if you are a policy-maker or regulator) or incentives – if collaboration does not bear fruit.

A challenge? No, it's the whole point!

And then there are some organisations and sectors for whom the uncertainty inherent in collaboration is exactly the point.  Working with researchers and academics at Sheffield University's exciting Crucible collaboration workshop recently, there were a few baffled looks when I introduced this characteristic challenge.  People didn't see it negatively at all.  Not knowing in advance what you're going to find out and how you're going to go about it is precisely the reason why collaboration is interesting and worthwhile for these people.

What can you do?

If you are choosing a team to work collaboratively, look for people with flexibility and who are happy to live with rapid change and sudden uncertainty.

Progress is unpredictable – so don’t expect staff to predict it. Managers need to give people authority, amidst this uncertainty, to make medium-term plans.  This includes managing the tension which arises between setting budgets or spending plans with not knowing when the costs of work will become clear.

Six characteristics

So there we have it: the six characteristic challenges of collaborative working. I'd love to hear about any more, and about your own experience of making collaboration work despite - or even because of - these characteristics.

It's a marathon not a sprint: fifth characteristic of collaboration

It's rarely a way of getting things done faster that you would alone! If you are looking to collaboration to solve your speed problem, then you need to seek other solutions.

Fifth of six

This post is the fifth in a series of six, covering the six characteristic challenges of collaborative working.

Speculate to accumulate

Collaboration needs up-front investment in understanding the history, context and relationships between potential collaborators.  And once that first phase is over and there's an eager collaborator willing to play, it takes time to explore possible win-wins and work through the details of how you'll work together.  Let alone the time to agree on the action you will take together which moves you all towards the agreed outcomes.

The diagram of the loops of collaboration in this post is an attempt to put this into images.

One of my favourite aphorisms, supplied by the wonderful Elspeth Donovan, is that you have to go slow to go fast. Keep this in mind to reassure yourself and your colleagues when the pace of progress is making you twitchy.

What takes the time?

In collaboration, you can't skimp on the time it takes to

-      build relationships

-      understand the landscape of collaboration

-      understand the culture of potential collaborators

-      explore possible win-wins

-      establish ways of working (formal and informal).

And there are two kinds of time taken up: the time budget (how many hours you have available to work on it) and the calendar time (how much time will elapse before the various milestone decisions or actions occur).

Speaking of the time budget, it takes real people's real time to convene, manage or even just play an active role in a collaboration. This time doesn't need to all come from the initiating organisation: in fact, it's a mistake if it does, because it leads to unhelpful assumptions about whose responsibility it is to keep the show on the road.

Leaders - you can help

If you lead a team who need to initiate and take an active part in collaboration, here are some tips, developed with facilitator extraordinaire Andrew Acland as part of our work with the Environment Agency :

  • Give staff time to explore the ‘landscape’ and understand the history
  • Be patient – don’t expect delivery, or even significant decisions, too soon.
  • Ensure internal reporting processes, deadlines, targets and KPIs are compatible with this reality.  You may need to explain this to senior managers, defending the approach and the time it is taking.  There is a great guide to evaluating collaboration (or 'collective impact' in the terminology of the Collective Impact Forum), which stresses the different things you may need to look for during the early stages (mostly process and proxies) than the delivery phase (deliverables, outputs, outcomes, impacts).
  • Communicate existing work and establish new ‘quick wins’ to maintain interest, support and momentum.
  • Be prepared to stay involved and actively engaged after decisions have been made or policies signed off.  Don’t take up this way of working unless you see it as a long-term commitment.
  • Managers need to have detailed understanding of the organisational, legal and policy context of any collaborative work to be able to make sense of the reality of what their staff will need to do.
  • This might mean some ‘front loading’ of manager time in early stages, so they are sufficiently briefed to both lead and support staff.  This resource needs to come from somewhere.
  • This way of working needs to be planned in, budgeted for and resourced, even if another organisation is ‘convening’ the partnership or collaborative planning process; most collaboration requires work between meetings.


