The chemistry of magical facilitation (1) – mind the BOSSY HERALD

I had mentioned that I would sooner or later set my blogging foot again on facilitation island and would seek the island’s treasure trove to trace the original chemistry that makes magical facilitation happen. Well, I guess I’ve just landed on the island and am now on my way to find the trove.
Facilitation magic takes the power of the collective to the next level [Photo credits: mello.luiz/FlickR]

Facilitation magic takes the power of the collective to the next level (Photo credits: mello.luiz/FlickR)

This journey will take four steps:
  1. Mapping the big picture to understand the wide angle and political side of the event you are designing or facilitating – i.e. the subject of this very post;
  2. Tracking the details of that wide angle, to ensure your take on that wide angle and politics is viable and operational;
  3. Zooming in on appropriate facilitation methods to go functional and finally…
  4. Diving in dynamics, at the heart of the workshop, to inject the relational and emotional.

It’s the chemical combination of these four elements that makes your facilitation magical.

Now onto the first part of the event design…
1. The politics and wide angle of magical facilitation – here comes the bossy herald
Whether we like it or not, every event also sets some level of power plays. Someone (possibly a multi-faceted someone) is calling the shots and shaping the agenda. And beyond that politics, there are a few other important ‘wide angle’ elements to take into account. Ignoring this means you might come up with the best workshop design and facilitation but totally miss the point. And make that multi-faceted someone upset. And get participants confused. A total waste… You don’t want to go there. That’s why in this facilitation journey it’s always useful to mind the BOSSY HERALD. Although he’s slightly obnoxious, he reminds you of all the major elements that determine the wide angle of an event. Each letter in the bossy herald stands for a crucial aspect in this wide angle. Let’s inspect this…
The bossy part represents the political side which you cannot afford to neglect:
  • Big picture. Where in the bigger picture does this event fit? Is it a one-off event? Is it integrated with ongoing work? What is the rationale behind it? What drive pushed this event off the orchard of good-ideas-that-have-not-yet-been-used-and-perhaps-never-will? How are you going to tap into the source of inspiration for this event? What will you prepare and expect other people to prepare in this respect?
  • Ownership: Who owns the event? You, the facilitator? Someone else? A group of someone elses? Are they all present around you to discuss the design of the event or do you have to deal with each of them separately (mind the between-hammer-and-anvil scenario)? Do they have an agenda for this event? More importantly, to what extent do your participants own this event? In other words, is there room to co-create the agenda along the way or do you follow a pre-established agenda? How much flexibility is there to shape that agenda along the way?
  • Sharpness: Assuming that you are focusing on an overall theme for the event, how far are you planning to examine the core of the matter and its edges? How much are you hoping to explore your field? Are you hoping to expand the understanding of the matter at hand laterally (getting more people on board, levelling the field of knowledge) or vertically (delving more in depth in the pool of  knowledge)?
  • Spectrum: To what extent does the content of your overall event’s theme constitute your bull’s eye? Are you interested in the content only? Or do you also have a keen eye for the process surrounding the event e.g. do you also want to stimulate teambuilding, strengthen partnerships, raise awareness about the who-is-who in this field etc.?
  • Yearnings: What are the deep expectations that you (and the people owning your event) have for this event? What outcome should it lead to? What products are you hoping to see come out of this? What non-negotiable outputs should be achieved? What other outputs and outcomes would you ideally like or love to see? Should the event lead to specific concrete written outputs (a report, an article, an action plan, a declaration) at all or should it focus on the innovative and creative exploration of your subject, or other intangibles? Is your event aiming at efficiency or effectiveness? Can you picture what would be your ideal outcome / story of change for this event?
Once you’ve taken care of the bossy part, the herald part covers other important wide angle aspects:
  • How-to and heuristics: Take stock of what you have gathered with your bossy analysis. What approach does your experience and common sense dictate you to follow – what is your heuristic for this event, if any? How much do you have to align with the political and wide angle agenda and in contrast how authentic to your own style and aspirations can you afford to be? What tools and approaches seem to make sense in this context?
  • Extent: What about the length of the event? Is it lasting 2 hours, 2 days or 2 weeks? Is it a one-off event or one component or block in a series of mutually reinforcing events? If the latter, how much are you going to cover with this event?
  • Running the event: Who will be facilitating the event? Are there support facilitators? How experienced are all the facilitators involved? The numbers and experience of facilitators has an impact on the level of interactivity that you can design (the more interactive, the more experienced and numerous facilitators you need; some specific methods may require prior experience because they follow a very well codified approach). To what extent can you/they deal with overt or subtle tension? With a large group? With high profile participants?
  • Attendance: What is the profile of your participants? Who is actually coming? Volunteer participants or corporate recruits to a compulsory event? How much do they know each other? How much do they know about the topic? Do they come from the same institutions or different ones? Do they have similar or different professional functions? Is there a hierarchy among them and should it matter in this workshop? Are they all working on the same initiative? Are there tensions among them? Do they speak the same language? How much common culture do they share?
  • Location: Where is the event taking place? Is the venue modular / changeable or is it fixed in a static way (as those conference rooms with translation facilities and a fixed set of desks chained to one another)? Do you have any possibility for group work (break-out rooms, use of outside facilities etc.)? How does the acoustics work? Will you need a microphone?
  • Dynamics: Based on all the above comes a somewhat underrated but extremely crucial consideration: What kind of conversation dynamics do you want to foster? Informing conversations? Reacting on information? Exploring and blue-skying? Questioning or criticising? Co-creating? Arguing or following a ‘yes and’ approach? This is all related to the relatively static or dynamic nature of your event and the need for a seasoned facilitator. Then again, no seasoned facilitator got where they are without trying things out and without failing, so feel free to follow the ‘yes and’ rule (see video below) and throw yourself (or your not so seasoned facilitator) in the event!
For any event, find your way through the pointers of the bossy herald – but don’t overlook him, he’s the maker and breaker of events. All the rest is marbles and bubbles in comparison.

