Thursday, February 26, 2009

Opening Space for Conversation (and Eating Croissants)

I wonder if Harrison Owen knew, back in 1989 when Open Space Technology "escaped" (as its put in the Open Space history), that it would become a facilitator's favorite? Not only because it helps groups identify the most meaningful topics at the moment (rather than speculating on that weeks in advance without the main beneficiaries in the room), to take ownership and responsibility for the running of those salient conversations (and implementing any outputs), and also gives time for facilitators to take a long break and think about the next steps in their programme.

We used Open Space Technology yesterday, as a part of a 2-day workshop focused on peer learning and workplanning. We picked OST (as it is called in short hand) for a few important reasons, which had to do with timing in the workshop and the kind of results needed.

First, it was the morning of the second day of the workshop and we had invited 6 external partners to come into this particular session. Each came in with a variety of viewpoints and ideas on how this team could interact with their agencies, and suggestions for the team's future work. We could have had them make detailed presentations and then have a traditional plenary Q&A.

However, the core team members came from all over the world and their contexts and length of experience in implementing the shared programme were incredibly diverse. In order to foster this diversity of interests and needs in the room, we wanted to take the discussion out of a plenary session, where only a few quick people would get their issues heard sequentially, and into a format where people (participants and speakers) could tailor their own discussions. And because there would be a lot of these, we needed to be able to cover a lot of ground and get many questions answered and themes discussed in a short period of time. So for both efficiency and respect to the multiple objectives in the room, OST was good choice.

Second, because this was the last day of this group's work together, we needed to start to put this back into the group's hands. The final hours of any facilitated intervention is time in a group's process when they need to take back the content, as well as the responsibility for follow-up. No longer do they need or want a loud facilitator's voice mediating their every action. While this might be appropriate when the group is just forming, and many people are quiet and finding their voice and role in the group, this external direction is not necessary or even particularly helpful when the team needs its internal leadership to (re-)emerge, and to take full commitment for outputs and next steps. OST is a good choice for this situation as the structure is set up front, and after that there is no intervention needed by an outside facilitator.

For anyone who might be tempted to try this interesting technique, here is how we set up and ran our Open Space Technology session, which we adapted as a part of a longer workshop, and what we learned.

Getting Some Input: Normally OST sessions are not preceded by presentations, they start with the people in the room, they identify their own questions around the announced theme and the agenda is set based on these topics. For us, we needed to integrate some new information that people could use as a part of their conversations, so our 6 invitees were each invited to make focused 5-minute presentations using only 5 slides, on their priorities, how and where they work, opportunities for collaboration and some questions for the group. In spite of the immediate reaction prior to the workshop to a 5 minute rule (what can you say in 5 min??) we found that the speakers did an excellent job synthesizing and keeping the background to a minimum, and easily made it within their 5 minutes (which we strictly enforced by tight timekeeping from the back.) We did not take any questions at the time, instead we then invited the participants, AND the speakers, to put their questions and areas to further explore on cards, which we then clustered and popped into our time schedule.

Make Time for Scheduling: We ended up having many ideas for parallel discussions, some of which seemed to go logically together. We scheduled theme collection just prior to a coffee break and then while participants were out we did the clustering exercise, grouping like questions, and then when there was more than one question, we assigned two hosts for that discussion. In our coffee break we programmed a series of twelve conversations; three sessions of four parallel conversations for 30 minutes each. This clustering process produced some additional learning - scheduling on your feet takes time. In the agenda we didn't commit to the length or number of sessions, giving only approximations (e.g. 30 min or 40 min sessions, with either 2, 3, or 4 in parallel), as we were not sure how many suggestions of topics we might get. Allowing ourselves this flexibility enabled us to see the number and diversity of questions submitted and decide on our feet how many conversations we would need to schedule, and whether we would achieve this by adjusting the session length and or number of parallel conversations.

Adding value through grouping: You often get more questions/themes than you have time or slots for, so you'll need to cluster these. This takes time. We made 12 slots available and received 20 questions. We used 25 minutes to cluster and make the schedule (this was 10 more than the coffee break, but we let people come back late!) We found it useful to have someone familiar on/hand to validate our clustering, as we were not content experts. And next time we would schedule a long (30 minute) coffee break between collecting the questions and beginning the Open Space Technology session. This extra time could be used to clarify the meaning of any questions with the writers if necessary. For this reason we had everyone write their name on their cards.

