Thursday, February 27, 2014

Architects of Air: 5 Tips for Adding Structure to Workshops

If you think about it, the kind of workshops we go to, and run as facilitators and learning practitioners - our strategic planning meetings, our team development sessions, and brainstorming events - are not traditional workshops. The walls are not lined with physical tools, and in the room there are no hydraulic lifts and pneumatic drills, engines and massive circuit boards in sight. (I am working today with a group that is learning about how to do public private partnerships between vocational schools and companies in the heavy duty construction vehicles industry in post-conflict countries - all aimed at decreasing youth unemployment. The event has sparked my thinking...).

When we are doing this work, we walk into empty rooms. There might be chairs and tables, but the tools we use are for the most part invisible. We are lucky when something has been written down on paper, but this is not always the case.

These more ephemeral workshops can involve long hours of people talking. They can go here and there and all over the place (not our workshops of course, but those other workshops). And it is up to us, the hosts or the facilitators, to create a structure that helps us to use our invisible tools to create things, fix things or get some very specific things done.

The more "in the clouds" the discussion has the potential to be (whether a very broad or theoretical question, a visioning exercise, and even learning something specific from masses of experiences), the more creating a clear structure will help keep people on track and focused on the goals and products desired. And the more they will trust a process and goal that might seem daunting or slightly incomprehensible at first.

What are some of the ways a facilitator can help create structure, or make it make it much more visible, from a wide open space of 8 hours and an empty 10 m x 8 m room?  Here are 5 things I did during this workshop:

1.Created a physical schedule - I did this to help me structure my introduction to the agenda, I left this in the room and referred to where we were in the schedule after every break, and it helped people to see the flow and trust the process, that we would get where we needed to go in the end. Everyone had an e-copy of this in advance, but my experience is that people use it (the electronic version) before the event to see if they really want to attend, but during the event, people stop looking at their agenda's (unless they want to know when the break is!)

2. We are here: This might seem silly to you, but this little marker, that I move every time we go from one session to another, helps mark our progress and march through the agenda.

3. Structure the time with sound: I always carry a bell, or use my iPhone if I have a microphone, to help signal when things are changing, when activities are done, when groups need to change or when the break is over. This just helps to signal boundaries on activities that help people hear and trust that timing is being measured.

4. Number things: In these kinds of workshops I tend to number everything. I number the questions that the speakers will answer, number the tables for group work, number the sessions on the agenda. It helps as shorthand which can give time savings, it helps see the length and scope of things, and it helps give structure to the space or discussion.

5. Make Templates: Help structure the capturing of data, by making flipchart templates, A3 templates, A4 templates, listening cards, etc. - you can even border the paper, to create containers for the many ideas that come from the groups' work that will help shape the products you want to generate. It gives the feeling of structure (and also gives structure, keeps people on track and makes sure you are all answering the same question, and not some memory of a question you read orally 10 minutes ago).

In our workshops, we structure the wide open spaces of our minds and imaginations, our words and ideas, to help us get clearer about, and achieve, our goals.

In the end, we facilitators are architects of air. I love that idea!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Managing Exceptions: The Resilient Facilitator

This is an occupational reality that I need to remind myself about from time to time related to the work facilitators do. The resulting advice that I give myself may also be pertinent for trainers, event planners and staff members with bosses using "just-in-time" management or a firefighter approach to work.

You are invited to join processes when they are very important.

Leaders, teams and organizations invest in external support and help when the outcomes matter greatly - they need to gather information for the next submission of a critical funding proposal, they are bringing all their dues-paying members together for an annual inspirational meeting, once in every five years the Board meets to do strategic planning, they are trying to develop a historic industry standard through a multi-stakeholder process. These events can be milestones in the sustainability of an organization.

What if you, as a facilitator, have all of these things happening in the same month?

Let's hope that doesn't happen all the time, but it can certainly be the case that you have two or three big projects winding up very close to one another on your own calendar. Each one heating up in the weeks just before - potentially all at the same time.

It is important, as the Facilitator, to put yourself in the host organization's shoes and not be surprised when calls run over (maybe by as much as 1.5 hours), when they really want to see you and not just have a conference call, when they are eager to talk through an idea with you  even at 11pm at night or on Sunday morning when they are having their last preparatory team meeting. The event you are helping them with might be THE event of the year for them and they will be putting every ounce of effort into it. And they will make many exceptions to make sure it is absolutely perfect, which is great, and will invite you to make them too.

What can facilitators do to manage these exceptions? 3 things immediately come to mind:

  1. Build in Resilience: This particularly in the form of time. Don't schedule 15-minute interviews 15 minutes apart, don't take meetings in 2 cities with only as much time as it takes to get between them in between, etc. Things will go over, they will be delayed because of last minute things on the host organization's side, they will be postponed because the programme is not quite developed yet, etc. Building in resilience to take these changes (which may be last-minute-before-the-event for them, but be all the time for you, the facilitator) means keeping space in your schedule and in your head to work with these exceptions. 
  2. Husband your Resources: Try to maintain your routine even amidst these exceptions. Eat properly, exercise and above all SLEEP! Don't wind up going to these very important events with a sleep deficit. This is another way to build in resilience so that too many late nights in a row don't render you less than your usual creative and calm self. I wrote a whole blog post about this: Facilitators: To Your Health! 
  3. Planning, Planning Planning: And of course, this is perhaps the obvious one, but easy to short cut when you might be contacted late in a process, or when organizations are eager to save funds (understandably in the current global financial climate many sustainability organizations are particularly sensitive to this). This might sound counter intuitive, but more time budgeted for planning and preparing your event can easily mean less time needed for last minute fix-its for mission critical meetings. And again, good planning and preparation will build resilience into your system, because with all the known things planned and organized you can be more open to fielding the unexpected whether before or during the event. And unexpected things will happen - expect them! (These can be rather extreme -  I was holding an international learning event with 250 people in Moscow when 9/11 happened, we stopped everything and devoted a full day to dialogue to try to understand what was going on in the world from many international perspectives - from this, to a handful of people losing their luggage thus taking out one of your support staff members for a while to deal with that.)
All of these things take some effort in the short term, but have long term benefits. For facilitators, like the ecosystems or humanitarian aid or precious metals our host organizations are managing, building in resilience makes our work more sustainable. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Do You Really Want Results?


