QAECOlogists and facilitation: happy groups, great science, better decisions

At QAECO, we believe good science should inform good management decisions.  To achieve this it is essential to have good collaborations across a range of disciplines and relevant stakeholders.  The opinion of experts is a valuable resource for decision making.  If we are to close the gap between good science and good conservation practice, interaction between scientists, managers, practitioners and the broader community should become more and more common.

This sort of collaboration or information elicitation usually occurs in the form of workshops or working groups.  Conducting research in this way is often not something that comes naturally to scientists, nor are we often formally trained to design, organize or run workshops.  Getting a workshop to be useful and achieve its objectives requires a certain degree of skill.  When we as researchers ask people to donate their time and energy into attending a workshop/working group, we owe it to these participants to be as professional with our facilitation as possible. This will help to promote and nurture this form of interaction and ensure it remains productive and valuable for all involved.

The broad term “facilitation” describes the theory, technique and skills that help the design and management of workshops and group collaboration. These are seldom taught in graduate school, but vitally important for scientists willing to interact and put their science to good use: how can we learn to be good facilitators?

José helps brainstorming experts in one of our workshop simulation sessions

José helps brainstorming experts in one of our workshop simulation sessions

Earlier in March, a few QAECOlogists and members of CEED/NERP/ACERA travelled to Brisbane to attend a master class in facilitation, run for us by Mary Maher, a professional facilitator with vast experience in the field. This short course was specifically tailored for members of the Environmental Decisions Group and was a great opportunity to learn from a professional. It was also a chance to enjoy the nice Brisbane autumn and catch up with some of our colleagues up north.

The acquisition of facilitation skills was a key emphasis of the course. The term “facilitation” originates from the Latin word facilis (easy); hence, facilitation skills assist collective dialogue and make group situations easier. Prior to the course, most of us were in the dark about the arsenal of skills and tools that we can employ to advance our facilitation capabilities. What exactly are facilitation skills? A helpful schema for understanding the skill spectrum engaged in effective facilitation is presented by the nano- to macro-process skill categories.

  • Nano-process skills are akin to behavioural and communication fundamentals, including non-verbal cues, active listening, paraphrasing, summarising and questioning. A skill as basic as being aware of the distinction between open-ended/closed and directive/non-directive questioning and appropriate choice of questioning style can be a determining factor in promoting constructive dialogue.
  • Micro-process skills encompass the specific activities or tasks for generating ideas, eliciting information and opinions and managing groups. These activities are incremental steps in the facilitation process, and include brainstorming, conducting round-robins, graphic facilitation and scheduling pauses for silent reflection. These skills are useful in providing opportunities for fair participation and representation, and collecting and summarising the diversity of ideas and opinions within the group.

Macro-process skills refer to the strategic planning and coordination of facilitated workshops. Tailoring how the workshop should proceed, oriented to the context and needs of the specific workshop is vital to its success or failure. Appropriate time and resource allocation to the four Ps: Process (how the workshop will be structured); Participants (invitation of participants, introductions and explanations of their roles); Purpose (what you aim to achieve, what you envisage the participants to gain from the workshop); and, Product (intended outputs), is important. A range of different (and imaginatively named) approaches have been developed, such as Future Search, Imagineering and Vision Building techniques. Professional facilitators often invest substantial time and energy on macro-processes in advance of the workshop.

Every day was packed with knowledge – and awesome graphics!

Every day was packed with knowledge – and awesome graphics!

We also discussed the problems that may arise from the fact that researchers will often run their own workshops, acting as both facilitators and participants simultaneously.  Playing this double role is often acceptable but one should always be alert not to set a biased agenda or confuse these two roles due to potential vested interests, or simply because we are unsure of the steps to take.  Often environmental decisions deal with delicate matters which involve multiple stakeholders, each with their own values and objectives; in more conflictive cases with high stakes, it is best to have an independent facilitator that is accepted by all stakeholders as sufficiently impartial.

Workshops are now a significant component of what QAECO does (see below for a list of upcoming projects). Motivated by our newly acquired skills at Maher’s master class, we’re initiating a facilitation discussion group.  Here we hope to give and receive feedback on our preparation for specific workshops, debrief after we’ve held workshops, and generally share ideas and hone our facilitation skills.

Our first gathering will be held at 2:00pm on Thursday April 11 in G27 Botany North at the University of Melbourne, with Stefano, Cindy and José introducing their two upcoming workshops. We anticipate meeting approximately monthly (most likely at 3:30pm Thursday in some of the QAECO Reading Group’s ‘off’ weeks) or as needed. All aspiring facilitators are welcome to attend.

Prue Addison is an ACERA PhD student researching ways to improve the use of biological monitoring information in Marine Protected Area (MPA) management. Prue is working with Parks Victoria trialling a structured decision making workshop method to assist in setting management thresholds for Victoria’s MPAs.

Sana Bau is a CEED PhD student whose research relates to the environment and conservation science-policy intersection. A key focus of this research is the way that evidence interacts with value-based and subjective judgement in deliberative, multi-stakeholder decision contexts and how to better incorporate empirical and model evidence in conservation decisions.

Stefano Canessa is a CEED PhD student researching the application of structured decision making to conservation reintroductions. He is currently coordinating an ACEAS working group to assess the state of ex-situ programs for frogs in Australia and set priorities for the future.

Cindy Hauser and José Lahoz-Monfort are CEED/NERP Research Fellows working on adaptive management of both threatened (malleefowl) and overabundant (kangaroo) species in Victoria’s mallee region. One of their projects deals with the management of kangaroo populations to allow regeneration of the native plant species at Wyperfeld National Park. They are currently preparing a workshop with Parks Victoria to elicit management objectives and performance measures for vegetation condition.

Kelly Hunt de Bie is a Research Fellow in QAECO.  Kelly has been working on the use of structured decision making as a tool for facilitating development of visitor management and monitoring in protected areas.  This work involves using workshops to elicit information from Parks staff and relevant stakeholders.

By Cindy, José, Kelly, Prue, Sana and Stefano – the core of QAECO’s facilitation team!

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4 Responses to QAECOlogists and facilitation: happy groups, great science, better decisions

  1. Pingback: Dbytes #146 (29 April 2014) | Dbytes

  2. Pingback: QAECO’s tips for running a successful workshop | The Quantitative & Applied Ecology Group

  3. Pingback: Facilitators in training | Cindy E Hauser

  4. cindyehauser says:

    I took the liberty of sending this post to Mary Maher and she had some extra comments to make:

    When working with multiple stakeholders or calling any group together it’s important to see it as a contribution to them as much as a response to a need we have as facilitators or project managers or clients.

    My summary of what I seek to do is to leave participants better informed, better resourced, better networked and better able to understand and participate in decisions. So I work on building these goals into the program design for example through the drafting of the Focus Question for the day and how inclusive it is of their interests, the information and materials available in the process such as wall posters and maps, the morning tea times where people network, how the outputs of the day will be known or checked etc…all part of the great mix and less emphasis on it being all about our needs.

    This is perfectly timed advice as José and I plan our upcoming workshop.

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