workshops

The morning after the night before - debriefing events

A lot of projects have been completed in the last couple of weeks, so I've been encouraging clients to have debriefing conversations.

Although I always include some kind of debrief in my costings, not all clients find the time to take up this opportunity.  That's such a shame!  We can learn something about how to bring people together to have better conversations, every time we do it.

Structuring the debrief

I've been using a simple three question structure:

  • What went well?
  • What went less well?
  • What would you do differently, or more of, next time?

This works in face to face debriefing, telecons and can even form a useful way of prompting a debriefing conversation that takes place in writing: in some kind of joint cyberplace, or by email.

If we haven't already had a conversation about immediate next steps, then I'll add this fourth question:

  • What do we need to do next?

Referring back to the aims

Since, for me, the aims are the starting point for the design process, they should also be the starting point for the debriefing conversation.  To what extent did we meet our aims?  What else might the client team need to do in next weeks and months, to get closer to meeting the aims?

Evidence to draw on

It's really helpful for the team to have access to whatever the participants have fed back about how the process or event worked for them.  Sometimes we use paper feedback forms in the room, sometimes an electronic survey after the event.  Quantitative and qualitative reports based on this feedback can help people compare their intuitive judgements against what participants have said. 

In other situations, we make time in the process for participants to have their own conversation about how things have gone.  A favourite technique is to post up a flip with an evaluation question like "to what extent did we meet our aims?".  The scale is drawn on, and labelled "not at all" to "completely".  Participants use dots to show their response to the question, and then we discuss the result.  I often also post up flips headed "what helped?" and "what got in the way?".  People can write their responses directly on to the flips.  This is particularly useful when a group will be meeting together again, and can take more and more responsibility for reflecting on and improving its ways of working effectively.

What's been learnt?

Some of the unexpected things to have come out of recent debriefs:

  • The things that actually get done may be more important than the stated aims: one workshop only partially met its explicit aims to develop consensus on topic X, but exceeded client expectations in building better working relationships, making it easier to talk later about topic Y.
  • What people write in their questionnaire responses can be quite different to the things you heard from one or two louder voices on the day.
  • A debriefing conversation can be a good way of briefing a new team member.

And the obvious can be reinforced too: clarity on aims really helps, thinking about preparation and giving people time to prepare really helps, allowing and enabling participation really helps, good food really helps!

 

Some lessons from Citizens Juries enquiring into onshore wind in Scotland

I've been reading "Involving communities in deliberation: A study of 3 citizens’ juries on onshore wind farms in Scotland" by Dr. Jennifer Roberts (University of Strathclyde) and Dr. Oliver Escobar (University of Edinburgh), published in May 2015.

This is a long, detailed report with lots of great facilitation and public participation geekery in it.  I've picked out some things that stood out for me and that I'm able to contrast or build on from my own (limited) experience of facilitating a Citizens' Jury.  But there are plenty more insights so do read it for yourself.

I've stuck to points about the Citizen Jury process - if you're looking for insights into onshore wind in Scotland, you won't find them in this blog post!

What are Citizens' Juries for?

This report takes as an underlying assumption that its focus - and a key purpose of deliberation - is learning and opinion change, which will then influence the policies and decisions of others.  The jury is not seen as "an actual decision making process" p 19

"Then ... the organisers feed the outputs into the relevant policy and/or decision making processes." p4

In the test of a Citizens’ Jury that I helped run for NHS Citizen, there was quite a different mandate being piloted.  The idea is that when the Citizens’ Jury is run ‘for real’ in NHS Citizen, it will decide the agenda items for a forthcoming Board Meeting of NHS England. 

This is a critical distinction, and anyone commissioning a Citizens’ Jury needs to be very clear what the Jury is empowered to decide (if anything) and what it is being asked for its views, opinions or preferences on.  In the latter case, the Citizens’ Jury becomes essentially a sophisticated form of consultation. 

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it needs to be very clear from the start which type of involvement is being sought.

Having confidence in the Citizens’ Jury process

To be a useful consultant mechanism, stakeholders and decision-makers need to have confidence in the Citizens’ Jury process.  This applies even more strongly when the Jury has decision-making powers. 

The organisers and commissioners need to consider how to ensure confidence in a range of things:

  • the selection of jurors and witnesses,
  • the design of the process (including the questions jurors are invited to consider and the scope of the conversations),
  • the facilitation of conversations,
  • the record made of conversations and in particular decisions or recommendation,

The juries under consideration in this report benefited from a Stewarding Board.  This type of group is sometimes called a steering group or oversight group. It’s job is to ensure the actual and perceived independence of the process, by ensuring that it is acceptable to parties with quite difference agendas and perspectives.  If they can agree that it’s fair, then it probably is.  Chapter 3 of the report looks at this importance of the Stewarding Board, its composition and the challenging disagreements it needed to resolve in this process.

In our NHS Citizen test of the Citizens’ Jury concept, we didn’t have an equivalent structure, although we did seek advice and feedback from the wider NHS Citizen community (for example see this blog post and the comment thread) as well as from our witnesses, evaluators with experience of Citizens’ Juries. We also drew on our own insights and judgements as independent convenors and facilitators.  My recommendation is that there be a steering group of some kind for future Citizens’ Juries within NHS Citizen.

What role for campaigners and activists?

The report contains some interesting reflections on the relationship between deliberative conversations in ‘mini publics’ and citizens who have chosen to become better informed and more active on an issue to the extent of becoming activists or campaigners.  (Mini public is an umbrella term for any kind of “forum composed of citizens who have been randomly selected to reflect the range of demographic and attitudinal characteristics from the broader population – e.g. age, gender, income, opinion, etc.” pp3-4)

The report talks about a key feature of Citizens’ Juries being that they

“...use random selection to ensure diversity and thus “reduce the influence of elites, interest advocates and the ‘incensed and articulate’”

(The embedded quote is from Carolyn Hendriks’ 2011. The politics of public deliberation: citizen engagement and interest advocacy, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.)

So what is the role of the incensed and the articulate in a Citizens’ Jury?  The detail of this would be decided by the steering group or equivalent, but broadly there are two roles outlined in the report: being a member of the steering group and thus helping to ensure confidence in the process; and being a witness, helping the jurors to see multiple aspects of the problem they are considering.  See pp 239-240 for more on this.

