Sunday, February 05, 2012

Capturing Group Learning: Creating Your Own Practice Guidelines

I recently had the opportunity to work with a team of sustainability leadership experts who have been delivering a learning programme for the past few years in different countries in Africa. For many years they delivered very different programmes, but a few years ago they decided to join forces and work towards harmonising their content and process, and share investments in curriculum development.

How did that go?

Well, that was our main question in a recent 3-day workshop to share learning and create a set of Practice Guidelines for the group. The aim was effectively to create a Manual, based on this learning and best practice, on how to run the programme.

You might think it would be more efficient to sit in your office and write that manual, rather than try to jointly write a document in real time, face-to-face with 10 people. However, co-creation is the way to go if you actually want people to use the manual, and is a good way for it to be fortified with the interesting stories that people can tell (but won't necessarily write down in an email or survey) on their experiences over a few years of implementation. You get more spark in the room, and it acually gets done. When you think of it like this then it makes much more sense to get together and collaboratively write such a document. But just the thought of such a discussion might leave people wondering "Where do we start?"

Well, I have done similar learning workshops in the past and have found it very effective to start with the final product in mind as the main organizing principle (as opposed to creating that final document from the notes of less structured discussions), and we did that this time too. We started with the Table of Contents of the Manual we wanted to write.

Imagine holding the Manual in your hands -  how you would want to read and use it? When you think of it like this it becomes easier to chunk it down into parts and discussions that can both fill in the sections, and be used structure your workshop. We had a two-flipchart page agenda that we worked from (see above for page 1). I then created our workshop programme such that every session we had corresponded to a specific section of the Table of Contents. I marked the session number on the Table of Contents flipchart so people could see that no time was wasted, every discussion had a purpose and a place in the Manual.

Another helpful tip, if you use this Table of Contents technique, is to make those little checkboxes by each section and sub-section and then ceremoniously tick them off when the group has completed a section. It feels wonderful to see those checkmarks going up and the remaining areas counting down. I also mixed things up a little and didn't always run the sessions in the order of the Table of Contents, but people didn't worry, as they could see that in later sessions we would be getting back to the parts we jumped over.

You can dive right into this exercise, but I think it's better to start with context-setting discussions about why to do such a learning activity, what will make the guidelines immediately useful, and what will make them "stick". It's no good having guidelines that no one ever uses, and instead keep re-creating the wheel. So we started with a few facilitated discussions that helped us answer these questions. (And we also put that in the Manual in the Introduction).

Getting started

1.  We started with a check-in where everyone shared 1 set of guidelines that they currently use and why they like to use them (as an aside this also got us into a humerous discussion of what guidelines people don't like - like their cell phone instructions - and what to avoid!). This exercise connected people with one of their own successful user experiences. It also gave us some initial good practice on which we could draw.

2. We then talked more generically about "What makes good guidelines" and we created a list of features based on the examples we had in mind and others we liked. We then discussed what would make them "stick" for us, knowing what we know about our work rhythms and preferences. This gave us more good tips for our own guidelines,  which we now know needed to be super concise (no long narratives), user-friendly (bullet points and well signposted), practical (checklists, A5 ringbound format), etc. We flipped this into criteria and used this list again half way through our workshop to check that we were on track, and again at the end. At this point we also clarified who would be using the Guidelines and that was helpful again and again to narrow down what exactly we needed to cover (as in not everything under the sun).

3. At that point we went into the Table of Contents discussion. Based on an initial draft I had made, we added and took away sections until we were all happy with it. By that time we could check off our first 3 or 4 boxes which was very satisfying!

Mix it up

As this is effectively a "write shop" in addition to a workshop, you need to think of ways to animate it so that the easy things get captured quickly and the areas where you need to share the diversity of approaches and potentially make some agreed decisions get the most time in the agenda. So I used lots of quick visual capture techniques based on clear questions (e.g. Who are our partners, what are their benefits, what are their responsabilities, etc.) that let people work individually, in pairs, trios and quads, with short plenaries at the end, to collect that information together. In the end, although it is often done in parallel, people still get to input on everything, so ownership at the end is high.

We used crowdsourcing techniques with post-its (individually, in pairs), carousel discussions with wiki-like features so that we could easily find the groups that made the comments if they were not clear; we used metaplan cards, and for some things straight stand-up facilitation at a flipchart (but little of that). We varied the card colours, the markers, the templates we were using, and we plastered the room with the products of our work and discussion (always keeping our Table of Contents flipcharts right in the middle where it could guide us).

At the end of each night the sections we had worked on during the day were recorded into a Word document in the final Manual format, and we used some time at the beginning of each day, on an LCD projector, to have a quick look at the text to make sure we agreed, and to appreciate how the document was building. This collective review helped make sure that everyone was engaged and agreed with the document's text.

This approach -working with different techniques and in diverse constellations of small groups with lots of real time capture- is very efficient and produces a wealth of content with which to work afterwards. It provides discussion time to share and exchange stories of how, in this case, each group has run different aspects of their training programme and what has worked for them.

In the end we created together a 42-page manual capturing our understanding and practice of delivering this sustainability leadership learning programme - from mission and vision, to shared policies that had been agreed over the years around travel and participation (amazing how hard these are to recall when you need them), to the best recruitment process and forms,through to the optimal implementation schedule to follow through the year, reporting obligations, and many annexes with advertisement texts, Terms of Reference for the governing bodies, feedback form templates etc.

It was wonderful to have had the chance to talk through, visualise and share all the many practices that go into delivery of a great learning programme. And too often we and our organizations don't find the time to reflect and collect our learning and record it in a way that our teams, our partners, and others can share in that learning (now and potentially after we pass the baton).  Not to mention the fact that we, ourselves, can also forget our own best practice!

Write it down (and do it in a way that inspires more learning)!