Carousel in action

Carousel: Picture courtesy of Tyne & Wear archives,  on flikr

Carousel: Picture courtesy of Tyne & Wear archives, on flikr

Carousel is a great technique when you would like a group's discussions to benefit from the time-efficiency and increased air-time of small group 'parallel processing' while also having the opportunity to build on each others' ideas. 

This post is about using it with a large in-house sustainability team, integrated into a longer sustainability workshop. 

The context - in-house sustainability workshop

The group was large - around 30 - and a mix of self-selected sustainability enthusiasts and people whose role in the business meant that they need to understand sustainability better.  The workshop was designed and delivered by an out-of-house team, and included expert input from world-renowned sustainability experts and sustainability leads from peer organisations.  It ran over three days, in a residential setting. 

The carousel was run during the part of the workshop when participants were being invited to reflect on how their own organisation was doing, and how they might change their individual and collective activities to take account of sustainability.

The themes

A critical overall message of the workshop was that sustainability can give the organisation a competitive advantage, through innovation and better horizon scanning.  The carousel stations (the physical spaces that people move through) and the sequence of questions reflected this:

  • Station 1 - Disruptive competition
    • Where (which products, markets or businesses) are we most likely to be outcompeted by breakthrough companies?
    • How well do we understand our strategic context and how it is being shaped by social and environmental trends?  Where are we doing this best and worst?
    • What skills and experience do we need, to stay ahead of breakthrough businesses which are responding better to the strategic context?
  • Station 2 - Innovation and excellence
    • Where (which products, markets or businesses) are we best inspiring and fostering innovation and operational excellence across the group?
    • How are those parts of the business managing to do this so well?
    • What skills and experience will be needed, to innovate and excel?
  • Station 3 - Partnerships
    • Where (which products, markets or businesses) are we best equipped to identify and engage with unusual partners to deliver business objectives?
    • How are those parts of the business managing to do this so well?
    • What skills and experience will be needed, to partner well?

Each small group began at a different 'home' station, and worked on the first question at that station.  They recorded their insights on flip charts with their designated colour pens.  After a short time (in this case, just ten minutes was enough) the group moved on to the next station. They read what the previous group has written, adding to or challenging it.  As each group has different coloured pens, it's easy to spot the annotations.  They then look at the next question at that station, again recording insights on a flip in a clear, legible way so that the next group can read them. 

This continued until each group had worked at all the stations.  Groups then returned to their 'home', and created a summary from all the work that had been done there. 

In this particular workshop, there was time for everyone to read all the summary flips and we then discussed insights and drew some conclusions.  A later session gave people a chance to talk together with colleagues about actions and next steps. 

How did it go?

The rest of the organising team was a bit nervous: they hadn't seen a carousel like this before, and it looked a bit complicated to them.  But they trusted my experience (thanks team!).  They wanted to print up the questions rather than have hand-written flips in the stations, which I was uncomfortable with.  I think this was about wanting to look ultra-professional, especially in a session where the format was outside their usual experience.  I couldn't quite pin down where my discomfort came from, so I agreed to go with the printing as an experiment.  As it turned out, there weren't any downsides except cost (they were very large pieces of paper).  If we'd wanted to adjust the questions at last minute, this would have looked a bit messy.  But we didn't, so it wasn't a problem.

We weren't sure how this group would take to working in this way, but they were more than ready.  Some previous sessions had been talk-and-chalk plus Q&A, so the chance to talk to each other more privately went down well.  

There was a need - as always - to remind people to write clearly, legibly and in full sentences so the next group could understand the points they were making.  By the time you move on to reading what the previous group has written, you understand the need for this - but by then you've missed the chance to make your initial record clear.  Prompting and requests for disambiguation from the facilitation team helped with this.

The group did a great job of building on and challenging each other's views, and a narrative thread of sorts emerged at each station.  The different colours allowed people to check in with each other if there was something they couldn't understand.

The summaries, shown gallery style on a wall, were reasonably effective at bringing everyone up to speed. 

What carousel is good for

When I'm training facilitators, I make the distinction between techniques which are good for opening things up (divergence) and techniques which are good for narrowing things down (convergence).  Carousel is definitely a divergent technique: allowing lots of different perspectives to be shared in a non-confrontational way, and enabling a rapid deeper dive into the things that seem to be significant to the group. 

Want to use it yourself?

There's a detailed handout you can download on how to run a carousel process here: I include this great technique in so many of the facilitation training courses I run, this handout gets used and refined a lot!