As facilitators (and human beings) we make all kinds of assumptions about what people want out of the workshops and processes we help them run. Some of these assumptions might be around getting results, or at least the sheer volume of results we can help a group of people generate over a day or two.

It is typical at the end of our workshops that the walls are covered
with flipcharts, completed templates, prioritised ideas, timelines, and next action sheets. We regularly put groups to work on key questions and then
after reporting seek from the group their observations about the
results  - what patterns do they see? What additional meaning can they
derive when you put all this work together? We ask for reflections and take away messages. We might capture these nuggets of insight on cards or paper,  and quickly we have mountains of data that we facilitators
assume are equally and fantastically valuable to the hosts of the event.

While these ideas and summaries look like gold to us, we might instead
encounter a programme manager who looks at the wealth of raw data and
asks at the end of the workshop, "What am I supposed to do with all this?"

Well, unless the process needs to be minuted for transparency or
accountability reasons (and sometimes this might actually be the case), I see no reason why every single post-it note or flipchart needs to be typed
up and put into a long, dry verbatim report, that potentially no one will use. Sometimes a simple photo report (like the ones I make in Penultimate – see blog post Fast and Easy Workshop Reports with Penultimate) will do as the archive of raw outputs. This can then be crystalized into a more useful and meaningful short report, with decisions and next actions concisely summarised.

We all need to remember that workshop activities can serve different purposes. Some might produce concrete written results, but some might be designed to produce softer, more intangible results, such as team development, warming up for a creative brainstorming, or helping to shift mindsets or attitudes. These latter activities might come and go with no written trace, with results only to be experienced in a more harmonious working atmosphere or a particularly innovative outcome later on.

Some discussions might be most useful for peer learning, so people might take their own notes of what is most useful to them. If the group has a central repository for group learning, this could be still be archived for on-demand learning in the future. In which case perhaps only highlights, contact /persons and places to go for more information need be captured in a searchable format (sent by email and/or uploaded on an online platform).

Sometimes the results produced are for the participants and sometimes they are just for you. For the latter, it might be most useful to let “results” pass in an ephemeral way, or with some discreet note taking on a notepad by the facilitator or project manager. Such as the answers to the following questions: How easy was it for you to contribute to this exercise? What did you enjoy about the day, what would you like to be different tomorrow? No need to capture these things on a flipchart. Unless of course you want to refer back to it again at the end of the next day to see how you did, but that seems heavy handed unless the process of the day was a train wreck (and hopefully that would NEVER be the case).

So as facilitators we might sometimes get a little carried away with
writing things down and capturing everything.

And our host organisations might get carried away too. It might be the case some times that our counterparts  think they want to know something but really they don't have the latitude to make the changes that might arise from a highly generative exercise. Or they might be working with a different timeframe (short term vs. long term) or they might have other parameters, such as budget or human resources, that pose boundaries that need to be carefully explained to a group before it starts its work. As without careful consideration of these, the results are rendered almost useless.

So the discussion of results forms an important part of the
consultation stage of a facilitation design process. It needs to happen at the overall workshop level, but also for each session and activity. Facilitators much check their assumptions -  this conversation is a time
where the facilitator listens deeply, and asks good questions. For
example, for a session that aims to share “best practice”: Where will the good practice lessons generated go after the session? Is it for individual participants’ learning or should it be captured and archived? If the latter, then where will it be archived and in what format? Who will use this later? How will the results be fed back into the process in the future? And so on.

I think we should always be very clear what results we want from a
workshop discussion, an exercise, from group work, etc. Every session conducted should have a purpose, and the answers/outputs/results are in some way useful for the process.  Without this the whole exercise can become very expensive  busy work. Whether results are captured for long term use, or whether the discussion just helps move the group mentally from A to B, this should be crystal clear to both the facilitator and the workshop host.

Whenever you are convening people you should always want results; whether they are written down or not doesn’t always matter.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Productivity and Walking Desks: Combining Work With Workout

Does this look familiar?

It wouldn't have to me before today.

It's my treadmill screen and my laptop screen (notice Zero Inbox!) because I just made myself a Walking Desk.

Impressed by the recent New Yorker article, "The Walking Alive" by Susan Orlean, gently informing all us knowledge workers that we are shortening our lives when we sit at our desks for so many hours a day, I decided to get out the saw (sic) and convert a treadmill over to a workstation myself. (If you want to know more, there is also a nice NPR Interview with her -Treadmill Desks and the Benefits of Walking Alive.)

I have lamented again recently on my slow down in blogging over the last year. That has been in part due to lots of work (common to us all), but also to the fact that I started to get up from my desk and go out of my office for some kind of exercise every day thanks to last year's sticky New Year's resolution. And as we all know, time is a finite resource. So at least one-hour a day (plus transaction time) almost every day is gone from work hours, and this was definitely part of my blogging time.

But today, I am writing this blog while walking 1.7 km per hour at my treadmill desk. It sounds slow, but I have been on here for 2.5 hours now (probably too long, first time over ambition) and covered some fair ground.

I didn't buy a treadmill desk, although there are some snazzy ones available, but converted a regular treadmill by simply putting a board horizontally through hole in the two "arms" of this Kettler Track Experience. The board gives me room for my laptop, phone, agenda, and some files (and probably a cup of coffee if I am careful).

It still took me a while to get it to the right work position. I immediately noticed that my laptop was too low when it was on the board to be comfortable for more than 5 minutes. So I put a stack of printer paper blocks under it to raise it to the right height. Even at this level I can still see my screen (as in the photo) so can motivate myself by time, distance or calories, if my email is less than inspirational.

It is surprisingly easy to work on my feet - I have already made phone calls, scheduled a meeting, zeroed my In-box, created a word document, filled in an online registration form, and read and commented on a paper (and wrote this blog). All at 1.7 km per hour.

All perfect? Not yet. I have to figure out how to keep the treadmill programme on manual, otherwise I will have the situation I had on my first call when the machine sped up at seemingly random times and had me huffing before I could get it back down to my comfortable pace (giving a whole new meaning to "Thinking, Fast and Slow"). I also need to get use to working without a mouse, or make my desk elevation (aka blocks of paper) wider.

I see that I might get addicted to this as it seems to take multi-tasking and productivity at your desk to a new level. And for home office workers to note: It doesn't really work in slippers (although pajamas are probably ok if they're loose enough). Finally, don't plan on walking at your desk right until the minute before you zip out to a meeting, because after a couple of hours on the treadmill, even at that slow pace, you'll be a little dizzy and disoriented when you step down on terra firma again. (So, no power tools either.)

