Monday, November 21, 2016

Converging on common ground - or not

As a facilitator of meetings and gatherings, it’s a great feeling when it’s going well and awful when you run into the sand. There’s nothing quite like the first stirrings of unease as you realise a session isn’t going to plan. And speaking personally, that reaction stirs a prickling of sweat glands, a stirring in the stomach, natural components of the fear response.

The FacilitationAnywhere wiki links to sample workshop methods for each phase

Reflecting on the process of coming to agreement, which is the next ‘phase’ of our loose six part model of ‘typical’ events, brought me to remember how often tensions are raised in these sessions. The process of prioritising, selecting and re-prioritising, means some people will have to give way on ideas they value. It is also the key exit route from the ‘messy middle’ which is another way of visualising Sam Kaner’s ‘groan zone, which we described in our earlier post on this phase.

Keep Calm and Carry On

25/10 Crowd Sourcing is one of those creative methods from the Liberating Structures people, designed to both stimulate new thinking within a group – using a form of quick brainstorming - and help a consensus form about the most promising ideas. It’s a curious method, almost algorithmic in the way it tries to use a rapid process to bypass deeper reflection and questioning that can slow down, or interrupt a group’s convergence on what is common.

"First, every participant writes on an index card his or her bold idea and first step. Then people mill around and cards are passed from person to person to quickly review. When the bell rings, people stop passing cards and pair up to exchange thoughts on the cards in their hands. Then participants individually rate the idea/step on their card with a score of 1 to 5 (1 for low and 5 for high) and write it on the back of the card. When the bell rings, cards are passed around a second time until the bell rings and the scoring cycle repeats. This is done for a total of five scoring rounds. At the end of cycle five, participants add the five scores on the back of the last card they are holding. Finally, the ideas with the top ten scores are identified and shared with the whole group"

I’d had warnings from that ace facilitator, Ewen Le Borgne - about how easily the process can go wrong. Ewen’s response to most things is to laugh, which is a great way to deal with problems and stay in touch with other people in the room. The problem with the 25/10 method seems to be that the apparently straightforward sorting process is unusual: it’s mix of allowing people to talk about an idea, and then asking them to simply score the rest on a rapid appraisal. There is some movement too and music is meant to help. But when the process broke down during a large event we were working on last month, it suddenly made it all worse. There was too much noise and even more confusion about when the music should be on or off. So there we were, meant to be starting round two of the five scoring rounds and some of the ideas cards already had three or four scores on them. Uneasy looks, prickling of the skin: we had to laugh, and my first reaction – scratch out all the scores and start again – was quickly corrected by the group to the more logical and easier start the scoring again on the other side of the card. Dunh!

And like magic, a quietly-spoken participant, not at all one of the most vocal during the earlier three days, started making sensible suggestions during the rest of the process, but talking very softly, almost into my ear (confession: I tend to panic over numbers and counting, early educational trauma!). It was both an intensely practical way to help the group, via helping me, and also very calming for me. As a result we ended up with a series of ideas that the group in general found the most interesting – the method does work!

[More reflections and examples of methods and approaches to dealing with the 'messy middle' are included in the remainder of this post on the FacilitationAnywhere blog]

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Social Learning and sense-making in events

"One day a woman went hoeing in the field. Before she started hoeing she put her baby under the shade of a tree. Whilst she was working in the field some baboons came and stole her baby." The constantly original and creative Charles Dhewa grabbed instantly our attention during a session at the 2011 IFAD ShareFair as he told one of the Bantu narratives he describes in his powerful paper, "Traducture and Sensemaking: Experiences from Southern Africa". We were working together in a session exploring sense-making as a process, and the stories were triggers for us to reflect on how different people take different meanings from a single prompt.

Dhewa developed the sense-making framework illustrated above that embraces the complexity of this process, especially when working with people from different cultures and with widely varied experience. The paper explores the dimensions illustrated above and it's a good introduction thinking about the role of a facilitator in working with large and small groups of people as they sense together and shape ideas and new meanings from their discussions.

