Okay, not all 350 of them were actually farmers, but they were all related to the agriculture economy in some way: managers of farmers markets and farm-to-school programs, backyard gardeners with big dreams, and folks who run processing and distribution businesses.
The WV Department of Agriculture and WVU Extension knew that for their strategic plan to be successful they needed to engage stakeholders across the state’s 14 conservation districts in defining the agriculture economy’s challenges and developing solutions. They also recognized that the timeline and budget constraints that would make that level of engagement a challenge presented an opportunity: agency staff were craving the chance to enhance their facilitation skills.
Over the years, Fourth Economy has refined our approach to “Build Sessions”. Borrowing from the human-centered design method, stakeholders brainstorm, prioritize, and build strategies to address the challenges identified through the process. In order to deploy Build Sessions across 14 community meetings in 2 weeks, Fourth Economy developed a facilitation training for 25 staff of various ag-serving agencies and institutions.
Held in September, the half-day training covered general facilitation best practices such as neutrality, consensus, active listening, summarizing, staying on task, and transforming conflict, as well as exercises to practice facilitating a Build Session. The trainings were a big success. After the training, one participant was so excited to try out her new skills that she actually moved her vacation to be able to facilitate one of the community meetings!
Across the state, meetings were held in churches, fire halls, and fairground buildings. Agency staff were amazed at the number and diversity of folks who showed up to participate in the process. The Build Sessions generated lots of conversation and great ideas, and ultimately fed directly into the creation of the strategy. Last month we met with the WV Agricultural Advisory Board to present the strategy and they commented that the sessions sparked a whole new level of collaboration among stakeholders across the state. To us, that is a testament to the power of a truly participatory process.
If you are looking to do something similar, here are our top three tips:
Help participants be prepared to generate good ideas.
Overall there were 10 topic areas that we were looking for stakeholders to help us develop strategies around, but we could only facilitate Build Sessions around 3 topics at each meeting. Therefore we had participants vote on what they wanted to discuss as part of their RSVP. Even if their topic wasn’t selected, they were coming to the meeting with a clearer idea of the specific topics at hand. For each topic area our team prepared a white paper detailing what we already knew about the issue. Each Build Session started by reviewing the white paper so that all participants were on the same page. Finally, we designed the facilitation materials to help prompt participants to think of different types of interventions.
It doesn’t matter how good you are a facilitating if you don’t capture people’s ideas.
Ensuring that you have adequate capacity to serve as a scribe and/or a process for participants to capture their ideas on paper is key. Especially if your facilitators are relatively inexperienced, you can’t expect them to also be taking notes. What’s more, you need an efficient process of compiling all of the notes from a session so that they can be easily translated into a strategy document.
Don’t forget to share.
After the meetings, meeting notes were shared on a public website that we designed specifically for the planning process. Throughout the process we used the website to advertise opportunities to engage and share what we had learned. We also had great support from the communication and marketing departments of all of the agencies involved. This was critical to the transparency of the process, as well as to stimulating ongoing conversation and collaboration.