Monday, June 28, 2010

Learning How to Speak "Agenda"

Something I am noticing about groups that I work with frequently over time is their growing ability to read through the agenda versions I give them and imagine what will happen, anticipate the kind of questions or challenges the participants might have with the task or group work, or wonder if the time allocation is enough for the number of speakers - just like I would.

Being able to speak and read "Agenda", is a great language to have both as a Facilitator/Trainer as well as someone engaging one. When both these parties speak it, it helps to develop a shared sense of the event or workshop before it happens so that you can build in any contingencies (e.g. extra time at breaks that can be used for overrun, a session that is optional, etc.) Especially if you are working with a new group, it might be hard as a newcomer to their community to anticipate where things might possibly go off track, you won't necessarily know the personalities you are working with, the past history, the patterns, the hot buttons, etc. So having a counterpart in the organization engaging you that speaks "Agenda" is incredibly useful.

How do you know if someone does (and it could be any member of the organizing team)? They will be the people who ask you the kind of questions you would ask: What will we get out of that session? How do people move from one room to another for this exercise? Where will the screen need to be for that activity? What happens if someone asks X? These are very useful questions that, when answered, make for a smoother, better choreographed, more productive workshop. You will be asking these kinds of questions yourself as you do the agenda design work for the event, and at the same time, with the knowledge your partner has about his/her own participant group, their sharp eyes on your agenda will be incredibly helpful.

How can you train people to speak "Agenda"? Well, you can start by writing it and speaking it back to them. When I write up my agendas, I always prepare first a detailed facilitation process agenda. This includes essential items such as:

  • Time on the agenda day (matching the hours of the workshop);
  • Session number and title (these milestones makes it easier to talk about parts of the agenda);
  • Session content: sequencing, speakers names, presentation titles, activity names, group work questions, and timing of all these individual items in minutes
  • Facilitator name (who's in charge of that session)

Once I have thought through the agenda to this level of detail, I send out version 1 to my counterpart in the host organization and I talk them through it also at this level of detail. That is when I need to find that person who speaks "Agenda". The next conversations are incredibly important for road testing the ideas, the sequencing, the activities proposed. Especially when I am introducing a new kind of activity (like a Pecha Kucha, or a systems game) it is incredibly useful to have someone who can understand the dynamic and ask me informed questions about it. 

I can see over time how my regular contracting partners get better and better at speaking this language of group dynamics and of process flow, and it becomes a real exchange on what the workshop will look like and achieve. I believe it makes the final agenda more robust and realistic. When I am not getting back these kinds of questions (if my agenda only gets to version 2 or 3, because I am tweaking it myself or finding typos), then I know I need to sit down again and go through it myself very carefully to check my timings, transitions,etc. This is also when I need to be asking more questions to get information about the group and its personality and preferences when convened.

When I sit down with one of my partners who speaks this language, however, I might get to version 4 to 6 (or more), and in working through all the elements with someone who understands, I feel even more confident about the flow and content. An added bonus in finding someone who speaks "Agenda" is that, in session, I have someone who is watching the dynamic like I am, who has the vocabulary and can understand what is happening and why, and with whom at the breaks I can check in, with a little chat in Agenda, my own language, to see how things are going from a Participant's point of view. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Domesticating Your Facilitator: Mashing Up Technology Adoption with Onboarding a New Facilitator

It is always exciting when you get to work with a new organization as a facilitator or learning practitioner. And at the same time you know that every group has its own everything: processes, policies, values, vocabulary, leadership style, secret handshake. So what can you do to understand that as soon as possible? And what can the organization do to help this unaccustomed Facilitator feel comfortable with her new (albeit temporary) home?

If I wanted to build on a theory of domestication that has been developed around technology (e.g. how does an iPhone go from something you have only heard about to an essential part of your life in 3 months or less - I wrote a previous blog post on this titled, "New Technology: It's Not Just for Christmas"), how might that inform how organizations can work with new Facilitators? This goes both for groups who have never worked with Facilitators and those who are "breaking in" a new one.