In the time it has taken me to write this blog -exactly 44 minutes, 1.05 kilometers and 108 calories, I have kept moving, and still achieved something work related - my first standing blog post, and I hope the first of many on my feet.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Fast and Easy Workshop Reports with Penultimate

As Facilitators sometimes we get asked to prepare reports from our workshops. Normally we at Bright Green Learning encourage the teams to do this as report preparation is an excellent learning opportunity and helps the team to process the results of the workshop in a more in-depth way. (See our blog posts: Don’t Outsource It: Learning from Reporting and More Learning from Reporting: Using Reporting for Teambuilding)

And it is true that when you use very interactive workshop methodologies, the meeting room after your workshop can look like this:
 Penultimate Blog room
With walls covered with flipcharts, cards and post-its people usually say “what can I do with all this?”

Typing them up is the first thought, and that can take a very long time and often be challenging to organize (this of course is also part of the learning process from the workshop – identifying what is useful input and important for the next steps in the project or process and what is not.) In my experience, you will rarely get a volunteer willing to do this! I also find that typed flipcharts, when they come back to you in Word format, can lose a lot of the context, feeling and creativity that went into the workshop brainstorming and discussions that produced them.

Another option is a Photo Report, and this has been done for a while. I remember when we took photos with our digital cameras, then downloaded them off the data card, pasted them into PPT and then inserted the photo slides into Word documents, fighting formatting and creating mega-heavy documents that in the end we had to distribute by USB stick as they wouldn’t pass as attachments. (I will fully admit that even then this was probably not the most effective way to do this). Things have gotten a easier with smart phone and compressed files etc.

However, EVEN easier now is the winning combination of an iPad, writing stylus and a nifty app called Penultimate.

Ipad and stylus
Penultimate was recently acquired by Evernote, which I also love, although even before this partnership I was a Penultimate fan.

To use Penultimate for a quick and easy Photo report, you just need to start a new Notebook in the app:

Start a new Penultimate Notebook
Once you are in, you can take photos of your flipcharts, your cards work, your exercises using the photo icon on the page of your notebook.
Penultimate photo icon
Once you have the photo there on your page, you can resize it, change direction, copy it to multiple pages, and best yet, you can write on or around it (as above!)

I use my notebook to create a living memory of my workshops, from both the content point of view, and the process. For example…

I capture notes and maybe an important slide from a presentation that I want to remember:
Penultimate screen with writing
I capture a workshop exercise in action with some of the highlights of the discussion (and you can write more neatly than I did here!):
Penultimate REnatus
I record the results of a card activity theme by theme:
Penultimate cards

I can remember how I set the exercise up and how it ran:
Penultimate Exercise
And more!

The number of functions is pretty rich for the purpose of creating a Photo Report from a workshop.

As you can see you can select from a range of 10 pen colours (including white and yellow for writing on dark photos as on some of the photos above). There is also a selection of three line thicknesses, so you can make titles stand out or put emphasis on particular words or images. If you make a mistake you can undo it, or change your mind and re-do it. If you like lined paper, plain paper or graph paper, you can change it at any time.
Pen icons
As you can see, I use the photo function most heavily. Once I take the photo I always change the size of the photo, move it around, and sometimes put multiple photos on a page (see an example of this in the photos above). If you really need to read the text however, then 1 per page, expanded will work best.

You don’t even have to worry about taking your photos in order. I walk around and snap images of key flipcharts or processes with my iPad  when I have a free moment during my workshop, and then I reorder them afterwards with the drag and drop feature - which is very much like you would use to change slide order in PowerPoint in the slide sorter view.  If you forget your iPad, you can also use your iPhone for the photos, but then you have to upload them to your iPad photo archive by email afterwards and then insert them one by one into your Penultimate Photo Report. It takes more steps, thus more time, but is relatively straight forward – it also means that other people can send you photos to incorporate.

Once you are happy with your Photo report, you can send it as a pdf by email (if it is not too too big – it can actually quickly get too big for this in my experience), or you can open it in Dropbox and then share the folder, other options include Skitch (also an Evernote product) and Day One (a journaling app). Because I am also an Evernote user, I have it sync to Evernote and then I can just share the URL for that Evernote file by email with my workshop participants. This step will take some fiddling around. I open it in Evernote on my iPad, then open Evernote on my ipad where I then see my Photo Report. Then I sync my computer Evernote until I see it there too. At the end of all this it is easy to use the "Share" button to get a URL that you can paste into an email. It sounds more complicated then it is!

Overall, if you are pretty quick with your photos, and then any notes you want to make on them, you can do it all in about 15 minutes -  an immediate and super quick memory of a workshop. If you want to make it very pretty and take it on like a scrapbooking exercise, then of course it can take longer, but it feels creative and fun! Gone are the hours and hours of typing up flipcharts into massive, boring Word document Workshop Reports - of course, you could still let someone else do that after you send your Penultimate report. They will thank you for making it more manageable than struggling with a huge roll of unruly flipchart sheets and a teetering stack of facilitation cards!

stack of old papers

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Thumbwrestling Game Rules and Lessons from an Appreciative Inquiry Makeover

A while ago I wrote a blog post about how I reframed the learning from a game called Thumbwrestling using an Appreciative Inquiry approach. The blog post was called "Activity Makeover using Appreciative Inquiry: From STUPID to SMART."

This game gives insights about collaboration versus competition and bases the debriefing on what makes people naturally take a more competitive approach to such a game (and lose). In the meantime I have had numerous people write to me and ask me for the rules of the Thumbwrestling game itself, so I promised to write it up in the way that I play it.

I have been playing this particular game in teambuilding workshops for many years and if you want a very thorough description, you can go to the Systems Thinking Playbook by Linda Booth Sweeney and Dennis Meadows, which features this game. It doesn't have the debriefing that I describe in my blog post, although it has evolved out of the same game mechanic and lessons.  I am sure that the first time I played it was with Dennis.

