Sometimes the groups we facilitate include people who speak the majority language or dialect well enough to not need an interpreter, but not as fast, fluently or idiomatically as the rest of the group. Here are ten practical tips to make sure they are included.
In my short visit to Japan, I was privileged to be able to meet with three groups of facilitators: in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo. Huge thanks to everyone who helped make this possible! These were evenings of surprising connections, open-hearted curiosity, tolerance of misunderstanding, and delicious food.
This blog post reflects on some observations and conversations about three (and a half) aspects of culture which may trip up an outsider coming to facilitate in Japan.
Many organisations in the sustainability field do their best system-changing work when they are collaborating. 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. This dual role causes problems. Here’s how to fix 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.
A description of carousel technique in action plus a free download on how to run one yourself.
In this podcast with my friend and colleague Jonathan Kahn, we discuss the challenge of facilitating discussions when you’re the expert. Jonathan is a digital expert, founder of Together London, and organised #dareconf mini last year where I presented.
You can listen to the podcast, download the MP3 file, or read the transcript.
Jonathan: This is Jonathan Kahn. I’m the founder of Together London, where I organize events about the people side of digital work.
Penny: My name is Penny Walker. I'm an independent facilitator, specializing in organizational change, stakeholder engagement and particularly, sustainable development. Today we’re going to be talking about facilitation.
Jonathan: What we’re going to do is we decided that we come from two different types of work. I work in digital, making websites and apps and that kind of thing, and Penny works in sustainability.
We thought it would be interesting to talk about some scenarios that we found in our work that have been challenging, and to hear the other person’s perspective on similar situations from the other industry, and ideas for dealing with that.
We tossed a coin, and Penny won. So Penny is going to be bringing her scenario to the discussion today.
Penny: Thanks, Jonathan. This is something that comes up for me very often in my work.
I’m an independent facilitator. I’m brought in to help clients with different kinds of conversations that they need to have. Very often, I’m brought in by the sustainability specialist in an organization. This might be someone who is at director level or possibly at a lower level in hierarchy than that.
They have a lot of expertise on things like carbon reduction, renewable energy, supply chain management from an environmental or social perspective, maybe they know a lot about behaviour change and how to get people to switch off the tap and switch off the lights, things like that.
They might have a lot of expertise in the environmental or social aspects of sustainability. They very often, don’t necessarily have a lot of hierarchical or power that’s given to them by being able to oblige people to do things. More often than not, they’d be an adviser rather than a ruler or enforcer. They are sometimes in a specialist function perhaps outside of the centre of the organization.
Quite often, they need to facilitate conversations. I’m thinking of a particular situation where, there was a client of mine, Nick, he was asked by his Board to get together a cross-organizational grouping of people from different parts of the organization to talk about their current sustainability practices and policies. This organization had quite a lot of public statements about the things it would and wouldn’t do from an energy or carbon perspective.
Those things have served them well in previous market conditions but new market conditions have come about. The Board were wondering whether or not they needed to refresh and how much emphasis to give to those issues.
It was Nick’s job to convene and bring together a group of people and get them to give their feedback.
But he was a bit stuck, because he wasn’t sure whether he would really get people’s honest opinions, or whether the fact that he had this expertise and this place in the organization might mean that people didn’t necessarily tell him the truth but maybe told him what they thought he wanted to hear.
Jonathan: To reflect back what I’m hearing there, it sounds like the organization already had quite a lot of policies and public statements about sustainability, which maybe seemed relatively progressive in the industry. And Nick was this expert who didn’t have formal authority for making stuff happen, but was an advisor.
Then, what happens is the board says, “Should we still be doing all this stuff? Does this stuff all make sense?” Perhaps “Can we afford to do this,” etc. The board’s then saying to Nick, find out what people think. And his concern is, “If I’m this sustainability expert and I say, ‘What do you think about carbon emissions,’ will I get an honest answer?”
Penny: Yes, that’s a good summary.
Jonathan: Why do you think that he was stuck in that way? What was getting in the way, for him, of fulfilling this request?
Penny: I think he had the insight to see that his own position in this system, if you like, this system of conversation that he was hoping to set up, meant that he might somehow skew it or that people might not be honest because they were concerned that Nick would have a particular perspective and they would want to maybe tell Nick what he wanted to hear.
I think he also picked up that some people might worry that if they were too negative about the sustainability initiative, this might have implications for Nick’s job, and would that stop them from being honest or perhaps encourage them to be more forceful? So there was something about, did Nick need to get out of the way?
But at the same time, there was an assumption that Nick needed to be the person to convene all this, because if it was done without him, that also might be seen to be undermining of his position. So he was the obvious person to make this conversation happen. He definitely needed to be involved in some way. I think people could see that.
