Facilitation and Communication to lead ‘The Big Conversation’: Digital Transformation

This article, co-authored with Mike Pounsford of Couravel and IABC UK, is reprinted with permission from the IAF Global Flipchart #9, September 2017.


If you’re a facilitator or communicator who wants to help organisations engage people at all levels to align behind a common strategy, read on – this article’s for you.

Common challenges you’ve probably noticed

Digital development is demanding change in the way businesses are run and how they interact with their audiences and their employees. No matter what sector you’re in, you’re likely to be facing at least one of these challenges:

  • Teams have less face-time as people share, work and interact more remotely.
  • Employees and customers are enjoying new relationships with employers and brands as we move to self-serving models: this creates the need to rethink communication and engagement with employees and how we structure customer service roles.
  • Employees want more opportunities to work with their employers to give back to society and the communities they serve.
  • Organisations want more agile approaches with empowered employees who understand both company strategy and customer needs.

A solution starts with a conversation

Solving these issues requires processes that connect leaders, managers, project teams and front-line staff.

The traditional top down approach is hopelessly inadequate, especially in large organisations. A cascade approach is too slow when there are multiple levels of management and a complex organisational structure. “Top down” also contradicts the message that organisations need to empower their people to take more responsibility for the delivery of satisfaction and productivity.

Achieving that kind of collaboration across an organisation puts a premium on the need for quality conversations – conversations that help people work out how they can support strategic direction. The kind of conversation that encourages people to challenge, work out what they need to do to support change, and feel a high degree of ownership of the outcomes of the conversation.

Exploring the visualisation of strategy

Couravel has been using Big Pictures to help leaders define strategy and then to help teams engage with strategy. The power of visual representation of strategic and market issues is well proven. It was first written about in the Sears case study in the Harvard Business Review which introduced the Service-Profit Chain. At Sears, groups came to a better understanding of the marketplace and what they needed to do to support competitiveness by addressing questions posed by a visual representation of the High Street.

To explore its relevance today we asked 15 leaders from different businesses how developments in technology would affect their business in the next five years. Using ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP) Consensus Workshop approach, they grouped their answers into seven main themes:

  • Collaborative working
  • Liberating structures
  • Empowered customers
  • Dynamic skill sets
  • Disruptive markets
  • New world of risks
  • Big data.

Transformation challenges to address

We then invited them to draw these themes and use their insights and imagination to create a synthesis picture in real time.

The textual list below presents information related to transformational challenges, while the picture conveys the same information visually.

Textual:

  • Always on and changing working patterns – timing and geography no longer blockages
  • Feedback is instant and we have to respond instantly
  • Enable paradigm shift in service design and operation – focus on understanding and improvement
  • Creating new skills to cope with technology change
  • Using data to inform decisions
  • Defining and mitigating new risks caused by over-reliance on technology
  • Identifying and responding to new competitive challenges

Visual:

What this gives the organisation is a visual representation of Digital Transformation and what it needs to do to navigate change.

To involve people in a conversation about how to respond to these challenges, the visual route represents an engaging starting point because it:

  • Invites people to interpret what is going on
  • Is easier to access (you do not need to understand jargon like “paradigm shift”)
  • Provides information more quickly
  • Leads to a less critical and more curious audience (lists invite a more critical, sceptical response).

Conversations around the visual

What is more important than the visual are the conversations around it; and they must be well facilitated. The visual becomes the focus for a conversation whereas questions draw people out.

For example, questions we used following the ORID framework of ICA’s ToP Focussed Conversation method include:

  • What can you see in the picture? What else? (Objective)
  • How do you feel about what you can see? Anything surprising, confusing? (Reflective)
  • Where do you see yourself fitting?  (Reflective)
  • What could this picture mean for how we work with each other and our colleagues in other teams? (Interpretative)
  • What risks do you think technology creates for us? (Interpretative)
  • How might we be able to mitigate these risks? (Interpretative)
  • How could we use new capabilities to provide better services for our customers? (Interpretative)
  • What does that mean we need to do differently? (Decisional)

In the meeting in which we developed this image, we asked the people in the room:

  • What strikes you (remember they had just co-authored this picture)? (Objective/Reflective)
  • Can you see yourselves in the picture? (Objective/Reflective)
  • What does this mean for how you work in future?  (Interpretive)
  • How does this affect your relationships with others in your business?  Outside your business? (Interpretive)
  • How will this affect how you manage change in the business? (Decisional)

