Tag Archives: metaphors

Announcing two workshops for September 2016

This year I am very excited to host two workshops focused on the use of visuals in our facilitation practice.

The first is called My Pens, Our Pens and is a brand new offering Sept 16-17. This is being developed with Nancy White (my co-conspirator of the last six years). We are treading into new territory as we explore the role of visuals in design and facilitation.   This is not your traditional workshop. We are looking to push our boundaries (and yours) in terms of the role of visuals in design and facilitation. We will ask hard questions about who captures content and what is its use?  Can visual methods help reporting out be more meaningful? What is the role of metaphor? Constraints? Where are there visual opportunities in process design? When does it make sense to use visuals and where does it detract from the process? What is the process of others capturing and harvesting content? For those joining and wanting an introduction to drawing on walls, there is an optional half-day Sept 15 to teach the basics.

The second is the 7th annual  Rosviz graphic facilitation workshop. This two-day experiential workshop provides the fundamentals needed to get started drawing on walls, use visuals to achieve your goals or hone your existing practice (Sept 19-20). Whether helping communities plan their futures or groups track progress, we will provide the skills and confidence needed to use a range of visuals in your work and engage beyond words.

Workshop details for both offerings are found here!


Filed under Effective meetings, Uncategorized

Applying Graphic Facilitation in New Contexts

A few weeks ago I answered an advert asking for a volunteer to visualize a training session on building self-esteem and improving mental health for women who are sexually exploited in Nepal. I wondered if graphic facilitation may be useful in this context and explained a bit about what I could offer.  An artist also volunteered.  The plan provided to us is we will have three training sessions on different topics related to improving mental health and well-being with leaders from different sex-trade networks.  After each session, the facilitator will debrief with the women on key lessons they learned and the women will then share these with their networks.  An 8.5×11 visual aid will then be drawn, photocopied and provided to each women to take home. All women will be given a meal at the end to encourage their attendance, staying for the full session and waiting for their photocopy to remind them of what they learned.

Today we met for the first time to do a test run of a session with staff from the NGO which works with the women. The researcher and a translator ran the session simulating what we would be going through with the women in the future.  Overall, it was a huge learning experience for me as a graphic facilitator in terms of cross-cultural communications, setting, expectations, and adapting to new environments and circumstances.  A few photos are posted as I probably won’t be able to take photos of the real group. Here are a few of the things that stood out for me today:

  1. As someone who mainly works in environment and development, working on a social issue, particularly around the exploitation of women and girls, is a giant leap.  It is a difficult and sad subject to wrap my mind around.  The NGO is also a shelter for women so arriving there and seeing women and children hanging out, and knowing their situation, made everything very real.  It was a welcoming environment and I was glad to take the leap.

    A welcoming group in Kathmandu, Nepal.

    A welcoming group in Kathmandu, Nepal.

  2. The room we were working in was much smaller than most rooms I give workshops in.  It had pillows on the floor for sitting and most walls had windows with bars or shelving.  It was not yet clear if we would be drawing on small paper in our lap or on the wall.  My preference was the wall as I think there is value in people seeing their contributions being drawn in the moment for them.  Still, the ‘real estate’ was tight and we ended up using the back of a door and an adjacent wall.

    Facilitator provided an overview of the training to staff during our 'test-run'.

    Facilitator provided an overview of the training to staff during our ‘test-run’.

  3. Working side by side at the wall (on fairly small paper).

    Working side by side at the wall (on fairly small paper).

  4. Given most of the women are illiterate and furthermore I don’t speak Nepali, we were asked to draw without words.  It was kind of like doing a repetitive icon jam and it was challenging to tie it together without a title or way to connect things.  I uses arrows in some cases but I don’t think they had the same meaning as in my own culture (more on this in the next point). While its good practice to not use words, I think my artifacts tend to make more sense with a few words.
  5. It’s quite amazing to learn how people interpret the images.  This can be both positive and negative.  One of the key points was around meditation and spoke to how we clean our clothes, dishes and bodies every day and we also need to clean our minds.  I drew a sun drying clothes on a line.  I didn’t think much about it however one woman interpreted it as the sun shining equally on all clothes.  It was a beautiful thought.  Another point talked about how women are often regarded as less than men and we need to change that.  I drew a women hunched over, looking down and a man standing tall over her.  I put a big red x over it.  This turned out to be a cultural faux pas.  A woman shared that in this culture men bless their women at their feet and thus I was putting an x over a cultural norm.  Wow!  I didn’t mean to do that.  Thankfully this was a test run.

