In this guide
- How to plan and facilitate a workshop that builds collaboraton
- What are good activities? How to get people engaged?
- Some top tips inspired by our workshop for the Coalition for Wind Industry Circularity
We recently facilitated a workshop for the Coalition for Wind Industry Circularity. Afterwards a number of participants and asked for advice about the exercises we used and how to design and facilitate something similar.
We, Osbert and Morag, Realise Earth co-founders, decided to answer those requests by recording a podcast to share not just the particular activities we used, but also some of the principles behind them, and the thought process that informed our plans.
Listen to the podcast for the full discussion. In this guide we share some of the highlights.
Context: the Coalition for Wind Industry Circularity
The Coalition for Wind Industry Circularity (CWIC) was launched in March 2023 with over 30 organisations from across the Scottish onshore wind industry coming together to improve the green credentials of the UK wind industry and achieve full supply chain circularity by 2035.
CWIC in led by the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS – with is operated by the University of Strathclyde), SSE Renewables and Renewable Parts.
The first gathering of the coalition in June was an opportunity for new and potential members to define how the CWIC will operate and agree on its priority action areas.
As Director of Policy for Scottish Renewables, Morag was involved in planning the event, and offered to work with Osbert to design and facilitate the workshop.
Planning a facilitated workshop – what does success look like?
We held a planning a meeting with the team from NMIS. The first question we asked was: “what does success look like for you for this event?”
Osbert: That’s always the crux of planning any sort of workshop like this, where are people at the moment and where are you trying to get them to? Where do you want them to be at the end of that process?
50 to 60 people were expected at the event. The group agreed success would look like ten people stepping forward to be actively involved in the steering group to take this initiative forward.
We knew that the majority of the people attending wouldn’t be aware in any great detail of the whole project. So we needed to work out how we were going to get them from where they were now to actively stepping forward.
Here’s the outline of the plan we ended up with:
9.45 Intro & scene setting by Paul Cantwell of NMIS: this provided what’s called ‘grounding and levelling’
10.00 Why are you interested in CWIC?
10.15 Imagining the onshore wind circular economy
- Guided visualisation
- Spectrum Line discussion
11.10 Identifying first steps
11.55 Inviting commitment
12.20 Close and what happens next
Below we’ll explain why we chose these elements and how they worked.
Intro & scene setting
Two things that are always important in every facilitation plan whenever you’re doing process like this:
Morag: The first one is, to use the technical term, “grounding and levelling”, giving everyone the same grounding in what’s going on and bringing everyone up to a certain level of understanding of what’s going on.
No great magical technique to that. It is literally just the introductory section and the scene setting: “What’s this whole thing about, what’s happened before? Where have we got to? Why are we all here?”
We agreed that it made sense for Paul Cantwell of NMIS to do this part as he knew the context really well, was deeply involved in the project and would continue to be going forward.
What’s needed here is as little information as possible, but enough information to enable people to understand what is going on so they can participate effectively. So it’s not, “What more can I tell them?” it’s “What can I take out that they don’t need” and “What do they need to know at this particular time?”.
Osbert: One of the things that I’ve noticed when working with less experienced facilitators, there’s real tension because they’ve got so much information to share. They want everyone to know everything about the background of this. They’re trying to just like dump more and more information. Paul did this really well [at not doing this].
Morag: I absolutely agree with you. I am one of those people, when I know a lot about subject, the temptation for me is to try and tell everybody all the things that I know!
Why are you interested in CWIC?
The second thing, along with grounding and levelling, that’s really important is active participation early on. As we’ve talked about in quite a few other podcasts, one of the key things that will make a project like this work is the strength of the professional relationships between people, shared understanding and shared trust.
When we facilitate workshops like this, this session is always an opportunity for people to talk to each other about why they are interested in this thing, and what brought you to them to this workshop.
We therefore invited people to talk in pairs with someone they didn’t know for five minutes about why you’re here today.
Morag: This is the session that facilitators who are feeling the pressure of time often push back against, “Oh, do we really need to do that? We’ve got a tight agenda, maybe we could drop this one out”.
But it’s really important because it sets the precedent right at the very beginning of your workshop for active participation:
Morag: Everybody being expected to contribute and put something in is a really important marker, particularly for what we were trying to do in this event, which is what I suspect people are doing in this kind of context, it is about cultivating active participation and that depends on relationship building.
Not only did we have people talking to each other, we then did a feedback session where people were invited to say to the whole room, why they had come to the event.
Because we had 50 or 60 people, we certainly couldn’t get everyone to do that. We just invited a few people to tell us, “Why are you here today?”