The often-cited steps to domestication (which I have converted over to onboarding a new Facilitator) are:

1. Commodification: Preparing the ground for initial appropriation of a new Facilitator. This might include clearing it with the Executive Director, or the Board, and certainly the staff with whom the Facilitator will work. This includes the "design" and "marketing" of what kind of Facilitator you want, and what you expect that Facilitator to do. Do you need someone who has a background in your field, what are their Terms of Reference? How will these Terms fit into the existing tasks of the current team members. How will you tell your participants about the Facilitator, and how will this person be described? And when the term Commodification is taken in its original meaning, that is assigning an economic value to something not previously considered as such, you need to be able to put the tasks and time of this new Facilitator into financial terms. For example, is there a budget line for a Facilitator?

This step of Commodification helps to start to integrate the new Facilitator into the daily life of the organization. Although some of this will happen before the Facilitator is engaged, it is important that the Facilitator is also included in much of this, from being asked to comment on the Terms of Reference, to being introduced to the team, and their individual roles and responsabilities. And, as the Facilitator is a person and not an iPhone, she will most certainly have questions to ask!

2. Objectification: In the technology theory, this step means that the new item is positioned in the workplace and integrated into daily life, that is, it turns up in your environment consistently. This might mean that the Facilitator has a regular meeting with the team, or a regular conference call during the planning stage of your event. Hier email address and website are shared, along with all the necessary contact information, and put on the internal knowledge network where you can easily find it. Maybe a Skype invitation is sent, the Facilitator features in your Contacts list. The Facilitator becomes a part of the daily conversations around the event or meeting.

3. Incorporation: This the third stage of domestication, which means that the Facilitator just becomes a part of daily life (for the life of your event). At this point, you don't have to try to remember to copy things to your new Facilitator. She is just on the cc line of every email that is sent out about the event. You remember to ask when decisions are being taken that might affect a dynamic, preparation or the results of a session. And the Facilitator is in the room when new aspects of the design, set up or delivery are being considered.  You are comfortable with the Facilitator, and the Facilitator is comfortable with you. Once this stage is reached, the Facilitator can continue to listen deeply around the process, to dynamics, power asymmetries, to learning from past events, and is now able to contextualise descriptions of scenarios, biographical details, and the hopes and dreams of individual team members and participants for the outcomes.

4. Conversion: And this is the fourth stage in domesticating your Facilitator. One of the well-known writers on domestication, Professor Roger Silverstone, wrote that in this final stage users want the perfect fit and an enhancement of their life and work without destabilisation. In the end, if this process goes smoothly, you will have a Facilitator that understands your organization, the internal processes and unique personalities, and shares your view of what progress looks like.

Once you get to this last stage you have a domesticated Facilitator. The investment made to domesticate can help you again in the future when you need him or her to help you reach your goals with a little updating, but overall without much additional effort.

I have been domesticated by a few organizations now, and I have seen real benefits to this - in terms of finer and more nuanced understanding of topics, quicker connections with participants through the use of their own vocabulary (read: jargon), less real time spent in session by participants trying to explain "how things are done around here" to the Facilitator, greater ability to identify negotiating points, better more provocative questions to focus discussions, and of course a reduction in preparation time needed (which equals lower budget lines to cover Facilitation). I have seen some preparation processes go from needing many days to read, meet, discuss, revise agendas, etc., to just an initial in-depth meeting, one or two agenda revisions, a pre-meeting walk through and delivery.

It is worth putting in the effort to domesticate your Facilitator; it helps them do a better job for you, and helps you get productivity enhancements and adds real value when it is done well. And with a Facilitator, you always get a full battery...

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Facilitators: Get Good With Names

Many people say they are not good with names, and apologize in advance for forgetting yours (over and over again). However, if you are facilitating a new group, it doesn't ingratiate you if after the first few hours you still cannot call on people by their names. Or worse, call them by the wrong names; or even worse, start to only call on the people whose names you know (I've seen this happen, but of course YOU would never do that!)

