Friday, August 29, 2014

A Systems Story - New Short Video to Introduce Systems Thinking









I often get asked for interesting resources to help people learn more about Systems Thinking -  what it is and how to use it for understanding the complexity that surrounds us, and for making effective interventions for positive change. For those of us in the sustainable development community, working with this complexity is a feature of ever day life.

There's a new short video just out, called "A Systems Story", which aims to introduce systems thinking and its key components (stocks and flows, archetypes, delays, etc) through a story. The example this video uses is not what we might expect to see - water resource management, the climate system, global commodities flow - the example that is uses to introduce systems thinking is love. 

The Budapest-based start up that produced it,  BEE Environmental Communication, with team lead Sarah Czunyi, worked for the past few months to create the video with seed funding from the Balaton Group's Donella Meadows Fellowship Programme. Sarah was a Fellow of the programme last year and used the stipend to create this innovative educational video as a way to learn about systems thinking through trying to explain it very simply, and in a visually appealing way - all in 4 minutes and 45 seconds. 

Whether as an eye catching start to a formal course on systems thinking  learning and applications, or a way to introduce a strategic planning workshop exercise that uses some systems thinking diagramming tools, the video can grab people's attention and help spark a discussion about how things are interconnected, what possible influence elements of the system can have on each other, how things change dynamically and what kinds of effects an intervention might have on your system - be it love or climate change. 

See what you think!





Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Working with Values and Frames: Practical Lessons for Process Designers and Facilitators


With thanks to Guest blogger: Cristina Apetrei 

Back in January my friend Gillian and I were planning to go together to a Common Cause workshop, but we both cancelled last minute due to work obligations. When six months later I did manage to attend a similar event, she was very eager to hear what I learned and kindly invited me to write a guest blog post to share my experience with all of you.

Common Cause is an initiative started in 2009 by several NGOs in the UK who wanted to engage in a broader conversation about the values at the core of our society and what is needed in order to get more public engagement around various global (sustainability) issues. In an initial report - Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values (September 2010) - they looked at social psychology and cognitive science to investigate the relationship between values and behaviour. Later some of these findings were summarized in the Common Cause Handbook – which I recommend as a quick introduction to this discussion, although the full report is much richer.

The main practical conclusion is quite simple: An organization might well be striving for a certain idealistic goal, but it will not be very effective as long as it communicates in a language that enhances values which conflict with that goal. Therefore, we should always pay attention to how we frame and contextualize our messages, and be on the lookout for the implicit values that are being reinforced

Common Cause also says that some values are held more easily together by the same individual. To give an example, a campaign that frames the installation of solar panels as a way to save money on the energy bill reinforces the so-called “extrinsic value” of “wealth”. This value however is in conflict with values such as “protecting the environment” or “equality” that would be required for deeper engagement with the issue of climate change.

But value communication goes beyond the text of a campaign or the copywriting of a website; it also includes the context of an event or the overall culture of an organization. No communication is value-neutral, the Common Cause report argues, so try to nurture intrinsic values (self-transcendence, see Figures 2 and 3 How Values Work) rather than extrinsic ones (self-enhancement) if you want to see behaviours aligned with bigger-than-self goals.

Of course, one may read between the lines an implicit moral dimension here, suggesting that some values would be preferable to others, and this remains an open point for critique and debate. Nevertheless, I believe that the Common Cause approach at the very least makes us aware that not only are our behaviours determined by our values, but also that our actions shape the cultural value landscape that we are part of. As activists or sustainability workers, we are reminded that change does not happen in a vacuum, but requires a certain set of conditions to be met in our environment.

This has implications also for the work of a process designer and a facilitator, whose art is precisely about creating a space that is favourable to a positive outcome. I try to give a few lessons below:

1.      1. Think about the implicit frames and values of the participants
a.   Understand existing frames: Consider not only what each participant sees as the problem and the solution, but also the cultural frames that they may be employing in their evaluation. What stories do they have about the issue at hand, who is to blame in their view, who should take responsibility and why?
b.   Understand values: What underlying values do these frames elicit? Are these values compatible? Is the spectrum of values represented around the table very broad and what could be common ground for a solution?