Depending on the scope of the questions the Citizens’ Jury is being asked to deliberate, this could mean a very large steering group or set of witnesses.  The latter would increase the length of the jury process considerably, which makes scoping the questions a pragmatic as well as a principled decision.

The project ran from April 2013 to May 2015.  You can read the full report here.

Thanks very much to Clive Mitchell of Involve who tipped me off about this report.

See also my reflections on the use of webcasting for the NHS Citizen Citizens' Jury test.

What kind of workshop? Some metaphors

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.

Maybe.

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.

Weeding party

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? 

Location, location, location

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.

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

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Reflecting on a change that happened

Here's a nice exercise you can try, to help people base their thinking about organisational change on real evidence. Running workshop sessions on organisational change is a core part of my contribution to the various programmes run by the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership.  This week, a group of people from one multi-national organisation met in Cambridge to further their own learning on sustainability and organisational responses to it.  My brief was to introduce them to a little theory on organisational change, and help them apply it to their own situation.

Theory is all very well - I love a good model or framework.  But sometimes people struggle to make the links to their experience, or they use descriptive models as if they were instructions.

This exercise gave them time to consider their direct experience of organisational change before the theory was introduced, so that they had rich evidence to draw on when engaging critically with the theory.

Step one - a change that happened

At tables, I asked them to identify a change that has happened in their organisation, of the same scale and significance as they think is needed in relation to sustainable development.  All of the tables looked at some variation of the organisation's response to dramatically changing market conditions (engaging with a different customer base, redundancies).

Step Two - four sets of questions

I then asked the groups to discuss how this change really happened (not how the organisation's change policy manual said it should have happened).  I offered four sets of questions:

  • First inklings e.g. How did you know the change was coming? How did it begin? What happened before that? What happened after that? What changed first?
  •  People e.g. Who were the main characters who helped the change to happen? Who tried to stop it happening? Who was enthusiastic? Who was cynical? Who was worried?
  •  Momentum and confirmation e.g. What happened that provided confirmation that this change really is going to happen, that it’s not just talk? How was momentum maintained? What happened to win over the people who were unhappy?
  • Completion and continuation e.g. Is the change complete, or are things still changing?  How will (did) you know the change is complete?

Step Three - debrief

Discussions at tables went on for about 20 minutes, and then we debriefed in plenary.

I invited people to share surprises.  Some of the surprises included the most senior person in the room realising that decisions made in leadership team meetings were seen as significant and directly influenced the way people did things - before the exercise, he had assumed that people didn't take much notice.

I also invited people to identify the things that confirmed that 'they really mean it', which seems to me to be a key tipping point in change for sustainability.  Some of the evidence that people used to assess whether 'they really mean it' was interesting: the legal department drafting a new type of standard contract to reflect a new type of customer base; different kinds of people being invited to client engagement events.  These 'artifacts' seemed significant and were ways in which the change became formalised and echoed in multiple places.

After the evidence, the theory

When I then introduced Schein's three levels of culture - still one of my favourite bits of organisational theory - the group could really see how this related to change.

Let me know how you get on, if you try this.

 

When form is content: singing a round

A great little place near me runs weekly group sessions where we reflect on our lives and work together on essential skills like empathy and dealing with difference.  We also take part in experiential group activities*. Today's theme was trust: the necessity of continuing to trust each other, despite the frailties and failures we know we will sometimes experience. Partway through a presentation on this, we tried an experiment: singing a round.  The song was one that many of us - but not all - had sung before.

The words are about joining together to make something bigger than the whole. And so is the form. We begin by singing in unison. Then we break into groups and each group begins the song slightly later than the previous group. The tune and words reveal themselves as elements which work together as the phrases overlap, making something more delightful and interesting than the unison version.

The rounds I learnt as a child (London's Burning, Frere Jacques) used the form for its entertainment value (!) but this song uses the form to deliver and emphasise content.

I wonder how we can do the same in our facilitation training...

*Yes, I'm being a little coy here. As a confirmed atheist, it's a little uncomfortable to explain how I love going to my local Unitarian church.  Discovering that the Minister is also an atheist was a nice surprise. But there you go: my notions of church have been confounded, so check it out.

Facilitation training - can it work one-to-one?

I love to train people in facilitation skills.  It's so much fun! People get to try new things in a safe environment, games are played, there's growth and challenge, fabulously supportive atmospheres can build up.

What's the minimum group size for this kind of learning?

How about one?

A group of one

From time to time I'm approached by people who want to improve their facilitation skills, but who don't have a ready-made group of colleagues to train with.   I point them towards open courses such as those run by the ICA, and let them know about practice groups like UK Facilitators Practice Group.  And sometimes, I work with them one-to-one.

This one-to-one work can also happen because a client doesn't have the budget to bring in facilitator for a particular event, and we agree instead to a semi-coaching approach which provides intensive, just-in-time preparation for them to play the facilitator role.  This is most common in the community and voluntary sector.

The approach turns out to be a mix of process consultancy for specific meetings, debriefing recent or significant facilitation experiences, and introducing or exploring tools and techniques.

Preparing to facilitate in a hierarchy

A client had a particular event coming up, where she was going to be facilitating a strategy session for a group of senior people from organisations which formed the membership of her own organisation.  She had concerns around authority: would they accept her as their facilitator for this session?  She was also keen to understand how to agree realistic aims for the session, and to come up with a good design.

We spent a couple of hours together, talking through the aims of the session and what she would do to prepare for it.  We played around with some design ideas. I introduced the facilitator's mandate, and she came up with ways of ensuring she had a clear mandate from the group which she could then use to justify - to them and to herself - taking control of the group's discussions and managing the process.  Helped by some coaching around her assumptions about her own authority, she came up with some phrases she was comfortable using if she needed to intervene.  We role-played these. She felt more confident about the framework and that the time and energy we'd put into the preparation was useful.

