'Greening' our practice as facilitators

 Hexenring in Freiberg by unukorno on flickr

Hexenring in Freiberg by unukorno on flickr

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


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

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

The jumbo in the room

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

Bang for your buck

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

A comic take on this

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

follow this up

Here are some places you can find out more:

Thanks for ideas and leads

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

Paying attention to the mood

os flowers.jpeg

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

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

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

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

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

What did we do?

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

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

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

 Open Space topics, day one

Open Space topics, day one

 Open space topics, day two

Open space topics, day two

Did it work?

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

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

I’m still pondering whether we can have both. 

Over to you

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

Doing the work in sustainability that we want to do

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

 Co-coaching at She is Still Sustainable

Co-coaching at She is Still Sustainable

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

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

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

The power of the positive

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

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

It’s easy to use this approach

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

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

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

Quick summary

 Solutions focus: scaling

Solutions focus: scaling

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

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

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

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

It’s all in the handout. 

Being a great change maker

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

Try it!   

On the spot, in the room

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

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

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

 On the spot: Skitter photo

On the spot: Skitter photo

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

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

Why would you redesign?

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

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

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

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

I can imagine (and remember) these happening!

Real redesign

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

Planned redesign

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, and

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

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

6Ts, considerations

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

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

You can do this!

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




Celebrate your achievements!

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

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

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

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

 Browsing the wonderwall.

Browsing the wonderwall.


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

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

Process notes

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

 Remembering our achievements

Remembering our achievements

Personal resilience - three ways to build yours

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

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

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

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

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

Support yourself - three pillars

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


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

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

Give yourself a break

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

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

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

What are the things that feed your flame?

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

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


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

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

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

Still conversations

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

She is (still) sustainable

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

Other options for 'association'

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

Look after yourself!

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


Where next for your sustainability strategy?

In these turbulent days, with right-wing populist movements rising and an unpredictable political context, you may be asking yourself how this should be reflected in your sustainability strategy. 

Perhaps there are critical business and organisational issues which need addressing, regardless of political uncertainty. 

Or are you looking at what the Sustainable Development Goals (Global Goals) mean for the materiality analysis and the opportunities for collaboration that they bring.

If you are pondering these questions - or others - about your sustainability strategy and would like to think aloud with peers facing similar choices, do take a look at the second of this season of still conversations: where next with my sustainability strategy.

There are a few places still available, and you'll be in conversation with sustainability specialists from a major high street bank, an engineering company, a local authority and others.

Carousel in action

A description of carousel technique in action plus a free download on how to run one yourself.

What do we need now, from sustainability leaders?

 Belaying. Aimee Custis Photography,  flickr .

Belaying. Aimee Custis Photography, flickr.

When I got the news about the US Presidential election result, I went through a lot emotions that I'm still processing.

One that may have been shared by those of you who are looked to for leadership - in ways big or small - was uncertainty about what to say to people who are wanting guidance.

I had to think about this pretty quickly, as I'd been asked present on leadership in the closing session of a four-day workshop on sustainable business.

So what now?

What kind of leadership do we want, what kind of leaders do we need to be, when the going gets really tough?  For me, it boils down to resilience and responsibility.


It will be tough. There will be defeats and failures.  People will try to stop the things we are working for.  For some of us the challenges will be unbearably hard.  For some of us they already are.  (I know I speak from a position of privilege as a white, well-educated, able-bodied, straight, comparatively wealthy person from a Christian cultural background - I don't know I'm born.)

Part of what defines stepping up to lead - wherever we find ourselves - is that we are resilient and find ways to continue the work, especially when it is tough.

This doesn't mean that we can't take time out - rest, recharge, recuperate, get some R&R - these things are part of keeping ourselves resilient.

As Rabbi Tarfon said:

It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.


Knowing isn't enough.  We need to take responsibility.  Find the intersection between what we think is needed and what we are able to do, and step into that space.  If you are there already, thank you.

If you are able to step up, thank you.

What if you're not sure, yet, what is in that intersection?  Then keep doing the good you were already doing, and when you are sure you can step up. You're unlikely to be doing harm in the meantime.

