Facilitating meeting of Mexican milling industry managers with wheat breeders and farmer representatives

To find a suitable date for almost 20 managers from seven major companies in wheat milling and processing  industry in Mexico took us almost a month. But that was only one part of the equation. On the other side were wheat breeders (from INIFAP and CIMMYT), representatives of SAGARPA (government of Mexico) and farmer associations. Objective was clear (or at least at the beginning it seemed to be clear):

  • Identify the key problems to wheat production and commercialization in Mexico and propose possible problem-solving actions.

This shall be within the context of predicted demand for wheat in next 20-40 years and taking in consideration existing and appearing challenges such as soaring international prices, increasing costs of energy, urban population growth, effects of climate change.

As any meeting where scientists are present, it had to start with official opening and three PowerPoint presentations. However, these presentations served very well to provide a panorama of the global food situation (and forecast till 2050) and its implications for Mexico. Participants listened very carefully despite the fact that one presentation was in English with simultaneous translation.

After a coffee break, I have introduced the Samoan circle as a method of self-organized brainstorming. Beginning was slow. Soon I have realized one important mistake: I have accepted the issues for discussion from the person in charge, but I didn’t verify whether participants agree that these are the main issues to discuss!!! Indeed there was some hesitation in the faces. The facilitation method almost collapsed when people from the outer circle started to ask ‘technical questions’ to people in the inner circle. I had to step in and reinforce that only people in the inner circle are allowed to talk. Participants also hesitated to step in and replace somebody in the inner circle by touching his/her shoulder – to them it didn’t seem appropriate to ‘remove’ somebody else from the inner circle. But after I have clarified that people from the inner circle can leave whenever they feel they said what they wanted the process started to flow.

My colleague and co-facilitator didn’t know the Samoan circle method and was moving all around, including the space in between the two circles. I have noticed that it was a distractive, and we both agreed to move only outside the circles. Another bit distractive situation occurred a little bit later. Some people from the outer circle time to time stepped out and stood nearby or walked to the corner for a coffee. There wasn’t a noise and all people in the room were listening to the discussion, but sometimes the outer circle was half empty … Main discussion points were noted on the flip chart.

It took us about 90 minutes to discuss three topics. Retrospectively I see that it was possibly bit longer than desired.  After lunchI have split participants into three groups –  each was discussing in more details the points captured during the Samoan circle and proposing possible solutions. Discussing in smaller groups was comfortable for all. However, as usually, it wasn’t easy to find volunteer in each table for taking the notes. We ended the day by brief presentations from the groups in the plenary and quite animated plenary discussion. I had to cut the discussion and push everybody for a dinner when cafeteria was about to close.

Second day was short – only till launch. After brief review and reflections on the day one I have asked participants whether they want to continue discussions in the same way as in the day 1 (Samoan Circle). The response was very loud YES from everybody. Four chairs in the inner circle were occupied immediately, and a three new topics discussed. We continued smoothly during a whole morning. I have had an alternative method for discussion ready, but participants were enjoying the Samoan Circle and very self-disciplined! The process run practically without major input from facilitators – we just took notes.

Samoan circle when used appropriately is simply an amazing facilitation tool!


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