Here are the basic instructions:

  1. Ask everyone to pick a partner with whom they will thumbwrestle (people play in pairs);
  2. Tell them to lock hands with their partner by clasping the fingers of their right hands (with thumbs pointing up) - they can do this standing or sitting - standing is more fun! (Note: If you have never Thumbwrestled as a kid, then there are plenty of amusing how-to videos on YouTube! This is the same basic game with some new parameters.)
  3. Demonstrate with another person a very physical and aggressive way to play and tell people not to pinch hard and cause any pain or injury;
  4. Explain that they get a point by pinching the thumb of their opponent;
  5. Tell them they have 1 minute to get as many points as they can; 
  6. Shout "go!" 
  7. Time them and then shout "Stop!"
  8. Ask who got 1 or more point (raise their hand), 2 or more, and go up until you have the winner(s) (most people will only have won 1 or 2 points);
  9. At least one or two pairs generally have gotten 30 or 40 points by collaborating rather than taking a competitive approach - have them demonstrate their technique.

Now you go into the blog post to debrief  (Activity Makeover Using Appreciative Inquiry: From STUPID to SMART) and discuss what motivates people to take on a more competitive approach when collaboration clearly gets them many more points. Ask them where they see this in their workplaces and in real life. The activity makeover and the game helps them think about how to notice a system that makes people behave in a STUPID way to thinking about one that is much SMARTer...

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Exploring Draft Zero: What I Look for in Your Facilitation Agendas

Sometimes I develop the first draft of a facilitation agenda for a partner's workshop from scratch after a consultation, and sometimes I am sent the first draft to explore and work with further.

When the second scenario is the case, as it has been for the last few workshops I have done this month, I noticed that there are a number of things - details and what might seem like very small things -  that I consistently look for (and often find may benefit from tweaking).

I just looked through the last five Zero Drafts of agendas that have come to me and here are the top 3 areas where I rather consistently noticed things and suggested alternative pathways...

1) Timing: This is one of the first things I check when I receive an agenda and tends to be a place where more questions need to be asked, such as:

  • Is the timing realistic? 
  • Is there enough time/too much for presentations and discussions and activities?  Are the presentations way too long and discussions way too short? Is there enough time to add up the results of a vote or cluster the cards you collect so people are not just sitting and watching you do something?
  • Is there any discussion or reflection time built in at all? 
  • Is the incremental timing put in and does it add up? E.g. Within a session block is there detailed timing for the introduction to the session, presentation(s), Q&A/discussion, briefing of an activity, activity and presentation back? Or is it all lumped into "1 hour"? What about the time it takes to load last minute presentations, or for speakers to walk to the front of the room and get settled? Or for people to convene into smaller groups?
  • Is the placement of the breaks and lunch appropriate in the agenda? Are the gaps between them too long or short? Are the breaks realistic considering where they are geographically in the venue and how long it takes for people to get to them? Buffet versus sit-d own lunch?
2) Questions and Language: The second thing I look at are the questions that launch activities and discussions and I ask myself: 
  • Are they appropriate, understandable and crisp? (We don't want our participants saying "What?" after we read the question to them)
  • Do the questions get us the information we need to know for our expected outcomes of each session?
  • If they are intended to promote discussion, are they interesting, open questions?
  • Does the language used to frame the questions take participants in the right direction? (I am a fan of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) and tend to redraft questions into this format - here's an example of where I did an AI "Makeover" on an activity to take it from STUPID to SMART)
  • Are the questions answerable? Can I answer them myself? If people want an example, do I have one?
  • Is the timing sufficient/too much for answering the question?
3) Variety and Placement of Activities: The next thing I do is zoom back up and look at the overall flow of the workshop and its various activities. I look for the following:
  • Is there a logical build of the session - e.g. does it have the Welcome, Introductions, Context Setting, Peer Exchange, Work/Task, Application, Reflection, Closing, in the right order,whatever that might be for his event? 
  • Is the flow incremental enough to give everyone the same starting place and bring everyone along?
  • Has any one facilitation technique been overused? Are participants spending all of their time with post-it notes, or presentation followed by Q&A?
  • Is there variety in media used - PPT, video, storytelling, Pecha Kucha, Ignite, Prezi?
  • Does the activity match the output needed? For example, if we need reflections and agreement from the whole group on an idea, does the activity allow everyone to comment and make the idea more robust? (or does the Zero Draft only include a short plenary discussion where the bravest and loudest 10 participants will take the floor and the other 50 will stay silent - at the end of that you can't say that the whole group agrees!) 
  • Are there sufficient "capture tools" - that is, are there flipchart templates to support group work, listening cards to capture questions when presentations are numerous or long, individual worksheets to record ideas where plenary time is not sufficient for some reason? 
  • Does the activity sequence use the whole room or vary where the participants are positioned if possible? Can there be variety in facing the front, working in small groups in the corners, leaving the room all together for a Pairs Walk?
After these big ones, there are a number of other things I check out when I am working from a partner's Zero Draft for a workshop, especially when I will be doing the delivery myself (and even if not, they should be clarified for any facilitator who will stand up and make the workshop run smoothly):
  • Is the language used consistent - when referring to documents or results (Action plans, timelines, etc.)?
  • Are there session numbers and are they sequential (I always assign session numbers as it makes signposting for participants easier and the planning discussions with partners more accurate)
  • Do I understand all the acronyms? (often not the case, and even google will give you 25 different versions of them)
  • Is it clear who is doing what? Are the names of the people responsible for different parts put in - I always add a separate column to my Facilitation Agendas to document who is speaking, or facilitating or chairing at any given moment.
  • Do the names of the speakers/contributors have titles and organizations? I will need that to introduce them.
This exploration process can take a couple of hours to really work through an agenda in great detail and ask these questions, and if need be to make some suggestions on what to add or what to change on the Zero Draft. 

Sometimes these kinds of questions can take partners by surprise as it is normally not the level of detail that they are focusing on when they put together their initial agenda. Facilitators, be gentle. For many, groups processes are a jungle and a trip into the unknown. After all, that's why they came to seek advice from a facilitator in the first place!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Learn Something New: Visit a Nuclear Power Station

Today I had a real “You learn something new every day” moment - how often do you get an invitation to visit a nuclear power plant?

This afternoon I joined some Balaton Group friends to take a walk through the Zwentendorf nuclear power plant, located on the shores of the Danube about an hour outside of Vienna.
Our guide, the infinitely knowledgeable Wolfgang Kromp, Professor at the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences in Vienna and member of the Austrian Nuclear Advisory Board (and also a BG member), is an expert in all things nuclear and this historic plant in particular.

