Communication for Collaboration

One of the challenges for project teams where there is collaborative between different organisations and professionals is the lack of a common language. We all use short cuts in our language and descriptions within our own circles and it is easy to assume that others will understand you without needing any further assistance.

As facilitators we will often run sessions at project kick off meetings to help explore the project goal or problem by explaining it by using visual methods. One of our more challenging recent projects has been to bring together people working in the energy industry, systems engineers and academics to agree the research programme needed to develop an energy system for the UK.

The breakthrough for our client and for the participants was an early activity when we invited participants to explain the challenge of the future energy system by creating a model. Our client from the UK Energy Systems Catapult team commented that for him the highlight of the event was

“watching the construction and explanation of models of the energy system put together using balloons, card, pipe cleaners and sticky back plastic”

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Initially he had been concerned that this activity would be too radical and too “playful” for this group of senior professionals but he realised how the activity helped created a level playing field for the communication across all the different professions in the room.

We agreed that created a shared visual understanding enabled the group to work more constructively together so that they were able to complete the task of creating the future research programme and were able to build potential collaborations for the future.

We only get out the pipe cleaners if they have a clear purpose, there are many other ways to explore a topic to reach a shared understand and the power of visual communication can really help with your team collaboration so take a risk to communicate differently!

Christine Bell

http://www.centreforfacilitation.co.uk

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Strategic Planning in a World of Uncertainty

In the UK there seems to be consensus on just one issue, uncertainty has increased since the UK Brexit vote on 23rd June. In our organisations, one key question is how to manage uncertainty and lead our organisations through the coming months and years?

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As the floods have taught us, nothing is predictable and stable!

Today’s UK situation reminds me of a business situation I experienced several years ago. During this period of uncertainty we ran a series of workshops using the ‘exploratory approach’ to Scenario Planning.  This workshops had a big impact on our business and helped us to move forward through the ‘fog’ with some confidence – we managed uncertainty.

The situation then, in early 1990’s, was that the company I worked for faced a high degree of technical uncertainty. The company was very successful in fixed cabled voice telephones. All around the world was changing rapidly. Desktop computing, mobile computing, mobile telephony, high speed data, wireless technology were all perceived as an opportunity, or threat, to the company’s traditional technology and product base.

Using Scenario Planning

I was part of the management team that addressed this, assisted by external facilitators, using the exploratory approach to scenario planning. People with differing perspectives worked together in workshops to describe 4 alternative, but possible futures. The possibilities were that the future of communication would be dominated by

  • Low Cost
  •  High data rate demand;
  •  Maximum mobility;
  •   Maximum security (of information)

The objective was not to predict what the future would be, (that was too uncertain), rather to create a series of plausible futures. This approach had the advantage that different perspectives were automatically valued and listened to and captured. (Interestingly, 30 years on, we could debate how things have evolved. In practice, I believe that it is a hybrid of the possible scenario worlds we described at that time).
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Once we had defined the 4 plausible futures or ‘scenarios’ we looked at each in turn and addressed what actions (e.g. technology development, product development, skills development), we could take to prepare ourselves to prosper in that world. When that was completed for all 4 plausible futures, we found that some actions were appropriate for all 4 of the different scenarios; whilst some actions were unique to a single scenario.

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The important point is that the work we did on the scenarios enabled the marketing, technology and new product development teams to prioritise and focus on actions which would be very relevant, useful and revenue generating in 2 or 3 of the scenarios.

Decisions were made and we emerged from the process with a clear agreed plan of strategic and tactical actions – we were managing in uncertainty!

Nigel Chapman, Director, Centre for Facilitation

To discuss ideas for future strategy planning events contact us via our website

Making Business Meetings Productive

Business meetings are often limited to 1 to 2 hours. They need to be tightly controlled to avoid overrunning and to make sure that you make effective use of everyone attending.

Contrary to some popular belief, meetings can be useful if run effectively.  Many organisations use meetings well to:

  • Have a dialogue to reach a decision of importance the organisation/project/team
  • Identify key themes for a future strategy or plan
  • Share challenges and explore options to address these

Last night was a significant achievement for the club. We made key decisions about important issues and were finished by 9.30. There were smiles and people are now looking forward to future meetings. Thanks for helping us to change the way we do things – Paul Luxton

To create a useful meeting a few simple steps can help you along the pathway to productivity.