But one of the questions was whether or not he should be in the room while the conversation was happening, or whether in fact it should be facilitated by people who didn’t have that particular brief. The down side of that would be that there was a concern that these people might be talking about the sustainability aspects of the organization without really understanding them very well.
They might understand how they impacted on their own particular job. They might not have expertise about some of the broader questions around sustainability. That might get in the way of them having useful conversations. Where does the expertise come in, in that situation?
Jonathan: It’s interesting. It sounds to me you’ve used this word, “convene” quite a few times there. It sounds Nick’s background is a bit less about convening, more about being an expert about sustainability itself.
Penny: Yes. I would say that that’s pretty typical. People want to bring in people - give them these positions in their organization - exactly for the expertise that they’re able to bring that may not be present in the wider staff body.
Jonathan: Is it furthermore the actual organization wants, people with expertise versus the people with convening or facilitation expertise?
Penny: Yes. Well, I don’t know if this is the case in your work. I often find that that convening and facilitation expertise isn’t really valued or recruited for specifically in organizations. It’s one of those hidden skills.
Jonathan: Exactly. We talk an awful lot about collaboration to the extent that it can become a buzz word. We don’t really talk about how you do that very often. The fact that this is a different skill set from designing things, writing things, or developing things, it’s about bringing people together, learning together, finding common ground, and all that stuff.
It’s interesting. At face value this problem for Nick is that he doesn’t know whether he can facilitate while also being an expert. The second part of it that I’m finding interesting as well is that the request from the board at face value is about sustainability. If you think about what they’re actually asking for, they’re actually asking for help with facilitation.
Penny: Tell me more about that.
Jonathan: Because they want to know what the people who work in the company in the organization think which doesn’t really have an awful lot to do with sustainability as such. It doesn’t really have a lot to do with, for example, technical information about emissions.
It has much more to do with what their perspectives are on it, whether values are, whether they are aligned on that stuff. That in a sense is, “Well, you know about sustainability, why don’t you just find out what they think.”
Actually, finding out what they think is a facilitation job. It’s obviously somebody who has interests and can do that. It’s not necessarily an obvious thing or an easy thing to do if your focus of self is on the expertise as oppose to the facilitation.
Penny: Yes, which is why to be fair to them, which is why they bring in somebody like me. They know that they might need to not only buy in the expertise, also, buy in the neutrality. As an independent contractor, I’m not beholden to any of the players in any long term way in the same way that someone who’s on the staff is.
Jonathan: Although in a sense you have a sustainability agenda that’s why you’re in it. You’re unlikely to push them towards not talking about these issues of whatever it is.
Penny: Yes. That is an interesting thing that other independent facilitators sometimes challenge me about is that if you come into the field from a particular background which I did. You have some expertise. You have some contacts. That’s where your own interest and energy is.
Actually, over the years, one of the things that I’ve learned to do and have some times to explain to people is that these days, my interest and expertise is in helping other people have the conversations they need to have.
The fact that I have that background, perhaps gives me better ability to see whether things are straying off the point or not. It helps me with the language, some contacts, and knowledge of the field. Indeed, there are conversations that I will sometimes say I’m probably not the best person to facilitate this because my own opinion is too strong.
Jonathan: Almost, “it is difficult for me to keep the role. I’m triggered by this. I’m not cool about this topic right now. I’m going to choose not to facilitate this time.” I think it’s interesting that you talked about neutrality. That to me doesn’t seem to be the core problem in the sense that anyone is explicitly regarding people as being biased.
What I’m seeing Nick having trouble with this is figuring out what help he can bring to this current situation? How he can stay true to his values? How do I ask people what they think about sustainability when it’s totally obvious, I think this? That type of thinking.
The parallel from my work is bringing people who are not experienced in say, design, into design processes and saying, for example, “From our point of view we should be using plain English for this but it’s full of jargon,” and the lawyers say, “Well, jargon is absolutely essential. If you don’t have precise language, it will be totally misleading and it will be a disgrace.”
The ability to actually ask them, go on a journey with them towards what we’re both trying to do, instead of saying, “You don’t understand design and you’re wrong.”
Penny: Yes. Tell me a bit more about what are the parallels that you see with Nick’s situation.
Jonathan: The parallels I see are that the requests that come down, has come down from the board…it seems like they’re looking for more understanding of what the employees of the company think, what their perceptions and attitudes are, opinions, I suppose and that he is uncomfortable in the current situation.
This happens in a similar way in digital when we get a request, normally from management, it can often be from the board, to design a new service or to make a change, or to make a budget change or whatever.
The request as it stands, doesn’t make a lot of sense to us, and we have trouble with engaging in that request, while holding on to our values. We might see it as cutting corners, or this isn’t the way it should be done.
