Dancing on the Dunes – an excursion in Egypt’s Western Desert

This piece is reprinted with thanks from the new book by my old friend and ICA International colleague John Burbidge, titled “More Than Halfway to Somewhere: Collected Gems of a World Traveler“.

As I wrote for the cover, in this book:

Burbidge leads you on a whistle-stop world tour of travelers’ tales rich with exotic locations, colourful characters and often extraordinary adventures. These are gems indeed, mined from a life lived as journey and sparkling with compassion and humour!

The book is now available, just in time for Christmas, from John’s site wordswallah.com.

I was not involved in the writing of this, but I was very much involved in the adventure. I first visited Bahariya probably in the first of my six years in Egypt with ICA MENA. After befriending Reda (aka ‘Desert Fox’) early on, we led a series of jeep trips together from 1993-95 for groups that I recruited from the lively social network of the Cairo Hash House Harriers

The ‘never-ending book’ that John was editing at the time of this, my last trip in 1996, was “Beyond Prince and Merchant: Citizen Participation and the Rise of Civil Society”. John and I had been corresponding extensively on this as I was writing my own masters dissertation at the time, “Building Civil Society for a Humane and Sustainable Future Toward a Global Role for the Institute of Cultural Affairs in the UK”.


Do not take this trip…

  • if you prefer things to go according to plan
  • if you don’t like sand in your food, hair and underwear
  • if you object to going unwashed for days on end
  • if you’re overly sensitive to heat and sun or local food
  • if you’re not prepared to dig jeeps out of sand, or perhaps wait until dawn to do so
  • if being thrown around in the back of a moving vehicle is not your idea of fun
  • if you’ll be upset when, after three days in the desert, you get back to your oasis hotel to find there’s no water in the bathroom…

This was the disclaimer that trip organizer, Martin Gilbraith, offered those contemplating the five-day excursion in Egypt’s Western Desert following the ICA International 1996 international conference in Cairo. It was enough to turn away most conferees in favor of trips down the Nile or snorkeling in the Red Sea, but for 20 adventurous souls — young and old, men and women from 10 countries — it was just the turn-on we needed.

Were we disappointed? No way. Not only was the disclaimer fulfilled in detail, it was surpassed on several fronts. But the lure of the desert’s ever-changing landscapes, the warm and generous welcome of its inhabitants, and the unputdownable spirit of our Egypt guide team made the disclaimer fade into insignificance.

Before we headed out of Cairo in two minibuses we picked up our last but possibly most important passenger, Reda Abdel Rasoul.

“I am Reda, zee Desert Fox,” exclaimed this vibrant young Egyptian with the most engaging smile and thick black moustache. His exuberance masked the fact that he’d been in Cairo to visit his seriously ill brother and had only just decided to make the trip.

Reda was the local organizer of our desert safari. His slick, photographic business card described him as a ‘histary’ teacher but like a number of other educators in desert oases he turned to tour guiding to supplement his meager income. He lived in Bawiti, the largest town in the Bahariya Oasis with a population of 18,000.

Having a history teacher as our guide was an unexpected and valuable bonus. Egypt’s ancient roots as a land of pharaohs, pyramids and the fertile Nile Valley is well documented but the vast Western Desert that occupies much of the country is less well known. Its harsh terrain is not conducive to human settlement but people have managed to eke out a living there for eons. It’s a place where myth and history have intertwined, such as the puzzling disappearance of the 50,000-man Persian army under Cambyses II, son of Cyrus the Great, in a sandstorm in the 6th century BC. No trace of this massive force has ever been found.

Throughout the 365-kilometer journey to Bahariya our minds were on more immediate things, as Reda patiently answered our endless questions. Why don’t those telegraph poles have wires connecting them? Why are there railway stations in what appears to be nowhere in particular? Where do all those vehicle tracks into the desert lead? What is the Arabic word for…? And more frequently as the hours progressed, how far is it to the nearest rest stop?

The answer to the latter was simple. There is only one stop between Cairo and Bahariya, almost half way. As we entered the cavernous refreshment room we were greeted with ecstatic cries of “Martin! Martin!” Recognizing our British expat leader from many previous trips, the operators of this lonely outpost were effusive in their welcome. Clearly we were in friendly territory. The cold drinks and snacks were delightful, the chance to stretch our legs most welcome, and the toilets were, well…better left to themselves.

Our first clue we were approaching landfall in this endless sea of sand and rock was the police checkpoint near the mining town of Managum, site of Egypt’s main source of iron ore, which is transported to Cairo by rail. Some ore never made it that far, given the number of damaged wagons that littered the tracks along the way. We saw our first vegetation in five hours at Managum when we entered an avenue of oleander bushes and eucalyptus trees so reminiscent of Australia. The entire landscape had a distinctive ‘outback’ feel to it, especially those parts of the land down under that are sandy desert. It increased the sense of connection I’d already begun to feel with this vast, seemingly empty terrain.

