Here are some powerful tools to help clients plan their stakeholder engagement more strategically.
Contemplating ecological apocalypse, and being really really angry with the bozos who are letting it happen, can make us sustainability people pretty dull conversationalists.
In a bid to learn some new ways of delighting people while helping them stare into the abyss, I enrolled in the marvellous Sustainable Stand Up course, run by my old friend and colleague - and all round laughter fairy - Belina Raffy with support from Dr Steve Cross.
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.
Many organisations in the sustainability field do their best system-changing work when they are collaborating. They recognise this, and they seek out collaborators who, like them, want to make more change than one organisation can do working alone.
They understand the power of collaboration so well, that they put resources and staff time into facilitating and convening it.
And they find themselves in a challenging situation - playing the role of convening and facilitating, whilst also being a collaborator, with expertise and an opinion on what a good outcome would look like and how to get to it.
Why is it a problem?
When you have expertise and a point of view on the topic being discussed, and you're also the convenor or facilitator, it causes three kinds of problems:
- You are insufficiently neutral (or are thought to be) when you are playing the 'honest broker' role, helping the rest of the group discover their consensus. The decisions made unravel, because they are not deeply owned by the group.
- Your point of view and your expertise are lost to the group, unless someone else can contribute them on your (or your organisation's) behalf.
- The people you have convened don't see themselves as collaborators, rolling their sleeves up to get on with real work after the conversation. They see themselves as consultees, telling you what your should do after the conversation.
These problems are not insurmountable, but they are real. Understanding that they are an inherent feature of being a non-neutral facilitator/convenor helps you to anticipate them, spot them when they occur and mitigate.
Thinking it through as a team
I work with a lot of organisations who are in this position, and recently I ran a half-day masterclass for one of them. The masterclass began with me setting out the problem, and then the group shared their actual experiences and discussed what they wanted to do about it.
Here are the slides, suitably anonymised.
Once you understand the typical challenges, you can decide which situations need that additional neutrality, which really need you to be 'in' the conversation, and come up with ways of making sure that happens. There are some ideas here.
I'd love to help other organisations think through these dilemmas and make their own choices about them.
Inside some organisations, there are networks of facilitators who design and run better meetings. Perhaps you are in such a network, or have worked with people who are. Perhaps you've designed and run training for people who go on to be part of such a network. These are, for the most part, people who facilitate either as a part of their job (and are given management support and time within their job to do this) or on top of their day job (having to carve out time informally, and doing it because they love it). They are not generally full-time facilitators.
I was asked to share some insights about facilitation networks, for SALAR, the Swedish Association of Local Government and Regions. This was done as part of some work that Edward Andersson is helping them with. A link to my presentation is at the bottom of this post.
Facilitation as an essential skill for participative approaches to decision-making
SALAR's interest came from their desire to revitalise dialogue between citizens and local government, in order that decisions taken at a local and regional level are much better informed by people's experiences, insight and preferences. When bringing together a group of citizens to discuss contentious questions like whether and how best to welcome refugees, or what to do about school provision or local transport services, you need a skillful facilitator who can both design a good process and facilitate it 'in the room'.
And the in-house facilitator network I know best - at the Environment Agency* - arose because of exactly this impulse: the need to have much better conversations with stakeholders (both professional stakeholders and communities) about important questions like pollution control, flood risk management and protecting water quality. (The Environment Agency also has a framework contract for Stakeholder Engagement, Advice and Facilitation Services, known as SEAFS, which has professional independent facilitators on it.)
Facilitation for internal conversations
There are also in-house facilitator networks which focus on internal conversations, rather than inside-outside conversations. They help out with specific initiatives or projects - like whole-staff conversations in the run-up to the development of strategic plans - or can be called on for smaller conversations, like project planning or to sort out a problem. Some organisations choose to take a very focused approach to their facilitation, by training facilitators in a specific methodology like agile or design thinking. Others will equip their facilitators with a wider range of tools.