A big one that comes up often is there’s this principle of usability testing or user-centred design, which says, “Assumptions a designer makes, is normally going to not quite meet a user’s need, because they don’t really understand the user’s context, because they’re not that person and they’re not trying to do this task.”
If we can subject everything we do to actual testing with human beings and see whether they’re able to fulfil the requirements of its own language, complete the task, then we have a much better chance of tweaking, tweaking, tweaking, until it does actually work for the person.
Often in organizations, they say things like, “There is no budget for usability testing.” What happens then is the professional says, the expert says, “This will basically be contravening my values to do this. This is wrong. I won’t do this.”
The only thing that I know really, that works in this situation is to treat the request as it comes from the boss or the person up in the hierarchy, as if it was a genuine request for help. So, not a demand to comply with rules and then to follow my orders, but actually a request to say, “Would you be willing to help me?”
Just because they’ve asked you to do something with no testing, that sounds to me like they don’t understand the value of this thing. The fact that we haven’t figured out common ground, that we are trying to meet user needs. We’re trying to meet customer needs with this.
Whether or not you believe it’s the case, you can behave as if you believe it’s the case. You can go to them and say, “You’ve asked me to do this, and I want to find out where our common ground is, what we both are trying to achieve here, because I reckon we’re both attempting to achieve these outcomes for these customers.
So, can we talk about what we might want to do to achieve that. Can I take you on a journey, as much as you telling me stuff?” What we tend to do is we put executives in front of users, struggling with, for example, jargon.
When the lawyer sees that the person using the website cannot physically comprehend the words, then they’re no longer going to argue, “This is the way it has to be,” because they do not want them to be able to not comprehend the words.
They just don’t believe until they see that normal people don’t understand legal jargon, or caveats confuse people, for example. They don’t realize that until they see it. We have to show that to them instead of telling that to them.
Penny: Right. In doing that, you’re helping them to see the world from your perspective. In order that, they can see that it’s worth seeking common ground.
Jonathan: It’s funny. It ends up challenging our perspective in the end because we tend to think of them as stupid, old people who don’t get it…
Jonathan: A lot of the time there is a lot of prejudice and judgment that we’re holding onto as professionals, as experts, and frustration, which has got nothing to do with that boss who just said, “This seems like a good idea. Why do we don't this?”
Penny: So, you’re projecting a lot of assumptions. When you hear that request, you’re building a lot of assumptions around it.
Jonathan: Yeah. That’s an important point. Exactly. A lot of it is in our heads. Sometimes there’s all these difficult political things, like there’s a project manager in between us, or there’s another executive, or whatever. There’s this difficulty of communication and it’s broken down to, “You must do this. There’s no discussion.”
A lot of this does come down to our own assumptions. It’s very scary to go to someone and say, “I want to understand what you need here. This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I want this to work for you.”
So, we actually avoid that. A lot of the time, the judgments we have are almost like a defence mechanism against engaging with these people.
Penny: That’s interesting. What are we defending ourselves against? The possibility that we might have to change ourselves, that we might have to alter our own description of the world and our own positions.
Jonathan: I think so. I think in terms of Nick worrying about his own perspective on carbon emissions, if it’s a very rigid perspective that we must reduce by this amount and this way.
There may be an element of he’s really trying to hold on to that and he’s scared of, “Will I be undermined if I opened myself up to all the complexity around this and all the different people and all the different needs?”
It’s like, “I may have to let go of some of my red lines,” or whatever. Or the usability person has to let go of testing every single time they design something, if there are other things going around that. Just imagining that that might happen is a scary thing to do.
Penny: Yes. I think jumping ahead to what the implications for your own identity as a person…
Jonathan: Yeah. Identity.
Penny: …the values that you hold dear, all of those sorts of things can definitely come in the way of people slowing the conversation down and having a properly exploratory conversation, where they’re properly listening to other people and sharing their own doubts and uncertainties, because there’s this sense that that makes you vulnerable.
Jonathan: Identity is really core, I think, because people…One of the things that I find…the underlying question here is, “How can I facilitate when I have expertise?”
One of the things I find difficult, that people find a lot of difficulty with, and I find difficult as well, is that when we think the only thing we’re contributing is the right answer. So, “It’s only because I have 10 years' experience in designing digital interfaces that I’m invited to this party at all.”
If I then switch around to saying, “No, my role is to help people to communicate in an equal way, then I’m no longer providing the right answer. How am I qualified to even be here? Why do they even want me here?”
Obviously that’s all in my own head, but that’s something that I see a lot, that they don’t believe that they will be able to contribute without that expertise and that right answer.
Penny: I think another thing that can also reinforce that anxiety is that people think, “If I’m not here contributing the right answer, the right answer won’t be found. This group of people will find the wrong answer if I’m not allowed to put my expertise into the room.”
