Reflection on facilitation of a meeting for community of practice missing the direction

After quite a while, once again I have participated in a facilitated meeting as a participant instead of facilitating it. It was AgNIC (Agriculture Network Information Center) annual meeting, and the facilitator was Jerinyl Veldorf from Library Organization and Development, University of Minnesota.  I liked her approach and decided to write a summary that can be of use in the future.

AgNIC is in a changing point of its history and needs to redefine where to focus in the future. There were many new faces in the meeting, different interests, different level of knowledge and level of engagement.

Facilitator started with SWOT analysis in a World Cafe arrangement – about 50 people in the room split into eight groups (practically running SWOT twice in parallel). Instead of moving the groups around, we have moved the flip charts, and it worked pretty well. In the end, each group that started a topic summarized notes from the flip chart (in some cases more than one) and one person from the group presented the key points in the plenary.

The next task (after a coffee break) was to define possible new mission and key outputs for AgNIC. We all ‘brainstormed’ our brains and presented the ideas to the group around the table (again groups of 6-7 people). The challenge was to come to a mutual agreement/consensus, so if even one person didn’t agree with what somebody else proposed, it wasn’t included in the report flip chart. Then the two parallel groups merged (coming from eight to four groups) and compared their ideas (flip charts) trying to reach consensus as in the previous activity. Final four reports were sticked on the wall, and each participant voted with five dots for the most attractive mission statement and outcomes for AgNIC (DotVoting).

Finally came the time to propose concrete action steps. Jerinyl used Card collection & sorting: each of us got a number of PostIts to write down specific action points/steps, keeping in mind earlier defined mission and key tasks for AgNIC. Again we were eight groups separately sticking the PostIts on the wall, grouping them and defining commonalities for each group in two words – verb & noun. In the end, each group presented the outputs – usually two words describing specific activity – example: ‘setting standards’. Two people were capturing all these outputs in parallel in two flip charts, filtering duplicates and linking similar action points. In this way, we have arrived in about 20 quite tangible action points.

Unfortunately, this was the end of the process, and the next steps will happen through email or online communication, which makes me bit skeptical.  Personally I think it would have been better if we had 1/2 or 1 more day is available. Selected group of people would work overnight on those 20 action points – including some more details/ideas from the PostIts. And in the following day small groups would work on very specific small projects, assigning responsibilities, tasks, timelines, priorities …. However, I have to say, I was impressed by smooth progress and tangible results of the process setup by Jerinyl.  I have very much enjoyed the day and got inspiration for my future facilitation adventures.


Running Samoan circles in parallel

This week I am facilitating some sessions of the Launch meeting of MAIZE and WHEAT CGIAR research programs in Mexico City. Agenda is largely driven by scientists and there is not much space for introducing more interactive facilitation methods. I was asked to run the whole day wheat session where morning was dedicated to three long PPT presentations each followed by panel discussion. That wasn’t really very challenging and went pretty well (having over 80 people in the room). After Lunch meeting continued with group discussions. We had only one room available (L shape) – I have tried to set up three large tables (25 people each), but that didn’t seem right. hence I have changed my mind and got chairs in the circle for my favorite Samoan circle.  Introduction was OK, no opposition from people, however few minutes after start it was clear that this will not work – room was a Babel with too much noise to be able to hear clearly and focus on one discussion only. I have decided to remove the central group top another room and leave only two groups in the the room extremes to continue.

In the new room was a’classroom’ setting. No time for change. We have placed 5 chairs in the front (in half circle arrangement) and  asked to continue with the same rules as in Samoan circle (how to get to speak) – surprisingly it wen pretty smooth  and people coming and leaving the ‘speaking space’ like if it would be the inner circle. So at the end, except the fact that we have lost about 10 minutes moving from room to room, we have achieved the planned objectives.

Maybe the three Samoan circles would have worked if these were smaller, but having the large groups (almost 30 people in each circle) made it really too noisy.

Finally the Science Week done differently

Institution where I work (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) is organizing every two years meeting of all research staff in Mexico to share experience, concerns, get updates on institutional services and policies – Science Weeks. The previous ones organized in 2006, 2008, and 2010 were bit frustrating to me – always series of loooong power point presentations (talk after talk after talk) followed by very short Q&A session and a maximum of interaction was achieved in some panel discussions. Well this year, finally a change happened:

After first morning of introduction, we have divided all participants (160) into 8 groups which were circulating among 8 stations (called Kiosks) – maybe somehow similar to “Gallery Walk”, but significantly different. The groups spend in each ‘Kiosk’ about 75 minutes. Each Kiosk was organized by 2-4 people with short presentations (max 1/2 time of the kiosk visit = max 40 minutes). The rest of the time was dedicated to Q&A, discussions related to presented topics and sharing of experience.