2.       2. There may be more space for agreement than it appears
One of the findings of the Common Cause report is that people are not selfish, but value intrinsic goals more than their own interest. Also, appealing to people’s intrinsic values will over time reinforce them, while appealing to conflicting values will create confusion. If we take such insights as premises, how could the problems (or the difficult points) be reframed in a way that allows participants to more easily see the common ground?

3.       3. The context of the facilitation session  and dialogue matters
The space in which an event takes place also embeds certain values. To the extent to which you can influence the choice of the space and its setup, consider the following questions: Where does the session take place? Is it in a sumptuous room or is it on neutral ground, in an environment that makes everyone feel equal? What about group dynamics: who are the actors organizing the event and what is their relationship to the rest? Is there a speaker dominating the room or are hierarchies being reduced?


Whether you are working as a researcher, consultant, activist or facilitator, I hope this post will make you a bit more aware of the subjective fabric behind words and inspire you to think of your own role in promoting some values over others.

(From Gillian: Thanks so much to Cristina - also a Fellow Balaton Group Member -  for her intriguing post and report back from the Common Cause workshop - it sounds highly relevant, particularly to the communication and convening work that we all do continually in the sustainability community. Next time I will try to attend myself!)

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Turkish Astronomer, The SDGs and The Balaton Group


Every year on the shores of Lake Balaton, a very unique group of systems dynamicists, systems thinkers and sustainability practitioners - called The Balaton Group - meet. The Group has met annually since founders Dennis Meadows and Donella Meadows (Co-authors of Limits to Growth) constituted it in 1982 to explore, exchange, support, dream and create together around the sustainability challenges that face our world. 

This year our meeting focuses on the SDGs and is titled: How Can the Sustainable Development Goals Advance Sustainability?  Now, Balaton Group Members are remarkable people, and one of them who participated in the recent deliberations that lead to the current SDGs wrote a thoughtful reflection on the meetings that he was attending as a part of the intergovernmental Open Working Group (OWG). He called it The Turkish Astronomer...I thought it was a lovely reflection, it was poignant for me as I have sat on both sides of the room at these kinds of meetings, and I wanted to share it here (with his permission)...

*************** 

I am sitting here at the morning hearing with stakeholders and major groups, morning after morning. This right now, as I write,  is the last one in the series, the Friday one. An African girl from a women’s group, also on behalf of trade unions is speaking.  Then an Arab one. Then a Latin American. Then a European. Then an old lady from Harlem.

What they are demanding eloquently, regularly, repetitively is what many of us yearn to hear during the day from UN Member States: respect to human rights, decisive action on climate change, observation of planetary boundaries, development instead of growth, new indicators for prosperity, win-win solutions for ecology and economy, natural resource accounting, contraction and convergence, and so on. The call for the establishment and use of new monitoring and evaluation methods for society, economy and ecology.

They are our Turkish astronomers. (Remember the Little Prince of Saint-Exupéry?) They are saying all the correct things. More than that: they are saying the essential things. But they  have the wrong clothes, an appearance that, ultimately, screens away this essence. They are not XY PhD, or Prof.dr. ZW or Director of the IIVSEM  (International Institute for Very Sound Expertise on the Matter). They are mere NGO activists of pressure groups with unknown but giveaway names. It is not their research. It is not their data. It is, in fact information from you, academics, scientists, research people from UN special agencies they rely on, they quote, they wield. They are people who listened to you, who read what you wrote, discussed it, teamed up and came together around it, understood it.

