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Global Flipchart #10

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January 2018
| Issue #10

The (almost) never ending workshop

By Cameron Fraser

How can we use virtual and blended facilitation for better results? Cameron Fraser shares his thoughts, inspired by conversations at the IAFNAC conference in Florida this year.

The challenges

As Facilitators, we face many common challenges:

  • Clients pressed for time
    We often get asked to do more work than can possibly be done in the time available.
  • Being an afterthought
    Clients arrange the participants, the facility, the agenda, and meals, and then, and only then, think about a facilitator often at the last minute.
  • Episodic engagement with our groups
    We only get to see them for the duration of the workshop. This means we must ramp up very quickly, and often disappear immediately after the session is over, while the success of our efforts, as measured by the implementation of ideas coming out of the session, is completely out of our hands.

  • All group processes have two major components that take the most time (the divergent, ideation phase, and the convergence, decisional phase)
    Both are necessary to getting a result. If you don't gather enough information early in the process, you will not have enough content to fuel the later convergence phase. On the other hand, the convergence phase is where the work gets done. All the time spent gathering information early on is simply grist for the mill, and takes time away from the steps where the work is actually done.

The lure of the new

I saw my first computer-based facilitation tool in the mid-1990s. While I am grateful for the people who were working then, because they got the ball rolling, the reality is the tools were not ready. In that first demonstration, after about 20 minutes of brainstorming, the person running the demo said "Whoops. The system just crashed and we lost all that brainstorming. Could we just take a couple of minutes to recreate some of those ideas?" Needless to say, that would never be acceptable when working with a client.

In the wake of that demo, I decided that it was important to wait and often said that computer-based facilitation would be of no interest to me until the tools were as easy to use and dependable as a flipchart.

Amongst the challenges were cost, complexity, and rapid change. The tools tend to be expensive, the software could be difficult to learn and to use for both the facilitators and participants, and rapid technological advances often meant good systems quickly became obsolete. More than a few companies went out of business simply because they could not bring a tool to market in time.

The insights

In the early 2000s I saw a computer-based tool that made me sit up and pay attention for two reasons:

  1. I saw a group of 10 people generate 150 brainstormed ideas, with the same sort of new building on ideas that would occur when using flip chart, but in about 12 minutes
  2. I saw the facilitator, just after the completion of a vote, ask the following; "Let's all look up from our screens for a few minutes and talk about why the vote came out the way it did." What they could do, having compressed the divergent phase, was to dedicate the time saved to the convergent phase. In other words, the group could focus their efforts on the part of the process where the work gets done.

The key insight was that the use of a combination of face-to-face and virtual interactions, regardless of the tools used, would allow participants to ease into the work prior to a face-to-face session, and would allow for useful follow-up to help integrate session outcomes into day-to-day work.

This also meant that the very valuable, and hard to schedule, face-to-face meeting time could be saved for the most critical and useful discussions.

The facilitator’s engagement with the group is more gradual with getting started before, and handing off for implementation afterwards also being more gradual.

Ultimately this approach can result in more meaningful and enduring outcomes.