How facilitation can lead to exclusion

I was totally thrilled to go to the first Liberating Structures Global Gathering in Seattle last month, to play with my facilitation superheros. Liberating Structures are a set of facilitation tools, gathered and curated based on a strong philosophy. Their aim is to allow anyone (whether trained as facilitator or not) to facilitate better meetings, with just the right amount of structure (not too chaotic and not too rigid) and giving everyone equal opportunity to contribute. If you don’t know them yet, I recommend diving into their website…

But in this post I am not going to talk about my love for Liberating Structures but my struggle with them – because of the productive friction that comes from struggling with what you love and because I think it is important to continue adding new perspectives and shining light on blind spots. The reason I want to share this with you goes beyond Liberating Structures, because a lot of my observations below also apply to other facilitation tools, approaches and habits.

When I entered the room in Seattle I was faced with 300 people who looked like me (kinda) – mostly privileged, highly educated, fast speaking, left leaning white people. Which made me wonder: Where are the others?

Once I started asking this, I couldn’t let go of the question, so I used the three days to discuss it with friends and strangers and together we started down a messy road of exploring privilege and unintentional exclusion, and how the ways we facilitate can reinforce patterns that we intend to break.

For me this conversation isn’t done yet, though the meeting is over. Here are some initial paths that our conversations explored:

  • Time: One characteristic of most Liberating Structures is the fast paced rotation. “Spend 2 minutes to discuss with one person… then pick a new partner…” This empowers those who can think quickly on their feet and are comfortable expressing their thoughts and needs in the moment, without preparation.
  • Low Context: In these fast rotations and different group constellations, we expect that participants dive into the content immediately. In the 2 or 5 minutes you have with your new partner, you won’t have time to inquire into who they are and where their family is from, and also get the work done. This empowers those from cultures where it is appropriate to start the work without knowing the person (e.g. Germans over Ghanaians).
  • Language and Education: Many Liberating Structures aim at unearthing a group opinion and putting it in words. They rely on participants’ ability to grasp instructions quickly and put their needs/thoughts in words that engage others. This will often be easier for those people who feel comfortable of their command of the language used and of their education, with the risk of intimidating those that need some time to search for words.
  • Above the Shoulder: The majority of Liberating Structures engage primarily with the head (rational mind), ignoring heart and body. This means they lose out on possible sources of inspiration and privilege those who are more rational mind oriented.
  • Extrovert Friendly: A typical Liberating Structures event consists of a string of fast paced interactions with rotating partners or groups, rooms buzzing with conversation: invigorating extroverts and leaving introverts overwhelmed and possibly checked out at the end.
  • The Face of Facilitation: If among 300 global meeting participants there are about 10-15 people of color, none with discernible disability. few without excellent mastery of the English language, it makes me assume that in most settings the facilitator will probably be a white, able-bodied, eloquent person, sending an initial signal of: This is what the person who speaks in this room looks / sounds like.

As I said above, I love and constantly use Liberating Structures. At the same time I am really concerned about how easily we overlook the people who are not in the room and don’t hear the voices of those that remain silent. I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences, discomforts and strategies.


Can you make it more playful and more serious?

picture by Donald Zolan (and, by the way, not my child)

picture by Donald Zolan (and, by the way, not my child)

What? Everything.

Keith McCandles of Liberating Structures asked me this question when I shared my instructions for the use of network pattern cards with him. He proposed to make it more serious by inviting a group to explore a shared problem and to make it more playful by asking: “What is the pattern you would need to choose if you really wanted to mess this up?” And only after that the group would pick the pattern they think will make them succeed. This follows the idea of the liberating structure TRIZ.

His question stuck with me – way beyond the concrete discussion of how to facilitate a group experience. Now it has a place of honor on a post-it on my office wall: “Can I make it more playful and more serious?” How would my life and work be, if I made it more playful and serious.

When I am with my kids, could I have more playful openness and laugh more about things that just aren’t that important AND have the mindful focus of someone who knows that this is serious, that these few years of closeness run by quicker than you think and that every moment matters.

At my work, what would happen if I played and improvised more freely, inviting myself, my colleagues, our clients to use play for experiencing the changes we aim for in an nonthreatening environment – it’s only play after all. And what if at the same time I was much more serious about my aspiration, much braver about naming and claiming the changes I really care about, allowing myself to really care about them?

What are the things in your life that could be transformed by being more playful and more serious? Are you taking steps in that direction already?

Do your networks own you – or do you own them?


Does the bear eat you or do you eat the bear (Polar Bear Family and Me by Gordan Buchanan)

Does the bear eat you or do you eat the bear?