    Interpreting the images after the discussion.

    Interpreting the images after the discussion.

  6. Much of the training went back and forth with a negative idea and turning it around to be positive (i.e. women are not treated equal but let’s change that).  My drawings tended to show the negative and the positive, usually connected by an arrow or indicated by a check mark.  However, the take home messages would be much simpler with a few key positive messages.  My colleague, the artist, chose to draw only the positive images and it created less confusion for the staff who later gave their interpretations of the drawings.  For the future, it was agreed that less is more and positive is better than negative when the topic is about increasing self-esteem!
  7. What’s next?  We still aren’t sure how to run the actual session as there is a strong desire to keep it simple, brief, yet also acknowledge the voices of the women.  The general plan is to:
  • Provide the overview talk (speaker).
  • Debrief with the women on their main learning (facilitator).
  • Draw the main learnings while the women are speaking (me and the artist).  To keep it simple only draw the positive images.
  • Have the women agree on their three top learnings to share with their networks.
  • Agree on which images represent those learnings the most.
  • Redraw the key images on a small sheet of paper for photocopying (while they eat).

The artist and I still need to figure out how to work together, especially if we are going to be producing a small sheet of paper.  She is very talented and I really think this image she created sums up the main messages of today’s training in one synthesis image.

Adi (the artist's) image of cleaning inside and out.  I think this sums up the training quite well!

Adi (the artist’s) image of cleaning inside and out. I think this sums up the training quite well!

We will get together before the next training and see if we can come up with a better strategy than today where we basically stood side by side and drew what made sense to us but had no real relation to each other. We have three trainings in total so we can revise after the first one based on how it goes and the feedback from the women.

All in all, it has been a very new and interesting application of graphic facilitation for me.  I will keep you posted on how the real session goes. If you have ideas or input, please share as we still have time to adapt the process.


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Three roles of a facilitator

I recently came across this short video that gives a quick description of a facilitator. It’s got great visuals, some interesting metaphors and is a good introduction to the fundamentals of a facilitator. Of course, everything depends on context and a facilitator needs to adjust to that context. Still, it’s worth the watch! Thank you International Institute for Facilitation and Change 🙂


by | Tuesday, January 7, 2014 · 5:40 am

Changing the landscape…

Visually Planning Using a Mind Map

Visually Planning Using a Mind Map

It’s fall in Canada and a season full of change.  The leaves change colour, the temperature cools and the wind picks up!  I love change and I love fall.  This year we are inspired to change our landscape and experience a different culture for a few months.  We rented our house and bought tickets to Kathmandu.  On the one hand it seems foreign and on the other hand it feels completely natural.

On the practical side of planning there is lots to do! The numerous lists I was creating to ‘get things done’ were getting lost in the piles of paper.  So, I took a step back and decided to think big.  I create a mind map on a central wall in the house and ensured the task list was visible.  I used a mind map because it allows space to continuously add things as they ‘pop up’.  I starting to check things off as they got accomplished.  Seeing the red checks and the map fill  is quite satisfying and calming despite the chaos of a big move.  The warm fall colours help me embrace the transition period.

With ten days to go, there is lots to do so I’ll write more from Nepal.  In brief, the plan is to set up a home office overseas and continue consulting.  I look forward to working on some projects in Asia and revisiting my international development roots.  We will see what the first few months bring and then adapt our course based on what we experience and learn.  It feels good to realize  a dream and truly test the boundaries of a mobile knowledge worker!  Keep in touch online 🙂

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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!


