Carousel in action

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Clean energy, thriving cities: Sustainable Development Goals #5

Qiciao and Qixi, a pair of giant panda twins, inspect a flag to represent Goal 7, Affordable and Clean Energy, raised at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Credit: Mr. Yuan Tao and Ms. Yan Lu

Qiciao and Qixi, a pair of giant panda twins, inspect a flag to represent Goal 7, Affordable and Clean Energy, raised at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Credit: Mr. Yuan Tao and Ms. Yan Lu

Bringing affordable off-grid renewables to remote communities in developing countries; using cutting-edge data analysis to save money and carbon in modern buildings; micro-managing students' energy use to balance the national grid: some of the brilliant things that are featured in the latest of my series on how businesses are helping contribute to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals

This article in The Environmentalist also looks at making cities more sustainable: better buildings, convenient and reliable public transport and new technology which helps blind and partially sighted people navigate and enjoy the neighbourhood.

You can read it online here (IEMA login or subscription, or take a free trial) or there's a pdf version here.

It's not all or nothing - there's a spectrum of collaborative working

It's not all or nothing - there's a spectrum of collaborative working

Does collaboration sound like too much hard work? The examples of collaboration which get most attention are the big, the bold, the game changing.

Which can be a bit off-putting. If I collaborate, will I be expected to do something as hard and all-consuming?

Actually, most collaborative work is much more modest. And even the big and bold began as something doable.

So what kind of work might collaborators do together?

Who shall we engage, and how intensely?

So you've brainstormed a long (long!) list of all the kinds of people and organisations who have a stake in the policy, project, organisation or issue that you are focusing on. This is what we call stakeholder identification.

What do you do next?

Stakeholder analysis

Now there are lots of ways you can analyse your universe of stakeholders, but my absolute favourite, for its conceptual neatness and the way it lends itself to being done by a group, is the impact / influence matrix.

Notice the subtle but important difference between this matrix, and the one most commonly used by PR and communications specialists, which focuses on whether stakeholders are in favour of - or opposed to - your plans.  It would be inappropriate to use this for stakeholder engagement which engages in order to inform decisions, because you will be engaging before you have made up your mind.  And if you haven't decided yet, how can stakeholders have decided whether they agree with you?!

Instead, the matrix helps you to see who needs to be engaged most intensely because they can have a big impact on the success or otherwise of the work, or because the work will have a big impact on them.  It is 'blind' to whether you think the stakeholders are broadly your mates or the forces of darkness.

Map as a team

Your list is written out on sticky notes - one per note - and the stakeholders have been made as specific as possible: Which team at the local authority? Which residents? Which NGO? Which suppliers in the supply chain?

You have posted up some flip chart paper with the matrix drawn on.

The mapping is ideally done as a team - and that team might even include some stakeholders!  During the mapping, everyone needs to be alert to the risk of placing a particular stakeholder in the 'wrong' place, because you don't want to engage with them.  It's self-defeating, because sooner or later you will need to engage with the most influential stakeholders whether you want to or not.  And sooner is definitely better than later.

You move the notes around until you're all satisfied that you have a good enough map.

Intensity? Transmit, receive, collaborate

When the mapping is complete, then you can discuss the implications: those in the low/low quadrant probably just need to be informed about what's happening (transmit).  Those in the diagonal band encompassing both the high / low quadrants need to be asked what they know, what they think and what they feel about how things are now, how they might be in the future and they ways of getting from here to there (receive).  NB those in the bottom right corner - highly impacted on but not influential.  Vulnerable and powerless.  Pay particular attention to their views, make a big effort to hear them, and help them gain in influence if you can.

Those in the 'high/high' corner are the ones you need to work most closely with (collaborate), sharing the job of making sense of how things are now, co-creating options for the future, collaborating to make it happen.  Because if they are not on board, you won't be able to design and implement the work.

Prioritise and plan

Now you are in a position to plan your engagement, knowing which stakeholders need mostly to be told, mostly to be listened to or mostly to be collaborated with.

Review and revise

Watch out for people and organisations moving over time.  Very often the people in bottom right are the unorganised 'public'. They might be residents or consumers.  If they get organised, or their cause is taken up by the media, a celebrity or a campaign group then their influence is likely to increase.

Those in the top left are potentially influential but unlikely to get involved because there's not so much in it for them.  Your engagement plan might include helping them to see why their input is useful, and piquing their interest.

So stay alert to changes and alter your engagement plan accordingly.