Collaboration requires high-quality internal working : fourth characteristic

Sometimes we're drawn to the idea of collaborating because we are finding our colleagues impossible! If this is your secret motivation, I have bad news: successful collaboration requires high-quality internal working in each of the collaborating organisations.

So you need to find a way of working with those impossible colleagues too.


Selling the leap of faith

Partly, of course, it's about getting permission to take the leap of faith needed to invest in the inherently uncertain adventure of collaboration.  Because decisions are shared, success may look different to what you expected (which is a characteristic challenge I'll tackle later in this series).  So you will need to be able to sell the idea of collaboration, or of this particular collaboration, to the people who can tell you to stop working on it or defend the time you are devoting to it.

If the collaboration is going to help you meet a core organisational goal (like getting a piece of legislation passed or building a flood defence scheme) then this will be easier than if its benefits are more diffuse or instrumental (like improving the organisation's reputation or reducing staff turnover).

On message

Once you're in collaboration mode, consistent messages and attitudes are crucial.  Everyone in your organisation who interacts with people from the collaborating organisation needs to know that you are working together. People need an opportunity to voice and check their assumptions about what this means in practice.

Part of the initial stakeholder and contextual analysis looks inward: who in our organisation already has relationships with our potential collaborators? Who is already familiar with the topic or geography that the collaboration is going to be operating in?

These people may need a sophisticated understanding of the collaboration. If the organisations also need to remain aloof for some aspects of their work, then people need to know that. Regulators don't give collaborators an easier ride, nor should they. Campaign groups will want to retain their ability to be critical in public.  Businesses need to be clear about what they are donating or providing pro bono, and what they will need to charge for.

No matter how sophisiticated it needs to be at that level, there are some simple things that you can do like helping to introduce people to the most appropriate counterparts (for example, matching seniority levels), having a single point of contact (a bit like an account manager) who knows how the organisations are interacting, and keeping key public-facing people informed about what's happening.

Work arounds

Every organisation has its little ways: policies, expectations, guidance, explicit or unspoken assumptions about how things are done. These don't always match the ways that other organisation do things. In fact, there will almost certainly be something your organisation thinks is as natural as breathing, that your collaborators think is deeply weird.

Because decisions are shared, you will need to agree with your collaborators how to work together.  This is one of the three threads in the plait that loops through the early stages.

But you may find that despite having done so, there are others inside your own organisation who say that things 'must' be done in a certain way.  One big public body I work with has a generic Memorandum of Understanding which runs to sixty pages.  The unstaffed community groups they hope to collaborate with will run a mile if faced with that.  The canny staff have learnt to develop work arounds which (just about) satisfy their internal legal specialists and are less alarming for the voluntary organisations.

Another client is used to being a service provider to its own clients.  Their approach to the early stages of collaboration mirrors their process for 'qualifying' business opportunities but takes account of the fact that the deliverables may not be pinned down until much later than usual.

If your organisation is used to bossing others around (as a customer, regulator or campaign group) then a more collegiate approach may be hard to cultivate.  If you are used to being a supplier, then you need to develop a more assertive way of interacting with collaborators who are not customers and not 'always right'.  Noticing that a shift in framing is needed, and helping to bring it about, is a critical internally-facing part of collaborating.

Doing what you've said you'll do

And this brings us back to where we came in: collaboration is about doing things together, not just having conversations and finding out what you agree (and disagree) about. Delivering.

Sooner or later, your organisation will need to commit real people's real time and budgets to taking action which has been dreamt up and agreed by the collaborators.

This shouldn't feel like it is happening on top of the day job: if your collaboration is aiming to achieve outcomes that your organisation finds compelling, it should be part of the day job for people.  But things often feel clunkier than that, at least in the early stages.

So your high-quality internal working needs to include dovetailing in with work planning and strategy-setting, so that there is room people's day jobs to both negotiate what will be delivered, and to deliver it.

Second characteristic: decisions are shared

When one organisation is collaborating with another, both are doing so because they have chosen to. Which means, ultimately, that either collaborating party can walk away if the collaboration is no longer meeting their needs.

