Time, the ever-present elephant in the room of our meetings (1/4)

Time, the ultimate obsession of human beings, is nearly the only variable we have no control on whatsoever, and the measure that separates us from the end of our existence.

Time, the big obsession of our lives and meetings (Photo credit: CathRedfern / FlickR)

Time is not only a reason for existential angst at the macro level of our life. It also creeps into our meetings and interactions in a myriad of significant ways:

  • In how we obsess about time generally and the overall conduct of the meeting
  • In the expectations we have about what it takes to realistically achieve an objective in a given amount of time
  • In how we are respecting people’s time and finishing every segment of interactions on time or not
  • In the pacing we use to interact with each other
  • In how people are monopolising the conversation and depriving others of air…time
  • In how much (or rather how little) we should focus on passing information – which can easily be done asynchronously and individually – as opposed to conversing together, which asynchronously can’t be done with quite the same effects as face-to-face interactions
  • In our tolerance to go further than business-as-usual or not
  • In how we manage our energy in our collaboration and interactions
  • In how we create space for meta reflections, sharing our feelings, disclosing our private conversation etc.

These manifestations of time in our interactions have a major influence on the quality of our interactions and what we can expect out of them.

So, what have I learned about time in our interactions?

It’s such a big topic that I’ll split it up in several posts, to explore in four breaths:

  1. Time as a driver of our process design
  2. Time as the comfortable space to reveal ourselves
  3. Time as the uncomfortable measure accompanying our collective groaning
  4. Time as an adjective of our interactions, to be thought again radically (towards…?)

Time as driver of our process design

Time is one of the finite resources in our gatherings. When designing a conversation or event, it is one of the hard variables that requires us to think carefully about what is possible and what is not.

And as this quote illustrates, we do not make a particularly rational use of time when thinking about what is possible.

Like so many things in our human beings’ existence, we want to bend time to our desire, control it and manipulate it, fit it in our mental boxes so it can be dealt with neatly and efficiently, dare I say ‘pperfectly’. And here our first lessons about time emerge.

Meaningful interactions take time, and so do our deepest outcome desires

What can realistically be achieved in the space of two hours? One day? Three days? Four sessions over one month?

Even if we ‘just’ wanted to devise a strategic plan, review a programme, brainstorm around a topic, imagine a future together, we have to be realistic as to what can be achieved in the artificial setting of a gathering. What’s more, when we superimpose an objective of getting people to know themselves and to get to know the others and acknowledge their differences and commonalities, ie. when we are also working on the relationships and on achieving trust between people, we have to be even more humble about the baby steps can that be achieved.

Human interactions are characterised by all the quirks that play out at the interplay between our ideas, our feelings, our inclinations, values, our language, our habits, our self-consciousness, our degree of empathy, our understanding of group dynamics etc. etc. Do we seriously take all of this for granted? Are we back to the hypothesis of homo economicus who deals with life with the rational precision of a robot? When you think about how feelings shape even (vividly) our memory of things, let’s realise that we are dealing with homo sentiens and one homo sentiens is complex enough, let alone a whole group of us trying to get somewhere together.

We have wild dreams about solving the world, finding quick and durable solutions. So when will we learn that these objectives are inseparable from the relationships that contribute to these outcomes? In ‘real life’ we don’t (or hardly ever) become friends for life in just one moment spent together. Developing relationships takes care and momentum.

Our impatience to achieve our most deeply desired outcomes is a reflection of our core misunderstanding of human dynamics, and of how real time plays out at a completely different pace to what we hope.

Humility is the key here… And breaking down our outcomes into achievable steps. Better two small and concrete steps forward that will effectively be taken than 10 big leaps that will remain another abandoned intention on the way to hell.

Time is hidden in many aspects of our interactions, and remains a blind spot

Interestingly, even when at a strategic level we may have accounted sufficient and realistic time for specific conversations and desired outcomes, we may remain blind, in our process design, to the time-crunching quirks of interactions… which comprise, for instance:

  • Making sure that everyone is around before you can start an activity with the group
  • What it takes to frame, explain, introduce activities
  • The problems that happen with technical interferences (internet connection going down or slowly, a program with a glitch etc.)
  • The time to transition from one activity to the next, from one speaker to the next, from one (physical or virtual breakout) set-up to the next
  • The time it takes on average for someone to express themselves in front of a plenary group
  • The time it takes to get responses to questions in plenary, and the domino effect it has on inviting other contributions

Are we seriously thinking about all these chronophage activities in our design? Do we then have an even more realistic sense of how much real time we have on our hands? Or do we simply assume that a 60-minute segment means 60 minutes of productive time, when in reality it’s probably closer to 50 minutes, or even (much) less…

Time is not the measure of choice to manage group interactions

Unlike (some) children, adults want to finish a task that is given to them. Finishing on time per se is not the ultimate goal to cherish for a group, unless you are just illustrating a point and not exploring an issue ‘for real’. It’s better to come to the bottom of things, and get the group to feel (at least somewhat) complete than to manage only by time.