There was a period in the UK when the stars aligned, and there was enough political focus on the role of citizen participation in local decision making that all sorts of public bodies - police, emergency services, health, education, local government and so on - needed to build their capacity to facilitate conversations with stakeholders and the public. A solution which emerged - developed and championed by InterAct Networks - was to train facilitators from a number of different organisations which all covered the same geographical area. So someone from a county council, a health authority and a community group might work together - with no money changing hands - to facilitate a workshop on behalf of an education authority. And when the county council needed external facilitators, they could call on others in the network to help out. This was one (cash-cheap) way to address the need for independent, neutral facilitation, where the facilitator does not have a stake in the outcome of the conversation.
At its height in 2004, there were between 15 and 20 such inter-organisational networks swapping facilitation resources and playing that neutral facilitator role for each other. Often, the in-house facilitators would would alongside professional independent facilitators who would lead on process design while the network members played support roles, for example facilitating table groups in larger workshops.
When I went looking for these kinds of networks again in 2017, I couldn't find any of the original networks still operating. (I did find a different inter-organisation facilitator network, trained by Dawn Williams of Sage Gateshead, informally swapping facilitation services between museums in the North East of England.)
More in-house networks
After my work for SALAR was completed, I found out about some other in-house networks. This was at a fascinating panel discussion as part of the (IAF) International Association of Facilitators conference in Paris, in October 2017. We heard from four organisations about their internal networks: DHL Express Russia, Airbus, Decathlon and ENGIE Global Energy Management. DHL Express Russia has trained 200 in-house facilitators!
As well as networks where the purpose is to build an organisation's capacity to design and run better meetings, there are networks which are essentially there to facilitate peer learning between people who want to improve their facilitation skills. There are loads of these, and they fall into two categories: alumni of a particular training course, e.g. Art of Hosting or TOP; and 'all-comers' peer learning, like the learning meet-ups organised by the IAF in the UK. These are much more likely to include 'all comers' than to be confined to a single organisation.
What makes them work?
There are six key lessons that I took from talking to people who run successful networks and also to those with insights into networks that haven't continued:
- Management support for network members - people need support from their managers to do the training, and then use their new skills for the benefit of colleagues and the wider organisation.
- Coordination doesn't happen by magic. Networks are never 'self-sustaining'. Coordination, leadership, administration takes real people real time. It can be 'hidden' within someone's day job, or done on top of the day job, but it still needs doing.
- The network must have a clear purpose (peer learning; advocating for the use of facilitative approaches; swapping of facilitator resources), and that purpose must meet a real organisational need (otherwise management support will not happen).
- For peer learning networks, people need to think about four things: whether there is an 'entry level' of minimum knowledge, skill or training; how to support members in actively using their skills; encouraging reflective practice and peer or 'client' feedback; and building in face-to-face refreshers where people share skills, learn new ones, and problem solve for each other.
- For 'swapping' networks, whether intra- or inter-organisational, even stronger organisational support is needed. There need to be guidelines for quality control, a protocol for receiving appropriate requests for facilitation support, and time for coordination.
What do you need to think about?
When setting up a facilitator network, the initiators need to think about:
- its purpose - is it about facilitation skills which may be used in any situation, or about promoting public engagement or participative decision-making? is it primarily there to enable continued learning and skills development, or to provide (semi) independent facilitation for each other's teams (swapping facilitator resource)?
- its boundaries - do all the members need to be from the same organisation? or to have gone through the same training? Is there a minimum level of skill or training that they need, to be able to offer themselves to facilitate for others in the name of the network? If there is 'swapping' of facilitators, there are some additional questions: how will 'clients' know about the resource, and how to use it well? How will requests for facilitation be filtered and allocated? How will facilitators get feedback? Does it matter if some members never make themselves available to facilitate in this way?
- the organisational context - consider and explore things like: senior level sponsorship; the learning and development or professional development aspects, and how to get support from this team; making it part of people's 'day job'; if it's about promoting and enabling public and stakeholder engagement, consider how the organisation can integrate public engagement into the decision-making or policy-making cycle; whether or not the organisation has access to external professional facilitation support, in addition to its in-house network, and how this may dovetail with the network.
