“Everyday process literacy” – en français dans le texte (et en audio)

Yes, I blog so often in English that some might forget that my native language is French.

And recently I had an opportunity to use it. Indeed I had the honour of being invited by Lily Gros (on LinkedIn), on her fabulous podcast ‘La Licorne‘ which celebrates ‘extraordinary collective moments’ of learning, realisation, inspiration, intense experiences or feelings.

In that episode – all en français except for a few English words here and there – I’m exploring little insights of ‘everyday process literacy’ and how that might be useful for all our interactions, at work and even in life…

With a big bow out – as ever – to Sam Kaner and his Community At Work tribe for quite a few insights that he/they shared with me, and for the general body of work that these pioneers have done on (collaboration) process literacy throughout various decades.

For now, if you feel like having a short break, dans la langue de Molière, here is a piece that might be interesting and fun. And if you have interesting stories to share – in French still – feel free to contact Lily, she’s good, she’s fun, and her podcast deserves a lot of attention because she’s really onto all kinds of interesting reflections!

Also a big thank you to Myriam Hadnes who is organising the next ‘Never Done Before‘ facilitation festival in November. She’s the one who got Lily and myself in touch with each other. Thank you Myriam!

Now for the podcast episode:

The episode in question: https://lalicorne.buzzsprout.com/1516522/8867579

Want to work on your own process literacy?

By the way, talking about everyday process literacy, we are on our way to starting the promotion of a new Liberating Structures Immersion workshop in January, so how about you join us and bring your friends to join the silent revolution in the making?

Looking behind the veil – the little nooks and crannies of process literacy

So if process literacy is a crusade to develop everyone’s capacity to use the power of ‘process’ to communicate, collaborate and achieve amazing things together, the obvious next step is to structurally build that capacity through proper training (or ongoing coaching) on facilitation and collaboration etc. But training is not a panacea, it’s not always possible (timing-wise or otherwise), and it comes at a cost. Ditto with coaching.

So what can we do every day to build that process literacy?

The light behind the veil
Revealing the process light behind the veil of our conversations (photo credit: Peter Prehn /FlickR)

It’s simply a case of unveiling the reality of process, revealing the process scaffolding that supports the building of our conversations. And it’s about zooming in on all the little nooks and crannies that help our relations and interactions flourish. And in the process, it’s about whetting the appetite of people for that process literacy, getting them to want to see more and more behind the veil. Getting them to both understand why they might not be comfortable with certain situations, and helping them get more comfortable with slight discomfort. And it’s also about shaking them out of their ‘content’ comfort zone into a process ‘groan zone’ where they feel challenged and invited to think and look differently about themselves, the environment and others.

Just like learning should take place at a slightly uncomfortable junction (I think).

But before embarking on the process literacy crusade and revealing everything all the time, let’s be mindful that not everyone is indeed comfortable and so it takes a multi-tier approach to revealing process.

  • In the words of the Community at Work gang, it’s being aware of and playing with the Influencer-accommodater scale, between teaching or showing process, or letting it unfold by itself without intervening so that the group itself deals with what’s at hand. And even within the same group, it can prove very helpful to switch between both ends of that spectrum over time.
  • And sometimes the best thing is to play this below the radar, for instance in groups that are really uncomfortable in process waters, don’t mention the participation formats you’re using, and certainly don’t overplay the slightly confusing language of e.g. Liberating Structures, it will put them off even more. But get them to experience what is going on, and to reflect on their (process) experience afterwards). Then they usually see the power of process and feel invited to smell its magic again…
  • On the other hand, sometimes it’s helpful to blatantly point out the process that is unfolding, so that the people around you realise that process is everywhere, all the time and sits -partly at least- with everyone.

Here are various other instances of what you can do to reveal the process scaffolding:

  • I already shared some tips in a daily dose of process literacy. Essentially it’s about progressively building up a collage of insights that depict process, relationships, diversity and inclusion, representation, decision making, group dynamics, self as instrument, communication styles etc. all the invisible things that help make relations grow and results flourish.
  • A simple way is to invite as many ‘contributors’ (the wrongly called ‘participants’ as my friend Nadia pointed out in Myriam Hadnes’s podcast Workshops work) to join the daily ‘after action review‘ to check how the day went and what could be done differently. You are then reviewing the process, not revisiting the same conversations…
  • Getting people to play an active role (whether facilitating a breakout room, chart writing or documenting, managing time etc.) because it formally gives them a process role, meaning they’re no longer bound by just the content of conversations. And it’s a sure approach to get them to invest themselves emotionally in the interactions and enjoy themselves even more!
  • Particularly with the people or teams you end up designing processes with, whenever you disagree on a way to do something, see this as an experiment: share your process assumption about how things will pan out if you follow approach A over B, try out in reality and reflect together afterwards on what happened…