It sounds like we’re really understanding well why Nick feels so stuck here. What are some of the things that Nick might do practically that could help unstick this situation?
Jonathan: This is an example that if Nick were actually here he may not be exactly workable but it’s an idea from digital. In the same way that we brought the chief executive or minister into the usability lab to watch how the user was struggling with the jargon or the experience, Nick has options here around taking the request from the board at face value.
If the request from the board is “find out what other people think,” how can he actually bring the actual members of the board themselves into a process in which they are participating. They can think as well; they’re also human beings. Instead of hearing it as “I’m going to outsource it. You find out opinions and then I’ll decide what I do with these opinions. I’m going to gather feedback from the troops.”
Instead of doing that, why couldn’t you invite them to participate in a process with everybody else as equals? Talk about their own hopes and fears, about their own reactions. Then take on the role. Assume that what they mean is, “Help facilitate a discussion between me, board member, and these people who I’m a little bit scared of for these number of reasons.”
Penny: I think that I can see how powerful that would be and I’ve experienced the power of that from time to time. I think it takes quite a lot of groundwork for everybody to feel confident that people will speak their truth in that situation. I’m sounding perhaps more sceptical than I want to, because the troops, as it were, might feel equally uncomfortable about speaking their truth in front of the board.
Jonathan: Also if you’ve never facilitated before and you put yourself in this really high-stakes situation, it can go wrong if you jump in. I actually heard a story recently of somebody who had got the CEO on a meeting which was not really ready for the CEO to be there and it had gone really wrong for that person. They were OK, but starting with the big-stakes thing cannot work. So I can think of a halfway thing.
Penny: Let’s hear about that, because I think that would be very interesting.
Jonathan: The halfway thing is, if you think about that as, shall we say, the radical option that you want to get to, before you get there, the question I would want to ask is to sit down with the people who’ve asked you and say, “Can you tell me what you’re hoping to get from this? What is it that you want to understand? What is it that you don’t understand?”
Just interview them. You can always put that from the perspective of, “I am not actually sure what it is you’re asking me and I would like to participate in this in a way that it means you and I are working together. And right now, I’m not quite sure I understand. So can we work that out?”
For your point of view that’s about building trust. So you want as much trust as possible and you want to be able to go into this without having this worry about what they really want or what they’re going to do with it, whether you can trust that the outcome of this process you are working will actually have an impact, etc.
You can always sit down with the person as if they’re human being and say, “Tell me what you’re hoping for here, what you’re afraid of, what you want, and what an outcome is that will work for you. You may actually be able to find a not quite so demanding version of what I just said that still involves them in some way. Lower stakes.
Penny: One of the other ways that I found that helps to build the confidence of the troops in this scenario is to give them an opportunity to have these conversations amongst themselves without either the hierarchy or the nominated expert in the room, so that they begin to be more confident, challenge each other, refine each other’s thinking. And then get to the point where they decide how they would like to share that thinking with the expert and with the hierarchy.
They might do that either through requesting that, say…I’ve been in situations where they’ve requested that the independent facilitator feedback on their behalf. I’ve also been in situations where they’ve nominated the more confident or articulate people among them to feedback on part of the group.
Or they’ve made posters so they can let their written, considered words do the talking for them as the prelude then maybe to some freer conversation, so that they almost are putting forward their interim thinking in order to then have a conversation that gives them a bit more confidence that they’re doing that in a controlled way. They’re not going to panic and say something they’re likely to regret. That can boost their own confidence.
Jonathan: There’s a world of things that you could do in the situation. I think the thing you just outlined there with people getting together in small groups and deciding what they want to do. The prerequisite for that to work is going to be trust. And I think there’s this underlying thing in this scenario about will they really say what they think? His fear is that he’s not going to have the trust he needs.
I think in terms of my suggestion to engage directly with the people asking you to do the work, the board, if you can make your job to bring as much trust to this process as possible, then there is a universe of things you could do.
As long as you can stand up to those people who you’re going to ask to work together in groups and say, “This is why we’re asking you to do it, this is why we care, and this is what we’re going to do as a result.”
You believe that this is true and you can’t believe that they’re going to believe you but you believe that there’s a chance that they’re going to buy it and you’re coming from a place of authenticity, they will be able to see that. Even if they are suspicious, they’ll be able to see you’re coming from a place of authenticity.
In a sense it’s almost like you’re working with the boss people to work out what you’re happy to do, and then you’re going to do that for real. You’re going to do that from the heart. That will come through to whoever you’re trying to engage with. Whatever the situation and the hierarchy and the history is, they will be able to see the way you are communicating at that moment.