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Clarify the Purpose

What is the meeting for? Too many meetings exist because historically they have always done so. In the days before electronic communication meetings were an effective way of getting a message out to everyone at one time but to just use a meeting as a one way information giving forum is a total waste of time. Using email, social media and discussion boards will achieve this end more effectively.

Once you are clear on the purpose of the meeting you can decide who needs to be involved and then get down to the business of setting the agenda about what needs to be discussed. Check out ABC of meetings

Manage the Agenda

Your agenda for your meeting is an essential planning tool. It should set out why each item is being discussed, what outcome you need from the meeting (eg a decision, a commitment for action) and should give an allocation of time based which is agreed with the item presenter.

We intervened with a community sports group who had a regular business meeting which started at 7.45 and often did not finish until 10.45. The team recognised that they had a problem and that “the kind of meetings we have now are neither enjoyable, productive or sustainable”.

We worked with the chair and secretary to analyse the last three meetings and to review the purpose of their face to face meetings. We used this to create a list of guidelines to club members setting out the criteria for bringing items to the committee and some other options that could be used to disseminate information.

The result was that the following committee meeting had a limited agenda and was over in 1.5 hours leaving the committee time to talk to each other and socialise, sharing their love of their sport.

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Reviewing agendas

Making Decisions

Most items discussed at a meeting will result in a decision. Be clear about whether that decision needs to be made by a majority vote or by reaching consensus. If aiming for consensus you need to provide more time to allow clarification of concerns to be raised and have a clear process to follow

A major engineering project was starting to fall behind schedule due to communication issues and conflict between the three project teams. We facilitated a process so the teams could outline their expectations of each other’s behaviour. It was important that everyone was involved in the decision about behavioural expectations so we used the colour consensus cards so people could flag green for agreement, red for disagreement and yellow for some concerns.

Items were only accepted if we could reach a mainly green/yellow consensus. If there were any red cards showing after the consensus discussion the item had to be put to one side.  Although this is not a quick process it does make sure that only items that have full commitment are agreed to.

Other methods to make decisions are to take a vote of members and make the decision based on the majority viewpoint.  In smaller groups it is better to ask each attendee to state their position by going round in turn. This can help the views of the minority be heard and also makes it harder to make a decision because the chair assumes everyone is in agreement.

We worked with a community gardening project who had reached stalemate on a decision, they just could not reach consensus. We guided a structured process to explore both the advantages and disadvantages of the two options and then did a final round to hear what everyone’s preference was for. It was clear that the majority preferred one option and it was helpful for this to be heard so that although consensus could not be reached the two members who opposed the option were able to accept that this was the overall preference for the whole group and they stepped back from their opposition.

“I know we did not reach a consensus and we are losing two people but this has happened in a moving forward and respectful manner” Roxanna Summers, Back to Front

Allocate Actions

A meeting with no action is pointless. You also want to avoid the actions all being allocated for one person (often the chair!) Two tips which often help are:

  • Prepare a wall chart with everyone’s name on it and then space for actions to be recorded against their name, this avoids some leaving the meeting with lots of actions and some with none. It makes it very visual and can help to prompt the chair to remind people to commit to a specific action.
  • The chair of the meeting can respond proactively to comments made during the meeting to convert these into action – “thanks for that x, can you follow that up with x and email out the outcome, we will record that in the action plan”

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Minutes

The minutes can be drafted in advance based on the purpose of each item so they use the agenda to shape an introduction to each item and the purpose of the discussion and then record the actions to be taken.

It is useful to summarise the planned actions in an action plan as well so that there is an easy document to track progress before the next meeting.

Part of the planning for the next meeting will involve the chair or secretary reviewing the agreed actions and checking on progress so this can be minuted in advance of the meeting and a very short verbal overview given.

Review what went well and how to improve

At the end of the meeting set aside 5-10 minutes to share what worked well and to give constructive tips for the next meeting. Read our blog on Agile Team Working – making time to talk

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If you would like one of our facilitators to talk to you about how to make your meetings more focused, engaging, productive and shorter then give us a call.