- its coordination and management - how will the network get the resources to do the coordination and management; how will the coordinator(s) / manager(s) have a mandate from the network members, or from the organisation; who 'owns' the network, and can make decisions about its future?
Find out more
My presentation to SALAR is available here. It's a powerpoint slide show, .ppsx. This page should help if you are having trouble viewing it. The presentation is in three parts, and the participants had a chance to discuss the questions between each section. (For process geeks: we then had Q&A via skype, and doing it this way enabled me to stick to my no flying experiment.)
If you'd like to talk about setting up or revitalising an in-house facilitation network, do get in touch.
*Along with colleagues from InterAct Networks and 3KQ, I have trained in-house facilitators at the Environment Agency, and worked with them to facilitate workshops involving stakeholders and the public.
Facilitators need to stay out of the content- which belongs to the group - and intervene only to improve process. (There's more on this here: the neutral facilitator.) But sometimes we get tempted to smuggle in our own views when we question or reflect back to the group.
"Have you thought about [my great idea]?"
"It sounds as if you're saying [what I think]. Have I got that right?"
Training a cohort of facilitators yesterday with my great friend Rhuari Bennett from 3KQ, we called this the wolf in sheep's clothing.
Keep it sheepy!
Images: David Caines
I'm very excited about this season of workshops that I'm piloting - still conversations.
It's a vision I've had for a while, and it's begun to take shape over the last six months.
The groups will be small - a maximum of ten people in each conversation. The atmosphere will be easeful, open, creative. People will learn from each other and from the opportunity to think aloud with others who understand what it's like to grapple with sustainability - trying to move fast enough while bringing others with you; finding the authentic way to be truthful and motivating.
To begin with, I'm offering three conversations on different topics and people can come to one, two or all three. The themes are:
- personal resilience for sustainability leaders - sold out. If you would like to added to a waiting list, or to be notified if this session runs again, please email email@example.com.
- where next with my sustainability strategy
- getting sustainability into my organisation's strategy
It's an experiment, so the price is deliberately low with discounts (for multiple bookings, self-funded people, people who took part in the survey earlier in the year, IEMA members). So it's just £100 plus VAT for a single session (discount if you book more than one). And I'll be looking for feedback on how to make them as useful as possible for people.
It's a chance to take time out and be still. Think aloud with other sustainability leaders.
I've emailed and sent personal invitations to people via LinkedIn, and the feedback is that now, more than ever, those who don't already have these kind of supportive professional-yet-personal networks in place are keen to get involved. The Personal Resilience theme is definitely striking a chord.
Find out more and make a booking here.
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 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.
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.
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.
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'.
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:
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.
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!
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 Brighton. Laura 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.
I've been doing some more one-to-one facilitation training this autumn, with someone who is a natural. It's been a real pleasure from my perspective, as most of what I've been suggesting has been practically useful and made sense to the person I've been working with. Which is always nice!
The four sessions we had were spaced out so that three came before the crucial event which was the focus of the training, and one came after.
In the first session, we mostly worked on crafting really helpful aims for the workshop: making them crystal clear and (where this made sense) empty of content. What do I mean by that? For example, changing "agree to set up a working group on X" to "agree what action, if any, to take on X".
In the second session, we worked on design: which tools, techniques or bits of process would best help the group meet the aims.
And the third session was where it got real: going through the draft design and running little thought experiments. What if someone doesn't like this bit of process? What if people can't easily divide themselves into the two groups the process depends on? What if the round of introductions overruns? It became clear in this session that the trainee had a lot of fears about things "going wrong" in the workshop. I chose to make these fears the agenda for our session.
focus on fear?
I realise that I have an important relationship with fear. It's the emotion that butts its way in and uses up my energy. I know that a lot of people have this too. And a lot of people don't. So when I'm coaching, it's important that I notice when I feel afraid and consider whether it's my own fear, or something from my client that I'm picking up. And I know that many coaches would rather choose to work with the pull (enthusiasm, dreams, hopes, visions) than the push (what you want to avoid). I try to avoid focusing on the negative, but in this session fear seemed so clearly to set the agenda! I decided that to ignore the fears would be stubborn and unsuccessful.