We started our visit with a “marketing video” in the main building. This video was made in the 1980s after the results of a referendum of the Austrian people prevented the newly completed plant from going into production. With a vote in November 1978 of 49.53% YES and 50.47% NO (a difference of under 30,000 votes), the plant which had taken 6 years to build with parts from all over Europe and at a cost of over a billion Euros, would split no atoms.

At that time, in 1978, the plant went into “conservation mode” for 8 years; that is, the workers carefully stored and maintained the machinery, and kept all the engineers on site waiting for a change in policy. But by 1985 it was evident that this would not come. At that point, the company started to sell off parts to various other power stations in Europe to recuperate some of the losses. Interestingly they started to buy parts back in 2005 because they repurposed the building into a nuclear security training center and a museum. Some parts came back, but some didn’t because they had suffered too much damage to be safe.

Our visit then took us over to the plant, where we entered the main entrance and saw where workers would come in and change out of their street clothes into bright yellow underclothes and a yellow or blue jumpsuit uniform, before going into the plant.

When they left for the day they would change out of their uniform (these clothes could never leave the building), wash and take a shower.

After that they had to stand on a scale and put their hands in a monitoring machine which would monitor gamma rays. If they were ok, they could leave and if not, they would suffer the “torture” of a hard body scrub, as Wolfgang put it, that would take off what seemed like layers of skin.

Then they would go up in the elevator to their work stations. This was interesting – nuclear power plants don’t have floors, they have elevations, so you go up to the top at 39.4 meters, and then come down to 35.5, 32.0 etc.

We went up to the top of the plant and walked down to see the different parts of the plant.

At 39.4 meters we saw the upper hall (this is the equivalent of what was destroyed at the Fukushima disaster) and here we could look down into the reactor vessel, which would have been the core of this 700+ megawatt plant.
We saw the (empty) fuel rods as well as the pond for spent fuel rods (water would have filled these ponds to contain the radiation). 

In a working plant, the spent fuels rods are moved from the reactor core after four years of use (every year 25% are moved), and taken underwater by crane to the spent fuel pond. Here they would be kept until they could be moved, still underwater, to another pond (this poses a problem as often there is nowhere else to take them).  Most of the radiation in the plants is in these ponds. In the below photo these cement cavities would be filled with water – the far pond, accessible through the narrow vertical door between ponds, is where the spend fuel rods would be stored until moved further away.)

Water is used throughout the plant for cooling, containing, condensing. What I learned as well is that nuclear power plants are very inefficient. They only capture about 30% of the energy produced and the other 70% is released into the atmosphere or in heated water. For example, this 700 megawatt power plant would lose another 1400 megawatts into the environment in the form of heated water into the Danube and heat dissipating into the cooling towers and into the atmosphere. Because nuclear power plants are so far from cities, you cannot really capture the waste heat as it is not all that hot (300C compared to 600C in fossil fuel plants) and also costly to move long distances, among other problems.

Here’s the Danube right outside the plant.
As we went down in elevation we saw the top of the containment vessel.

The turbines…
And into the control rod drive room (this is a translation from German and looked very much like a scene from Alien to me).
We finally ended up in the control room, where three different teams of 3 people would take eight hour shifts to keep an eye on what looked to me like a lot of machines that go “ping”. Right out of the 70s.




Overall, it was a rather sobering experience. Everything demanded such precision, such fine tuning, quick reflexes and the ability to look at hundreds of dials and data sets at any moment. How on earth you could not make simple human mistakes in here I cannot imagine.

Zwentendorf as a nuclear power plant was built but never opened as an active plant. Today it takes visitors and students on Fridays and is booked 18 months in advance. You can even take a virtual tour of the plant on the new owner’s website. Along the way it has been the inspiration for many unusual ideas for its use (such as a museum for “senseless technologies”, a children’s adventure land, a modern cemetery with the buried in glass cubes, and a venue for some Hollywood films). Today it is a renewable energy installation with citizen participation (with its 1300 solar panels sold out within a few days), a security training center, and a museum to remind the Austrian people of this decision so many years ago.

What a fascinating visit - with great thanks to Wolfgang and the team at ENV for hosting us!


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Waterfalls, Writing and Workshops: Working With Divergence and Convergence

Like feel-good movies, Jane Austen novels, and rocky waterfalls heading for their pools, workshops are often built around divergence and convergence.

Everything starts well enough, our heroine and hero bump into each other, there's a fancy dance or a lovely stream meandering through a meadow, our workshop begins with laughter and high expectations and settles into its comfortable context-setting phase. Eventually Mr. Darcy jumps into a pond and things are looking bright.

Then we start to brainstorm, our stream gets a bit faster and it crashes over the waterfall across hundreds of rocks as it plummets. Mr. Wickham rides off with a younger sibling and all seems lost. Our brainstorming produces lots of complex messages, ideas and contradictions. Time is tight and we have to stop for lunch.

Will it ever come together? Will there be a lovely cool pool at the bottom of the waterfall? Will there be a wedding at Pemberley? Will we get some resolution to our strategic workshop problem that no one seems to agree upon?

Well, therein lies the craft, at least when it comes to workshops and matters of Regency-period novels (waterfalls are nature's choice, sometimes workshops seem like that too).

How can you get that convergence, after blowing something apart so thoroughly to explore the broad diversity of participant views, or to probe taboo matters of sexual politics in the 19th century? Or for some geologically unknown reason (to continue with our waterfall metaphor here because I liked that picture up there and it kind of works).

To get convergence, you definitely need time (especially if you do not have gravity on your side). Depending on how much divergence there is, you may need hours, many pages and many chapters, to pull things around. And if you don't have this time or page count, or can't get this, what results - that open or almost done feeling -  may feel slightly unsatisfying. Instead of coming together in a deep blue pool, the waterfall disperses and filters through gravel out of sight. Lady Catherine de Bourgh wins out and Elizabeth stays home alone tatting into her golden years. Our workshop thoughts and ideas stay on 20 flipcharts instead of being synthesised into one perfect one.

I just left my workshop. We spent a lot of time today exploring many important issues, getting pages of great ideas, and diverging satisfyingly throughout the day. But for each big issue, we got close but could not quite reach the convergence we craved. Time was definitely an issue, we didn't quite have enough of it, not quite enough chapters to let our thinking take its natural course, and a couple of surprise additions. Perhaps less issues to tackle would have been better with more time to get them to the happy end of their story, to their deep blue pool.