What About Name Tags?

Many workshop organizers kindly try to help this by using name tags. Yet somehow at the beginning of the session there are miraculously still many left over on the registration table, when every seat is filled. And it is even more remarkable how you can not read a name printed in number 10 font from more than 2 meters. Or how thoughtfully people put them on at the beginning of the workshop and then as the morning wears on, and they feel more comfortable (from your good facilitation no doubt), take off their jacket or sweater, nametag firmly affixed, and hang it over their chair. And you can forget more than 20% of your participants remembering to put them on for Day 2 (do you?) - by then everyone is sure that everyone else knows their name. Finally, if you are a facilitator that is new to a group whose members already know one another well, they will probably not think to have name tags in the first place.

So what about name plates then - those folded over paper cards, that could help, right? Well, just one change around for small group work  (and we want that interactivity) and the names are all in the wrong place. And there is also something slightly amusing about the fact that, when name plates are only printed on one side, people seem more often than not to put that side facing themselves.

So failing name tags and name plates, what else can you do to get good with names?

Use Group Introductions Strategically

Well, normally workshops start with some kind of group check-in or introduction, with participants sharing their names and organizations, or something about themselves. Just before they start this, quickly draw the layout of the room (tables at least) on the top of your agenda. Then, write down their first names as they say them, indicating where they are sitting at that time. If you jot down a key word or two, or the colour they are wearing, that can also help. "Introductions" is also the best time to ask people to repeat their names if you did not quite catch them (then write them down). In the end you have a full seating plan, and even if people change later on, you can usually remember where they started, or greatly narrow it down, and use it for reference as needed throughout the event.

Usually at some point, workshop organizers also distribute participant lists, but perhaps not to the Facilitator; they might put them in the participants packs, or they send it to you by email in advance. Make sure you have a copy on hand, whatever it takes, and keep it with you at all times when you start. You can also use that for notetaking during introductions, noting a memorable thing about each person as they speak (although I usually prefer the seating plan capture described above - it's a visual snapshot of the group). If a Keynote presentation follows and you are in the back, use your participants list or "seating map" to practice names while the speaker has their attention (and they are not moving around).

Here's another idea, when you write up your facilitator's agenda, write in all the people's names who are contributing. Even if people are giving short presentations, briefing an activity, meeting people for the bus - put in their full names and titles in bold the first time they are mentioned. Then with your agenda in hand, you can check the name quickly at any point in the session, after they have made themselves known through this contribution (you will probably be briefing them beforehand anyways).

Use It Or Lose It (Memory-wise)

You can also reinforce people's names by using them at every possible opportunity (without being irritating, I think that is something that they teach in some job interview courses, and overused it gets cloying). After you say someone's name a few times you usually have it. That also starts to narrow down to just a few whose names you really don't remember or are not sure enough of to use in front of the group. At that point check your seating plan notes, or better yet, in the next break go and ask them or ask someone else for their name. Then the first chance you get, use it, twice (Lizzie, you're next! Thanks Lizzie.)

By the end of the first half day, by combining a few or all of these things, you should have everyone's name and be ready to work much more closely with the group from then on. It makes a noticeable of difference getting to know a group when you can call each and every person by name - helping them accept you as their process guide, inviting them personally to engage, and encouraging them to try something new and potentially take some steps out of their individual comfort zones.  Do all these things, and you will proudly be able to say, "I'm good with names."

Any other tricks? Please share them!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Getting the Story Out: Learning from Publishing-On-Demand (POD)

This morning I went to an interesting Writer's workshop on publishing - it ran the gamut from traditional book publication to online self-publishing. It reminded me of some of the things that I had learned doing this myself, which I had never recorded. So before I forget, I thought I would blog this experience for my own future reference, and anyone else interested...