Facilitation skills as a competence for engaging stakeholders

As part of a wider team, I've been working with a UK Government department to help build their internal capacity for engaging stakeholders.  As a 'mentor', I worked with policy teams to help them plan their engagement and for one team, this included helping a team member get better at meeting design and facilitation.  He already had a good understanding of the variety of processes which could be used and a strong intuitive grasp of facilitation.  We agreed to build this further through a (very short) apprenticeship approach.  We worked together to refine the aims for a series of workshops.  I facilitated the first and he supported me.  We debriefed afterwards: what had gone well, what had gone less well, and in particular what had he or I done before and during the workshop and what was the impact.  He facilitated the next workshop, with me in the support role. Again we debriefed.  We sat down to plan the next workshop, and I provided a handout on carousel, which seemed like an appropriate technique. I observed the next two workshops, and again we debriefed.

Instead of a training course

I worked with a client who wanted to develop his facilitation skills and was keen to work with me specifically, rather than an unknown and more generic open course provider.  I already knew his context and he knew I'd have a good appreciation of some of his specific challenges: being in the small secretariat of what is essentially an industry leadership group which is trying to lead a sustainability agenda in their sector.  His job is to catalyse and challenge, as well as to be responsive to members.  So when he is planning and facilitating meetings, he will sometimes be in facilitator mode and sometimes he will need to be advocating a particular point of view.

Ideally, I'd have wanted to observe him in action in order to identify priorities and be able to tailor the learning aims. But the budget didn't allow for this.

We came up with a solution which was based on a series of four two-hour sessions, where I would be partly training (i.e. adding in new 'content' about facilitation and helping him to understand it) and partly coaching (i.e. helping him uncover his limiting assumptions and committing to do things differently).  The sessions were timed to be either a bit before or a bit after meetings which he saw as significant facilitation challenges, so that we could tailor the learning to preparing for or debriefing them.  The four face-to-face sessions would be supplemented by handouts chosen from things I'd already produced, and by recommended reading.  We agreed to review each session briefly at the end, for the immediate learning and feedback to me, and partly to model active reflection and to get him into the habit of doing this for his own facilitation work.

In our initial pre-contract meeting, we agreed some specific learning objectives and the practicalities (where, when).  Before each session, we had email exchanges confirming what he wanted to focus on. This meant I could prepare handouts and other resources to bring with me.

And this plan is pretty much what we ended up doing.

He turned out to be very well suited to this way of learning. He was a disciplined reflective practitioner, making notes about what he'd learnt from his experiences and bringing these to sessions.  He was thoughtful in deciding what he wanted to focus on which enabled me to prepare appropriately.  For example, in our final session he wanted to look at his overall learning and to identify the learning edges that he would continue to work on after our training ended.  We did two very different things in that session: he drew a timeline of his journey so far, identifying significant things which have shaped the facilitator he is now.  And we used the IAF's Foundational Facilitator Competencies to identify his current strengths and learning needs.

Can it work?

Yes, it's possible to train someone in facilitation skills one-to-one.   This approach absolutely relies on them have opportunities to try things out, and is very appropriate when someone will be facilitating anyway - trained or not.  The benefits are finely tailored support which can include advice as well as training, coaching instead of 'talk and chalk', and debriefing 'real' facilitation instead of 'practice' session.

There are downsides, of course.  You don't get the big benefit which can come from in-house training, where a cohort of people can support each other in the new way of doing things and continue to reflect together on how it's going. And you don't get the benefit of feedback from multiple perspectives and seeing a diverse way of doing things, which you get in group training.

But if this group approach isn't an option, and the client is going to be facilitating anyway, then I think it is an excellent approach to learning.

 

Occupy movement: the revolution will need marker pens

On my bike, between meetings last week, I was passing St Paul's Cathedral in London so I wandered through the Occupy London Stock Exchange 'tent city'.  Occupy LSX has divided opinion. At the meeting I was going to - a workshop of organisational development consultants, facilitators, coaches - some people made rather snide remarks about the likely impact of the first cold weather on the protesters, and about unoccupied tents.  There's a retort here about the infamous thermal imaging scoop.  Others were interested in and sympathetic to the dissatisfaction being expressed, but frustrated by the lack of a clear 'ask' or alternative from the occupiers.

Emergent, self-organising, asks and offers

What struck me, however, were the similarities between the occupy area itself, and some really good workshops I've experienced.  There was plenty of space given aside for 'bike rack', 'grafitti wall' and other open ways of displaying messages, observations or questions.  There was a timetable of sessions being offered in the Tent City University, and another board showing the times of consensus workshops and other process-related themes.

There was a 'wish list' board, where friendly passers-by could find out what the protesters need to help keep things going. Marker pens and other workshop-related paraphernalia are needed, as well as fire extinguishers and tinned sweetcorn.

I saw these as signs of an intentionally emergent phenomenon, with a different kind of economy running alongside the money economy.  Others have blogged about the kinds of processes honed and commonly in use at this kind of event or camp, in particular if you're interested there's loads on the Rhizome blog.

Don't ask the question if you don't already know the answer?

I recognise the frustration expressed by some of my OD colleagues about the lack of clearly-expressed alternatives.  This kind of conversation often occurs in groups that I facilitate: someone (often not in the room) has expressed a negative view about a policy, project or perspective.  The people in the room feel defensive and attack the grumbler: "I bet they couldn't do any better" or "what do they expect us to do?".  Some management styles and organisational cultures are fairly explicit that they don't want to hear about problems, only solutions.  (Browsing here gives some glimpses of the gift and the shadow side of this approach.)

But I see something different here: a bottom-up process where people who share broadly the same intent and perspective,  come together to explore and work out what they agree about, when looking at the problems with the current situation and the possible ways of making things better.  The are participatively framing a view of the system as it is now, and what alternatives exist. This takes time, of course.

They are also, as far as I can tell from the outside, intentionally using consensus-based processes rather than conventional, top-down, leader-led or expert-led processes to organise this.  Understandably frustrating for the news media which rely increasingly on short sound-bites and simple stories with two sides opposing each other.  And it could get very interesting when the dialogue opens up to include those who have quite different perspectives on "what's really going on here" (for example mainstream economists, bankers, city workers).