As we described in our first blog on sense-making and emergence, the process of collective learning and making sense of what is emerging is probably the most complex part of a workshop. Several popular and well-tested facilitation techniques can be used to support these processes, including:
World Cafe, where participants have rounds of conversations on linked sets of questions, with 'hosts' at tables recording the progressively richer exchanges.
  • The wide range of variations in storytelling methods 
  • The different approaches to Appreciative Inquiry, with their emphasis on seeking the affirmative and positive as the basis for considering future actions 
  • Future Backwards or Backcasting - taking people out to a future they construct, either or both ideal or nightmare and then considering how they will or did get to that future, as the basis for thinking about what they might do next 
[Information about FacilitationAnywhere courses (next one likely to be in April 2017), the associated wiki of resources, and further examples of methods to encourage sense-making can be found in the remainder of this blog on the FacilitationAnywhere site]

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Ideas that spark and take life

This is the third blog of this current series describing some of our experience in meeting and event facilitation. We're focusing on how to foster and encourage those spaces and times when groups find their creativity together, spark off each other and generate ideas that are entirely new or re-visions of current thinking. It seems such an obvious and straightforward process, and there are gazillions of relevant approaches and methods in resources like the KS toolkit. We suggested some ideas of our own when we first blogged about this phase in an event. But all too often the post-it notes are written up (or photos shared) only for the energy to dissipate and the promising ideas to wither in the storm of everyday pressures. The challenge is to create an environment that provides the best chance for the most realistic or promising ideas to take life beyond the event.

Time, time, time - just give me a little more time

The challenge can be envisaged in three parts. The first is the process of engaging and energising participants in creative ideas generation. Many of us find we do our best thinking and reflection in the moments when there's nothing much going on - in the shower, out walking or on a long journey. One of the reasons that generating ideas is a relatively easy task is that meetings and events are a luxury in most people's lives, especially if they have a facilitator 'holding' the process. Once people find that time is allocated to simply thinking and being creative with other smart and committed people, they usually relish the opportunity.

Climate Change and Social Learning project workshop on evidence gathering

We get energy and inspiration when the question or issue has heart and meaning. The Human Centred Design approach starts with an exploring situation and issue through the experience of the people most affected, and through this clarifying the critical question. Asking ' how might we ... ' becomes the launch pad to generate tons of ideas - 'ideation', in short - when nothing's ruled out. At this stage, the facilitator's role is to create a creative positive space, and provide a simple structure for ideas to emerge. You'll also be managing the materials, displays and documentation, and perhaps providing examples from elsewhere. Ideo have a fantastic resource, with lots of ideas. Note that facilitators are the default provider of simple or fancy stationary so we all have our standard travel kit, like this one.

[Graphic Facilitation, as well as examples illustrating other ways to encourage and support idea generation are described in the remainder of this blog from the FacilitationAnywhere site]

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Posters, presentations and speed geeking: finding out what we know

The seven openings to events that we described in our last blog are a first step in 'bringing people’s voices and their different experiences into the room, in a spirit of curiosity and learning'. We used that phrasing when we first blogged about our Facilitation Practice last year to describe what happens as you move from openings to a logical next phase in gatherings: 'finding out what we know'. The Tagging and Human Spectrogram exercises we described in our last blog get people curious and interested, and lead naturally into richer conversations in which people find out about each other.

What shall we do about Presentations?

Presentations have a bad press among a lot of development people exhausted by the round of conferences and workshops and generally also among facilitators. The issue here is one of framing and organisation:"what if we re-imagine conferences and meetings as gatherings where people can connect, learn and have the conversations that really matter", was a blog response here to Duncan Green's rant about awful events. We described a simple but effective approach to sharing, a variant on speed-networking. Three-minute snapshot presentations from people of what was inspiring about their work meant that in less than an hour everyone knew the best of what was happening across a range of projects.

Presentations become engaging and energising when people are limited to a fixed time or number of slides, or by using a timer approach like Pecha Kucha. This also offers a compromise for those who value the security or ease of powerpoint. When there is a lot of detail to present, doing it this way allows for different approaches to communication and learning. For example, in a recent annual meeting of the CARIAA program, which involves four large, complex research syndicates in detailed and current climate change research, each syndicate gave a 10-minute introductory presentation very early in the three-day event. A bit like a TED talk, it meant that each of the senior scientists and their teams produced rich, engaging and dynamic communication that set the scene and sparked off a range of questions and follow-up conversations.

