Tired but hopeful after an online Management Team “Away Day”


How can we take time out to reflect, learn and plan together as a team when the COVID19 pandemic prevents us from coming together for an in-person ‘Away Day’, as we once would have done?  What can be achieved by an online ‘Away Day’, and how could that work?

These were among the questions that led the Director of a national public sector educational service to approach me for facilitation of an online Management Team “Away Day” earlier this year.

Context

The Director had written in advance, by way of context:

The service is a business unit of the central government department rather than separate from it. The service is provided by 221 individual providers working across 23 offices nationally.  We are a busy senior management team of 9, always progressing and developing and allowing ourselves little time to think and reflect on the bigger picture. We are hoping to take time together to do that, and to come up with a plan for how to go forward. We started off with the idea that we need an organisational review to look at our function and form and adjust our form to meet our evolving function.

The team had cleared a precious two days in their diaries for their ‘Away Day’ – a Friday and the following Monday, later that month. We quickly agreed to schedule a maximum of two 2-hour online sessions over each of those two days, and turned our attention to how to best spend that time – and any asynchronous time that the team could make available in advance.

Aims

Following further conversation, we agreed that the aims of the ‘Away Days’ were to be broadly as follows:

  • to reflect and learn together on the team’s experience of the unfolding story of development and change of the Service, over time and in context,
  • to develop and agree principles that should be upheld in how the Service is structured to best fulfill its changing functions,
  • to develop and consider models of how those principles might best be applied in a new organizational form,
  • to agree next steps – including perhaps consultation with staff and other stakeholders, and
  • to build shared clarity, confidence, and commitment toward to a new way forward together.

Approach

The approach I proposed drew on the methods of ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP). Pioneered and refined by ICA in over 50 years of experience worldwide, this is a proven system of methods and tools that can be adapted and applied to help all sorts of groups accomplish a wide variety of tasks together. The core values of the ToP approach, which inform all of my work, are inclusive participation, teamwork and collaboration, individual and group creativity, ownership and action, reflection and learning.

The Focused Conversation method provides a structured, four-level process for effective communication which ensures that everyone in a group has the opportunity to participate.

The Consensus Workshop method is a five-stage process that enables a facilitator to draw out and weave together everybody’s wisdom into a clear and practical consensus.

The Historical Scan method combines elements of these two. It provides a participatory approach for a group to review the past to prepare for the future, to reflect and learn together from their own and each other’s experience of the team and organisation’s change and context.

Tools

We agreed that the sessions would be held in Zoom, for it’s audio, video and chat functions, and use Mural for visual brainstorming and clustering of ideas.

The team used WebEx for their regular online meetings, but they were familiar with Zoom and quick to agree to use that – it was an ‘away’ day they wanted, after all!  They were not familiar with Mural, but the Director was encouraged by a quick demo and quick to agree the advantages of such a visual approach.

Process

The agenda for the two days comprised three 2-hour sessions, two on Friday and one on Monday afternoon, plus asynchronous individual or small group work on Monday morning:

  Friday  Monday 
Morning.

10am–12 noon

Session 1

  • Opening & welcome, introductions & hopes
  • Overview of aims, process & tools
  • Historical Scan – what can we learn from the unfolding story of the Service, over time and in context?
  • Reflection & close
Individual or small group work

Developing models of how those agreed principles might best be applied in a new organizational form for the Service

  • visually in Mural or on paper
  • physically in Lego, playdough or whatever you have to hand!
  • or in a chart, diagram or text.
Afternoon.

2-4pm

Session 2

  • Opening
  • Consensus Workshop – what principles should be upheld in how the Service is structured to best fulfill its changing functions?
  • Your assignment of individual or small group work for Monday afternoon
  • Reflection & close
Session 3

  • Opening
  • Presentation & review of models – reflections & patterns, insights & implications, how can we build on the best of them all?
  • Next steps – commitments & deadlines
  • Reflection & close.

On the Monday before the away days I circulated details of the aims, process and tools to the whole team. I invited them to familiarize themselves with Mural in advance, by watching a short video tutorial and sharing introductions and hopes for the sessions there on digital ‘sticky notes’. I invited them also to bring some brainstorm ideas to our opening session if they could – in answer to the question: “What are some key events and milestones in the unfolding story of the Service and its context, from 2000 to the present (and, as you might anticipate, ahead to 2030)?”

I was joined for the sessions by fellow ICA:UK Associates Orla Cronin (session 1) and Megan Evans (2 & 3). Neither of them was available at short notice for all three sessions, but the three of us were well enough acquainted with each other and the ToP approach that that barely mattered.