Coming back from the largest meeting of social network analysts, the Sunbelt Conference of the International Network of Social Network Analysis (INSNA) I realize that my approach to this question might be different from the mainstream in the field. Most researchers who are interested in social networks will ask a variation of the following questions:

  • How does the network you are embedded in determine what you get (depending on research interest the “what” can be as diverse as “money”, “weight gain” and “HIV/AIDS”)? Or:
  • How is your network determined by who you are (looking at the network differences between men and women, rich and poor, sick and healthy, new and old staff etc.)

I guess, that’s what most researchers do, looking at how one thing is determined by something else. I am much more interested in the practical and proactive question:

  • Once you understand your network, what can you do about it?

Network researchers make a compelling case (backed up with a lot of evidence) that network structures do indeed influence what you can achieve or what risks will come your way. And it is obvious that different people have networks are structured differently. But wouldn’t it be great to get a better understanding of what individuals and groups can (and cannot) do to improve their network structure and content to be happier, achieve more of what they want, get out of painful, limiting and dysfunctional network relations?

Have you been able to change your networks? Why did you do it and how? What was difficult? What was easy? Did it change what you can give and get? I’d love to hear from you.

And if you want to find out what happens to the man in the glass box as he is visited by a hungry ice bear (picture above), you will find an amazing video here:

We’re all just half-angels

Angle, Devil or what? (copyright by kcmckell on flickr)

Researching public health politics in Africa in the daytime and re-reading Tortilla Flats by Steinbeck at night. And both point from different directions toward my most difficult challenge in trying to understand the world: We are all just half-angels. Most of us want to be good people, or to at least think of ourselves as good people. And we have selfish needs and wants and evil impulses as well. The characters in Tortilla Flats are all charming drinkers who come up with the most twisted arguments for making their selfish behavior sound like they are doing the other person a favor: Everybody knows that money doesn’t make you happy and separates you from your poorer friends, so by not paying rent to their friend Danny they actually save him from this sad and lonely fate…

Now what do these guys have in common with health workers and advocates in Africa? Not much from the first look of it, because the outside observer can easily come to the conclusion that Danny’s friends are the bad people while people who dedicate their lives to health care in Africa must be angels. Steinbeck writes most of his novel from the perspective inside different people’s heads, so you can see how they negotiate their different impulses and how much thought they put into getting what they want AND feeling like good people at the same time. Obviously, it is written in a humorous and exaggerated way. But is it so far from what we all do every day?

When I look back at my first hand experience in and research about health systems in different African countries, I realize that people enter the health professions for a broad mix of reasons, ranging from “saving babies’ lives” to “income”, “power” and “status”. And while most professions carry mixed motivations, in a field like health they are especially obvious, because what you can achieve is so large. Imagine, you can save someone’s live! What a large and gloriously good thing to do. But also: How powerful it makes you, when everyone knows you are the one who can save lives – how tempting to use this power for your own benefit (e.g. by demanding excessive charges or favors). And where there are temptations (call them incentives, if you are an economist), people will give in to them. Not all will give in to the same extent, but very few will completely resist, especially if they know that their behavior will not be sanctioned. At the same time, they will try to keep the self-image of being an ultimately good person. And for many, the result will not be too far from what Danny’s friends do…

But why is this my biggest challenge in understanding the world? Because I love a clear and simple story. I want to be able to have clear feelings and unambiguous answers. My clients like them too, by the way. So I want to be able to say: This system or person is corrupt and not working. And this system or person is not corrupt and working very well. These are the good and these are the bad people, the angels and the devils. But if I delay putting things in boxes labeled “good” and “bad” and instead just allow them to tell me their story and observe what they do, I realize that we are all just half-angels. Yes, I have seen some people with a much larger leaning towards selfless or selfish behavior than others. But another typical character I have met a lot in my research is the powerful person who wears both wings and horns in XXL, the very charismatic, well connected guy (or lady) who achieves far more for “his people” than others in his position would, and, at the same time, lines his pockets with more bribes and favors than anyone else could extract from this position. How am I to think and write about him? What do I recommend? Do we want a smaller person in his position, who achieves less for his people and his own pockets? May we find a full angel, or let’s say a three-quarter one to replace this guy and tilt the scale a bit towards public benefit? Can we change the system, it’s incentives and opportunities in a way that reigns in the selfish behavior better? Or do I just decide, depending on whether I am a cynic or romantic, to close one eye and only see either the wings or the horns and praise or condemn wholeheartedly?

