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…)

What it means to be a facilitator – The dawn of ‘Facilitators unplugged’ chats?

Nadia and I recently gave a training course on (online) facilitation to a networked organisation operating in the water sector. The training itself was really interesting as an experience, to the participants, but also definitely to us both. Every group is different and the pacing, content, facilitation, engagement always works slightly differently with any new group or setting.

As we went through four different sessions addressing ‘facilitation basics’, ‘group dynamics 101’, ‘participation formats and structures’ and ‘collective decision-making’, we had fascinating conversations with the contributors (as Nadia rightly insists we should call ‘participants’).

Is this the dawn of ‘facilitators UNPLUGGED’? (photo credit: M Fisher / FlickR)

Many questions that emerged are facilitation evergreens, the same issues that keep reappearing:

  • What is facilitation?
  • What are the trademarks of a good facilitator?
  • Should a facilitator be neutral or not, and knowledgeable with the topic or not?
  • How do you build and cultivate engagement?
  • Why bring in a facilitator?
  • What does it mean, in the room/zoom, to be the facilitator?
  • How to apply your facilitation skills with confidence, in the face of power, cynicism, your own inexperience etc.?
  • etc….

We addressed these questions in the sessions, but usually time was short for a fuller conversation (the training consisted of four sessions of 1.5h so it was a very light training, more like an introduction).

And so the idea came to us to address these questions in our own way. In so doing this ‘Facilitators Unplugged‘ conversation came off the ground… Our own private corner to have an off-the-record, heart-to-heart and reflexive conversation between two friends that happen to love their facilitative practice and experiences with many groups.

Our conversation was fun, easy, relaxing and interesting. And it was also helpful for us (to clarify our thoughts and pick each other’s brain), for the contributors of our recent training, and hopefully for quite a few other people. Including you, reading this blog. Knowledge SHARING is power, as testified by this quote:

“The traditional assumption that ‘knowledge is power’ and is used for personal gain is being subsumed by the notion that knowledge is an expression of the shared responsibilities for the collective well-being of humanity and the planet as a whole.”

Jeremy Rifkin

So here’s this video conversation, with the timeline of our questions to ourselves and each other, in the first comment…

…and this might indeed be just the dawn of more such conversations among us. Because it was too enjoyable to not do it again.

Let us know what you think – whether it’s worth another episode or we should call it a nice experiment 😉

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New aspirations for new world, new me, new we, new then…

So that’s it, we didn’t leave this up to chance or change anymore, we pivoted and decided to give our next Liberating Structures immersion workshop totally online.

Join us at the online immersion workshop 6-9 July

Join us at the online immersion workshop 6-9 July

We had it coming. And things might change still over the next few weeks, but it’s really not likely that we can interact freely short distances away from each other come  July. So here we go for an online experience. So far the third (or fourth?) online immersion workshop of Liberating Structures only.

We will still focus on all the ‘social’ sub-worlds and domains in which our participants evolve, while keeping open to just about anyone. But in the process we’ll be bending the world of Liberating Structures to a few threads that seem to matter to us and could be a good fit for the people we hope will join us:

Acknowledging the new real, the new normal

Our first thread is to basically acknowledge that we are have indeed shifted our reality. We may not go back to the old reality, and both our environment, ourselves, our interactions have mutated and are forming up a different ‘normal’ that is still very much in mutation.

We’ll use Liberating Structures to accompany everyone on their journey to realising this and making the current reality a useful starting point for an exciting foray into the unknown and into promising new realities and opportunities too.

Finding ourselves and each other, online

So once we have acknowledged we have moved into another reality, let’s see where we are in it. Let’s gauge who we feel we are, what our next ‘me’ can look like. And despite the absence of hugs and the reality of physical distancing, let’s check in with each other and find  new ways to engage deeply and widely in this new reality.  Even if we are not eye-to-eye and face-to-face with everyone in this COVID19 world, we can find ways to be seen, heard, respected, appreciated, contributing, co-creating, trusting, guiding, coaching etc. I particularly look forward to this part of the journey. Liberating Structures have a lot to offer here too.

Multiplying our options

Now, realising that the new normal is here to stay is good, but even better is to leverage new opportunities that present themselves. There is just SOOOO MUCH out there that can be done by way of reinventing who we are, what we do, what we could do etc. And our creativity and energy and aspiration  and motivation are all set to be conjured up on this pathway. So let’s explore what we  can do alone, what we can do together, what we can do as new societies, how we can organise ourselves to to make tomorrow’s world a more humane, environmentally friendly, peaceful, open world.

