5 minute meeting makeover

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

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

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

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

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

The makeover questions

Here’s your checklist of questions:

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

An agreed, structured meeting plan

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

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

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


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

Summary titles for the items to begin with...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy ticks when an item has been completed.

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

Try it!

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

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

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

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

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

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


Has there been a tipping point for sustainable business?

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

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

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

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

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

What are the sanctions and disincentives?

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

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

So far, so familiar.

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

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

What's changed?

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

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

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

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

So has there been a tipping point?

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

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

Just listen

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

The Thinking Partnership approach

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

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

Actually, it's not just listening.

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

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

Listening as support

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

Our team leader shared some wonderful quotes on listening:

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

- Margaret J. Wheatley

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

- Shel Silverstein

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

- Thich Nhat Hanh

Sharing expectations for an unusual conversation

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

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

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

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

Observing culture

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


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

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

What about the "observable behaviour"?

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

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

Espoused values

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

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

Basic underlying assumptions

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

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

Who are "we"?

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

Who are 'You'?   

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

Who are 'we'?

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

“We” can mean

‘me and these other people, not including you’ 

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


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

(‘Inclusive we’, to linguists.)

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

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

What might this look like in practice?

These are examples from real work, anonymised.

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

"What can we do to enable collaborative working?”

It was changed to:

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

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

A draft workshop report contained this paragraph:

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

This was changed to:

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

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

The changes make this crystal clear.

Cometh the "our"

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


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

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






Ritual and joining an established group

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

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

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

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

Decisions? Decisions!

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Alternatively, there's a pdf of it here.


InterAct Networks - thank you for a wonderful ride

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


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

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

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

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

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

  • diagnostics

  • guidance

  • tools and materials

  • new forms of organisational learning.

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

Some insights into building organisational capacity

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

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

Tailor the intervention

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

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

Classroom training will raise awareness of tools

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

Use trainers who are practitioners

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

Begin with the change you want to see

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

Learning interventions are (only) part of the story

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

The most useful concepts and frameworks

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

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

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

Three-day facilitation training

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

More reports and resources

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

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

Departmental Dialogue Index - developed by Lindsey Colbourne for Sciencewise.

Doing an organisational stocktake.

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

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

Thank you for a wonderful ride

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


Facilitation and justice

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

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

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

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

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

What does this mean for facilitators?

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

When the content is 'just', or not

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

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

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

'Just' process

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

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

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

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

Gently stretching our mandate

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

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

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

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

Knowing our own prejudices

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

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


Lost in translation?

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

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

Cut the content

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

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

Cut the process

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

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

Team up

Cameron also suggests working with a co-facilitator. 

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

Slow it down, keep it simple

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

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

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

Do the paperwork

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

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

Prepare with the interpreter

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

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

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

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

You can still be creative!

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

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

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

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

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

Understand the equipment and its implications

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

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

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

Consider who’s interpreting for whom

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

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

Ground rules

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

Find out more

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

Admire and enjoy!

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

The morning after the night before - debriefing events

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

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

Structuring the debrief

I've been using a simple three question structure:

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

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

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

  • What do we need to do next?

Referring back to the aims

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

Evidence to draw on

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

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

What's been learnt?

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

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

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


Magic whiteboard - you never forget your first time

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

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

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


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.