The other thing I notice about this expectation of a ready-made coherent answer, is how similar it is to some group behaviour and the interventions made by inexperienced facilitators and coaches.  When I am training facilitators, we look at when to intervene in a group's conversation, particularly when to use the intervention 'say what you see'.  (This makes it sound very mechanical - of course it's not really like that!)

The trainee facilitator is observed practising, and then there is feedback and a debriefing conversation.  Perhaps they chose not to intervene by telling the group what they observed.  Sometimes during this feedback and debrief, a trainee will say something like "Yes, I noticed that, but I didn't want to say anything because I wasn't sure what to do about it or what it meant."  They are assuming that you can only 'say what you see' if you know what it means and already have a suggestion about what to do about it.

But it also serves a group to say what you see, when you haven't a settled interpretation or clear proposal.  (In fact, it is more powerful to allow the group to interpret, explain and propose together.) All questions are legitimate, especially those to which we don't (yet) know the answer.  Ask them.  Guess some answers.  And this - for the time being - is what the occupy movement is doing.

The revolution will need marker pens

All this consensus-based work and open-space style process needs plenty of marker pens (permanent and white-board).  So if you have a bulging facilitation toolkit and you're passing St Paul's, you know what to do!

Update

Others have spotted these connections too. Listen to Peggy Holman talking about Occupy Wall Street on WGRNRadio, 9th January.

Finding the house keys

I facilitated a workshop once, where everyone knew that they wanted to work together on something, but they didn't know what. They were all lawyers of one kind or another: barristers in private practice, in-house legal eagles for NGOs, members of the judiciary.  They shared an interest in human rights and climate change.  They shared a suspiscion that existing human rights legislation (including conventions) and existing courts which hear human rights cases (including some international ones) might be a good way to take forward cases which would catalyse action to reduce emissions and ensure victims of the impact of climate change get proper help.

During the workshop they shared information and stories, hoping that they would find one exciting thing to work on which had real potential. They discussed the detail of different legal approaches, what a perfect case would need to look like, the pros and cons of bringing cases in different jurisdictions.

As the workshop went on through its first day and towards lunch on the second day, they still hadn't found it.

And then suddenly they had!

How did that happen?

What did they do to find the focus? What did I do to help?

I don't know.  Nothing different than we had been doing for a day and a half.

Bingo!

It was like that moment when you find the house keys.  We had been looking and looking in all the right places and all the right ways.  It wasn't that we started looking better just before we found them.  It's just that we finally found them.

(It's funny how they're always in the last place you look.)

Environmental professionals - getting the savvy of the change-maker

Back in March 2011, I enjoyed working with the IEMA to facilitate a workshop for environmental professionals, ably supported by Debbie Warrener. The workshop was organised to give some of the UK's most long-serving and successful internal environmental specialists a chance to share experiences of leadership around sustainable business practice, and collaboratively sketch out the skills environmental professionals need if they are to shift their organisations strategically towards sustainability. There were no presentations - it was a collaborative venture where everyone in the room had wisdom and expertise to contribute.

During the workshop they created a mind map of key skills. This was done very rapidly, following several rounds of discussing challenges successfully met and skills used in doing so.

I came across my notes of this mind map in the nether reaches of my filing pile just now, and it struck me as one of those things which you could work away at for a long time and not improve much.

So here it is.

I was really pleased to see how much was to do with interpersonal skills, influence, collaboration and mainstream management and leadership skills.  We have heaps of fantastically technically expert environmentalists working in organisations. Too often they are marginalised and lacking in power or influence. They can find themselves shaking their heads sadly at the decisions made by the people with power, who don't see the unsustainability of their actions or can't see how to change.  Combining technical excellence with the savvy of the change-maker is essential.

IEMA's current framework

IEMA have since developed a skills framework at a number of levels which draws on this work, and other research and engagement they have done with their members.  You can see it here and read more about how people are reacting to it here.

And there's another framework mentioned in this earlier blog post and the article it links to.

Update

In November 2011, IEMA's magazine published this, looking at the skills and aptitudes needed by some very senior sustainability people in UK businesses, and includes personal stories from a number.

Reflections after workshops – catching the learning

My client drove me to the station from our rather remote venue this afternoon.  She said:

"Do you think about a workshop after it's over, or..."

I mentally completed her sentence as "or don't you manage to?" After a small pause, she finished

"...or are you able to let it go?".

I was reminded of the usefulness of not assuming you know what someone else is going to say.

And I realised I'd filled the pause with my own self-criticism: because I'm intellectually committed to action/reflection, and thinking about a workshop after it's over is a powerful reflection stage.

But sometimes I'm just too tired to concentrate on reflecting 'properly'. And I might beat myself up about all the scintilating learning I'm missing by not journalling or even blogging as much as I might.

Instead, my mind wanders or I retreat into the self-indulgence of a journey home where I can read the paper, mess up the Kakuro or stare out of the window.

But this particular journey home has been longer than expected, and I've got my second wind. So I will 'reflect properly', drawing on what we talked about and thought about on the way to the station.

You're working too hard

One of the things my assessors said after my CPF earlier this year was that I was working too hard. The group should be doing the work, I need to get out of their way.  Perhaps I can take the same advice about reflection on my facilitation: let my mind do the work and get out of its way.

Wandering mind

The drive to the station was quite long, so I did let my mind wander, sparked by my client's question. We had one of those leisurely conversations which are interspersed with gentle silences.  And our conversation touched on spaces, client comfort and workshop plans.

Owning the space

My mind wandered to what we had done to own the space. This workshop was the third in a series of three and all the venues we used had their challenges. Two of the three lacked good smooth walls to stick flips on and write on.  Today's was crowded and we had to prop up boards on tables and stacked chairs to be able to see the flips.

In every venue, we quickly assessed the room, decided which furniture to move around or move out of the room altogether, and worked out where we would display the flips we needed for various metaplanning-type exercises and for participants to be able to see the running record.

Over the years, I have had to learn about the importance of layout, gain the confidence to take responsibility for making spaces as good as they can be for the conversation we want to have, pick up some tips and tricks for improvising the space and equipment needed, and get more decisive about making changes rapidly. That experience has paid off today.

Over-identifying with the client: whose comfort?

