Cycling to Palestine

3 months cycling to Palestine, engaging with communities along the way, especially communities of resistance. Sharing stories, creating a story. Using performance and art, perhaps building up an international troupe of performers. All the while highlighting the struggles and resistance of the Palestinian people. Sound exciting?

On Sunday I was working with a group of activists planning just such a venture. The conversation had started during an outreach cycle ride to the Rossport Solidarity Camp this summer. The cyclists were moved by Israeli forces attack on the peace flotilla bound for Gaza to deviate from their planned focus and stop to take action in solidarity. The idea of an outreach ride to Palestine was almost inevitable.

We met to begin to explore a vision for the project. It’s a real pleasure to play a useful role at the start of projects such as these. Another pleasure was the absence of pressure to have it all done and dusted in a day. This was an exploratory day and decisions could be deferred to the next meeting.

I used several of the tools used with the Bridges group and added a spectrum line discussion to provoke thinking on some of the major issues behind the purpose of the ride. Once again using a simulated media interview to invite reflection and analysis of a project worked a treat. I’d been asked for a creative day that avoided a ‘big circle’ meeting.  We possibly went too far the other way, as there was an evaluation comment that “more plenary discussion would have been appreciated”


The group was tired and a little worse for wear from the Just Do It fundraiser the night before, which impacted on the later activities. But with regular energisers we got there.

In terms of what worked well on the day, the group said:

  • we got to know each other on a personal level and had opportunities to relate as humans – not something that most meetings provide the chance to do
  • the spectrum line exercise was good, leading to useful discussions
  • the media interview activity was good especially for putting ourselves into other roles
  • having an external, neutral, facilitator worked really well
  • the energisers actually energised
  • we were clearer at the end than at the start of the day (!) – it was good and exciting shared space

Inevitably there were things that worked less well

  • we could have found time to work out a strategy for people who want to support the ride from here in the UK, but not actually join the ride
  • the ‘splurge’ (as the ideastorming somehow became known!) and 6 thinking hats sessions were frustrating because I wanted to talk as a full group
  • I would have liked to hear everyone’s ‘who we are’ conversation
  • the timing of the day wasn’t great – it’s Sunday and some of us are hung over

3 months in the saddle ought to sort out those hangovers…


Building Bridges

Monday saw me on an early train to Wellington, Shropshire to facilitate Bridge’s staff and trustee ‘Visioning’ away day. It was a fairly short notice piece of work for me, but made much more possible by the clear brief and draft agenda Bridges’ co-ordinator provided. The real pleasure about this job was that using participatory tools wasn’t an option, it was right there in the brief.

Bridges themselves work with schools and community groups using participatory methods like Philosophical Enquiry (or P4C as it’s sometimes known). We didn’t use P4C on the day, though it’s something I’ll be exploring for the future. However we did use a host of other participatory methods, including de Bono’s six thinking hats. I also took the idea of local radio interviews, which I recently used in a strategy training and tweaked it to help the group explore differing stakeholder perspectives of their work. Add to that a highly entertaining session called History of the Future and we were ensured an energetic day together.

Green hat thinking in progress

Sadly the end point was, as is often the case, too ambitious. I don’t believe in creating unrealistic expectations, so I levelled with the group right at the start – whilst we’d try our best I doubted we’d get as far as they were hoping to. I’d already had that conversation with Davina, the co-ordinator.

I’ve written before about the challenges of undertaking work like this in just one day. It’s a source of endless frustration to me that fantastic organisations like Bridges simply don’t have the resources to be able to give these processes the time they really take and they’re left using other means to finish off processes and finalise important decisions. This is something I’ll be thinking about more. If I come to any conclusions I’ll share them here. If you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

One very basic piece of learning from this, for me, is that it’s far more intelligent to plan the process for finalising the work before the day begins. Towards the end of the day, when everyone’s brain is beginning to ache from such concentrated creative exertion, is not the best time to have to improvise a system for collaborating on creating near-final draft documents, taking the final decisions, and communicating the outcomes to the group. But that feels a little like working on the assumption of failure. Bridges will be using online collaborative tools.

The final stages of the vision in their raw form - a "visual mess"

Even though we didn’t reach the end point the group were hoping for, they enjoyed and valued the day. The were very complimentary about the choice of tools we used across the day, and appreciated the rare opportunity to engage with each other and get to hear each other’s viewpoints. The negatives were mainly to do with time: “not enough hours in the day”. There was a comment about the collecting of thoughts on what Bridges overarching vision might be – that the board with post-it notes on it was a “visual mess”. Fair point – had we had longer I would have moved on to break the emerging themes up more cleanly. We had to stop and move on to ensure a system was in place to finalise the work. However, it’s still not appropriate for the final mental ‘snapshot’ to be a confusing one, especially when tidying it up is the work of minutes. The last word from Davina:

Everyone in the office is very pleased with how the day went, myself included. One of our Trustees was very quick to praise your skills – and is often quick to find fault

What a difference a day makes?

I’ve just received the evaluations from a ‘strategy day’ I facilitated for the staff and management committee of Labour Behind the Label back in mid February. LBL is a small but impressive campaign for the rights of workers in the garment industry around the world. They’re the UK platform of the international Clean Clothes Campaign. They have a relatively tiny team of dedicated staff and volunteers having far more of an impact than you might think, given their size.

One of the reasons for that might be their commitment to thinking through their strategy every year. But they’re also faced with the dilemma of limited resources. Bringing together their management committee (who are scattered across the UK) and their staff with an external facilitator costs time and money that they struggle to find. No wonder that so many organisations try to do strategy in just one day.

For the facilitator it’s also a real challenge. Take one passionate and diverse group of people. Start late morning to allow for everyone to arrive. Finish reasonably early in the afternoon to allow for people to get their trains home. Allow plenty of time at lunch for people to catch up, network and just relax in each other’s company, and still try to get to concrete strategic decisions in a day. Oh, and agree those decisions by formal consensus. Half the time I think we should just say “no, sorry, can’t be done”. But I also realise that for many organisations even one day can feel like a luxury. So you do what you can. In this instance we got about as far as I had hoped we could.

We used a mix of tools and techniques, with groups working in parallel on the different discussions LBL had identified as most important to it this year. To ensure a coherent, efficient and yet creative thinking process we used Edward de Bono’s six thinking hats, and then threw in a bit of ‘critical path analysis’ for good measure. I’m told critical path analysis means something else in the garment industry, so we reverted to the much nicer shorthand of ‘stepping stones’. As you can see from the photo, one small group even accepted my offer of working on the floor with paper plates, thus engaging their bodies as well as their minds.

Stepping stones to strategy

The participants worked hard and some important discussion were had and were heard. Clear directions and action points did emerge. Other key areas of difference were identified for future discussion. There was still plenty of work to be done at the end of the day. The strategy will need future meetings of one kind or another.

And back to the evaluations? Well here’s a representative sample:

“The day was really creatively facilitated and fitted well with LBL’s style and ethos”

“We needed more time for feedback at the end of the day…I think we should have cut the last session shorter and talked as a group for longer”

“…not enough of a chance to really bring together what had come out of all the day’s work”

“I think Matthew did a great job, but we were asking a lot of him. At the end, I did feel we had something useful (which I didn’t think we would in the middle of the day!), but with a lot more still to do. I think we may need to consider the amount that is squashed into such a short day…”

If you’re a funder reading this, please consider making funds available to support giving strategy the time it actually needs. If you’re a group or organisation planning a strategy day, can you give it longer? If you’re a facilitator share your thoughts – should we “just say no” to one-day strategy?