A daily dose of process literacy

In my quest towards developing people’s process literacy, I had an opportunity to make another small stride a couple of weeks ago. During an event where I was MC, I used a tiny bit of the air time I was granted to share one process tip per day.


Here are the ones I shared, and some others that I had planned to use (but didn’t get round to):

“What the heck did you mean”? Write coloured cards, flipcharts and other public writings with capital letters and full sentences. That will be a business skill useful for your future conferencing, and it will help the recording of the works.

The public stage fear not, young jedi”. If you fear public speaking, get to know the room/stage where you will have to perform. And get to know the audience by meeting as many people as you can. When speaking, focus on the people you know (your friends) and remember that no one wants you to fail, they’re all supporting you. And most importantly: rehearse!

Pop your mic up”. The art of holding a microphone. With mikes, you aim at a pop music effect, ie. easy listening. On the other hand you want to avoid the heavy metal stance (mic in your mouth – really not cool as an audio effect) and the reggae stance (mic by your hips because you’re too relaxed). The pop stance is about one fist away from your mouth.

Feed your feedback forward“. One way to give good feedback: Make sure it’s welcome (not unsolicited) – and btw the onus is on you as a collective to develop a culture that favors regular and quick feedback. Give it on the spot as much as possible. Be specific about what you noticed and what the impact was e.g. “When you did xyz, this is the effect it had on me”. “When you said abc, this is how I felt”. E.g. “when you said communication doesn’t matter, you made me feel invisible and useless, and resentful as a result”.

Read the colors” – the language of colors is fascinating. Including for flipcharts, Powerpoint slides etc. Some research shows that black is dull, red makes people upset, and that the most comfortable colours for core content are earth tones: dark green, brown, purple, dark blue. Use these in your slides and write-ups!

Remember me”. This is about your presentations. Use fewer words in each slide and more visuals to harness those words – make YOURSELF the focus, not the presentation. And see more at: https://km4meu.wordpress.com/2016/10/02/wow-public-speaking/

Make space for the ladies”. When you set up a ‘panel discussion’, first of all be aware that you don’t have to (there are many alternatives to panel discussions). But if you insist on a panel, avoid ‘Manels’ (all-men panels) or ‘womanels’ for that matter. And when it starts, most importantly, ask a woman the first question always, that will give them (and possibly other women on stage) more incentives to engage more.

Make it worth their while“. This is about sharing information, whether in a Powerpoint presentation, or more generally talking to another person. Think always about the other person – what’s in it for them? WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) and drop all the details that are not useful (e.g. sharing your research protocol details to policy makers)…

Was giving this series of tips effective? Probably not in the sense of changing behaviour directly. And it happened in my spiel in the morning so at a time when not everyone was caffeinated enough to fully embrace these ideas.

Was it useful? Difficult to say again, but with behaviour change, I’m a disciple of ‘Bend it further, one little step at a time’…

Was it fun to do? For me, certainly, and I think for some of the participants.

And actually I did see some people embrace my chart writing tips, and I’m sure some of the 300 people present then might have picked up the general idea that there’s a whole process world out there, even if they only saw the tip of the iceberg.

And that’s one little way to honour my contribution to the world… More to come!

Learning never ends…


Getting to ‘wow’ with public speaking and presenting

I should have added this post a while back but here it is anyway, as it relates to the world of facilitation too…

Agile KM for me... and you?

Getting to wow with public speaking (Credits: Jonny Goldstein/FlickR) Getting to wow with public speaking (Credits: Jonny Goldstein/FlickR)

My current work environment is academic. Which means people around me produce a hell of a lot of information. And presentations.

I would have thought their presenting and public speaking skills were very good, considering… uh uh… not quite the case. And there are many reasons for that. But I guess many people around me are actually busy undertaking their research, not spending (so) much time fine-tuning their presentation. “It only takes a few minutes to put together a presentation”, right? UH UH!!

This a real pity, because it means entire years of research can see their future use be wasted by one single badly designed, or badly delivered presentation (or both). So after thinking about this for a while, and encouraged by a couple of colleagues who wanted to get this kind of information out, I put together a presentation about what…

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Shaking up the other plenary dinosaur: Panel discussions – redux

I had already dealt with one of the biggest killers of engagement in meetings and events – Powerpoint intoxication.