Collaborate and support

Not all of us need to be leaders all the time.  Being a great supporter is an essential job too.  The climber relies on the woman belaying, in the picture. If the work you are doing is to enable and empower others to lead, thank you.

The event

The workshop was part of the 2016 Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Value Chains, part of the suite of brilliant executive education on sustainability offered by the Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership.  Thanks team for asking me along!  The full slide set I used is here.

Campaigners, community groups, activists and faith groups - run your business meetings better so you can get on with the important stuff!

Five minute meeting makeover.

If you're involved in a local group - campaigners, activists, community action, faith group - there will be some really important things you want to achieve in the world.  And you'll have some kind of team, committee, council or similar organising the activities behind the scenes.  How are those meetings?  Clear, engaging, effective?  Or dull, interminable, frustrating, repetitive?

I've led a couple of two-hour training sessions this year for groups on how to run meetings which make clear decisions that stick.  So that they can spend time on doing the stuff that really matters.

Here are the handouts from the workshop I ran in mid November.  

If you think your group would benefit, get in touch to see what I can do to help you. 

Peer learning workshops - some emerging ideas

I'm excited about ideas for peer learning workshops that have been bubbling away in my head and are beginning to take shape.

Focused, coachy, peer learning

I want to bring together sustainability people of various kinds, to be able to talk with each other about their challenges and ideas in a more expansive and easeful way than a conference allows. 

People really benefit from being able to think aloud in coaching conversations.  I've seen the transformations that can happen when supportive challenge prompts a new way of looking at things.

We also get so much from comparing our own experiences with peers: finding the common threads in individual contexts, exploring ideas about ways forward. 

I’d like to combine these things by making the peer learning available in smaller groups and smaller chunks, where the atmosphere is more like coaching. 

What's the idea?

The idea is to run half-day workshops, with between 6 and 10 people at each event. The intention is that they are safe and supporting spaces, where people can talk freely.  We'll meet in spaces that are relaxed, creative, private, energising and feel good to be in.  (More comfortable than the stone steps in the picture.)

Each workshop would have a theme, to help focus the conversations and make sure people who come along have enough in common for those conversations to be highly productive.

I'd run a few, on different themes, and people can come to one, some or all of them.  They don't have to come to them all, so the mix of people will be different for each workshop.

I'd charge fees, probably tiered pricing so that it's affordable for individuals and smaller not-for-profits, but commercial prices for bigger and for-profit organisations.

The content of each workshop will come from the participants, rather than me: my role is to facilitate the conversations, rather than to teach or train people.

Choices, dilemmas, testing

When I've tested this idea with a few people, many have said that the success of the workshops will depend on who else is there: people with experience, insight, credibility.  People they feel able to trust, before they commit to booking.  I think this is useful feedback.

On the other hand, I'm unsure about the best way to ensure this.  Is it enough to include a description of "who these workshops are for" and leave it to people to decide for themselves?   Or should I set up an application process of some kind: asking people who apply to include a short explanation of who they are, what their role and experience is, and why they want to come along.

If I set up an 'application' process, will that be off-putting to the naturally modest?  Too cumbersome?  Adding extra steps (apply, wait, get place confirmed, then pay...) feels risky: at each step, the pool of likely participants will get smaller.  Will this make the workshops unviable?  Who am I to choose, anyway?

Another option is to make the workshops 'by invitation' with people having the option of requesting an invitation for their friends, peers, colleagues - or even themselves.  This is what I'm leaning towards at the moment, based on gut feel.

Will this increase people's confidence in the workshops - that not just anyone gets a place, their peers will provide quality reflections and be people worth meeting? Will it make those people who do get an invitation feel special, better about themselves?

And will I really turn down anyone who asks for an invitation?  What will they feel?

I've set up a survey to gather views on this, as well as on the topics that will be most interesting to people.   Please let me know here where's there a short survey. Discounts and prizes available!

How it feels to experiment

I'm not a natural entrepreneur.  Some people love to experiment and learn from failure.  Fail faster.  Fail cheaper.  Intellectually I'm committed to experimenting with these workshops: testing out ideas about formats, marketing, pricing, venues, topic focus vs emergence, length, the amount of 'taught' content vs 'created' content and so on. 

