Enjoy a simpler life with ‘Min Specs’, the “Marie Kondo of Liberating Structures”

Aah… What delight there is in simplicity!

And yet it’s the most difficult thing, isn’t it?

To quote a few very well-known voices from the past:

“The art of publicity is a puzzle of complexity”

(Doug Horton)

“To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose. To throw away what you no longer need is neither wasteful nor shameful.”

(Marie Kondo)

So yes, there’s that: all that clutter that stands in the way. And while Marie Kondo has made it her mission to physically declutter your house, another tiny revolution in the making is there at your doorstep to de-clutter pretty much any area of your work, or life even. And it’s all there, unpretentious, ridiculously easy to understand, and ready for the plucking and enjoying. Its intriguing name is ‘Min Specs’.

What is ‘Min Specs’ and how does it work?

Minimum Specifications is one of the original 33 Liberating Structures and it offers a wonderful way through complexity: keep it simple stupid, declutter away, focus on your non-negotiables!

How does it work?

Whether you work alone or in groups, the idea is the same: with Min Specs, you look at one ‘thing’ (an issue, an object, a service, a concept) and first list the ‘maximum specifications’, ie. all the features – or specifications / specs – that in the ideal world you’d love to see being part of that thing.

Whether it’s technical specifications for a piece of software or manufactured good, conditions for a project (or team, or trip etc.), characteristics you’re looking for in a job, or principles for pretty much anything, Min Specs always starts with that big listing.

And then comes the piece of magic that is actually one of the deep lenses of Liberating Structures: get rid of whatever stands in the way of what you really need.

So the second step of Min Specs, once you’ve worked your way through your big list, is to go through that list again and relentlessly inspect every item you have on your max specs and wonder: “If I violate/don’t keep this particular item (or ‘spec’), will I/we still achieve the overall goal?”. If you answer yes to any of these specs, they should disappear from your list.

Whatever is left is your set of essentials, ie. your list of Min Specs, the few (ideally 3 to 5) non-negotiable specs that really have to be present.

Of course, it may not be perfect and the practice might show some gaps and improvables, but at least you’ve got a nimble plan to get going with, and that makes it easier to review too.

How does Min Specs work deeply on you?

Try using Min Specs a few times, and you’ll notice the DNA of that single structure is slowly seeping into you. Indeed, like its dedicated mushroom illustration, Min Specs grows in the dark and keeps on replicating itself in every department of your work and life, because it’s that essential.

And you may start seeing really endless applications for it.

I’ve used it myself e.g. to:

  • Decide what are ways for me and some colleagues to work together and respect each other in that collaboration;
  • Structure a report with the most essential chapters/sections;
  • Organise the types of notes (content, process, follow up etc.) I want to keep track of during a meeting;
  • Decide what to keep and what to chuck away on my desk to have an inspiring desk and office (so the real Marie Kondo);
  • Filter out the points that should be part of every ongoing check-in meeting within a client organisation;
  • Think about how I want to spend every single day of my life, following a few simple principles;
  • Look at essential aspects that I want to guarantee for the education of my children, together with my ex-wife;
  • Develop my absolute bucket list of countries that one day I would like to visit…

So as you can see the possibilities are rather open, or even endless…

And then Min Specs stops being just a ‘structure’ and it starts being almost a principle of life. Min Specs almost becomes one of your own life’s Min Specs.

And as happens so often, you also start seeing feedback loops and reverberating effects of the LS repertoire. The Min Specs spirit is nested within Ecocycle Planning and within 9 Whys, it’s meshed in with WINFY or 25/10 Crowdsourcing, and it finds natural connections with e.g. Wicked Questions, What So What Now What etc.

So here’s an invitation to explore this little, simple, yet deep and powerful structure to start decluttering your life and work.

And in the process we can give a bow out to Marie Kondo for helping us appreciate what we’ve known all along:

…that Less is More…

Related stories

Read other posts about Liberating Structures on this blog, including a set of posts about ‘Structuring our liberation (LS under the lens)

My 10 commandments of group facilitation

Principles, principles, principles…

I’m not fond of rules. I don’t like constraints. I do like ‘strange attractors‘ and boundaries that guide our path, whether secretly or overtly.