The main reason behind a lot of disengagement at meetings and events - and ditto with panels (image credit: Scott Adams)

The main reason behind a lot of disengagement at meetings and events – and ditto with panels (image credit: Scott Adams)

Now is the time to kill another darling of the crowds (or rather: of event organisers): the panel discussion.

Panel discussion (photo credit: Randstad Canada)

Panel discussion (Credits: Randstad Canada / FlickR)

And I don’t mean ‘kill’ here in a definitive and burying kind of way, but rather in the sense of rejuvenating a real dinosaur of a practice, a la “the panel is dead, long live the panel”!

And as you might expect, I’m not the first one to look into this. Some eminent thinkers and facilitators (Duncan Green, Nancy White – is this a color show actually?) have been there before me and laid out the pathway. I would like to synthesise some of their offerings and offer a few ideas of my own in the mix.

And before I start, a couple of preamble comments:

  • Panel discussions are not a problem per se. Just like PowerPoint presentations, they are victims of their success. The real problem lies in the fact that panel discussions are considered as the norm and default. Need to  have a plenary discussion about some common theme? Have a panel! Want to feature various experts: organise a panel! Don’t know what to do? How about a panel? Want to die of boredom? Make sure you go for a panel!
Bored audience? (photo credit: unclear. Source: https://speakingoutevents.com/2010/03/25/beingboring/)

Bored audience? (Credits: unclear. Source: https://speakingoutevents.com/2010/03/25/beingboring/)

  • Again, much like Powerpoint presentations, the next problem is that panel discussions can also be – and quite regularly are – not well delivered. And it’s just causing
  • The problem here is that people check out, they are just not feeling bothered or interested by the content of these panels because they’re so ubiquitous. Oxfam’s Duncan Green on The Guardian further elaborated on the various reasons why these panels are no panacea. So it’s time for due diligence.

A final thing to say is that ‘form follows function’ and replacing a panel with anything else is a decision pending on what the topic and outcome for that topic is. So the alternatives I’m suggesting below are not meant to replace classic panels everywhere all the time, they are just alternatives you might want to consider.

So here we go for a round of alternatives to the classic panel discussion:

Talk show (Credits: J Mettraux / FlickR)

Talk show (Credits: J Mettraux / FlickR)

Chat show / celebrity interview

This alternative is basically a panel discussion in an informal setting, ideally with a lounge sofa, some background music (at the start and stop) etc. to give this a more relaxed and intimate feel.

The special magic of this format is that it feels so entirely different to the typical corporate stage of a panel discussion. That is an intriguing first bite, and it actually tends to make everyone also feel more at ease, which adds up to the informal atmosphere of sharing private stories etc.

The trap or caveat is in not paying enough attention to the atmosphere that makes up such a talk show. You really want to be adding music, sofa, nice decoration around, people dressed more casually perhaps, and ‘panelists’ (or ‘talk show guests’) that have a sense of humor to break the ice and add to the atmosphere.


At this stage I know at least 4 variations of this participation format but all focus on a central stage (what I usually call ‘the inner circle’) with a few people talking, and a periphery (the ‘outer circle’) at which all other participants are simply listening.

So here for the variations:

Fishbowl (Credits: Alper)

Fishbowl (Credits: Alper)

a) The classic fishbowl (described in the Knowledge Sharing Toolkit) usually consists of 3 to 6 seats of people in the inner circle that talk through the session without interaction. It can be really useful to use this when you want others to pay attention to some experiences.

b) The Samoan circle starts exactly like the previous variation, but this time people from the inner circle can free their seat up for those from the outer circle once they’re done saying their bits. And if no seat is freed, anyone from the outer circle can gently tap on the shoulder of any ‘talking fish’ in the inner circle to invite them to free their seat. That’s one of the variations I use most because it creates a safe space for many people to express themselves and to do so with ‘purpose’ after having listened to others, and it’s inviting a larger group of people to chip in.

c) The experience-based fishbowl resembles variation a) again. But this time it really is consciously about  inviting some ‘experts’ (people that have concrete experience with issue / process / procedure / tool / strategy xyz) to the central stage. They talk and share their experiences, and at some point the rest of the audience is invited to buzz and write down then forward one or more specific question(s) they have for the experts. This variation is great indeed to zoom in on what happens at the far technical end of a field and thus a great way to level knowledge.