What are you afraid of?
So we listed the fears on a flip chart, and then categorised them into three broad types: things that could be managed through preparation (e.g. design tweaks, process alternatives, 'things to come back to' flips, prepping a friendly participant to model brief intros); things that could be responded to 'in the moment' with body language and words that the trainee could practice in advance (e.g. interventions to respectfully request the conversation moves on); and things that might happen but would be fine.
In my mind, this third category had echoes of Nancy Kline's possible fact assumptions: to which the response from the coach or thinking partner is "That's possible. But what are you assuming that makes that stop you?" (For more on this, see Kline's classic Time to Think.)
And that would be fine
So the trainee's feared scenarios might come to pass: the group might decide at the start of the day that they wanted to add in a new chunky agenda item. And that would be fine.
The always-negative-person might complain and grouch. And that would be fine.
My trainee might be at a loss to know what to do at some point in the day. And that would be fine.
This part of the session was all about taking away the fear of these possibilities, and replacing it with curiosity, confidence or some other more positive emotion. Coupling that less fearful mindset with thinking through what she might do equipped her to be the great facilitator she turned out to be on the day itself.
One of the useful analytical tools which we've been using in training recently, is the idea of there being phases in collaborative working. This diagram looks particularly at the long, slow, messy early stages where progress can be faltering.
I've been helping organisations learn how to collaborate better. One of my clients was interested in boosting their organisation's ability to keep learning from the real-life experiences of the people who I'd trained.
We talked about setting up groups where people could talk about their experiences - good and bad - and reflect together to draw out the learning. This got me thinking about practical and pragmatic ways to describe and run learning sets.
Action learning sets
An action learning set is – in its purest form – a group of people who come together regularly (say once a month) for a chunk of time (perhaps a full day, depending on group size) to learn from each other’s experiences. Characteristics of an action learning set include:
- People have some kind of work-related challenge in common (e.g. they are all health care workers, or all environmental managers, or they all help catalyse collaboration) but are not necessarily all working for the same organisation or doing the same job.
- The conversations in the 'set' meetings are structured in a disciplined way: each person gets a share of time (e.g. an hour) to explain a particular challenge or experience, and when they have done so the others ask them questions about it which are intended to illuminate the situation. If the person wants, they can also ask for advice or information which might help them, but advice and information shouldn’t be given unless requested. Then the next person gets to share their challenge (which may be completely different) and this continues until everyone has had a turn or until the time has been used up (the group can decide for itself how it wants to allocate time).
- Sometimes, the set will then discuss the common themes or patterns in the challenges, identifying things that they want to pay particular attention to or experiment with in their work. These can then be talked about as part of the sharing and questioning in the next meeting of the set.
- So the learning comes not from an expert bringing new information or insight, but from the members of the set sharing their experiences and reflecting together. The ‘action’ bit comes from the commitment to actively experiment with different ways of doing their day job between meetings of the set.
- Classically, an action learning set will have a facilitator whose job is to help people get to grips with the method and then to help the group stick to the method.
A debriefing group
A different approach which has some of the same benefits might be a ‘debriefing group’. This is not a recognised ‘thing’ in the same way that an action learning set it. I’ve made the term up! This particular client organisation is global, so getting people together face to face is a big deal. Even finding a suitable time for a telecon that works for all time zones is a challenge. So I came up with this idea:
- A regular slot, say monthly, for a telecon or other virtual meeting.
- The meeting would last for an hour, give or take.
- The times would vary so that over the course of a year, everyone around the world has access to some timeslots which are convenient for them.
- One person volunteers to be in the spotlight for each meeting. They may have completed a successful piece of work, or indeed they may be stuck at the start or part-way through.
- They tell their story, good and bad, and draw out what they think the unresolved dilemmas or key learning points are.
- The rest of the group then get to ask questions – both for their own curiosity / clarification, and to help illuminate the situation. The volunteer responds.
- As with the action learning set, if the volunteer requests it, the group can also offer information and suggestions.