Facilitation Zen: Achieve more by doing less

Will I eventually facilitate participatory group processes by inviting no-one to sit in a dark room and breathe with me?

What will happen if you let things happen? (picture by wrestlingentrophy on flickr)

Well, not quite. But after my recent insight about getting more participants by inviting less people, today is all about getting more results by doing less. When you are called to facilitate group processes it is easy to think that you get more effective the harder you work, the more methods you know and use and the more of your wisdom you share. So you squeeze your schedule full of activities, using participatory this-that-and-the-other techniques, some energizer games in between… and your poor participants get exhausted trying to follow your speed and rarely get to finish discussing an interesting thought, because it doesn’t quite fit into your tight time plan. And because everything takes longer than you thought, you decide to shorten the break time (when they could finish the discussions you interrupted).

And some of them will think – or even say – “Please, do what you want with us, but stop facilitating us!”. Because they come to think of facilitation as something that is done to them, where they are squeezed into the pre-defined mold of a game-like methods with complicated rules that become so much more important than the serious issues that the group tries to solve. I write about this because I know it – from the perspective of a participant and as an occasional over-facilitator.

I know that over-facilitation often comes from being nervous, trying to do things extra well and the fear of the unexpected, of, even worse, silence. But I also know that from the perspective of the participants it can feel patronizing, like being pushed around and as if my concerns are not taken as seriously as some abstract plan developed beforehand.

If you find yourself in the role of a facilitator and planner of participatory processes and often hear yourself telling your participants to move faster, cutting breaks or engaged discussions short, or spending more time explaining the rules of an activity than actually doing it… go into a dark room alone and do some breathing… And when you come back, have a look at your next workshop plan. Cut the number of activities in half. Plan for longer breaks. When you plan how much time you allot for one activity, don’t ask yourself: “What is the minimum amount of time we would need to do this?” but “What is the amount of time in which we could comfortably do this?” Don’t get too attached to your method but rather stay connected to what the group wants out of this. And allow yourself to change course if you see that you are not getting there.

Some of the most liberating and powerful moments that I have had when facilitating were when I stopped whatever we were doing and admitted: “I have the feeling this is not working for you. I get the sense that XYZ is going on. Is this true? What do you think? I could offer you three different ways of continuing…” And, I must admit, I had some of the most useless, dull and passive aggressive sessions when I knew that things were not working but instead of saying so and asking the group for help, I felt like I had to stick to the plan and just push harder.

Does this ring a bell? I’d love to hear from your experience as over- or zen-facilitator and of your best and worst experiences of “being facilitated”…

Why Donor Coordination Fails

This giraffe doesn't care if it is safed with or without donor coordination (copyright, Hope Hill on flickr)

If you have worked in the field of international development, you will have come accross Donor / NGO Coordination Forums in nearly all developing countries you go to. You have heard their great promises of reducing redundancies and increasing impact and you have observed how difficult that is to achieve in practice. So, why, as all donors are interested in ending poverty, is co-ordination such a challenge?

I think it has something to do with the fact that there are two kinds of goals: One kind is out in the open while the other is treated like a dirty secret. Talk about healing the sick. But don’t talk about increasing the visibility of your organization. Talk about saving the rhinos. Don’t talk about your own salary increase or job security. Talk about feeding babies in Africa. But please, don’t talk about fighting for more funding for next year. Talk about improving agricultural productivity of poor farmers. But don’t dare to talk about competing with other organizations in the same field.

Sometimes it can be much easier to work in the corporate sector, where everyone is expected to have self-serving, profit-maximising goals and any greater good is just an added luxury.

In reality though, most people (both in the corporate and non-profit world) want to do good and do well at the same time. Their motivation is a mix of making the world a better place and being able to feed their families (and build a house, buy a porsche etc.).

So what happens when the non-profit world denies the existence of self-serving goals in their own ranks? Do they just go away, because you are not allowed to talk about them? No. What would have been a healthy combination of goals gets split up into official and underground goals. All official communication in the broadest sense, project planning and evaluation has to be performed as if the official goals where all there was. And because the underground goals are supressed there tends to be a build up of pressure, explosions at unexpected points, double-talk and commitments no-one intends to keep: they sabotage those projects that pretend they don’t exist.

And that’s where we get back to the donor coordination bodies: One of the underlying hopes of organizing these forums is to be able to join forces behind the common goal and make competition between organizations disappear. Let’s just ignore the selfish goals of “I want my signboard on this project!” and “We need to show our donors that we as organization made an impact!” and “I have to show my bosses I am worth my money!” and they will disappear. Or, will they?

A less romantic but more effective approach to coordination would be: Let’s put all the goals on the table. Behind closed doors and in a comfortable and trusted environment. Let’s talk about the balancing act all of us have to perform between doing good and doing well (as individuals and organizations). How it can be a challenge to remain somewhere in the middle between zynical and idealistic and actually get the job done. That’s ok. That doesn’t make you a bad person, it makes you a hero (at least in my books). And let’s see how we can share and divide responsibilities, blame and glory in a way that helps us realize synergies for our greater good and feed our own families as well. The commitments you would get out of a meeting like this would be less glorious. But so much more likely to be followed up on. And, honestly, the poor (and the rhinos, for that matter), don’t care about your beautiful official commitments but about what you actually deliver – with or without official donor coordination.

Who is good at qualitative network analysis?

I’m struggling with this. And learning while I struggle. Have you been in situations, where you know intuitively what you are doing and it works wonderfully and then you try to teach someone, hire someone to do the same and you just can’t explain it? It’s hit and miss, either they get it or not… Qualitative network analysis is one of these things. So let me try to tell you how I think it works and you can see if that makes sense:

You collect network data in a way that involves collecting network narratives (stories about how the network works) and a visual representation of the network.

You look at the network picture, take the network narratives as an important source of answers to the questions “How?” and “Why?” and try to say something about how network structures are linked to network performance. Not by calculating indicators but by understanding the structural logic of the network.

What do you need to be able to do this well? I have found that it is a combination of training and network intuition. Let’s start with the training. You need to know how to handle qualitative data, which is something you can be trained in. And I have found that training in quantitative network analysis greatly helps in being able to detect patterns and structural issues, even if you don’t do the actual quantitative analysis. If you know what eigenvector centrality is, you will start to look for actors who are connected to the well connected.

But what is network intuition? With my colleague Noora Aberman, who does a lot of the in-country trainings at the moment, I have tried to figure out why it is that some people just “get it” immediately whereas for others learning Net-Map is like swimming up-river. It seems to be a rather fundamental difference, not so much grounded in the training that people had but much more in their general view of the world.

Some people see the world as a networked place where structures are very relevant to determine outcomes, where power is an important ingredient structuring human interaction. When they tell you two stories, they will often think about what was the common thread and what you can learn from this for similar situations. But even though they believe in the importance of structures they don’t necessarily believe it’s as simple as A+B=C and often struggle with determining simple straightforward causalities. When they get in contact with social network analysis for the first time, there is this beautiful moment, when there is a spark in their eyes and they say: “This is how I have seen the world all along, I just didn’t have the language for it.” Then they are hooked.

In our trainings we have met (very simplified, obviously) two other types, who found it much more difficult to master Net-Map and use it to it’s full potential. And that is, again, mainly because of their general view of the world. One group are the very qualitatively oriented, people who tell you two stories and are acutely aware of all the differences between them. If you talk about structures they feel like you are generalizing too much, not taking into account the specific issues that just concern this actor in this moment in time. I have some colleagues who love using Net-Map as a tool to allow interview partners to tell them their story in all necessary detail and would prefer not doing anything with the map afterwards, because for them it has served it’s purpose already. The map doesn’t tell them anything.

On the other end of the spectrum I meet very quantitatively oriented people, who initially get very excited about Net-Map (and social network analysis in general) because they expect that it will help them deal with complexity and give them a formula to compute it and finally say the answer is 42. Or: This is the most important actor in the network. Just from the quantitative indicators. No matter what individual sits on this chair, the network position of the chair determines how the person will act. They get excited when we start looking into the quantitative network indicators. But when they ask me: “What is the best value of XY centrality” I have to tell them “That depends…” Often when I work with people who have this more quantitative mindset, they find it easier to detect the network structures in the picture – but more difficult to elicit the narrative we need and to digest it’s whole richness, instead of just thinking about the fact that A is linked to B.

My very practical concern at the moment: How do you find out whether someone will have a talent for qualitative network analysis BEFORE you go through the effort of training them?

Georeferenced Net-Map

Many people think about geography if they hear the term map. And I have often discussed with colleagues how we could georeference Net-Maps to see whether and how geographical location influences network position and power of actors. Intuitively it makes sense that it should, somehow, but it can be tricky to find out which location does make an actor influential: For example if you talk about the successful implementation of a project that focusses on rural small farms, who would be most influential, those actors who are closest to the farms or those who are closest to the funding sources? Are there certain network connections (e.g. chain of command in a line ministry, ethnic ties between president and the people of one region) that can surpass geographic distance?

I have just exchanged emails with a colleague who is planning to draw a Net-Map on top of a geo-map and I am curious how that works. Will it lead to surprising new insights? Will there be confusion because the map becomes to messy? Will the visual analysis be instructive enough to get a new understanding of the connection between social networks, space and influence?

Ethics in Social Network Analysis

Interviewees should be open because they feel safe - not confused

When you do normal survey kind research, it’s easy to ensure the anonymity of your respondents, because you are not interested in their characteristics as Peter, Paul or Mary but just want to use them as representatives for a specific type of person in your population. Network data is fundamentally different in that as a researcher you can only make sense of the data if your respondents identify specific other actors by name. Borgatti and Molina have written a great paper about what that means in organizational research. In research that is just meant for publication the researcher can remove any individual names and other identifiers for the publication. But if you use network tools in a background where facilitating change is one of the goals, the data is so much more powerful if you know who is who. For example, if one person in the administration is a real bottleneck to the success of the project, the difference between knowing that “one person in the administration” is a bottleneck and “Peter Miller” is a bottleneck is huge – both for the ones who want change (e.g. the management) and for Peter Miller. In their paper, Borgatti and Molina propose to expand the standard consent form (which binds researcher and respondent) to include the organization’s management as well, committing them not to use the resulting data to evaluate individual performance.

One general ethical issue that I have seen come up with social network analysis is that most people don’t understand how the answers they give will be analysed, what they will be turned into. Some SNA researchers see this as positive, it makes their work easy because it minimizes strategic answering… Well, call me crazy, but I think my interview partners should have all the right in the world to answer strategically, if they want to. Sure, I would prefer if they trusted me and my research enough, to open up and tell me things how they are. But I don’t want to trick them into telling me stuff they wouldn’t have told me, if only they had known what I would do with it afterwards. And this is where one of the strengths of network mapping (as compared to survey style SNA) lies: My respondents see what they are doing while they give their answers. They can reflect on the complete picture and see if that’s what they actually wanted to say. We meet at the same level, instead of me trying to wiggle some information out of slightly confused research objects. I don’t even do any magic afterwards with the data (as you do when transforming survey answers into network diagrams). Even though that might be a good strategy for getting the next contract, doing magic that my clients can’t do… But I actually want them to walk away with the feeling: “That was great! I learned something! I could do this as well!” And if they really want to make me happy, they go on and analyse their next problem by drawing a network map.

Change: (You) say it, (I) do it (maybe…)

Or the other way round.

picture by psp

There might be people out there, who find all the change they need within themselves. But when I look at how Net-Map moved from toys in a cookie tin to what it is now, I know that I met a significant guide at most of the important cross-roads. Someone who says: “This might be the best idea you’ll have in your life, stick with it for a while, don’t run away because you’re bored, don’t assume you’ll invent something more interesting tomorrow” (John Mason of NCRC, Ghana), “Give it a name, turn it into a toolbox, make it a recognizable product – and we’ll help you do it.” (Klaus von Grebmer and his communications team at IFPRI), “WRITE THESE RESEARCH PAPERS! This is how people learn about Net-Map and start taking it seriously.” (Regina Birner at IFPRI), “We’re all doing it and you can also be independent and thrive!” (Mark Steinlin, Nancy White and so many other colleagues at KM4Dev)

Today is my personal international “Thank the change agents day”. It’s amazing how that works, because change has to be outside and within at the same time, this brief moment that is like an opened door. Because we all know how often people encourage us to change this or that and we just feel like: “Leave me alone and mind your own business.” But every once in a while you meet people who hear the change that is brewing in you already and give you the one question, advice, criticism that you need to jump. It does make you wonder: Who or what opens this door?

Ok, in the end you have to do all the hard work to make it happen, and, let me tell you, change never comes for free… But, would you even have tried without this random or pointed remark?

My last change agent encounter was actually with more than one… more than one customer asking me for the same time slot, wanting me to be in different corners of the world at the same time. And then I sat down with my partner in crime Noora Aberman (IFPRI) and we asked ourselves: How can Net-Map grow beyond our own limited capacity? How much sharing and how much control is needed so that it can spread wide and still not be diluted too much? Can I let go? Of what? How does collaboration work if I don’t want to employ?

I don’t know. Yet. But I will find out. And I’m asking all my friends to tell me what they think… So if you have made an idea grow beyond your own limited size – or if you failed to do so and learned a lot along the way – tell me what you have learned and you might be on the golden list on my next “thank the change agents day”…