Emotionally: not so much. I want to get everything right before I start (which is why it's taken me about six months to even get to this stage).  I'm getting great support from lots of people, and boy do I need it.  Even sitting here, I can feel the prickly, clammy, cold physical manifestations of the fear of failure. 

I need to move through the fear and into the phase of actually running some test workshops.  I know they'll be great.  I can see the smiles, feel the warmth, visualise the kind of room we're meeting in and the I already have the design and process clear.  I have a shelf of simple but beautiful props in my office.  I am 100% confident about the events themselves, it's the communications and administration of the marketing that freaks me out.

Learning from the learning

So already I'm learning.  About myself, about what people say they need, about how venues can be welcoming or off-putting, about how generous people are with their time and feedback.

She is Sustainable - sustaining the sustainers

Vertically, horizontally or circularly ambitious? Mothering or child-free, by choice or randomness? Urban or rural? Partnered for life or a free agent? Gay or straight or something else? Employed, entrepreneur or freelance?

Women who work in sustainability are all these things and more. 

She is Sustainable was invented by five UK-based sustainability women (Becky Willis, Solitaire Townsend, Amy Mount, Hannah Hislop and Melissa Miners) who thought

Every woman makes decisions about her career, her ambitions and her family. As five women who have shared their learnings, successes and failures, we know one thing for sure – there’s a lot we can learn from each other.
We want to take time out to talk about women and changing the world. Not about politics, but about personal lives and choices.
That’s why we organised She Is Sustainable: London in February 2016, a two-day gathering for women working in sustainability, allowing women to share their stories and take part in discussion sessions on all aspects of women’s work and life.

She is Sustainable spawns sprogs

Becky and the rest of the gang weren't intending or expecting that SiS would become a thing, but it has. There have been SiSs in Cambridge and Lancaster, organised on the same shoe-string lines, for love, to give younger women at the start of their sustainability careers a chance to hear from older women who've journeyed ahead of them and have a few of the battle scars to prove it.

I was lucky enough to get involved with SiS Lancaster, offering some facilitation support while I mulled on my own life and my idea for a SiS for older women.  I can see links with coaching, with peer learning and with the kind of support that sustainability change agents are crying out for, in my experience.

academic insights

The Lancaster event was beautifully organised by Becky Willis and Jess Phoenix, with support from the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business, part of the Lancaster University.  Being run at the university meant that we got to hear from some brilliant women who could bring us rigorous academic insight into gender and sustainability leadership. 

Prof. Judi Marshall, whose work on the lived experience of being a sustainability change agent I've admired for years, shared insights on 'insider outsiders' and the role of gender in this. The cultural assumption and unconscious bias about the credibility and prestige of men means that there are difficult choices to be made about guest speakers at events: in the short term, is it better for our cause to have male contributors, because people will listen to them more?

We also heard from Prof. Gail Whiteman about the uncomfortable experiences early in her career which were "precious" because "they tell you what's important to you". Gail set up the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business and is bringing arctic ice to the attention of global boardrooms.  Literally. She's got plans to establish an arctic base camp at the World Economic Forum at Davos. Now that I'd like to see.

To complete the trio of professors, Prof. Caroline Gatrell shared stats on the place of women in leadership including the glass cliff: women are more likely to access top positions during periods of crisis or risk.  Maybe it's because they are seen as more creative or more safe. Maybe it's because they are seen as expendable. Theresa May springs to mind, as do Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman who have both 'held the fort' for Labour between 'proper' leaders.

what was it like?

As well as these insights from academic research (and the academic life), She is Sustainable made room for more personal life stories from older women, and lots of sharing among participants. The atmosphere was so warm and supportive, as well as being inspirational.  Younger women heard from older women and from each other about their careers in sustainability and how these interwove with life choices and unchosen circumstances.

We spoke together about following your heart and using your head, about finding your place and moving on. We shared experiences about balancing career with caring responsbilities, and about the different kinds of women we can be and want (or don't want) to be.

We used random everyday objects to open up about how we see ourselves as women who work in sustainability.

 The world's most disappointing tombola...

The world's most disappointing tombola...


