Panels, participation and press releases – Rhizome at the Rebellious Media Conference

Both Carl and I were busy at the Rebellious Media Conference last weekend. We facilitated the 2 participant-led sessions –  a short Open Space on ‘Activism and the Media on Saturday, and the “Have Your Say” session on Sunday. Neither were heavily attended, but that’s hardly surprising given the weight of other things in the programme. And there was plenty of ‘open space’ happening without the need for facilitation over tea and coffee. However, it felt important to offer the space in a conference with more than its fair share of panel debates, experts and big name speakers.

I was also facilitating a couple of short workshops on engaging  the mainstream media (which felt a little out-of-place at the Rebellious media conference). The first was on writing effective press releases, including a short section on engaging the media strategically to ensure that we use them and don’t let them use us. Given it started at 9.30 on a Sunday morning, I was gratified to find the room full. It was a lively session which, if the evaluations are anything to go by, people found useful:

“Excellent communicator…. practical exercises were very useful and I learnt good skills”

“Fantastic session”

There was however a request for “more time for the practical exercise” which is a very fair point – we were a little behind schedule by the time we got to the final press release writing activity, for example.

I like to think that the workshop draws heavily on the experience of the folk in the room. One way I sometimes draw that out is through a simple ‘press release quiz’. Sharing the answers brings out the full spectrum of knowledge in the room. I thought I’d type it out and upload it, so go test your knowledge of writing effective press releases!

The second was on giving interviews. Many people come to a session of this kind thinking that they have no experience of interviews. In practice we’re all experts in what works and what doesn’t in TV and radio interviews. We consume so many of them through our TVs and radios, that even if we’ve never given one the groundwork is there. It’s simply a matter of distilling those lessons and applying them. This workshop was a space for people to do just that – help each other to prepare an interview, give it a go and get some supportive feedback. Again the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but then people always appreciate a supportive space to practice.

For those who couldn’t make it but want to be involved, there’s an interactive website where the conversation and organising is still happening


A space to learn about Open Space

Here’s a shameless plug for an event I’m facilitating in Birmingham on September 1st on Facilitating Open Space as part of the Environmental Training Network’s wider programme.

The last couple of years seem to have seen a real growth in interest in Open Space Technology in the campaigning NGO community, and we’re receiving regular requests to facilitate it. However, in the spirit of putting ourselves out of work as quickly as possible we’d also like to encourage organisations to develop their own skills and capacity. This is one such opportunity.

Here’s the June 2011 to March 2012 ETN Programme, including booking details. Hope to see you there.

Re-energising activists

A week ago, I spent the day in the company of NGO Capacity Building Forum folk, facilitatingWordle: Capacity Building a day of Open Space and skill sharing. The theme for the day was Re-energising and Re-motivating Activists, and it drew a crowd from 14 or so NGOs that work with grassroots networks of activists – individuals or groups. There was certainly a lot of energy and motivation in the room. As always with the Forum, ideas, problems, experience and solutions were shared freely and everyone went away with new contacts and new ideas to try out.

The format was simple – a morning with a couple of hour-long Open Space conversations, followed by a sharing of insights, issues and themes which the group then ranked to give us 2 top priorities to work on in the afternoon. Over lunch I worked with 3 others from the group to develop these 2 ideas into 90 minute skill sharing sessions to explore those themes, which we then delivered in 2 co-facilitation pairs. 

The idea that emerged top of the pile was how campaigning organisations could work together more effectively. The next choice was around activists working effectively as part of their local communities – in other words being active in a community rather than being a slightly separate community of activists. Both were delivered using a mix of tools, but we set out to make them as experiential as possible after a morning of talk, with one session drawing on forum theatre whilst the other used a fishbowl roleplay.

I’d asked one of my co-facilitators to run the evaluation in advance and the technique used was one I hadn’t come across before. He drew a large hand, fingers outspread, on a piece of flipchart paper and asked everyone to write upto 1 comment per finger on post-it notes. Each finger represents a different view of the event and it’s outcomes:

  • thumb – thumbs up, so something that was positive or ‘cool’
  • index finger – used for pointing, so something you’d like to point out – could be positive, negative or neither
  • middle finger – improvements, things that worked less well for you
  • ring finger – think engagement rings, so something that you’re now committed to doing
  • little finger – what you’re hooked on – an idea that grabbed your attention and got you interested

The evaluation was very affirming all told. Here’s a sample of responses:

  • thumb – the Open Space and the opportunity to meet and network
  • index finger – “Role plays hard but makes you think issues from different angle”, “Best open space I’ve done”, “Should replicate [the event] for activists”, “Need more action planning”
  • middle finger – more skills sessions, some complaints about the room we were using (it was hard to keep it well-ventilated), and requests for a more specific topic, were amongst the suggested improvements
  • ring finger – “Open Space”, “shaking up existing groups”, “learning more facilitation techniques”, “encourage activists linking up”
  • little finger – lots of excitement about storytelling (the topic of one of the morning’s conversations), and connecting activists in diverse communities and in more personal relationships

A small working group went away tasked to make th next event happen later this year. As always, if you want to hear about NGO Capacity Building Forum events, drop us a line and we’ll ensure you get on the email list

Opening Open Space

One of our jobs recently was to provide some mentoring support to groups organising an Open Space in the wake of 6 Billion Ways. I spent an hour with people from FoE, WDM and the Jubilee Debt Campaign talking through how they might use an Open Space format with anything from 20 to 200 people.