Shortly after Managum we drove through a gap in the escarpment and descended into an oasis. For the first time I began to understand what an oasis is. Far from the popularized Hollywood image of a cluster of date palms around a spring and a pond, oases are vast depressions in the desert plateau formed as a result of the combined action of wind, tectonics and water. They are near or at sea level where the massive reserves of underground water flowing north from central Africa come to the surface. The 2,000 square kilometer Bahariya depression is the smallest of the four major oases in the Western Desert. It is surrounded by several tiers of high escarpment which enclose a valley full of hills and mountains, some conical, some mesas, and others folded like the layers of an ancient garment.

One of the most dramatic parts of the Bahariya oasis is the White Desert near Farafara. Entering this area was like walking into a Salvador Dali painting. The numerous bleached, wind-eroded limestone sculptures gave the appearance of a bizarre collection of pieces on a gigantic chessboard. Arriving late afternoon, we were fortunate to experience the White Desert at three of its most enchanting moments — sunset, moonlight, and sunrise. Wandering among this surreal setting, I found a flat-topped piece about waist high and long enough to accommodate my body. I stripped to my underwear, hoisted myself atop the rock, and after checking for scorpions and other creatures, lay down on my towel. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the evening star appeared in a seamless transition. I wanted to capture and hold on to this precious moment but that was not to be. The air temperature quickly dropped, reminding me it was time to get dressed and rejoin the group.

While the days were a test of endurance with long drives in intense heat, the evenings were like a reward for our labors. Our first night in the desert we camped at Bir Ghaba, the Well in the Forest — ‘forest’ being a highly relative term. Situated on the old caravan route to Cairo, this popular well was shrouded in a grove of eucalyptus trees adjacent to a campsite operated by Bawiti’s ironically named Alpenblick (view of the Alps) Hotel. Later that evening when the buzz around the campfire had died down to hushed whispers, I grabbed my towel and swimsuit and headed to the well. It was empty and silent, except for the torrent of water gushing out of the massive pipe at the deep end of the pool. As I lowered myself into the 38°C water, the moon appeared over the horizon in the most star-studded sky I had ever seen. The desert breeze, an ever-present companion, wafted through the trees. As I floated in the highly mineralized water I unloaded the six-day conference I had just come from, the never-ending book I was editing, and the long drive from Cairo.

We had two other opportunities during our trip to explore desert springs and wells. Although there are hundreds scattered throughout the oases, most are known only to locals and used by them for bathing and washing. Although some springs have cool water, many are hot, often severely so. One spring in Dakhla Oasis is said to be able to boil eggs. We tried our own egg boiler in Bahariya Oasis on our last night in the desert. With water at 45°C, Bir Ramla is the hottest spring in the oasis. While most of our group decided to pass, a few daring souls put their toes in the water to test the temperature. Shrieks filled the air. It reminded me of the copper cauldron in which we cooked crabs in when I was a boy. I took a deep breath and sank into the steaming water. While I’ve always handled hot water better than cold, this pushed me to my limits. After the initial shock my body adjusted to the intense heat, but I soon joined the others on the sidelines. I didn’t want to become like the proverbial frog that boils itself to death while gradually adapting to the rising temperature.

Another spring captured my imagination in a totally different way. Known as the Magic Spring, it was identifiable by a lone clump of palm trees in an otherwise barren landscape. Our arrival at the Magic Spring came after a particularly harrowing ordeal. When we arrived at Bahariya, we transferred from our two minibuses into three Toyota jeeps to go on off-road excursions. A fourth jeep was our supply vehicle. On our second afternoon we were behind schedule and keen to arrive at our destination before sunset, so two of the drivers entered into a friendly race. The lead driver tried taking a short cut and strayed off course. As he started to descend a steep dune he lost control of the vehicle. It plummeted down the slope and rolled over before landing on its side. The other jeep arrived at the top of the dune seconds after, and seeing what had happened its driver managed to bring it to an abrupt halt.

A front-seat passenger, our oldest member, suffered cuts and abrasions to his head but others escaped injury. Built to withstand this kind of treatment, the jeeps came through in better shape. I was in the third vehicle, considerably behind the other two. We knew nothing about the accident, but when the faint sound of a horn kept repeating in the distance our driver sensed something was amiss. He entered into an intense discussion in Arabic with his companion but  didn’t divulge anything to the rest of us. When we joined the others and learned what had happened, a dramatic change of mood came over the whole group. After a brief discussion, the Egyptian crew decided to put 19 of us into two vehicles, while the supply truck went ahead to set up camp and the other jeep was retrieved from the bottom of the dune. By now it was pitch dark but remarkably the drivers managed to find the Magic Spring with nothing but headlights, their memory and instinct to guide them.

There was none of the usual singing and dancing that night, although a hearty meal of roast chicken and rice, along with an extra ration of beer, helped raise our spirits. The mood was subdued as we nursed our wounds and reflected on what we’d been through. We had just had a hard lesson in the dangers that lurk just beneath the surface of this beguiling place. As we huddled together under camelhair blankets beneath a blazing sky, the silence of the desert enveloped us. Conversation died away as the last embers of the campfire glowed in the dark. Fennec foxes, hedgehogs and other animals that frequent this place stayed away that night. The Magic Spring cast its spell over us and sleep became our welcome friend.