Penny: Yes. Bringing your personal authenticity to it. Jonathan, we’re almost out of time. Is there any final words that you might say to Nick or people who feel they identify with that situation?
Jonathan: I think the thing I would say to Nick is that probably none of our solutions are exactly what you need, and that’s OK. I think engaging with the fact that there is a conflict between the expertise you bring from what you know and your ability to bring a group together or help a group work together to come to their own conclusion, is a very, very common challenge that a lot of people face.
It’s OK to find that difficult and you do have the resources to deal with that if you want to. My tip-tip-tip is treat commands from the hierarchy as if they’re cries for help and you can go in whenever you want to and assume the best of intentions and assume that you have common ground, even if you’ve got no evidence that suggests that.
And try and find out how you can work together, how you can find a common aim with this person who’s asking you to do something. Then hopefully from that you will be able to act with trust. Trust for the group and trust for yourself, and come from this authentic place when it doesn’t really matter where you end up, because people believe that the process was an honest one.
Penny: Excellent. Thank you.
Jonathan: Thank you very much Penny. That was good fun and I hope we can do that again.
Penny: Me too.
I've been working with a small client team to design a workshop. The client team see lots of weaknesses in the current set-up that the group is a part of. As the fighter pilot said when surrounded by enemy planes, it is a target-rich environment. So where do we begin?
We discussed jumping in and asking the biggest, baddest questions about the group's role and existence. We played around with focusing on process tasks like revisiting terms of reference. We thought about starting with easy wins.
The someone suggested a garden metaphor: the group and its work is a garden and - so he thought - the implication is that we want to do something evolutionary not revolutionary.
It got me thinking about the different kinds of interventions you might make in a garden - which could be radical as well as incremental - and we used these metaphors to help us reach a clearer common view about what the workshop should be like.
Dreaming of warm sunny evenings
Especially at this time of year, when nothing much is growing and the days are moist and cold, many gardeners will be dreaming of long summer evenings with a glass of wine and artfully placed candles. Scents and seating and shade. We could use the workshop to dream about the desired future, building a rich shared vision that inspires us during the hard months ahead.
Rip it up and start again
Not all interventions in gardens are evolutionary. People sometimes decide to completely remodel their garden: hard landscaping, tree removal, new soil, the works. So a workshop could work on new plans: where to put the pond, as it were. And people could even move on to project planning: when to get the diggers in.
Or the workshop could be like a work party: lots of practical immediate stuff to get on with: weed the borders, turn the compost heap, sew the broad beans and repair the fence.
Using metaphors helped us decide
Tossing these options around helped us decide on the kind of workshop we wanted, before we agreed on the detailed draft aims. We went for the weeding party. Trowels at the ready!
What metaphors have helped you, in designing and planning workshops?
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.
So DareConfMini was a bit amazing. What a day. Highlights:
- Follow your jealousy from Elizabeth McGuane
- Situational leadership for ordinary managers from Meri Williams
- The challenge of applying the great advice you give to clients, to your own work and practice from Rob Hinchcliffe
- Finding something to like about the people who wind you up the most from Chris Atherton
- Being brave enough to reveal your weaknesses from Tim Chilvers
- Jungian archetypes to help you make and stick to commitments from Gabriel Smy
- Radical challenges to management orthodoxy from Lee Bryant
- Meeting such interesting people at the after party
No doubt things will continue to churn and emerge for me as it all settles down, and I'll blog accordingly.
There are also longer posts than mine from Charlie Peverett at Neo Be Brave! Lessons from Dare and Banish the January blues – be brave and get talking from Emma Allen.
If you are inspired to go to DareConf in September, early bird with substantial discounts are available until 17th February.
Many thanks to the amazing Jonathan Kahn and Rhiannon Walton who are amazing event organisers - and it's not even their day job. They looked after speakers very well and I got to realise a childhood fantasy of dancing at Sadler's Wells. David Caines drew the pictures.
Do deadlines help a group reach consensus? Or do they get in the way? Yesterday brought the news that the latest round of talks in the peace process in Northern Ireland had broke up without agreement, the deadline having passed. There's a report from the BBC here.
I make no comment on the content of the talks, but I am interested in the process. Why was this particular deadline set? And do deadlines help by providing a sense of jeopardy - a time when the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement comes into play? Or by restricting the time for exploration and low-anxiety creativity, do they get in the way of positive consensus?
Deadlines for discussion and agreement may be tied to objective events in the real world: mother and midwife need to agree how to manage labour before it happens. They may be tied to objective but less predictable events: the Environment Agency and the stakeholders discussing details of the Medmerry Managed realignment flood defence scheme wanted to get it built in time to protect the area from the higher risk of winter storms and flooding. Or they may be tied to other events which are choices rather than unstoppable events, but ones where choosing not to meet the deadline would have very large consequences: the Environment Agency and the Olympic Delivery Authority needed to agree how to handle drainage and water quality from the Stratford Olympic site in time for the games to happen in 2012.
