Case study

We stole this from surgeons – what building capacity actually looks like

We were definitely in good hands, with Joe telling us lots of tips and tricks along the way of what works well for different scenarios and how to react quickly and calmly when things may not go to plan with technology

Emily Boig, Transformation Team Member

At the beginning of 2019, Matt started feeling guilty. Six months earlier we had opened an office in The Hague and a bunch of interesting conversations, opportunities and conferences in the Netherlands had meant we were spending a lot of time on planes.

“I think we should figure out how to do our work really well online” Matt mused over a beer during one of our Friday catch-ups. If I’m honest, I didn’t believe it was possible to do the kind of consulting we do, effectively online. Being in the room, for me at least, was essential for building the relationships and confidence needed among groups needed to tackle really messy problems. So most of us chuckled and then tried to change the subject.

Matt persisted: “I’m serious, I don’t think we need to be travelling as much as we are, it’s shitty for the environment and I’m convinced our work can be just as impactful online as it is in the room”.

After a few more beers we caved in and agreed to figure this stuff out. Thank god we did.

Over the next 6 months we started a conversation about how to do this stuff well, engaged with world leaders in the field (big love Judy Rees) and did a whole load of research and training on how to run dynamic and participative events online. We tested that learning in practice and after a bunch of trial and error, we got better at it, in fact, we got pretty good at it. In the last year we’ve worked with governments, social enterprises and charities all over the world helping them to solve some of their most perplexing challenges online. In October 2020 we organised and facilitated a global online conference for the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action with over 500 attendees.

And now for something completely different: COVID-19

For the most part, we work with organisations who exist to support the most vulnerable people in society. When the COVID-19 pandemic spread to the UK in February most of our projects ground to a halt overnight.

We were concerned about our future but tried our best not to be pushy and ram our services down the throats of people who had more important things to worry about.

Although we hadn’t advertised our online capabilities, a couple of weeks into lockdown a few of our clients who knew we had some expertise in this area online reached out for help. One of those was Westminster City Council and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (the Bi-Borough). 

Like local authorities across the country, when COVID-19 arrived, their front-line practitioners in Children’s Services were the boots on the ground that helped keep their communities safe.

But to continue to provide help and support to families in their boroughs they had to innovate at a staggering pace. Social workers, who in some cases had never even heard of Zoom, were developing effective online interventions that had previously only ever been delivered in person. Although they recognised there were many instances where they could never replace working directly with families in their own homes, practitioners and senior leaders didn’t want to lose some of the innovation they’d unleashed during lockdown.

The Children’s Services Transformation and Innovation Team were tasked with supporting their front-line services to figure out what their services could look like in the future. The only snafu was that this work too needed to be done entirely online. Justine May, Head of Children’s Services Transformation asked us if we could help build the teams’ capacity in online facilitation and to help them to design an approach that would enable teams to participate in the process.

How we helped

Our approach to building capacity is unapologetically stolen from the medical profession: ‘see one, do one, teach one approach’.

Using online facilitation as an example, we first create the opportunity for people to observe what it looks like when it’s done well by enabling people to participate in a workshop or training session run by us (see one). We then provide some mentoring to enable them to have a go at delivering a similar session (do one). At this stage, we usually co-facilitate with the individual so we can observe them live and act as a bit of a safety net if we’re needed. This helps us to give great feedback on what they are doing well and on areas for improvement while at the same time removing some of the anxiety that comes with trying something new for the first time under pressure. Having had the opportunity to ‘do one’ a few times, the learning has been embedded, so we step away. If this learning needs to be cascaded further within the organisation, those who have been through the process can teach their colleagues without having to rely on us. If we’ve done our job well, we’ll have made ourselves redundant. 

We took exactly this approach in Bi-Borough. We started the engagement by putting the team through our online facilitation training. The programme aims to teach delegates the tools, skills and mindset they need to do great work online wherever they’re based. It also serves as an example of how a dynamic, participative and engaging online event can feel when it’s facilitated well (we hope).

We then ran a focussed week-long sprint where we collaborated with the project team to design an online design workshop that would enable front-line teams to participate in shaping what their future could look like. This wasn’t us turning up with the answers; it was a real collaborative effort. The team brought a unique understanding of their context and challenges and we made suggestions about the kinds of facilitation approaches we could use that would work well with that context. Together we came up with a design and then iterated upon it over the week until we were happy to try it out in practice. 

True to our approach, we co-facilitated the first two sessions alongside the team taking a leading role in the first a stepping back a little in the second. Although not everything went to plan, the feedback we got from the teams indicated we were on the right track. Teams felt as though their voices had been heard and that we’d created a safe space for them to challenge old ways of doing things and be brave enough to reimagine their work in a new context. 

Emily Boig, Transformation Team Member and all-around good egg was one of the leads for the project and was kind enough to work with us on the case study:

“At the end of the training, I felt a lot more confident not only in knowing how and when to use different online tools like breakout rooms, polling and virtual whiteboards but also in the softer skills needed to effectively run an online workshop. We were definitely in good hands, with Joe telling us lots of tips and tricks along the way of what works well for different scenarios and how to react quickly and calmly when things may not go to plan with technology!”

“Going into the first workshop, I was excited to see how our colleagues would react to the different elements as Joe had helped us design a real mix of friendly, fun, ice-breakers, creative idea generation exercises and action planning sessions to start putting ideas into practice. It felt safe as we knew Joe would be co-facilitating with us but I also felt empowered and supported to step up and lead some exercises. I was looking forward to seeing Joe in action and learning from how he got everyone into the right mindset. The initial introduction was really important to set the tone and emphasise that the participants were the experts and we were there to provide the space and time to think creatively and to facilitate discussions. I would definitely have been a lot more nervous if we were on our own!”

At the end of these sessions, we held a retrospective to share what had gone well and where there was still room for improvement. Although the first two sessions weren’t perfect, in less than a month, the team’s confidence in their ability to bring groups of people together online to collaborate and solve real problems had gone through the roof. 

For us, consulting is not about creating dependence. Much like creating a needlessly large carbon footprint by hopping back and forth to The Hague, it’s just shitty. Although we love our work, we want the teams we work with to develop new skills and capabilities to ensure that at some point, we’re no longer needed. Since finishing our project with the Transformation and Innovation Team they’ve run 13 recovery planning sessions with teams across children’s services without our help. We’d call that mission accomplished.

“In the first few workshops, it felt like we had loads to think about – what exercise was next, which tools are we using now, what do we say to explain it, moving people into breakout rooms and sharing links etc. but by the third workshop, all that stuff came naturally and we were able to be fully present in discussions with participants. Having gone on to run 10 more online workshops on our own, I’m most proud of the enthusiasm we maintained and for the brilliant feedback we received from Heads of Service. They praised our fun energy and positivity and for running well thought through, technically smooth workshops. We’ve even had requests from participants for us to train them on how to run online sessions!” 

To find out more about our work helping public services to tackle messy problems, contact [email protected]

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