One of my mantras that helps keep me focused when I’m designing a process is “I’m not planning a meeting, I’m planning a harvest.” This helps me focus on need and purpose and helps me choose or create processes that make good use of our time together.
Facilitators can be guilty of the sin of falling in love with their methods and tools. Especially when we learn a new thing, we are desperate to try it out, sharing our zeal for this fresh thing we’ve discovered. In my own experience, many times that results in the meeting being about my needs and not the needs of the group. If I design a session based solely on the method – even if it is ostensibly in services of outcomes – I can find myself suffering from intentional unawareness and missing what the group wants or needs.
Because I am a process geek and love my tools and methods, I have found it necessary to disrupt the tendency to suggest a structure before fully fleshing out what is needed. This is why I organized the planning tool I use, the chaordic stepping stones, in a way that saves final decisions about structure until the very end of the planning process.
While it is essential to start the design with need and purpose, equally important is having a strong sense of the outputs, or the harvest of a process. In participatory work, outputs are not merely the tangible record and artifacts of the meeting. They are also intangible. Another design principle I use is “leave more community than you found” which demands that whatever we are doing, we build relationships and social connections in a group as much as possible and at the very least do no harm to social relationships. Building relationships is essential if the outputs of group work are to be sustained after the meeting is over.
Keeping these principles straight is aided by this handy framework I helped develop years ago, inspired by Ken Wilber’s integral theory. It recognizes that every meeting produces outputs that are both tangible and intangible, as well as individual and collective.
Tangible collective outputs include meeting artifacts, such as data, reports, visible shared purpose, decisions action plans, structure and organization, and records of the event. Intangible collective outputs include social relationships, collective learning, and social cohesion.
Tangible individual outputs can be skills, personal takeaways, a clear personal workplan, or a knowledge of one’s role and responsibilities. Intangible individual outputs can include belonging, encouragement, clarity of purpose, enjoyment, and a sense of purpose.
All facilitators spend time working on the tangible collective outputs of a meeting, but sometimes we give the other three quadrants short shrift. If we don’t pay attention to these things, especially the intangible outputs, we can often create good artifacts but at the expense of relationships or trust. How many times have you been a part of the process where the facilitator delivered on the work, but everyone felt worse afterwards? Harvesting needs to be reciprocal, not extractive.
I use this framework by asking my clients to choose two or three desired outputs in each quadrant. These are things we want to happen as a result of the meeting and they become constraints for choosing our tools and designing a flow for the process.
Recently I helped design a meeting process for the First Nations Technology Council to invite First Nations social development managers to come together and work on an investment strategy to improve the use of technology in their work of providing income assistance to individuals in their communities. It would be easy to make this an extractive consultation, but my client was clear that we needed to build community between these people, encourage learning and peer coaching and ensure that going forward the work was supported and stewarded by the participants themselves..
When I came on to the project, we had a good draft agenda that was tailored towards getting information from the participants to include in an investment strategy being prepared for the federal government. But in checking against the intended intangible outputs, we realized that the process was too dependant on the facilitator and presentations from the front of the room. We made some significant changes to build more community, more peer support, and more ownership of the work. These included:
- Changing an environmental scan to a world cafe in which participants shared their stories about their work and the way they were able to provide services in spite of the technological challenges they faced.
- Moving from a sterile user profile process to a peer process in which participants interviewed each other on the steps that each manager goes through in meeting, processing and reporting on income assistance. We made a process timeline and participants coded their work to show where they used technology, where frustration existed in the system and where the process was bottlenecked. These became key points for the investment strategy.
- Instead of the FNTC writing the strategy themselves, each of the five consultations will appoint two participants to be a part of a sense-making group whose job is to review the work of the entire process and design the investment strategy alongside the Technology Council. This group of ten will convene to produce the final product, and hopefully deliver it to Ottawa, preserving the voice of participants in the work.
The meeting took participants by surprise and many were thrilled to be engaged in a participatory way and have their knowledge honoured. Because these people don’t often get a chance to meeting others in the same job, they were hungry for network building and sharing solutions with each other. Supporting this community will be an important part of the work going forward.
Focusing on the harvest in all of its aspects helps to create a set of enabling constraints that helps me to be a better process designer and provide a better overall experience for participants. Give the tool a try and let me know how it changes your practice.