Using action to address tensions and clarify issues

Physical action is a powerful way to engage people in a face to face workshop. Simple techniques like continuums and voting with your feet get can achieve 100% participation. When people are fully engaged with each other and the task, the tangible outputs are better and more trust is built.

Here is an account of how I used action to address tensions and clarify issues in a workshop about the supply and demand of open government data.

Creating a workshop on the fly

In 2012 GOVIS, a network of technology and informationĀ professionals in NZ central government, held a barcamp around open government data. As part of this, sessions were created on topics suggested by participants. One session was on the relationship between the supply side and the demand side of open government data. I was asked to facilitate this 40 minute session, which began almost immediately.

Around forty people gathered in a room containing several rows of chairs. I imagined that the participants were expecting to sit in those chairs while a few people spoke and I wrote on a whiteboard. It was mid afternoon, so that could have been a good chance for a nap. Instead, I asked everyone to grab a chair and stack it at the side of the room.

Investigating who is in the group

When the room was clear of chairs, I explained that we were going to explore the issues between the supply side and the demand side around open government data. “This is about people”, I said. “So let’s work with the people who are here.”

I paced out a continuum across the room. One end was the extreme of the supply side, and the other was the extreme of the demand side. I asked the participants to place themselves on the point on that continuum that represents their position in relation to open government data.

Before long, the group had created a life-sized diagram of its own composition in relation to the issue it was there to explore.

There was a large group of people at the supply end, a small bunch at the demand end, and a line of people stretching between them. I encouraged participants to look around and become aware of the shape of the group, and their own position in it.

At this moment, everyone in the room was both a researcher and a research subject. Being on their feet, sensing the closeness to some and the distance from others had brought people to life. There was a sense of alertness and anticipation in the room.

I asked a few people to mention why they had placed themselves where they were, revealing more information about the group. Some people had access to a great deal of government data and were not sure what to do with it. Others were both suppliers and consumers of data between government agencies. Some had little data but wanted to make things with data.

Addressing the tension

The tension between the supply side and the demand side was beginning to appear. Building on this, I initiated a dialog between the groups at the two extremes. “Demand people, what do you want from the supply people? Demand something!”. As the demand group began to talk about what they wanted, I invited the supply people to respond. A lively exchange began.

Why does it take you so long to release data?
It’s really difficult and expensive… and you haven’t told us what data you want.
We don’t know what data we want until we start to make something.

The tension between the competing needs of the two groups began to grow. When the tension reached a peak, I got the groups to reverse roles. All the supply side people went to the other end of the continuum and took up the role of the demand people. The demand people took up the role of the supply people. They carried on the conversation, in each other’s roles.

Because the conversation was fresh, the participants were able to authentically represent the points of view of the other group. Some of the heat was still present. At the same time, there was an “aha” on people’s faces as they experienced a moment in each other’s worlds.

I reversed the participants into their own roles and invited one or two people to share new responses. The tone had changed. People in both groups were beginning to look for solutions. We had fifteen minutes to create something to report back to a plenary session. I concluded the continuum and asked the group to form a large circle around the room.

Clarifying the issues

I asked group members to share the issue that most stood out for them. As they responded, I asked them to take a place within the circle to represent their issue. I asked all others who were interested in that issue to stand with that person. If they had a different issue, they stood in a different spot. Quickly the whole group was in clusters around the issues it had identified.

I asked each group to come up with a statement of their issue and a short list of opportunities. The groups quickly produced these and then shared them with the other groups as I documented them. We were done.