change facilitating & hosting

On Action and Participatory Process

Sometimes, there are gatherings where next steps and action plans are important and necessary and are the reason why we are gathering.  But always?  No. ~ Chris Corrigan

This post shares a compilation of insights from various thought leaders in the participatory process facilitation world to help shed light on when action planning could be an appropriate part of your gathering.


On the need for action in a participatory process (Lisa Heft)

Is it you who feel this need for action, or is it the participants?

Are participants coming for content and relationships? Then they are best served by their face to face time sharing best practices, exploring new ideas, networking and improving their skills and knowledge. Ensure celebration of hard work accomplished during the session. Focus on creating a one off great and inspiring, awareness raising event of collective dialogue.

If the need for action/next steps/sense of urgency is felt by the organizers and not the participants, participants will feel pushed into a shape they did not need. For them – they will want to spend their hours discussing, collaborating, networking. The dialogue IS the action.


Ask yourselves:

  • Is there capacity to support those actions and action champions post-event?
  • Is everyone able to realistically do their actions or take their next steps, given the reality of what their world is like ‘on Monday’?
  • Do you have the resources, time, technology, leadership, and mentorship in place to support action?
  • Do you have the support from key leadership who is willing to say “yes” to the actions, creating space where learning can occur from failures?
  • Do people have the resources, information, flexibility, capacity and freedom to act and to meet – sometimes across organizational lines or outside of their organizational role – on what they have identified as action items?
  • Do you have a plan for keeping people together to balance work, co-learning and relationships?
  • Are you ready to work with power and leadership, to balance the need for new action with the reality of mundane tasks back in the main stream, deal with resourcing issues, and working with and supporting new ideas that might be at odds with the existing flow and structure?


Because if not, having the group identify actions and next steps and expecting to own them is not fair. Don’t invite action if you can’t put legs under it.


Does your gathering need action steps? (Chris Corrigan)

So please, think really carefully about whether or not you gathering needs action steps, especially if you are planning a gathering where the purpose is for people to simply be together learning and connecting.  That alone is significant action.  Do we really need to justify it any further?

It is easy to make a list of to do’s at the end of a meeting and feel like something has been accomplished, but that is a naive approach to change.  If action is required get really clear about who needs to be involved to make it happen. Think about who enables action or who can stop it and what resources are required.  And if the resources aren’t available or accessible, then make a different plan.


On creating lasting change (Tim Merry)

Three critical elements that need to be involved in any effort that is seeking authentic and long lasting change. The combination of mandate from those who hold influence, strategic interventions to prove the strength of the work and capacity building to embed the worldview.

Early on in my career I was involved in a piece of work in Europol where we went in and did all kinds of cool work that got everyone excited for change based on treating each other well and working collaboratively. However, we had not built the necessary mandate from decision makers and it went down something like this: leadership heard what was going on, I got fired, participants rebelled, they got fired, nothing changed.

It is not always that the mandate needs to come from established leaders either, it just about whether we all understand the risks, can courageously commit and are ready to go.


What are the deliverables of an Open Space Technology? (Lisa Heft) also applicable to other participatory events

  • A short Open Space of 4 to 6 hours: Noting hot topics/issues, finding out who else cares about your topic, idea generation, relationship building. There is not the time to do a few sessions then a mental shift into solution thinking or decisions/action planning.
  • Day-long Open Space: Deeper discussion, note patterns across the day, notice shared resources, shared challenges, stronger level of engagement. More ability for self-documentation for their own sense of co-responsibility and accomplishment (newsroom). Better sense of the full complex system.
  • Two day Open Space: Share thoughts about things on day one, then shift into solution thinking in day two. Overnight helps brains cluster, sort, reflect and notice… percolating overnight, further idea generation, more ease in creating a Book of Proceedings.
  • Two and a half day Open Space: Reading book of proceedings that was printed over night, identification of next steps, possible actions, deliberation and decisions.