Most evenings weren’t so restrained. Reminiscent of scenes from the film The English Patient, we would gather after dinner around the campfire, sip mint tea or down a mildly warm beer, and let the show begin — the kind of show in which we were both audience and actor. To loosen us up, our Egyptian friends would ply us with rousing renditions of local folk tunes. The real act began when Mohammed, alias Baghdadi, took centre stage. With black, loose-fitting, drawstring pants and buttocks made for hard seats on long trips in fast-moving vehicles over rough terrain, he demonstrated the art of male belly dancing. Pounding the sand with his bare feet, he could move his middle body in gyrations that would rival those of many a professional female dancer.

Once Mohammed led the way, Reda and others followed. First among the foreigners to shed his European reticence was Cristian Nacht, who in his other life was the president of one of Brazil’s largest steel construction companies. Clad in a flowing gray galabiya, Cristian tossed propriety to the wind, and with his feet and hips in sync, shuffled around the campfire like an old pro. After he’d broken the ice there was barely room to move, as the more timid among us took to the sand and made it sing.

While some found a way to escape this public celebration-cum-humiliation, there was one occasion when this was not possible. It was our last night in the desert before returning to Cairo. We had traveled all afternoon, run out of fuel, and arrived at Bawiti tired, dirty and starving. After freshening up at the Hotel Alpenblick — where the water was running this time — we headed to the home of our host, Mohammed Ahmed el-Bayumi. El Bayumi was the proprietor of one of Bawiti’s most popular restaurants, El Ghash (the Little Donkey). El Bayumi’s reputation extended far beyond Bawiti or Bahariya Oasis. We had been warned that before entering the hallowed halls of his mud-floor establishment, we should be able to count to ten in Arabic or expect a clip over the ears. Should we master that feat we would be prime candidates to marry his sons or daughters, most of whom were in his employ.

But we had not been warned about El Bayumi’s habit of blowing a shrill whistle to command the attention of his customers, like a sergeant-major drilling new recruits. Was this some ancient Bedouin custom or El Bayumi’s way of asserting his dominance over this corralled band of foreigners? We first encountered this practice after our long drive from Cairo when we had lunch at El Ghash. Seated on the floor, we were eating and chatting among ourselves when El Bayumi strode into the room, let forth with his whistle, and asked in brusque Arabic, “Do you like my food?” Under the circumstances there seemed only one possible reply. We all agreed it was terrific.

Although we were now primed to expect the unexpected, none of us quite anticipated what El Bayumi had in store for us on this last night. The feast on the rooftop terrace of his sprawling home was a much grander affair than our earlier restaurant meal, with endless plates of barley soup, vegetable stew, roasted chicken, rice and hummus, along with plentiful supplies of beer. Our Egyptian guides decided it was their last chance to put their captive foreigners through the hoops. One by one, Baghdadi chose each of us to join him on the dance floor and get our bodies moving in time with the Bedouin music booming out of a ghetto blaster. Now and again a donkey would join in the festivities by braying loudly.

Next day as we contemplated our return to Cairo and our different countries, each of us reflected on this five-day excursion into what the Greek historian Herodotus called the ‘Islands of the Blest.’ Indeed, we had been blessed in a number of ways — the rich variety of time-tested landforms, the ever-welcome presence of water in the most surprising places, the engulfing silence of the starry desert nights. Most of all, we had been blessed by the effervescent spirit of our Egyptian colleagues. One experience captured this for me more than all others.

On our second day in the desert, after a quiet lunch in the shady palms of Ain el Ris (Spring of the Source), our convoy headed up the escarpment that marks the southern boundary of Bahariya Oasis. Although dunes cover 40 per cent of the Western Desert, they are not dominant in this oasis. This was our first encounter with these deceptively picturesque but potentially destructive desert landforms.

Of the four vehicles, the one I was in was the Cinderella of the group. Since it lacked a radiator cap, we had to stop frequently to let it cool and refill with water, which it consumed in endless quantities. On this occasion, the other three vehicles had reached the top of the dune and were watching us flail away in the sand. I couldn’t tell whether their intermittent cheers were urging us on or lording it over us. Mahmoud, our driver, would thrust the gears into four-wheel drive, stomp on the accelerator, and let it fly. In Sisyphean style, we would make it almost to the top of the dune, peter out, and roll back down, only to have to repeat it.

At our fourth attempt we made it. Without hesitating Reda grabbed his drum and Mohammed his flute and goaded this motley group of sunburned foreigners into action. “Dance? Did you say dance?” It was Zorba the Greek, Egyptian-style. It was time to rehearse that great Islamic expression, insha’ allah — if God wills it. Clearly, Allah was willing a little celebration.