In the next post in this series, we’ll look at the practical implications of the herald in your event.

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Net added value in an event: networkshops and the power of contextual webs

I’m going to preach against my chapel here: Is there actually much of a point to design workshops to get the best user experience? It seems obvious from various studies and own experience that unless a workshop (or event) is embedded in someone’s own context (see this brilliant IDS report on capacity for a change which refers to this problem), experience, current needs and aspirations, the results of any event matter little. Because they are islands of focus, of luxury of resources, of delusion or rather luxuriously delusional focus – rather than continents of realism.
In other words, unless specifically tailored for a group of people, the applicability of any event’s contents is – arguably – usually rather low.

Where the real value of these events lies is the networking. Echoes of colleagues past and present “I’m just going there to talk with x, y and z and meet new people”… With networking, I’m not talking about the behaviour of some people that act like machines and qualify the success of their participation to an event by the amount of business cards swapped, as a juvenile Brit (more likely to happen) would qualify the success of his night out by how wasted s/he is. No, I’m talking about meaningful networking. Interweaving. Of the type that is born of genuine reciprocal interest and mutual engagement, that leads to learning.

”]Weaving contextual webs - the ultimate event experience? [Credits: Scott Hibberson]The value of networking goes much more deeply than swapping business cards and discussing some ideas superficially. It is (well, can and should be) about putting ideas directly into context, directly in use, serving a real purpose. It is also about deepening the web around that context, expanding the network of actors that can make sense of that very situation and pooling capacities to crack the issues at hand or devise approaches on the unknown road ahead. In those cases of networking, the business card is merely the ribbon that is cut to kick off the works, not the sad and silly trophy of another conference tourist.

So we might be well advised to not forget that the main value of the events we organise really comes from this type of interactions rather than the programme itself – all the more so if that programme has been designed by a selective little group rather than co-created along the way – in which case there are chances the contents of the event can also be very relevant and applicable. And we certainly should allocate ample time for people during breaks to weave their contextual webs.

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Tinkering with tools: What’s up with Yammer?

Perhaps as part of this new-year-new-ideas frenzy, I am starting a new type of posts, next to the series of shoot-posts, the ‘Tinkering with tools’ (TwT) series will not be so much technical as oriented towards the user experience of tools: how we use and adapt social tools to fit our practice.

In this first TwT, the case of Yammer is under the magnifier.

Yammer is the new rage – the corporate social network has been gaining a lot of recognition and users in 2011 and seems stronger than ever. In my new organisation – the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which is part of a broader network of research centres called the Collaborative Group on International Agricultural Centre (CGIAR), we are also using Yammer. Time to zoom in on the theory and practice behind Yammer.

Yammer: rad or fad?

Yammer: rad or fad?

At first sight, Yammer has the look and feel of Facebook (same blue and white scheme and definitely more feature options than on Twitter + the ubiquitous ‘Like’ option)  and some of the functioning logic of Twitter (a lot of micro-blogging, use of @ to link to a person and of # to relate to a topic). It is not yet very clear to me to what extent the CGIAR as a whole is pushing for Yammer as an enterprise-wide social network or whether Yammer has just evolved organically to the discretion of each CG centre. In any case on the CGIAR network (let alone related project networks) there are over 1300 members (out of an estimated 15.000?), over 80 groups and over 10.000 messages have been posted since the adoption of the social network some three years ago I believe. It is not insignificant. And it makes the practice all the more important.

What to make of the tool?

I never used Yammer before joining ILRI and frankly, being a Twitter and Facebook user, I found Yammer super easy to grow into – although I can totally imagine that this is not the case for everyone, particularly if they don’t work on knowledge management and social media ha ha. Then again every tool should be explored by every user to find out if it suits their style and practices. And there is nothing wrong with deciding – after careful exploration – that a tool doesn’t work for us. From my experience, here are some useful and not so useful features of Yammer…

What’s good about Yammer

What’s not so helpful on Yammer

  • The micro-blogging feature which makes it very easy to read and share a lot of information with a wide set of audiences (different closed groups and open networks)
  • The ‘like’ and ‘reply’ functionalities which provide crucial feedback on what we post
  • The topics which allow grouping of all posts under one heading
  • The simplicity of finding people by typing their name (@)
  • The automatic link image display which urges to click on the links posted
  • Contrary to e.g. frequent use of Facebook, there really is more focus on workplace matters, which makes it easy to filter out junk noise
  • The ‘leaderboards’ feature which stimulates positive competition to have more posts or responses etc. (an avatar of the knowledge ego-log
  • The default notification settings which tend to clog the inbox and require careful attention for new users if they are to use this tool
  • The limited tag functionalities: only most popular topics are displayed and it’s not possible to rename a topic to an existing topic (to bring all posts under inconsistent topics under one topic heading). Topics can also not be used in groups
  • The limited functionalities of pages – no possibility to paste tables etc.
  • The fact that – and this is not specific to Yammer – it takes time for people to follow and be followed, which means a lot of messages might not reach intended audiences.

So where are we now? There is still a lot of potential for Yammer to grow within the CGIAR and that means a lot of awareness-raising, coaching, training to make sure people feel comfortable with the tool. It also means a lot of feedback (see this post on the power of feedback) to ensure good practices. And, sure, not everyone is on it, not everyone is a super active user but we hear that many silent users actually enjoy reading their newsfeed and digests. At any rate, Yammer at ILRI is way more effective for sharing information than any intranet I’ve been given to check or use in the past 10 years. In addition, ILRI and the wider CG system have implemented a few useful practices to make the Yammer experience richer to all:

  • Developing a tailored page on ‘Yammer essentials’ which helps any newcomer find some good practices and useful settings (e.g. turning off a lot of email notifications, updating profile, indicating what centre they are part of etc.);
  • Offering ongoing training and coaching for individuals and teams, to avoid letting people in the dark and giving up early on;
  • Making extensive use of @ to alert concerned people when they are mentioned in the network – to stimulate them to at least follow the buzz on the network, if not update regularly;
  • Connecting Yammer to all the blogs and wikis and websites around our CG centres as and when relevant to make Yammer the ‘reflector/connector of choice’;
  • And recently developing a bespoke application (it is possible when asking Yammer) to integrate blog feeds into the ILRInet group, without affecting design – this option was available before but messed up the layouts really badly and made the blog posts’ text practically unreadable. This has been fixed by my colleague Zerihun Sewunet and it looks wonderful.

We are still learning with the tool but there seems to be some momentum. That said, of course there is room for improvement and the buzz on the internet around Yammer indicates that there is a lot to learn about Yammer and about how people might want to use it or not…

What of the buzz around the tool?

There’s been quite a few articles about Yammer in the past couple of years – here is a selection to find out what you think and to find better ways to use Yammer. First, why Deloitte staff love Yammer:

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The feast of fools of feedback

Carnival season is approaching! A special season where licence and libations precede long fasting.

Related to the carnival, but taking place in December, the feast of fools is another fascinating popular event that marked Western Europe’s history from the sixth to the sixteenth century. The idea of the feast of fools was indeed to bestow “power, dignity and impunity […] to those in a subordinate position.” A mini social revolution that perhaps helped keep the sanity of the society of the time by allowing an extraordinary amount of pressure to come off the system in a structured outburst of freedom.

Feast of fools (Bruegel)

The feast of fools (Bruegel) - why not use that powerful frustration outlet for our modern age?

I’ve always thought that – with careful design and due ‘facilitation’ – it might be a good idea to try such a feast of fools in an organisation. It may not have to follow the medieval model and be reserved exclusively to those who don’t have power, but it could just be organised as a day when everyone might feel free to give feedback to anyone else in any possible way. With or without a mask (as was the case in the middle age)…

Of course this might go terribly wrong. Medieval time celebrations and their Roman ancestor, Saturnalia, also went out of hand occasionally. This is where a sound dash of structure could come in handy; and there are plenty of options to ‘frame’ that feast of fools: a short presentation on how to give feedback? Having all staff wear a disguise, mimicking the age-old mask function? Feedback provided not verbally but in writing or post it notes mysteriously stuck on the walls? Theatrical enactment of the issues that deserve feedback? There are many options…

The idea has not been tried out to my very limited knowledge. And if it was put to test, perhaps even after a few try-outs in a more limited environment, it might prove a powerful cathartic learning exercise that would help a) feel better indeed about letting go of some deep thoughts, b) revealing unexplored, below-the-table issues that deserve improvement, c) reinforcing a culture of feedback and d) offer another opportunity for creative thinking…

As I’m starting this new year of blogging, perhaps it’s also your chance to test this idea in practice on this blog by freely providing any feedback, however critical, about this blog and what I do with it between now and this Friday?

Now, that was a shoot… hopefully not just a ‘shoot me’.

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Reaping the seeds of change: how KM can open up conversations – the Except case, four months later

I was not really planning to write about this but after a chat with Eva Gladek from the company Except yesterday, it seemed a good idea to look at the seeds of change reaped three to four months after a workshop that brought us together.

In September 2011 I facilitated a workshop on the identity of Except and on various knowledge management initiatives that could support the development of this very modern, dynamic and slightly messy networked organisation (consciously or unconsciously following the complex approach of messy coherence).

Except integrated sustainability

Except integrated sustainability

The workshop consisted in a series of sessions aimed at collectively establishing the identity of Except and working on knowledge management: a speed dating exercise revealed some hidden talents of Except staff to one another; a Samoan Circle  session on the identity of Except; a mapping of Except’s clients, their impressions and their expectations vis-à-vis the organisation; crafting key messages for those clients, using the message box methodology from Spitfire’s Smart Chart tool; group work on four related activities to improve customer service; a short presentation on KM and working in groups on three tiers of KM activities:

  1. How to ensure a good induction and personal development of (new) staff
  2. How to update and sustainably manage the Except information database and
  3. How to hold quality conversations, online and offline.

So what happened, three months later?