A few years ago I published a book for my father, who had written a novel for a niche market, using one of the better-known self-publishing companies at the time, Xlibris. There are plenty of these online services now, in addition to this one, such as Virtual Bookworm, Lulu, iuniverse and so on. I won't bother to compare them here; if you are interested in an overview of what's on the market check out the Incomplete Guide to Print-on-Demand Publishers which includes up-to-date prices, packages, royalties and services for over 50 self-publishing companies.

Today this is a real option for authors; and an opportunity that can have a steep learning curve along the process from taking a manuscript in Word through to a book that you can hold in your hands.

What I would do the same next time:

Use the editing service: I managed to get a special that included editing in the print package price, and although I had edited it myself thoroughly once, and had another external editor lined up, I decided to try Xlibris's editing service. It was really excellent - I could not believe how many glaring inconsistencies there were in the text, from names to spellings. The editor was first rate, no doubt from sheer volume and experience, and I was delighted to have used their in-house service.

Personalise the cover: For the book cover, I asked a friend Chris Gould who is a professional photographer and photo-montage artist to do the design. Because I knew him well, and he knew my father, the author, it took only a couple of brief conversations for him to come up with a wonderful design, something that would have been hard to convey using a template or to explain to an anonymous designer.

Get the text as complete as possible BEFORE sending it to the company: I spent many hours reading, checking, and editing the document before I sent it into the Xlibris machine for layout and formatting, etc. Because the original document was in Word, I could easily spell and grammar check, print and proof it. As a result, I didn't have to worry about slowing down the process with this once it started with the publishing company, which was full of other unanticipated tasks, such as writing up the dust jacket texts, the online descriptions, author bio, summary (short, medium and long), etc.

What I would do differently next time:

Watch the retail book price: Because there is no stock kept for POD books, and because of the cost of printing small quantities each time, the retail price of these books is high compared to traditional publisher prices. It can be up to double the price, for example, what might cost US$8.99 in paperback in a bookshop, might cost around US$15.99 as a POD book (even when you order it in a bookshop). This is fine for a real niche market, or a textbook/coffee table book, but it is high for a regular fiction paperback that is trying to compete for general readership.

At Xlibris you have a choice to bring down the retail price, and of course it is at the expense of your royalty (e.g. you can take it down to US$1.00, but no less). Depending on your goals for the book - from just getting it out there, to actually making money from it - that can affect your choice of publisher, or your decision to publish at all. The cost to the author of self-publishing is around US$500 - US$1000 (with some less and many more costly). So, if you are even out for cost recovery, at US$1 royalty per book, you still have to sell between 500-1000 books to break even. Note that the average book sales for POD books is under 200 (some information on sales statistics here)!

Layout and page count: I would pay much more attention to the page count, and related to this the font size and margins. There is a cut off point for printing related to pricing and I had not paid enough attention to this. The book ended up with smaller than normal margins, that were obviously designed to get more words on the page, to have less pages, and therefore cost less to produce. This turned a normal size book into something that looked more like a novella, which ultimately makes it even harder to sell at the higher prices.
Plan better marketing in the first year: It is normal to think that in the first year, with a little advertising the book will sell itself (and it does to a certain extent); however, that is just the time to organize the biggest advertising push, including all the social media tie-ins that are available to authors these days. After the first year, some of the shine comes off, and the book becomes one of the Long Tail titles that can still pull in some sales, but less and less as years move on.
All in all, I would still self-publish, the experience was good enough. I would probably shop around for the best deal (e.g. lower basic costs), and take recent recommendations from authors, now that it is quite a common process (at the time I did it, I didn't know anyone else who had self-published). I would make sure the layout was appropriate, not too condensed. And I would not do it for the money, but for the other things that publication can bring - visibility, the exercise of taking a set of ideas to a polished final format, an easier and more user-friendly way to share information.
Next time, however, I might not make a physical book, but an e-book. And that would probably provide a whole new learning opportunity around a publishing process.