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Newsletter, July 2008


Contents this month

The Rookie Reflections of a workshop first-timer

We need to set up the venue for a workshop but the courier carrying all our equipment hasn’t turned up. Worse still he’s claiming that he now cannot deliver until tomorrow. Tomorrow is too late. I’m panicking. It is my first ever experience of working at a face-to-face stakeholder engagement event and things are already going wrong. I’m also slightly nervous, it’s a very large event (two days and 150 stakeholders) so I have a steep learning curve ahead of me.

After several terse phone calls and a little desperate pleading our equipment finally arrives and the hard work begins. It might be the afternoon before the workshop but a huge amount of work needs to be done before we will be ready to welcome the participants tomorrow morning. Crates of equipment need to be set up, logistics discussed, plans to be made, and numerous briefing meetings to be had.  When the team disperses with sore limbs and tired brains at 10pm, most of us head straight to bed.

The following morning the stakeholders arrive and the event begins. At least it ‘begins’ for the participants. For those of us organising the event the morning simply marks the culmination of a long process that started many months ago and that has already occupied hundreds of hours. While I am sure that the stakeholders will be able to see that the event had been carefully planned, I am sure most will be unaware of the sheer level of effort and energy that goes on behind the scenes to make it a success. When I welcome the participants to the meeting on the first morning and usher them in the direction of tea and coffee I am relieved to sense their contentment as they chat with colleagues and acquaintances.

Face-to-face dialogue and the personal relationships this engenders is priceless whether when working with others in a facilitator-lead group or informally, through networking, building on old relationships and cultivating new ones. For many stakeholders the event gave them the opportunity to gain new a perspective of people they would otherwise not have the opportunity to connect with. Dialogue by Design has embraced the opportunities the internet has created for online consultation and engagement but we understand that online is not a substitute for face-to-face engagement but a complimentary tool that enhances the possibilities of consultation as a whole. Meeting stakeholders face-to-face is also important for the team leading a project, particularly a long-running project, as it helps stakeholders develop the trust in the facilitators that is essential for effective dialogue and meaningful output.

When you bring 150 people from a diverse spectrum of viewpoints together to discuss a controversial subject it is not likely that they are all going to agree. Despite this I noted a convivial atmosphere. The meeting was structured to put an emphasis on individuals working together within a group to share, discuss and prioritise ideas. This allowed all participants to express themselves while removing the potential for confrontation between those with diametrically opposing views. Behind the scenes of an event a facilitation team will spend a great deal of time using their experience to anticipate the issues and the tensions they will be working amongst in order to create a process that enables constructive outcomes to be achieved.

Getting the design of the event right is important, but it is only one piece in the puzzle. There also needs to be the right team of facilitators implementing it. In this instance a large team was required, hand-picked from a range of sources. Despite the fact that only a few worked with each other on a daily basis there was a strong understanding between one another and a shared approach to the work. I noticed that the team shared a broad set of characteristics. They remained composed under pressure. This was in part a natural feature of their personalities, but something also developed by experience and the confidence that that brings. The team was also intelligent and quick on their feet. They were able to swiftly analyse what participants were saying and help them to draw out the key points to shape the discussion, whilst been able to hold back from allowing their own views to colour or influence the work. These qualities added to the experience of the participants and increased the value of the information gained for the client.

It was an exhilarating, rewarding and thoroughly enjoyable two days. I learnt and experienced an awful lot. It was exhausting but it reaffirmed my desire to work in this field. It is a privilege to work with people as they contribute to the strategic direction of a multi-billion pound organisation.

Mark Denley


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