A series of changes have tilted the organisation towards liberating knowledge flows and embracing (slightly) structured social learning:

  • Except is now a lot more aware of its need to communicate, internally – to identify and bridge the gaps of day-to-day work – as well as externally to articulate its identity and set of services in a more outspoken way. Among others, they have developed more strategic documents to explain what they are working on, for the Board of directors and strategic clients;
  • Staff members have also realised the importance of feedback – both to one another but also to and from customers. Gathering client feedback about the services rendered is now part and parcel of any new account;
  • There are regular after action reviews to assess how any account management process went and improve over time;
  • The management has set up an enterprise wiki to document many significant work processes. Although it initially took a while for people to embrace it, after some awareness-raising and training, most members are now using the wiki and saving a lot of time using project page templates, finding information about the questions they have etc.
  • Most staff members seem to work in much more transparent ways in sharing information and in documenting / recording their work. Except has also developed a file naming convention which helps find files much more easily;
  • Generally, staff members seem to be better able to find and apply the protocols that exist for a number of processes in house. Eva seemed to suggest that they are more conscious about their learning needs and activities.

All in all, the seeds of change are blatant and very rich. Not least, the organisation has unlocked conversations – people are talking to one another more and seem happy to transparently share their work, which is perhaps the greatest achievement as it relates to the slow and complex edge of culture and behaviour change…

Of course, it remains difficult to directly attribute any of these changes to the workshop itself but Eva seemed convinced that the latter did play a role in this series of change. That said, the workshop could have been even more effective if there had been a clearer and narrower problem statement at the onset of the workshop. But perhaps this was also a first broad brush stroke on Except’s knowledge work. It will need follow up.

Even for highly dynamic networked organisations like Except, which tend to anyway make intensive use of interrelated opportunities (the power of the network) and of knowledge flows across the branches and people in the organisation, a visioning workshop on identity and some work on knowledge management can reap critical seeds of change. Every subsequent iteration of this workshop – there is a plan to organise one such workshop every year – promises to sharpen the edge of knowledge of this extremely interesting and responsible organisation.

I wish for Except to keep reaping these seeds and turn them into the strong trees that echo its vision of sustainable organic and ecological development.

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My first shoot: the “scaling up” silver bullet

2012 offers new opportunities for this blog. One of these opportunities is to blog more often, with (some) shorter posts. At first I thought I’d call these ‘tumblers’, with reference to the great (micro-) blogging platform Tumblr. Instead, I’ll call them ‘shoots’. Because they might be seen like shooting stars, spangling the sky for a short moment, or perhaps like glimpses of a situation – like photo shoots. Also because they might be more controversial and shoot at certain ideas and assumptions we/I have. But perhaps mostly because they might be just the buds of new, hopefully bigger ideas. Shorter in nature, these ‘shoot’ posts will offer glimpses of reactions and thoughts on topics that I might want to expand on later on. Now on to the shoot then…

”]Some 'shoots' to make ideas flower [photo credit: Clappstar/FlickR]This first shoot is about one of the biggest silver bullets that drives the whole development (cooperation) industry: scaling up(or out or over…)

It’s a very good idea on paper: something that works really well – in a specific location at a specific moment – should be replicated elsewhere, at a much larger scale. Hiccup! Hiccup hiccup! What about the context? What makes us think that we can scale that context up with the initiative that was successful? It wasn’t easy to achieve success, so isn’t it presumptuous to think we can replicate success at a (much) larger scale?

Successful development initiatives are indeed successful as a result of…

  1. A combination of factors, e.g. strong will, a critical mass of capacities, sometimes a high level of resources, dense social and/or political capital (building trust and using it to move ahead in joint action), the presence or sufficient maturity of what is sometimes called ‘an enabling environment’ for that initiative.
  2. A slow but high density process that combines all these factors. Because building trust, leveling knowledge, aligning visions, developing capacities, setting complex work in motion takes time. Paradoxically, this slow process goes together with a set of activities that happen at a much faster pace and in much more density than would probably be the case in the area normally (i.e. without that initiative).