Using pictures to lead the conversation around Digital Transformation

This led to some penny-dropping moments for people involved in the leadership of change. For example:

  • It is increasingly difficult to define and think in terms of “visions” as these rapidly become outdated in the face of global and disruptive competition.
  • Consultants working with clients are experiencing their own journey of change through the digital landscape and the relationship between client and consultant needs to shift from the expert to the consultative model (i.e. where facilitators operate most effectively)
  • This is also true of the relationship between customers and suppliers generally, but the changes are complex.  In some respects, the relationship becomes more transactional and customers interface with technology to get what they want.  This scenario sees people losing jobs as machines and robots take them over.  But in other respects, the roles become more demanding and complex as the relationship becomes more akin to partnering: when customers want help it is because the technology cannot address more complex challenges (notice the bridge between suppliers and clients that is itself on wheels and constantly changing)
  • The value of tangible, visual outcomes that can engage people more because they are visual, different and not prescriptive and that can convey some of the nuances and challenges of change (notice the trolls waiting to sabotage change work)
  • The widespread application for approaches like this (see below).

Rethinking how we think about change

We need to rethink the process of change. If we want people to let go of past practices we have to pay more attention to the way individuals respond to change. To encourage people to collaborate to define new practices, here are a few “must haves”:

  • Fun
  • Novelty
  • Laughter
  • Celebration of past achievements
  • Reflection time
  • Generating our own ideas
  • Feeling valued and connected

Using the Technology of Participation facilitation approach and visual thinking tools such as Big Pictures, we can create the kind of approach to collaboration needed to support transformation.

This approach is valuable in most change situations including:

  • Introduction of new technology
  • Mergers and acquisitions
  • New strategy
  • New strategy communication
  • Brand evolution or launch/relaunch
  • Design of new organisational processes
  • Defining cultures, behaviours and values

Michael Pounsford CPF (author) is the founder of Couravel, which works with clients to clarify and communicate purpose, vision and strategy, to design and deliver engagement programmes, and to develop the communication capabilities of leaders and managers. He is accredited under the NTL International Organisation Development programme and is the President of the UK Chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators IABC (2017 – 2018). He is also an IAF Certified™ Professional Facilitator.

Martin Gilbraith CPF (co-author) is an independent facilitator, trainer and consultant based in London. He is a Certified Professional Facilitator of the International Association of Facilitators, an IAF ‘Hall of Famer’ and former IAF Chair and IAF Europe Director. He is a former President of the Institute of Cultural Affairs International (ICAI), and an Associate and former Chief Executive of ICA:UK, the participation and development charity. He has been facilitating and training, specialising in ICA’s ToP facilitation methodology, since 1986.

Michael and Martin will be running a session on the power of visuals and ToP facilitation to encourage open communication at the IAF EMENA Paris conference on Saturday 14 October – see Leading the Big Conversation at #IAFEMENA17 in Paris and register now to join us!

They are also planning a session for members of the IABC and the IAF to learn from each other and gain reduced cost entry to each other’s events. See also When communicators become facilitators at IABC EMENA.


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.

Trusted Sharing and the strengths and challenges of large online facilitated events

Trusted Sharing conversationTrusted Sharing is a new platform for hosting in-depth asynchronous online conversations, and they have chosen to demonstrate it by hosting a conversation on the strengths and challenges large online events, using my recent blog post ‘How engaging can a large facilitated online session be?‘ as a starting point.

This was the question that intrigued me when I was first invited to work with with the Forestry Economics team of FAO, to design and facilitate an online conference this month on the Economics of climate change mitigation options in the forest sector.  The answer, as it turns out, is pretty engaging!

Please join the conversation with me!  I hope you will find both the conversation and the platform of interest, and that your experience will enrich the conversation for others. The conversation is open to anyone, and we are using many channels to invite interested and interesting people to join, so please feel free to share this post to invite others to join as well.

To join, it takes just a few minutes to register at Trusted Sharing. You can then return to contribute and review others’ contributions as often as you like.

new-appRead more about Trusted Sharing in Rob Work’s recent article New app for online conversations in the latest issue of ICAI’s Winds & Waves magazine, Lessons from the Village.