But they do not look like experts. They do not sound like experts. The do not have the business cards of experts. They are nothing but passionate persons impatient with the inertia of national governments that threatens their future, their childrens’ and grandchildrens’ future. They do not want war, violence, disasters, migration, hunger and thirst in their lives, and they find it intolerable that their representatives are not willing to make the right decisions to avoid the avoidable, and prepare wisely for the unavoidable.

But their members do not number enough to be taken seriously politically, and their identity offers an excuse to dismiss their messages as amateur personal opinions.  

But unlike the case of the Turkish astronomer, here we cannot hope for them returning “properly dressed” and thus credible to the same forum with the same message, this time to be listened to. 

Unless their ranks will be joined at the same fora by those whose spokespersons they became, they fight in vain.
Their “light cavalry” would need some artillery – the will not save the day by themselves.

Many thanks again for those of you, those of the science and expert community, who are engaging in this effort, through the OWG and through relentless lobbying your governments.

Warmest regards,


Janos

Saturday, July 05, 2014

11 of 11: Suggested Facilitation Strategies - Guiding the Group Process and Knowing When to Hand it Back to the Participants

Our last post in this series of Suggested Facilitation Strategies is on ensuring that you valuably and dependably guide the process and the group; and that still hand over to the group, fostering ownership and self-reliance. This is a critical skill for any Facilitator.

Consider the following:

(1) Checking-in with the client and group is key.  Help them reflect on what they are achieving and how they are progressing with their outputs as well as their hard and soft outcomes.  

(2) In some cases you might like to introduce models (such as Tuckman’s Theory of Group Dynamics) and ask them where they think they are at the start.  Then see if they think they progress towards different stage(s) during the event.  

(3) Design activities towards the close of an event that have increasingly less presence of the facilitator, such as a session using a self-facilitation technique (such as a ‘talking object’ which is passed among participants by participants, or a ‘Samoan Circle’ in which participants control who is ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the speaking circle at any moment).

(4) Conclude events with the group determining its own next steps and summarizing itself the progress made (rather than helping them with this), as well as reflections to one another in a ‘closing circle’, heightening group identity.


General conclusions

Continue to think into and work on your learning edges.  Write these down.  Consider the strategies suggested here and others you can identify upon individual reflection or conversation with peers about learning to best improve your facilitation practice - using your personal preferences to the full where they strengthen your practice and managing your preferences where they entail risks.

Return to the start of the series > 1 of 11: Suggested Facilitation Strategies: Me, My Behavioural Preferences & My Facilitation Practice


10 of 11: Suggested Facilitation Strategies - As the Facilitator, How to Work With Your Personal Desires for Harmony or Debate

As the Facilitator, how to you make sure your desire for harmony doesn't skew the process when debate may be beneficial / necessary? Or you might be just the opposite - how do you make sure your desire for debate doesn't hinder agreement and moving forward?

Here are some things to consider:

(1) Explore potential areas of conflict in advance.  Check with the client what is likely to be contentious and why.  Inform yourself as much as possible about the potential conflict, and determine with the client what conflict needs to be carefully avoided (e.g. careful wording so as not to aggravate sensitivities) and where it is essential to address the source of the conflict in as safe a space as possible. 

(2) When debate and potential conflict is on the cards, design for it using great techniques for exploring contentious issues whilst maintaining a generative group process.  If people aren’t provided with an environment to share contentious issues, they will likely emerge nonetheless - and if they feel the process is repressing the emergence of issues they may throw out your process providing you with little room for manoeuvre.  It’s safer to design for it.

(3) Co-create principles for your time together, and hold people to these (e.g. making sure comments are constructive and solutions-oriented, listening to one another and trying to understand the perspective of others).  Giving these a number, you could then task everyone in the room with the job of ensuring adherence to the principles, asking people to hand a card with the corresponding number on it if ever there is an infraction.  (This takes the pressure off you being the only one in the room trying to manage the conflict.)