And I know, sometimes our participants seem perfectly happy to just finish an exercise on time rather than to go on and follow the logic until the end. But is that not a case of intellectual laziness or simply checking out from the overall interaction, settling for ‘business as usual’ or whatever point some people have decided (“I don’t care, this is not for me anyway”)?

So here is another assumption to seriously shake off: managing by time is not respectful of peoples’ intelligence, capacities and desires. It just gives the epidermic sensation of release and of having ticked the box. But meaningful relationship-building and developing sustainable solutions is no box-ticking or back-patting exercise. It is raw, it is rough, it is intense, and it takes whatever time it has to take, because it’s meeting people where they are, not where they should be.

The health of a group also depends on respecting their time

All of that said, we cannot get completely oblivious to the personal time that people are dedicating for interactions. Going over that time significantly, repeatedly, and/or without giving them a choice, is not respectful of the gift of their presence. Ditto for all these interactions where basic needs (food, drinks, bio-breaks, need to take a full break) are ignored for the pretentious sake of the greater good. But a hungry person is not a rational being. A thirsty fellow is not a happy participant. Someone who badly needs to go to the toilet is no longer capable of working in the service of the group, and someone with their head rammed in with information cannot take it any longer.

We simply need to respect the breaks and closing times agreed, generally, and keep our realism in what can be done outside of these boundaries.

Respecting peoples’ biological needs is a requirement, not a variable that can be messed around with. Productive time is all that happens between those ‘biological adjustments’.

So for that matter, an event I attended once (as a participant documenting sessions) where people were sent to lunch past 3pm after a slow and evidently painful death by Powerpoint (with very little or no time left for something as dry and as timidly participatory as a Q&A session) is a caricatural example of what not to do.

Time, in process design, is a measure of our outlook to either control or to embrace the world around us

Whose time are we actually accounting for? In many cases, it’s the sand timer that is playing out in the head of the sponsor or organiser, not of the contributors (participants)…

Time is a measure of our impatience and of our self-centredness. Instead, we would be much better off happily embracing time as the landscape running behind a genuine encounter with ourselves and with others, where we are, where they are, not where we should be. That outlook determines our capacity to cope with time early on in the process, and that’s not the end of story about time, only the beginning…

I’ll unpack the next level of the sand timer in the next blog post.

For now though, let’s ponder this humbling quote from one of my favourite jazz trumpet players…

(certainly not my favourite tune performed by Miles, but here you go, on par with the theme…)

When ‘going online’ invites us to rethink (also face-to-face) interactions – A new dawn for collaboration?

How do you approach the world, and life?

You likely tend to consider that things are either ‘half full’ or ‘half empty’. I personally always adopted the half full glass, as a guarantee for an easier life.

Yin and yang

A new dawn of collaboration through a double-lens perspective (photo credit: Eleonora Albasi / FlickR)

So there we have it, the bloody Coronavirus crisis.

Affecting, transforming, crushing, redefining, alienating, crystallising, metabolising our lives and perspectives.

Our social interactions have started to change. The result of social – oops, physical – distancing:

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 21.05.11

My social stream is full of anecdotes relating to this new social reality. Amidst this novel situation, people are subtly taking notice of some interesting process aspects…

A small interaction that made me smile this morning: A team member who is based in a different country and thus always works remotely with our otherwise co-located team was excited this morning that: “Now you will all be here with me!” With “here” she meant the remote space. All of a sudden we are all at the same level and the hierarchy of “in the room” and “remote” is gone. Which also made me think of the way that we sometimes call people who call into a meeting the “virtual folks” or the “phone people”, as if we, the hosts, were the only ones with physical bodies in a real space and our own space somehow mattered more than theirs…

(Eva Schiffer, KM4Dev message)

In another recent chat I had to quickly pull together some good practices for online collaboration, one person mentioned that “online meetings take so much more preparation than face-to-face ones“. And that made me smile. For at least two reasons:

1. People are waking up to the ABC of collaboration and to process literacy

Many people are currently forced to move their meetings etc. online as they are struggling with frozen travel, frozen budgets, self isolation, quarantine, home arrest-type situations etc., people are indeed realising that it takes some effort to work together online… Like it requires:

