Tag Archives: conference

Sense making, friend making and glaciers

About a year ago, I was asked if I could help make a traditional scientific symposium (International Glaciology Symposium on High Mountain Asia) into something different. A group of glaciologists from ICIMOD, locally organizing the international scientific symposium, and the IGS scientific steering committee, wanted people to leave saying ‘Wow! That was a great conference!”

How could I resist?

Last month, after a lot of co-designing, back and forth, and many changes up until the last moment…we did it.

Here is a bit of our story. You can also see the tweets and some images at #IGSKTM

The main areas we wanted to focus on were:

1. Sense making. 

Scientists are subjected to powerpoint presentations from morning to night, day after day. Typically there is very little time for questions, if at all. There are no discussions. Thus, participants leave a 5 day meeting possibly having seen 100’s of presentations yet having no time to digest them, let alone understand the bigger picture they might contribute to. We wanted to provide a legacy of learning – i.e. sense making of the content – for participants. They should leave remembering the key trends, patterns and emerging issues in their field of work.

After the daily keynote talk, tables took 5 minutes to create a newspaper headline.

After the daily keynote talk, tables took 5 minutes to create a newspaper headline.

Headline after a keynote in Black Carbon.

Headline from a table discussion after a keynote in Black Carbon.

2. Friend making.

Despite spending 5-6 days at a conference, often far from home, participants are rarely given the opportunity to meet and network. People who know each other typically sit together at the group dinners and traditionally the sessions have people sitting in rows (classroom style or theatre style) which doesn’t lend itself to conversation aside from one or two neighbours. We wanted to ensure that people had ample time to meet and also help those who aren’t great at networking interact with their peers. Participants at this conference would hopefully leave having spoken to many new people, have the opportunity to find others working on similar fields of interest and simply increase their contacts and network professionally.

Participants could pin where they work. The online roster was a place to see who these people actually are!

Participants could pin where they work. The online roster was a place to see who these people actually are!

People loved the poster sessions. We had a scavenger hunt at one to encourage people to find each other!

People loved the poster sessions. We had a scavenger hunt at one to encourage people to find each other!

3. Wow!

Leaving meetings tired and burnt out is not unique to science meetings. This is typical for most meeting goers and we wanted to make this one different. Rather than being tired at the end of the day, we wanted people to feel energized and excited. We strove to include sufficient content, discussion and fun to keep people going over 6 days talking about glaciers.

Here are some of the things we did to help shift a traditional scientific symposium into something people will remember:

  • Less formality
    • TV Talk show format to set the scene for the symposium (as opposed to traditional panel)
    • Seating at round tables to encourage conversing with colleagues and meeting new people (see their faces, as opposed to traditional seating in rows) [people were really shocked when they entered the room]
    • Large scale imagery in the venue to give a sense of the region despite meeting in Kathmandu (we were discussing the highest mountains in the world and we showed them!)
    • Outputs and visuals from discussions posted in coffee break areas so people could congregate around something.
  • Discussion and sense-making by participants for a greater synthesis of information
    • Tables created news headlines after key note talks [they had 5 minutes to discuss the talk, create a headline and this was followed by 10 mins of Q&A]
    • Tables worked on key questions throughout the day (after a set of science talks) that were later compiled and synthesized by session chairs and presented back to participants the following morning. [they had 10 mins after a set of talks to work on their synthesis questions as a table. Chairs created a daily summary to present in 5 minutes the following morning. They were very diligent.]
    • A full synthesis is envisaged as part of a long editorial for the Annals of Glaciology and for further communication purposes. The start was put into a press release distributed by ICIMOD following the event.
    • *Note we had to reduce the number of talks to have time for discussion (this took a lot of convincing) however we still managed to have 46 scientific talks plus 16 open space sessions (mentioned below) and the opening panel.
  • Time for conversations that matter
    • One morning was dedicated to open space, a technique where the participants create an agenda on the spot.
    • Over 100 participants proposed 16 topics which became one hour sessions (eight per parallel session).
    • Important conversations and connections were made. People’s interests and ideas were valued and appreciated.
    • Time taken at the opening session and closing session to personally reflect on what you hope to get out of the symposium and what you learned. Participants were given time to share this with a friend, the table and the room. We used a technique called 1-2-4-all.
    • Field trip midway (this is typical for and IGS and they like it…so we kept it!)
  • Networking onsite and for the future
    • A glaciologist scavenger hunt took place during the first poster session as a way to get people to learn about each other and connect with people they don’t normally talk to.
    • A map was posted where people added where they work so they could see others working in their region.
    • A roster was created where people added their name, contact email and research interests plus a photo. This will be sent out via email to help enable ongoing networking between the scientists.
    • Each day participants were encouraged to sit at new tables with new people to help change their conversations for the synthesis as well as meet new colleagues.


