Sunday, August 29, 2010

Horses for Courses: Facilitating High Stake Workshops

There are so many kinds of workshops/meetings/events, with as many different kinds of objectives and outcomes desired. Each needs a specific structure and build to get successfully from start to finish. For veteran facilitators this might be a statement of the blindingly obvious. However, we do have our favorite sequences. We have tried and tested frames for group work, our signature activities and games, our question stems that we draw on and adapt to many different contexts. We might also do more of one kind of workshop than others - more retreats, or relationship building, or strategic planning, or stakeholder dialogues. These big categories indeed might have archetypal sequences that we can use as building blocks and rely on for winning results.

When the Stakes Are Even Higher

When we get into a new category of work, that is a great opportunity to think again about our favorite workshop outlines. For example, how different might an agenda look if you are consensually negotiating a text that will be binding on those in the room (and many others who may not be)? This is an interesting context as stakes will no doubt be much higher. In this context, participants may be formally representing constituencies (where their re-election depends on successfully serving their interests), others may be spokespeople for higher-level absentee decision makers (who may sign their paychecks). There might also be observers, funders, hosts, and other non-voting participants, who might still have significant impact on the final decision.  There may also be significant power asymmetries, along with the familiar cultural and sectoral diversity and personalities that we see in all of our workshops. Ultimately jobs and much more may be at stake. All together this might make agreeing on a black and white text in a defined period of time an exciting couple of days for a facilitator.

Some of the differences between such an agenda and one devoted to, for instance, strategic planning by project teams, might be how and when you work with the product (text) itself. Some of the things I have noticed revolve around timing and placement of the decision moments in the overall workshop agenda. These might sound simple, and can make a difference for a successful outcome:
  • Watch attendance and travel: If this is a high stakes decision-making meeting encourage people to be there for the duration of the meeting, and if necessary make an agreement that if people choose not to stay it indicates their agreement of the final decisions of the group.
  • Have clarity on decision moments: Make certain participants are clear WHEN the readings will be and decisions taken, so that they can arrange phone checks or access to other decision-makers at critical times. It helps them avoid scheduling other work or calls at those times and also helps them arrange their schedules to be present (mentally and physically) when they need to be.
  • Keep extreme realism in timing: Because timing will be important throughout the event, keeping to time is even more important - make sure this particular agenda is super realistic (as opposed to optimistic), and build in some extra discussion time where possible (can a less important agenda item for the group be pushed into their next meeting?)
  • Make it visual: When it comes to the text itself, make sure that the text is put up on PPT point or visually in the room and not just read out loud to the group. The meaning is much clearer and easier to discuss as a group when people are able to read and mull it over together.  
  • Externalise the decision: Making it visual (rather than oral - as in reading) also externalises the words (e.g. de-personalises the text) so that the group can own it and it is not affiliated with any particular position or the opinion of the reader(s). 
  • Provide something to take away: Have a print out of the final text too, that people can use to check with counterparts who are not present, or can use to read later on their own or in caucuses. Don't make people write it down for themselves.
  • Build in check-in time: Give people time after the first reading to check with their constituencies if necessary or with their bosses.
  • Sleep on it: Try to get the text work done before the last day, so that people can sleep on it and discuss it informally.
  • Take a second look: Have a second reading of the decision taken on the final day. Make sure this is not in the last few hours of the workshop in case there are still open issues which can be dealt with in time.
  • Don't push it: Introduce no new issues on the last day of the work together.
There are many other familiar activities that can and will feature along the course of the negotiation. There will be the relationship building, the mapping of opinion, the exchange of perspectives and reality checks. With this kind of high stake workshop, the steps of the negotiation and decision-making process need to be perfectly placed so that this central aspect of the group's effort doesn't create a hurdle but a gateway to ... (ok, giving up on the horse-racing metaphor here, it's sounding more like the stable floor than the track - you know what I mean!!) 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

When I Was a Game

I arrived at the Chicago workshop about 5 minutes late and was horrified to see all the participants in their seats looking at the trainer/facilitator who was in mid-sentence describing the objectives of the day. He didn't even pause as he said "gruetzi" to me ("hello" in Swiss German), to which I quickly replied "bonjour" (I don't speak Swiss German), and tried to quietly sneak to the only remaining seat in the room, which of course was at the first table. I grimaced as I walked in front of him to take that seat. He never broke his opening patter, but for that first word of welcome, and didn't address me directly again as he informed the participants that I didn't know that I was the first game for the day.

