Beyond COP26: The Conversations – facilitation case study

Communicate Beyond COP26 - the conversations

“How can we bring together 90 diverse stakeholders in a series of six online conversations in a day, to tackle complex environmental topics and have strong outputs – avoiding a ‘talking shop’”?

These were among the questions that led NHC Director Savita Wilmott to approach me in December 2021 to design and lead “Beyond COP26: The Conversations”. Savita was familiar with me, and with ICA:UK and ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP), and knew that ICA’s ToP Focused Conversation method could be part of the answer.

Context

The Natural History Consortium (NHC) is a charitable collaboration of 14 organisations working together on a shared mission: to develop, test and disseminate best practice to engage everyone with the environment and natural world.

Communicate is the UK’s conference for environmental communicators, attracting around 200 attendees to previous in-person events and over 600 to the 2021 online conference ‘Communicate beyond COP26’. ‘The Conversations’ were the final phase of this 3-part online conference, following earlier sessions in June & September 2021.

Six round table Conversations of 90 minutes each were scheduled for one day in January 2022. Each were to have up to 16 different people attending – communication professionals from across the country, invited and/or nominated by NHC members, who may or may not have attended previous sessions in the series.

The overall theme was “What will we learn from COP26, and how will the UK’s environmental communication community translate international declarations into local action, and national programmes?” and in particular ‘has the landscape changed?’ The six Conversation topics were:

  1. Putting nature at the heart of climate change communication
  2. Learning from COP26 about better partnerships with young people
  3. Engaging people with trees, woodlands and deforestation
  4. Transparency, accountability, and avoiding greenwashing
  5. Breakthrough communication techniques and campaigns from COP
  6. From international declarations to local action.

Two people were lined up to give a 5 minute ‘provocation’ at the beginning of each Conversation, and then stay on to participate. Key insights were to be captured and shared with the Communicate community in a series of bite-size reflection papers, audio resources and tool kits.

The Conversations were to be held in Zoom to avoid ‘new platform fatigue’, with the plenary time recorded to support preparation of the ‘insight papers’ by the NHC team but the breakout spaces not recorded in order to encourage candid conversation. The six Conversations will be led separately from each other, however it was felt that it would add value to have a simple asynchronous digital place to which participants from across the conversations can contribute before, during and after the conversations.

Aims

In conversation with Savita, the aims of the Conversations were agreed to be broadly as follows:

  • To share learning and expertise about the topic between those present, to cross-fertilize ideas across the environmental communication sector after COP26
  • To generate insights that can be shared with the wider sector through NHC’s marketing channels
  • For participants to feel like they have had a satisfactory opportunity to share their experiences in a well-structured and safe environment
  • For participants to feel connected to the Communicate community, and more likely to engage in future events or be active in the network.

Approach

I had arranged for fellow ICA:UK Associate Megan Evans to work with me as co-facilitator, and with our ICA:UK colleague Alice Blackwell and David Linskey to work with us online session producers. I led three conversations in series with Alice, while Megan led the other three with David.

Our approach was to draw on the methods of ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP), and the ToP Focused Conversation method in particular. Pioneered and refined by ICA in over 50 years of experience worldwide, ToP 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 ToP Focused Conversation method provides a structured, four-level process for effective communication which ensures that everyone in a group has the opportunity to participate.

I proposed that we use this method to structure a series of questions for each conversation, tailored in collaboration with the NHC team to meet the above aims in respect of each topic. For examples of this approach in action we shared the ICA:UK Online Focused Conversation Series 2020 to which Megan, Alice and I had all contributed, and my own Free facilitation webinars.

Tools

For a simple asynchronous digital place to which participants from across the conversations could contribute before, during and after Conversations, I proposed that consider one of the following – depending on whether only brainstorming or also interaction may be helpful (and likely), and on which (if any) may already be familiar to participants:

We agreed to use EasyRetro for its simplicity of use and in order to easily export the data for editing into the insight papers. We agreed to use mentimeter as well for a simple participant feedback survey.