Because of their very participatory nature, Liberating Structures are a great way to build that process literacy. But any step back that you take – anything that gets you to focus on the ‘meta’ level – helps everyone see the process scaffolding better, and get intimate with these myriads of nooks and crannies…

Why cultivate everyday process literacy? What’s the result?

If you’re lucky, you inspire people to know and do more with it. After masterful Sam Kaner delivered his Group Facilitation Skills training at my former employer ILRI, one of the senior scientists there mentioned to him that after going through this course he felt like entirely changing directions in his professional life and dedicating himself to this facilitative domain. So let’s awake and cultivate the blossoming world of process literacy in each other and make magic happen, because it’s there for the taking 😉

Sometimes you also realise that all that investment may not lead directly to a change, but slowly and surely it does. That same institute ILRI invested a lot of money into these group facilitation skill training sessions for instance. For sure many of the trainees actually never put their skills to use, and most of them forgot a lot (if not most) of what the training entailed – the fallacy of training again. Yet, at the institutional level, the whole organisation keeps on valuing such training, and many staff members are process literate enough now that they really value process design and facilitation, and that is a major achievement because it places them in a much better position to combine their staff and partners’ capacities and intentions much more effectively.

By the way, on 9 June, Myriam’s podcast will feature an episode with me in which I’m talking about some of these issues. Follow her podcast here: https://workshops.work/podcast/

Related stories

The ambivalent curse of ‘being volunteered’

This is a rather common phenomenon in meetings – whether face-to-face or online for that matter:

An action point emerges, responsibilities are sought, no one directly jumps on it, eventually someone suggests one particular person to undertake that action; and usually, other people in the group mumble, nod or clap in agreement to that idea.

…obviously it doesn’t need to be so dramatic as this.

In our meeting context, what happens in our minds is rather:

  • Action assigned. Check! [Everyone is happy]
  • I’m out of the hook [most people think]!
  • Geez, I got caught (yet again?)! [thinks the freshly volunteered task-owner].

What is really happening? What are the implications?

Being volunteered is of course not very nice, as the image above shows. But beyond that obvious ‘missed opportunity’ of having said no etc., a number of things are actually playing out that make this volunteered business more ambivalent than it first seems at face value.

Volunteering to do what?

Anything, though the most typical tasks being delegated in a meeting are around taking notes, reporting, rapporteuring, sometimes chairing, sometimes time-keeping. Sometimes it’s about finishing a piece of work from the group after the meeting and I’ve witnessed in my life an occurrence or two when that was volunteered to people who were not even in the room!

Who gets volunteered?

Well, in my experience, typically, it’s younger people, and women. Add intersectionality to this and you would get young women being *very* likely to be volunteered. Except for chairing, when in many cases and groups it goes to the person with most chips on their shoulders, or more power as recognised by their peers, or more expertise in a given subject, or just because of patriarchal tradition it ends up being a senior guy. Not very process-literate if you ask me, as what you need is someone who fits the bill: someone with facilitation skills for chairing, someone with good writing for documenting, someone with good synthesis and public speaking skills for rapporteuring, and just anyone with a watch for time keeping…

Who volunteers others?

I have not documented this thoroughly but my (probably biased) perception is that it’s the photographic ‘negative’ picture of those chosen: the entitled, seemingly powerful, often white, men. They don’t have to be the most powerful but often they are quite comfortable in the group, don’t need to assert their authority, and feel, as a result, entitled to play around with others as if no one would question their natural good sense and extraordinary intelligence…

When no volunteer shows up

The scenario above is often made starker in break out groups when the group is instructed to find a volunteer to start with, and no one addresses that question at the start because it’s not a usual, nor pleasant conversation to have (despite how useful and important it is). What usually happens then is that at the end of the breakout time, in the rush of reporting back, the befuddled group tends to have its most entitled figure give the task to the least empowered person in the group. Sometimes it’s worse and everyone’s embarrassed not to have a volunteer and not to want to volunteer last minute either. That usually denotes a bad group dynamics meaning no one takes charge for either the process or the content.