Posters and Galleries

In both those events the presentations were followed by a ‘market place’, with posters and other information for more in-depth discussions. The Building Demand for Sanitation (BDS) program, on the other hand, started with the posters.

Nairobi 13 BDS convening gallery walk.JPG
Prof. Bilqis Hoque talks about women leaders in local Government at a BDS convening
The way it's organised and managed has evolved over the five years of the program, as is explained in our original post on the FacilitationAnywhere blog, where we also discuss other methods such as Speed Geeking and Carousels

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Seven Openings to facilitated events

Almost everyone’s arrived. Some are already sitting down, others are standing around and chatting. A couple of people are late, but time-keeping matters. It’s time to get started.

Suddenly you find yourself in front of a group of people – 15, or 33, or 65, or 128 of them, or more, most of whom don’t know you. You’re the facilitator and the people in the room are putting their trust in you to help them achieve something concrete by the end of the event. You want to seize the moment so that the participants come into the physical and mental space for the gathering as quickly and smoothly as possible. Then you can make a start on doing what needs to be done, letting the locus of control move between you and them.

Openings are about coming fully into the present and connecting with self, others and the purpose for the gathering. They enable people to ‘arrive’ in body and mind, relax into what’s happening, ready to engage with the work to be done. People need to be able to meet each other as quickly and easily as possible, to form as a group and create the ground for collaboration. Each group is new, formed in that time and place, meeting for a specific reason, and shaping its own particular identity.

In our recent blog on the FacilitationAnywhere site we describe seven ways to open, engage and connect...

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

How are development organizations using Google Analytics?

In the previous post, I described the importance of having a digital analytics measurement plan and I presented some essential elements for correct and efficient use of Google Analytics (GA). However, recent work I’ve conducted make me wonder how advanced (or not) the use of digital analytics - and GA specifically - is amongst development organizations. My recent experience was limited to 6 organizations (different in size, resources and capacities) so the sample is clearly limited. But some trends are probably more common than not.

Google Analytics

Google Analytics is not always used to its full potential 

In reviewing how different websites use GA, I discovered huge differences. For some organizations, the setup of Analytics is far from optimal. For example, one organization didn’t have a great understanding of the differences between GA account, profile and property, which resulted in unstructured proliferation of accounts.

The use of different reporting views, as well as filters and advanced segments is also not very common. This means that Analytics data are just analysed in aggregate, without telling you much about the specific audience you intend to reach. For example, if your website is targeting users in North Africa and the Middle East, you need to be able and single out traffic from these regions, to better analyze your target audience.

Tracking goals and ‘conversions’ is not always common practice. Goals can be set up in various ways in GA to track users’ interaction with the website - when they scroll on the page, click a link, decide to print a page, comment or spend a certain amount of time on the page. This can provide a great deal of information to website managers and editors, to improve the way information is presented and webpages are organized, as well to increase users’ engagement.

Only one out of 6 organizations stood out in using an advanced configuration of Google Analytics to create different reporting views, filter data, track goals and conversions.

Google Analytics too often stands alone 

I have highlighted before the importance of a digital analytics and measurement plan - and how Google Analytics may eventually just be a part (even if the most important) of your data collection and analysis system. On the contrary, I didn’t find a lot of this in the websites I’ve recently reviewed.

On the one hand, while Analytics is the default tool to track digital analytics, in most cases is also the only monitoring tool. On the other hand, when digital analytics are collected from different sources, (e.g. website, newsletter, RSS feeds, social media, etc), more often than not they are not presented and analysed in aggregate. Finally, not all organizations are regularly producing actionable reports on the basis of their analytics, to inform future actions and improvements on the website.

Only one organization presented a more advanced understanding of its’ digital analytics process, with multiple data collection points (e.g. website, newsletter, RSS feeds, social media, etc) that fed into a dashboard spreadsheet, using formulas and calculations to avoid double counting and over-reporting of metrics. Even if there was no document describing a strategy, this is already a great step towards more efficient use of digital analytics.

What can be done? 

I think a lot could be achieved through the availability of more specific content for international development and the open exchange of experiences around digital analytics for the development sector.