Some say the people of the Western Desert have a greater sense of humor and a more light-hearted spirit than inhabitants of other parts of Egypt. Those we encountered during these five days certainly possessed that and more. Their willingness to embrace life’s mysteries and intrusions, its highs and lows, its blessings and curses was something to admire and emulate. It has, no doubt, enabled them to survive in unbelievably severe conditions for tens of thousands of years. It is not surprising, perhaps, that several of the world’s religions emerged from places like this. If only a little of their spirit rubbed off on us during our brief encounter with the Western Desert we were so much the richer for it.


See also about mehow I workwho I work with and recommendations & case studies, and please contact me about how we might work together. Please do not delay before contacting me – the earlier I hear from you, the more chance that I will be able to help and the more helpful I may be able to be.

Register now on Eventbrite also for my regularly scheduled ToP facilitation training courses in London and Brussels, and now also online.

Four hands on the steering wheel? Co-facilitation in action

Thank you to all who attended yesterdays’ facilitation webinar for IAF India, and especially to Preetha Raghav and the IAF India team for their invitation and support and to my co-hosts Martin Farrell of get2thepoint and Sunny Walker of the Virtual Facilitation Collaborative. It was a rich and engaging session for us, so I hope also for others. Thanks also to those who live tweeted on the #FacInd hashtag – a couple of their tweets are below.

Martin Farrell wrote “As we see some world leaders promoting division and hatred, facilitators’ skills of collaboration are ever more essential. Yes we practice listening deeply to our client’s needs, and engaging participants. To challenge ourselves, let’s also take our skills to the next level by practicing co-facilitation. There are great benefits and also great dangers.”

This highly interactive 90-minute session was hosted in Adobe Connect to offer an experience of co-facilitation in a virtual environment. We offered a framework and some tips and tools for co-facilitation, illustrated by a case study.

Session materials & additional resources shared include:


For more on my work, and what others have to say about it, please see how I workwho I work with and recommendations & case studies – or view my profile and connect with me on LinkedIn.

You can connect with me also by joining my free facilitation webinars online, and IAF England & Wales’ free facilitation meetups in London and elsewhere.

Adapt • Invent • Evolve: reviewing the past to prepare for the future at #EuroComm17

Thank you to everyone who participated in my plenary session Facilitating transformation: reviewing the past to prepare for the future at this year’s IABC Europe MENA conference #EuroComm17 in London today.

In the session I demonstrated a participatory approach for a group to review the past to prepare for the future, by applying the ToP Historical Scan method to reflect together on the journey of development of the communications profession.

Here I am sharing some links to some resources and case studies that I mentioned during the session, and perhaps some that I didn’t, plus (below) some some tweets from the session the timeline we created:

etf20

  • ToP Historical Scan (‘Wall of Wonder’) overview – pdf
  • The Art of Focused Conversation – book
  • Four steps to a universal principle of facilitation and learning – blog post
  • Facilitation case study: Celebrating 20 years with the European Training Foundation in Turin – #ETF20 – case study
  • Transformational Strategy: from trepidation to ‘unlocked’ – case study
  • Staff Away Day with George House Trust – case study
  • Reviewing the past to prepare for the future: #FacHistory in Copenhagen – blog post
  • #IAFEMENA17 conference, 13-15 October in Paris – IAF
  • ToP (Technology of Participation) facilitation training – blog
  • books and sticky walls – ICA:UK

Please share your own reflections in a comment below:

  • What can we learn from experience of the ever-changing and growing communications profession about how communicators might best adapt, invent, evolve and transform, as professionals and as a profession?
  • How might you apply this method, and facilitation more broadly, in your communications work?
  • What potential do you see for greater mutual learning and collaboration between facilitators and communicators, and for partnership between IAF and IABC?

See also about mehow I workwho I work with and recommendations & case studies, and please contact me about how we might work together.

Register now on Eventbrite for my free facilitation webinars, and for my regularly scheduled ToP facilitation training courses in London and Brussels.

Introducing ICA’s Technology of Participation

iaf-geneva-bannerThank you to all who attended my workshop in Geneva last Friday Introducing ICA’s Technology of Participation, including Nadene Canning who tweeted the photo of some of us, above. Special thanks also to Pamela Lupton-Bowers and all at IAF Geneva for hosting me and for arranging the workshop.

The one-day tailored master-class (pdf) introduced four core methods of ICA’s ‘Technology of Participation’ (ToP) methodology. Below are links to some of the case studies and other resources I shared on the day, and some that I didn’t.