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Thanks for commenting and more


My icons on networks, connections and strategy

As I blog into 2012, it’s important to reflect on what I hope to achieve with my blog this year.

First, blogging is a personal practice where I reflect on work and ideas that intrigue me.  The act of blogging forces me to consolidate my thoughts, articulate them and share.  As an independent consultant, I don’t have office colleagues to do this with at the water cooler hence blogging is my metaphorical water cooler.  I hope to continue blogging and write more in the coming year.

Second, blogging is about connecting with others.  I need to connect and share with peers around the blogosphere and beyond to reinforce that despite working as a sole-proprietorship/consultant in a remote location – I am still connected!  The Internet has made working from home possible.  It has also enabled contacts and connections that I never would have thought possible 10 years ago.  Thank you to those that read, follow and link to my blog.  I particularly shout out thanks to those who commented in 2011 including Anni Holtby, Jennie Hoffman, Sylvia Currie, Beth Sanders and Isabella Mori.  Each person is someone I met outside the blog and have kept in touch with online.  I want to keep the conversation going in 2012!

Third, how are people finding my blog and how can I improve this?  The posts that got the most views in 2011 included topics of Graphic Facilitation and Planning, Collaboration, Relationship Building.  According to WordPress, I should continue to write on these topics as they have ‘staying power’.

Fourth, people find my blog with search terms such as graphic facilitation, relationship building and michelle laurie and my top five referrers include: Facebook, violette.ca (thanks), civicinfo.bc.ca (thanks to the graphic facilitation workshop I posted there), LinkedIn and kric.ca (sharing my workshop I think….).  I need to continue posting on my social networks and reach out to supporting networks.  My posts need to have tags that help people link to the posts and I should not change my name (even though I got married this past summer!).

Lastly, the infographics and metaphors used by WordPress to describe my stats were compelling.  For example: A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. My blog was viewed about 6,300 times in 2011. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people. They also used maps and stick people and photos to help tell me my story.  I appreciate this greatly as it engages me in the information and even enticed me to write a blog about it.  I would like to generate my own infographics in 2012 and tell more stories on my blog using metaphors to engage people.

Thanks for commenting in advance and keeping the connections going!


Filed under blogs, Uncategorized

Aha moments…thanks to the metaphor!

In the field of knowledge management, complexity and changing organizations, it’s easy to have conversations where one person is talking past another.  Have you ever stood there wondering what a colleague is trying to explain while they seem really sure of what they are saying?

One way to help clarify concepts is to use metaphors.  Yesterday on Twitter (via @NancyWhite) I saw this example that visually illustrates the difference between data, information, presentation and knowledge.  A picture is worth a thousand words in this case, particularly for people working with knowledge!

Another great metaphor for understanding tacit knowledge is the iceberg metaphor from Anecdote.com (blogged in 2007, fantastic description).  They visualize knowledge as above and below the waterline.  Most of the mass of an iceberg lies below.

Lastly, a simple way to explain complexity is provided on page 9 of the highly recommended book Getting to Maybe.  They use metaphors such as baking cakes, launching rockets and raising children.  Thanks to Gary Ockenden for sharing that one with me a few years ago.

Do you have metaphors you use to explain concepts related to knowledge or complexity?  Please share!


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Is herding cats a career?

Sometimes when asked what I do I have been known to say, “I herd cats”.  Given that I spend a lot of time coordinating initiatives that involve many people of diverse and wandering natures…this may be a very appropriate title for the present state of my career.

A colleague sent me this on ‘herding cats’ a few days ago and it made me laugh out loud.  Not a bad career choice!

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Metaphors, Storytelling and What’s Happening in the Gulf

A colleague sent this YouTube clip to me.  It helps explain what BP is actually doing in terms of addressing the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.  It is very funny!  It also uses simple metaphors to get its message across.

Telling stories and using metaphors are underutilized, yet extremely helpful in communicating messages.  If BP has any chance of saving its reputation, they need to create their own metaphors and a very convincing counter-story.


Filed under knowledge management, Uncategorized