To make sure we got other voices in the room, we then said, “Anyone else here for a different reason?” or “Anyone from a different sector?” and so on.
This meant people could understand the range of motivation and interests in the room.
Osbert: As facilitators, it’s also so important, we know much better who’s in the room, what’s important to them, and we can start adapting our language or the process a little bit if necessary.
Imagining the onshore wind circular economy
The next session was in two parts, first the guided visualisation and then the spectrum line.
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Here’s how it worked. The participants were asked to listen in silence, with their eyes closed if they wished, while Morag ‘told as story’ about what the onshore wind circular economy might be like in 2035:
Morag: So I told a little imaginary story: Imagine it’s 2035 and everything that we’re working for here has been achieved.
And then we talk through the different elements of that and ask people to think about: What’s that like for you? What’s it like for your organisation? How are we all working together?
And then the key question comes: And if you look back from where we are in 2035 to where we are today, what were the key steps that happened to get us there?
And if somebody in 2035 came to you and asked you, “Can you tell me how we got to where we are now? What would you tell them?”
The key point is to get people thinking strategically in the long term: Where are we trying to get to? What’s our destination? And then backcast: “What does it take to get from where we are now to where we want to be?” And start to think out those key steps.
Morag: Although saying that you’re telling people an imaginary story sounds quite a diffuse and woolly way to go about things, it’s actually a very effective way to get people to begin to think strategically about how you bridge from where you are to where you want to be, and how you would know what, where you want to be actually is.
One of the things which was really important in this particular context was being really specific about what that vision is:
Osbert: We don’t want to be talking about some sort of amorphous concept of “we want a circular economy”.
We need to be really specific. What actually is a circular economy for the wind industry? What might be happening in 2035 so that people could really imagine that in a very concrete sort of way.
For this reason Morag spent time going over some of the papers that had been written about the circular economy for the wind industry in Scotland, thinking what would that actually looked like, and summarising that very succinctly and clearly.
Morag: This was a key place where the skill set of those people with the technical background who understand the key things that needed to be in place, all the bits that needed to be working, came together with facilitation skills.
You get people using their imaginations, but it was very much built on data analysis and reality, robust research about a circular economy model.
But a detailed, technical vision isn’t always necessary:
Osbert: Just a little sidebar here. In some cases, being very specific is really important. But in other cases we might quite legitimately be asking people to use their imaginations because we don’t know, no one knows what that thing’s going to look like.
So there can sometimes be a case of saying, imagine it is this certain date and the problems that we’re talking about have been solved. What might that be like? And people are going to come with very different ideas and they’ll discuss them later. That’s the same sort of visualisation process, but a different approach, which is useful sometimes.
Facilitation skills for guided visualisation
In this exercise there is no discussion, no writing down. It’s just the facilitator talking and people thinking, and the facilitator giving them the time to actually think about the story.
Morag: For me, this is one of the biggest challenges. I talk fast and enthusiastically as my natural disposition.
But when you’re doing this guided visualisation, you deliberately need to slow down the pace at which you speak so people have that opportunity to listen to what you’ve said and then think about it. In those pauses., I’m counting to 10 in my head.
And if you’re standing in front of a room full of people, being silent for the count of 10 can feel like an absolute aeon of silence. But actually it’s very short.
But it is important to have those pauses to actually let people think. Because if you’re asking them, think about this, imagine that and you are continually talking over the top of it, it’s very hard to think those thoughts because you keep interrupting.
Osbert: It also brings a really different energy into the room. Everyone’s silent, most people have got their eyes closed. They’re thinking deeply. People are really slowing down and engaging in a different way.
Morag: I framed that deliberately at the beginning of this session. I said: “We spend our time rushing through our lives, dashing here. I know some of you had trouble trying to find the place, getting a place to park. The taxi was late. And we often arrive in meetings quite frazzled, and our minds sort of racing and all over the place. So this session is a deliberate opportunity to slow down, to let our minds catch up with our bodies, to gather our thoughts.”
That makes it comfortable for people because often they’re not used to coming into a big meeting with 50 people. They’re used to it being right, we’ve got an agenda to get through, go, go, go!
We’re going to be quiet, we’re going to stop talking and just take time to think our thoughts again, can be pushing at a bit of a cultural boundary for people not used to it.
The Spectrum Line
Throughout the visualisation activity there is no discussion and no talking except for the facilitator. The ‘output’ and discussion comes with the spectrum line which was the next activity.