Finally d) the facilitated fishbowl (favored by colleagues from Community At Work)  usually starts as a semi circle with the first row being the ‘inner (talking) circle’ of the other variations, and subsequent rows the ‘outer (silent) circle’. This is the only variation that has a facilitator in the inner circle to help paraphrase and clarify what the talking people in the middle really mean to say. This can be a very empowering and liberating participation format for groups that have different ‘factions’ that really have trouble engaging with and listening to each other.

The magic of all fishbowl formats is the emphasis on having a large portion of the participants to shut up and listen intently. If that principle is respected, it actually creates a conversation that is incredibly serene and slow-paced (in a positive way, as in ‘slow food’, ie.: quality conversations). The other bit of magic is the opportunity it provides to get certain people to be at the central stage in a non-threatening environment (yes, you’re hearing well, it’s also useful for introverts, and much more than that). And though you might think people won’t start talking in the inner circle, they never can resist doing so.

The trap or caveat is to choose your fishbowl variation for the right purpose and with the right people. Some variations (a, c) require people with real expertise. Un-facilitated variations don’t work well if people start asking general questions (to no one in particular) rather than conversing on a topic. Variation a) can feel pretty miserable if one of the people talks too much in a smaller group where no one challenges them… so think it through and be prepared to draw lessons for the future.

Chain reaction panel and other variations to the panel format

There are various interesting variations to a real ‘panel’ discussion:

Unruly classic panel: This is a panel without moderator. I’ve never tried this format, but could imagine it might sit between a panel and a talkshow on the spectrum of formal to informal ‘plenary group talks’.

Roundtable Discussions (Credits: MSCSA / FlickR)

Roundtable Discussions (Credits: MSCSA / FlickR)

Roundtable: This is like the unruly classic but unfolds even more as an informal conversation as the roundtable set up gears people in the direction of a collegial exchange rather than a polite shoal of experts…

Debate / cross-fire: Here the idea is clearly to get people (or even groups of people) with different, or antagonistic views, to discuss a topic together. Because there is much more matter for controversy here, there is a special twist that makes this interesting, but it also puts more onus on the facilitator to do a good job at getting the group through this thinking process. One of the most famous types of such cross-fire formats is the Oxford debate. This kind of format also includes the Fishbowl battle that I blogged about in the past.

Chain reaction / panel: Finally, the chain reaction panel is a format where each panelist is asking another panelist some questions, so they all play a role of interviewer and interviewee. See this format at work here.

The magic and caveats of these different riffs on the panel discussion are different for each of them. The key is to create a fresh session for what looks like an outworn format.

The What if? conversation

This plenary group conversation starts with this question ‘What if? (abcd)’ rather than with answers given by panelists. I’ve never used this format and I was first introduced to it through this post by Nancy White. But in any case it sounds like an interesting alternative that again will create a different feeling simply from the fact that the ‘panelists’ are not going to perform what you expect them to. They will be exploring, and with a bit of ‘yes and’ magic they could really do wonders! The caveat, on the other hand is that you need to have a group that is ready to go out on a limb.


What if… none of this works for you?

Creative Panel (Credits: Iabuk / FlickR)

Creative Panel (Credits: Iabuk / FlickR)

Ok so none of these alternatives is finding grace in your eyes? Shaken a bit too much out of your comfort zone? Fair enough! Every change journey starts with small steps. So you’re still going for a panel, but then at least pick some of the best advices about how to make panel discussion work here (whence I directly borrowed some of the formats presented in this post), here or here. Most of these posts emphasise the importance of controversy, getting the speakers to meet beforehand, and a punch facilitator/moderator that sets the tone of the panel.

Now, this is not even to mention an entirely new aspect of panel discussions and the likes: interactive engagement technology such as Slido, Mentimeter and more… AND there’s also plenty of other options in terms of how people might be presenting information. I sketched some in the presentation uploaded onto this post. And for your information miming, roleplay, theater skits etc. and other alternative storytelling modes can also be great ways to portray some important issues in a radically ‘different’ way.

So the solutions on offer are plenty…

Final pieces of advice

This one I heard only last year: if your panel involves women, always ask the first question to one of them, as they are more likely to talk later than if you start with a man. Many men tend to monopolise the conversation. As Margaret Thatcher used to say (one of the few pieces of wisdom I credit her for):

“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”

And of course try and avoid ‘manels’ (all male panels) or ‘womanels’ if possible at all.

At the end of the day, all the advice above doesn’t really matter until you are clear about what you are trying to achieve for each of the topics you want to brush through.