(4) Challenging participants to think with different ‘hats’ - exercising / flexing different thinking muscles and showing their intellectual dexterity.  (De Bono’s Six Hats is a great example, others include using tools from Systems Thinking, and methodologies such as Thiagi’s Point-and-Counterpoint activity.) ‘Externalizing’ thinking is central to many of these techniques. 

(5) Use techniques to ‘externalize’ thinking.  This helps participants move from an emotional state where it is about me and my issue (versus you and yours) to ‘an issue’ which is a little more ‘out there’... something happening in the system, amongst many other interacting things happening.  Getting all the information ‘within’ or ‘held’ by participants ‘out there’ - and especially written somewhere for posterity - is a great way of re-assuring people their concerns are being heard.  It also opens them up to better hearing what others are saying, and they look at the system of interacting bits and pieces (‘variables’) with a more objective perspective - as can others.  This often creates an environment for more generative conversation to follow.  Such techniques may be getting people to draw what is happening in the system as a series of causal loops.  Or use sticky dots to respond to statements and then stand back and look at results, and explore reasons for those results (rather than stating one’s own position).

(6) If conflict does emerge unexpected, have a break taking people ‘offline’ and rethinking how to proceed.  Determine whether resolving the conflict is essential to achieving the desired outcomes or not (sometimes it is between just two people on a related but tangential matter), and plan accordingly.  Note: in some instances, you can create a sub-group for people to debate a specific point or resolve a specific conflict, whilst the rest of the group work on something else. 

(7) Remind people from the start of the event of why they are in their room and the commonality of their objectives.  Keep coming back to shared objectives.

(8) If you are a subject matter expert who likes to debate, this aspect of the facilitation role may be particularly challenging. Not only do you need to maintain your neutrality; you also need to know when to stop debating (which may be something only a few of your participants are doing anyway) and to move things along.  Again, remind people of why they are in the room, coming back to shared objectives, and how the process is going to get you there.

Related blog posts:

Practicing Creating Conflict: 



Friday, July 04, 2014

9 of 11: Suggested Facilitation Strategies - Too Focused on Task? Too Focused on Group Dynamics?

Some Facilitators find it a challenge to keep track of group maintenance (how they're feeling) when they themselves are getting swept up in the content of discussions; and others find it hard to focus on the task and content of discussions when they're getting swept up in the group dynamics. Maybe you have experienced both at different times. What are some things you can do about that?

(1) Ask the group about the progress it is making with reference to the desired outcomes. 

(2) AND ask the group about how they feel about this work. 

(3) Some people are naturally intuitive when it comes to the maintenance side of group processes.  Others need some help picking up on cues, as well as some tips to change the energy and dynamics in the room.  If you are less intuitive in this area, you can always ask the group how they feel. For example, Are they energized or tired?  Do they feel ambitious or cautious? Creative or constrained? Then you might get some information and consider how you need to shift gears. 

(4) Create yourself a prompt sheet of ideas! Have some tricks up your sleeve for changing energy and dynamics.  It might be as simple as taking a break, getting some coffee and fresh air, or changing the physical environment (such as by going outside, or rearranging seats). If you’ve been doing lots of group discussion, perhaps take a break for some individual thinking time or watch a short video talk (have some short ones aside).  Ask people to draw what they are thinking or pick and image (have a mixed deck available) which reflects their mood and do some ‘presencing’ to get people back in the room.  Jump around.  Clap.  Make noise a task: such as tasking people with creating a 30 second musical reflection of the event so far using only what they find on their tables.  Have some quick games up your sleeve (we find a great source is the Systems Thinking Playbook) to highlight a relevant point from the event so far.  Consider different scenarios (from people tired and flagging to people playing and laughing too much and not applying themselves to the task) and options for each.

(5) If you know you have a bias towards ‘task’, practice wearing a ‘maintenance’ hat in group opportunities.  In situations where you are not officially ‘facilitating’, try and turn down your ‘task’ hat and tune into group maintenance, thinking specifically about what is happening in terms of group dynamics and what interventions or design choices you could make to strengthen the process for the benefit of group maintenance. 