Pre-session communications to participants included:

To make sure that you will be able to join and participate, participants may need to join this Zoom test meeting in advance and then follow any instructions to download and install the Zoom app and configure your settings as necessary – https://zoom.us/test.

Participants will need a stable broadband internet connection with speed of preferably at least 10 Mbps download / upload. You can test yours at www.speedtest.net.

For greater functionality to maximise everyone’s engagement and learning, please use a laptop rather than a phone or tablet and join via the Zoom app not a browser. It is helpful to update your Zoom app to the latest version – see Zoom app upgrade.

Please use your own laptop (one per person), with headphones and a microphone, and join the session on your own from a quiet and well-lit place so that you can be seen and heard without distractions for yourself or others.

To use Easyretro on the same device as Zoom you will need to have a large screen and/or to navigate from one window to another and back again. It is not essential but can be helpful to have a second device or screen, in order to use one for zoom and one for the other tool.

Process

We applied the ToP Focused Conversation method to craft a series of nine ‘ORID’ questions that could be used across all six 90-minute Conversation sessions, for consistency of outputs.

We invited participants to respond to the first three (Objective level) questions in advance of the session in order to familiarise themselves with Easyretro, and then we reviewed and added to those responses at the start of each session. Participants responded to the remaining questions in conversation in small breakout groups, and were able to see the ideas of other groups in EasyRetro as they added their own. That enabled the plenary sessions to focus on discussion rather than reporting.

The three sessions I led started at 9.00, 12.00 and 2.30, and the three led by Megan started at 9.30,12.30 and 3.00. Staggering the start times by half an hour enabled Savita to attend and speak at the opening and closing of all six sessions.

Agenda Discussion questions
Opening & overview
Introductory conversation, building on responses shared on Easyretro in advance 

Objective level questions

1. Please share something about yourself and your work

2. Is there one thing that you hope to learn or gain from this Conversation?

3. What resources or links can you share on this topic?

First breakout groups, followed by plenary feedback & discussion 

Reflective level questions

4. How do you feel that your work or views on environmental communication have been affected by COP26?

5. How do you feel that your organisation or the wider sector is responding to the outcomes of COP26?

Break
Second breakout groups, followed by plenary feedback & discussion – with responses captured in Easyretro

Interpretive & Decisional level questions

6. What are some ways that the environmental communication sector could work together more effectively on this issue?

7. What are some of the barriers that we still need to tackle?

8. What is a key ‘call to action’ that we can share from this room to the wider Communicate community?

9. What are any issues that need more attention or discussion, perhaps at the upcoming Communicate conference in November 2022?

Takeaways & next steps
Evaluation & close

Outputs

Communicate Beyond COP26 - the conversations

The BNHC team wrote up the outputs of the six conversations and published them on their website as an insight paper.

What the participants had to say

BNHC Please-rate-this-session-a-how-far-do-you-agree

BNHC How-are-you-feeling-right-now

Savita Willmott, CEO of the Natural History Consortium, wrote in a recommendation on Jun 24, 2022:

“Martin supported our charity in January 2022 to bring together 90 diverse stakeholders into a series of six online conversations in a single day. We were looking to tackle complex environmental topics, and have strong outputs. His advice and support was invaluable to design an effective programme for the day as well as to expertly facilitate the session alongside another facilitator. We achieved our aim of avoiding a “talking shop” – the outputs of the session are informing our strategic work six months later, and the connections made between organisations are thriving. Martin strikes a brilliant balance between flexibility and attention to detail, and we’d recommend him without hesitation.”


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

Feminist Facilitation – free facilitation webinar

Online FC series - feminist facilitationMonday, 16 January 2023, 13:00-14:00 UK time


What does feminism bring to facilitation, and what does feminist facilitation look like? How can I ensure that my own practice as a professional facilitator is more effectively and explicitly feminist, anti-racist and anti-oppressive?

