Plan Category

Getting it: facilitating understanding,in timely chunks

Facillitation, Plan No Comments

A friend was saying this week how she now ‘gets’ her iPhone. A shop assistant was describing a feature, and she just understood it. That wasn’t always the case for her.

In the late 1990s ‘Knowledge Management’ was at the peak of its fad cycle.  And at that time I heard US leadership expert Peter Senge explain a model of learning he finds helpful. He described two sorts of knowledge transfer:

A) First The Syntactical. This is where colleagues share many common assumptions – so there is a basic level of understanding that allows easy communication of meaning. Like two chess grandmasters, one person can merely outline a new idea (e.g. on a move), and the other person gets it. They tend to be equally motivated – and connected with sufficient trust and respect to value the other point of view too. This peer to peer approach is seen in ‘communities of practice’ where there is curiosity and enough common ground to allow the use of shorthand – so things move fast. In Syntactical knowledge transfer ‘straight transmission is easy and often swift – however, even dry talks and dense articles engage becasuse the content is so meaningful and shared.
B) Or The Transformative. Here a shared understanding needs to be built – and this requires relationships to be developed, different points of view understood and the meaning of words to be explained. The quality of the experience (whether a talk or a workshop session) really matters. It takes time.

As moderators and facilitators, we are concerned with both. However, it is easy for us (or bosses or clients) to make assumptions about how fast things need to move, assumptions that might not quite reflect the needs of the group.  Our desire for pace may be due to the ambition we have of completing certain things by the end of the day and our learning style/needs, not the groups.

When designing an event we need to think of the time required to ensure each session achieves its learning goals. Thinking and asking “is this a time for syntactical or transformative learning” really helps.

So when considering the design of an agenda, here are a few pointers:

1) A facilitated day tends to be made up of four 75-90 minute chunks – interspersed with breaks (i.e. arrival, chunk 1, coffee, chunk 2, lunch etc). Think of each of these chunks as the length of a film, many sports matches or a sleep cycle. After an hour and a half or so the human body needs some movement and transition. There is a natural cycle and rhythm at work – and we do well to remember that.

2) Remember a little known Russian psychologist for the Zeigarnik effect – the legacy from Bluma Zeigarnik is that the human mind finds it helpful to be reminded what is about to happen, regularly and especially at the end of one chunk (before the break and heading into the next chunk!). This creates a helpful suspense between the parts – when we state what is coming up, others start to anticipate it and move to wanting it – a bit like a trailer in a cinema.
3) Think about how long each part within a chunk is likely to need – what will it take for the group to understand a presenters point or work through an issue? This is where knowledge transmission A or B comes in: syntactical learning means participants are ready to apply ideas much more quickly. Think of this as about how long you would allow for a scene in a film if you were a director or scriptwirter. Or, as a home viewer, are you going for fast forward or slow-mo!
4) Even when you allow longer because you know transformative learning is needed, long talks are not required.  We see in the popularity of TED talks (at less than 20 minutes each) that any input is probably best being kept short before a group can reflect, speak and apply. Do you practise the key sandwich principles for adult learning? Do make sure: first, you start with where the group is at; before taking any input/talk;, then ensuring lots of time to consider and trial and review the application of what has been learnt.
5) And a recent blog, argues that even if a presenter has a short slot, keep it shorter than scheduled anyhow! Do you rehearse your speakers? Do you know how to timekeep a contributor in an relaxed manner, stopping a session in a way that seems calm and respectful (and in tune with interest of the group)?

I hope that made sense – I sort of assumed an type A audience…did I get that right for you?

All the best in applying the ideas…these relate to the Ps of participants, principles, potential risks and process in our 13Ps.

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Scenario Planning in a Box (Blog!)

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I first started ‘Scenario Planning’ in health care over 20 years ago.  In a range of sectors it was starting to be popular, following the early successes at Shell.   Some in the NHS wanted to give it a go.  As a technique it has been in vogue ever since, through the peak fads in Y2K planning, it is now soothing leaders in austerity and turbulent times.

However scenario thinking, as I prefer to refer to it, is often misunderstood. A few ‘truths’ that are important in my scenario work are shared below. In recent years idenk has ranged  into Higher Education, revisited health systems and rippled through publishing, academic medicine, global health, IT in schools and conservation, in both the UK and abroad. I hope this knowledge and wisdom works for you.