(6) If the reverse is true and your bias is towards maintenance, try and practice wearing your ‘task’ hat.  Try and step out of your ‘modus operandi’ and flex other thinking muscles.  And note the great things other people do that you might like to incorporate into your own practice.

(7) If you struggle to follow the discussion sufficiently, consider strategies to help you ‘tune in’.  For example, perhaps decide to take notes at a flipchart so that you can structure your thinking – creating a mind-map of the keep points emerging from the discussion.  And if that doesn’t work and an element of group dynamics is really distracting you (e.g. some voices are not being heard and others are overbearing), chances are others may also be struggling – in which case you could go with a different methodology (maybe break from plenary into groups to discuss either the same questions in parallel or different questions according to their interest). 

(8) See also the points about summarizing and synthesizing above.  Use the strategies suggested there, getting others to summarize things for everyone (you included) and using lots of templates that you can review as necessary.

(9) Invite others to review your event designs with you - with knowledge of ‘you’ in mind.  And invite others to observe you in facilitation delivery mode and provide you feedback.  Additionally consider providing feedback forms (or other mechanisms) at the end of each event, providing people with opportunities to help you improve.

Related blog posts:


8 of 11: Suggested Facilitation Strategies - Knowing When You Should Summarise and Synthetise and When to Let the Group Do It

For a Facilitator, there is definitely an art to knowing when you should summarize and synthesize discussion for the group; and when it would be better to have the group summarize and synthesize. Here are some suggested strategies for how to work with the difference:

(1) Summarize progress in the process towards achieving desired outcomes to make it more apparent.  For example: “We considered numerous potential project ideas and then, concerned about how to prioritize these, generated a list of criteria for prioritizing.  These were then applied to the ideas, resulting in the selection of the following as the top 3 to take forward…”

(2) Structure your agenda to elicit synthesis from participants as you go along, so that you can steer clear from synthesizing subject matter yourself.  This is a point that some facilitators may debate.  We feel, however, that as the process guide, the facilitator should steer clear from summarizing subject matter and substantive content discussions (and never produce reports!).  Instead, structure your agenda with regular moments designed in, during which participants summarize and synthesize as you proceed through logical, iterative sessions. 

(3) Guide participants in summarizing and synthesising by providing time for reflection (individually and in groups) and rather than asking one person to do the work, distribute the task, potentially using a funnelling approach, where the individuals reflect on their own, and then at tables participants share their reflections and come up with 3 key points, and then these 3 key points are shared in plenary, and then in plenary participants are invited to suggest the key patterns or trends emerging across all the different interventions.

(4) Provide templates to capture synthesized ideas – asking clear questions and providing space for key points to be written in.  Having well-structured templates to capture information makes any post-event summarizing or synthesizing much easier later (for participants).

(5) Use methodologies for synthesizing and summarizing. For example, rather than having an open discussion on various controversial statements, write the statements on sheets around the room and invite participants to place a sticky dot representing their position from strongly agree to strongly disagree, along with a place to write open comments.  Then assign randomly mixed small groups to analyse the various results sheets and describe reasons for the results, and suggest implications for going forward.  This way, rather than lengthy conversation, you quickly and effectively provide everyone with the opportunity to express their perspective, and distribute the role of analysing and summarizing to sub-groups of participants.  You could then combine this with a carousel discussion, where participants add to the work of previous groups doing the analysis and synthesis.

(6) If you feel you really need to summarize (because someone’s gone off on a tangent and you need to bring them back to the task at hand), do it as a question rather than a statement.  For example: So do I understand correctly if I say that the 3 next steps are x,y, z?  Or simply invite someone else to paraphrase for you:  So, could someone please summarize or paraphrase that for me in a few words that I can capture on this flipchart?   (There is usually someone in every group who prides themselves on their ability to synthesize!)

Related blog posts: