Thursday, February 27, 2014

Architects of Air: 5 Tips for Adding Structure to Workshops

If you think about it, the kind of workshops we go to, and run as facilitators and learning practitioners - our strategic planning meetings, our team development sessions, and brainstorming events - are not traditional workshops. The walls are not lined with physical tools, and in the room there are no hydraulic lifts and pneumatic drills, engines and massive circuit boards in sight. (I am working today with a group that is learning about how to do public private partnerships between vocational schools and companies in the heavy duty construction vehicles industry in post-conflict countries - all aimed at decreasing youth unemployment. The event has sparked my thinking...).

When we are doing this work, we walk into empty rooms. There might be chairs and tables, but the tools we use are for the most part invisible. We are lucky when something has been written down on paper, but this is not always the case.

These more ephemeral workshops can involve long hours of people talking. They can go here and there and all over the place (not our workshops of course, but those other workshops). And it is up to us, the hosts or the facilitators, to create a structure that helps us to use our invisible tools to create things, fix things or get some very specific things done.

The more "in the clouds" the discussion has the potential to be (whether a very broad or theoretical question, a visioning exercise, and even learning something specific from masses of experiences), the more creating a clear structure will help keep people on track and focused on the goals and products desired. And the more they will trust a process and goal that might seem daunting or slightly incomprehensible at first.

What are some of the ways a facilitator can help create structure, or make it make it much more visible, from a wide open space of 8 hours and an empty 10 m x 8 m room?  Here are 5 things I did during this workshop:

1.Created a physical schedule - I did this to help me structure my introduction to the agenda, I left this in the room and referred to where we were in the schedule after every break, and it helped people to see the flow and trust the process, that we would get where we needed to go in the end. Everyone had an e-copy of this in advance, but my experience is that people use it (the electronic version) before the event to see if they really want to attend, but during the event, people stop looking at their agenda's (unless they want to know when the break is!)

2. We are here: This might seem silly to you, but this little marker, that I move every time we go from one session to another, helps mark our progress and march through the agenda.

3. Structure the time with sound: I always carry a bell, or use my iPhone if I have a microphone, to help signal when things are changing, when activities are done, when groups need to change or when the break is over. This just helps to signal boundaries on activities that help people hear and trust that timing is being measured.

4. Number things: In these kinds of workshops I tend to number everything. I number the questions that the speakers will answer, number the tables for group work, number the sessions on the agenda. It helps as shorthand which can give time savings, it helps see the length and scope of things, and it helps give structure to the space or discussion.

5. Make Templates: Help structure the capturing of data, by making flipchart templates, A3 templates, A4 templates, listening cards, etc. - you can even border the paper, to create containers for the many ideas that come from the groups' work that will help shape the products you want to generate. It gives the feeling of structure (and also gives structure, keeps people on track and makes sure you are all answering the same question, and not some memory of a question you read orally 10 minutes ago).

In our workshops, we structure the wide open spaces of our minds and imaginations, our words and ideas, to help us get clearer about, and achieve, our goals.

In the end, we facilitators are architects of air. I love that idea!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Managing Exceptions: The Resilient Facilitator

This is an occupational reality that I need to remind myself about from time to time related to the work facilitators do. The resulting advice that I give myself may also be pertinent for trainers, event planners and staff members with bosses using "just-in-time" management or a firefighter approach to work.

You are invited to join processes when they are very important.

Leaders, teams and organizations invest in external support and help when the outcomes matter greatly - they need to gather information for the next submission of a critical funding proposal, they are bringing all their dues-paying members together for an annual inspirational meeting, once in every five years the Board meets to do strategic planning, they are trying to develop a historic industry standard through a multi-stakeholder process. These events can be milestones in the sustainability of an organization.

What if you, as a facilitator, have all of these things happening in the same month?

Let's hope that doesn't happen all the time, but it can certainly be the case that you have two or three big projects winding up very close to one another on your own calendar. Each one heating up in the weeks just before - potentially all at the same time.

It is important, as the Facilitator, to put yourself in the host organization's shoes and not be surprised when calls run over (maybe by as much as 1.5 hours), when they really want to see you and not just have a conference call, when they are eager to talk through an idea with you  even at 11pm at night or on Sunday morning when they are having their last preparatory team meeting. The event you are helping them with might be THE event of the year for them and they will be putting every ounce of effort into it. And they will make many exceptions to make sure it is absolutely perfect, which is great, and will invite you to make them too.

