There are some venues which make my heart soar – and some which make it sink! What can you find out about a venue ahead of time, which will help you pick a great place and enable you to design your event or workshop to suit its idiosyncrasies? Here’s a great five-point checklist.
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.
The rather fabulous #DareConf is back in London next month. It's taking place at the Arcola Theatre, which is properly local to me and a wonderful eco-building (think solar panels, wood-fired heating, DC microgrids - eh?!) and community space in its own right.
So I was really happy that my friend and collaborator Jonathan Kahn invited me to do a session with him at #DareConf 2015. We'll be in conversation, exploring what a facilitator can do to help a group find shared goals by discovering underlying needs. Jonathan is really interested in power - how we wield it, how we give it up. His facilitation style owes a lot to non-violent communication, and I'm learning loads from talking with him about the challenges and options when working in groups.
(Regular readers will know that I'm really interested in anxiety and fear - how we display it and what we do to manage it.)
This is a return visit for me, because I had fun sharing ideas on finding consensus at #DareMini last year. The live webcast was a new experience and means that people who weren't there can still check out "Stop assuming, start asking questions: how to turn conflict into collaboration".
#DareConf grew out of Jonathan's background in the digital profession and styles itself "people skills for digital workers". Other contributors are firmly from this field: Rifa Thorpe-Tracey is a freelance digital project manager and organises SheSays Brighton. Laura Morgan is Head of Product at Comic Relief (no, I'm not sure either). And Holly Burns is a content strategist at Instagram, which I know is cool because my daughters (who don't do twitter or blogs) use it regularly. Although possibly not as cool as snapchat.
So as you can see, although I'll be hugely out of my depth digitally-speaking (plenty of opportunity for anxiety) I will at least be a local (plenty of opportunity for power) who knows which bus to catch and that people should pop round the corner to Dalston Eastern Curve Garden for a spot of bliss when we're done.
So if you're one of my neighbours - or even if you're not - do check out #DareConf. Early bird discount until 7th September.
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.
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.
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.