We still have tomorrow, but I go to bed tonight feeling a little like our heroine is still sitting at the window expectantly. With some good behind-the-scenes work, a little redesign, and some bilaterals, I hope we will see Parsifal coming up the lane tomorrow...  (yes, I have to admit, I googled the name of Mr. Darcy's horse!)

Monday, July 01, 2013

Must See for Learning Practitioners and Educators: Remembering Rita Pierson

If you love everything about learning, whether formal or informal, and you haven't already seen it, you really need to take 7 minutes and 48 seconds right now and watch Rita Pierson's TED Talks Education talk called  "Every kid needs a champion" (recently broadcast on PBS 7 May 2013).

I learned about this video only a few days ago on NPR's TED Radio Hour - this is a curated, thematic one-hour programme that mashes up a number of TED talks, compares and contrasts their messages and goes a bit further with their authors.

This particular episode was called Unstoppable Learning, and Dr. Pierson's NPR conversation explored what role relationships play in learning. As you can imagine I pricked up my ears at this. How people learn best is one of my enduring sources of deep curiosity. And developing good relationships and "being nice" are values that our Bright Green Learning team hold dearly. And of course you can't just appear to be nice, you have to really be nice, caring and interested in the people who are doing the learning (because after all, we are learning too). I was just trying to explain this to a potential new collaborator a week ago. Dr. Pierson put her finger on it in one of the most memorable quotes of her talk, "Kids don't learn from people they don't like."  This is a profound observation from a career educator (and in my experience it also holds true for adult learners).

Rita Pierson also argued for teachers to take a more positive and appreciative approach with their students, even those - or in particular those -  who are not excelling in their work. She gave an example of a time that she gave a student a +2 and a smiley face, instead of minus -18 on his test. She said that's because -18 "sucks all the life out of you" and +2 says "I ain't all bad".

I love this reframing, which is so motivating and still somehow such a rare approach for educators and learning practitioners to take. There is a reflex in many educational contexts to focus on what learners missed or need to improve, rather than on what they are doing right (and as they say in Appreciative Inquiry, in every organization or situation, something is working, even if it is only +2 out of 20).

Rita's short talk brought tears to my eyes. I also grew up the daughter of two educators and see how students were touched by their work. Her words sounded absolutely right to me and I realised that she had articulately described my values around learning and education and those I would hope all teachers would take (including those teaching my own children).

I wanted to write this blog post to remind myself of where I could go for inspiration in my own learning work, and to connect to Rita's talk so I could listen to it again. I didn't know when I started this research that I would also be writing it in memorium, as Dr. Rita F. Pierson died unexpectedly last Thursday, on the day I discovered her on the NPR TED Radio Hour. Her death has left a gaping hole in the progressive educational community. She was a real thinker, shaper and feeler in the field of education and someone that everyone working in learning should listen to...have YOU listened to her amazing  7 minute 48 second TEDTalk yet?

You can read more about this remarkable woman and her impact in Remembering Educator Rita F. Pierson on the TEDBlog.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Fishing it Up from the Depths: Relearning Childhood Learning

Years ago I regularly went fishing with my father, who was and continues to be a real outdoorsman - someone who seems to know how to do and catch anything in the woods, lakes, fields and streams.

I followed along, doing my best, and apparently listening (although that is not what children normally do in my experience) and learned how to cast, toss my bait into the little space between the bank and the shady dock, bait my own hooks and neatly clean my catch.

Now fast forward 30ish years - through university, several international moves, 70+ countries of work-related travel, and not much fishing to speak of - I am begged to go fishing by my own two sons. What do I recall from my childhood learning?

My first observation is that if you don't use it, you actually don't lose (at least completely). I can remember how to string a rod, tie on the hooks, sinkers and bobbers. I know that fish hide in shady areas, or swim very deep when the water is too warm. I know that you can't fish at midday when the sun is at its hottest, and that early morning or dusk is better to catch feeding fish. I also know that if you don't catch anything in one spot after a while, you need to move your fishing location, and keep moving, until you find the fish.

But, we are still not catching any fish over here, four thousand miles from my father, the resident expert.

I think there are a few things impeding us. First, I think that I am struggling with a new application of this long ago learning  - a brand new context. I am no longer walking through high grass to Ohio farm ponds. In this Swiss lake, unlike the Great Lakes and ponds where I fished as a kid, I don't know much about this lake, its bottom topography, temperatures or depths. I don't know all the species of fish, I don't know what they eat (salmon eggs, worms, doughballs?) and when they eat it (not so much the time of day, but the time of year - are they spawning?) This latter would never cross my mind, but when I described to my father that we had seen big carp and couldn't get them interested in our bait, the first thing he said was "they might be spawning". I googled it and indeed carp spawn here in late May and early June depending on the temperature of the water. I didn't know that. Clearly some of it a good fisherman who had fished all over would figure out - like a lifetime practitioner of any field would intuit some things in a new context.

So there's another thing - I built up some good experience of fishing long ago, but I don't have decades of watching this water, understanding the fish and their behaviour, and knowing the broad range of tools (baits, spinners, lines) that a veteran fisherman would have (nor the graduate degree in freshwater fishery biology that my father has.) These things come from much more experience, and a lot of trial and error. My father no doubt took all the trial and error out of my early fishing experiences (kids get bored so easily), so some of this I will have to repete myself. And I will have to be curious, instead of irritated, when things do not come out the same as they did those long ago years. I will have to test a few of my own hypotheses, and remember what works when it does. It would also be good to make friends with a local fisherman who might be able to give me some clues to fishing in this particular ecosystem at 46.2 degrees north and 6.15 degrees east.

So what does this tell me about learning? Well, even when learned at an early age you can remember some things and even develop muscle memory for physical activities, like casting and reeling in my case. So you will not start out again as an absolute beginner. As you use this memory, more things will come back, although they might not be exact memories. And early experiences and memories that are good will no doubt drive you to keep trying, even when the new context is different, and potentially produces different results than the past.

For me, when I am experiencing this, I will try to:

  • Acknowledge that, although everything seems familiar, I am out of my original context for learning so will pay particular attention to what I am doing and challenge any old assumptions;
  • Seek local expertise - get a local "guide" who can help me, and help translate my knowledge into something more appropriate for the current context;
  • Try things - which is fun, if I look at it from a that perspective - because I have a learning curve again (even if I didn't 30 years ago).