I have been more conscious recently of my own tendency to over-identify with my client, when facilitating stakeholder workshops. I feel uncomfortable when I think the client team may be feeling uncomfortable. I feel relieved when I think they may be feeling relieved.

I'm confident that this is not having a significant effect on my facilitation, but I'm conscious that this is a danger and that I need to check my inner motivation when choosing to intervene (or not) in situations where I believe that I know what my client would like to hear. Holding the space in periods of discomfort, doubt, uncertainty, conflict, anger, disappointment - this is one of the special gifts which a facilitator can bring to a group, and I'd like to strengthen my ability to do this with ease, without being overly concerned about the client's level of comfort.

As it happens, today I was impressed with how well the client team responded to some of the things stakeholders said, which were probably hard for them to hear. Defensiveness was mostly absent.  When the team thanked people for sharing their experiences, perspectives, frustrations and aspirations, I think they meant it.

If I had, even unconsciously, sheilded the client from this difficult conversation, then I might have avoided some temporary discomfort (largely my own?) but I would have prevented some important truth-telling and mutual understanding from emerging.  And the elephants in the room would have remained hidden in plain view.

Let go of the plan

In two of the three workshops, we radically redesigned the agenda part way through the day.  A wise facilitator once said to me that any fool can design a workshop, it's being able to redesign on the hoof that is the mark of greatness.  I wouldn't claim to greatness, but my redesigns were good calls!

Today's was helped enormously by the intervention during lunch of a process-savvy participant who observed that what the organising team wanted to talk about was not what the participants wanted to talk about. We negotiated a 'deal' to split the afternoon's work so that some time was spent on the more pedestrian but urgent client concerns (and the group threw themselves into this) but a larger chunk of time was allocated to some open space. This was agreed by the rest of the group.

As my client and I discussed this on the way to the station, I was reminded of some insights about planning.

  • At this AMED event last Friday, we talked in passing about Eisenhower's claim that "plans are useless but planning is indispensible."
  • A few days before, at an ODiN workshop organised by Chris Rodgers, someone talked about their frustration at hearing people use 'opportunistic' as a way of disparaging those charities which apply for funding without a nailed down strategic plan.
  • And my reading of this new sustainability leadership book containing experiences written through an action research lens has helped me understand how intention, values and an understanding of what you feel drawn to do can be coupled with being alert to opportunity resulting in emergent strategy.  (There's an explanation of emergent strategy here, but you may know of a better one - stick it in the comments.)

I think there's a parallel here with workshop (re)design:

  • some values underpinning your work as a facilitator,
  • some shared aims (intentions) agreed with participants,
  • an understanding of the expertise and resources (e.g. time, space, numbers of different kinds of people, access to information) available for the conversation.
  • being alert to 'what's trying to happen here' and getting out of its way.

If you have those things - as a result of doing some planning (having a conversation about planning) - then a strategy is able to emerge if you get out of its way.

Update: This today (1st October 2011) from Dave Pollard would call this resilience planning, rather than strategic planning. An interesting post.

The conversation goes where it goes - who knows what might have happened if...

What I didn't follow up on was the confession which may have been present in my client's question: does she find herself unable to let go after a workshop, dwelling on what might have been in a way which doesn't help her learn but perhaps keeps her in that unconfident phase of believing that she hasn't done well enough?

I don't know.  That conversation may have been equally rich.  The coach in me would have gone down that route, but the coach in me was taking some time out.

But by not trying too hard, and offering my own meandering observations, I reflected properly on what I'd learnt from the day.

Make more progress in changing your organisation!

There's a typical pattern for sustainability change agents: enthusiastic spotting of an opportunity to change (a solution) followed by a flurry of activity and then the obstables begin to show themselves. Then it can go two ways:

  • reflecting on the 'stuckness', exploring it and finding a way beyond it,

  • giving up.

Actually, you need to see the obstacles clearly to be able to deal with them, but that doesn't stop people feeling downhearted if they'd set out imagining no obstacles at all!

Theories for the perplexed

I find it reassuring when a bit of theory (or framework, model, checklist) explains that the low points are predictable, expected and indeed part of the journey.

And theories can also help us make sense of a complex reality, find the patterns in chaos, see "what's really going on here" and understand our unconscious assumptions.  If we bring them to conscious attention, we can make choices about doing things differently. Our assumptions might be about organisations (what they are, how they work, what's amenable to change), or people (how to interact respectfully whilst intending things to change) or sustainability (what might the journey look like, how you know you're going in the right direction).

And like the man said, there's nothing so practical as a good theory. (The man in question being Kurt Lewin, social psychologist, of the unfreeze-change-refreeze model.)

So I've assembled some bits of theory which I find particularly useful and popped them in a slide show here:

Organisational change theory 2011 generic

 

View more presentations from PennyWalker

There should be some notes pages with more explanation and references, but I haven't managed to get Slide Share to show these yet. So here's a pdf with the notes.  This is a presentation I give at the fabulous Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Business course, developed and run by CPSL and Forum for the Future.

Ideas into action

So theories are all very well, but what might it mean for your situation? I love to help people work out what their next steps might be, and a good way of doing this has proved to be the one-day Change Management for Sustainable Development workshop I developed and run with the IEMA.

We've got one in London on May 25th. So why not come along and we can help each other use some practical theories to make more progress? You can book here.

What if our conversations were deep, open?

I've met some interesting and challenging facilitators recently who have helped me reframe and explore my facilitation work and my sustainable development aims. Our conversations together have been so refreshing and enriching, we wondered if it might be possible to open them up to a wider group...

So we have created Deep Open.

It's a one-day workshop for people who are interested in groups, conversation, change and sustainable development.  We hope to enable conversations which allow us to be aware of our feelings (physical and emotional), alert to difference and conflict, challenging and honest.  We're going to experiment with having our feelings rather than letting our feelings have us.  We're going to experiement with not distracting ourselves when things feel uncomfortable.  We're going to try to resist being task-focussed, whilst staying together with purpose.

If you are intruiged by this - rather than irritated - then you might want to join us on 19th May in London for this workshop.

We're running the event in conjunction with AMED. The others involved are Johnnie Moore, Debbie Warrener and Luke Razzell.