How it unfolded

Even for such a relatively small group and simple process as this, it did prove invaluable to have Orla and Megan with me in the sessions to play the role of producer. We certainly could have managed without, but only at the cost of time and attention – both especially precious commodities online. They were both able to alert me to things I hadn’t noticed in the group and its process, even while taking care of the tech so that I and the group could pay attention to the group and its process.

The group took very quickly to both the process and the tools. Giving the group a chance to use the practice Mural in advance was a good idea, as was a second email to encourage them to try it. While one or two found Mural to be something of a distraction to them on occasions, all three small groups chose to present their models on the Mural board in session 3. One group added not just photographs of their models, but lots of additional material as well.

Our impression was that their time for asynchronous working on Monday morning had been very valuable in thinking about the future format of the service. All participants appeared very engaged in the discussions, although perhaps also concerned about the reality of developing new ways of working in a post COVID19 world.

Giving participants enough time in the Consensus Workshop in session 2 to discuss their ideas in groups certainly paid off. Little clarification was needed and discussions were constructive. As they were a small group who knew each other and the organisation very well, the naming stage proceeded remarkably quickly. The participants inputted their ideas directly onto cards pre-loaded onto the Mural with no problems and in the next stages the fact that as facilitators we could see which cards they were moving despite them being in breakout rooms helped us to manage the time well.

All of the sessions could have benefited from more time, and we did extend a couple of them a little in order to end them well. However, we were glad not to have packed more screen time into the two days than we did, and to have allowed for 10 minute breaks with each session.

I learned that sharing shortened bit.ly links to the Mural boards, as a more user-friendly alternative to the very long and cumbersome original Mural links, in fact excluded some whose security settings prevented them from following the links!

What the participants had to say

 


See also about mehow I work and who I work with, 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.

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Another year in freelance facilitation, and how it turned out!

Introduction to Facilitation Online

Since I posted Reflecting on another year of freelance facilitation a year ago, last August, our lives and work have changed radically for many of us. I mentioned then that I would be taking ‘something of a sabbatical’ from October to March in Sitges, in Spain. As it turned out, that was cut short by less than three weeks by my early return to London due to COVID19.

I Declare A Climate EmergencyI reflected in Sitges in January on What can I do about climate change, personally and as a facilitator?. I concluded, among other things, that I would seek to travel less, and work more online. That has worked out well so far!

In the year to June 2020 I delivered 25 contracts for 19 clients in 5 countries and online – that compares with 25 for 14 in 7 countries & online the year before. So, the same number of contracts for a few more clients in a few less countries.

Of those 25 contracts last year 7 were facilitated processes (14 the year before), 16 were facilitation training courses (14) and 2 were largely consulting (0). They involved 14 face-to-face and one ‘hybrid’ event (31 f2f), and 16 wholly virtual sessions or series of sessions (1). I spent 28 nights away on business, 4 in the UK and 24 abroad, compared with 14+33=47 last year.

So, half as much face-to-face and half as much facilitation, and considerably more training and consulting – plus 16 times as many virtual events (admittedly many were smaller) and 40% fewer nights away on business.

The fall in face-to-face work and nights away certainly comes as no surprise. One virtual and 10 face-to-face contracts were in the 3 months before Sitges, and 2 virtual and 5 face-to-face contracts were in the almost 6 months there. Since then I have canceled all 14 of my face-to-face public courses for 2020, and four in-house contracts were either canceled or delivered online.  Prior to a very welcome holiday in Wales these past two weeks, I had had no nights away at all since returning and entering lockdown early on 12 March. Until the end of June I had not traveled more than a few miles by foot or bicycle. I am grateful that plenty of online work has come my way to take to take up the slack, and interested that that has involved a significant rise in training and consulting.

ICA:UK AGM, December 2000 at Wick Court CentreMy online work did not just start with COVID19, however.  With the Wikimedia Foundation last July on behalf of ICA:UK, I provided virtual co-facilitation for remote participants in a 3-day meeting of a strategy working group of around 12 in Utrecht. With AEIDL in December, I designed and facilitated a 2-day ‘hybrid’ team planning meeting involving around 15 participants in Brussels and another 5 online. In February from Sitges I produced a pair of online facilitation training sessions with Extinction Rebellion, on behalf of Orla Cronin Research. In fact I have been facilitating and training online for clients since at least since 2012, and otherwise also since long before – as I recalled in May, in From the Archive: a 2001 online Focused Conversation on ICA:UK values. So I have been fortunate to be in a position to respond quickly to the sudden increase in demand for everything online. That response has included adding new modules on virtual facilitation to my training offer since March, namely Introduction to Facilitation Online and Facilitating Virtual Events I Online.

