This is a great way of getting a group moving, talking and learning more about each other, using questions which are related to the focus of the group or its agenda.
As a participation professional who’s been lurking around NHS Citizen as it develops, one of the most exciting aspects has been the webcasting.
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”.
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!
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!
A description of carousel technique in action plus a free download on how to run one yourself.
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.
We know it shouldn’t be like this, but sometimes we find ourselves in a meeting which is ill-defined, purposeless and chaotic.
Maybe it’s been called at short notice. Maybe everyone thought someone else was doing the thinking about the agenda and aims. Maybe the organisation has a culture of always being "too busy" to pay attention to planning meetings.
For whatever reason, you’re sitting there and the conversation has somehow begun without a structured beginning.
This is the moment to use the five minute meeting makeover!
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.
I’m going to be thinking a lot about justice over the next few months, as it’s this quarter's theme at the weekly meeting of like-minded locals that I go to, at Newington Green's Unitarian chapel New Unity.
Today, we heard an extract from a sermon by Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, which was picked up in later years by Martin Luther King Jr and Barack Obama.
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight, I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
And we reflected on what we can each do, to move us further along that arc. More words from religious sources, this time in the Jewish tradition (Rabbi Tarfon):
"It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are you at liberty to desist from it"
What does this mean for facilitators?
What is the justice that we can seek to advance, in our work?
When the content is 'just', or not
We may choose, or be lucky enough, to work with groups whose content concerns what we consider to be justice. Whether this is structural and social justice, questions of inter-generational justice of the kind that climate change throws up; or justice in the realm of victims and perpetrators and the criminal law; or justice as right relationship and fair dealings between people in dispute with each other.
Or we may find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of helping groups get better at doing something we don’t entirely agree with – their ideas about fairness and right action may be different to ours. We may be faced with hard choices at this point – time to remember our mandate! Did we come to the group to serve it as its facilitator, or were we contracted for some other role (mediator, arbitrator, content expert, trainer...)?
But in this post I’m interested in how ‘justice’ manifests in our process, as content-neutral facilitators.
There’s justice as fairness / equality, and there’s justice as getting some kind of outcome that is considered to be ‘deserved’.
And when we look at equality, there’s equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. And when we look at inequality, there’s systemic or structural inequality (manifested as patterns of unequal outcome for e.g. women, people of colour or marginalised ethnicity, people with disabilities, people with non-straight, non-cis sexuality and gender, people with fewer resources or unfavoured class status) as well as what might be going on in the room, in individual conversations and transactions.
I’d argue that underpinning our entire profession is the assumption that it is better (more just) for people’s truth to be heard than not.
A few aspects came immediately to mind: the opportunity to have your say and be listened to with respect; power balancing so that those who are habitually dominant are not privileged in the conversation; ground rules or working agreements which reinforce a culture of openness and listening; reflecting back to the group when individuals or types of individual are being heard more or less than others.
Gently stretching our mandate
I think there are some greyer areas, where we can gently exercise our mandate more actively in pursuit of ‘justice’.
Asking the client about the values or principles which they want to see manifested in the conversation and conclusions might prompt them to consider the subject matter through a lens that might otherwise remain unused.
Asking for clarity on the rationale for who gets invited to be part of the conversation, and whether the rationale has been applied objectively, can help to bring in marginalised voices. I write more about stakeholder identification and mapping here.
Setting aside time in the agenda or process for the group to explicitly consider its criteria for decisions gives an opportunity for assumptions to be shared and questioned, including assumptions about whose interests need to be considered. Helping the group to understand the different decision-making methods (single decision-maker, majority decisions, vetoes, consensus) before they agree which to use brings unspoken assumptions about fairness and power to conscious attention. There’s more on that here.
Knowing our own prejudices
We need to be very aware of our own prejudices: who do we marginalise, dismiss or consider to be 'other'? Where might we over-compensate, and swing the pendulum too far? When do we judge the conversation and the points being made, according to our own (flawed, personal, partial) standards of justice?
Working in teams, especially diverse teams, can help us see our own blind spots.
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!
So first of all I have to get this off my chest: a big GRRRRR! to venues which don't let you post up paper using blu-tack or white tack. Especially those which don’t have alternatives like exhibition boards freely available. You are making it much harder for me to provide a service.
Too often, as facilitators, we don't get the choice to avoid using venues like this because the client hasn't involved us early enough in conversations about what kind of venue is suitable. There's more on venues here.
But, a couple of weeks ago, this annoying situation meant that I got to use magic whiteboard for the first time.
In case you're not familiar with magic whiteboard... it is thin, flexible sheets of plastic - think 'plastic paper' - that come on a perforated roll like giant, unabsorbent loo paper. You tear off a sheet and place it against a flat, smooth wall. And it stays there, adhering through the magic (physics) of static electricity. You can write on it with whiteboard pens, and wipe them off to reuse the sheets. You can also stick paper on, again using the power of static.
Practicing and preparing
This was a big, important workshop for a high-profile client, so I wanted everything to go without a hitch. So I practiced ahead of time in my office.
I wanted to find out how long the sheets would stay up. The answer is, two weeks and counting. Will it also stay up reliably with paper clinging on? Yes for A4 sheets and post-its, not with flip chart paper.
I wondered how well the ink would show up. I practiced with a couple of types of whiteboard pen, and found Pilot's Wyteboard Board Master are bright and dark enough. (Added bonus - you can get refills for the ink. See here for other adventures in refilling pens.) Other kinds of pen were clearly too pale to be of any use.
I wondered if I could prepare complex graphics and instructions ahead of time, and bring them with me. I do this regularly for workshops, to save time on the day. But no, the ink smudges when the sheets are rolled or folder. Unsurprising, as part of the point of whiteboard pens is that they can be cleaned off the surface. I may test this again with permanent markers, if the need arises.
How did it work?
In short, very well!
The magic whiteboard was used for a large 'wall' for the open space space / time grid. We had three time slots and thirteen spaces. Two rows of seven sheets were hung portrait style, with session times and space labels written on paper and stuck on. Over the course of the organising plenary, proposals for sessions, written on A4 paper, were added. Then people came and signed up to sessions, and the paper and magic whiteboard sheets clung to the wall without any hint of falling down.
So yes, I'm hanging on to the rest of the roll, and will be using it again if I need to.