Inviting self-facilitation: We find this process useful as it distributes responsibility for balanced participation to all members of the group. In an OST process, the small group conversations don't come with a facilitator, although each session might have a host (the question-raiser), so everyone is invited to ensure time is spent listening to everyone present who wishes to contribute. The context is conducive to this: people are seated at tables (in our case) and there are no flipcharts (though we did provide "graffiti sheets" on the tables - paper and markers). This produced nice conversation circles with people speaking to one another, instead of group orientation towards a flipchart and someone tasked with writing or leading

And also welcome from the Facilitator's point of view...

Refreshing yourself: OST provides a nice opportunity as the Facilitator to take a few moments to relax and grab a tea, croissant and some precious fresh air. In this process, participants come up with the questions (not you or the client), so they in their conversations can answer clarifying questions about these. They are also free to determine the desired outcomes of the conversation, even the length of time. The posted schedule helps them even take control of the time and close one conversation and open new conversations according to the designated time. We found we could easily leave them to it and take the opportunity to refresh ourselves, eat our croissant, and think strategically into the next steps and stages in our workshop process.

Note: We found some useful tips from the OST website on openings and closings which would be useful for framing and wrapping up a session.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Putting the People Back in Paperwork

“Oh, Paperwork!” was the answer my new colleague Barbara gave at our weekly team meeting to the following question: “When you think of performance assessments what comes to mind?”

However, for the last 2 years our team has decided to make performance assessments all about team learning. And in doing so, we have used them to build up our noticing skills, our understanding of the situations in which our team members work best, and what we all need from each other to operate as much as possible in this productive zone. I wrote a blog post a few months ago on the 360 degrees process we use called: Practice Note: Helping Performance Assessments Be About Both Individual and Team Learning.

Now we're preparing our individual work plans for 2009 - the agreements upon which our performance assessments are based - and we took some time to reflect on what we're learning and why we think team assessment and work planning, rather than the traditional 1-to-1 meetings with your managers, presents a richer and more useful experience for everyone involved.

Here’s why we think performance assessment and individual work planning (agreements) should be done as a Team:

  • Focus the team on the team: There are not that many opportunities (unless you create them) for a team to talk about its own performance. Regular team meetings are usually task oriented and focused on getting things done. Discussions around performance assessments however are focused more on how we get things done, individually and as a team.
  • Create a safer space: Team discussions can help tone down the anxiety that some people might face in a one-on-one assessment or evaluation situation (for both the staff member and the manager – we think this is one of the main reasons why performance assessments inspire masterful procrastination.)
  • Strengthen accuracy and utility of reporting at all levels: When using a team approach for everyone, including the manager (who in our case only needs to be assessed by his/her line manager), the team approach helps provide more useful and accurate information on daily work practice for everyone and from everyone's perspective.
  • Form the bigger picture: Knowing what everyone is doing helps piece together that larger picture of the goals and vision of the unit, and how each team member is contributing to these. It gives the rich context that some people need and helps make meaningful links between individual pieces of work and that of the team. This understanding of individual contributions to a larger goals also helps with engagement and motivation.
  • Help more people identify change opportunities: With a sense of the overall results desired, it is easier to identify places in the team’s work where a change of practice can produce the most benefit. It also helps people understand potential trade-offs that might be needed for such change to happen. That work becomes a task of the team, rather than simply the manager, when the overall picture is shared.
  • Create Ambassadors: When everyone understands the vision of the team, how their work fits, and how these aggregated efforts contribute to the overall institution’s goals, then each member can share that understanding in the many informal learning situations in which they find themselves each day.
  • Provide professional and personal development opportunities: In a time when bonuses are not really an option to reward good work, team acknowledgement can be an internal metric to help people assess their own growth, development and improvement.

We generated these thoughts as a team. And we think these are compelling reasons to put people at the centre of performance assessments, and take the focus off the paper that they're written on.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Don't Outsource It! Learning from Reporting

Workshops can produce walls full of flipcharts, if they are designed to create these artifacts from the various discussions and group work. We rarely run an activity that does not have a capture element as we find it helps groups make their thinking explicit, creates an external object (the flipchart, slide, drawing) that they can discuss and debate, and keeps people clear on the topic or question of the discussion. These flipcharts also help the reporting process and help people recognize their own words in the final record of their work together.

It's on the reporting process that I want to focus in this post. We're starting to work with a new partner this week with whom we're doing the design, and will eventually deliver, a two-day workshop at the end of the month. We were asked if we would also write up the report at the end of the meeting. This particular request we had to decline.