From ecocycling our activities to dreaming out loud what our next moves can be and helping each other find out blind spots and hidden chances, Liberating Structures  offer many options to separate the wheat from the chaff…

Building our resilience

The final piece of this puzzle is at the core of Liberating Structures: how can we keep on adapting to shocks and change (as THAT is the new normal anyway) and embrace its mess, chaos, confusion and indeed destruction to shed our skin and keep a chance to reinvent ourselves perpetually? How can we better cope now and in the future, alone and collectively? We’ll explore the dynamics of personal and institutional change, of finding our balance and our ways to be more ‘complexity aware’ and ‘change-proof’ – not to prevent change from happening but rather to manoeuvre around it gracefully.

These threads might change. Even if they stick around, we may sharpen them. In any case some the ideas behind will motivate the design of this online immersion workshop. And all the while we’ll keep the structure simple.

I’m curious, as we are now diving into the deep end of that process design lake, and I hope you’ll splash with us in the lake!

Join us  online: https://thecreatorscompany.com/event/liberating-structures/

Get your ticket (the first 10 get a discount!)

A meta look at resources to work and facilitate online more effectively

Sign of these times… everyone’s moving online indeed (with its positive consequences too). Consultants are becoming e-consultants, or online facilitation gurus. I guess I should follow that bandwagon (NOT) ha ha ha.


How to move from face to face to online most effectively? That’s the question on everyone’s lips (photo credit: startkiwi)

In any case, everyone else, who’s just getting to terms with the online collaboration world, is avidly looking for resources to make this transition work. It is a very crowded space already. Which is perhaps the reason why some specialists have preferred to offer their time to answer anyone’s questions and help them move their activities online, rather than share more resources. But if you’re still looking for some good resources, here’s my own selection of what I’ve found around recently:

So far, the very best resource I’ve found – warning it can feel really overwhelming – is this crowdsourced list of online meeting/gathering resources (shared by Nancy White): https://docs.google.com/document/d/1NyrEU7n6IUl5rgGiflx_dK8CrdoB2bwyyl9XG-H7iw8/edit?ts=5e6fc9e3#heading=h.jb9co2l7jt1p 

Nancy also recently posted a few additional links that are great:

To which I’ll add a couple more resources from Michelle Laurie’s most recent post:

On KM4Dev (again), Karel Novotny also shared this guide:  “Closer Than Ever: A guide for social change organisations who want to start working online” https://www.apc.org/en/pubs/books/closer-ever-guide and Stacey Young shared this USAID resource on tips to work effectively remotely: https://usaidlearninglab.org/library/ultimate-tipsheet-working-remotely

A few online gathering fundamentals to consider (differently)

Finally a few meta reflections that I’m seeing as I’m really getting into that mode also:

As mentioned in my last post on this blog, online collaboration/facilitation actually follows a lot of principles of face-to-face collaboration/facilitation so if you have experience with the latter, that’s already a huge step ahead.

What is changing a lot and does require more careful consideration is a handful of practical, logistical, design and emotional points:

  • The nature of the gathering: fully online or blended with partial face-to-face group interactions. Given the general progression of SARS-COV-2 the former is more likely but still good to check;
  • The intention behind the gathering, with either mostly an intention to share information, pick people’s brains or explore and co-create solutions together (following Community At Work‘s seminal typology of Type 1, Type 2 and Type 3 meetings). Behind this fundamental question (which should be asked for every conversation you want to have), comes the translated question of whether you want/need synchronous or asynchronous conversations…
  • Bandwidth issues and what is being done to allow the full participation of everyone in the gathering – what measures can be put in place for those that may not be able to access a video-conference at all times etc.?
  • The geographic distribution of participants and the amount of time zones that the gathering spans – this has important implications on the synchronicity of interactions;
  • What can be organised to break the ice among the people online – especially if they don’t know each other – and what do you have up your sleeves to pick up the energy etc. The potential risks of distraction are many more online…
  • What online system(s) is (are) being used, to talk/write/read/view – is any of these systems restricted only to ‘staff’? Are there any restrictions that again are going to make it more difficult for anyone to participate? What is the learning curve for people to be able to participate (and even more so to organise something on it?);
  • The role distribution to ‘hold the space’ – and this is where things might differ most from face-to-face gatherings: Who facilitates? Who chairs? Who attends to technology-related questions? Who monitors chat and other back channels? Who takes notes of the conversation etc.?
  • The best division of time, especially for gatherings which, if happening face-to-face, would take more than day. Online gatherings are potentially more tiring than face-to-face ones, all the more so now as they are multiplying like crazy;
  • How can you ensure you ‘read the crowd’ and people’s emotions as well as you might be able to offline? This is particularly important and difficult at the same time, so perhaps think about some feedback moments and breaks to check on people whom you suspect  might be experiencing difficult emotions.

And as ever, keep an open and fun approach to this learning. We are all in it together and no one can improvise themselves an online collaboration expert overtime. Let’s just keep it light, playful, focused, fun, and feedback-informed. There’s chances we’ll gather our 10000 hours of practice earlier than we might have thought…

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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