Take out a piece of paper, he said, and write down three things you know about this Mystery Person (the group had already met for several days previously, and I was only joining on the fourth day). Including, he added, how you pronounce her name (I had just written it on a sticky name tag) with a hard "G" or a soft "G". The winner, he announced, wins a BMW.

People took out paper, and peered quizzically at me. After literally 30 seconds of reflection he asked for everyone to share one of their guesses. I was to answer yes or no as they postulated about me based on the little bit of data that they had collected in that 2 minutes since I walked through the door. What do we know about our Mystery Guest, he asked, and people started...  I disliked being late. I wasn't good with directions. I spoke another language. I had a job where I worked in front of people. I had travelled by plane to get there. And on and on. It was simply amazing how many things people could discern or infer from so little input in such a short amount of time.

At the end, he asked me to say a few words about myself. At that point, my introduction to the group was alarmingly short as I built on the many uncanny, correct guesses of my fellow participants. At the end, he asked people to  count up their "points" at which moment there was a flurry of quick questions. He said "congratulations!", without being too concerned about who actually had the most points, and welcomed me as a newcomer into the Thiagi Interactive Techniques Certification Workshop.

* * *

What a wonderful way to be warmly integrated into a formed and familiar group, what an interesting way to involve everyone in this introduction process. What an excellent way to reinforce the fact that your participants know much more than you probably give them credit for (or can figure out for themselves), and that you can cover a lot of ground, hitting multiple objectives (introduce a new person, integrate him/her, play a game with some learning points like these, get people's attention and wake them up at 08:00 on a Thursday) in only 5 well-used minutes.

This is the work of Thiagi (Sivasailam Thiagarajan), who holds the title of Resident Mad Scientist at the Thiagi Group. With its Indiana USA origins (starting "in a basement" some 30 years ago), this group is building an increasingly global network of games enthusiasts and Thiagi Certified Facilitators (like me!) who use these kinds of interactive techniques as a basis for engaging people in our facilitation and training work. And in that short introduction to our Certification day, Thiagi helped us see that not only are we people who design and run games for learning, we can be games too. There are no boundaries! How different might daily life be, how much more might we notice or learn, how much more fun might we have, if we knew that we could make a game of literally anything?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Taking the Long Elevator: 13 Tips for Good Pecha Kuchas

What do you notice when you have the opportunity to watch 35 Pecha Kuchas? We have featured these interesting presentation techniques - 20 PPT slides autotimed at 20 seconds each - in different workshop settings in the last few months. Here are some of the things we noticed that made them work:

