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.