ToP Focused Conversation

A structured, four-level process for effective communication which ensures that everyone in a group has the opportunity to participate:

  • ToP Focused Conversation method overview – pdf
  • Three dimensions of the facilitator role – a focused conversation with video – blog post
  • Four steps to a universal principle of facilitation and learning – blog post
  • Is there a single, universal principle of facilitation? – slides & webinar recording featuring 6 case studies
  • The Art of Focused Conversation – book

ToP Consensus Workshop

A five stage process that enables a facilitator to draw out and weave together everybody’s wisdom into a clear and practical consensus:

  • ToP Consensus Workshop method overview – pdf
  • Evidencing facilitation competencies: planning with people with learning difficulties – case study
  • Clinical Leadership Evaluation and Development with Manchester Primary Care Trust – case study
  • Getting Ready for Wigan LINK with Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council – case study
  • The Workshop Book – book

ToP Historical Scan (‘Wall of Wonder’)

A powerful tool to enable a group to share and learn from their varied perspectives of a journey through history, and in context, to review the past in order to prepare for the future:

  • ToP Historical Scan (‘Wall of Wonder’) overview – pdf
  • Reviewing the past to prepare for the future: #FacHistory in Copenhagen – blog post
  • Facilitation case study: Celebrating 20 years with the European Training Foundation in Turin – #ETF20 – case study
  • Staff Away Day with George House Trust – case study

ToP Participatory Strategic Planning

A structured long-range planning process which incorporates ToP Consensus Workshop for building consensus, ToP Focused Conversation for effective group communication, and an implementation process for turning ideas into productive action and concrete accomplishments:

  • ToP Participatory Strategic Planning overview – pdf
  • Transformational Strategy: from trepidation to ‘unlocked’ – case study slides & webinar recording
  • Facilitating change in complexity – the Oxfam Lebanon ‘One Country Strategy’ process – case study
  • Building a future together – broadening ownership in corporate planning – case study
  • Transformational Strategy – book review & book

The workshop was adapted from elements of ICA:UK’s 2-day Group Facilitation Methods, Participatory Strategic Planning and Organisational Transformation courses, and IAF conference sessions presented in Moscow and Copenhagen in 2014 and in Stockholm in 2015.

Public courses are available monthly in the UK with ICA:UK and 2 or 3 times per year in Geneva with Initiatives of Change. Watch this space for details of my own schedule of public courses in Brussels for 2017, and see also ToP facilitation training – what’s it like, and is it worthwhile? and ToP facilitation training at your place – and free places for you!

Regularly scheduled public ToP training courses are also provided by ICAs elsewhere including in AustraliaCanada, TaiwanUkraine & the USA.  Other ICAs also offer public courses, and in-house courses on request – see ICA Worldwide.

The famous sticky walls are available from ICA:UK.


For more on my work, and what others have to say about it, please see how I workwho I work with and recommendations & case studies – or view my profile and connect with me on LinkedIn.

You can connect with me also by joining my free facilitation webinars online, and IAF England & Wales’ free facilitation meetups in London and elsewhere.

Facilitating change in complexity – the Oxfam Lebanon ‘One Country Strategy’ process

Beirut seafront 525x296“What would it take for multiple and diverse stakeholders to align behind a complex and demanding change process, in a complex and demanding environment?”  This was the question that intrigued me as I became engaged with the Oxfam Lebanon ‘One Country Strategy’ process.

It was in September 2014 that I was approached to help with the design and facilitation of a ‘One Country Strategy’ (OCS) process for Oxfam in Lebanon.

PSP case study thumbnailFran Beytrison had recently taken up the role of Oxfam GB Country Director for Lebanon, after moving from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) in Geneva where she had participated in a strategic planning process that I had facilitated the previous year – see Transformational Strategy: from trepidation to ‘unlocked’.

A complex and demanding context

Oxfam is one of the world’s largest and best-known international NGOs, founded in 1942 in Oxford in the UK.  Today it comprises 17 national Oxfam Affiliates that are federated as Oxfam International and work in over 90 countries worldwide. It’s work includes emergency humanitarian relief, long-term development programmes and policy research and advocacy. It describes the scope of its work in terms of six key issues: active citizenship, gender justice, inequality and essential services, natural resources, saving lives and sustainable food.

Oxfam GB had launched a major emergency response to the Syria crisis in Lebanon in January 2013. Oxfam Novib and Oxfam Italia had been operating long term development programmes in Lebanon for some years before that. Oxfam GB’s Middle East regional Gender Justice programme was also located in Beirut, and Oxfam France and Oxfam Quebec were also involved in work in Lebanon.

By the autumn of 2014 it had become clear that an emergency humanitarian response could no longer be regarded as an adequate response to the ongoing and increasing effects of the Syria crisis in Lebanon. By then already over a million Syrian refugees were living among a pre-crisis population of around 4 million in Lebanon.  Also in 2014 Oxfam International had launched a major organisational change process to achieve a new ‘2020 Vision’. This required a single ‘One Country Strategy’ to bring together the work of all Oxfam Affiliates in each country, as a first step toward to eventual merger as, for example, Oxfam Lebanon.

To plan and implement such a complex and demanding change process successfully, in the context of complex and demanding work in a complex and demanding environment, it was felt essential to effectively engage with all 150 or so in-country staff and other key stakeholders through a robust and professionally facilitated process.