  • some idea of the conversations you want to have
  • some idea of what you want to achieve for each of these conversations
  • some sense of what can realistically be achieved in an online meting without making people too tired or jaded
  • some thinking about the best process to involve everyone’s best thinking and to tap into the collective intelligence
  • some use of facilitation skills (in whatever configuration) to hold all of this together
  • some preparation by the participants to also make the most of their time together
  • some etiquette for people to be able to collaborate together (ie. showing your face, muting when you’re not talking etc. – hopefully more from me on this soon)
  • ideally, some level of familiarity, or even trust among the people present
  • and some thinking about the technology stewardship (who will take care of setting up the online platform, translating the process online etc.)…

Frankly this is great news, it means people are slowly getting a hang of what working with other fellow human beings actually means in practice. Here is the first half of this new dawn for collaboration: online (or blended with face-to-face) collaboration everywhere, all the time, with people that are actually more set up for success than they’ve ever been…


Hallelujah! (photo credit: Tone’o / FlickR)

Pity we had to wait for the Coronavirus to get us on this pathway but whatever it takes, the trend is very encouraging, even uplifting!


Err, wait, hold on… something’s funny here…

2. We have taken face-to-face meetings, workshops and conferences for granted for too long

It just dawned on me, when I heard online meetings take a lot more preparation than face-to-face ones, that we are discovering some plain truths that have been smiling at us all along in the face-to-face realm. We just haven’t dealt with this face to face (pun intended).

Because, let’s be frank, when we prepare face-to-face interactions, what it takes is:

  • some idea of the conversations you want to have
  • some idea of what you want to achieve for each of these conversations
  • some sense of what can realistically be achieved in an online meting without making people too tired or jaded
  • some thinking about the best process to involve everyone’s best thinking and to tap into the collective intelligence
  • some use of facilitation skills (in whatever configuration) to hold all of this together
  • some preparation by the participants to also make the most of their time together
  • some etiquette for people to be able to collaborate together
  • ideally, some level of familiarity, or even trust among the people present

The only glaring difference with online meetings is skipping the technological stewardship, though even on that account, the logistical side of prepping a meeting room has similarities to setting up a virtual gathering space.

We’ve been eating bad (face-to-face) meetings for breakfast, lunch and dinner for all these years. We’ve been force-fed so much that we don’t even see it any more. Not enough people think carefully about the conversations and outcomes they’re dreaming of. Not enough people pay attention to the processes that can get us there. Not nearly enough do people invite facilitation as a practice – whether held by one or two central facilitators or ensured collectively by teams and groups. Hardly anyone thinks about getting participants to actually pay attention to preparing themselves adequately for a workshop or meeting. And in a room where the facilitative capacity of the group is low or missing, the collaboration etiquette leaves much to be desired…

So here’s the second part of this hopeful collaboration dawn: our online interactions might just be the unlikely trojan horse to bringing back some sense even into our face-to-face gatherings, and giving us a well-needed sense of taking our interactions and collaboration a few notches more seriously than we have all along.

It may well be that we don’t get any opportunity to test this hypothesis for a while, as home lock down is here to stay for the next few weeks, but this new reality certainly brings new opportunities indeed!

I know, I’m a desperately optimistic fool, but that leaves me some more to drink ahead, and I cheer to that!

And if this turns to be true, well thank you Coronavirus…

Corona Positive 89851348_10157141301002992_8784272847007645696_n

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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 🙂


Don’t run without your facilitator(s), unless you like backfire effects

You have been thinking about this event, you know what you want to do with it and why, you have been convinced – and it’s a good thing – that you need a facilitator to help you with your event.

Dare to rely on your facilitator for collective success (Credits: G. Salokhe)

Dare to rely on your facilitator for collective success (Credits: G. Salokhe)

It sounds all good, and on paper you are all set for success… unless you follow any of the following traps, which could irremediably turn your event into a Murphy’s Law festival.

You have developed a precise agenda

This might be your first problem: as you couldn’t wait for the event to take shape and give you a concrete ‘feel’, you have drafted an agenda, day by day and to the minute. The problem with this is two-fold:

  1. You may not have thought carefully enough about the topics and objectives that should absolutely precede the (participation formats and) processes you will include in your event;
  2. As a result you may have widely unrealistic expectations – and not only that but you are now putting your facilitator in a difficult position because a) they will have to work backwards with you on all that preceded this agenda and b) you are strait-jacketing them into an agenda that may not reflect something they are comfortable facilitating…

Just leave this to your specialist in facilitation, it’s their job to help you get there by following a thorough design process that will make sure you have very clear objectives and an agenda that reflects this. Your facilitator is also not

Designing an event is also about reinventing at every step of the way (Credits: GapingVoid)

Designing an event is also about reinventing at every step of the way (Credits: GapingVoid)

You have shared the agenda with all participants

What can be worse than the previous scenario? Having developed the agenda and shared it with the participants, who now have their expectations higher up and may not like to hear that the plan has completely changed (after you’ve discussed it with your facilitator).