Exploring feminist facilitationThese are the questions that have guided my own exploration of feminist, anti-racist and anti-oppressive facilitation this past couple of years.

For more on that, see Exploring feminist facilitation.


Are you practicing or exploring feminist facilitation yourself, or are you interested to do so?

Join us to connect, share & learn on Monday, 16 January 2023, 13:00-14:00 UK time, for this next monthly session in the ICA:UK Online Focused Conversation Series – facilitated by fellow ICA:UK Associate Julia Makin and myself, and produced by ICA:UK ToP Training Co-ordinator Alice Blackwell.

These sessions are free and open for anyone to attend. The session will last 60 minutes and consist of a facilitated conversation using the ToP Focused Conversation (ORID) method, followed by a brief run through of the method used. The sessions are run by different members of the ICA:UK facilitation community, including lead trainers, trainee trainers, and past participants of our courses in their own style, around topics they have chosen.

In addition to participants learning from each other about the topic, the sessions will serve as an introduction to the method for those new to ToP and will be a useful reminder of the method for those who have already attended our popular Group Facilitation Methods course. Participants may opt to go on and take further training (either online or face to face) and/or continue to learn and share as part of a community of people using facilitation.

The session will be recorded, with the recording being publicly available after the session is over. If you do not wish to be identifiable, we will give you the option before we start the recording to turn off your camera and change your screen name.

Join us to connect, share & learn – register now at ICA:UK.


For recordings and other outputs of my own previous online Focused Conversation sessions and other free facilitation webinars, see free facilitation webinars.

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

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.

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

Facilitation Competencies for Agilists – session recording & outputs

Facilitation Competencies for Agilists - Agile Tour LondonWhat skills, knowledge, and behaviours must facilitators have in order to be successful facilitating in a wide variety of environments? To what extent do these vary, if at all, when working online rather than face-to-face? What can we do, individually and together as Agilists and as peers, to develop our own facilitation competence?

Thank you again to all those that attended this session last week during Facilitation Week, and especially to Agile Tour London for the invitation and to Megan Evans for co-hosting with me.

This session adapted the format of the ICA:UK Online Focused Conversation Series: Taking time to connect, learn and reflect. This was a series of taster sessions around different topics – both to examine and explore the topic, and to demonstrate the use of ICA’s ToP Focused Conversation Method.

In this session participants acquainted themselves in breakout groups with the IAF Core Facilitation Competencies and shared experience of their application, both online and face-to-face. In plenary we reflected on the extent to which these competencies vary when working online rather than face-to-face, if at all. Participants also reflected on what they could do, individually and together as peers and Agilists, to develop their own facilitation competence.

For more on ICA’s Technology of Participation and facilitation online, register now for Introduction to Facilitation OnlineIntroducing the role of the facilitator and the ToP approach, plus some key tips & tools, 2.5 hours, next on 11 November.


The recording and other outputs follow:

  • the slides and mentimeter outputs shared on SlideShare
  • the Zoom recording in Youtube

This session was previously held also in September, in partnership with the Agile Coaching Retreat and co-hosted by Dawn Williams with over 100 participants – see:


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.

How to Facilitate LEGO Serious Play Online – #FacWeek Foreword

How to Facilitate LEGO® Serious Play® Online

Welcome to International Facilitation Week 2020, starting today! #FacWeek

This year I am pleased to join with Sean Blair CPF in launching his new book, for which I am pleased to have contributed the Foreword, below.

Join Sean and me if you can at this year’s online IAF England & Wales Annual Conference, in which he will be leading a session The story of how LEGO® Serious Play®, a face-to-face method went #Online and I shall be co-hosting this month’s UK & Ireland facilitators virtual coffee meetup #IAFmeetup – all welcome!

Also this week, on Thursday I shall be leading Facilitation Competencies for Agilists with fellow ICA:UK ToP trainer Megan Evans part of Agile Tour London 2020.  And of course I shall be tweeting @FacWeek!