Principles do that. So I guess I’m a person of principles.

And as I’m pondering this excellent post by my friend Nadia von Holzen on the 10 principles of Liberating Structures (LS), I want to offer, hereby what have become some of my ‘commandments’ of facilitation over the past few years.

Using again this amazing LS body of work and other instrumental sources of inspiration such as Community At Work‘s incredible living legacy, I’m thinking it’s a good moment to offer my 10 commandments of facilitation, based on my own practice and experience.

It’s likely to become a living list which I may update here and there in the future. Though even now this list comprises some fundamentals that I believe prepare someone doing facilitative work to do and be the change they want to see as part of their work…

So here we go…

1. “Stay out of the content, manage the process”

This one doesn’t come from me but from Community At Work’s seminal ‘Group Facilitation Skills‘ training. And it’s pretty fundamental. Not all facilitators are neutral in the content/process dichotomy. Some allow themselves to mingle in the conversation and share their opinion. Others influence the direction of the conversation (even from a process perspective). And yet I can only honour this commandment and recommend it to others, because the role of a facilitator is, to mirror Sam Kaner’s mantra “to help everyone do their best thinking”. Meddling in that process and taking a stand from content perspective means sending mixed signals: you may value certain points of view that are close to your own. Ultimately, it means there is no integrity to expect from the facilitator.

2. Be the one person that works in ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE’s interest

This is perhaps the second commandment from Kaner, Noakes et al.: not only is a facilitator majorly involved in managing the process, but also in nurturing healthy and productive relationships among the contributors present. By focusing on the process and not adopting any bias in any conversation involved, the facilitator can free themselves to pay attention to how everyone is doing, and to protect the safe space and time of everyone to express themselves. This is fundamental, as it goes to the core of what facilitation is about: the practice of skilfully collaborating.

3. Along the way, develop everyone’s process literacy

This one comes much more from my own practice, directly. Now that I’ve started to write about process literacy more centrally it’s only logical that this becomes one of my 10 commandments: As facilitator you (expectedly or arguably) possess a strong process vision, a lot of process knowledge, and have developed critical process skills. All of this is extremely helpful to have. So how about getting every group you work with to benefit from some of that? Make the process scaffolding visible, explain the principles or reasons why you have managed this particular process bit or not. Share your process language and invite others to see the value of this meta-stance. Every individual, every group, every community becomes all the stronger along the way.

4. Whenever you can, involve and co-facilitate with others

Directly in line with the previous principle, seek to work with other co-facilitators, preferably people that are members of the group you’re working with. This way, not only are you sharing a little bit of process literacy with everyone, but you develop – crucially through joint experience with them – a lot of that process literacy with one or a few people that will directly play a co-facilitative role in the process. A great learning and discovery, not just for them but for you too. Still be mindful of the dark side of co-facilitation, but then actively involve others relentlessly, you’re making everyone smarter this way!

5. Do not fall in love with your own interests, desires, hobby horses – it’s not about you but about THEM

It is very tempting, when designing a process, to get attracted to this new participation format you’ve been bound to try out or adapt, or this new visual tool you want to get your head around. Exploring the edges of your repertoire is great, it relates to another commandment below about self improving, but behold this: Is this approach you’re suggesting something your group really needs, or is it something you have suggested to please your curiosity? Very often, groups don’t need the most sophisticated approaches, tools, bells and whistles. Something simple but solid usually does the trick. Use other safe-fail avenues for pushing your limits. When working seriously with a group – especially a group that pays you to do this, honour your commitment to them and keep thinking about what’s in it for them. Time, and time, and time, and time again.

Group facilitation – It should be more than you, in quality and in quantity (photo credit: Mathias Weitbrecht)

6. Remember your inner yoda – embrace your ethical self

When in the room, facilitating, you have no space to colour your statements politically or ethically. But upstream, when designing the process, it’s your every right – and perhaps duty – to follow your own code of ethics. And I’m thinking particularly about how you look at dynamics of inclusion, diversity, representation, transparent decision-making. Is the plan really paying attention to everyone the way it should? Is it complete? Is it doing due diligence? Is it not reinforcing entrenched power patterns, and perhaps even creating a climate of distrust etc.? Be very mindful of how you contribute to a healthy (or not so healthy) environment and dynamics in the groups you work with by not asking some critical questions upfront.