Half a day was dedicated to  participants creating their own agenda on topics that mattered to them. Small break out sessions ensued.

Half a day was dedicated to participants creating their own agenda on topics that mattered to them. Small break out sessions of engaged people ensued.

IMG_2681 IMG_2680 IMG_2677

Some areas to consider in the future:

  • Longer poster sessions (in our case to accommodate the larger number of posters received). Perhaps timing the sessions at the end of the day would also make it easier to extend it for those who are interested. We had one at the end of the day however two were after lunch to help reduce the food coma issue. Though in retrospect people really loved the poster sessions and likely would have stayed late to continue their conversations had they all been at the end of the day.
  • Questions from science talks could be re-organized. For example rather than giving 5 mins for questions directly after speakers, let tables speak for 3 minutes after a talk to gather specific questions as a table. Then after a set of talks take 10 minutes of questions. This idea was proposed by a participant who felt the questions were not as well thought out as the synthesis which allowed for discussion before hand.
  • Include options for workshops on science communications. This is an idea being explored for future symposiums. How to make a great poster, give a presentation, get published, interact with the media and policy makers were all topics that emerged in our open space session.
  • Add a few fields to the online registration so a roster can be given out at the start of the symposium to participants to help facilitate networking immediately.

It was a very rewarding experience to work with these scientists. They have so much knowledge and energy. It was nice to be able to set the container to help great conversations happen, to make sense of the immense information presented and to suggest ways for colleagues to continue their contact after the symposium ended. Wow! That was fun!

p.s. an ICIMOD photographer was taking gorgeous photos. I will update the blog if I can get a few his.


Filed under Effective meetings, knowledge management

Key questions for planning a 5 day scientific symposium


Next week I have a meeting with an organization to kick off planning for a 5 day international scientific symposium for about 200-250 people.    They hired me as they want the agenda to be more participatory, innovative and engaging than a typical scientific symposium which generally means powerpoint presentations all day interspersed with some poster sessions and possibly a couple excursions to the local sites.  We will still include the presentations/posters, etc but I will embed them into a more engaging structure that includes different types of knowledge sharing, networking and general engagement.

The planning meeting will have about 10 people from the organization and is my first opportunity to get all ideas on the table as well as key information that I can take away and use to design the first draft of an agenda.  I have two hours to get the information I need with the people in the room.

Here are the questions I’m planning to ask:

  • What are the 3-5 key objectives of the symposium?  (as specific as possible)
  • What are your desired outcomes for:
    • Participants
    • Field of study
    • Public/community
    • Donors
  • What learning, knowledge products and/or artifacts do you want to document during and after the end of the symposium?
  • What are the big questions that all scientists attending are interested in? What big questions are emerging in the field?
  • Who are potential audiences/groups that you would like the visiting scientists to engage with?
  • Are there other organizations that you could partner with to offer community engagement opportunities?  If so, who?
  • What are potential excursions that could be offered?
  • What capacity exists within your organization to help deliver the conference on the ground?  What additional capacity might be needed?
  • Anything else to consider or take note of in the design and planning process?

Am I missing any key questions to get this started? Do you have any suggestions for how to structure the meeting of 10 people to ensure I get through all the material using all knowledge in the room? I am always happy to use visuals as well….

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


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My Harvest from a Think Tank on Assessing Collaboration

slide 1 IISD-whiteThe International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) has worked for over a decade on research and capacity building for performance assessment and improvement of collaboration in order to help partnerships partner, alliances ally and networks work.