Virtual meeting - up to my ankles

In November '09 I blogged that my toes were in the water, trying out how to integrate e-communications into workshops. Over a year later and I'm happy paddling up to my ankles: using cut-down post-its, a document camera and telepresence.  I was delighted to work with a client which had installed video-conferencing in many locations in the UK and US.  We were able to run a half-day workshop for a small team who were spread over three different locations.

This is a stock picture from Teliris on wikimedia commons, but it gives an idea of what the room looked like. In addition to the large screens, the people in the 'main' room had screens in the desk where images from slide shows or the document camera were visible.

Here are some very practical lessons and tips from that experience, firstly about things you can do before the meeting begins:

  • When designing the session, keep it interactive, don't feel that you have to make it one-way just because participants are on different continents.  Consider what might cause you to alter your design.  For example, I had expected there to be at least two people in each location, which would enable pairs / small group discussion.  But in the end one of our locations was used by just one person. So I adjusted the meeting design to include quiet thinking time, rather than pairs discussion. I asked everyone to make a note of their key points, so that everyone was ready to say something in the later round robin.
  • Make sure you check the time difference between locations, and double-check it!
  • Visit the room you'll be facilitating from, and play with the equipment.  How do you enable participants to view slides or an electronic document?  How do you dial up the other locations?  What do you do if the connection is lost? How much delay is there when people speak?
  • If you're lucky enough to have a ceiling-mounted document camera, can the camera pick up writing or diagrams on a flip chart sheet or on the desk?  How big does the writing need to be? Where are the edges of the camera's vision, and do these match the edges displayed to participants in other locations? Mark the edges with masking tape.
  • Make friends with the IT / facilities team.  What works well in their experience, and what trouble-shooting tips can they share.  How do you get hold of them during the meeting?

In the meeting

Having worked out how the document camera worked, and tested different sizes of post-it and handwriting, I was able to use small square post-its to record individual contributions and move them around until we had collaboratively created a timeline of the organisation's journey to this point.

Later in the session, I recorded contributions about people's vision of the future in a mind-map which was also broadcast live to the people in other location, via the document camera.  Unfortunately one of the locations lost the feed, so we ended up with some people not being able to see what the rest of the meeting could see: an imbalance which we were unable to correct before the meeting ended.

For my own use, I made a little map of who was sitting where, and used it to keep track of who'd spoken. This enabled me to invite contributions from time to time.

This was a half-day meeting, so I built in a comfort break which everybody really needed. Keeping focussed and engaged in virtual meetings are harder work than face-to-face, I think.

Improvements?

In future, I'd like to work out a practical way of integrating a running record into a meeting like this.  A simple word document shared live through google doc or a similar system might work.  You would need to check that everyone could access it - firewalls might be a problem.  Alternatively, a bespoke webmeeting package with a whiteboard could be used. I'm getting experience of both Huddle and Central Desktop in different client work at the moment.

Don't thingify the elephants

I've just got back from a great workshop organised by ODiN and run by Delta7.  We explored the use of pictures, in particular those which visualise 'the elephant under the table'. It's always great to see some old friends and meet new people.  Also good to have the time to reflect on stucknesses and opportunities in my own work which might helps us in this collective endeavour of forging a sustainable future.

So Julian's picture about climate change at first felt like a comfortable one for me to look at and discuss.  It was familiar territory, summarised what I consider to be an important part of my own work and practice, and gave me a platform to build on.

Too comfortable?

Someone raised the question of the shadow side of naming 'elephants under the table'.  (I can't attribute this insight, as ODiN meetings are Chatham House.)  He said that by 'thingifying' the metaphor of the elephants under the table, we can shrug off our personal responsibility for them.  I am not forgetful: I have 'senior moments' which exist independently of me.  I am not failing to pull my weight around climate change: society is in the grip of denial.

So here's my challenge to myself: to reflect on the sustainable development elephants, and give people courage to name them, without 'thingifying' them and thus distancing myself from them.

Making my work a no-fly zone

Last time I flew for work was in 2007, running a workshop in the Netherlands.  I had tried to find a way to go by boat and train, but couldn't make the timings fit in with other commitments. The last time I flew for pleasure was so long ago that I can't remember. I have turned down all work that involves flying since then, but without being up-front about this.  I say I'm unavailable or "I'm sure you can find someone locally" .  And I try to help them do just that: a great reason to network internationally and to keep in touch with people who I've come across over the years who understand both process and sustainable development, or may know someone who does.

Being up-front

On a coaching course this year, we did a pairs exercise about 'boundaries'.  We had to identify a time when we had noticed a boundary and maintained it.  We were invited to illustrate this.  As I drew the picture I realised that flying was emerging as a boundary for me.  It has been a value-in-action and I can choose to make it an espoused value too.  In that realisation I decided to make it an explicit aspect of my work.

The illustration I drew at the time shows this through the picture of sealed charter which makes 'not flying' a clear part of how I do business.

Since then, I've included this in the 'walking the talk' statement on this website, and in an updated discussion document which I share with new clients which sets out how I intend we will work together. (This latter also includes a range of other 'draft ground rules' for our consultant-client relationship: things like honesty, collaboration, learning from feedback, acting in good faith and so on.)

Testing my commitment

I've had a chance to test out this espoused value in two different situations recently.

One is a new client is based in the UK and the USA.  I set out up-front (before putting in a proposal) that I would not travel to the USA as part of this assignment.  I felt some trepidation in doing this: might I lose the work?  Reflecting further I realised that this outcome was not, surprisingly, such a big worry for me as I'm turning down work at the moment and I knew I didn't want the work if it meant flying.  The bigger source of my anxiety was that these people who I'd only just met might they think badly of me. They might interpret my refusal to fly as a criticism of them - they almost certainly are obliged to fly for work.  They might simply think me wildly eccentric.  (One day I'll blog on the EAFL meme : "environmentalists are **** loonies" ).  They might worry that association with me would make their colleagues think this about them.

I'm being very frank here - explaining my worries discretely even though I know they were quite murky at the time before I was able to pin them down precisely.

The new client was not put off, although I will continue to watch for the impact this stance has on our relationship, as well as the practicalities of the project.  Our first multi-continent workshop was run using impressive video presence facilities, and I'll blog about that separately.