And this leads me to the next commandment…

7. Be mindful of who you are – the ‘self as instrument’

The ‘self as instrument’ is again a principle from Community At Work. Know yourself and work with yourself in the room. Know what triggers you both positively and negatively. What is likely to make you over enthusiastic and less risk-savvy, and what will rattle you. Understand the “communication styles that bug you” (C@W, still!) and the ones that you display yourself (with a tinge of TRIZ here). Meditate perhaps, so that your inner eye remains open and alerts you to emotional triggers that affect your judgment and your integrity. The more you know yourself, with all your weaknesses and your strengths, the more you are able to serve others fully and unconditionally.

8. Be the facilitation that you want to see in everything you do

Don’t limit your facilitation practice to the events and collaboration initiatives that you end up working on. Apply it to your life, to your working and wherever desirable your personal relationships. Be supportive, be helpful, listen actively, be mindful of outcomes, be collaborative. When you breathe what you preach, people trust you all the more, because they can see that you walk your talk and respect your work and approach. And bonus, doing so you might even cheekily bring people to taking an extra step of slight discomfort that they might not take otherwise, though that’s matter for another blog post…

9. Self-reflect and self-improve

Maybe it’s the heritage of my knowledge management profile, but I firmly believe that much like a lot of facilitation is getting groups to reflect on everything, you should also reflect on how you’ve been doing this or that, what you did well, what you did unexpectedly, what was good, bad, ugly and lovely in all of that, and what you can do to get it even more right next time around. As the LS gospel goes “Learn by failing forward”. Growth thinking drives the best facilitators, and the pie is always getting bigger. So have your portion now, and then some more! Yummy learning! And at that, you might need the feedback of others to help you cover your blind spots and help you grow, which paves the way for the last, but certainly not the least of these commandments…

10. Work with (many) others, and be grateful!

Facilitating is inherently collective. And it takes many people indeed to go through successful collaboration, even during just the space of an event. So go out there and find your partners in crime. Involve the sponsors, the people in the room. Whether they help design, co-facilitate, document, manage time, manage technical platforms, review the works, the more you involve others, the more active the entire crowd becomes and the more likely they are to invest more of themselves in the time together, and in building quality relationships with each other. Besides, it’s sheer pleasure – well, with some spicy moments ha ha ha. Don’t stop there, thank them, and once again show that collaboration scaffolding: it wouldn’t be possible if all of these people, all of you hadn’t been involved.

It’s a beautiful job to facilitate, and I hope you enjoy these commandments, and perhaps apply some of them or share your own here… What are your 10 commandments of facilitation?

Related stories

Process literacy perks: The participants, as ‘leaders in the shade’

With this new year’s resolution to blog somewhat more than I’ve done in the past four years, one of the biggest and nicest endeavours ahead of me is to finally write a series of posts about ‘process literacy’ – following this seminal post. I’m getting started with this series today, focusing on the benefits of process literacy in relation to different types of people/functions involved in collaboration. In this post I’m exploring the benefits of developing process literacy of (and for) the participants of a meeting or collaboration.

Who benefits the most from process literacy? Of course you might say facilitators and other people who operate most of the time in the ‘process’ realm.

Well, there’s much to say about this, for sure.

Though how about the majority of people that will not end up organising, chairing, let alone facilitating meetings – indeed let’s even just think about meetings here, not even broad collaborative initiatives.

So let’s look at meetings that involve process literate participants.

Cultivate fruitful interactions, collaborations and meetings through making everyone a key actor (Image credit: Atlassian)

You might still wonder: What is the benefit of having participants that have developed strong process literacy when there’s a facilitator taking care of the process, and better still: it’s their job!! – right?

Wrong!

Of course, you can always work with a group that has no understanding of process literacy whatsoever. You don’t NEED it to get where you want. But let’s just say it will take more time…

Let’s examine some benefits of having process literacy as distributed as possible, borne by as many participants as possible:

What becomes possible when process literacy is distributed among participants?