I may be missing something, but the Haass talks don't seem to have any of these justifiable external pressures. So why the deadline?
Picture the scene: the room, which you haven't been able to check out before, has a low ceiling, tiny windows that somehow don't manage to let in much light, and is decorated in shades of brown and purple. There are uplighters on the walls, which have large strategically placed paintings screwed to them. And, of course, you have been told that under no circumstances can blu-tack be used on the rough-textured wallpaper.
Researching Working Collaboratively, I heard a lot about the importance of a skillful facilitator. And you can see why. Collaboration happens when different people or organisations want to achieve something - and they need common ground about what it is they want to achieve. They might both want the same thing or they may want complementary things. Since finding common ground is not easy, it's good to know facilitators can help.
Common ground, common process
But it's not just common ground on the goals that need to be achieved, it's common ground on the process too. It's essential to be able to find ways to work together (not just things to work together on).
Process can be invisible - you're so used to the way your own organisation does things, that you may not see that these processes are choices. And it's possible to choose to do things in other ways.
This can be as simple as using descriptive agendas (which set out clearly what the task is for each item e.g. 'create a range of options', 'discuss and better understand the options', 'identify the group's top three options', 'agree which option to recommend', 'agree which option to take forward') rather than the more usual summary version (Item 1: options).
Or it might be agreeing to set up special simultaneous consultation and decision mechanisms within each of the collaborating organisations rather than each one going at its own usual, different, pace.
To be able to make these choices, process needs to be brought to conscious awareness and explicitly discussed. This will be a key part of any facilitator's role.
Disagreement without conflict
Collaboration is about agreement, of course. But if the organisations have identical aims and ways of meeting them, then they might as well merge rather than collaborate! In collaboration, you must also expect disagreement and difference.
Sometimes people may be so keen to find the common ground, that discussing the areas of disagreement and difference becomes taboo. Much more healthy is being able to discuss and acknowledge difference in an open and confident way. A facilitator who is used to saying: "I notice that there is a difference of view here. Let's understand it better!" in a perky and comfortable way can help collaborators be at ease with disagreement.
Your facilitator will also need to help you be open about the constraints and pressures which are limiting your ability to broaden the common ground about desired outcomes or process. Perhaps a public body cannot commit funds more than one year ahead. Perhaps a community or campaign group needs to maintain its ability to be publicly critical of organisations it is collaborating with. A business may need to be able to show a return on investment to shareholders. In most cases, the people 'in the room' will need to take some provisional decisions back to their organisation for ratification.
Just like the areas of disagreement, these constraints can be hard to talk about. Some clients I work with express embarrassment bordering almost on shame when they explain to potential collaborators the internal paperwork they 'must' use on certain types of collaborative project.
Much better to be open about these constraints so that everyone understands them. That's when creative solutions or happy compromises arise.
A neutral facilitator?
Do you need your facilitator to be independent, or do they need to have a stake in the success of the collaboration? This is the 'honest broker / organic leader' conundrum explored here.
I have seen real confusion of process expertise and commitment to the content, when collaborative groupings have been looking for facilitation help. For example, the UK's Defra policy framework on the catchment based approach to improving water quality seems to assume that organisations will offer to 'host' collaborations with minimal additional resources. If you don't have a compelling outcome that you want to achieve around water, why would you put yourself forward to do this work? And if you do, you will find it hard (though not impossible) to play agenda-neutral process facilitator role. There is a resource providing process advice to these hosts (Guide to Collaborative Catchment Management), but I am not sure that any of them have access to professional facilitation.
This is despite the findings of the evaluation, which say that facilitation expertise is a 'crucial competency':
"Going forward, pilot hosts indicate that funding, or in-kind contribution, for the catchment co-ordinator and independent facilitation roles is essential." (p8)
And Defra's own policy framework makes clear that involving facilitators is crucial to success:
"Utilising expert facilitation to help Partnerships address a range of issues for collaborative working including stakeholder identification and analysis, planning meetings, decision-making and engaging with members of the public [is a key way of working]."
There seems to be some understanding of the agenda-neutral facilitation role, but a lack of real answers to how it will be resourced.
I will be fascinated to see how this plays out in practice - do comment if you have experience of this in action.
So it's here! A mere nine months after first being contacted by Nick Bellorini of DōSustainability, my e-book on collaboration is out!
Over the next few weeks, I'll be blogging on some of the things that really struck me about writing it and that I'm still chewing over. In the meantime, I just wanted to let you know that it's out there, and you, dear reader, can get it with 15% off if you use the code PWP15 when you order it. See more here.