The aims and scope of work

The Terms of Reference agreed for my role in October described the aims of the process to develop a One Country Strategy for Oxfam in Lebanon as threefold:

  • to bring the three Oxfam affiliates operational in Lebanon and the Lebanon components of the Oxfam GB regional Gender Justice programmes together behind a single vision and shared operational plan, as a basis for moving to a country programme structure in line with the Oxfam 2020 Vision, while enabling other interested affiliates to engage as well
  • to clearly detail a gender-mainstreamed One Programme approach (humanitarian, development and policy) as a means of improving programme quality and building a more integrated response, fully leveraging existing expertise across all relevant affiliates
  • to position Oxfam as a leader in the increasingly consensual debate around a ‘Lebanese response’, as opposed to a ‘Syria response in Lebanon, through clear and evidence-based programmatic and policy shifts including strong sectoral leadership in key areas.

The process was therefore to guide both ‘technical visioning’ of Oxfam’s added value and role in Lebanon and organisational change to support implementation in the immediate and in the longer-term. It was to demonstrate a systematic, inclusive and participatory approach to strategic and operational planning and collaborative working, and so build shared commitment, confidence and trust for a new way forward together.

It was agreed to include also work with key actors within the country programme to develop skills for additional facilitation across various departments and sectors, particularly with a view to supporting the development of technical sectoral and departmental action plans in line with the broader Oxfam Country Strategy.

The contract allowed for up to 50 days’ work over six months from November to April, structured in four phases and including four trips to Lebanon. In the event my role required just 40 days’ work including three trips in November, December & January.

How the process unfolded

Phase 1 was conceived as a Preparation & Design phase. The aims were to develop a clear and agreed plan and budget for the process as a whole, and to develop shared clarity, confidence and commitment among staff and any other key stakeholders to the project and its 6-month timeframe.

A one-week trip in November allowed for a series of in-country consultation and process design meetings with large and small groups of staff of the various Oxfam affiliates in Lebanon, in Beirut and two field offices.

OCS Orientation day - outlineThe week included a one day OCS Orientation day for a cross-section of around 45 staff.  The World Cafe method was demonstrated and applied to share questions, concerns and possibilities for the OCS process. The ToP Focused Conversation method was demonstrated and applied to introduce my own role as facilitator of the OCS process. The ToP Consensus Workshop method was demonstrated and applied to inform the design and delivery of the OCS process by agreeing “What do we need to take into account to ensure the success of this OCS process?”.

The IDMC case study was used to outline the ToP Particpatory Strategic Planning process that would provide a framework for the OCS process as a whole. A project steering committee of 6-8 staff was established, to act as a soundboard and guide to the design process and oversee subsequent implementation.

Additional remote consultation was conducted with stakeholders based outside Lebanon. All the questions, concerns and aspirations raised during this first phase were documented and reviewed with the steering committee, and helped to informed the design and delivery of the remaining phases.

ToP Participatory Strategic PlanningPhase 2 was conceived as the Launch phase. The ‘rational’ aim was to develop a clear and agreed strategic framework as a basis for the single country strategy. This was to include an analysis of the changing strategic context; Practical Vision, Underlying Contradictions and Strategic Directions of the ToP Participatory Strategic Planning process; and a 3-month action plan for completion of the strategy.  The ‘experiential’ aim was again to develop shared clarity, confidence and commitment among staff and any other key stakeholders, this time to the emerging strategy and the plan for its completion.

By this stage the steering group had clarified the ‘Focus Question’ for the overall strategic planning process as: “What can we do over the next 5 years as one Oxfam in Lebanon working with others to address suffering and inequality in Lebanon?”

A 10-day trip in December allowed for the preparation and facilitation of a 4-day OCS Launch Week event, involving a series of sessions with different sub-groups.

OCS Launch week - outlineThe morning of Tuesday’s ‘Consultation Day’ involved key staff and external stakeholders invited for their knowledge and experience of Oxfam Lebanon’s changing strategic context.  The ToP ‘Wave’ exercise was used to chart and analyse trends, ‘on the horizon, emerging, peaking and dying’, to inform the subsequent strategic planning process.

The afternoon of the Consultation day involved around 150 staff of the various Oxfam affiliates in Lebanon plus key regional staff and local partners. The World Cafe method was used to enable this larger group (in 15 tables of 10, each including a team of 3 conversation hosts) to deliberate and to share responses to the three ‘focus questions’ that would guide the consensus building and strategy building for the remainder of the week:

  1. OCS Consultation day - world cafe table instructionsPractical Vision: “What would we like to see in place in 5 years’ time, as a result of the work of Oxfam in Lebanon?”  (indicators of external impact and internal effectiveness)
  2. Current reality: “What in our current reality is blocking us from realising our Vision?” (both internal & external to Oxfam Lebanon)  “What strengths do we have to address these obstacles?”
  3. Strategic Directions: “What practical projects or initiatives over the next 5 years could address these obstacles and help to realise our Vision?”