1) There are three important timeframes to consider: the past and the present, as much as the future.

2) Always start with a clear understanding of the key questions you want (need!) to answer – question fanning is very helpful for this. Ignoring this stage is very common and leads to unfocused efforts. Take time to find out what others already know about your questions – through cascade interviews and web searching.

3) There are three ‘schools’ of futures work that trade under ‘scenario planning’: Predictive, Plausible and Preferred. For us forecasting trends isn’t really scenario work (through it can be jolly useful – and interesting, and wrong!).

4) So there are really just two sorts of scenarios: the possible and the desired. The Shell work is fundamentally about the ‘what if’ conversation that scenarios help with – prompts for conversations that explore trends in the key uncertainties outside of a group or organisations immediate control. The best example of a collaborative visioning process (that also explored undesired Scenarios) is still the Mont Fleur experience in South Africa 20 years ago – incidentally led by some staff seconded by Shell. This sort of ‘preferred future’ work prompts consideration of ‘why not’ and ‘what next’ thinking – it is about The WWW: what, who, when.

5) Scenarios are stories, pictures, metaphors: images of how the future might become – they may be written in the future, or as a narrative to describe the journey there. They are visual, in their use of diagrams and memorable through their names and slideware.

6) Allied methods are robustness testing, systems mapping and simulation. Two principles inform the judgment of which methods to use: what is best suited to understanding the question you want to answer and what pair or blend of methods provides the best ‘triangulation’. For example, behavioural simulation is very powerful in exploring the cumulative impacts of different individual interactions on choices in the short term.  But it is much less good at answering what will happen with technology and demography over a longer period of time, for example.

7) Other tools to help teams move from thinking about what to do to getting stuff done (‘minding the gap’ between inspiration and implementation) are: strategic marketing, operational planning, continuous improvement, values into practice and staff engagement. These can play into a thorough Scenario Planning process by helping to inform answers to questions such as “what do we need to keep an eye on, what is robust to do now, what new skills do we need, what should we start researching, who do we need to influence or get to know”?

8) Fundamentally good scenario work is concerned with choices today. The futures we imagine are often merely a different way of seeing what is emerging today. The psycho-dynamics of the future are neatly explained by Arie de Gues (building on early psychologists such as Bowlby and Emery): he talks of scenarios as the ‘transitional object’ to help groups productively engage with the worries (anxieties) about today. Read more of Arie’s work here – where he packages many of the insights from heading planning at Shell in a set of memorable stories and illustrations.

9) Scenario work is fundamentally a learning process – reframing deeply held assumptions requires conversation. We like the emphasis of van der Heijden on ‘the art of strategic conversation’

10) There is a massive literature, some of which I have contributed to.

11) Be aware of what you know – and what you don’t. What is your content knowledge – and what process skills do you have to facilitate the process. Where do you need support?

12) Think about what you can get for nothing through the internet, such as this timeline and many previous sets of scenarios.

13) There is a a competitive consultancy market servicing the clients that demand scenario work, in which I tend to collaborate. Please ask for more tips and pointers, for example some fun futures cartoons and slides (eg The Spectrum of Futures Methods, and the Fan of Scenario types) and workshop tools and templates, such as in this earlier blog.

14) In commissioning any project or assignment make sure you know how much you want to spend – I do believe that the Parato Principle might have been invented with Scenario Planning in mind – you can get massive returns from relatively low cost investment with careful pre work with surveys, literature searches, Delphi consultations, interviews and VoxPops.

See here for me (Phil) talking about the two sorts of scenarios at an event last year. Many felt I argued for the importance of ‘classic’ Shell style scenario work over the ‘preferred’ school. Do you agree?

Finally, why invest, why bother?…in well over 20 years of working on strategy and organisation development I have yet to find a single method that achieves so much. Scenario Planning is a bit of Trojan Horse. It promises ‘planning’ and ‘analysis’ and ‘insight’ and also delivers improved individual capacity and skills (facilitation, presentation and thinking) plus improved and sustained interaction for team development: shared goals, productive conflict, increased trust and greater corporacy. For this reason our scenario work, more than anything, has shaped the sort of wider help I am able to give now. Sometimes I think: “It transformed me”. Might it transform you and your leadership too?