Here are just some very real possibilities…

A handy flowchart (download link here to the left) (image credit: Atlassian)
  • Everyone attends meetings as they know exactly why they attend that meeting (ever seen this handy flow chart about organising a meeting or not, by the way?).
  • They have also a good understanding of the topics and outcomes that are aimed at for this meeting. And if they don’t, they ask questions about it upfront, preventing ill-conceived meetings and inviting the organising team to do a better job at realising why they are organising the meeting themselves.
  • They have realistic expectations about what can be achieved in a meeting and are thus not going to shoot for the moon in a two-hour online meeting (or even an eight-hour face-to-face meeting for that matter).
  • They also clearly understand what is expected of them in terms of dynamics: whether to understand, share ideas, co-create solutions etc. This greatly enhances expectation management for everyone around.
  • They are aware of their own expectations, objectives, communication style, and are capable of factoring this into the group dynamics somehow, instead of focusing on themselves only and letting their emotions rule the game.
  • They create consistent and warm norms that help everyone find their place in the group and contribute, respectfully though potentially in disagreement, and they set examples of behaviours that others can follow to further contribute to this fertile atmosphere of collaboration.
  • They collectively manage time in relation with the overall objectives to accomplish, not just mechanically. And in breakout groups, they are able to keep their eye on the ball of ‘what is it we are trying to accomplish’ rather than just ‘what are we discussing at the moment’.
  • Although they may have some ideas about how to run this or that process, or come up with an alternative way of achieving the objective at hand, they are respectful enough of who’s ‘running the show’ at a given time to make that happen.
  • They really pay attention to each other and to managing relationships, because they understand it’s key to the present and future of that work.
  • On the other hand, if things are going horribly wrong, they will call it out and ask for a serious facelift of the process at hand – even all the way to cancelling or adjourning the meeting.
  • And a real bonus here: You can turn participants into facilitators – whether for break out groups, or even (segments of) plenary sessions.
So what are we waiting for to get into a more process literate collaboration? (image credit: QualitDesign)

…and I can get to think about other benefits still, but you get the gist…

In essence, with process literate participants, you have a group of ‘shadow’ facilitators that understand what it takes to move forward with a complex agenda. They make you that much more likely to achieve the results you set your eyes on. You can count on these ‘leaders in the shade’ to bear the collective process and its integrity every step of the way.

This is of course an idyllic picture, a unicorn in the realm of meetings (sigh…) but it sets a vision for what we should strive for. A bit like communication, process literacy is really everyone’s business, or it should be.

Obviously, the reverse picture of the above is also true, and that’s why there’s a lot of benefits in getting the entire set of participants to develop their process literacy rather than dealing with the ills of process illiteracy…

How to cultivate that process literacy?

Well, that’s my holy grail, and I’m getting started on my quest after some successful but rather random errands in the past.

What is sure, approaches that aim at involving and unleashing everyone, such as Liberating Structures, are key in this endeavour. But many more avenues are worth exploring.

Do you want to join my round table, noble knight of distributed intelligence?

Related stories:

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!

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!

Hallelujah!

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

Related stories:

Connecting gender and facilitation – why, when, how?

Next to my collaboration and facilitation practice I also work a lot on gender issues as part of the CGIAR Collaborative Platform for Gender Research hosted by KIT Royal Tropical Institute (my half-time employer thus).

Working in the gender domain has been a wonderful experience so far. The scientists I’m working with are all experts of social inclusion – so they have a natural sensitivity for the unheard/unseen/unrespected (be it women, youths or others). And they are also natural listeners. In other words, they have been a great community to reflect on fertile grounds for better collaborative practices.

This leads me to today’s post: how can one combine facilitation with a bit of a gender lens?

BMGF empowerment framework (detail)

BMGF empowerment framework (detail)

And if I were to use a mini ‘gender framework’, as it were, to this issue, I would emphasise issues of ‘voice and choice’, ‘resources and structures’ centered around ‘agency’ (with elements of decision making, collective action and leadership) all borrowed from the empowerment framework from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Voice here is how women and men are taken into account in conversations and are visible, respected and put to an equal pedestal. Choice would be how men and women have access to ‘engagement’ resources and are able to engage in various ways as they see fit, and as much as possible, equally.

