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Global Flipchart #10



January 2018
| Issue #10


Helping scientists begin participatory group processes

By Alicia L. Lanier

Ever wondered how to help groups end established but ineffective meeting practices, and begin incorporating new participatory processes? As facilitators, we encounter this challenge a lot.

And it’s a challenge I faced with a large group of researchers who desperately needed new ways to communicate. Here’s how I helped them incorporate participatory group processes.

About the researchers

These researchers were near the beginning of a five-year collaborative, transdisciplinary research project. They had to learn fast how to work together in new and different ways.

They’d won a $5 million, five-year award from the National Science Foundation to complete the South Florida Water Sustainability and Climate project.

Their goal? To develop a decision-making framework that includes a water management model for use by water resource stakeholders in South Florida.

The challenge

The team is distributed at universities and agencies across the country and represent disciplines including engineering, social sciences, water resources, earth sciences, fisheries, and economics.

Research funding agencies such as National Science Foundation are increasingly recognising that interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research teams are needed to solve the grand challenges of today, like sea levels rising, climate change impacts, and health concerns.

But these teams are often ill-equipped to meet the interdisciplinary challenges of collaboration and integration. This is where I came in.

What needed to end?

Imagine two days straight of 30-minute powerpoint presentations by 40 scientists. (Makes me tired just thinking about it.)  

Now imagine meetings with just a handful of 15-minute breaks for conversation and intermingling.

Add to that some ‘Next Steps’, intended to help guide upcoming work, but which lack team ownership.

And not a sign of collaboratively-built colourful visuals of shared knowledge.

These meeting practices don’t optimise opportunities for participation and collaboration. Certainly some of them had to end - or at least be adapted.

What needed to begin?

I was convinced participatory group processes based on self-organising principles could help this team succeed.

The questions I asked myself were:

  1. Are there some meeting activities based on self-organising principles that allow even more creativity?
  2. Are there ways to help clients quickly overcome their distrust of losing ‘control’ of the meeting and allow creativity to emerge?

Basic meeting management skill development was needed, so I used an iterative and adaptive approach, starting small and incrementally adding new participatory activities over time.

I started with an activity based on the Consensus Workshop. This activity appeals to researchers and engineers, doesn’t need too much time, and is easy to learn and adapt.

In the meetings that followed, I built on the first meeting, introducing something new and exciting each time: Dynamic Teaming and Knowledge Networking (adapted from World Cafe), role-playing, mind-mapping, mini-unconference (adapted from Open Space), story-boarding, and lightning talks.

Activities introduced

Consensus workshop (years 1, 2, 3 and 4)

This activity was used for visioning, realignment, and action planning for both long-term project needs and short-term (annual) communication. Core discussion was held around dependencies across research disciplines and commitments to each other. This activity resulted in a 20ft x 6ft colorful, visual artifact that served as the annual planning tool.

Dynamic teaming and knowledge networking (years 2 and 4)

The end goal of this facilitated conversation was to generate as many interdisciplinary paper topics as possible. I invited the team to hold a conversation with as many team members as possible (ranging in experience and technical discipline) within the allowable time frame. The first year we even met in a beautiful outdoor café environment in Naples, Florida. The end result of this activity was a broad range of potential papers and even outlines in some cases.

Role-playing (year 3)

Role playing, using a storytelling format, was used to help team members brainstorm and visualise potential questions or ideas critical to the water management stakeholders in South Florida. For example, one team member adopted the role of ‘alligator wrestler.’ She was so convincing, we still don’t know if she was ‘playing’ or serious! The resulting stories were shared by each group with the larger team.

Mind-mapping (year 3)

The goal of this activity was to help team members identify dependencies across disciplines, including data needs from others, and, hopefully re-inject excitement about the project and the overall vision. The team had encountered a typical mid-project slump. To help re-energize the team, I suggested a mid-project ‘booster shot’ meeting, and incorporated a facilitated mind-mapping exercise. The result of this activity was a revealing complex diagram of data needs and data production across disciplines.

Unconference format and story-board (year 4)

I proposed an unconference format (loosely based on Open Space) to help team members collaboratively identify paper title contributions for a Special Journal Issue. Once paper titles were identified, the team used a storyboard to tell the story of the Special Journal Issue. This activity resulted in a list of 12 paper titles for the upcoming Special Issue and a paper production schedule.

Lightning talks (year 4)

And what about those 30-min presentations? One challenge of scientific research projects is the need to share enough information about each other’s work so that others can grasp the concepts, yet have focused presentations that allow time for everyone to get their chance. I proposed lightning talks (4-6 minute presentations) during the annual meeting in year four, so the team would have time for the participatory integration activities. For some members, this may have been the most uncomfortable ‘new’ activity of all!

The result of this approach

I had the luxury of multiple meetings, where these activities could be incorporated along the way, continuing to build upon previously introduced activities in each meeting.

As each activity was successful and kept the meeting energised, the research team was increasingly open to new ideas.

In year 4, we even experimented with movement activities during breaks, and publicly expressing heartfelt ‘Appreciations’ while standing in a circle at the end of the meeting.

As we say goodbye to one year and hello to a new one, why not ask yourself what you’ll end and what you’ll begin in 2018?

This synopsis is based on a workshop presented at the May 2017 International Association of Facilitators North America & Caribbean (IAFNAC) Conference 'Facilitating Meetings for Reluctant Scientists: How to Incorporate Activities Based on Self-Organising Principles’ and originally self-published as a white paper.


I have a deep desire to facilitate interesting, engaging, and productive meetings and workshops that serve to transcend siloes. Since 2002, I have focused on supporting large group facilitation for interdisciplinary teams on increasingly complex projects. I help bridge terminology blockages, model empathy for different communication needs, and design approaches for achieving desired outcomes using an iterative and adaptive style. I provide facilitation services and project management for a variety of clients and projects, from water sustainability, decision-making, and civil engineering.

I am a registered Professional Engineer (PE) in NC, OR, and CA, a Human Systems Dynamics Professional (HSDP), and a member of the International Association of Facilitators (IAF), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the Project Management Institute (PMI). My facilitation preparations have included among others the ToP Consensus Workshop and Strategic Planning courses, and the 6-week HSDP preparatory workshop.

Please check out my website for more information and my linkedin page.