13 Tips for Pecha Kucha Success
  1. Practice your Pecha Kucha WITH the timing turned on (don't just talk through your printed slides to yourself as "practice".) 
  2. Check particularly how your message for each slide matches the 20 second timing limit.
  3. Too much information? Think about where you need to break down your message if there is too much information for 20 seconds. For example, run your message over 2 or 3 slides if need be. Think creatively about how your visual can progress with your message development.
  4. Too little information? If you find that there is too little for 20 seconds, e.g. just a one liner or one brief point, then double up two messages on 1 slide, or think about a quick example to illustrate your short point. Note: Watch that the example doesn't launch you into a long story which will blow your timing.
  5. Using diagrams? These can be a good way to snapshot lots of information but be careful with diagrams or graphs that are too complex. Can they be recrafted so the one key message/line/box is bolder? Note that people will not be able to read the little stuff (like all the indices etc.) quickly, so only include what you need for your story. Spread it over 2 slides and use a build. Make a handout for later if people will need the detail, don't try to go through it in your Pecha Kucha.
  6. Save time by not using the first slide to introduce yourself, the title of your talk only, or closing with a "Thank you for listening" slide. Just say it quickly. If you want to elaborate on yourself, use a wordle (beautiful word cloud) of your CV or bio to snapshot yourself (here is an example of one I did for myself).  
  7. Watch your computer positioning - make sure the computer is in a place where you can see the screen as a prompt and still face the group, unless you have good peripheral vision and can stand at the side so you can see both the screen and the eyes of your audience. 
  8. Never NEVER read your slides.
  9. Design thinking - I have seen both slides with only images and no text, and slides with an image and a prompt word. Unless you are very good at picking images and they are very obvious (even quirky can be obvious within your narrative), I think I like the latter. The single word can summarise the point of the image.  It is also very effective to only have one or two words on a blank slide (centred or interestingly placed), and perhaps with a black or colour background. In any case, mix it up!
  10. Interactivity? It is hard in the time allocated to do very interactive work with your audience - you can use hand mapping or voting, or other quick inputs, but if you have to pick on people and wait for an answer, and then if people talk too long, there goes your timing.
  11. Part of a Pecha Kucha marathon? If your Pecha Kucha is one in a string of PKs, then the organizers might want to pause for a minute (literally) between them and invite people to write down any thoughts, questions, or comments before starting the next one. The organizers could even make a Job Aid of some kind (a card with a matrix, etc.) to help people keep track of where they are in the line-up and their impressions.
  12. Getting people's attention - If you do want to engage, then end with a "lesson" unconcluded; with a question, or an invitation.
  13. Don't apologize for "not having enough time to go into depth because of this format"; that just says you didn't prepare well enough.
Everyone should be able to make their point in this day and age of micro-media with an "elevator speech" - and 6 min and 40 seconds is an incredibly generous elevator ride by most building's standards!

Monday, August 09, 2010

How to Go to TED (or at least TEDGlobal)

(Note: I went to TEDGlobal this year in Oxford, so this is written from my experience, and may be very different for the other TED events.)

Going to TEDGlobal was like jumping into an icy stream, or swimming in Lake Geneva at 4 degrees C. It took endurance, a little craziness, and provided that kind of a wake up and direct reconnection with so many of life's support systems. That for me was the WHY, here is the HOW...

T is for Technology

To connect with a TED event, the main port of entry is through the TED website, which is interesting all by itself as it features links to the "riveting talks by remarkable people" videos from past TED conferences that we know so well.  If you want to explore joining a TED conference, there are four now - the TED Conferences link will show you where applications are currently being accepted (yes, you do have to apply to go to a TED event). The four include the Long Beach, California TED, TEDActive in Palm Springs (simulcast of the Long Beach TED), TEDGlobal in Oxford, and new this year, TEDWomen. There are also more and more TEDx events around the world, which are independently organized TED events.

It must be said up front, attending a TED event can be a rather expensive proposition, an investment you could say, with published prices ranging up to USD6000 for the Long Beach main event. Having said that, there seems to be a lot of variation in what people pay, and some ways to join an event that are supported, such as through the TED Fellows Programme (there are Fellows and Senior Fellows). You can also try to make an individual case for a reduction, this has worked for some in the past. Another option is to gather a small group and follow simultaneously one of the events online through a TED Associate Membership, at a reduced rate. We had a group of participants in Kenya following the TEDGlobal event; at one point they hooked up a video link and we exchanged a "Hello!" with them from the Oxford Playhouse.

If you decide to apply, the electronic application form is available on the TED website. You will want to spend some time on this: the questions are provocative and are the main way that the selection team assesses your application if you are not known to them. A key word for TED is "curation" (a curator is content specialist responsible for an institution's "collections". ) So everything from the chemistry of the participant group, to the framing of the talks, is highly managed and choreographed.

Once you are there, at the TED event, a notable "T" stands for Take your Toys. You will see people tweeting, blogging, vlogging, podcasting, you name it, from the event - either live during the talks from the back row of the auditorium (audibly enforced), or in the simulcast lounges set up for spill over and for this purpose. The amount of e-chatter that comes out of the events through every technology imagineable is amazing. You can take a technology holiday yourself, but will still want some way to capture your thoughts as they roll through your head at 200 miles an hour over the week-long event.

E is for Education
(Actually, it is officially for Entertainment, but Education speaks more to me!)