The second challenge came about because I wasn't really paying attention!

I am working on stakeholder engagement for the UK's first Climate Change Risk Assessment. As part of this, there are workshops for stakeholders in the Devolved Administrations - Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  I agreed to facilitate these workshops as part of a team, with the workshops distributed between us.  Only later did I realise that - of course - Belfast is usually accessed from other parts of the UK by plane, these days.  As luck would have it, the Belfast workshop is the one date that I could do.  Could I get there without flying?  Fortunately I had a full day with no meetings on either side of it, allowing slow travel.

I checked the cost of travelling by train and ferry, using the legendary Man in Seat 61 website.  I also checked the travelling times, and worked out that two nights accommodation were probably needed, not one.  I resolved that I would absorb the additional expenses if they proved to be higher than those of my flying colleagues, and not charge for the longer travelling time.

Armed with these mitigations, I raised my 'no flying' commitment with my immediate client (the consultancy I am sub-contracted by).  They seemed fine with it.  And - thanks Sarah, you're a star - one of my facilitator colleagues said she'd travel with me too.

I still feel a bit funny about this choice to go by train and ferry rather than flying.  It takes much longer.  And if we miss a connection, or there's a storm at sea, people may criticise me for choosing a less reliable way to travel.  It feels like an experiment which could go wrong.

And I have read and re-read this blog entry, afraid to click 'publish', for some weeks now!

Experimenting with 'being the change'

I know that for many people, deciding not to fly for work would be a seriously career-limiting decision.  The way we organise our working lives and our international organisations is now so dependent on being able to travel very long distances or across seas fast, that  using only surface transport would be very inconvenient.  Even within the UK, there are lots of journeys which involve moving from one island to another, where boat is slower and - ahem - more bilious than flying.

I have the great good fortune, though, to be in a position to say 'no' to flying for work even as I recognise that this is not an option for many of the people I work with.  So I can be an experimenter, someone who tries out what a world with seriously reduced dependence on aviation might look like.  And if I can do it, perhaps I should.

How are people taking it?

The reaction from people who I've told about this has been an interesting range.  Some applauded and said "I bet your clients love it that, because you're really walking the talk".  Some said "that's a long time to be away not earning".  Others said "that's really interesting, I'd like to experiment like that, tell me how it goes".

I'm going to actively reflect on this experiment, and I'll tell you how it goes.

Breaking the Ice

Here are three great ice breakers for meetings, as described in a recent column in the environmentalist.  They are:

  • what we have in common;
  • human bingo;
  • getting to know you.

NB the photo used to illustrate the article is not a meeting set-up I would recommend. And what's with all those tissues...?

Use, adapt, enjoy, tell me how it goes, and warm things up a bit.

Wisdom in the Crowd: using CrowdWise consensus process

The New Economics Foundation is a wonderful organisation working practically and conceptually to enable us to rethink what our economy should do for us.  It calls itself a ‘think-and-do tank’. Amongst its many interests are participation and consensus-building as part of the renewal of democracy. It’s in that spirit that my near-namesake, Perry Walker (no relation) has developed the Crowd Wise tool:  a way of enabling groups to propose alternative solutions and find consensus using a combination of a slightly sophisticated voting system and discussion which allows people to take the aspects they like about a proposal and combine them to form new proposals. Sounds a bit complicated in theory!

It is much more easily understood when you try it out in practice, which is exactly what I did at the launch a couple of weeks ago.  You can try it out on 23rd September in London – see here - where our subject will be electoral reform.

Using a fictional example - the role of nuclear power

The launch was a mini-workshop where we were given some prepared options on the role nuclear power should play in a low-carbon, energy secure future.  (Of course, in a ‘real’ situation, we’d arrive at a discussion about a topic we had chosen to be present at and come with our own views which would then form the basis of the initial options.)

We were then asked to vote for the options in order of preference.  There’s a rather complex voting system, where you assign the options a preference (1st, 2nd, 3rd preference etc) although you are not obliged to rank all of them.  Depending on how many you rank, the ones you rank are assigned points.  For example, if you give a preference for five options, your 1st preference will score 5 points, your 2nd preference will score 4 points and so on.   If you decide to express a preference for only two options, your 1st preference scores 2 points and your 2nd preference scores 1 point.

The maths wizards may immediately see the significance of doing it this way: when the scores are amalgamated, it’s possible to see the degree of consensus.  In fact, the results are presented as a 'consensus coefficient', between 0 and 1.

In our nuclear power example, the results in the first round of voting varied between 0.19 (for an option based loosely on the views of the World Nuclear Association) and 0.59 (for an option based loosely on the views of Amory Lovins – demand reduction and a ‘soft energy’ path.  Since this was a demonstration workshop, we were then randomly assigned an option to brief ourselves about and represent.  We spent some time in small groups of (fictionally) like-minded people, understanding our option and discussing possible negotiating tactics. The groups were then mixed up and we had a chance to explain our option and discuss it with people who had different views.

Then came the negotiations!  This descended into horse-trading a bit, as we raced against time to find common ground with other groups.  In the end, the five options we began with were reduced to three.  One of these was from the original five, and two were new amalgams.  The consensus coefficients this time varied between 0.47 and 0.92.

The seemingly popular choice had elements that many of those supporting it did not like – perhaps this element of compromise is essential to consensus.  If we had had time for subsequent rounds, I think that more options would have emerged and perhaps what we would have ended up with would include a more precise understanding of the things that we really don’t agree about, as well as broader areas of common ground.

That’s a summary of the technical process.

Real-world example - AFC Wimbledon

We also had a fascinating insight into a real use of this tool as part of discussions about the strategic direction of a member-owned football club, AFC Wimbledon.  This process is ongoing.

The six options which the strategy group began with were generated by drawing on themes identified using a classic meta-planning technique, with the initial post-it brainstorm informed by gathering views from members and fans.

Options include “selling up to any sugar daddy who would build the club a 25,000 seater stadium” as well as something based more on the importance of the club as a community resource.