Achieving that combination is very delicate – like a graft on a body or a very challenging turbo-gardening enterprise. We are deluding ourselves thinking that we can reproduce this harmonious set of factors on a much wider geographic or temporal scale – certainly given the current time frames of development projects: 2, 3, 5 or even 10 years.

Scaling up is not even a silver bullet, it’s the holy grail that everyone is after in development work. But rather than scale up successes (the fruits), we should focus on scaling up the processes that led to such successes (the soil). And perhaps we’re better off starting with cooperation, learning and facilitation of these social learning and cooperative processes. That is what prepares the soil for future plant embedding, the enabling environment that makes initiatives flourish.

I very much doubt that we can scale anything else up than that very ambition of ours to scale everything up. And we should scale that down. Small is beautiful, humble is laudable, slow is not shallow as we need time to know and grow…

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A new year of fun, focus, feedback and some new ideas

Happy 2012!

I wish you a year of great health, love, success but particularly of fun, focus and feedback! This has been my mantra for the past two years and I’ll stick to it for another year. And this year’s full of more than just fun focus and feedback.

More fun, focus and feedback in 2012 (photo credit: ILRI/Peter Ballantyne)

More fun, focus and feedback in 2012 (photo credit: ILRI/Peter Ballantyne)

But before looking at some ideas for change, what’s in a mantra, really? What’s in this mantra? Time to explain perhaps…


We spend so much time at work that we might as well have some fun, especially when we work on complex and/or complicated issues. Since learning and knowledge management are a lot about changing behaviours, we’re much more likely to change them through fun. This is the extremely compelling argument behind the fun theory. And perhaps, contrary to what Cindy Lauper used to sing, not just girls want to have fun. I do too! How about you?


Now if we were just having fun we might forget what we’re having fun for. So this is the balancing factor to fun; the filling that makes the cake not only beautiful but also exquisite and memorable; the compass that brings the cool boat to its destination… You get the idea.

So fun is perfect, but it’s only an instrument that should be used to reach an objective, a purpose. Learning is all the more effective as it is consciously aiming at a specific objective.

Focus is also about dealing with only one thing at a time. While it makes sense to do strategic multi-tasking (keeping different balls up in the air, or keeping your eggs in different baskets, to avoid depending on one initiative/partner/client only), it is counter-productive to do operational multitasking – dealing with emails, yammer, blogging, talking on the phone, writing an article at the same time. This is the key point of Leo Babauta in his Focus manifesto. And I believe he’s right.


Now this one sounds perhaps less obvious and yet it is perhaps the most powerful of the three pillars in this mantra. If we are to learn, we need to continually adjust what we are doing towards the intended focus. This is the powerful effect of feedback loops that among others Owen Barder has explained in a blog post about improving development policy.

Feedback has value on both sides of its coin:

  • Given possibly negatively but constructively, it informs us on what we do not so well and need to question and readjust;
  • Given positively it confirms that we are on the right track and reinforces good practices. Not insignificantly it also boosts our confidence in ourselves and in the feedback giver, it builds trust. And it liberates energy, which can be channelled to more fun and focus…

So give feedback relentlessly, either for learning and change or just as a token of appreciation to the others. In a way, the only truly great present you can give others is your presence. And feedback is a great way of manifesting your presence, as a result of observing, listening and caring. Here are some tips for feedback that works.

So I wish you all three in 2012 and also the powerful combination that they make and personally ignites me all year long.

Now, for the new ideas of 2012, here are a few things around this blog I want to give a try in 2012 – your feedback is much appreciated, as ever:

  • Write more but also some shorter blog posts, the tumblers that echo what John Tropea does with his TumblR posts;
  • Interview people about KM, learning, communication and perhaps occasionally invite guest blogging;
  • Feature more videos and presentations that I have prepared or fished around on the internet;
  • Continue with my stock-taking series. One is due on facilitation basics soon;
  • Do more event and publication commenting;
  • And perhaps overhaul the design again. Time to shake off the grey and black frames, don’t you think?

And I have a few other ideas in petto but hey, let’s keep this rolling little by little…

Have a wonderful 2012!

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