Other stories from the field – illustrating the time needed to move from divergence into convergence:

Open Space on addiction in the health care system:

  • Purpose was to collaborate with others and lead new initiatives to reduce addictions-related stigma in the health care system.
  • 1.5 years of planning work, support from senior leadership, capacity building workshops to support the core team and other key stakeholders.
  • Intense multi-stakeholder invitation process to identify the people who had real passion for the issue and what it would take to get them in the door.
  • 1.5 day open space (on the second morning actions identified).
  • Time, resources, support in place after the event to support and sustain the action efforts.


Public sector union conference:

  • Purpose was to increase active members and inspire members to engage and improve local communities.
  • 3.5 day event: evening keynote, day 1 special speaker and plenary panel, day 2 morning workshop on community organizing (building capacity), afternoon World Café to hone in on an area of focus for their activism, day 3 next morning Pro-action Café.


Participatory leadership event:

  • People came with real issues they wanted to address in the world, interested in building their personal capacity to make change happen.
  • 3.5 day event: World Café on the first evening, day 1 capacity building (planning approach, personal leadership), day 2 Open Space, day 3 Pro-action Café.


One-day staff retreat:

  • Purpose was building connections, re-energize, share ideas and resources in the spirit of  building healthy community – not on generating action and need for follow-up.
  • Agenda included short capacity building session (using circle to host conversations), morning of learning through our stories, afternoon of Open Space, closing where co-workers gathered to reflect on what were they taking back with them from the day and how did they want to share with others.


There are no shortcuts to action and follow-up (Helen Titchen Beeth)

This of course doesn’t mean that participatory processes can’t have any impact. The evergreen question of ‘how do you ensure follow-up?’ points to the frequent failure of one-off events to create the hoped-for lasting change. In order to have any impact, a participatory process needs to be an intervention in a longer story, which is held with firm and clear intention by a group that has an enduring, high-quality and trusting relationship and a minimum level of ‘consciousness development’ to be able to hold the energetic ‘field’ of that intention stable over time. So, sustained attention/intention over time is important. This is something that can be articulated – even to a government department: “If you really want this, you can’t cheat! There are no shortcuts, when it comes to the human commitment that is needed to achieve the future we want. So you’d better get really clear about what is and is not sustainable for you in your context, and what you really want to achieve.” Without real buy-in from the system (which means from the top, middle and bottom), we can achieve precious little – apart from perhaps changing a few individual lives. 


A quote from Peter Block:

We are all problem solvers, action oriented and results minded. It is illegal in this culture to leave a meeting without a to-do list. We want measurable outcomes and we want them now.  What is hard to grasp is that it is this very mindset which prevents anything fundamental from changing. We cannot problem solve our way into fundamental change, or transformation.  This is not an argument against problem solving; it is an intention to shift the context and language within which problem solving takes place. Authentic transformation is about a shift in context and a shift in language and conversation. It is about changing our idea of what constitutes action.


Article from Tim Kastelle – Why Your Innovation Contest Won’t Work:

So why do organizations focus on improving idea generation, when this is almost never the problem? Because idea generation is the easy part! It’s the one area where you can show measurable improvement almost immediately.

But if your main weakness is idea selection, or idea execution, then generating more ideas won’t help. In fact, generating more ideas can actually make you less innovative, because the weaknesses in other parts of the process will sink the new efforts, which in turn increases the frustration of your people – demotivating them.



My concluding thoughts:

Given all the above, there is a time and a place for one-off events that aren’t about action and follow-up. For me the benefit of those events are about remembering there is a different way to meet and work together. To raise our collective consciousness. To remember the deeper purpose that called us to our work. To expand our thinking about what is possible. To plant seeds that may or may not germinate. To find a tribe of others that care about the same things you do. To bring the ‘human’ back into our overly mechanized meetings. To lift out of our silos and our isolation to rediscover our sense of connection to each other (and even our bigger sense of connection to our communities and to the earth). To find that place of leadership in ourselves where we see something that needs to take change and we take the first steps – often in convening a conversation about it.

Or as my friend Tenneson Woolf says “To change the vibration of the people gathered. To what? I suppose I think of it as being to a wholeness consciousness, not just as fanciful, abstract idea, but as access to something most humans have buried in some part of our DNA that helps us do things well.”



3 replies on “On Action and Participatory Process”

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