The conversation ranged over issues like framing or not framing, anxieties about being the ‘facilitator’, how to flow with potential chaos, materials needed, how the output could and would be used; and who was going to be responsible for some post event co-ordination. I also shared some prepared materials and suggested they get in touch if they felt they needed a de-brief.

A link to Open Space resources here at the bottom of the section.

Who you gonna call?

We regularly report back via the blog on workshops, meetings and events at which we’re working. We often don’t find time to mention the support we offer by phone. I type this because towards the end of last year I seemed to be doing this quite a bit. And it’s something I find quite satisfying – one less train journey, and more importantly, helping a group or organisation to be more self-sufficient.

  • In the latter weeks of 2010 I spent time on the phone with a facilitator from Climate Camp helping explain the intricacies of Open Space and coaching him through the process.
  • Having delivered one workshop at Leeds University, I wasn’t able to make another date, but was able to offer support from a distance to 2 students who felt confident enough to take the workshop on themselves with appropriate support. We talked through possible tools they might use to achieve their ends (forming affinity groups for upcoming protest at education cuts)
  • And then So We Stand wanted an external facilitator for an internal visioning meeting. Again, not able to be there in person, I was able to be on the end of the phone a day or two in advance. A discussion and some (hopefully) well-chosen questions clarified the aims of the day and the agenda needed to meet those aims.

At other times we’ve been asked to spend half an hour commenting on an agenda for a training session, asked  to suggest a specific technique for a certain part of an agenda, asked to support groups through the development of a co-operative structure and so on.

So to quote Ray Parker.. “Don’t get caught alone, no, no….. who you gonna call?”

Shared planets and open spaces: part 2


Shared Planet agenda wall - improvising without a wall

It seems like I’m blogging about Open Space with regularity nowadays. Awareness of the technique is clearly growing amongst the campaigning NGOs and networks with whom I do a lot of my work. And it’s being used to good effect. Of course it’s a far from perfect methodology and some of the issues were touched on in the first part of this post. I’m hoping to bring you a fuller critique of Open Space sometime soon.


In the meantime, Open Space was in use at the Climate Camp gathering in Manchester on Saturday and at People & Planet’s Shared Planet conference on Sunday. Rhizome was able to offer a little phone support to climate camp folk on how Open Space might work in the context of their meeting. I was at Shared Planet on Sunday giving more direct support to Beth from the People & Planet staff team who was facilitating an Open Space that day.

When P&P first asked for support we outlined a number of possible options, from facilitating the day ourselves, to training them to do so, to the option they finally chose: training P&P staff as Open Space facilitators and offering ongoing support by phone, email, and in person on the day. On Sunday, my role was to troubleshoot, help physically set up the space, and offer Beth any support she needed. On the morning this amounted to getting on with co-ordinating the physical set up whilst she found herself time to grab a coffee and sit and rehearse her opening spiel. Once she was ready, we walked through her spiel to fine tune it. I’ll speak with her later this week to debrief the opening of the space This model of support is very satisfying. It would have been easier (and cheaper) for P&P to simply ask us to facilitate the day, but instead we transferred the skills to their staff team, and were able to help consolidate them through the ongoing support.


Balloons to mark breakout spaces

On a more random Open Space note, P&P opted for 20 breakout spaces. The venue (the rather grand Aston Web Great Hall at the University of Birmingham) wouldn’t allow us to affix anything to the walls, so someone had the ide of using helium filled balloons tied to chairs to mark breakout spaces. Perhaps not the most eco-friendly option, but it made me smile and served its purpose well. Although breakout space number 20 did pop…..


Consensus: the deep end

13 participants and 4 facilitators, including myself, gathered in Oxford this weekend for Consensus: in at the deep end a full weekend workshop to explore consensus decision-making in more depth than consensus training usually allows.

Of course consensus is a widely used word. You hear it everywhere – the Blairs, Browns and Camerons of this world are constantly talking about reaching consensus in parliament, at the United Nations or the G8. Usually they mean that enough weight of opinion has formed around the dominant world-view that it will hold sway. So what’s new. That’s not the consensus we were exploring in the workshop.