What can facilitators do to manage these exceptions? 3 things immediately come to mind:

  1. Build in Resilience: This particularly in the form of time. Don't schedule 15-minute interviews 15 minutes apart, don't take meetings in 2 cities with only as much time as it takes to get between them in between, etc. Things will go over, they will be delayed because of last minute things on the host organization's side, they will be postponed because the programme is not quite developed yet, etc. Building in resilience to take these changes (which may be last-minute-before-the-event for them, but be all the time for you, the facilitator) means keeping space in your schedule and in your head to work with these exceptions. 
  2. Husband your Resources: Try to maintain your routine even amidst these exceptions. Eat properly, exercise and above all SLEEP! Don't wind up going to these very important events with a sleep deficit. This is another way to build in resilience so that too many late nights in a row don't render you less than your usual creative and calm self. I wrote a whole blog post about this: Facilitators: To Your Health! 
  3. Planning, Planning Planning: And of course, this is perhaps the obvious one, but easy to short cut when you might be contacted late in a process, or when organizations are eager to save funds (understandably in the current global financial climate many sustainability organizations are particularly sensitive to this). This might sound counter intuitive, but more time budgeted for planning and preparing your event can easily mean less time needed for last minute fix-its for mission critical meetings. And again, good planning and preparation will build resilience into your system, because with all the known things planned and organized you can be more open to fielding the unexpected whether before or during the event. And unexpected things will happen - expect them! (These can be rather extreme -  I was holding an international learning event with 250 people in Moscow when 9/11 happened, we stopped everything and devoted a full day to dialogue to try to understand what was going on in the world from many international perspectives - from this, to a handful of people losing their luggage thus taking out one of your support staff members for a while to deal with that.)
All of these things take some effort in the short term, but have long term benefits. For facilitators, like the ecosystems or humanitarian aid or precious metals our host organizations are managing, building in resilience makes our work more sustainable. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Do You Really Want Results?


As facilitators (and human beings) we make all kinds of assumptions about what people want out of the workshops and processes we help them run. Some of these assumptions might be around getting results, or at least the sheer volume of results we can help a group of people generate over a day or two.

It is typical at the end of our workshops that the walls are covered
with flipcharts, completed templates, prioritised ideas, timelines, and next action sheets. We regularly put groups to work on key questions and then
after reporting seek from the group their observations about the
results  - what patterns do they see? What additional meaning can they
derive when you put all this work together? We ask for reflections and take away messages. We might capture these nuggets of insight on cards or paper,  and quickly we have mountains of data that we facilitators
assume are equally and fantastically valuable to the hosts of the event.

While these ideas and summaries look like gold to us, we might instead
encounter a programme manager who looks at the wealth of raw data and
asks at the end of the workshop, "What am I supposed to do with all this?"

Well, unless the process needs to be minuted for transparency or
accountability reasons (and sometimes this might actually be the case), I see no reason why every single post-it note or flipchart needs to be typed
up and put into a long, dry verbatim report, that potentially no one will use. Sometimes a simple photo report (like the ones I make in Penultimate – see blog post Fast and Easy Workshop Reports with Penultimate) will do as the archive of raw outputs. This can then be crystalized into a more useful and meaningful short report, with decisions and next actions concisely summarised.

We all need to remember that workshop activities can serve different purposes. Some might produce concrete written results, but some might be designed to produce softer, more intangible results, such as team development, warming up for a creative brainstorming, or helping to shift mindsets or attitudes. These latter activities might come and go with no written trace, with results only to be experienced in a more harmonious working atmosphere or a particularly innovative outcome later on.

Some discussions might be most useful for peer learning, so people might take their own notes of what is most useful to them. If the group has a central repository for group learning, this could be still be archived for on-demand learning in the future. In which case perhaps only highlights, contact /persons and places to go for more information need be captured in a searchable format (sent by email and/or uploaded on an online platform).

Sometimes the results produced are for the participants and sometimes they are just for you. For the latter, it might be most useful to let “results” pass in an ephemeral way, or with some discreet note taking on a notepad by the facilitator or project manager. Such as the answers to the following questions: How easy was it for you to contribute to this exercise? What did you enjoy about the day, what would you like to be different tomorrow? No need to capture these things on a flipchart. Unless of course you want to refer back to it again at the end of the next day to see how you did, but that seems heavy handed unless the process of the day was a train wreck (and hopefully that would NEVER be the case).