What if being volunteered is being given power?

What people often don’t realise is that actually, taking notes, reporting back, chairing are all exercises of power. It can be so in a negative (corrupting) sense as you can hold the space and decide to slightly hijack peoples’ opinions to plant your own ideas and words and hope others in the group won’t stand up to your version of the facts. But it’s in a positive light also an exercise of collective power where you are holding a piece of your group’s process and reinforcing the trust and group’s collaborative muscle. So there comes some ambivalence: are you being tasked because you’re powerless or will you use this new power that is invested in you? Will you use it to your own advantage or to everyone’s?

Volunteering: the key to a better experience?

What most people don’t realise, is that instead of seeing volunteering as a drag, they should see it as an opportunity. An opportunity to be awake, active, engaged, present, listening, working with your group. You invest yourself in the gathering and as a result you tend to also emerge with a better experience of the gathering because you’ve partly made it yours. This is SOOO much better than coming to ‘consume’ an event. Especially if the event is not very participatory. So remember that most striking ambivalence: volunteering is a blessing disguised as a curse.

What should a facilitator do about this business of people being volunteered?

If you’re holding the space -whether online or face-to-face- for the entire group, what should you do? Watch it and let it be? Point to it and let it be? Intervene mildly to make it more ‘fair’? Downright assign volunteers on the spot? I don’t think there’s a readymade answer to this, it depends on your style and on the context. This is what my friends from Community At Work refer to as the ‘Accommodator to influencer continuum’. I tend to let groups deal with their own dynamics, but usually point to some of the aspects I’ve covered here, for them to be fully aware (and to build their process literacy).

What do you do in such situations, and why? What else do you see about this scenario I’m covering today?

What is sure, is that next time you are in a group that is looking for a volunteer, you know what to do in full awareness, and perhaps you decide to be that volunteer because you see the point of playing your part 🙂

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…

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.


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 😉

10 advices to dramatically improve your un-facilitated meetings…

Shooting towards ten commandments (Credits: ideacreamanuela / FlickR)

Shooting towards ten commandments of unfacilitated meetings? (Credits: ideacreamanuela / FlickR)

In my experience as meeting-goer (and I have to admit I attend meetings way less than I facilitate them), it seems a number of standard mistakes happen by default. These mistakes really cripple any attempt to turn the meetings into useful gatherings and meshings of ideas, people and energies.

These mistakes tend to appear particularly in meetings where there is no facilitator involved. Yet it’s clear that not every meeting can be facilitated (for lack of time, money, thought about it etc.).

So here are 10 advices that can help anyone running an un-facilitated meeting to hit the mark more surely – and for clarity by meeting I mean gatherings of 2 hours or more:

  1. Work with a team, from the design phase. Even if you don’t involve a facilitator, you will need to make sure you have people that help you make sure: all logistics is running smoothly (brains don’t work on empty stomachs or when payment grudges are getting in the way); all inputs, presentations etc. are collected and harvested; the event is properly communicated before, during and after (including social media, reporting etc.); someone is there to relay you when you want to join the conversation etc.
  2. Think carefully about the topics you want to cover and outcomes for each of these topics. If you’re not clear what your key topics are and what you want to achieve for each of these, you might start on the wrong foot from the get-go… And knowing which topics you want to address also means knowing what your ‘content boundaries’ are, i.e. what you definitely WON’T address at your event…
  3. Think carefully about the type of meeting you want to shoot at. You may be interested in mostly passing on information, collecting feedback or you might be aiming at a more complex group interaction (e.g. to explore new grounds, to make complex decisions etc.). Being clear about the type of meeting you’re actually getting at will inform your design and clarify the group dynamics you may expect from your attendees…
  4. Think carefully about the content balance, ie. the balance between the content presented and the capacity of your participants to process and digest that information

    This is also about balancing content and its processing ;) (credits: Your ecards)

    This is also about balancing content and its processing 😉 (credits: Your ecards)

    I tend to apply (more or less) the following rule of thumb: For the time of each presentation count 3 times as much time for its digestion (whether through Q&A or group work). So for a 6-hour day of work, having more than 1.5 hours of presentations will not really provide the participants a real opportunity to fully digest that content.