Rather we were talking (and doing!) about a radical process that challenges people to co-operate at a deep level in order to achieve outcomes that don’t alienate, and don’t create disaffected minorities. It demands empathy, deep listening, the willingness to suspend personal agendas, openness to surprise, creativity and new ideas and a genuine attempt to find solutions that work for everyone.

The weekend’s agenda was handed firmly over to the participants. Friday evening was spent in reflection on people’s personal and collective understanding of consensus. Instead of creating a group agreement the group explored the underlying concepts – how to make the group fully accessible to those at the margins of the group.

To satisfy the inevitable urge for discussion, Saturday morning was spent in Open Space. The group then identified the issues that they most wanted to take forward into a more experiential phase of the workshop. Whilst they took a 30 minute break, we facilitators huddled and created experiential activities to explore and learn deeper skills around those issues.

The values of consensus proved to be a strong theme throughout. Consensus is often seen and taught as a decision-making process, and of course it is. But the process is only a framework for a way of inter-relating. Consensus is a state of mind and heart which is expressed through a decision-making process. It seems to me that understanding that state of mind/heart is far more powerful and effective than understanding the technicalities of a decision-making process without having that grounding in the values that it enshrines. Here’s a reflection from one of the participants, taken from an email I received this week

Something that really had an effect was the ‘persuasion exercise’ with someone against the wall and through dialogue attempting to bring them towards the larger group. It really brought home the point for me that when entering into political dialogue I will often wear the ‘party hat’ and actually to build strong consensual networks and relationships that hat needs to come off more often than not- to create a space to share common values and ideas that can lead to action together- with folk that share similar politics and also those who don’t.

Consensus is practiced widely here in the UK, but often at a shallow level with plenty of competition, poor communication and intolerance within what is supposed to be a co-operative, empathetic model.

I’m not sure how deep we got, but we certainly created activities that gave participants the chance to develop the practice of empathy, listening, and supportive curiosity. We threw them into high pressure roleplay to explore the pre-conditions for effective consensus. We practiced facilitating groups to not only reach decisions but to understand the values of consensus more deeply by the end of a meeting. And we explored tools and techniques that could be used in the consensus process.

I haven’t read the evaluations yet. I left those with my co-facilitators in Oxford. When I see them I’ll share them.

For me it was a good weekend – engaged participants and the challenge of designing the agenda as we went along, which I think we rose to.

Local groups: successes and challenges

The NGO Forum met on Thursday at WDM’s offices in London. The session focused on learning from each other about supporting local group networks. The topic was obviously a hot one as about a dozen new organisations responded to the publicity and joined the session. Many of them are at the early stages of founding networks, or wanting to grow existing small networks.

I was there, co-facilitating the session with Katharine from WDM.

After introductions and a bit of a warm up, we heard presentations on models of local organising from staff and volunteers involved in the networks of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Climate Camp. These 3 models had been chosen to span the spectrum from top-down organising with limited autonomy, through to the decentralised model of ‘disorganisations’ such as Climate Camp.

The questions that followed highlighted the issues for this group of capacity builders:

  • how to reach out and grow the size of a network
  • if and how NGOs utilise networks as fundraisers
  • how to deal with the ageing demographic of local campaign groups
  • the benefits of groups rather than active individuals
  • when NGOs throw volunteers in at the deep end (to deliver training to their peers, for example) how many sink, and how many swim?

The rest of the session was given over to the group, borrowing from Open Space, to set the agenda and have the conversations that were important to them.

Interestingly there wasn’t a huge demand for space on the agenda… there seemed to be some reluctance to embrace the open space which was reflected in the evaluations. Quite possibly this is because open space is still relatively new in campaigning NGO circles – it could well have been the first time many of those present had encountered it. And, because it was a relatively short session they didn’t have long to acclimatise.

As an aside, from those NGOs that have experienced open space I’ve seen a rapid rise in interest and find myself asked to use open space regularly nowadays…

Katharine took away the evaluations, so I’ll feedback on those in more detail when she sends them round.

This was a precursor to a full day skillshare on November 30th. If your organisation would benefit from being there, contact us or subscribe to the Forum email list Capacity_Building_NGO_Forum-subscribe(AT) – replacing (AT) with the @ symbol.

This is a topic we’ll come back to – we’ve experienced many different models of network and many different approaches to capacity building and support. Common themes emerge which are worth blogging about, so as always, watch this space…

Shared planets and open spaces

People & Planet have opted to use Open Space Technology for the second day of their flagship conference for student campaigners: Shared Planet. Rhizome is providing support in the form of a training for Open Space facilitators; mentoring for key staff over phone and email; and then being there on the day (November 7th) to support both the physical set up of the space and the facilitation of its opening.