Writing up the final report from a workshop or discussion is one of the deep learning opportunities that these kinds of events provide. To externalise this learning to an outside team means that part of the value of the event goes with them when they leave. Quite apart from structuring the report content (much of which is done with a logical workshop design), thinking into the concepts, identifying patterns, unearthing potential contradictions or differences in understanding, can all be used to go back to the team to continue the learning and conversation on the topic. It gives the host or manager (or someone in his/her team) a feeling for the nuances of the discussion that simply reading the report would not necessarily provide. It also puts their fingerprints and style on the report, and the act of synthesizing content and repackaging it into narrative form (like writing a blog post), helps them remember it.

Reporting might seem like a part of the workshop process that you want to outsource, but think again. This parts really embeds the learning so it can be used later, which presumably is one of the reasons to hold the event in the first place!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

And On Your Left - Administration: Sharing Our Institutional Landscape

Every 4 years our Members elect a new Council, and we have our brand new Council meeting this week! We will be working very closely with them, and for many in this important group, this is their first time visiting our headquarters. As an introduction, we could have given a one-hour PowerPoint presentation on our organization, followed by Q&A. We could have shown the organigram and a list of our departments, and the names of the heads. We could have even added in photos of the teams that are doing various things. But we didn't. Instead we organized an Interactive Tour...

Yesterday afternoon, at the end of their first day of the Council meeting, 33 Councillors were organized into four "Tour" Groups. Each group had two of our Young Professionals who acted as Tour Guides, complete with an individual Tour routing for their group, a Fact Sheet hand out of our organization to use along the way, and a lot of energy and enthusiasm. The Tour was divided into three parts. Part One was a whistle-stop tour through the building. Our many units and teams, including our Regional Directors who were attending the Council meeting, had a stop on the tour, for a total of 12 stops all over the main building (upstairs and downstairs and into the far reaches) that the Councillors would make in the first 60 minute period.

Each stop had a host who gave the visiting "Tour Group" a brief 3-5 minute overview of the team and its work. Some offered snacks and drinks, give-aways, pamphlets and brochures, and an opportunity to meet all the members of the team. In that short time, they gave them a flavour of their work and encouraged them to come back for more in-depth discussion in Part Two of the Tour.

Part Two of the Tour was a 60 minute opportunity for the Councillors to go back on their own or in small groups to the places in the building where they would like to dig deeper and have more in-depth discussions. Part Three was a group dinner, with all 170 people participating, with decorated tables all over the cafeteria, in the hallways, lobby and all the central meeting spaces.

The first two parts took 2 hours, the third went on for some time I understand. And you can imagine how much more in-depth the conversations were, after having been given insights of the work of the many various teams, identifying follow up questions, and putting names to faces in the first stages of the Tour.

The feedback was excellent. The Councillors enjoyed the opportunity to get out of the main meeting room and explore the building and see people in their workspaces. They got to tailor their experience by going back and having more in-depth discussions where they wished. All the teams got to meet the new Councillors face-to-face and vice versa, which should make it much easier in the future to approach one another. It demonstrated the hospitality that people feel, and the good will that comes with visitors.

We also learned plenty about doing such a tour in a building with some 150 staff. First of all, overall scheduling was great. Having the joint dinner immediately after the Tour provided an excellent opportunity for people to both reflect upon and digest the information they received, and still have time to find people in a more relaxed environment to ask further questions.

Another bit of learning: there is an opportunity next time for face-to-face briefing for the speakers (we did it this time by email). Tour Guides noticed that some people are so enthusiastic about speaking opportunities that it is hard to catch their eye to call time at the 5 minute mark. Clear briefings with the speakers about time allocations and how to organize content might have been useful for this messaging. Even with such a briefing, some speakers might still find it a challenge to give an overview in 3-5 minutes. Either more time for Part One of the Tour could be useful (and consolidating some of the stops might create this time) and/or encouraging all the speakers to create a few clear messages, and use some props or multi-media for additional information. For example, the person speaking about our new green building project (see my previous blog post on Reframing Our Big Dig ) had three points, a short handout and piece of the unusual recycled concrete to pass around. She still had time to take a few questions. Another host spoke to a rolling slide set of colourful images in the background. We saw all kinds of tricks to get lots of information into a short time span, without having to talk too fast!

In all, the Interactive Tour was a success and much appreciated as a way to get to know each other a little better. This was our opportunity to welcome, exchange, share and set the stage for good collaboration in the next four years.