Our most recent paper was presented at the Canadian Evaluation Society Conference in Toronto (June 2013) via a Think Tank session and provided preliminary reflections on performance improvement and assessment of groups of individuals working together in networks and communities of practice.

The session started with a summary of our initial thinking and was followed by a World Café brainstorm to help further our collective understanding using the knowledge in the room.

My introduction covered four main points:

  1. Collaboration and knowledge sharing are increasingly viewed as essential for achieving the sustainable development agenda.
  2. Don’t get caught in the tangle of terminology between learning networks, knowledge networks, CoPs.
  3. Do distinguish between:
    1. Multistakeholder, multi-sectoral, networked governance process
    2. Relationship among group of organizations
    3. Collaboration between individuals
  4. Once the distinction made, determine:
    1. Focus and extensiveness
    2. Emergent structure
    3. Social capital
    4. Desired outcomes and value creation of the collaboration

The full presentation via powerpoint is here.

The paper can be downloaded here.

World Café is a participatory technique I use to host meaningful dialogues with groups.  You can learn about the technique here if you are interested.

The theme of our café was: Assessing Individual Purposeful Collaboration. People were seated at tables of 4-5 people and we had three quick rounds of discussion, each with a different question.  After each round, participants got up and moved tables so we cross-pollinated ideas across diverse groups of individuals.  One person remained at the table as the host and was responsible for documenting key messages from the conversation.

Visual Summary of our Think Tank Session: Performance Improvement & Assessment of Collaboration:  Starting Points for networks and CoPs

Visual Summary of our Think Tank Session: Performance Improvement & Assessment of Collaboration:
Starting Points for networks and CoPs

Key messages were then placed on a visual template and were clustered by emerging themes.  At the end of the café, we gathered around the landscape created and reviewed what we created.  The messages are highlighted below as a reminder for participants and as a way to share our learning with those who were not able to attend but are interested in this topic.

Question 1: What constitutes success in collaboration?  What are indicators of that success?

(These are the green trees on the landscape)

Themes that emerged:succss indicators

°    Relationships (sense of belonging, trust)

°    Participation (engagement, culture of knowledge sharing individuals, motivation)

°    Diversity of knowledge exchange

°    Agreement on objectives (commitment to shared purpose)

°    Sustainability


Question2: What are the potential challenges evaluators should be aware of?

 (These are the grey boulders in the river)

Themes that emerged:

°    Measurement:

  • Inadequate assessment tools
  • How to measure contribution, attribution and social capital
  • Agreement on what to measure
  • Nonresponse and selection bias

°    Frameworks:

  • Finding a framework inclusive of diverse groups and diverse knowledge bases
  • Changing goals and visions, shifing focus

°    Group and organizational dynamics

  • Competing agendas, conflicting interests
  • Culture that doesn’t support collaboration
  • Lack of trust
  • Changing membership, turnover

°    Capacity:challenge indicators

  • Lack of skills, time, resources


Question 3: What ideas do you have to strengthen this area of practice?

(These are the yellow and orange clouds in the sky)

Themes that emerged

°    Establish shared vision and measures at outset:new ideas

  • Governance structure
  • Common understanding of goals
  • Clear outputs and outcomes
  • Develop measurable indicators

°    More reflective practice throughout network life cycle:

  • Evaluator actively engagement with the network/CoP
  • Developmental evaluation techniques
  • Resources to undertake reflection (time and money)
  • Generate interest among participants

°    Measurement:

  • Use a proxy such as common elements with other CoPs, identify value-added
  • Assess the dynamics of the group (the individuals)
  • Track online data (usage/number of hits)
  • Assess for alignment of purpose vs. structure
  • Use the spectrum of engagement (observer-participant-leader)
  • Test via small group experiment/ pilots

°    Improved information sharing and networking tools:

  • Data repository
  • Open sharing

Overall, there is a need for more data collection and research on this topic.

Thank you to everyone who participated in the session and generating ideas for further study.  It was a great experience to dive deeper into the topic of  improving the performance and ability to assess collaboration with a group of such passionate people.  Please keep in touch!