Speaking about the unspoken

I was lucky enough to facilitate two open space sessions, where topics were proposed which perhaps might not have been if the group had not been women-only.  Yes, there really was a session on periods and yes, there really was quite a lot to be shared and discussed about the impact of menstruation on work.

There was everyday sexism in the stories: the woman whose junior male colleague was addressed as the boss all the way through a business meeting; the casual assumptions about who will take the notes and make the tea. 

And there was conversation about racism, ethnicity and being a woman of colour in the sustainability field.

Yes, we did talk about periods in the open space session.

She is (still) sustainable

I went along partly to test out my guess that SiS could be tweaked a bit to provide a brilliant way for older women to discuss their choices: if you're mid-career, would it be useful to consider what's next?  Perhaps it's an "after children" conversation, or perhaps one about daring to take the next step upwards or sideways. Perhaps it's about being ready to change direction, to slow down or branch out.  or to take on your biggest challenge yet. Perhaps its about how you keep credible and energetic when your body is starting to let you down.  

I don't know what the conversations are that sustainability women at this later stage will want to have, but I do know that there was enthusiasm for the idea when I tested it, and I am brimming with ideas about how to adjust the SiS approach for this group of women. 

Let me know what you think!

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!


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.

What kind of workshop? Some metaphors

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

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

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


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

Dreaming of warm sunny evenings

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

Rip it up and start again

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

Weeding party

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

Using metaphors helped us decide

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

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

Location, location, location

Picture the scene: the room, which you haven't been able to check out before, has a low ceiling, tiny windows that somehow don't manage to let in much light, and is decorated in shades of brown and purple.  There are uplighters on the walls, which have large strategically placed paintings screwed to them.  And, of course, you have been told that under no circumstances can blu-tack be used on the rough-textured wallpaper. The top table sits in front of the roll-away screen, which is faulty so it won't in fact roll away. There is a plinth with all sorts of technology attached, which cannot be moved.

The room is very hot and there are no heating controls.  And the windows don't open.

This isn't what you expected, when you designed your day-long interactive, non-hierarchical workshop which relies heavily on being able to display multiple flips.

Sometimes a room is your friend: flexible, light, with expanses of working walls and a positive atmosphere.  And sometimes it's just horrible.

And we learn work-arounds: tacking to woodwork, windows, picture frames; pinning things to curtains; throwing the doors open.  Even drawing pictures of windows and the great outdoors and posting them up, to bring some hint of daytime into the room.

Designing the ideal

But if I could conjure up my ideal venue, it would have easily accessible outdoor space with chairs and tables in arbours dotted around within easy reach through the french windows in the main room.  There would be fruit, water and a variety of hot drinks on tap all day, in a relaxing space with sofas and armchairs.  There would be a great veggie buffet at lunch.

The main room would be spacious with furniture which is easy to move and stack.  The walls would be smooth and white, with a surface that you can use blu-tack on without fear of it falling down or leaving marks.  The room would be big enough to hold all the participants cabaret style AND still leave room for break-out spaces around the edges.  No pillars would obscure anyone's vision.  Large windows would fill the room with light, except when we need dark because something is being projected from the ceiling-mounted projector which can swivel around to project in any direction!

And the venue staff... Ah, the venue staff would be sunny, positive, accommodating and calm.

The whole place would be accessible to those who need to use wheelchairs or sticks or extra help with seeing or hearing.  It would also be accessible to people who want to arrive by bike, train or bus.

Is it too much to ask?

Over to you!

What are your pet likes and dislikes?  Which are your favourite venues and why?  Which should we avoid at all costs?

Free download: I have a handout on choosing venues, which I share with clients. You can download it here.

What your facilitator will ask!

So you've decided that the meeting or workshop you have in mind needs an independent, professional facilitator.  You call them up and guess what? They start asking all these awkward questions.  What's that about?

Facilitators don't just turn up and facilitate

Facilitated meetings are increasingly popular, and many teams and project groups understand the benefits of having their workshop facilitated. More and more organisations are also wanting to have meaningful, productive conversations with stakeholders, perhaps even deciding things together and collaborating.  Facilitated workshops can be a great way of moving this kind of thing forward. But facilitators don't just turn up and facilitate. So what are the key things a facilitator will want to know, when they're trying to understand the system, before the big day itself?