The 13 Ps for Perfect Meetings

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You know of our love for alliteration (see the penultimate section) – and checklists!  Combining the two, you have had the 7Ps…now the 13Ps to help you perfect the planning for important meetings and events (the investment depends on how important they are and their scale):

1. Personal skills: what can you do (and what can’t you manage)…fill this self-assessment in on the basis of events you have led.
2. Personal preferences: think of great large events you have been to (from festivals and weddings to work ones)…what made them special?
3. Past: What is the context, history and story so far for this meeting?
4. Purpose: questions, aims, outcomes….what is the unique purpose?
5. Potential risks: what possible problems might there be…where might it go horribly wrong?
6. Pre-ordained: What is given by any leaders…what is non-negotiable? What must you do (or not to do)? What is your freedom to decide?
7. People: Thinking of participants, who is coming (or who would you like to come)?
8. Place: What is the venue, date, day of the week…what are the logistical options, costs and fixed points? How can you work around what you have if not ideal? See this for seating and other options.
9. Pre–work: what sort of survey, interviews or vox pop would research the range of opinion efficiently and clearly? Do you need to do more work searching for speakers, consultants, a better venue and thinking of how you use social media as a design team?
10. Principles: What is the style of the event you (or if working with others, the design team or leaders) want? How much of the meeting should be familiar – and how fresh would you like the experience to be? What is the degree of fixed structure and/or open flexibility you are looking to provide?
11. Process: Only now come to the agenda including online elements and connections – resist the urge to jump to here at the start!
12. Practice: what new elements are important to rehearse; are there any speakers to prep?
13. Post-event: What sort of record, gift or keeping in touch strategy do you want…plan this from the start (like how the best hospitals plan discharge – from the moment someone knows they will need to be admitted!)

In leading this planning work, especially for large meetings, try to get the triangle right in combining and balancing the views of senior leaders and staff and the potential (and barriers) the venue presents.

Good Luck!!

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Venn in action: past, present, future

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I like doing scenario planning work. It is built on an awareness of the past (shocks, surprises, events) and a view to future times (trends, drivers, uncertainties). It is also, maybe surprisingly to some, about seeing the world today as it is: it is fundamentally about the present (understanding it, acting in it).

I like this quote attributed to Lao Tzu: “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”

Being a visual person, I sometimes see the past and future as a yin yang symbol– with the present as where the two meet. But maybe a venn diagram with two circles, where the past and present overlap – maybe the overlap is bigger than we sometimes imagine. Or a three circle venn like this one – enjoy.

The key in scenario work, and maybe our individual life, is to find time and ways to

1) Reflect and learn the lessons of history

2) Scan from many points of view to spot and learn about the future(s) – plural as they are unknowable

3) Calmly embrace and live the uncertainty in the present. (fyi -this is a key part of our work on personal and organisational resilience)

Trying to see the other point of view…

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We all see things differently – our mental maps on the world and thoughts and feelings on issues of importance clearly differ (eg from population growth to organic veg to mini breaks).  However there are viewpoints that can be clumped together. Marketeers know that, and we see it in how they like to think about meaningful market segments. TESCO understand this especially well – and in a more detailed way – and have used that insight to change some of the rules of retail (by selling from Value to Finest in the same store, and building links with customers through their reward scheme).

However, how far do you try to challenge your point of view? Regularly, on a daily basis?

Three tests…

1) How many newspapers or media sources do you turn to each week? Are they just those that support your point of view, or do you seek out those that might challenge you? Is it just The Guardian? What about the tabloids? The Daily Mail? Spiked as well as The Spectator? When you see a newspaper lying about that you don’t usually read do you look the other way, pick it up to see what you disagree with or read it fascinated to discover another angle?

2) And when it comes to road use, how many of these do you do each week: walk on a pavement, run on a track, cycle on the road, drive a car, take a bus, catch a train, fly by plane? Why the interest? Road (or pavement) rage comes, we believe, from the dominance of one mode of travel – and one perspective – in our lives….

3) If you are invited to a formal debate (as one of us was recently on “Is greed destroying Cambridge”), do you want the legal or political approach. The former is where those debating are given a brief and have to argue a case even if they don’t personally believe it. The second is where the apologist and advocate argue for something they (supposedly) believe in. Whilst both can help us refine our thinking (as does the less adversarial use of the de Bono Six Thinking Hats), we tend to think the former, legal, ‘take the brief’ approach is more interesting!