While everyone’s still sitting at their tables, we invited them to reflect on what Morag had just talked about and what they’ve been thinking, and asked each person to decide for themselves:how likely they thought it was that the circular economy would be achieved by 2035 on a scale of one to ten – still with no talking.
And then we asked them to stand up and move around the room and position themselves along the wall where we had the numbers one to ten marked out on big Post-Its, and stand next to the number they’d chosen. We then invited people to explain why they’d chosen to stand where they had.
Osbert: I’d invite people in the middle to tell us why they’ve chosen to stand there. And then, someone at the other end, why have you chosen there? And then, anyone who’s not spoken, would you like to say why they’ve chosen that position? Anyone who’s got a different reason for choosing that same position?
We didn’t hear from all 50 or 60 people, but we heard a whole range of views about why it was likely or not they would achieve 2035.
While Osbert was drawing out this range of perspectives, Morag was capturing them by writing them on more large Post-Its and grouping them into themes, identifying accelerators and barriers.
Morag: So for the people who are at the optimistic end of the line, we were hearing things like “I have experience from the oil and gas industry and we never had a conversation like this. The fact that right at the beginning of this industry, you’re all together having this conversation, that gives me a lot of optimism.”
And then the other end of the line, you’d hear somebody saying, “Yeah, but I am less optimistic because I think this thing, this thing, this thing is going to happen.”
And that begins to give you an idea of how people are perceiving barriers to progress. Although people might think it’s just people sharing their response to an imaginary story, it actually has a very focused purpose of helping us understand what people think will help and what people will think will hinder the achievement of the vision that we’ve all just been thinking about.
Osbert: And one of the other things, which is really powerful and important is people are hearing from different parts of the industry, from different people, from different professions, talking about it.
We didn’t get much of it in this particular workshop, but this sometimes this turns into a bit of a conversation between people. You have to be careful, as facilitators, that it doesn’t dominate, but it can be very useful to allow some of these issues to be aired and explored.
The importance of disrupting normal behaviours
Osbert: The spectrum line is fun, people really enjoy it. It brings a real energy to the room and a very different sort of energy from that sort of slowing down reflective energy the from the visualisation process.
It’s disruptive, it’s doing things differently, breaking some norms, which helps people think differently, maybe do things they wouldn’t otherwise do in terms of making commitments and, and so on.
There are some underpinning principles to this idea of disrupting normal behaviours. If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. And a lot of what we’re doing in sustainability is about trying to bring forward things that are new or different, have not been done before.
In any change process, there are four key elements you’re trying to create:
- Time and space away from business as usual.
- Breaking that patterns of how we usually work.
- Time to actually think.
- Opportunities to hear from others and to be heard.
The guided visualisation and the spectrum are two techniques that help to do all these things. There are many other techniques that also create this kind of beneficial disruption – from subtly running a meeting differently to working outside in nature.
Intentional coffee breaks
The other thing that we deliberately built into this point of the program, after the people had shared their thoughts in the spectrum line was a coffee break. And we deliberately made that coffee break longer than it might otherwise have been by about 10 minutes.
We explained that the reason for the longer break was to give them the opportunity to talk to each other about the issues that had come up. We could tell from the volume of the discussions that they were definitely lively and vibrant.
Osbert: One of the intentions with this particular workshop, was that a self-selecting group of people would want to continue working together on this project.
And that was more likely to happen, the more comfortable they felt with the other people who were also wanting to work in this. So it was really important for them to hear these different perspectives, to understand where people are coming from, and really start building up a level of trust.
And that makes it much easier for them to say, “Yes, I want to be involved in this”, rather than being asked to join a steering group and there’s 50 people and you don’t know anything about them.
Identifying first steps
This session was probably a more familiar activity for most people: discussion in groups around tables.
During the break we had grouped the issues coming out of the spectrum line. Not surprisingly most of these fell into the four themes that the planning team had already identified in earlier work. There was also a new theme that hadn’t been discussed before. And this is an entirely natural part of the process. As every time your group grows, as you bring more people on board, there’ll be more perspectives.
Morag talked through each of these five themes to provide more grounding and levelling. We allocated each theme to a different table and encouraged people to get up, move around, and go sit at the table with the group that they’re most interested in.
So that does two things:
- First, it begins to bring together people with a shared interest.
- Second, it’s a further opportunity to dig into the detail on what needs to happen next.
It was important to avoid this becoming a talking shop, so we gave people a very clear task. We asked everyone to use the format “to have a circular economy, X needs to happen, Y needs to be done to make it happen, and Z are the people who need to be involved.”