But adding an element of surprise nearly always works in your favour.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you 😉

When a facilitator takes a stand with principles – the yoda soul

Yoda-Principles (Credits: James Deacon / FlickR)

Yoda-Principles (Credits: James Deacon / FlickR)

Not everyone is principle-based.

As I’m learning in ‘the culture map‘ there are cultures that are primarily principle-based and others that are more application-based. As in a) caring about the general context and nature of ‘stuff’ or b) caring about what you can do with ‘stuff’. In simpler words, why vs. what and how.

Particularly in process design discussions, bringing your own principles on board as facilitator can add a bit of ‘soul’ to your approach.

For instance, I don’t facilitate anything for anyone anywhere, because I have some principles. Some of my principles are obvious (to me anyway): I work around interactive events and processes, not orchestrated death by Powerpoint etc.; I work with people that allow me to co-design from the start, not facilitate an event that’s been cooked for me.

Other principles of mine are more subtle, less obvious, and may even take more time for a facilitator to be conscious of them, all the more so to ensure they are put in practice.

One of these principles for me is to ask:

  • What’s in it for the participants?
  • Who is missing in this perspective?
  • What are the implications of that?

There is a potential risk of going blindly with the choices of a client (the person-in-charge) to the extent that there is no attention to equity or to the widest interest group possible.

While when facilitating ‘in the room’ I don’t think a facilitator has to take a stand, in the design phase it is not only helpful to question the choices made by a person in charge but it can also make the difference between an event or initiative you want to be associated with or not.

Other such principles could be related to these questions:

  • What are going to be the benefits of this event/initiative over time? For whom? (Is anyone gaining anything here?)
  • Who is potentially losing out with this event/initiative?
  • How clear is it for a group that a decision is taken? Who needs to be part of the decision-making? (Are you following an autocratic approach?)
  • Who should be informed about this? (Is everyone that should be aware of this?)
  • What is unique about this event/initiative that couldn’t happen otherwise? (Is it worth having this event in the first place?)

So next time you are helping design an event, it might be useful to think again about what principles drive your work and make you want to accept a gig or not… And maybe it will be time to let your yoda soul out?

The role – and attitude – of a facilitator in designing events

I had to take a stand and clarify this.

I’ve recently witnessed some event design processes that went really badly, where the ‘client’ and the ‘facilitator’ ended up at complete odds with each other. With as result a seemingly permanently damaged relationship, and the serious risk of derailing even the event they were planning together.

This incident offers me a good opportunity to restate what the role of a facilitator is at process design stage. And not only the role, but also the overall attitude. But first here’s for roles and responsibilities:

Process design is a complex map (Credits: The Value Web)

Process design is a complex map (Credits: The Value Web)

Listening (and asking questions)

First and foremost, you don’t jump on process design, you listen. Carefully. You read if you’re being given background literature. You make sure you have enough context to understand the context in which you’ll be operating. You prepare your questions to clarify that context. And consistently, relentlessly, unhesitatingly you listen and listen and listen some more and better.

You want to find out about the motivation behind the event/process, the people involved in the organising and participating sides, the possible tensions, the way things have already been organised etc. All kinds of things addressed in the BOSSY HERALD.

Helping to identify topics, outcomes etc.

In process design, of course your role then is to clarify the list of topics that your client – your ‘person in charge’ – means to address, and what outcomes they hope to achieve for each of these topics. This is not only good practice for your client to articulate their objectives, but also for both of you to get a sense of realism put into the time planned for that event or initiative against the objectives set.

Your role is to develop processes for each of these topic outcomes, but you need to get that first part right. And how do you do it? You guessed it, by listening (see point 1).

Help check logistics

A very important aspect that could easily fall between the cracks otherwise is the logistics of the meeting. Help your client make sure they have booked a proper room, have all the equipment you and they need, have instructed people to help with e.g. the set up of ICT tools etc.

You can also refer to my 10 advices to dramatically improve un-facilitated meetings; they contain some ideas about this.

Teasing issues out 

I alluded to this earlier in the listening part. Your role is to understand what is invisible, unspoken, but actually playing a critical role. This kind of a teasing out is a business critical skill when it comes to developing your network, as you need to be able to recognise the challenging gigs from the simple ones (and to decide whether to take them on or not).

So keep asking questions: about who has the power to decide things, who is missing in the room, what topics cause frictions, who is possibly at odds with who else, why things have been done in a certain way, what decisions have been made to do things differently and why etc. etc.