What else has changed for me, in response to the rise in online working, is much more co-facilitation and producing and much more sub-contracting and partnership working. Existing partners with whom I have collaborated a great deal more, in recent months especially, include ICA Associates Inc., ICA:UK and Orla Cronin Research. New partners that I have been pleased to have the opportunity to work with as well this year include Kumquat Consult and Rees McCann.

My nature of my clients has changed considerably less this past year than the nature of my work with them. Returning clients in the past year have included Amnesty International, Greater Cambridge Partnership, Interact EU, Personal Image, PICUM and of course ICA:UK. New clients have included  AEIDLThe BrookeEMCDDA, Extinction Rebellion, ILGA EuropeNCVO, Southern Hemisphere and the Wikimedia Foundation.  So, still UK charities and international NGOs, plus European agencies and contractors, NGO networks, Associations and a few others. Also this year I have worked (both online and face-to-face) with colleagues of IAF chapters in Australia, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Turkey.

Photo by Mikael Kristenson https://unsplash.com/photos/3aVlWP-7bg8

After a considerable pause in my long-standing series of Free facilitation webinars, before and during my time in Sitges, the onset of lockdown from March proved a timely opportunity to convene some online sessions to demonstrate something of virtual facilitation while exploring issues around the new online working. Several of these were scheduled in partnership with ICA:UK as part of its Online Focused Conversation Series: Taking time to connect, learn and reflect. Topics included Promoting inclusion in online facilitation, Taking your event online: what could possibly go wrong?, How engaging can your online session be?, When is online better than face-to-face? and Exploring Facilitation Competencies. Three of these attracted more than 100 participants, one as many as 250, and they all generated a wealth of insight and very positive feedback.

thumbnailMy role as Chair of IAF England & Wales again accounted for most of my volunteer time this year. Our 2-day Annual Conference in October, the Power and Practice of Facilitation, attracted over 100 participants from across the country and beyond. In December another three Board members were elected, bringing our number to nine, and we held our first online Annual Members meeting.  A dozen of our wider Leadership Team of 28 met overnight for the first time for our annual planning and team-building gathering, in January in Birmingham. That led to the development of IAF E&W Hubs and Guardrails for Buddying, among other new developments. Our #IAFpodcast has now reached over 20 episodes – including, with my own involvement, on The importance of values in facilitation and Facilitation in different languages. Since we announced in early April that all our local meetups around the country would be meeting online until further notice, we have seen an extraordinary flowering of peer support and learning opportunities among IAF facilitators and friends – including much learning and sharing on online facilitation, of course.

In my own professional development this year, my fourth 4-yearly CPF assessment submission Evidencing facilitation competencies led to my being awarded the new CPF | Master designation in April. I embarked on a new mentoring relationship with my second mentee through the IAF Mentoring Programme.  My session proposal with Michael Ambjorn of AlignYourOrg for the IAF Gobal Summit in Stockholm this October 2020 was accepted, but then of course the summit was canceled due to COVID19. We established a simple website and social media channels for the Power of Facilitation book project for which we have co-authored a chapter, on which our Summit session was to have been based. We are hopeful that the book will nevertheless be published in time to launch during this year’s International Facilitation Week in October, albeit not in Stockholm.

I continued to participate in the ICA:UK ToP trainers’ network and to serve as volunteer webmaster for ICA International, and I attended this year’s ICA Europe regional gathering in Vienna in November.

So, what else of the sabbatical in Sitges? I did certainly enjoy a little less busyness, and a little more sunshine. I was indeed able to advance my Spanish skills somewhat, with the aid of several weeks of intensive classes and some practice – including on occasion with IAF Spain. I did also find some time reflect, write and learn, and to look ahead to my next seven years of freelance facilitation – not least on What can I do about climate change, personally and as a facilitator?.

I shall certainly continue to travel less and work more online than I did prior to last October, that much is clear.  What interests me more, now, is when I shall again travel or work face-to-face at all, and how much. I realised just how unenthusiastic I am about returning to face to face facilitation already when I recommended others for two client opportunities last week that normally I would have been very pleased to accept myself.  For more on how that turns out, watch this space…

Thank you for following!


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.