Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Making Meetings Meaningful - Greatest Hits from an Organization's Learning Department

In doing the research for a participants' guide for the Facilitation learning programme we're launching with a partner next week, I found a nice "greatest hits" collection that we made of some of our blogging reflections on the topic of making the most of internal meetings.  These posts were written from inside a large organization's learning department and give some insight into the internal dialogues, learning and engagement processes (all kinds of meetings and gatherings) that institutions convene to help work through issues and generally get things done.

I am delighted now that we captured our learning at the time in this format - a blog- and wrote it with the spirit of creating "reusable learning objects" (I was always banging on about RLOs in the organization, now that I am actually reusing them I am delighted!)

This collection of 18 posts is organized below (with summaries and links) into the following categories that explore aspects of how to Make Meetings Meaningful:
  1. Purpose
  2. Positioning, and
  3. Process (e.g. design, implementation, reflection) 
1) What's the Purpose?

Are we having conversations that matter?
How are the conversations our organization is having changing the nature of relationships and the way people, groups and societies around the world are thinking and behaving? In other words, to what extent are our conversations bringing about the change we seek and helping achieve our objectives? And how can we continue to improve the quality of our conversations to better ensure that they matter?
What Is the Purpose of ‘Free Coffee Mornings’?
What value do weekly free coffee mornings have in fostering staff networking and informal learning in our organization? We decided to explore the opinions of others in our organization on this topic, through a short questionnaire. Many staff commented on the exercise itself, pointing out learning about how to make the most of free coffee mornings in the future to engage with staff, about how enthusiastic staff are to express their opinions, and the importance of ‘social spaces’ and time for team-building and collaboration across ‘silos’.

You've Just Been to a Great Staff Meeting - What Happened?
What are some of the different purposes of a Staff Meeting?
-To update and inform staff members of activities in the institution
-To profile people who have done good work and let them share their reflections
-To maintain transparency and an open environment for sharing
-To bring staff together for a shared experience once and a while
Have you ever been to a great staff meeting? What was it about the meeting that made it useful, interesting, and made you excited to go to the next staff meeting?
Post: You've Just Been to a Great Staff Meeting - What Happened?

Networking - In or Out of Your Comfort Zone?
Monday afternoon, a two hour session was held titled, 'Learn Something New: People and Networking'. The objective was to not to provide a taught course on Networking, but do create an environment where people can share and exchange about networking, and do it at the same time. … Some suggestions were offered about how we can do more networking, and how we can help create work environments where networking and interaction is one of the key objectives. Longer coffee/lunch breaks? Open spaces in the agenda for interaction? Introductory sessions which serve to connect people and help them build relationships?

2. Can Meetings be Used for Positioning?

In our day to day conversations, how do we “talk the walk”?
We’ve all heard of “walking the talk” – but what of “talking the walk”? In our day to day conversations, how do we “talk the walk” and reflect the core values employed in our work?... Our conversations can serve to enforce or discredit our messages and ourselves in powerful and lasting ways. Walking the talk is imperative. Talking the walk is so important too. People notice.

No Such Thing as a Pointless Question: The Impact of Simply Asking
The act of asking questions of an organization or group influences the group in some way. With our questions we get people to focus on something - what is that thing? What is our purpose of the question we are asking and what impact will it have on the way that person and the room think and feel? If people go in the direction you question them, where do you want them to go?

Me and My Multiple Intelligences. We and Ours.
In our organizations, what are we doing to make sure we interact in ways that address diversity of intelligences and learning styles? And how can we engage the multiple intelligences of our colleagues to best answer this question?

3) How Effective is our Meeting Process?

a) Design and preparation

How Old is Your Knowledge?
Workplace learning is 20% formal and 80% informal. Informal learning is an interesting combination of reading, internet surfing and search, audio-visual inputs, speeches and presentations, meetings, and conversations in the cafeteria, corridors, and on the bus. For the most part in these activities learning is quite accidental and not a deliberate objective. There are learning opportunities around every corner. What are you doing to structure your informal learning?

What Kind of a Discussion do You Want?
It is thought-provoking to hear people come away from discussions that they have lead and say, "Why do you think people reacted that way to my ideas?" Another question they could ask might be, "What could I have done differently to develop a generative discussion rather than a debate?" … If one sets up an academic situation, then people will be happy to react as though they are in one! Rarely do people throw a professor or a keynote speaker for that matter a soft ball...

A Courtroom or a Concert?
If I was going to run an important meeting, which environment would I want to create? How would I want my participants and speakers to feel when they left the room? What would I want people to get out of it? Would it be a zero sum gain, or would it be a step of a creative, hopeful process? When I sent out my next invitation for the group to meet again, what would be people's reactions? Would they be excited that their favorite group was holding a concert again? Or would they dread the eyes of the jury?