Bearing this in mind, here are some of the ways that I’m thinking about ‘genderising’ our facilitation practices:

Gender-focused attention to process design

Are you planning interactions that allow both men and women and just all participants to express themselves and co-create their future? (photo credit: European Institute for Gender Equality)

These are all the key opportunities you have ahead of people’s interactions to ensure that your process is as equitable as possible. And there are many many opportunities here…

  • Voice: Ensure there is as much as possible a gender/equity-balanced group of participants. How can you encourage more diversity in the group? Who is not there that should be? How clear are the organisers about the value of having diverse viewpoints and experiences in the room?
  • Choice: Think about processes that engage participants in different ways and certainly in other ways than just the typically old Caucasian male-dominated formats such as keynote presentations and panel (or manel) discussions. Buzz groups, break out group conversations, escalating conversations a la 1-2-4-all are all good options.
  • Resources: What engagement artifacts, tokens and props are you making available to your participants that could actually encourage more attention to diversity and equity? If you’re using pictures, do you have an eye for the kind of visuals you’re using? I was rightly blamed for relying too much on pictures of (active) males in my presentation on giving presentations for instance.
  • Structures: What participation formats are you going to use? Are they diverse enough and encouraging diverse connections, diverse ‘ways of knowing’, diverse knowledges etc.? How is even your venue set up? Does it reinforce participation formats that particularly (old) white males feel used to and comfortable with e.g. pulpits and lecterns, U-shaped rooms, inviting the (male) sage on the stage? And talking about key decisions etc., if you’re working with a (group of) ‘person(s)-in-charge’ in designing the process, how do you ensure that they respect and honour different points of views?
  • Agency: How diverse is the set of sessions and segments of your event or process? To what extent does it allow different decision-making dynamics that, as per Community At Work‘s typology of ‘informative, consultative and collaborative meetings’? Are there going to be moments when everyone in the room (men and women, young and old, tall and short, black and white, I mean EVERYONE) will be invited to co-create a decision together?  Or will it just be a pouring of information on participants? On that note, my friend Nadia von Holzen recently quoted Johnny Moore and Viv McWaters on Twitter with much sense and inspiration:

If you go to the trouble of getting people into a room together, you need to create emotional connection. If you’re simply going to push information at them, you could do that online

Gender-focused attention to process facilitation

Now that your design is in place, are you sure that in the moment you are doing everything you can to ensure equity among all participants, including women as much as men and all people generally?

How can you encourage balanced interactions (photo credit: Gender 2 & Interventions – ALa, Galway, FETAC Theatre of the Oppressed Facilitation Skills Training)

  • Voice: The Facilitator’s guide to participatory decision-making emphasises a number of active listening skills that prove really essential to create

    Heard Seen Respected (image credit: Liberating Structures)

    Heard Seen Respected (image credit: Liberating Structures)

    space for people that may not be encouraged to speak: encouraging, balancing, making space for the quiet person etc. Participation formats like ‘Heard / Seen / Respected‘ can also be pulled out in order to point to the lack of attention put on some people’s voices. Sometimes simple tricks such as ‘making space for the ladies’ (in one of my last posts on ‘a daily dose of process literacy‘ is a good thing to bear in mind at all times).

  • Choice: When specific decisions are being made, are women (or other non typically dominant participants) able to effectively choose what is happening? I’m thinking about when responsibilities need to be taken about taking notes in a group (usually a woman is pointed to doing it), or chairing (usually a man suggests taking it up) etc. Is there a conscious option available for both men and women to make decisions? Or does decision-making seem one-sided?
  • Resources: Are you putting in place some elements that allow also women and others to express themselves fully and uninterruptedly? Do you use a talking stick? Do you allow people to reflect and share their individual thinking at times? Do you decide to involve other resources that are bending the potential one-sidedness of your participants’ engagement? e.g. different ways of expressing oneself through music, dance, drawing, a camera or otherwise?
  • Structures: Do you reflect on how the structure of engagement and decision-making might be playing out differently than planned, and not necessarily in a way that advantages women or other participants that are typically not dominant in the group? What can you do (together with the people in charge) about it? Can you establish checks and balances along the way?
  • Agency: Are you checking generally how different participants feel ’empowered’ to discuss, decide and act or not? Or are you just assuming it’s all going fine and that’s ok? Are you checking in and seeing what else you can do to “support everyone to do their best thinking” (the Community At Work definition of being a ‘facilitator’).

