It’s About Strategy

Facilitation SkillsI facilitated a group working on infrastructure development strategies at the Heartland 2050 morning session on July 23rd.  This was second stage work for the Vision Committee.  Small groups had identified desired regional outcomes by 2050 in the June 11th session.  Since then the project’s steering committee and consultants had drafted strategies to “seed” the work of today’s session.  This session’s goal was to identify three actionable strategies for each outcome.  Small groups would review the objectives and draft strategies; brainstorm additional strategies; and report their top three strategies per outcome to the entire room.

Other facilitators working on this project have discussed the impact of space and materials.  I wasn’t as troubled by the level of activity with other groups working in the same room.  However, the layout of the space, challenges with the easel, and the wordy and precise nature of the group’s feedback was a situation where the flip chart wasn’t the best tool to retain and report group memory.  To avoid stalling discussion while flip charting, I took notes on my agenda; restated and reviewed the group’s input frequently; and transferred my notes to flip charts after our discussion ended.  Although it felt a bit disingenuous, it seemed like a fair compromise between the needs of our discussion and Metropolitan Area Planning Agency’s (MAPA’s) preferred documentation.  If facilitators grew on trees, I would love to have a teammate present to help record this conversation!

The groups discussed education, health and safety, economic development, and infrastructure development.  Most of the stakeholders and specialists present worked in infrastructure development so my group was one of four nominally having the “same” discussion.  Each group came up with strikingly different results.  One group’s strategies leaned heavily toward utility privatization.  Another group more or less wrote off renewable energy.  My group, heavy on water management and energy engineers, took a much more ambitious stance on renewable energy.  This experience neatly illustrated that any discussion depends entirely on the people at the table.  A truth we should keep in mind for our third pilot projects.

StrategyThe last point I’ll mention is the inclusion of the “draft strategies” by the steering committee.  It was interesting to see how the different groups were affected by the strategies.  My group locked in pretty hard on the strategies’ text.  Our final product for two of the three outcomes was subtle refinements of the drafts.  The group flexed their creativity most on energy infrastructure, the third outcome.  Apparently the steering committee had run out of time and listed only one bullet point for that outcome.  Other groups felt much more empowered to break free of the existing document.  I’m pondering the results.   Was it the different small group compositions?  Were their choices I could make to allow participants more creative freedom?

Heartland 2050 represents a wildly ambitious vision.  I’m glad I took part as facilitating even a small piece was an exciting challenge.  My group’s feedback was generally positive.   A couple of folks contacted me later to offer thanks and ask about our facilitation experience.  I’m also looking forward to hearing the Heartland 2050 accounts of other FIT Team members!

Posted by Mark Sorensen, Facilitator-in-Training

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