Over the last few days, Monday and Tuesday, I have been involved in two similar efforts be two different organisations. Both efforts tried get a similar outcome while using two different processes. The aim of this post is to try and consider both processes and critically engage with them. I am not trying to comment upon the content of both conversations as this is not public information, and it is not my place to reveal that content.
Effort 1 – Format
Effort 1 was on behalf of the Church of Scotland, the effort was to answer the challenge given by General Assembly 2016 to the Mission and Discipleship Council.
Instruct the Council to report to the General Assembly of 2017 its initial outline of a proposed theme(s) for the following five years from 2018 onwards to focus the worship, witness and work of the Church on every level throughout the Church of Scotland’s parishes, congregations and communities.
The process used was to widely invite representative stakeholders from the Church of Scotland to a one-day conference. This conference would enable conversation and an emerging set of themes to answer the challenge. The conference was well attended (around 50 people) and seemed to have good participation.
The format used was a form of the World Café method. Having read about world cafe as a method within my academic research I was keen to see it in action. At a basic level it is a way to get allow large groups to divide into smaller groups and allow for the group to split up and form new groups regularly. Functionally a volunteer “Host” stays at each table in order to anchor the conversation at that table and allow others to join in and build upon the previous conversation strands.
When I say a “form of “above, my brief reading of world cafe had informed me that the world cafe method works with tables of 4 people and 20-minute conversation sessions therefore it should be short and sharp chats. The format we used yesterday was tables of 6 with 50 minute sessions which surprised me as going about 5 people seems a non-negotiable for the world café people.
Our facilitators facilitated us. The facilitating seemed a bit awkward during the introducing to the world café and the presentation of the café etiquette, although I wonder if it was just me, it felt hesitant and unsure, rather than calm, confident and paced. During the introduction section there was a deliberate and conscious repetition of words like “purposeful” I wondered about why this was emphasised, I guessed it was an attempt to emphasise that we as participants had made a participation agreement with ourselves and everyone else in the process, but at the time I heard it as a warning rather than an encouragement to participate
In the conversation groups there were times when I felt they had got too large to keep focused. The questions in section two were too big. The conversation times were too long. In one group there was a couple of times where the conversation seemed to draw to a close naturally or conversely go too far down side alleys. When we came to the third session as a group we started by sitting in silence as trying to sum up the wide ranging conversations all six of us had been party too was overwhelming for all of us. This seemed to have a detaching effect. There was a dissonance between the conversations we had and the way we were attempting to summarise and reflect back.
I had to leave before the final session so I am conscious I have only a broken form of the model to reflect upon. I am not sure it worked well to achieve the aims of the day. I think it did allow for lots of different conversations to happen and I am positive about that although I wonder where these conversations go after the day. I am also hopeful for the results which will come from the day. I left with a feeling of dissonance, of being unsatisfied.
Effort 1 -future development
The facilitators will write up a report which will go the Mission and Discipleship Council. The Mission and Discipleship Council will then report back to General Assembly 2017 on these themes.
This is a reasonably clean method of getting a result with participation and consultation with stakeholders in a defined timescale.
Effort 2 -format
Effort 2 was in response to an open request from the primary school my children go to. The school sent a letter inviting parents to a consultation upon a set of values for the school. The session was attended by 4 parents who all contributed.
The format was in 2 stages the head teacher introducing the context from a policy and educational background which was motivating this development and the second section was the parents discussing and working on a vision statement for the school and motto, aims and objectives which would support this vision and an initial list of supporting values. This section was unstructured. (I am unsure if a larger attendance would have been handled in a different way.)
Effort 2 -reflection
The slideshow introduction was helpful in clarifying what was wanted as an outcome.
There was a lack of guidance as to how to go about the task of writing vision statement for a school. This was the first consultation in the process and as such we (the parents) didn’t have a guiding foundation to work from. That stumped us for a few minutes, the head teacher waiting with us in the struggling to work out a way forward without imposing or suggesting a method. for a process which was absent. as soon as the group took control to get the job done it was done quickly with agreement and contributions from all. (thankfully amongst us was a parent who had a background in facilitating meetings within large multinational companies. Our wee group flew with skilful facilitation, producing a solid set of answers for the Head teacher to work with.
It was notable that half the group had a professional background in business where achieving tasks within timescales is a key skill. This maybe a key skill but I am not sure we got to actually converse about the issues before getting to the task. I felt that was an absence from this effort.
I felt like this had something substantial and that we got something achieved as we walked out the door
Effort 2 -future development
The group asked the head teacher to take forward the future development in a specific way. The head teacher accepted that, and outlined a larger process that would now take place including, a full consultation with all other stakeholders of the school, including a wider internet survey open to all parents, as such the process has a long way to run. In some ways that is frustrating as our effort maybe amended beyond recognition when actually it is ready to go tomorrow should it be wished. as the facilitator at effort on emphasised “Hold your ideas lightly during this process.”
It has been an interesting two days and the contrast between the methods significant. One is big and varied and felt too long, the other is small, focused and fast. I really enjoyed the space of effort 1’s big conversations are fabulous, and effort 2’s tightly packed let’s get this done now attitude.
For the positives effort 1 left me with a dissonance between conversation and outputs while effort 2’s brevity and ability to reach a quick conclusion may turn out to be pyrrhic in the long term.
The highly guided form of world café method seemed to not give the outputs the focus it needed while the method of an absence of guidance seems dangerous while the outcome is possibly as important and long lasting as a school vision statement could be. As methods for working with groups to achieve specific outcomes I am not sure I would want to use either of them again in the forms they were presented over the past two days.
I wonder how I will feel about both efforts in May 2017 as the results from both are made public and put into action.