Pondering

There was a very interesting discussion afterwards, as people who might well use this technique in practice explored its features.  We wondered whether it was in itself a decision-making tool, or a tool to inform a decision.  We agreed that the provenance of the options was important and needs to be clear.  It was also clear that the expertise and information about the detail behind the options, the nuances and assumptions, need to be ‘in the room’, in order for new permutations of options to be created and for well-informed voting.

NEF stress the usefulness of this tool in consensus-building, because of the in-built incentive to find common ground: your score only goes up if more people express a preference for your option.  This is the case even if the preference is quite weak.

In my group, I observed one person who was extremely keen on ‘winning’, i.e. crafting the most popular option.  This led to him being willing to include elements of other options which our initial option completely excluded, because this would increase the common ground.  I was uncomfortable with these ‘compromises’, but perhaps that’s because I was more committed to my (fictional) position than to finding common ground.  I’m not sure whether this is a strength or a weakness of the system!

Try it out for yourself?

Perry is running another taster session so you can try out Crowd Wise for yourself.  In conjunction with AMED and NEF, there will be a workshop in London on 23rd September, from 2.00 – 4.30.  It’s just £15 (£10 for AMED and NEF members).  Find out more here.

Update

There's an interview with Perry on the Rhizome blog, here, and a description of Rhizome's use of the process (to help develop options for involving grassroots activists in organisational governance) here.

You can find case studies of CrowdWise in use here.

Tasting the Future – tangy fresh process

As you may have noticed, I'm a process aficionado. I love to hear about innovative ways of helping people have the conversations they need.  I love to try out new processes as a facilitator and a participant.  I network with fellow facilitators through AMED, the IAF and a facilitators' group on linked-in.  I read about unorthodox approaches, and sometimes I even try them with paying clients.

On Monday, I had the great treat of being a participant in someone else's workshop.  There I saw for real - not in a training setting - open space, world cafe, graphic facilitation and live plenary mind mapping all used during the same meeting.

The event was the first 'assembly' for Tasting the Future, a collaborative whole-systems attempt to innovate the food system.   It was organised by WWF, ADAS, the Food and Drink Federation and Food Ethics Council. Facilitation was provided by Hara Practice and Natural Innovation and other members of the hosting team.  There were also some people doing graphic recording, from Intuitive Intelligence Training.

Some exciting conversations and actions emerged, and you can read more about them on the Tasting the Future ning.  I'm going share some of the things I learned about process.

Dressing the room

When we arrived we sat where we liked at small tables covered with flip chart paper, with a small stack of coloured pens, crayons and chalk. There were small bowls of sweets and a colourful cartoon diagram introducing us to world cafe. And on each table there was a unique food or herb seedling, grown at Hackney City Farm, which you could buy to take home if you liked. Plants included apple mint, chamomile, lettuces, cabbage and tomato.

There was also this great picture story of our lunch: very appropriate for an event like this.

Setting the tone

There were a couple of phrases I scribbled down during the opening session.  The hosting team asked us to be strong enough to work with our differences, to become a community of innovators, to speak with intention.  We were invited to 'listen louder' if we disagreed with what someone was saying, so that we could better understand their perspective rather than blot it out with our own.

Meta-planning

Following couple of rounds of world cafe, we were asked to come up with our best ideas about what we wanted to change in the current system.  We wrote these on A5 size stickies, and these were then meta-planned (clustered) in plenary. Bear in mind there were over 100 participants, and the facilitators among you will recognise the audacity of this.  The hosting team had mikes and runners, and the lead facilitator began as usual by asking for any one idea.  She then asked people with the same idea on their sticky note to shout 'snap!'.  This was a great way of gathering up the clusters very rapidly.  A supporter did the actual sticking up, while the facilitator asked for the next idea.  It didn't take long for all the ideas to be gathered and clustered.

Whole group mind-mapping

Another daring bit of process for such a large group was the method used to identify topics for the subsequent open space session on action planning.  We all gathered around a long wall, where a large blank area of paper was taped up.

The focus question was posed: "Where do we need to take action?".  (Actually there was an adjective in there, but my memory and my photo have let me down.  Could've been 'where do we need to take collective action' or 'urgent action'.)  Then the facilitator asked us to write our name legibly on a sticky note if we had an idea we wanted to add to the mind map.  Rules for the mind map included that there's no such thing as a bad idea, it's fine to disagree with a previous idea, and the owner of the idea gets to say where on the map it goes.  There were support facilitators  collecting up the names so the lead facilitator could call people by name. Other members of the team had mikes and ensured each person making a contribution could be heard.  Two of the team were scribes, with four colours of marker pens.  As a new theme and idea was added, the scribes would write it up on the evolving map.

One at a time, those who wanted to offered ideas for action, and said whether they were twigs to add to existing branches, or new branches.  This went on for about 30 minutes.  It was beautifully controlled, and everyone who wanted to had an opportunity to contribute.

When the mind map was complete, we were each given three dots and invited to use them to indicate which actions we thought were the most important.  Over tea, the dots were counted and around a dozen action areas were identified which had enough support to be the topics for the subsequent open space action planning session.

Open space

Over tea the room was rearranged so there was one large circle in the middle.  The topics which had emerged from the mind map were written up on large pieces of paper, each with a number which corresponded to a numbered part of the room.  The method of sorting out who went to which session was simpler than I'd seen before.  There was no signing up of participants to different topics, or assigning topics to time slots.  Instead, there was one 50 minute time slot.  Within that time, participants could go to whichever topic they wanted, and leave it whenever they wanted.  This is the law of two feet.  Topics were hosted by volunteer hosts, who put themselves forward while the open space was being organised.  If a topic didn't have a host, it didn't run.  There was also the opportunity for hosts to offer additional topics, and I think one was proposed at this stage.

Very soon we were ready to go to our spaces and discuss our topic. The host had a prepared flip where they were asked to record key information: topic title, who hosted, who participated, three key points to share and actions the group would take (if any).  The guidance was very clear on actions: they were to be things someone in the group had agreed to take on, not recommendations for action by others.  As the facilitator said "We're the ones we've been waiting for".

Graphic recording

As the day progressed, a team of graphic recorders captured the highlights in this lovely illustration.

Update

There have now been three Assemblies and other meetings and workshops as part of Tasting the Future. Check out the prospectus for more details.