Ultimately I guess it's about relearning. I found this interesting quote by futurist Alvin Toffler, "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."

So keep on learning (and relearning), and let's go fishing!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Writing Good Instructions for Workshop Games

I have just finished reviewing a set of instructions for a series of games that a big group will be undertaking as a part of a team development exercise. There will be 70 people in teams of 12,  8 different game stations, and a very ambitious time schedule (about 20 minutes per activity), so the set up and instructions for each game needs to be very, very good.

Teams will be moving from station to station. As each team reaches their new game station, players they will receive the instructions for the game at that location. At that moment, they need to have all the necessary information, in an easy to read format and be able to understand it very quickly.

Here are some of the things I am checking for in the game descriptions and instructions for the games, and where needed, modifying:
  • Is the game text too long, too wordy or too dense? Make it shorter with only essential information, put game steps into numbered points, lists into bullet points instead of narrative text, and numbers for scoring into a table; 
  • Are there any vocabulary words or idioms in the descriptions that might be misconstrued or misunderstood? Make the language as simple as possible;
  • Is there any ambiguity in the description text or rules? Make it crystal clear so no time lost in doubt or disagreement on interpretation among team members; 
  • Is there consistency in format and layout of the games' instructions? Reduce any inconsistencies in the way the rules are written in terms of level of detail, the order that information is given, the font, etc. so no time is wasted and teams will learn and read faster as they do through the games sequence;
  • Is the goal of each game clear? (e.g. How do you win - what do you have to do to win?) Rewrite as needed and put that up front in the instructions, so the rest of the instructions are read with that goal in mind;
  • Is the scoring clear and consistent within each game and overall across the series of games? Make sure it is clear how you get points and how many points for different aspects of the game (as applicable), make sure the points levels are the same for the different games so if a team doesn't do well at one game they are not overly penalised.
  • Is there anything subjective in the scoring (like points for quality or how things look)? If so decide in advance the criteria to award points and who will award them. This can potentially cause lots of disgruntled players. 
  • Are the materials needed/provided to play the game listed in checklist format? Create a checklist so the team can quickly assess if they have all needed materials.
  • Are the rules or steps numbered? Number these so team members can discuss them/refer to them by using their number as shorthand.
Some other considerations for good game instructions:

Consistency: Make sure the delivery of the rules to each team is consistent. For example, we are providing rules printed on an A5 card and putting that in a sealed envelope that the teams get when they reach the spot where the game will take place.
Testing: We are having someone test each activity first by following our instructions, to make sure steps are clear as well as feasible in the amount of time allocated. If it takes twice as long to complete as allocated, that obviously won't work. Things sometimes look feasible on paper, but when you are in situ, there may be features of the game environment that cause slow downs.
Game Aids: I am also making up job aids, like a score card for each team, so they can keep their own scores. We are also making a larger game score card on a flipchart, posted at each game station, so teams can see how other teams scored.

Teams love to play games, and the design and make up of a good game takes much care and consideration. Good instructions are crucial to make sure that playing the game actually meets its goals and results in both learning and fun.  

Thursday, June 13, 2013

TEDGlobal 2013: Think Again - What's Going On Around the Talks?

I am here at the TEDextravaganza which is TEDGlobal, featuring a week of over 80 TEDTalks on the main stage, including musicians, and 16 shorter talks at TED University, which is when the audience takes the TED stage.  But that’s not all (if that wasn’t enough!)  BTW, the TED Blog is a great place to get descriptions of the great talks we are hearing.

Around the fantastic TED talks that are delivered is an interesting set of activities, demonstrations and thoughtful details that make for a full week of fascinating, if a bit extreme, sensory input for TED participants. I wanted to take a little pause here in the action to note some of the great ideas on the event design aspect that I think are interesting and might be inspiration of other’s learning events. This is taking a heroic effort at self discipline to write this as there is not a nanosecond of down time for reflection programmed into the schedule.

For learning event organizers, it is very tempting to focus all energy on the content of a workshop or conference- and primarily on what happens on the stage. But learning and interaction can happen everywhere, and although participants might spend some 20+ hours sitting in the audience, as we are this week, another 2-4 hours per day find them in the venue at breaks, meals, waiting for sessions to start and chatting about them once they are over, etc. That can add another 20 hours of programmable time to your agenda, which you could either ignore and leave to serendipity, or cleverly use to integrate more learning activities and opportunities. And to be noted - with these latter you don’t have the design constraints of seated participants all sitting side-by-side looking forward in a dark room.

What has TEDGlobal come up with this year to help people deepen their experience with the topics of the talks, get to know one another better, and feed their brains and bodies? Here are a few things I am doing:

Play Pong with Drones: I spent a break with an impromptu team holding a green panel and coordinating directional messages to our drone (a quadrirotor, or Quad) to win a game of Pong. This game was being played by three flying drones from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (introduced to us by speaker RaffaelloD’Andrea). We had a whole session on “those flying things” which featured speakers exploring the use of electric autonomous flying vehicles for everything from environmental monitoring (Lian Pin Koh), delivering medicines to hard to reach villages (Andreas Raptopoulos) to the real possibility from lethal autonomy of these flying machines of a robot war (Daniel Suarez).  You clearly get the good with the bad with this technology.

Take a Ride in an Electric Car: I booked at the TEDDrive desk a pick-up in an electric car to go to a TEDx dinner last night. All week, TED offers rides in electric city cars to participants with a little lesson on how they work (fast charge- 30 minutes, or overnight, and these five passenger cars can make it up to 70 miles on one charge in good conditions – cold weather uses the battery faster, so do various features like aircon, heater, windshield wipers etc.) I didn’t know the display was so easy to understand and helpful regarding how long you have left to drive on your existing charge. Tempting…

Start a Fortune Cookie Conversation: At the breaks and lunch, brightly wrapped packets of fortune cookies are temptingly set out on all the tables. In each cookie is not a fortune, but a good conversation starter question to get things going with the new people you are perching with at the table.

Go Talk to An Author: I spent another break at the TED Bookstore with Sandra Aamodt, neuroscientist, TEDGlobal speaker and author of “Welcome to your Brain”, feebly and rather desperately trying to inquire if her years of conclusive research on the tenacity of weight set points might possibly be wrong (unsuccessfully as you can imagine). I wanted to speak to her because I have been feeling very smug at recent weight loss and was rather distraught at her talk’s message that I would simply gain it back to my body’s set point unless I was prepared to stay on the diet for the rest of my life. Apparently weight set points can go up, but rarely go down (I can still hope I am one of those rare cases). She is advocating mindful eating as an alternative to dieting, which sounds like another year of learning and effort. She also encouraged me at the end of our chat to get a standing desk, as new research is showing that sitting down is also killing us.