Start with the ends

Your facilitator will always begin with the purpose or objectives - why is the meeting being held? What do you want to be different, after the meeting? This could be a difference in the information that people have (content), new agreements or decisions (process), or it could be that what is needed is a shift in the way people see each other (relationships) - or some of each of these things.

Context and history

Once the facilitator is confident that you are clear about the purpose (and this could take some time - the facilitator should persist!), then the facilitator will want to understand the context, and the people.

Context includes the internal context - what has you organisation done up to now, what other processes or history have led up to this workshop? It also includes the external context - what in the outside world is going to have an impact on the people in the room and the topic they are working on?

Who's coming?

Often, the one thing that has been fixed before the facilitator gets a look in is the people who have been invited. But are they the right people to achieve the objectives? Have some important oilers or spoilers, information holders or information needers been left out? And do they understand clearly what the objectives of the meeting are?

Getting the right people in the room (and making arrangements to involve people who need to take part, but can't actually be there on the day) is just part of it. What do the people need to know, in order to play an effective part in the meeting? And how far ahead does this information need to be circulated? Apart from passively receiving information, what information, views or suggestions can be gathered from participants before the meeting, to get people thinking in advance and save time for interaction and creative discussion on the day? What questions can be gathered (and answered) in advance?

What do the participants want out of the meeting? If this is very different to what the client or sponsor wants, then this gap of expectations needs to be positively managed.

When and where?

Apart from the invitation list, the other things which are usually fixed before the facilitator is brought in, and which they may challenge, with justification, are the date and the venue.

The date needs to be far enough away to ensure that participants get adequate notice, and the facilitator, client team and participants get adequate preparation time.

The venue needs to be suitable for the event - and for a facilitated meeting, traditional conference venues may not be. Inflexible room layout, a ban on blu-tack, rigid refreshment times - all of these make a venue hard to use, however handy it may be for the golf course.  There's more on venues here.

Workshop design

Sometimes, of course, the date, venue and participant list are unchangeable, whatever the facilitator would like, and have to be taken as fixed points to be designed around. So what about the overall meeting design? The facilitator will want to understand any 'inputs' to the meeting, and where they have come from. They'll want to talk about the kind of atmosphere which will be most helpful, and about any fixed points in the agenda (like a speech by the Chief Exec), and how these can be used most positively.

A design for the meeting will be produced, and circulated to key people (the client, maybe a selection of participants), and amended in light of their comments. But the facilitator will always want to retain some flexibility, to respond to what happens 'in the room'.

What next?

And after the meeting? The 'after' should be well planned too - what kind of report or record is needed, and will there be different reports for different groups of people? This will have an impact on the way the meeting is recorded as it goes along - e.g. on flip chart paper, on display for all to see and for people to correct at the time. If there are specific 'products' from the meeting (agreements, action points, priorities, principles or statements of some kind, options or proposals), what is going to happen to them next?

And how will the client, facilitator and participants give and receive feedback about how the process worked?

All these things will need to be thought about early on - clients should expect their facilitators to ask about them all - and to help them work out the answers!

Challenging conversations

So to sum up, the facilitator will potentially challenge the client team about:

• Objectives • Context • Participants • Space • On-the-day process • Follow-up process

Free download

If you'd like to download a version of this, click here.

Reflecting on a change that happened

Here's a nice exercise you can try, to help people base their thinking about organisational change on real evidence. Running workshop sessions on organisational change is a core part of my contribution to the various programmes run by the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership.  This week, a group of people from one multi-national organisation met in Cambridge to further their own learning on sustainability and organisational responses to it.  My brief was to introduce them to a little theory on organisational change, and help them apply it to their own situation.

Theory is all very well - I love a good model or framework.  But sometimes people struggle to make the links to their experience, or they use descriptive models as if they were instructions.

This exercise gave them time to consider their direct experience of organisational change before the theory was introduced, so that they had rich evidence to draw on when engaging critically with the theory.