What your facilitator will ask!

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

Facilitators don't just turn up and facilitate

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

Start with the ends

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

Context and history

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

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

Who's coming?

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

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

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

When and where?

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

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

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

Workshop design

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

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

What next?

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

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

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

Challenging conversations

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

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

Free download

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

The neutral facilitator

So often, in our field, we find ourselves straddling roles:  playing the facilitator role in a meeting when we (or the organisation we work for) has a preferred type of outcome in mind. A professional independent facilitator shouldn't have this problem: if your ability to stay out of the content is at risk because of strong personal opinions about the topic, then you don't take the job.

But if your organisation has, for example, an environmental or sustainability mission, then you may need to ensure that this mission is reflected in the group's conversation.  Or if you are the sustainability lead in your organisation, you may want to ensure that colleagues challenge each other enough on environmental limits, ethics and social justice during internal workshops.

I have been spending a lot of time recently training people from organisations which clearly have an agenda, and yet where it definitely makes sense for staff to have good facilitation skills.  The question of how to manage this 'agenda' dilemma has come up.

A lot of the reflection is on how they know when it would be appropriate or not for them to facilitate, what they do if they notice their own agenda coming to the fore and interfering with their facilitator role, and how to manage this tension in preparation and in the moment.

What are your options?

Don’t facilitate the meeting. Explain your conflict of interest and ask the meeting’s convenor, host or planning group to find an alternative facilitator.

Ask someone else to attend the meeting as a participant, who you know will ensure that your own interests are represented.  For example, a colleague or someone from a similar organisation which shares your interests.  This is a particularly useful strategy if it's important that someone champions being ambitious about strong sustainability.

Step out of role.  If the conversation unexpectedly begins to cover topics in which you have an interest, tell the group that this has happened and ask their permission to temporarily step ‘out of role’ as facilitator. Have your say, and then clearly step back into role.

Flag the role conflict and ask the group to help you stay independent.  Tell the group that your intention is to be a neutral facilitator, and that you positively welcome them flagging it up if they think you are not behaving in a neutral way.

What place knowledge?

Another kind of neutrality relates to knowledge of the topic under discussion.  Facilitators often maintain that knowledge of the topic under discussion is not necessary, and I'd agree with that - with some caveats (see below).

Sometimes experts take on the facilitator role for reasons which seem obscure and probably stem from misunderstanding of facilitation skills and practices in the client's and expert's mind.  (A senior Judge of my acquaintance was once asked to 'facilitate' a workshop session on his area of expertise. I was astounded! He is very expert and experienced: why would you ask him to put his specialist knowledge away and play the 'servant'. A waste of his skills. I can only imagine that the event organisers did not know what facilitators do, and used the word as a fashionable alternative to 'lead'.)

And sometimes clients opt for a facilitator who does have experience or knowledge of the topic, because they imagine this will make the person a better facilitator.

And I think they could be right!

When knowledge helps

There are a few, limited ways in which knowledge can help your facilitation, in my experience.

  • Jargon and acronyms - If you are the only person in the room who doesn't know the technical language, and you need to have it explained to you, this can slow things down and irritate the group.  If you are also acting as a scribe, then spelling things wrongly can undermine the trust the group has in you.   Ask for a glossary as part of your briefing!
  • Stick to the point - it can be hard to tell whether someone is wandering off from the aims of the discussion, if you don't know the subject.  Is it irrelevant to talk about interference with sonar when discussing the environmental impact of wind turbines? (*)  When discussing low-income customers, will discussing local currencies be time well spent? (#)
  • Digging deeper - the flip side of not recognising whether someone is 'on topic' or not, is failure to spot important distinctions.  If one participant talks about biofuels and the other about bioenergy, is this just a pleasant variety of words to avoid boredom, or a crucial distinction worth exploring?  If you know a bit about the field, your guess is more likely to be a good one.

Caution!  I do not intend to imply that you can assume your knowledge is sufficient to make these judgements on behalf of the group.  If you think something may be off the point, you'd still want to check this out with the group because this is their decision.  Knowing a bit helps you to make better guesses.


There is a short download on this, here.


Join in the discussion in the comments thread.  There's also a very lively thread over at the IAF Linked-In group. If you're a member of that group, you can add your perspective here.


* No - there are concerns about bats being affected by turning blades, although whether sonar / echolocation is involved is unclear. So not irrelevant.

# Yes - if there is a viable local currency already established in an area, then this could well be a useful suggestion.  So not irrelevant.