So as facilitators we might sometimes get a little carried away with
writing things down and capturing everything.

And our host organisations might get carried away too. It might be the case some times that our counterparts  think they want to know something but really they don't have the latitude to make the changes that might arise from a highly generative exercise. Or they might be working with a different timeframe (short term vs. long term) or they might have other parameters, such as budget or human resources, that pose boundaries that need to be carefully explained to a group before it starts its work. As without careful consideration of these, the results are rendered almost useless.

So the discussion of results forms an important part of the
consultation stage of a facilitation design process. It needs to happen at the overall workshop level, but also for each session and activity. Facilitators much check their assumptions -  this conversation is a time
where the facilitator listens deeply, and asks good questions. For
example, for a session that aims to share “best practice”: Where will the good practice lessons generated go after the session? Is it for individual participants’ learning or should it be captured and archived? If the latter, then where will it be archived and in what format? Who will use this later? How will the results be fed back into the process in the future? And so on.

I think we should always be very clear what results we want from a
workshop discussion, an exercise, from group work, etc. Every session conducted should have a purpose, and the answers/outputs/results are in some way useful for the process.  Without this the whole exercise can become very expensive  busy work. Whether results are captured for long term use, or whether the discussion just helps move the group mentally from A to B, this should be crystal clear to both the facilitator and the workshop host.

Whenever you are convening people you should always want results; whether they are written down or not doesn’t always matter.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Productivity and Walking Desks: Combining Work With Workout

Does this look familiar?

It wouldn't have to me before today.

It's my treadmill screen and my laptop screen (notice Zero Inbox!) because I just made myself a Walking Desk.

Impressed by the recent New Yorker article, "The Walking Alive" by Susan Orlean, gently informing all us knowledge workers that we are shortening our lives when we sit at our desks for so many hours a day, I decided to get out the saw (sic) and convert a treadmill over to a workstation myself. (If you want to know more, there is also a nice NPR Interview with her -Treadmill Desks and the Benefits of Walking Alive.)

I have lamented again recently on my slow down in blogging over the last year. That has been in part due to lots of work (common to us all), but also to the fact that I started to get up from my desk and go out of my office for some kind of exercise every day thanks to last year's sticky New Year's resolution. And as we all know, time is a finite resource. So at least one-hour a day (plus transaction time) almost every day is gone from work hours, and this was definitely part of my blogging time.

But today, I am writing this blog while walking 1.7 km per hour at my treadmill desk. It sounds slow, but I have been on here for 2.5 hours now (probably too long, first time over ambition) and covered some fair ground.

I didn't buy a treadmill desk, although there are some snazzy ones available, but converted a regular treadmill by simply putting a board horizontally through hole in the two "arms" of this Kettler Track Experience. The board gives me room for my laptop, phone, agenda, and some files (and probably a cup of coffee if I am careful).

It still took me a while to get it to the right work position. I immediately noticed that my laptop was too low when it was on the board to be comfortable for more than 5 minutes. So I put a stack of printer paper blocks under it to raise it to the right height. Even at this level I can still see my screen (as in the photo) so can motivate myself by time, distance or calories, if my email is less than inspirational.

It is surprisingly easy to work on my feet - I have already made phone calls, scheduled a meeting, zeroed my In-box, created a word document, filled in an online registration form, and read and commented on a paper (and wrote this blog). All at 1.7 km per hour.

All perfect? Not yet. I have to figure out how to keep the treadmill programme on manual, otherwise I will have the situation I had on my first call when the machine sped up at seemingly random times and had me huffing before I could get it back down to my comfortable pace (giving a whole new meaning to "Thinking, Fast and Slow"). I also need to get use to working without a mouse, or make my desk elevation (aka blocks of paper) wider.

I see that I might get addicted to this as it seems to take multi-tasking and productivity at your desk to a new level. And for home office workers to note: It doesn't really work in slippers (although pajamas are probably ok if they're loose enough). Finally, don't plan on walking at your desk right until the minute before you zip out to a meeting, because after a couple of hours on the treadmill, even at that slow pace, you'll be a little dizzy and disoriented when you step down on terra firma again. (So, no power tools either.)

In the time it has taken me to write this blog -exactly 44 minutes, 1.05 kilometers and 108 calories, I have kept moving, and still achieved something work related - my first standing blog post, and I hope the first of many on my feet.