In the process you may also find out about some useful procedures, frames of reference, templates etc. that could shape your event. But tease things out you must.

Clarifying who takes decision etc.

A specific point that requires more emphasis here is the question of ‘who has the power to make a decision’ – whether the decision be about the process design or about any point of content discussed during the event. It remains one of the difficult but very impactful elements of your work.

I tend to work with a clear ‘person-in-charge’ whom I feel free to call upon during the meetings to take decisions (about time allocated, about choices in adjusting design, about deciding the issue). It can (and should) follow a much more thorough process of clarifying the decision rule, but even in the absence of that, you can’t get away without asking who calls the shots, unless you’re ready to fall into a nightmare scenario.

Remaining neutral

Apart from some specific cases that I’ll explore in an upcoming post, you’re not supposed to take decisions for your person(s)-in-charge. You’re supposed to focus on the process and on how to help everyone do and share their best thinking. So in the process design phase you can make suggestions about certain design implications, but the content items are not for you to comment on. They’re for your client.

And because things can and usually somewhat do run out of hand, your last task in this ‘process design process’ is…

Educating your client about process literacy

It’s also your job – it certainly has become my vocation – to also teach your clients about processes. So that next time around, when you work together, the design process is easier and smoother. Because you share language, and perhaps even a vision about how a process is supposed to run. This is about everything that relates to your job. You can decide to keep it all for yourself but I find that it really helps my clients to explain how I do stuff and what effect it has. Once they see process they can become better process visionaries and implementers themselves.

That little bit of building peoples’ process literacy pays back 10-fold.

Now, about that attitude…

As I got to read in the ‘culture map‘, some cultures are more ‘principles-oriented’ and others are more ‘application-oriented’. I find my culture, and my personality, are very much geared towards principles. And for me attitude is also a matter or principles. I don’t do my work without thinking why I do it. I have ethic, ethos. And so for me the attitude when designing a process is of utmost importance. And it relates to what Sam Kaner would describe as the first commandment of facilitation:

Be helpful, be supportive.

Even if as facilitator you don’t like the event, or your client, you’re there to help them,  to fa-ci-li-tate their work, not to make it more difficult.

So a facilitator should assume a globally positive and flexible behavior, no matter what.

And of course things happen and problems occur, but you learn from these and get to plan things better the next time around. So keep that in mind and until the show is over, rub it in and give your best 🙂


Good bye acute meetingitis! Plan your day-to-day meetings as a true KMer…

Another post fished from my Agile KM site that should have featured here… And now I’m caught up across my blogs.

Agile KM for me... and you?

On this blog I talk a lot about (large) events, how they’re designed, facilitated, useful, successful, impactful… or not. There is a related, mundane, day-to-day topic: the case of everyday meetings. We spend sometimes so much time that we might want to think about how to make them as useful.

And in this post, I just want to stop and consider how to plan your time in these day-to-day meetings in the best possible way, from a KMer perspective (also because good KMers are innovation conveners – and good practice-shapers).

So many (bad) reasons to hold a meeting - time to reverse the trend (Credits: Axbom) So many (bad) reasons to hold a meeting – time to reverse the trend (Credits: Axbom)

So here are some principles to get your started in planning your (attendance at) meetings:

Come prepared

Long preparation, short war so… If you’re not prepared, you’re likely going to be wasting your time and others’. And as I keep referring to meeting cost calculators (such as Meeting Ticker

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Do you suffer from acute ‘meetingitis virtuales’? Here’s some antidote

Another post fished from my Agile KM site that should have featured here…

Agile KM for me... and you?

Does this sound familiar? (Original item here)

But then repeatedly, several times per week or per day even?

You are clearly a patient of acute meetingitis virtuales (or MV88 – 88 standing for infinity infinity), a modern virus that is affecting more and more people every week, far from the public attention it deserves…

How has MV88 become such a widespread disease? We are a globally connected world, where people increasingly pay attention to their carbon footprint and try to reduce their travels (look here to calculate, very very roughly, your carbon footprint).
That’s all very well… except we can’t suffer from that typical homo socialus affliction without doing something about it!

Here are some ways to deal with THE virus of our times…

Know your enemy (the symptoms)

All the good (bad) reasons to have a meeting (credits: Brooks Language Services) All the good (bad) reasons to have a meeting (credits: Brooks Language Services)

Meetings are the mega virus of which

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