Again: resist the pressure of sending something too early, or send something quite vague that focuses mostly on the topics you will address. You have plenty of time and reason to work this out with your facilitator and do it properly.

You don’t really care about who comes and who should come

That is a big mistake! Your facilitator may not be a specialist of your industry, but you are (supposedly) and you should have a pretty good idea of who would be interested in the topics you want to address, who would be concerned by the objectives you’re setting for yourself and who should thus participate. Spend a bit more time thinking about who this event targets, who should be interested, who should come as resource persons (giving contributions) and who should come as audience…

Of course you could have a totally free and open registration, but there must be a few folks that should be on your radar screen… And think about ‘who would be typically missing’ from such an event, and take that extra effort to invite them, perhaps?

You have invited ‘resource persons’ to provide (too many/long inputs)

Contrary to the previous scenario, you may have a very good idea about who you want to see bring in some inputs, but you might have gotten too enthusiastic and basically invited them to:

  • Submit (for instance) presentations that are way too long (typically, above 10 minutes most people start switching off their concentration, so think twice about the length);
  • Submit too many inputs, to the extent that you will now have difficulty arranging a compelling agenda that presents all that information without boring participants or overwhelming them…

This is again an area where your facilitator can help you strike a balance between content and processes to absorb that content properly. There are various ways of dealing with a lot of content (from shorter and different inputs to parallel sessions, or agreeing that the event will be mostly type 1 – sharing information…) but again this should be part of a conversation you’re having with your facilitator(s).

Death or poisoning by Powerpoint is looming (Credits: Scott Adams)

Death or poisoning by Powerpoint is looming (Credits: Scott Adams)

You have booked a venue that you like – but may not be appropriate

Here is another typical mistake of running without your facilitator: you select a meeting venue that doesn’t lend itself to the objectives you (will) have set. It could be a place that has terrible acoustics, unmovable seats, large pillars or columns that prevent people from seeing parts of the room, no option for putting flip-chart sheets on the walls, or all of the above, and more… really not ideal! So go visit the venue with your facilitator or ask them for their list of requirements, and select a proper venue, accordingly…

So what is left for you to do?

In summary, if you’re bored but want to move on with your event, some of the useful things that you can do include:

  • Thinking about the topics you want to address, and the objectives you have
  • Thinking about your audience and some of the key resource persons you’d like to involve
  • Requesting venue requirements from your facilitator to do some scoping of good venues that comply with these requirements

…and plan a meeting with your facilitator, virtually or not, as soon as possible, to discuss some of the above and make progress to seeing your event as a real hit!

Combined with ‘10 advices to dramatically improve your un-facilitated meetings‘ following these tips above could be the difference between making and breaking your goal…

(You’re not welcome) On the dark side of co-facilitation

Agile KM for me... and you?

Facilitation (Credits - VisualPunch / FlickR) Facilitation (Credits – VisualPunch / FlickR)

Meanwhile, another excellent KM4Dev conversation is raging, on the topic of defining ‘what a facilitator is‘.

Among other contributions, my fellow facilitator, KM4Dev mate and friend Nancy White shared a list of issues related to the dark side of facilitation…

The real life and dark sides of a facilitator below. I’m sure there are a few people here who can add to this list. 😉


  • called in after everything is really messed up (tip: build relationships before client lists)
  • is not briefed on the deeper, real and often problematic issues (“Oh, this is a fantastic group.” Right! Tip: develop a good set of questions to help discern the issues)
  • is asked to facilitate, but not included in design of a (really bad) agenda (tip: refuse to do this unless the designer was brilliant!)
  • runs into very interesting gender issues that are…

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Reducing complexity to a workshop? Wake & step up!

Agile KM for me... and you?

Workshops are just like stepping stones on our sense-making and trust-building pathways (Credits - Xeeliz / FlickR) Workshops are just like stepping stones on our sense-making and trust-building pathways (Credits – Xeeliz / FlickR)

A short shoot post today. The white screen syndrome is kinda hitting me at the moment. But one thing is coming to mind: the delusion of packing the complexity of multi-faceted, multi-stakeholder, multi-perspective programs into planning activities in a planning workshop of one, two or even three days.

I have recently facilitated a number of workshops (some of them listed here) for initiatives that integrate very different disciplines and arguably worldviews: social science, biophysical science, economics, mixing different fields of expertise in one same agricultural stream.

Almost every time we schedule such planning workshops, the commissioners’ expectations are that we will be able to come up with a neat action plan. This is where the delusion starts.

We can achieve a neat action plan in one workshop:

  • When we have a…

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