Step one - a change that happened

At tables, I asked them to identify a change that has happened in their organisation, of the same scale and significance as they think is needed in relation to sustainable development.  All of the tables looked at some variation of the organisation's response to dramatically changing market conditions (engaging with a different customer base, redundancies).

Step Two - four sets of questions

I then asked the groups to discuss how this change really happened (not how the organisation's change policy manual said it should have happened).  I offered four sets of questions:

  • First inklings e.g. How did you know the change was coming? How did it begin? What happened before that? What happened after that? What changed first?
  •  People e.g. Who were the main characters who helped the change to happen? Who tried to stop it happening? Who was enthusiastic? Who was cynical? Who was worried?
  •  Momentum and confirmation e.g. What happened that provided confirmation that this change really is going to happen, that it’s not just talk? How was momentum maintained? What happened to win over the people who were unhappy?
  • Completion and continuation e.g. Is the change complete, or are things still changing?  How will (did) you know the change is complete?

Step Three - debrief

Discussions at tables went on for about 20 minutes, and then we debriefed in plenary.

I invited people to share surprises.  Some of the surprises included the most senior person in the room realising that decisions made in leadership team meetings were seen as significant and directly influenced the way people did things - before the exercise, he had assumed that people didn't take much notice.

I also invited people to identify the things that confirmed that 'they really mean it', which seems to me to be a key tipping point in change for sustainability.  Some of the evidence that people used to assess whether 'they really mean it' was interesting: the legal department drafting a new type of standard contract to reflect a new type of customer base; different kinds of people being invited to client engagement events.  These 'artifacts' seemed significant and were ways in which the change became formalised and echoed in multiple places.

After the evidence, the theory

When I then introduced Schein's three levels of culture - still one of my favourite bits of organisational theory - the group could really see how this related to change.

Let me know how you get on, if you try this.


When form is content: singing a round

A great little place near me runs weekly group sessions where we reflect on our lives and work together on essential skills like empathy and dealing with difference.  We also take part in experiential group activities*. Today's theme was trust: the necessity of continuing to trust each other, despite the frailties and failures we know we will sometimes experience. Partway through a presentation on this, we tried an experiment: singing a round.  The song was one that many of us - but not all - had sung before.

The words are about joining together to make something bigger than the whole. And so is the form. We begin by singing in unison. Then we break into groups and each group begins the song slightly later than the previous group. The tune and words reveal themselves as elements which work together as the phrases overlap, making something more delightful and interesting than the unison version.

The rounds I learnt as a child (London's Burning, Frere Jacques) used the form for its entertainment value (!) but this song uses the form to deliver and emphasise content.

I wonder how we can do the same in our facilitation training...

*Yes, I'm being a little coy here. As a confirmed atheist, it's a little uncomfortable to explain how I love going to my local Unitarian church.  Discovering that the Minister is also an atheist was a nice surprise. But there you go: my notions of church have been confounded, so check it out.

Facilitation training - can it work one-to-one?

I love to train people in facilitation skills.  It's so much fun! People get to try new things in a safe environment, games are played, there's growth and challenge, fabulously supportive atmospheres can build up.

What's the minimum group size for this kind of learning?

How about one?

A group of one

From time to time I'm approached by people who want to improve their facilitation skills, but who don't have a ready-made group of colleagues to train with.   I point them towards open courses such as those run by the ICA, and let them know about practice groups like UK Facilitators Practice Group.  And sometimes, I work with them one-to-one.

This one-to-one work can also happen because a client doesn't have the budget to bring in facilitator for a particular event, and we agree instead to a semi-coaching approach which provides intensive, just-in-time preparation for them to play the facilitator role.  This is most common in the community and voluntary sector.

The approach turns out to be a mix of process consultancy for specific meetings, debriefing recent or significant facilitation experiences, and introducing or exploring tools and techniques.

Preparing to facilitate in a hierarchy

A client had a particular event coming up, where she was going to be facilitating a strategy session for a group of senior people from organisations which formed the membership of her own organisation.  She had concerns around authority: would they accept her as their facilitator for this session?  She was also keen to understand how to agree realistic aims for the session, and to come up with a good design.