Yesterday I was in Oxford delivering the training for Open Space facilitators for a small group of People & Planet’s staff. We started with a shared experience of Open Space which I facilitated for them. We debriefed – identifying the areas of Open Space that excited them; those that challenged them; and the issues or questions that arose for them in relation to applying Open Space to Shared Planet. From there we worked through a series of practice activities to help them build an understanding of the logistics behind Open Space and the confidence and skills to facilitate it.

The day raised several challenges about the use of Open Space:

P&P have put a lot of effort into facilitation training over the last decade. Training for their annual crop of graduate interns (much of which I’ve had the pleasure of delivering) and training for the student groups that make up their campaign network. At one stage I heard one participant wonder whether Open Space didn’t throw out the facilitation baby with the bath water. The concern? That the small group conversations that are integral to Open Space are unfacilitated and therefore open to domination and a lack of participation.

Of course Open Space has the law of two feet – namely that if you don’t want to stay in a session for whatever reason – poor dynamics included – you can get up and go. How well does that really work here in Britain? There’s a deeply ingrained sense of politeness about these things, combined with a common experience of sitting through long and tortuous meetings. Will people really get up and move? Yes, of course some will, but perhaps not all…

There was also the issue of control. I see this in many NGOs that work with grassroots networks. Fully letting go of the agenda on any level is tough. The NGOs have strategic directions, priority campaigns, and funding commitments. Individual staff have poured heart and soul into their area of work and developed specific skills and expertise. What if these priorities aren’t what the participants choose to discuss in their Open Space conversations?

P&P staff discussed contingency plans around both areas . The former I have a lot of sympathy for. The latter risks closing the Open Space and needs to be handled very carefully.

As for the training? Overall, a good day. Here’s a quick glance at the evaluations:

  • A really good introduction to Open Space – good pace, good explanation and good practical sessions
  • As ever, Matthew invites participation and was gentle and friendly
  • The right balance between helping us learn and stepping back to let us get on with it!
  • 10/10
  • More time on Shared Planet issues would have been cool
  • I didn’t get the newsroom concept at all in the intro
  • less time spent preparing to practice the introduction and giving more time for the other group to practice

Full group or full participation?

Facilitating for full participation can be tricky. Usually we’re using techniques that break large groups down to allow quieter voices and less confident people be heard. It’s a generally accepted rule of thumb that to achieve full participation in large groups we avoid full group sessions. Smaller group sizes lend themselves to creating safer spaces for people to be heard. The more emotional or difficult the conversation, the smaller the small group size.

In other words, there’s an assumption that the more vocal people can fend for themselves in whatever format of meeting we design and we should focus our energy as facilitators on those who might struggle to get heard.

Not everyone is happy with this assumption, so it came as no surprise to be challenged, last week whilst facilitating  2 away days for about 150 Friends of the Earth staff. My co-facilitator, Juliette from Mango CIC, and I heard quite strongly from a number of participants wanting more plenary sessions. The feeling seemed to be that there were important issues to be aired, and that everyone needed to hear them and hear just how strong the concerns were.

This was the clearest I’ve ever heard the argument against small groups articulated. Small groups were an obstacle to these folk participating. Their levels of frustration at not feeling heard in a meeting dominated by small group sessions were rendering the whole process ineffective for them.

There is also a school of thought out there that says the less confident speaker has a duty to address their lack if confidence, especially in the workplace where they’re paid to speak up.  It’s not the first time I’ve heard this argument recently. It’s an interesting one. Do we facilitators approach it from the wrong angle – creating spaces in which people can feel able to speak rather than supporting them to speak in any space? I’d welcome your views. And yes, there may well be facilitators out there doing just that, in which case get in touch so we can share your experience through the blog.

So what’s going on here? There is the argument that resistance to small groups is an inevitable response from a group of people used to dominating an agenda and slowly having that ability to dominate removed by small group facilitation techniques. Undoubtedly, for some people, that’s going to be true. No-one likes change.

There’s also the issue of trust. How does a participant know that every issue will be heard in the right depth and taken seriously enough if they’re not there to ensure it happens?

For me the joy of small groups is the way ideas seem to travel as if by diffusion. Somehow, with the help of a few well crafted feedback sessions, everything does seem to get heard and, in general, ideas and people converge and common ground emerges. It’s a process I trust. Experience shows it works.

For a short while we were caught in the crossfire. We were getting an equal amount of feedback thanking us for creating a small group based agenda. After a productive chat with the Friends of the Earth staff forum project group, who were overseeing the away days process, we defaulted to Open Space. We didn’t give our ‘challengers’ the plenary discussion session they wanted, but we did give them an opportunity to set the agenda, invite all those interested in doing so to join them in conversation, and a chance to feedback from their session to the full group. It worked a treat – the group engaged in productive conversation and then took part in an incredibly self-disciplined feedback session.

Open Space agenda wallButterfly and Bee