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Prepping for a Think Tank Presentation

I am preparing for the Canadian Evaluation Society Conference June 11 in Toronto, Canada.  I am presenting a paper I co-authored with folks from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) on Performance Improvement and Assessment of Collaboration: Starting points for networks and communities of practice.  I chose a Think Tank, rather than a standard presentation, because we are only at the start of our understanding…so why not use the knowledge in the room to help advance our collective thinking?


When researching the paper, one of the first challenges we came across was distinguishing between all the types of collaboration.  In general, it’s a tangle of terminology.

However, the first lesson to share from our research and consulting is that the fine distinctions between these terms are of limited value in determining how to improve performance and how to help organizers and participants account for the time and resources invested in the collaboration.  Rather, as a manager or evaluator, one should focus on key attributes that are critical to designing for and assessing performance.

I won’t share the whole paper here but in summary, the paper focuses specifically on collaborations of individuals seeking knowledge and support for purposeful individual or collective action (CoPs, knowledge networks, campaigns and so forth):

preferred revised imagePerformance improvement of these collaborations focuses on determining:

 – Whether there is sufficient social capital for participants to exchange information, learn from each other and work together; 

– Whether individual participants believe and can demonstrate that their knowledge and skills have benefitted from the time invested; and

– Whether there has been progress in advancing solutions toward a shared challenge.

We suggest that four areas to explore in strengthening performance assessment and improvement of networks are:

  1. Focus and Extensiveness;
  2. Understanding of Structure and the Evolution of That Structure over Time;
  3. Social Capital; and
  4. Activities, Outcomes and the Concept of Value Creation

We also suggest a few tools that might be relevant for assessing networks, however this is really my question for the group of Evaluators, among a few others:

  • What tools are you using to assess networks of individuals collaborating?  
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the tools?
  • What new ideas do you have to strengthen this area of practice?  
  • What are the potential pitfalls that we as evaluators should be aware of?

What might be a good question or two for a Think Tank on this subject?  Do you have an idea to share?  I would love to hear your thoughts and welcome your advice as I prepare the session.  Once again the paper can be found here.

Thank you in advance!  I will be sure to share the outcome with you after June 11th!

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A quick harvest from Art of Hosting Water Dialogues


I recently experienced 2.5 days doing of joint training with The Art of Hosting and Waterlution called the Water Dialogues. The training was a combination of learning and experiencing. What do I mean? There were a few sessions dedicated to explaining the underpinnings of the philosophies however most of our time was spent experiencing the art and reflecting as a group and on our own.  Most people really appreciated this.


Chris Corrigan , one of the hosts, introduced the Cynefin framework (used by Cognitive Edge) as a way to differentiate between simple, complicated and complex problems.  It’s important to understand what you are working with in order to choose the best methods to address each challenge, project or process one enters.  I have taken the cognitive edge training (2007) and appreciated the way it was introduced as a sense-making framework.  One thing to add to Chris’ very good explanation is that this framework can also help ensure the appropriate evaluation method is used.  For example, complex projects work with well with developmental evaluation approaches as opposed to traditional log frames.


The four fold practice was introduced as a way to check in with yourself and see where you are at.  It was noted that it’s important to work on all areas to embrace a well rounded practice (key word is practice).  The Chaordic Stepping Stones are another way to approach work, ensuring you have a solid based to work from – pay attention to need and purpose first moving to structure only when the first few stones are really in place!  This could be a challenge with clients as they are always jumping to what it might look like in action (the process/engagement) however reinforcing the need and purpose are good first steps to designing an appropriate purpose.

I also took home the message that Intent is very important in all that we do, i.e. consider what your doing, why your doing it, for whom, etc.  This seems obvious but taking time to reflect on the process and actions isn’t always a part of our work rituals …and it should be.

The weekend brought together a mix of professionals working in the world of water and passionate about contributing to positive change. The opportunity to listen to the diversity of interests and projects was interesting for me as I tend to get wrapped up in my own world of work and interests. There was sufficient time to meet and check in with the participants and hosts which was probably one of the most important aspects.


