What trust, experience and a bit of ‘failing forward’ can do…

Sometimes, a process design job is not all that grandiose, but it just plays people to their strength and is a beautiful combination of energies and intentions.

(photo credit: CTA)

(photo credit: CTA)

I just emerged a few weeks back from one of these experiences. And the beauty of that was the fact that this could have all gone down really badly hadn’t it been for a dedicated team, some good ideas in the process design, and a need to unite energies. All stars were aligned. Even better when it’s one of the swan songs of CTA and it’s nice to leave a collective signature that makes us all look back with joy at what just came out.

What was the job and what was special about?

Over the last 40 years, CTA has used a wide range of communication tools to reach out to rural communities, such as rural radio and printed media. It was no surprise that CTA organised this ‘Communicating ICT for Development Workshop‘ from 15 April to 7 May 2020 as one of the many workshops it has organised.

What was different? CTA is closing this year, after nearly 40 years of action to promote agricultural transformation in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific countries.

What was also special was that CTA was my first client ever as freelancer, with exactly the same team (Chris Addison and Chipo Msengezi),  and this job also brought me back to work with my former ILRI boss and (still) friend Peter Ballantyne, who himself knew Chris and Chipo very well. A funny coincidence, which wasn’t one.

And more prosaically, what was also special was that we didn’t have loads of time on our hands for quite a process to set up, contracting to do, all activities with quite some project folks and external communication specialists to rope in quickly.

The basic idea was to learn from four projects using Blockchain in agriculture, to understand what they were trying to achieve and how they would go about communicating their work, their blockchain experience, their results etc. Peer learning and sharing to distil some broad lessons learned for other people and organisations interested in using ICT applications (and in particular Blockchain), communicate it and scale their work up.

The choices we made

With only a few weeks to go before everything would be completed, we set out to organise three online meetings:

  1. A first two-hour meeting to get everyone together and for the project leader to learn from each other’s Blockchain experience, aspirations, questions etc. with communication specialists around to observe.
  2. A one-hour meeting to get everyone prepared to work in teams and get to the bottom of comms so as to understand what would seem as best comms options for the projects to communicate their work to their partners and intended audiences, and to communicate to potential investors that might be interested in scaling these projects up.
  3. Another two-hour meeting with everyone again to report back from the comms work and draw general insights about how to communicate ICT projects more effectively.

We went for Zoom as our video conferencing platform (mainly because of the breakout room functionality), and Google Drive as our folder structure to keep all presentations, notes, recordings etc. available for all involved. Simple.

And we planned a process design that would be quite simple:

  • Very short presentations (7 to 10 minutes)
  • Reflecting back, sometimes in breakouts, sometimes in plenary
  • Getting peer-assist type support via Liberating Structures’ Wise Crowds
  • In the final meeting we also had a bit of a scenario-based insight harvesting session.

Mixed with Zoom breakout rooms this was meant to be a simple but easy set up that would allow everyone to quickly interact, share insights etc.

And between the second and the last meeting the teams organised themselves to fill out a Powerpoint template to report back on the comms options that seemed useful steps forward. All in all, simple but quite effective.

The process as it unfolded

There was a smooth transition throughout:

  • The plenary work entailed very short presentations which helped keep everyone focused and engaged and find out more about technology, other projects and applications, about communicating ICT etc.;
  • The break out sessions kept everyone on their toes, thinking and sharing, learning, getting to know other people etc.;
  • The parallel team work to develop the comms options helped delve deeper and prepare everyone, despite limited time to do it all, and they reinforced the dynamics among team members, with perhaps a small element of positive competition.

We organised also another quick check-in among all teams in between meeting 2 and 3 to make sure everyone was on the same page and progressing well enough.

The result

Each project team – bar one that just couldn’t schedule more time for this, fair enough – gathered interesting feedback on their project pitch, on their comms options, on their possible ways forward.

The comms specialists were able to learn much more about Blockchain and garnered additional ideas for their media and channels.

A small network of people was able to engage and develop a budding bond that – who knows – might creatively flare up again in the future.

CTA managed to deliver all of this in very little time.

Although I certainly wouldn’t call our results spectacular, given the time we had and the level of high engagement required both in the meetings and in the team work, I am personally quite happy with our results.

Failing forward insights?

This experience taught me a few things:

  • No matter how rushed things might seem, it’s still possible to pull something together;
  • Trust among the organising members, and experience/expertise to let everyone play to their best strengths is the key to success;
  • Zoom breakouts remain an incredibly powerful and energising feature which, according to Chris “left me more energised after two hours of meeting than after many of the one-hour meetings I attend”;
  • The simple logic of helping each other unlocks so many insights so quickly. Wise Crowds was great to get everyone to receive insights in no time.

Next time around, I – and I think everyone in our group – would plan things ahead of time to get them properly planned, get even more people around and draw more extensive lessons that can be re-planted directly in appropriate networks.

But for something that started off two months ago, and finished after 3-4 weeks, this edition gave an ok song to the CTA swan, and proved once again that ‘in trust we trust’ 😉

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