And then we said, “Look at the issue that you’ve got in your table. What X needs to happen to be able to move this thing forward?. What are the key things, Y, that are needed to make that happen? And Z who needs to be involved?”
We emphasised that “I need to be involved” was a perfectly legitimate answer.
Osbert: The XYZ statement was really, really helpful in nailing it down what you are actually asking people to do.
The other thing which was useful about that process, is it got people to physically get up and to choose by moving their body, which area they were interested in. That’s quite a different sort of emotional, psychological experience than just putting a blue dot on a flip chart.
Morag: Yes, you literally physically chose to be in the discussion that you were in. And again, you had groupings coming together with a shared interest and starting to talk.
The next step of that process: “Right, we’re looking at setting up working groups around each of these issues, who would be interested in working in the working group?”
We set clear framing that the people at NMIS were willing to act as a secretariat and help pull together meetings of these groupings, but very much with the clear understanding that they would convene the meeting, but it was up to others to actively contribute and start moving this forward.
Osbert: That framing was really helpful so people know exactly what it is they’re stepping into when they’re being invited.
And it was an invitation. I think very often people feel reluctant to volunteer ideas or whatever, because then they’ll be volunteered, “Oh, Morag, you’re interested this, you’ll be on the group, won’t you?”
No, people need to be able to contribute their ideas without feeling they’re going to have their arm twisted. So we were very clear this is an invitation to take part, to join, to get involved in the working groups.
But in a subtle sort of way because we’d actually got people sitting around tables talking about exactly the issues that were relevant to the emerging steering groups, that almost sort of self-selected anyway.
Morag: Essentially what we’d done in those groups, is we’d started the conversations that needed to happen in the working groups.
So they had begun to model for themselves what doing this, what this process of being involved would look like.
As we find in any group, while some people could clearly see how this could actively contribute, others were not yet sure it was for them.
Osbert: Many of those people were seriously interested and excited by the project, but just weren’t clear what they could offer, or they knew that they had lots of other commitments and they wouldn’t be able to put themselves into it wholeheartedly.
At the planning stage there was concern that giving people the option of joining a mailing list would lead to people not committing and joining the working groups.
However, success was achieved: More than 10 people put themselves forward to be involved in both the steering group and the working groups. And for most of the rest, they wanted to stay involved through an emailing list. As the project evolves and become more concrete, they will be able to step back in.
In practical terms, the signing up for working groups and steering groups was simply done with a member of staff from NMIS at each table taking down people’s interest and their details.
Closing the workshop
It’s really important there’s a strong close to any workshop like this, particularly when there’s a sense that something is going to carry on, and people really need to know exactly what is going to happen next.
Again, Paul from NMIS did a great job of this.
Morag: This final section is another round of sense-making. People have had lots of exciting conversations, and sometimes it’s quite easy to lose a little bit of focus about what happened.
We’ve already talked about storytelling in one context, but this is storytelling in another, of telling the story of what we’ve just done today and the what happens next:
“So we all came together today, we looked at doing this, we talked about that, we’ve come together and identified the key issues. This is what needs to happen next. Here’s what we are going to do, here’s how it will happen. Here’s how you can stay involved.”
And that is a very important part of closing the process, to make sure all that momentum that you’ve built up isn’t lost. Everybody’s leaving absolutely crystal clear about what happened, where we’re going, what happens next.
Osbert: And I would add to that is that they feel really clear that their contribution and participation has been valued and has added to the day, not in glib sort of way. “You know, thanks everyone for coming, it’s been really helpful.”
Paul did this really well “this process has emerged from everyone’s participation, the discussions we’ve had, it’s really moved us forward”, so people are really feeling a sense that their time and energy and attention has been valued, is useful and is leading in a really positive direction.
Some general facilitation advice
Several people asked us if they could use the guided visualisation and the spectrum line in their workshops – yes you can! They are standard techniques that are used widely.
Morag: One thing I just want to share with people, and again, this has come up when I’ve talked about facilitation and when people have seen it done. It sometimes looks like some kind of magical art that these people who are trained facilitators do, using these techniques that you’ve never seen before, and it all seems very mysterious.
These things are not mysterious. Facilitators all over the world use these, if you read any book on facilitation, the stuff that Osbert and I have just talked about in this podcast are really familiar, standard things.
If you’re looking for a good text on facilitation we recommend: Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making by Sam Kaner.
If you want a place to start, look at our podcast: “Inspire and engage your boards senior managers and colleagues,” where we give a step-by-step guide to running a sustainability workshop.
Organisations mentioned in this Guide:
Guide to running a sustainability workshop: Inspire and engage your boards senior managers and colleagues