You see, there are lots of ways to think about inclusive and equal participation. Again a lot of it as at the core of the Community At Work philosophy (and of other facilitation approaches) not because of gender issues but because it’s about including everyone in interactions that aim at tackling complex issues together or (not so) ‘simply’ collaborating.

But it takes a mindset, and a conscious set of options and decisions to turn that philosophy into a practice that redresses inequity.

What are your additional ideas?

Image result for nozomi kawarazuka gender platform

I’m now thinking that it would be great to entertain a conversation with all these gender specialists who end up facilitating a fair number of events and processes themselves, and are also very often the victims of poorly designed processes as women and gender specialists (read this interview to understand more about this).

I’m sure you also have some great ideas and tips and different ‘structures’ to go about inclusion and attention to gender and other issues of equity… What are they? I want to take this to the next level…

Related stories:

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.

Fishbowl

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?

Of ‘healthy human systems’ beyond ‘the field’ and facilitating conversations that change the world: an interview with Sam Kaner and Nelli Noakes

Agile KM for me... and you?

Wearing my 'Suspend your judgment' suspenders provided by Community at Work (Credits: EIB) Wearing my ‘Suspend your judgment’ suspenders provided by Community at Work (Credits: EIB)

I can gladly say I am now one of the 4500 or so people that have been privileged to be formally trained by Sam Kaner and Nelli Noakes of Community at work on ‘Group facilitation skills – Putting participatory values into practice’. And it was a hell of an experience!

So what a fantastic opportunity for me to interview them on what they see as ‘facilitation’ and how they see it evolve, as well as the connections they see with knowledge management. 

No more word from me now, just enjoy… 

Do you see some fundamental trends in facilitation practice over the recent past?

Sam Kaner (SK) When “group facilitation” originated, it was one component in a deeper insight about the powerful role of face-to-face groups as a transformative medium for changing the culture of the organization or community.  The skills…

View original post 2,792 more words

Killing my darlings: the workshop

Agile KM for me... and you?

Last week I facilitated a really hectic workshop on the fascinating topic of ‘community-based adaptation (to climate change) and resilience in the East and Southern African Drylands‘. A number of us (in the organising team) wondered at a point or another if the workshop was the best venue to create new meaning around this complex topic.

Workshops... are they still any good to express ourselves and create new meaning? (Credits: UNAMID / FlickR) Workshops… are they still any good to express ourselves and create new meaning? (Credits: UNAMID / FlickR)

Simultaneously – aaah serendipity… – my friend Amanda Harding posted about ‘Reinventing the workshop‘, giving the example of an event (that suspiciously looked like a writeshop, if you ask me though).

Perhaps ‘workshops’ are indeed past their prime?

And since change is here to stay and we have to facilitate it, one of the things we’ll have to do on a regular basis is to kill our darlings, our pet ideas and approaches…

View original post 880 more words

Facilitation and collective action back on the menu… big time!

Agile KM for me... and you?

(Disclaimer for Nadia, Russell and others who commented on this post [and see feedback/results here by the way]: This post was drafted before and thus does not yet reflect some of the changes that I hope to bring into this blog based on your collective feedback…)

Lots of different happenings in the world of event/process facilitation as far as I’m concerned – lots of useful links and ideas that might inspire you too…

Graphic Facilitation with Nancy White (Credits: Gauri Salokhe / FlickR) Graphic Facilitation with Nancy White (Credits: Gauri Salokhe / FlickR)

I’ve finally gotten into reading ‘The surprising power of liberating structures‘, and what a platinum mine of useful reflections, methods, tips, designs etc. a real gem for all collective action process (and event) facilitators… It’s perhaps the best recent thing I can think about that might help me revive the post collection ‘The Chemistry of Magical Facilitation

I’ve been following some…

View original post 407 more words