I went to a couple open space sessions on harvesting.  One about the relevance of harvests and the other about sustaining the harvest over space and time.  The latter evolved into a discussion about engaging and communicating over space and time which I view as different than a harvest per se however there is room for debate in a lot of these concepts.  I did come away with an idea and free tool for a project I’m working on this spring and I am thankful for the small gem.  Generally speaking, thinking about what you want to get out of the meeting in advance, in terms of both learning, artifacts to share and any reporting required, should be done at the outset of your process.  This is another good reminder that planning takes time and is involved (so embed that into your work plan, timelines and budget).

In summary, I was fascinated by the rawness people brought forth, sometimes depressing but towards the end, a renewed energy and sense of joy emerged. I feel hopeful by this change in energy, not to mention inspired by the excitement some folks shared after a great conversation, an evening of live music or a moment watching dolphins enter the bay.

Personally I used this time to practice on my iPad (a small goal I rarely find time to work on) and that was quite fun!  I also enjoyed the opportunity to simply be present and practice the art.

Thanks to everyone who partook on Bowen Island – I hope we have the opportunity to meet again and share some conversation.

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Participatory Facilitation Techniques

A few weeks ago I facilitated a 1.5 day meeting for young leaders on the topic of the Columbia River Treaty (CRT).  The CRT is an international agreement between Canada and the United States which governs how water is managed in our region (You can learn more at http://www.cbt.org/crt).   The ultimate goal was that young residents in the region are knowledgeable about the CRT and comfortable talking about it as a formal consultation process begins in late spring with the Province of British Columbia.  Thirty participants ranging in age from 18 to 38 years old learned complicated subject matter in a short time frame.

Screen shot of the twitter stream at the Young Leaders Conference

My strategy in designing the conference was to use a range of participatory and visual techniques to engage the leaders in thoughtful discussions and encourage participant conversations.  One of the participants asked for an overview of the techniques so here are some examples as well as explanations as to why I chose them:

Scavenger Hunt

  • Games are a great way to engage people in dense material, particularly when you have players, levels, points and prizes.  Playing in teams acts as an ice breaker for participants helping them get to know each other over shared tasks.  Providing fun from the get-go sets the tone for the rest of the meeting.   This was an idea of the client and worked well.

Concurrent Thematic Discussions

  • Not everyone comes to the meeting with the same interests or levels of knowledge.  Having concurrent sessions where participants can choose to attend one or more topics allows people to focus on their personal areas of interest and ultimately keep them engaged.


  • Metaphors are another way to think about, or talk about, subject areas.  By imagining a complicated or technical topic such as an international water treaty as something more familiar such as a garden or a computer, people find new ways to understand the subject matter.  We had a lot of fun with this activity as small groups not only described the topic as a metaphor, but also drew it on large pieces of paper.

Participants drawing their metaphor

  • Each group presented their version of the Treaty using metaphors such as a garden, the Commodore 64 computer, a river and a ski hill (with green, blue and black runs representing the challenges ahead).  We debriefed the exercise by looking at similarities, differences and opportunities that were brought forward.

Samoan Circle

Graphic Recording of Samoan Circle discussion by Lisa Theissen

  • After a plenary presentation on how dams and reservoirs work in the context of the CRT, we held a Samoan Circle.  This was a great way to break free from the traditional Q&A format.  I believe the new format kept people interested and also presented a new way of listening and digesting the information for everyone.
  • The technique consists of a large outer circle where everyone sits and a few chairs in the center for people who want to discuss issues. This is the traditional way Samoan elders discuss issues of importance to their community.  It’s an opportunity to learn more from each other and everyone is invited to participate.  The working principles of the Samoan circle are:
    • Outside circle: may not talk
    • Inner circle: can talk until prompted by a tap on the shoulder to retire
    • You must enter the inner circle before you talk
    • You can enter the inner circle at any time if you want to participate in the discussion
    • You can enter the inner circle if you want to stop somebody from talking
    • You must finish your point and leave the inner circle when prompted
    • We had a couple volunteers get the conversation started and people jumped in over time to ask questions, share thoughts and a range of opinions.  During the discussion, we graphically recorded the discussion on the adjacent wall.  The circle was very successful with lots of people joining the inner circle.  We had to cut it off due to time.