The remaining three days involved a cross-section of around 45 staff, each of whom had hosted one of the three World Cafe conversations at the 15 tables of 10 on Tuesday.  Each day involved an extended and adapted ToP Consensus Workshop process. First in groups of six, pairs of table host teams reviewed and clustered the ideas that they had harvested from their World Cafe table conversations on the question for that day – Practical Vision, Current Reality or Strategic Directions. Second, each Oxfam affiliate, field office, department and programme team met separately to add any further ideas from their own distinct perspective that they felt may not yet have been adequately reflected in the ideas shared.  Third, the whole group of 45 worked together for most of the afternoon to weave all the ideas generated into clusters, and to name the emerging consensus.  Finally, at the end of the week, outline action plans were agreed by work team for communicating the outcomes to those not present, and engaging with them over the coming weeks and months in finalising the framework and planning for implementation.

Strategic deployment of breaks and energisers helped to just about sustain the group’s energy throughout the week – to deal with large volumes of complex data, and to build consensus on often contentious issues among a group that was itself in many ways reflective of the diversity of perspectives and interests at play in Oxfam’s humanitarian, development and advocacy work in Lebanon.

A brief review of Oxfam International’s global change goals just before the naming of Strategic Directions enabled the group to align their names with Oxfam’s global strategy without having been overly constrained by them in their own visioning or in their analysis and response to their own local and regional realities. The outcome was four Strategic Directions, each articulated by a number of distinct ‘strategic intents’, designed to collectively address the Underlying Contradictions to the Practical Vision:

  • Designing and implementing integrated & effective, rights-based humanitarian & development programmes
  • Working with others to achieve high quality programmes
  • Investing in staff
  • Influencing to create change from the local to the global.

Doubtless the steering committee or Fran alone might have developed a very similar framework without such an elaborate and inclusive engagement process, but of course the experiential aims of shared clarity, confidence and commitment  were central and critical to the OCS process. Feedback indicated that the group had indeed found the week long and tiring, and in some cases it was felt that key issues or perspectives had not been adequately addressed or not in proper proportion. Nevertheless it was clear that the visual and participatory approach had been appreciated, and the open and frank discussions, diversity in participation and perspectives, and the clarity and consensus achieved. Fionna Smyth, then Oxfam GB Regional Campaigns and Policy Manager for the Middle East, Eastern Europe and CIS, commented recently on LinkedIn:

“I was at this particular meeting and it really was a phenomenal experience. It developed a clear vision, and was inclusive of many diverse voices. I loved Martin’s approach.”

By the end of the week, it was high time to enjoy the staff Christmas party! Having documented each workshop on the day, in preparation for the next day’s workshop, it was then a simple matter to compile a first draft OCS strategic framework document for circulation and feedback between December and January.

Phase 3 was originally conceived to include the resolution of any key issues in finalising the strategy document for approval in April, and development of clear and agreed (and comprehensive) operational plans for implementation of the first year of the new strategy. The ‘experiential’ aim again was to promote shared clarity, confidence and commitment among staff and other key stakeholders to the emerging strategy, and also now to plans for its completion and implementation.

It was agreed with the steering group after the Launch Week, however, that to continue such a comprehensive approach with such broad engagement could be asking too much of the staff in the midst of the many other demands on their time and energy.  Moreover, on reflection, it was felt that some areas of programming and organisational change could benefit more than others of facilitation support to enable effective engagement and an appropriate and successful implementation planning process.

For these reasons it was agreed switch from a comprehensive to a targeted approach to facilitation support in the implementation planning. Instead of working again with a cross-section of the whole staff on planning the whole of the implementation together, I would work with key stakeholders in three particular programme areas to apply the new strategic framework to tailored planning implementation in those particular areas.  Also I would offer ToP Group Facilitation Methods training to a cadre of 30 staff and partners from across the work teams and affiliates. These two elements became the twin focus of a two-week trip to Beirut in January.

Phase 4 had been conceived to allow for a collective review of experience and learning from the project and first quarter implementation, and to agree clear 90-day workplans for the second quarter, with the experiential aim of consolidating pride in the strategy and support for the structural merger.  However we had already transitioned from a comprehensive and collective approach in phase 3, to an approach in which the (already somewhat restructured) work teams were able to integrate the agreed new strategic framework in their operational work planning and in their longer-term programme development work.  Much had changed meanwhile as well in the strategic context, not least in the the Syria crisis itself and in its unfolding impact in Lebanon.  For these various reasons a fourth trip was not felt necessary, and my own role in the OCS project was concluded.

As it turned out, I made another two trips to Beirut for another client in May and June of 2015, to design and facilitate a participatory strategic planning for the Safety & Security Committee for Lebanon of which Oxfam is a member.  It was a pleasure to be able to reconnect with some of the Oxfam team while I was there, and learn something of what had happened next in the OCS process.  That, however, is another story…


See also about mehow I workwho I work with and recommendations & case studies, and please contact me about how we might work together.

Register now on Eventbrite for my free facilitation webinars, and for my regularly scheduled ToP facilitation training courses in London and Brussels.

Power to the People, and the power of facilitation and communications in partnership

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In my last post I blogged on Power to the People – why I am excited to be attending #EuroComm 2015, the April 12-14 Europe MENA conference of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) in London. Here I’d like to share a few of my reflections on that event, and something of the potential that I see for mutual learning and collaboration between facilitators and communicators, and for partnership between IAF and IABC.