The majority of information and guidance available online, while comprehensive, in general tends to focus on e-commerce and more business oriented websites. Other sources such as the Digital Analytics Programme (DAP) provides a good example of guidance and best practices, training and support in digital analytics. However, the target audience is also very specific, DAP being designed for US Government government agencies that provide information to the public. Eventually, there is not much available that focuses specifically on digital analytics for development - and information and knowledge services specifically.

Secondly, I think website administrators and managers should be more open about how they do digital analytics, as ODI has been doing by sharing their M&E dashboard. Knowledge sharing and learning opportunities should be created for users to exchange notes and learn from each other, to identify good practices and examples that can be replicated. Ideally, I believe that web managers should also be open about the actual number of their website stats. Especially for publicly-funded websites, this would mean more transparency and the possibility to compare and benchmark different websites.

Finally, I think donors should play their part in fostering better use of digital analytics in projects and programs they fund. Besides acting as convenor for peer learning initiatives around good use of digital analytics, donors should provide stronger guidance and support in this area, to make uniform data tracking and collection across different projects. Ideally, for donors’ funded websites and knowledge services, there should not just be the mention of few, poorly selected web metrics in the project logframe. A digital analytics and measurement plan should be developed as part of the project inception phase.

In the next post in this series, I’ll look specifically at what metrics and indicators could be most useful, amongst the dozens available, for development websites and knowledge services.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Understanding digital analytics

In the past few months, two different projects gave me the opportunity to spend quite some time working on Google Analytics. The projects were different in scope: in the first, I was asked to review the use of Google Analytics as part of the monitoring and learning system of a think tank; the second project was part of a larger evaluation of development information services, to understand the reach and use of different websites. Overall, I was able to review how 6 different development organizations are currently making use of Google Analytics to track web traffic and users’ interaction.

digital analytics

This is the first post in a three post series where I’ll share some of the learning from this recent work. I’ll start with some key points for efficient use of Google Analytics (GA). Then in the second post I’ll present examples of how different organizations are using GA. Finally, in the third and final post in the series I’ll zoom in more into Google Analytics metrics - and measuring what matters to you.

Google Analytics - from basic to advanced use 

GA has developed a rich and sophisticated toolset over the years. It is now one of the most commonly used tools to monitor website traffic and engagement. It’s probably the industry standard for web analytics across different business domains, such as e-commerce, government, education, and development, too. While some have questioned the accuracy of Google Analytics and there’s no shortage of alternatives tools out there, in my opinion Google Analytics remains one of the most powerful tools (for everyday use, especially in smaller organisations). One of the aspects I like most about Analytics (besides the fact that it’s free…) is its continuous improvement - in terms of its own features and functionality as well as integration with third party tools (such as Supermetrics), and integration with Google Sheets add-ons.


I recognize GA features can be overwhelming: with all the information GA can track it’s easy to drown in a sea of data. Luckily, a simple search in Google will return a lot of results pointing you to tutorials, guides and training videos that will allow you to go well beyond a basic knowledge of Analytics. If you’re new to Google Analytics, or want to take it to the next level, I suggest you take a look at these resources:

As a minimum requirement, your correct installation of Analytics should include:

Analytics measurement plan

It’s relatively straightforward to get your Analytics set up properly and tracking data. But this is just a small part of the job. In fact, even before you get going with Google Analytics (or any other web analytics software), what you need is a measurement plan.

A measurement plan is a document that:
  • Defines your business objectives and outcomes you want to see; 
  • Presents the strategies and tactics to reach these outcomes;
  • Illustrates the metrics you need to monitor and the tools and processes to collect data; and
  • Includes goals and targets for your selected measures. 
In this sense, Google Analytics is only one of the different tools that you have to measure your objectives and outcomes. If you’re active on Facebook and Twitter or publish video on YouTube, these should also find a place in your measurement plan.

There’s a lot of good resources out there on digital analytics and measurement planning. You can check Google’s own guides or this post from analytics specialist Avinash Kaushik. Finally this guide presents a great intro for non-techie on how to create a measurement plan for Google Analytics.

So as essential as a measurement plan may seem, my recent work experience tells me that this is probably more the exception than the norm in development organizations. I’ll discuss more about this in my next blog post. In the meantime, how would you consider your current use of Analytics? Are you using it to its full potential? Do you have a digital measurement plan? Let me know in the comments below!