Different Angles 12 – Changing How We Work Together: The Power of The Format Shift

Issue 12: September, 2020

In This Issue:

  • Changing How We Work Together: The Power of the Format Shift
  • Fall PCC Workshops: Tools for Good Meeting Facilitation and Tools for Getting Unstuck
  • Offering Coaching, Training, and Facilitation via Zoom and Mural

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Changing How We Work Together: The Power of the Format Shift

This is the second in my short series on meeting facilitation centered on equity and inclusion. You will find the first, on creating Brave Space, by paging back to the last eNewsletter issue using the side bar.

This time I am focusing on the importance of shifting formats in meetings — that is, regularly changing the structure we are using to interact and do work. I will also give you a quick introduction to one format — continuum and cluster mapping — that I find particularly useful, and which I have recently discovered can be done easily and powerfully online as well as in-person.

Why Shift Formats?

So why bother shifting out of the most common meeting format, that is, all of us talking together as a single group? There are many reasons, outlined below, but at root, it’s about addressing power dynamics. It’s harder for any one voice or set of assumptions to dominate if we keep shifting the structures for participation.

Shifting regularly:

1. Increases the amount of time each person can be contributing by allowing multiple people to speak or otherwise participate at the same time.

2. Supports participation of people who are not comfortable speaking in front of the whole group.

3. Allows for ideas to be shared without allocation to a particular person, thus helping address implicit (and explicit) bias.

4. Provides an opportunity for people to contribute in diverse ways (e.g., writing, drawing or moving instead of speaking), thus increasing contributions by people more comfortable in modes other than verbal presentation.

5. Shifts the energy. White supremacist and patriarchal culture dismisses the somatic experience, but all of us know what it feels like when a meeting gets stuck, bogged down, scattered, polarized or shut down. These are energetic, body-level experiences, and skillfully shifting formats can shift the way the meeting flows and how people engage enough to change this experience and move the meeting forward in healthier ways.

6. Uses time more efficiently by allowing multiple small groups or people to work on the same thing in parallel, or to work on different pieces of the agenda at the same time, depending on the goals and needs.

7.  Prevents the boredom and disengagement that happens when you gather “everyone” together for a meeting when only some parts of the meeting are relevant to everyone, by letting folks split off and do other collaborative work when the topic is not useful to them.

8. Gathers and captures information quickly and visually, making it easier to understand.

9. Gives us the tools, and time, to explore an issue in more depth. 

Format Options

There are many different formats we can choose in meetings beyond the all-together-in-one-group form. The simplest, of course, is just to break into pairs or small groups to discuss, generate ideas, etc.  

Another simple shift that most of us have used before is to do a sticky-note brainstorm (as individuals or small groups) in which everyone is responding to a question or prompt at the same time. Participants put single ideas on individual sticky-notes and put them up on a wall (or virtual white board if you are using an online visual collaboration tool like Mural). The ideas can then be grouped, prioritized, etc.

Multivoting/dots exercises for prioritization are yet another commonly used format shift.

And, there are MANY other possibilities. The Tools for Team Building and Facilitation page on my website includes a handout Different Formats for Meetings. You will also find many good ideas in The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner. And, here is an introduction to mapping as a facilitation tool.

Mapping Who and Where We Are

This format was introduced to me as “kinetic mapping.” In its usual form, it is a way of using our bodies and movement as a way to “map” where the people in a meeting literally “stand” on a given subject. It can also help members of a group make connections and learn new things about each other and themselves as a group. It’s an excellent tool for helping groups get unstuck when they’ve been bogged down in a discussion for too long without seeing any shifts.

For a full description, with many examples, please see my handout: Mapping As a Meeting Facilitation Tool.  

The Basic Form: To map something, establish a question and a set of options (two or more), put labels in different parts of the room, and then ask people to move their bodies into lines or clusters representing where they are “standing” in relationship to the question. From there, you can ask people to speak about what’s important to them, inviting participants to change their physical position if and when something they hear shifts their perspective.

If you are using an online visual collaboration tool like Mural, you will post the options spread out on the virtual whiteboard and ask people to represent their bodies with sticky notes marked with their initials or photos. This works well, and has the advantage of creating a visual record which can be shared.

Here is a screenshot of a basic map created in a training I did on decision-making, using Mural:

A continuum map

Again, you’ll find a full description of mapping as a tool, with many examples, on the Tools for Team Building and Facilitation page on my website.

Enjoy experimenting. I am happy to answer questions as you explore this tool, and I’d love to hear how it works for you.

Facilitating for Equity and Inclusion

If you would like support in doing this work, I’d be happy to work with you. You will find more about my facilitation and training services on the website.

I also invite you to engage with me, if you are interested, in being part of a community of practice around facilitating in ways that support equity and inclusion. In such a community, we can share our experiences, our confusions and questions, our discoveries, so we all get better at it. I don’t know how we can best support each other in this critical work, but I want to find out. If you are interested, please contact me.

You will find resources for learning about whiteness and systemic racism, and a few on gender and class, on my website. That page will evolve over time, but I am hopeful it will be a useful resource, particularly for white people working to address racism.


Join the conversation…

You can ask questions, share your experiences, and be part of the conversation in the comments section below.

Pass it on!

If you know people you think might find this article useful, please feel free to forward this newsletter to them using the link at the bottom. Thanks!


Upcoming Workshops at PCC

I am doing two workshops through PCC’s continuing education division in the next few months. These will be offered online, each as three, 90-minute sessions using Zoom and Mural (one of my favorite new tools).

Diverse group of people sitting in a circle talking
  • Tools for Good Meeting Facilitation on three consecutive Thursdays, October 8th, 15th and 22nd from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m.
  • Tools for Getting Unstuck on three Thursdays, October 29th, November 5th and November 19th from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m.

They are $35 each. You do need to pre-register through PCC. For more details, please see the Workshops page.

I am offering training, coaching and facilitation online

I am currently supporting organizations and individuals primarily online, using phone, Zoom, and Mural, a powerful and easy to use tool for visual collaboration.

If you would like to discuss what I could bring to your organization or team, please contact me.  You will also find an overview of my services and experience on my website.

© Tasha Harmon, September 2020. All rights reserved.

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