- People could choose to make notes of the key points for wider sharing afterwards, but this needs to be done in a careful way so as to not affect the essentially trusting and open space for the free discussion and learning to emerge.
- Likewise, people need to know that they won’t be judged or evaluated from these meetings – they are safe spaces where they can explore freely and share failures as well as a successes.
- Someone would need to organise each meeting (fix the time, invite people, send round reminders and joining instructions, identify the volunteer and help them understand the purpose / brief, and manage the conversation). This could be one person or a small team, and once people understand the process it could be a different person or team each time.
For peer learning, not for making decisions
Neither approach is a ‘decision making’ forum, and neither approach is about developing case studies: they are focused on the immediate learning of the people who are in the conversation, and the insight and learning comes from what the people in the group already know (even if they don’t realise that they know it). In that sense they are 100% tailored to the learners’ needs and they are also incredibly flexible and responsive to the challenges and circumstances that unfold over time.
There are some typical challenges in inter-organisational collaboration which it's as well to be ready for. I'll summarise them here, and then blog in more detail about each one over the coming weeks.
- it isn't easy
- decisions are shared
- it depends on great relationships
- it requires high-quality internal working too
- it's a marathon not a sprint
- success may look different from what you expected
These six characteristics emerged from research I carried out with experienced collaborators from the Environment Agency, when putting together some training for their managers on how to develop and support a team culture which supports collaboration. This training was developed and delivered with InterAct Networks (including Lynn Wetenhall) and a small internal client team, and some of Working Collaboratively also draws on this work.
Here's a little about our first characteristic - it isn't easy.
It isn't easy
This may sound a little trite, but there is an important insight here: you choose to collaborate (rather than work alone) when the problem you want to solve or the outcome you want to achieve is something that you can't tackle alone. Why can't you tackle it alone? Most likely because it is complex, systemic, entrenched, wicked, long-standing. And all of those things make it hard.
So you are using an inherently difficult approach (collaboration - see the other five characteristics for what makes it inherently hard) to tackle a hard situation.
Which means: if you are finding it hard, it doesn't necessarily mean that you are doing it wrong!
I say this so you can find comfort in knowing that the hardness is a feature of the landscape, to be expected. Don't beat yourself (or your colleagues, or your collaborators) up.
Instead, discuss the hardness. "Hey team, this is proving hard! What do we need to keep doing, and what do we need to do differently, in the face of the difficulties?". Knowing that it's OK to have this conversation - because the hardness is inherent rather than anyone's fault - will free you up to find new ways to address things or the strength to continue with the things you are already doing.
Manuel, the hapless and put-upon waiter at Fawlty Towers, was diligent in learning English, despite the terrible line-management skills of Basil Fawlty. As well as practising in the real world, he is learning from a book. Crude racial stereotypes aside, this is a useful reminder that books can only take us so far. And the same is true of Working Collaboratively. To speak collaboration like a native takes real-world experience. You need the courage to practise out loud.
The map is not the territory
The other thing about learning from a book is that you'll get stories, tips, frameworks and tools, but when you begin to use them you won't necessarily get the expected results. Not in conversation with someone whose mother tongue you are struggling with, and not when you are exploring collaboration.
Because the phrase book is not the language and the map is not the territory.
Working collaboratively: a health warning
So if you do get hold of a copy of Working Collaboratively (and readers of this blog get 15% off with code PWP15) and begin to apply some of the advice: expect the unexpected.
There's an inherent difficulty in 'taught' or 'told' learning, which doesn't occur in quite the same way in more freeform 'learner led' approaches like action learning or coaching. When you put together a training course or write a book, you need to give it a narrative structure that's satisfying. You need to follow a thread, rather than jumping around the way reality does. Even now, none of the examples I feature in the book would feel they have completed their work or fully cracked how to collaborate.
Yours will be unique
So don't feel you've done it wrong if your pattern isn't the same, or the journey doesn't seem as smooth, with as clear a narrative arc as some of those described in the book.
And when you've accumulated a bit of hindsight, share it with others: what worked, for you? What got in the way? Which of the tools or frameworks helped you and which make no sense, now you look back at what you've achieved?
Do let me know...