Bottoms on Seats – How Do You Make That Memorable?
People travel to the venue, they walk into a bustling and colourful conference venue (exhibitions, restaurants, meeting spaces, and all), then they walk into their first of many small workshop rooms and basically sit there (different small rooms of course) for 75% of the conference… We spend a lot of energy thinking about communication to conference participants and the media around the event to make it colourful, interesting and engaging; how can we make sure that this does not stop at the workshop door?

Leveraging the Wisdom of Crowds in our Organization
Next week, our organization is hosting a week of meetings, bringing together in headquarters senior staff from our offices around the world. During these meetings, how smart will our crowd(s) be? How smart could it/they be? As session organizers, what can we do to make our crowds as smart as possible - better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future?

Lights, Camera, Action: Working with Star Speakers
Here is a lesson that I absolutely need to learn as a workshop facilitator: No matter how well you brief a plenary speaker who is a subject matter expert, they will go over the time. … Plan for it in as many ways as possible, especially by allocating substantial discussion times (even after they get cut down) so that this critical part of the learning process is always there to help people follow your star.
b) Implementation

Using Storytelling to Generate Ideas: We Just Went to a Great Staff Meeting - What
Happened? (Reprise)
We decided to use our own communications unit meeting to generate additional creative ideas, and then to share them with the team who is responsible for our staff meetings… Here was our question: You just went to a great staff meeting - you left excited, energised and hopeful. Tell us - what happened? We first worked in pairs to create our stories, then shared them with each other. Here are some of the ideas that emerged.

Ballroom Learning and Large Groups: Using Socratic Questioning
I am sitting in a hotel ballroom with 140 people at a conference titled, "Capacity Development Strategies: Let the evidence speak" and the level of some of the participants has dictated a certain room layout and format - we have a head table with four speakers and 140+ people sitting shoulder to shoulder behind tables in the room… If learning is the goal, and this formal room layout is a given, how might we best work with this format for optimal exchange?

What Exactly Are You Facilitating?
I have had a few people ask me about the value of facilitating other people's workshops. What does that contribute to the grand scheme of things? The overall goal is not to just to move people around a room for a day. A good Facilitator is a process person with their eye on outcomes and learning - there is reason for every interaction, what is it and how can a process be designed that makes those conversations easier, smoother, and more productive? After all, facilitation comes from the Latin word "facil" which means to make something easy. Good facilitation means making group dialogue, decision-making, information sharing, and learning processes easier and more effective for everyone: your workshop hosts, your participants, and yourself.

c) Reflection and follow-up

Helping Other People Do Great Work
How transferable was my experience last week and what can it prompt me to learn about how to help our guest speakers do great work for us at the upcoming workshop? What more could I do in the next few days that could make all the difference for a first-timer, to create an environment where people are proud of their contributions, others appreciate it, and generally helps everyone do great work?

Dialoguing about dialogue
“Listen to one another with your full attention. Think about what is said, how it is said and the intent behind this. How does it make you feel - physically, intellectually and emotionally - as a participant in this dialogue process? How does it make others feel?” There is still much to explore and emerge about the role of dialogue in change processes. Along the way, how can we replicate such experiential approaches in our own institutions for collective learning about the important role of dialogue in change?

I found it interesting to look back, now that I am working from the outside and don't always have seamless, day-to-day contact with such micro-learning processes, to remember how valuable it was to capture this nuanced process learning through a blog. Even after some time I find the learning very clearly reusable.  

Saturday, April 23, 2011

How is a Course Calendar like a Restaurant Menu?

I wrote this text (below) in the context of a Strategic Review I conducted for the Training Department of a big international development NGO. They wanted to explore ways to transform their existing training practice into a more contemporary "learning" model.

I pulled this text out again today because I am writing a manual for a facilitation learning programme that we are developing for a partner right now. I wanted to remind myself of this and thought I would share it.


A Learning Programme calendar, course description, or even agenda, is an intervention opportunity not to be missed. In a world of choice, it is a perfect way to communicate and feature your learning product(s) to potential learners, whether in-house or external.

Imagine that your learning programme was an excellent quality restaurant and the learners were valued diners. What is on the menu for your selective learning customers? Does it look good? Does it sound like something that the diner would enjoy? Would it satisfy her? Will the final product deliver what it promises on the menu?

How can learning providers (or facilitators) write their programme calendars, descriptions and agendas like a menu at a great restaurant and mean it? People need to read the course description and say, I want to take that course!

Consider testing course titles and descriptions on colleagues and potential learners first. Bear in mind, these tantalizing descriptions must also be true, nothing is worse than ordering a delicious sounding dish and having it turn out to not be as good as it looks on the menu!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Workshop Design: Five Questions to Get Started

I was just asked by a partner to send through some questions on which we could base a first workshop design discussion. I looked back at my learning design blog post Good Learning Design Discussions: Where to Start? (which incidentally and surprisingly just moved into the top 3 most read posts on this blog) and I think the questions there are very good for capacity development design discussions.