So, if we are going to try and see another perspective, we first have to understand our own orientation. The next digest picks up one common tool that helps us do this…MBTI


Making meetings matter

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There are a number of resources we share on great meetings (from one book, to two articles, to many handbooks).

This recent post is interesting, despite the now routine referencing of one S Jobs, even though we don’t agree with all of it (see some of the comments on the post to get an insight why…respect, EQ etc).


All the difference a day (and many years) makes

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In a briefing in 2009  we took a long view of human history – well 100 years anyhow.

This week we have been thinking of a 30 year time frame: due to an event celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the BBC microcomputer and the massive changes that piece of kit heralded and a health care project that is looking three decades into the future.

We have stopped and thought about how the world has changed since 1982. ‘The Lion Sleeps tonight’ was number 1 in the UK this day thirty years ago, and in the time from then to today we have seen the collapse of the singles music market, whilst computing has moved rapidly to stylised phones with the ability to play music (as the technology for listening to music has cantered through CD and mp3 to streaming). In UK health care, spending has rocketed and HIV and many cancers are long term conditions.

It is easy to take the perspective of the ‘boiled frog’ and miss the many sings of change going on around us. In the FT this weekend, Simon Kuper lists a number of reasons to be cheerful  from growing GDP per person, increasing life expectancy and lowering fertility. And if you don’t like that, in The Sun Jeremy Clarkson challenges those who have been saying 1976 was the best time to be a child- he reckons today is best with Adele, iPods and better hay fever tablets (over Showaddywaddy, cassette tapes and boxes of tissues).

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Chatty brands – what is your online personality?

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We have noted before the more informal style of marketing ( ) that seems all the rage

How chatty is your brand online (both on web pages, emails and messages) – and that might mean you (ie you as a brand – even in a charity or not for profit organisation)

What about this I just received following cashing in a voucher when switching to a greener energy supplier:

“Hello Phil
Welcome to XXXXX Wines, and thank you for giving us a try.

Before you get started, we want to be totally honest with you. There might be some wines in your case you don’t enjoy.

Not because they’re bad wines. Just because we all have different tastes. That’s the lovely thing about wine!

We only want you to pay for wines you love

So if you do come across a wine that isn’t for you, then please call and we’ll put the money back in your account. Then you can spend it on some wine you DO love.

Plus… if you do decide to come back for more, we’ll make sure you never drink a dud bottle of wine again, scout’s honour.

So happy drinking, and please don’t be shy

We won’t be offended. We would much rather you told us, so we can get it right.

Just call us and ask for your Wine. They’re lovely, friendly people and they know our wines inside out!

Best Wishes”


The decade of disapointment

Plan No Comments

In technology circles, people talk of the ‘decade of disappointment’ – the lag between the awareness of the benefits and opportunities of a new approach or gadget, and the time of its widespread adoption. For example, digital interactive TV was much discussed in the early/mid 90s, but it took a further decade for the availability to be rolled out. I recall asking ‘Cambridge Cable’ in 1993 to be part of their ‘on demand’ service, that I had seen discussed in the national media. It was a decade (and 2 companies later), before something approaching the vision was available through Virgin.

Another example is the awareness of a likely convergence in computing and telephony – this happened a decade or so before the ubiquity of iPhones and the like. In health care, the potential of genetics and its application has a lapse of two decades or so – maybe due to the complexity and regulation of the science as well as other factors (such as staff attitudes and funding).

The lessons:

1) Where do you need to hold your nerve? On that change or engagement project? It is true leaders (and by that we mean anyone seeking to influence the attitudes and actions of others) need to repeat their key message and vision – and not give up ahead of the tipping point. It is the case that some loose heart just before the moment where action is just about to start.

2) What are you spotting now where some ‘what if’ planning would increase the robustness of what you are rolling out and also speed the adoption of the new and noteworthy?


Satisfaction and Confidence

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We regularly survey groups for their satisfaction on current issues and confidence in the future…

A client asked this week how we see they relate?  If satisfaction is a function of expectation, to what degree is confidence a function of aspiration?

Our view? In our experience satisfaction is inversely related to expectation – but confidence can GROW in a climate of more audacious goals…trying to do great things can feed great work and good feelings…


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