The Art of Purposeful Foraging

Jennifer Chaplyn, consultant and facilitator with Same Page Consultancy, launches this month’s content theme with the revelation that it’s all about the process, not just the content.

For the past 5 years, I have had the privilege of working as a facilitator with a variety of individuals, organisations and groups seeking change through collaboration. Most recently, I have been supporting two communities exploring readiness for a shared change process.

The common theme in all of this work has been helping others identify why change is necessary, what needs to change and how to work together to change it. The theories of practice that have informed this are:

Great Tools and Resources

Over the years, I have found that there are four key ‘tools’ or practices that have been the most powerful resources in working as a ‘helper’ with any change process.

Listening

Listening informs what questions to ask, helps to uncover peoples constructs that could take away from a shared understanding, reveals the extent to which a common language exists and most importantly, helps in getting to know people.

One of the most powerful elements of listening is observation. Observing what you can’t hear brings to light where the ‘conversations’ are or aren’t connecting. This then informs what to do next or how to do it in a way that is relevant to the local context.

Asking questions

Developing ways to have community conversations, informed from listening and observing, is all about asking questions – but in ways that are meaningful to those you are asking. Inquiry can be as small as asking someone a question or as big as developing multiple strategies to ‘find things out’ in a community (e.g. forums, surveys, workshops etc.). By developing inquiry processes together, it is much easier to engage people in the conversation and the outcome as they owned it from the start.

Sharing of power – not controlling the dialogue

As a facilitator, my role is to provide ‘leadership’ without taking the reigns. I use the word leadership with caution, as facilitating is more like being visible and invisible at the same time. So there is a constant tension between rallying people together and working to give power away to others at the same time.

But as a facilitator, you are guided by others, not controlling the dialogue. With any change process, the one that controls the dialogue, controls the change.

Reflection

By ensuring that the conditions and space for learning are present right from the start, a culture of learning can begin to flourish. Reflection, especially with others, informs what we do and how, progress, success and failure- which is critical to future success. Learning together builds all the ingredients for change. It builds trust because learning requires risk, openness to each other, communication, humility, transparency and vulnerability – all ingredients for successful partnership and collaboration.

What Doesn’t Work

I have found that what really doesn’t work is more about the impact of behind the scenes practices and processes, and less about strategies. When a conversation or strategy doesn’t work, as long as you can learn from it so that it works better next time, something is gained.

How a project is managed can be as significant as who manages it and what they do. Project management can be considered to be about: developing the plan, implementing the plan, and explaining the variations.

But in this adventure, it should be more like: get to know each other and come up with a draft process together, begin to do things together, stop and reflect together, change accordingly together, and reflect on what you learned together.

Variations from a ‘plan’ are good as they represent learning, reflection, innovation and flexibility – all necessary for success

Working to minimise the effect of this kind of approach takes time and energy that would otherwise be devoted to more important efforts, such as engagement and relationships development. Achievement or progress can be measured in many creative ways and a rigid approach to evaluating them is a lost opportunity.

Hidden agendas present real barriers to any part of collaboration

When you hear a lot about what ‘I’ or ‘we’ need but not about what the community or others need (especially from powerful individuals or groups who may be working to drive the process), this can be a big sign that there are other agendas at play that will create significant barriers to success. It is not that differing agendas are ‘bad’ but without transparency and working together to identify and address them, little will change in the long run.

Doing things differently doesn’t mean doing different things in the same way. It means working together in a different way.

What Does Work

Lessons about what works well have mainly been about processes and practices relating to engaging others in the journey.

It is the approach to make strategies engaging that make them engaging!

Involving others, especially those you are seeking to engage in the development of how you gather information and what you ask, builds relationships and improves communication right from the start. It also works to place the power where it needs to be – with the community.

Build on the positive

Asking questions about what works well, finding the strengths to build on, and testing assumptions are critical, especially because you get what you focus on. Just because ‘we’ think something might need to change, does not mean everybody does and questions send powerful messages about the beliefs and intentions of those doing the asking.

Just because people attend, doesn’t mean something is successful

One of the things I have learned over the years is that service practitioners will sit through anything! By nature of working in a field that is about helping and supporting others, people will sit through the most unproductive, mind-numbing meetings in the hope that some greater change will occur as a result. So judging success by what you think you see happening in the room can be a cautionary tale.

It’s all about the process, not just the content

How we do things is even more powerful than what we do. The way we work with others to facilitate change is a more powerful determinant of success.

People can do anything when they are resourced, given a voice and supported. It is the ‘anything’ that can be unexpected, humbling and wonderful.

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