The kinds of things shared decisions need to be made about

Walking away might happen because the outcomes which are being worked towards (the what) are just not compelling enough.  Or it might be because the process of how the collaboration is working (high level governance, day-to-day secretariat work, speed and complexity of decision-making) doesn't suit them.  Or it might be because the other collaborators (the who) make too uneasy a team - perhaps there's a fundamental clash of values or identity.

What this tells you, then, is that decisions about these three threads (the what, the who and the how) are shared.  No one party can impose their preference on the other(s).

So sometimes there's a need to compromise, if the prize is worth it

Some outcomes that one organisation wants to achieve may depend on it helping others to deliver their own outcomes first or at the same time (the what).  This may mean that some collaborative work doesn’t easily fit into the first organisation’s priorities, processes and systems.  This is the main reason why collaboration depends on great internal working too - see future post.

You can't force collaboration

Organisations which the initiators or collaborators would really like to involve, can decline to get involved (the who).  You may need to go into persuasion and listening mode, asking "what would it take, for your organisation to collaborate?" or "what do you want to achieve, that this emerging work could help take forward?" or "how would it need to be organised and run, for your organisation to be happy with getting involved?"

Helping your team share decisions

The big challenge in sharing decisions is knowing how much decision-making authority you have within your own organisation.  Let me explain why.  There will almost certainly be some tension between what your organisation wants and what your collaborators want.  Even if it's just over process matters like how far in advance to send around pre-meeting reading, or whether to have formal Terms of Reference for a steering group.  So the people 'in the room' doing the negotiating need to be clear about their organisation's ‘bottom lines’ and preferences, and clear about their own mandate to commit it to things (including things which don’t directly deliver their own organisation's objectives).

You or your team need to be confident that the people the report to are happy with the ways things are progressing.

And if you or your team are involved in  working out the process (e.g. planning wider stakeholder engagement, planning and running meetings, project planning), they need to do this in conjunction with collaborators’ organisations.

If your organisation has rigid annual planning and budget-setting processes, there may be a tension because it will not be in control of the pace that the collaboration moves at, so there will be quite a lot of uncertainty to take into account when doing that internal planning and budgeting.

Keep an eye out for the impact of your own internal systems such as authorisation or reporting procedures - are they getting in the way of collaborative work?  Who do you need to talk to, to sort this out?

Next time: it depends on great relationships.

Characteristics of collaborative working, episode one of six

There are some typical challenges in inter-organisational collaboration which it's as well to be ready for.  I'll summarise them here, and then blog in more detail about each one over the coming weeks.

Six characteristics

  • it isn't easy
  • decisions are shared
  • it depends on great relationships
  • it requires high-quality internal working too
  • it's a marathon not a sprint
  • success may look different from what you expected

These six characteristics emerged from research I carried out with experienced collaborators from the Environment Agency, when putting together some training for their managers on how to develop and support a team culture which supports collaboration.  This training was developed and delivered with InterAct Networks (including Lynn Wetenhall) and a small internal client team, and some of Working Collaboratively also draws on this work.

Here's a little about our first characteristic - it isn't easy.

It isn't easy

This may sound a little trite, but there is an important insight here: you choose to collaborate (rather than work alone) when the problem you want to solve or the outcome you want to achieve is something that you can't tackle alone.  Why can't you tackle it alone?  Most likely because it is complex, systemic, entrenched, wicked, long-standing.  And all of those things make it hard.

So you are using an inherently difficult approach (collaboration - see the other five characteristics for what makes it inherently hard) to tackle a hard situation.

Which means: if you are finding it hard, it doesn't necessarily mean that you are doing it wrong!

I say this so you can find comfort in knowing that the hardness is a feature of the landscape, to be expected.  Don't beat yourself (or your colleagues, or your collaborators) up.

Instead, discuss the hardness.  "Hey team, this is proving hard!  What do we need to keep doing, and what do we need to do differently, in the face of the difficulties?".  Knowing that it's OK to have this conversation - because the hardness is inherent rather than anyone's fault - will free you up to find new ways to address things or the strength to continue with the things you are already doing.