I was struck at the event, as I was in browsing the agenda in advance, by the emphasis on the changing role of the communications profession, ‘from cascade to conversation’ (Katie MacAulay) and ‘from crafting and controlling messages to facilitator, coach and guide’ (Barbara Gibson). Highlights for me among the presentations were stories of large-scale staff engagement at HSBC Exchange from Ulrike Felber and on the Art of Participatory Leadership at the European Commisison  from Ian Andersen, and on ‘bringing values alive’ at Newsweaver from Andrew O’Shaughnessy.  There was a lot valuable experience evident of engaging people at scale in change processes, from which I think facilitators could learn a great deal – particularly when it comes to engaging all those stakeholders who, for one reason or another, will never be ‘in the room’ to participate directly in a facilitated process.

I was also struck, however, that there seemed less awareness of the body of knowledge and experience that the facilitation profession has accumulated – in particular, the value of designing and leading a group through a structured series of questions and activities to achieve a particular purpose. Mention was made of using workshops to engage people, but (with the exception of the Art of Participatory Leadership) I gained little sense of their methodology or process design. While it was made clear that communications today must involve listening, and no longer just talking, I reflected that a third element that is key to making conversation productive as well as engaging is to ask purposeful questions. It seems to me that this is an area where communications professional may be able to learn from facilitators.

In spite of the emphasis in the content of the conference on communications as dialogue rather than broadcast, in terms of process I found the sessions mostly structured as presentations with dialogue limited to questions from the floor – between the stage and the tiered seating of a lecture theatre. I dare say that IAF facilitators could have learned a thing or two about making presentations engaging, but certainly I find that IAF conferences enable a greater depth and breadth of conversation.

It was partly for this reason that another highlight for me was the session on the future of the communications profession, which was held in a large classroom rather than a lecture theatre and facilitated as a number of parallel small table conversations. This session also highlighted for me the potential for the two professions and the two associations to learn from each other’s experience of common issues and challenges, such as upholding and raising professional standards and mobilising and managing volunteers and chapters.

I was impressed (as you might hope) by the use of social media at EuroComm, including vox pop videos on facebook and especially the very cool Whova mobile app for conference networking – also by the speed and number of conference reviews published online, for example by Daniel Munslow and by the AB team, and by IABC on storify. So imagine my surprise when, as #EuroComm twitter statistics were projected at the closing session, it turned out that the most prolific tweeter with the widest reach was… me, the facilitator at a conference of communicators!

Already IAF and IABC members are able to enjoy reciprocal discounts at each others’ conferences, at least in Europe. I want to encourage members of both associations to take advantage of that, and connect with each other to further explore the potential for mutual learning and collaboration, and for partnership. The door is open – step through and see what you find!

IAF members, attend the IABC World Conference, 14-17 June in San Francisco, or check the IABC global calendar for an event near you or online.

IABC members, attend the IAF North America Conference, 14-16 May in Banff; or the IAF Asia Conference, 20-22 August in Mumbai – or join me at the IAF Europe MENA Conference, 16-18 October in Stockholm

Chapters of both IAF and IABC, connect with each other locally and see what opportunities emerge!

My facilitation stories, tips and advice on Meeting Tips Radio

Meeting Tips RadioMeeting Tips Radio is an online podcast that pledges “to share stories, tips and advice from the best meeting facilitators in the world, so you can improve your meetings, improve your career, and improve your life“.

The site is published by Meeting Tips Radio host and interviewer Reine Kassulker, based in Minneapolis USA. Many of the world-class facilitators he has interviewed before me are among those who developed ICA’s Technology of Participation facilitation methodology in the 1970-80s, and who founded the International Association of Facilitators in the early 1990s. So I feel honoured indeed to be included now in this distinguished company, and to be the first guest interviewed outside of North America as well.

To hear my own stories, tips and advice, click on the image above and then click play – or download to listen later. In the 43 minute interview, I share something of my experience of the recent ICA Ukraine PEACE Summit in Kiev, some of the challenges I have experienced in virtual facilitation, my own ‘universal principle facilitation‘ ORID, my approach to meeting preparation, and how I use social media in my facilitation and in my facilitation business. I also share some tips and advice for fellow facilitators just starting out in social media, and for people just starting out as faciliators. Also, not least, I share how to get in touch if you are ready to offer me a six-figure facilitation contract…

Do also check out the archive of fascinating previous interviews at Meeting Tips Radio – listen to Marilyn Oyler on the invention of the sticky wall, Sunny Walker on virtual facilitation, Catherine Tornbom on conflict resolution, Mirja Hanson on lessons from her book Clues to Achieving Consensus, Nathaniel Cadwell on Agile meetings and innovation games, Rebecca Gilgen on ‘stealth facilitation’, Deb Burnight on strategic planning, Irina Fursman on her work in Ukraine, Linda Alton on the origins of ORID and the ToP Focused Conversation method – and much more!

And on that six-figure contract… just contact me!