Topics of the kiosks included (1) Human resources & risk management; (2) Corporate communications; (3) Research services; (4) Finances and procurement; (5)  IP rights; (6) Project management, fundraising and M&E; (7) Library and Capacity building and (8) Information & communication technologies.

The groups were carefully prepared as a mixture of new comers and senior scientists, both from headquarters and outreach offices, from different programs, to enhance interactions, knowing each another, sharing issues and problems or on the other side recognizing problems of the others. The whole program run for almost 1.5 day. Leaders of the Kiosks at the end presented key messages/issues in the short plenary session (review of review).

At this moment I don’t have yet evaluation survey from participants, but overall the feedback was very positive.  People liked the  interactions, dynamics of the two days, recognizing common problems, having opportunity to raise the issues and get direct feedback. I have one more facilitation method in my toolkit 😉

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!

Reflection on my first solo-facilitating

I have just finished my first solo facilitator’s job of important, 3-day meeting. It was a planning meeting/retreat of CIMMYT’s Global wheat program. Preparation was quick, however quite detailed and interestingly enough during the meeting itself were just minor adjustments of the agenda. Participants (in average 20 people) were practically only  CIMMYT scientists (meaning I wasn’t a stranger to the group). The only person who used the powerpoint (and only for introductory session) was program director.

IMG_8132 small
Sorting the cards

Following the  introductory presentation, the first session was in a format of BS – brainstorming (by some called BullShitting). It worked very well till the moment when my sticky cloth with about 100 cards felt down from the wall where it was placed. Luckily enough at that moment the cards were already sorted and issues defined. Three different colours of cards were used for issues of different importrance, however not all participants really paid attention and we got little bit of color mess. Next time I have to be more careful when formulating the instructions.

The world cafe
The world cafe

Next session was in the form of The world cafe. Although … little bit modified. Four groups were circulating around the tables/discussion themes, but there was one person permanently sitting in each table, who didn’t circulate, presented to each new group what previous group(s) discussed, ensured that everybody in each group has some space to talk, took notes and at the end presented all discussed issues of the theme in the plenary.  Overall it worked very well, although the whole session was nearly 2 hours long. Everybody had a chance to say something to each of the themes, however obviously in each group there were some more tolkative people.

Sorting the cards
Sorting the cards

Following day we have started morning with lengthy plenary discussions (luck of invention from my side), but participants felt comfortable as this is the way they are most used to present their ideas and opinions. It was interactive and we also had some fun. We used ‘talking stick’ (only person holding stick can talk). However I didn’t have any stick, so we were using spray bottle instead. Funily enough, most of the participants started to use the spray bottle as a microphone, placing it in front of the mouth. Many pictures were taken ;o). And even more incredible was, that next day during another plenary session some participants themselves asked to use the the spray bottle again.

Afternoon session was in the way of Samoan circle (modified fishbowl). It worked very well with just one strange point – several people entered the inner circle just to raise the question or quickly comment on something that was said, but immediatelly after left the circle again… so during the excercise it happened few times that in the inner circle were just 2 people (all together 4 chairs). Bit overall the discussion was going very well and several interesting issues appreared and further unfold.

Very brief afteraction reviews in the day one and two were done through the way of modified dotmocracy. Not surprisingly to me, the only method that got negative points was the classical discussion in the plenary – it was lenghty, sometimes slow and quite a large number of participants didn’t contribute to the discussion at all (although there were opportunities). The final evaluation however was anonymous and in written form as that was the wish of the director.

Evaluation of facilitation methods of day 1
Evaluation of facilitation methods of day 1
Evaluation of facilitation methods - day 2
Evaluation of facilitation methods – day 2

Overall I am satisfied as from my point of view the meeting went very well, without any significant hickups and even the reactions of the participants at the end were very positive. Some lessons learned from my side – I need to write down the list of all common stationary items that one may need (I was missing masking tape and scisors). Lentghy planning might not necessary lead to more succesful meeting, but to be well prepared is essential – it gave me feeling of confidence when standing in front of the group. Few times I have enetered the discussion with my contribution  (stepping out of the facilitators role), but retrospectivelly I think my contribution wasn’t really essential and so next time I need little bit more of self-control.

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