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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!

Power to the People – why I am excited to be attending #EuroComm 2015

This was first published as a guest post on the IABC UK blog of the International Association of Business Communicators.

Eurocomm15Maybe I was just hooked by the title, “Power to the people”. What’s not exciting about that for a professional facilitator – especially one “passionate about participation and leadership”?  But why would I attend a conference of the communications profession – isn’t that all just about clever marketing copy?

Well, according to the copy, this year’s IABC Europe MENA conference is about about “the two most challenging aspects of communication today – people’s opportunity to be heard (encouraging ideas, innovation, etc.), and best practice to create practical action”. Which does sound quite a lot like facilitation to me. Besides, as a freelancer, I do have a use for marketing copy – and for extending my networks.

If that were not enough for me, this year’s regional IABC conference will be held just a couple of miles from where I live in London. Also, as a result of a new reciprocal partnership, members of the International Association of Facilitators like me are entitled to the discounted IABC member rate. Having perhaps played some small role in brokering that partnership, I felt it would be churlish not to take advantage…

I began to learn of IABC, and the value of facilitation to communications professionals, through meeting and working with Michael Ambjorn, now IABC Vice Chair. He and I worked together, on behalf of the RSA and ICA:UK respectively, to apply ICA’s Technology of Participation facilitation approach to help the RSA to engage with and mobilise its 27,000 Fellows worldwide. We developed what we called the RSA Small Groups methodolgy, to enable the RSA to increase it’s social impact and achieve its ambition of being ‘the best place to have an idea’. We worked together again, this time also with IABC members Jo Anstey and Bent Sorensen, on #ETF20 – a facilitated process designed to creatively engage a diverse, international staff team of around 120, both face-to-face and online, to reflect, learn and bond together in celebrating 20 years of collective achievement.

So I am keen to learn at EuroComm about how others in the communications profession are, or could be, applying facilitation to their address their challenges.  I am particularly attracted by session titles such as “The Power of Participation”, “Engaging in conversations that matter” and “Listening can change a whole organization”; and session leaders from organisations such as Oxfam and the European Commission, in the sectors that I typically work in myself, as well as those from Royal Dutch Shell, Mars and other corporates that are somewhat familiar to me through the work of facilitation colleagues.

I have also been reflecting on the value of communications to facilitation professionals, and am looking forward to exploring that further at EuroComm. When I am contracted as a facilitator to design and lead learning, consultation, engagement or change processes, especially in large organisations or systems and whether face-to-face or online, the effectiveness and impact of my own role is often dependant to some degree on my the broader communications of my client or partner.  Will participants arrive with clear and helpful expectations of the process, and will non-participants receive clear and helpful messages on the aims, outcomes and next steps?

A good example of where my own facilitation role was dependent to a large degree on wider communications processes in which I was largely not involved is Building a future together – broadening ownership in corporate planning, a 12 month programme engaging over 1,000 stakeholders in developing a new 5-year corporate plan for Bron Afon Community Housing in South Wales. In a 60-day contract spread over a year, the facilitation and training role played by my two colleagues and I could only ever represent a very small (if hopefully significant) fraction of a much wider change process in which broader communications were key.

Of course the EuroComm sessions on social media will be of particular interest to me as well, not least because of how much I rely on and enjoy using digitial channels for my own professional networking and for marketing communications.

I think it was a year or two year ago, soon after I had completed my term as IAF Chair and Michael had begun his Board role with IABC, that we first spoke of the potential of some sort of partnership between IAF and IABC, to support mutual learning and collaboration between facilitation and communications professionals. Now that such a partnership is in place, I am excited to take advantage and urge others to do likewise.

IAF members, join me if you can at EuroComm in London this month, and otherwise consider the IABC World Conference in San Francisco in June or check the IABC global calendar for an event near you or online.

IABC members, join me at the IAF Europe MENA conference in Stockholm in October or, before that, check the IAF world calendar for the North America conference in Banff in May or the Asia conference in Mumbai in August.

IABC Londoners, join our monthly IAF London facilitation meet-up, every second Thursday from 6-8pm near Trafalgar Square.

Members or not, wherever you are, do at least follow and engage with me and others at #EuroComm on twitter – see you there!