How will you celebrate and promote the power of facilitation this year? Check out the global schedule of events at www.facweek.org, and you will not be left short of ideas!


I started out as a facilitator in 1986, with my first training in the ICA ‘Technology of Participation’ (ToP) methodology that has been my facilitation speciality ever since.

I have been providing facilitation and facilitation training professionally to a wide range of clients since 1997, became a Certified™ Professional Facilitator (CPF) of the International Association of Facilitators in 2008 and was inducted into the IAF Hall of Fame in 2014, then became CPF | Master this year in 2020.

All of this time I have worked remotely, in and with geographically distributed groups, as well as face-to-face. I have been using online technology in this work for as long as it has been available.

I have never sought to make online facilitation a particular speciality, however – until now, of course. I have not made LEGO® Serious Play® a speciality either, in spite of having enjoyed a long and distinguished early childhood career in LEGO®!

I believe that a facilitator is first a facilitator, and only second an online facilitator or a LEGO Serious Play facilitator. I believe that the keys to mastering facilitation lie in the values and the stance of the facilitator, the competencies and the disciplines, rather than the space or the platform, the methods or the tools.

Nevertheless, I am excited to commend to you this book ‘How To Facilitate Meetings & Workshops Using The LEGO® Serious Play® Method Online’. Here are three reasons why.

I know Sean, and that he is a competent, experienced and accomplished facilitator. Questions are the primary tool of every facilitator, and I know that he asks good questions and that he asks them well. In an early meetup of IAF England & Wales, in London in perhaps 2013, he posed the question: “Is there such a thing as a universal principle of facilitation?”

It didn’t take me long to think and respond that, in my own facilitation at least, there is certainly something approaching that – the ‘ORID’ model underlies of the ToP Focused Conversation method and the ToP methodology as a whole.

I know that Sean has since integrated this approach in his practice, and in his previous book ‘Mastering The LEGO Serious Play Method’. I was sufficiently inspired by the metaphor of ORID as a universal principle that I blogged about it then and have used it in my training ever since.

Many facilitators have rapidly developed a speciality in working online this year, as Sean and I have as well. Some have done so more quickly and easily than others, and some with greater enthusiasm. Most, in my experience, have had reservations about some of the very real limitations of online facilitation. Only recently I think more of us are becoming belatedly more aware of some equally real limitations of face-to-face, and some real advantages of working online.

So, it is not only LEGO Serious Play practitioners that might take heart and find inspiration in the many innovations that Sean shares in this book. There is much here for all of us to learn from – not least, the rigour and creativity with which he has designed ‘a digital process that uses bricks’ [substitute your preferred tool or method here] ‘rather than an analogue process poorly rendered online’.

I’ve heard it said that, in online facilitation, every participant brings their share of the meeting room with them. This is a challenge for LEGO Serious Play practitioners perhaps more than most, and one to which this book rises admirably.

As Sean makes clear in his Guiding Principles, success in achieving outcomes rather than just engagement through facilitation comes largely from the planning and preparation, and from the capacity to divert nimbly from the plan when the moment requires improvisation.

All of this can be considerably more complex and difficult online than face-to-face. So, if this is what can be done with LEGO Serious Play, think what else can be possible online!

Finally, we are in the midst of a climate emergency, as well as a public health emergency. I believe that the two are not unrelated, and that they demand new ways of connecting, communicating and collaborating that are less carbon intensive as well as more COVID-19 secure, and that are more creative, compassionate and empowering as well. I believe that facilitation has a central role to play on the latter, with bricks as well as without, and that designing and delivering facilitation well online must play a part on the former.

I have witnessed an extraordinary flourishing of creativity and innovation among facilitators in response to the pandemic and lockdown of recent months, and an extraordinary generosity of sharing of it as well – largely, of course, online.

I am delighted to see this valuable and timely new book enter the fray, and just in time for International Facilitation Week! I am proud to be able to welcome you to it, and grateful to Sean for sharing it.

Buy the book, online of course, from Serious Work.


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