We spent a couple of hours together, talking through the aims of the session and what she would do to prepare for it.  We played around with some design ideas. I introduced the facilitator's mandate, and she came up with ways of ensuring she had a clear mandate from the group which she could then use to justify - to them and to herself - taking control of the group's discussions and managing the process.  Helped by some coaching around her assumptions about her own authority, she came up with some phrases she was comfortable using if she needed to intervene.  We role-played these. She felt more confident about the framework and that the time and energy we'd put into the preparation was useful.

Facilitation skills as a competence for engaging stakeholders

As part of a wider team, I've been working with a UK Government department to help build their internal capacity for engaging stakeholders.  As a 'mentor', I worked with policy teams to help them plan their engagement and for one team, this included helping a team member get better at meeting design and facilitation.  He already had a good understanding of the variety of processes which could be used and a strong intuitive grasp of facilitation.  We agreed to build this further through a (very short) apprenticeship approach.  We worked together to refine the aims for a series of workshops.  I facilitated the first and he supported me.  We debriefed afterwards: what had gone well, what had gone less well, and in particular what had he or I done before and during the workshop and what was the impact.  He facilitated the next workshop, with me in the support role. Again we debriefed.  We sat down to plan the next workshop, and I provided a handout on carousel, which seemed like an appropriate technique. I observed the next two workshops, and again we debriefed.

Instead of a training course

I worked with a client who wanted to develop his facilitation skills and was keen to work with me specifically, rather than an unknown and more generic open course provider.  I already knew his context and he knew I'd have a good appreciation of some of his specific challenges: being in the small secretariat of what is essentially an industry leadership group which is trying to lead a sustainability agenda in their sector.  His job is to catalyse and challenge, as well as to be responsive to members.  So when he is planning and facilitating meetings, he will sometimes be in facilitator mode and sometimes he will need to be advocating a particular point of view.

Ideally, I'd have wanted to observe him in action in order to identify priorities and be able to tailor the learning aims. But the budget didn't allow for this.

We came up with a solution which was based on a series of four two-hour sessions, where I would be partly training (i.e. adding in new 'content' about facilitation and helping him to understand it) and partly coaching (i.e. helping him uncover his limiting assumptions and committing to do things differently).  The sessions were timed to be either a bit before or a bit after meetings which he saw as significant facilitation challenges, so that we could tailor the learning to preparing for or debriefing them.  The four face-to-face sessions would be supplemented by handouts chosen from things I'd already produced, and by recommended reading.  We agreed to review each session briefly at the end, for the immediate learning and feedback to me, and partly to model active reflection and to get him into the habit of doing this for his own facilitation work.

In our initial pre-contract meeting, we agreed some specific learning objectives and the practicalities (where, when).  Before each session, we had email exchanges confirming what he wanted to focus on. This meant I could prepare handouts and other resources to bring with me.

And this plan is pretty much what we ended up doing.

He turned out to be very well suited to this way of learning. He was a disciplined reflective practitioner, making notes about what he'd learnt from his experiences and bringing these to sessions.  He was thoughtful in deciding what he wanted to focus on which enabled me to prepare appropriately.  For example, in our final session he wanted to look at his overall learning and to identify the learning edges that he would continue to work on after our training ended.  We did two very different things in that session: he drew a timeline of his journey so far, identifying significant things which have shaped the facilitator he is now.  And we used the IAF's Foundational Facilitator Competencies to identify his current strengths and learning needs.

Can it work?

Yes, it's possible to train someone in facilitation skills one-to-one.   This approach absolutely relies on them have opportunities to try things out, and is very appropriate when someone will be facilitating anyway - trained or not.  The benefits are finely tailored support which can include advice as well as training, coaching instead of 'talk and chalk', and debriefing 'real' facilitation instead of 'practice' session.

There are downsides, of course.  You don't get the big benefit which can come from in-house training, where a cohort of people can support each other in the new way of doing things and continue to reflect together on how it's going. And you don't get the benefit of feedback from multiple perspectives and seeing a diverse way of doing things, which you get in group training.

But if this group approach isn't an option, and the client is going to be facilitating anyway, then I think it is an excellent approach to learning.