For a network workshop design discussion, I wanted slightly different questions, so I sent these instead:

1) What outcomes do you seek? What do you want to be different after the workshop ends?
These can be hard outcomes (such as a programme development process put into place, or to have a more consensus around prioritised items for a research agenda) and “soft” outcomes (such as more commitment, more enthusiasm, more engagement, better relationships among participants.)

2) What physical products do you wish to have as a result of this workshop?
Do you need a set of comments and inputs on a document, a strategic plan, a set of targets and possible solutions?

3) Who will be attending?
What are the numbers and kinds of participants who will be invited to attend? What are their motivations for attending?

4) Where will the workshop be held?
What kind of physical space are we working with for the event?

5) Where does this workshop sit within larger processes?
 To which larger processes would it contribute or be informed by?

These first five questions would get us started; check these first ones off and we can continue from there.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Good Idea from Windhoek Workshop: DIY Table Numbers

It is often difficult to find table signs that stand up so that you can see them from a distance (we had 88 people and 11 tables at our Climate Change Adaptation Learning workshop on Friday in Windhoek). I was impressed by the cleverness and the budget-friendliness of the solution above that the team here came up with.  We quickly changed from numbers to letters at the coffee break - both of which had been written on the back of the name badges before the workshop to help mix people up for seating during the day.Worked beautifully!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Facilitator's Nightmare (Literally)

Every single page of the first pad of flipchart paper had been written on, with marker was so dark that it was clearly legible on both sides. The second pad, with no cardboard backing, was shiny and slick and had been rolled and then stepped on, lining it with deep wavy creases. Another was on a roll and had the consistency and colour of toilet paper on a old French train. Three clean sheets of paper could be found left over - but the Facilitator needed six. Finding no scissors in the materials box, she drew a wavy line down the middle of each sheet so that the tear marks would not need to be so even.

It had been 5 minutes before the event was due to start when she finally found the venue, a highrise building which had its main conference room on the ground floor and the registration set up on the top. She took the lift up to help register people, all of whom were already there, and then zoomed back down the steps to prepare the room. By the time she started room prep, the event should have started too.

After half an hour of moving chairs out of the classroom set up, drawing up the flipchart sheets, and worrying about what the participants were doing up there (no coffee had yet been delivered), the opening sequence was ready. She went up sheepishly to collect people, through an exhibition that was noisily being set up outside the room for the event which followed. She would finish the preparation for the next part at coffee break (if coffee had shown up by then.)

Thankfully at this point I woke up, so completely surprised that my subconscious had thrown up such a detailed set of facilitation challenges in my sleep. If you can really learn something in any context, then the big message here for me must certainly be PREPARATION.  I cannot always anticipate/do anything about everything as the facilitator (although the buck often stops with me), but finding a venue so I can be there early, getting the sheets done in advance, going thoroughly through the materials and equipment list with the partner, or having an "icebreaker" in my pocket in case of a delay are some that I can. With some of these out of the way, all the other random things that life (or your dreams) can throw up can get your full attention.

Gee whiz, OK, I'm awake now...

I have three workshops/conferences in just over a week, let me go back to my prep now (and daydream about that vacation on the horizon)...

Saturday, April 02, 2011

10 Different Ways to Do Anything? Get Inspiration Everywhere

Every town should have a local circus school, if only to remind us that there are at least 10 ways to do anything. It's not just because I am a proud parent to two jugglers that I enjoy the regular circus shows. It's because creativity literally oozes out from under the doors of the place.

Today's show featured some 50 young circus students; and one of the challenges they clearly set themselves was how many different ways they could get them on and off the stage. Sure, they could have just walked on and performed their acts. But they didn't. They hopped on in burlap sacks, they somersaulted on in pairs (not easy, but possible), they walked on using colourful plastic cups as "binoculars" to peer at the audience, they rolled in on giant balls, they stepped in whispering mischievously to each other, they walked in on ropes that they were laying down in front of themselves as they went. And on and on.

They also used those methods to leave the stage, walking back on their rope, picking it up behind them as they went, always cleverly tying in the juggling, acrobacy, or high bar that they performed into their means of "transport" on and off the stage. 

I asked one of the teachers how they came up with all their ideas. She said simply that they get together and ask themselves the question - what are all the different ways we can do this? Then they have a lot of laughs and come up with the most amazing stuff, always keeping it very simple. Those plastic drinking cups were "binoculars", they were lined up as a colourful border at the back, then a border at the front of the stage between us and them, they were piled up into the most perilous tower (several times) in the middle of the stage, and then knocked unceremoniously over by a giant ball, and at the end the young performers toasted each other with them. 

Sometimes it's as easy as that, get some people together and ask the question - what are 10 different ways we can do this (get people on stage - or do our brainstorming, design this project, run this meeting, celebrate this achievement)?  For inspiration look anywhere, find some friends, and don't forget to ask the question.