It's an e-book - and here's something cool for the dematerialisation and sharing economy geeks: you can rent it for 48 hours, just like a film! Since it's supposed to be a 90 minute read, that should work just fine.
And I couldn't have done it without the wonderful colleagues, clients, peers, critics, fellow explorers and tea-makers who helped out.
Andrew Acland, Cath Beaver, Craig Bennett, Fiona Bowles, Cath Brooks, Signe Bruun Jensen, Ken Caplan, Niamh Carey, Lindsey Colbourne, Stephanie Draper, Lindsay Evans, James Farrell, Chris Grieve, Michael Guthrie, Charlotte Millar, Paula Orr, Helena Poldervaart, Chris Pomfret, Jonathon Porritt, Keith Richards, Clare Twigger-Ross, Neil Verlander, Lynn Wetenhall; others at the Environment Agency; people who have been involved in the piloting of the Catchment Based Approach in England in particular in the Lower Lee, Tidal Thames and Brent; and others who joined in with an InterAct Networks peer learning day on collaboration.
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?
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.
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'.
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!
So to sum up, the facilitator will potentially challenge the client team about:
• Objectives • Context • Participants • Space • On-the-day process • Follow-up process
If you'd like to download a version of this, click here.
"Who will make sure it doesn't fall over?"
This was a question posed by someone in a workshop I facilitated, which brought together stakeholders (potential collaborators) who shared an interest in a water catchment.
It was a good question. In a collaboration, where equality between organisations is a value - and the pragmatic as well as philosophical truth is that everyone is only involved because they choose to be - what constitutes leadership? How do you avoid no-one taking responsibility because everyone is sharing responsibility?
If the collaboration stops moving forwards, like a bicycle it will be in danger of falling over. Who will step forward to right it again, give it a push and help it regain momentum?
Luxurious reading time
I've been doing some reading, in preparating for writing a slim volume on collaboration for the lovely people over at DōSustainability. (Update: published July 2013.) It's been rather lovely to browse the internet, following my nose from reference to reference. I found some great academic papers, including "Collaborative Governance in Theory and Practice" by Chris Ansell and Alison Gash. This paper is based on a review of 137 case studies, and draws out what the authors call 'critical variables' which influence the success of attempts at collaborative governance.
It's worth just pausing to notice that this paper focuses on 'collaborative governance', which you could characterise as when stakeholders come together to make decisions about what some other organisation is going to do (e.g. agree a management plan for a nature reserve ), to contrast it with other kinds of collaboration where the stakeholders who choose to collaborate are making decisions about what they themselves will do, to further the common or complementary aims of the collaboration (e.g. the emerging work of Tasting the Future).
Leadership as a critical variable
Ansell and Gash identify leadership as one of these critical variables. They say:
"Although 'unassisted' negotiations are sometimes possible, the literature overwhelmingly finds that facilitative leadership is important for bringing stakeholders together and getting them to engage each other in a collaborative spirit."
What kind of person can provide this facilitative leadership? Do they have to be disinterested, in the manner of an agenda-neutral facilitator? Or do they have to be a figure with credibility and power within the system, to provide a sense of agency to the collaboration?
Interestingly, Ansell and Gash think both are needed, depending on whether power is distributed relatively equally or relatively unequally among the potential collaborators. It's worth quoting at some length here:
"Where conflict is high and trust is low, but power distribution is relatively equal and stakeholders have an incentive to participate, then collaborative governance can successfully proceed by relying on the services of an honest broker that the respective stakeholders accept and trust."
This honest broker will pay attention to process and remain 'above the fray' - a facilitator or mediator.
"Where power distribution is more asymmetric or incentives to participate are weak or asymmetric, then collaborative governance is more likely to succeed if there is a strong "organic" leader who commands the respect and trust of the various stakeholders at the outset of the process."
An organic leader emerges from among the stakeholders, and my reading of the paper suggests that their strength may come from the power and credibility of their organisation as well as personal qualities like technical knowledge, charisma and so on.
While you can buy in a neutral facilitator (if you have the resource to do so), you cannot invent a trusted, powerful 'organic' leader if they are not already in the system. Ansell and Gash note "an implication of this contingency is that the possibility for effective collaboration may be seriously constrained by a lack of leadership."
Policy framework for collaboration
I'm also interested in this right now, because of my involvement in the piloting of the Catchment Based Approach. I have been supporting people both as a facilitator (honest broker) and by building the capacity of staff at the Environment Agency to work collaboratively and 'host' or 'lead' collaborative work in some of the pilot catchments. The former role has been mainly with Dialogue by Design, and latter with InterAct Networks.