  5. If you have many inputs, consider alternatives to PowerPoint presentations. I listed quite a few here. You are the one in charge, so you can impose certain restrictions on the way people are sharing their inputs. In a Botswana meeting I facilitated for my current organisation, we managed to avoid Powerpoint recitals, and in an older KM4Dev annual meeting we even banned Powerpoint and ended up with very creative presentation formats.
  6. Consider the kind of venue and set-up you are hosting the meeting at. Pillars are big no-no’s, acoustics matters, and the chair set up also has a strong influence on the group dynamics e.g. if you want to stimulate participation and interaction: Classroom style < U-shaped table set-up < cabaret style < semi-circle or full circle… There’s much more to say about this, but know that if you want your participants to engage, your seating arrangement will have a hidden but very strong influence on whether engagement happens or not.
  7. Be aware of power dynamics and attend to it. There are always more powerful, or confident, or fast thinkers, who tend to monopolise the conversation. It’s great to get their inputs (they are the first ones to talk so they model an active behaviour) but your event shouldn’t be limited to their inputs, but to as many peoples’ as possible. For this, you may need to try out different formats (e.g. small group interactions, forced listening techniques such as fishbowls, used in the interest of the less talkative). In fact this is a good matter for a future post of its own (watch this space!).
  8. Don’t shoot for perfect time management, but for a perfect conversation. Because I have low tolerance for long-winded speakers, for a very long time I had the feeling that having a meeting follow the program and finish in time was one of the key traits of successful meetings. I have learned through my training and work with Sam Kaner and Community at Work to be open to the creative force of conflicts and to make space for conversations when they are hitting an important point, at the expense of time management… But of course it is in those sensitive moments that it is most useful to have a facilitator at hand…
  9. Plan - do - check - act: the continuous improvement cycle (Credits: Leyhill.com)

    Plan – do – check – act: the continuous improvement cycle (Credits: Leyhill.com)

    Adopt a continual improvement cycle: Gather feedback (check), think and review (act), adapt (plan), try it (do). In other words, as Dwight D. Eisenhower would say: “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” and so you need to be prepared to leave your plan aside and to adapt your approach to your participants. This means also carefully creating a space for them to express their ideas for improving your meeting!

  10. Have fun! Have as much fun as Golden State Warriors do on the basketball court! It is the sports team that is having the most fun on the planet and they show fun is also the key to (MUCH) better performance. If you’re not having a bit of fun at your meeting, how can you expect others to? And if no one is having fun, are you really in the best conditions to make this meeting a useful and productive one?

Does this make sense to you?

Yes? Then give it a try!

No? Then let me and us know what you would do differently!

And in any case, if you are not sure how to go about your own events, or if these are (expectedly) particularly complex or difficult, call upon a specialist: facilitators are there to help you do all of the above – and a lot more – in the best possible way, and help the entire group do their best thinking.

Wondering where to find that support? ILRI’s engagement and collaboration team can help 🙂

And then it struck me: MUSIC!!!

Agile KM for me... and you?

How could I not think of this one before? How come two overwhelming parts of my brain – learning process facilitation and music – did not connect earlier properly?

While relaxing from the last of three events in a row in Nairobi this week, I ended up chatting with our graphic facilitation duo (check their wonderful work at that event here), one of these artists confessed that of all the elements that make up a perfect event (missing the references for this here – do you know?), he enjoyed our event very much, but really missed one aspect: music!

Now, I’ve been an avid music collector for the past 25 to 30 years, amassing treasured beats, melodies and quirky noise experiments from around the world, across genres, for different moods, on different beats, for different purposes, in different languages, using different instruments. Or none… Over the equivalent of several…

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Share Fair Addis: Fishbowl and fishbowl battle

Agile KM for me... and you?

O(h) now I know how to use the Fishbowl  methodology in another way.

The Addis Ababa AgKnowledge Africa ShareFair (1) has just started and on this day 0 (2), a host of training sessions have been organised. Together with the KM4Dev group (Charles Dhewa, Gauri Salokhe, Roxana Samii, Pete Cranston) I am fighting for a cause that looks like a vintage toy store against the whistles and bells of a Wii or the latest Android games: Next to the hyped-up Mendeley and Google sessions, aside from the ever popular blogging, video and audio sessions, we are showing the power of good old face-to-face knowledge sharing methods.

Among these, Gauri and I are presenting the ‘fish bowl‘ (not fish ball mind you, as you may see on the AgKnowledge ShareFair pictures for a joke). I pushed Gauri to insist on presenting this method and she got unluckily voted…

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