There is a lot to learn, both at the TED event and prior to it. Before you get there, do some "self" learning -  you will be asked the question "Why are you here?" by everyone you meet, and if your answer is not satisfying enough, you may be asked it twice. Look deep and be ready with a good, authentic answer to this question. This is not just why are you at TED, although that is also interesting to people, but Why are you on this planet? (This was something I noticed on my first day there which I blogged, "TEDGlobal: Why Am I Here?) This conference is full of social entrepreneurs, angel investors, many people with great ideas to share - their answers to this question are fascinating.  After all, TED is about ideas worth spreading, make sure you have yours ready.

There is also quite a bit of information on the TED website, which merits attention (probably more than I gave it in the busy weeks prior to the event.) There was an interesting matching exercise, which identified 10 other participants that you might like to look up. I did have a few people find me, and should have printed my list! If I was doing it over again, I would have spent more time with the online participant list (there was none printed) to identify people that I wanted to find and meet from amongst the 700 attendees. There was a tag wordcloud produced (we each picked 5 tags for ourselves for our profile), which could help narrow down the participants to some groups of interest. These tags were also printed on the helpfully large name tags (11cm x 19cm). No matter who they were, everyone was incredibly accessible, and the TED community norm was definitely to approach anyone for an introduction and a chat. There was also much waiting-in-line-time (more this year according to veterans) as lines formed in front of the Oxford Playhouse for main stage sessions. I would go much earlier to queue up than the 15 minutes recommended to get a good seat, if that matters to you, and the Lucky Dip of wait companions in line make it all the more worthwhile.

Finally, educate yourself about your baggage limit if you travel by plane; you will get a pile of big books and a TED gift bag (more like a napsack) of many delightful and sometimes bulky items like Mike Dickson's Please Take One* (One Step Towards a More Generous Life), a bobble, a handy Rhodia notebook, BBC Earth Life on DVD, more films and books and technogadgetry, even a magic wand, by far the most talked about inclusion, from The Wand Company.

D is for Design

Design expresses itself at TED in many different ways. There is of course the content about design, as well as the overall stylish design and curation of the event, and all the satellite events. I noticed design in a few other simpler places. For example, if you like people watching at airports, you will just love doing this at TED. The great part is that you can walk up and talk to these passers-by, versus watch them on their way to Gate 48. You can also afford to be yourself with this group, you don't need to pack that conservative kit that you might take to a normal conference. Nothing is too unusual for this crowd. I enjoyed talking to The Retronaut at one evening reception, creator of a visual time-machine, who in addition to having a fascinating story delightfully looked the part.

Other often hidden innovative "design" elements that I noticed included titles and labels, and business cards, to name a few. First of all, everyone was a Founder, Owner, a Maker or a CEO. There were also bio-inventors, creative directors, and rational optimists, voting system designers, plant neurobiologists, whistleblowers, humourists - what do you call yourself when you are doing something that not many other people are doing?

And then what about that business card? They were being exchanged fast and furiously. One artist I met specialised in invisible paintings, and she wrote on her business card in invisible ink (the kind you need to hold to a lightbulb, I hope my CFL will work!) Another green designer worked only in bamboo, and his business card was printed on a thin slice of this favorite material. A staff member of invited people on the back of her card to "Collect all 6" (and presumably she would have been happy to give 5 more if someone had asked). Another staffer of a company that traded in (presumably happy) digital labourers sported a '50s black and white photo on the back of his card provocatively asking you to find, "How many happy people in the picture?"

How to Go to TED

These are some of the things I thought were interesting to keep in mind if I went to TED again, or which might be interesting for others who are considering, or going, for the first time. Overall, I thought it was a wonderful experience, and I'm happy I went.

I came away in awe of the imagination of humanity, at the creative pioneer spirit. And definitely benefitted from the refreshing paradigm-shifting that undoubtedly results from repeat practice (like 100 times in 5 days) in thinking laterally about just about everything.

One thing I would definitely do differently next time and would encourage first-timers to do - I would apply to speak at TED University, where participants apply to speak on stage in shorter increments (there are even 3 minute slots), to share their work and thoughts. That would add to the stress a little, and also greatly add to the benefits of going to TED.