One of the things that has been explored in these pilots, is what the differences are when the collaboration is hosted by the Environment Agency, and when it is hosted by another organisation, as in for example Your Tidal Thames or the Brent Catchment Partnership.
There was a well-attended conference on February 14th, where preliminary results were shared and Defra officials talked about what may happen next. The policy framework which Defra is due to set out in the Spring of 2013 will have important implications for where the facilitative leadership comes from.
One of the phrases used in Defra's presentation was 'independent host' and another was 'facilitator'. It's not yet clear what Defra might mean by these two phrases. I immediately wondered: independent of what, or of whom? Might this point towards the more agenda-neutral facilitator, the honest broker? If so, how will this be resourced?
I am thoughtful about whether these catchments might have the characteristics where the Ansell and Gash's honest broker will succeed, or whether they have characteristics which indicate an organic leader is needed. Perhaps both would be useful, working together in a leadership team.
Those designing the policy framework could do worse than read this paper.
Last week I trained 14 people in facilitation skills, at the quirky and rather wonderful Creekside Discovery Centre (see more below). I came up with a metaphor that I quite liked, to tie together the main strands of the training - the three legged stool.
Facilitators help the group through:
- Clarity on the purpose and aims of the meeting - helping the host, convenor, planning group be clear about these, ensuring the group is happy with them. There's a download on this here.
- Choice of techniques, meeting design - to meet the aims, suit the time/space/people.
- Interpersonal skills - listening, reflecting, clarifying, responding, intervening to help the group hear and talk to each other, see what's happening and make choices about what to do.
Carpentry prizes for most beautiful stool?
But when I was explaining this, I realised that I hadn't given enough emphasis to the underlying basic assumption and values of facilitation: the desire to serve the group and the assumption that the group can, through conversation, work together to further its own aims and purpose.
So my three legged stool needs an addition: the group, supported by the facilitator, doing something great together.
It doesn't matter how well you clarify the aims, design the meeting and intervene, if at heart your intention is misplaced. If you believe that you know best, or the group is not capable of finding its own best solution, or your intention is to show what a great facilitator you are....
So, the three legged stool is there to support the group, not to win carpentry prizes.
More on Creekside
This venue is just 5 minutes walk from Greenwich Station (DLR, Overground) in London, and has the most beautiful collection of found objects, scavenged from the Thames mud. Like this amazing old typewriter.
It has some lovely more recent touches too - gates below.
"But can you blu-tack flip chart paper to the wall and move the tables?" I hear you cry.
I trained 14 people and it was comfortable working flexibly with this number.
So check it out.
I've not blogged in months - too busy and too tired. But lately I'm emerging from bonkers levels of work and have the time and energy to read the papers. Even the review sections! This blog post is triggered by an interview with M John Harrison by Richard Lea in Saturday's Guardian. I like science fiction in a casual and (I'm afraid) ignorant way, including Margaret Attwood's speculative fiction set in eco-dystopias and Philip Pulman's theological atheist fantasy parallel universes. But I'm afraid I don't know M John Harrison's work.
What really struck me - and the reason I read the article - was the quote pulled out to headline it:
"A good rule of writing in any genre is: start with a form, then ask what it's afraid of."
In touch with fear
Some people are in touch with their anger, others with their guilt, a lucky few with their joy and exuberance. I'm very aware of my fear - although I don't always spot what's causing it at the beginning. (As a tangent: it may not be fear at all. In the same edition, Oliver Burkeman writes about physical symptoms being (mis)labelled as particular emotions.)
So I'm wondering about my own practice, and if it might be liberating to consider the form - the genre- and the fear that Harrison claims can exist outside the individual practitioner and in the form itself.
As a trainer and facilitator, and as a consultant, what are the genres I work in? And what are those genres afraid of? What are they trying to hide?
What's the genre?
First, define your terms. This will get too dull if I try to examine too many. So I'll stick to the designed, facilitated meeting. This is my stock-in-trade. The aims are untangled and combed through until they gleam with clarity, realism and honesty. The meeting is made up of sessions lined up in the optimum sequence. Attention is paid to ensuring a mix of modes (individual, pairs, small groups, whole group; spoken, written, thought, drawn; presented, discussed, explored, agreed and so on). We consider in advance what kind of record is needed, and what needs to be recorded in the room to make sure this happens. I could go on - at some length.
What is this form afraid of?
I think there are two principal fears. It's afraid of wasting people's time and it's afraid of people hiding things which - when shared - are important for mutual understanding and progress. These seem like right and proper things to want to avoid.
There may be some other fears, which are worth examining and asking - in Harrison's words - "what it's trying to hide".
What's it trying to hide?
The genre of the planned facilitated meetings may be trying to hide things about itself, or about the people involved in making it happen. I'll return to this question in due course, but find myself stumped for the moment!