Building Scenarios

The building blocks for future scenarios

  • It’s interesting to understand a topic from different perspectives.  Furthermore, by putting oneself into the character of another, it’s possible to dig deeper into the mindsets of different stakeholders and go beyond your own personal view points.  In addition, by comparing scenarios from different stakeholders, one can really start to see the areas of overlap and divergence.  I chose scenario building to help us go from the status quo scenario to a range of possibilities including those that may not be talked about in mainstream circles.  The purpose was to think outside the box and understand different perspectives.
  • In order to ensure the scenarios started from a common framework, we worked in small groups to brainstorm the foundation of the scenario.  I asked participants to consider the current context:
    • Driving Forces
    • Pre-determined Factors
    • What’s Missing
    • Critical Uncertainties
    • In plenary we took ideas from each small group until we had exhausted the information.  Everything was graphically recorded on a large format wall template.
    • Once the building blocks were in place, four personas were identified representing different view points (i.e.Canada,USA, First Nations and Local Residents).  The groups had to come up with a potential storyline as well as a recommendation for the future.  Groups were asked to consider the implications of their storyline and information needs and present back to the plenary.

Conversation Café with Introductory Panel

Conversation Cafe in Action

  • The purpose of the session was to explain some key concepts around education and engagement and then generate new ideas to engage young people.  A conversation café is a great way to dig deeper into a topic that has many layers.  We started with a short panel which introduced the current situation.  There were three speakers and each had 5 minutes to talk.  We then had two rounds of 20 minute conversations.  After the first conversation, one person stayed at the table as the host and the other people moved to new tables.  The host shared the past conversation highlights with the new people.  By moving people around, ideas are cross-fertilized and opportunities to build on each others’ ideas increases.  At the end, tables had 5 minutes to link ideas from the two rounds looking for themes and patterns.  They then shared their top two ideas in plenary.

Graphic Recording of Conversation Cafe by Lisa Theissen

Open Space

  • Our final session used open space which is an opportunity for participants to create their own agenda.  A question was posed to act as the overarching theme for the session (i.e. What’s next for young leaders in the CRT Process?) and participants who wanted to discuss a certain topic were free to suggest items.  In 15 minutes we created an agenda with 8 topics.  We had four concurrent sessions taking place followed by a second round.
  • By leaving the agenda open, this ensures that participants have a chance to talk about their interests or what they want to learn more about.  There is only one law which is to take responsibility for your learning and contributions.  If you find yourself in a session where neither is taking place, you should move with your two feet to another location.

 Overall, the 1.5 days were highly engaging and inspiring with many good ideas coming forth.  I hope some of these techniques inspire you to add participation, graphics and conversation to your next meeting.  If you have some other fun and interesting techniques to share, please add it to the comments!


Filed under Effective meetings

Open Space Technology for Effective Meetings

I am organizing two meetings in the next month that will use Open Space Technology.  For one it was purposeful and for the other it simply emerged as the best method to ensure the meeting meets the needs of participants.


We want to foster creativity, networking and action!

Open Space methods let participants create an agenda that is meaningful for them.  So if you have a theme you are working on, know that bringing a group of people together will help move the issue/challenge ahead, trust open space to help people mobilize themselves.

The principles and law of open space are:

  • Whoever comes are the right people
  • Whenever it starts is the right time
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened
  • Whenever it’s over, it’s over
  • Law of two feet: If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else

I am looking forward to facilitating a process driven by the participants and seeing what emerges.  I will be sure to report back!

A few good online videos that describe open space technology are:

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Northern Voice is happening May 13-14

Have you ever been to a conference where you interacted with great people, were exposed to new and innovative ideas and left feeling energized and inspired?  This is Northern Voice!

On Friday May 13th, Sylvia Currie and I will be hosting a session called Drawing on Walls – Large Format.  I hope you can join us there!

Sometimes our imaginations are sparked by a visual where words fail us. Think about when communities plan and imagine their futures, when teams consider the possible outcomes for their projects, when groups create maps to track their progress. These are all opportunities to use visuals to engage and deepen community dialogue. In this session we’ll touch the paper, play with the pens, and loosen up our drawing muscles. Warning: You will stretch beyond the confines of typing on a keyboard!

Learn the basics and practice with us at Moose Camp! 


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