Eat Sensibly: Well I had to put this next. TEDGlobal is great at providing interesting and healthy snacks and meals. Little signs tell you that, with this snack, you are getting IRON or VITAMIN D, etc. No doubt so you can practice more mindful eating. We even got a “map” of the Grand Opening Party food offerings with titles of food stations such as Convey (Sharpes Express 1900 Sweet Potato Cakes) , Explode (Exploding bitter dark chocolate with granite shots), Honeycomb (Lapsong  Souchong Tea Smoked chicken) and Distinguished Doughnut (Savory rocket pesto doughnuts).

Print an Iconic Image: Getty Images is here with their digital archive and you can spend as long as you want to find a photo you like, after which the team prints it in A3 and you pick it up at the end of the day. I found a terrific BW photo of the terrifying, highest-roller-coaster-in-the-world, which is at Cedar Point in Ohio, which I faintly think I have been on but must have blocked it out. Or maybe not - we did learn from speaker Elizabeth Loftus that there is no evidence that we repress memories and banish them from our memory. We are however susceptible to false memories which can be introduced and adopted; so maybe I didn’t go on it, but my parents wanted me to think I did and was too scared to repeat, so they didn’t have to queue up for it.

Talk to Unusual People: With the help of the largest name tag imaginable, which includes: photo, name in 44 font, your title and location, and a line that says “Talk to me about:” followed by three words of your choice, you see lots of people standing in line for the designer coffees and teas holding up their name tags for people to read, or to photograph in order to get back to them on something or other they were discussing. This keeps happening even on Day 4 – 600+ people from over 66 countries, and you continually meet new people even up to the last day. The TEDConnect app is also very helpful to find and talk to people and, in addition to the daily schedule, includes your TED Top 10 – ten participants generated by the “secret” TED algorithm which should be of particular interest to you.

There is no opportunity to be bored, and even very little opportunity to reflect in between the tsunami of ideas and conversation that wash over your brain at any given moment. Whether you seek it - like when I went to join a little chat with American photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who is showing her photos from a recent project in a Kenyan hospital ward - or if it comes to you  - like the fascinating discussion I found myself in with a quiet Taiwanese dancer who explores cultural identity with her body - the TEDGlobal experience is not just sitting in those comfy seats in a dark room for many hours over five days.

Hmmm, maybe in the future we could have the healthy option of standing in the auditorium too. I might suggest that - the TEDGlobal organizers seem to be delightfully open to everything.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

How to Say "Yes" to Projects: A Policy Guide for a Small Social Enterprise

Say you run a small social enterprise that is services-based  - like a small learning and process facilitation group that works on sustainable development issues for instance. Then you really need to work to manage the throughput of projects so that you can maintain high quality, uphold your social values and work within the capacity of the team. 

That might sound easy, and it is, if you have a good underlying policy for the kind and amount of work you accept. We sat down recently and made a checklist of things that we would like to be true in order to say "yes!" to projects. 

Because we are working mothers part of our social values include time for children and families, our sustainability values help us focus in on environment and development projects, and our learning edge means that stretching for partners and us is also a goal. Because we're small, we need to watch the scope of work, and because we work in multi-faceted processes, we know that sometimes there are tradeoffs, 

Here's the checklist we generated. When these things, or the majority of them, are favourable, we can say YES! 

  • The project deadlines and events don't clash with important family birthdays, events, school holidays or another booked event;
  • There is sufficient time between facilitated event delivery dates to recuperate energy, change gears (and change clothes) i.e. not back-to-back events - we've done some of these and they are hard!
  • The project aims to contribute to sustainable development - this can be broadly defined (environment, natural resources, green economy, population, climate, conservation, etc.) and can be any sector (business, government, UN, international NGO etc);
  • The project has potential to be high impact - that is, there is scope to maximise the outcomes through our input (e.g. good learning or process design, good facilitation and delivery etc.) This is important because sometimes we get asked to "preside" over or only moderate at events and are brought into a tight process in the very final stages, then our contribution or ability to use our tools for learning is small and cosmetic. In this case, we should probably turn it over to someone who specialises in more formal moderation or stage work;
  • The project stretches us in some way, and also if possible the project partner.  We love to learn, both about sustainability subjects as well as using new tools, or learning about new partners and sectors. We also like to bring new things to our partners;
  • It is within our capacity and scope. Although we do regularly put together teams to deliver larger projects, we need to make sure that the scope of work fits within our current capacity to deliver, even if that is just taking on management for a larger team;
  • The reporting for the event-based project is conducted by the project team. We are happy to contribute ideas for a final report for an event, but we don't take on event report writing for a number of reasons which are written up in more detail in these blog posts (effectively it externalises the team's learning): Don't Outsource It! Learning from ReportingMore Learning Through Reporting: Using Reporting for Teambuilding and more provocatively Why Your Facilitator Can't (Always) Listen
  • If there is travel involved, it meets out travel policy. This includes cabin indications for long-haul flights and travel days coverage for long journeys so that we can work along the way. This is most important when there is a period of heavy travel, and because with small children we prefer to spend the least number of days away from home and so don't tend to add on a couple of days before an event to relax and recover after a long trip; 
  • Our small size also means that at the moment, we happily provide costing estimates for projects on request, and that on larger bidding processes where substantial design inputs are needed to bid, we tend to send these on to others in our network of facilitators and trainers; 
  • The project fees comes within our standard rates. We have a sector-differentiated rate schedule that we use and maintaining this helps us to do a quantity of pro-bono work annually, whether it is adding a couple of pro-bono days onto a contract for an NGO of CBO (community-based organisation) partner or run a full workshop for a non-funded network or other event (like our TEDxGeneva Change event last year) or provide design inputs or advice, etc. 

In addition, and this is not so much a criteria but an added bonus, we also love working repeatedly with the same partners, which lets us use our learning from past projects to make the onboarding process shorter and more economical for the partner, and lets us go further with more nuanced knowledge of the dynamics of the organisation.  

When all or most of these are a "Yes" then that makes is easy for us to say "Yes!"