An AgKnowledge Innovation Process Share Fair recently took place (25-26 May 2015) at the Addis Ababa campus of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) to discuss this central message. From its design to the various parallel sessions it featured, all the way to the conversations and results it stirred up, the fair focused on what too many people tend to forget often: the process (of innovation) and the need for process literacy.
Why focus on process? Because it is what connects the dots, the conversations, energies, interests and the purpose behind bringing people together. In development, the process is probably what gets innovations to efficiency, effectiveness, scale, and impact…
But a process needs serious and detailed crafting.
Designing a process
What started off as an idea by Nancy White – who was to be one of the facilitators at the annual eLearning Africa conference in Addis Ababa the preceding week, though it never came true – became a ‘process of all processes’. No less than eight ‘process coaches’ were called upon to design this share fair.
Over three months, the process coaches slowly put together a process to unpack the goals of the share fair, which meant:
- Identifying what its focus would be (eventually all participatory processes that matter in agricultural and rural development).
- Identifying possible session topics and interesting conveners (or additional topics).
- Organizing the design and facilitation principles (spelled out in the event web page) to emphasize must-do’s and must-not-do’s such as using conventional structures like PowerPoint recitals and open discussions, or failing forward (embracing ‘practice-on-the-moment’).
- Identifying possible ‘stances’ that participants could take, more informal than appointed roles: ethnographers, timekeepers, documenters etc.
- Developing a separate ‘e-strand’ (documented by Euforic Services here) involving various shades (or processes) of online participation;
- Organizing the documentation and social reporting of the fair.
- Setting up logistics for the smooth running of the event.
Running a process
The process coaches decided to organize the entire fair around a relatively recent collaboration and facilitation approach known as ‘Liberating Structures‘. Three of the process coaches had intimate knowledge of the approach while others had partly used some of its structures.
Once the fair started, all kinds of processes were unleashed and used, in nearly 20 parallel sessions, all focused on ensuring participation, sharing of expertise and adapting along the way (failing forward). Process coaches, then worked with volunteer facilitators to review the next day’s agenda and adapted ideas for all the plenary sessions, culminating in a synthesis and capitalization session that reviewed how these process lessons could be used in the working context of the participants. The fair then concluded and a participants feedback was collected.
Benefiting from a process
In the final exercise at the fair, participants gave an indication of their appreciation of the event and processes used by raising one to five fingers of their hand, five being the highest rating.
The vast majority showed four fingers and a couple even all five, while one participant raised two fingers and a few others three.
Among the less satisfied ones, some cautioned on the danger of putting process above content and of ‘over-processing’ everything. Others said the event was focused on agricultural development processes (many CGIAR staff attended), which would not be useful for those working outside the agricultural sector.
Overall, though, feedback from the share fair was quite positive, as illustrated by these tweets…
— Ewa Hermanowicz (@miscelanousmind) May 27, 2015
— V. Protonotarios (@vprot) May 29, 2015
But positive reactions do not undermine the need to question what we learned from this process.
Learning from the process
Different process are used for different purposes. Placing process as the ultimate value in innovation can be as unhelpful as overly focusing on content. Both process and content should be mixed as context dictates. Focusing too much on ‘process’ could give the impression of play-driven rather than purpose driven engagements. The combination with purpose is really key.
But choosing and using various processes takes time. In this share fair, process coaches were left nearly exhausted at the end of the day. It takes weeks of preparation and careful participatory process facilitation to make sure all voices are heard when they need to be, and factored in appropriately in such meetings.
Effective use of process requires focus. Having many ‘process coaches’ versed in group and process facilitation is great and allows for a truly different type of event and experience, but it does not mean that that group itself does not need to facilitate its own preparatory or reflective sessions to operate well.
Process takes multiple forms, all with their own dynamics. Face-to-face processes are increasingly complemented with online processes, which tend to suffer from a relative deficit of attention, preparation and facilitation. Yet there is much to gain from working in virtual teams and in participating meaningfully in virtual conversations.
Process has a cost. Using facilitation processes such as Liberating Structures has the advantage of keeping a high pace and high energy, without necessarily requiring a lot of expertise in facilitation. However, it also means putting a lot of pressure on the blended/online sessions making use of them. Read more lessons about the blended online-offline sessions through the Euforic Services blog.
Process requires the ‘political acceptance’ of its proponents. It takes senior managers, researchers, top people that have some degree of power to make the process more acceptable, process thinking the norm and process literacy more visible. But power structures are not organized around participatory, empowering processes, so there is a political dimension to the process crusade.
Process calls for collective thinking. And thinking is a process. Learning is integral to ‘process literacy’ and it is difficult to carve the time out to reflect on all the grand and little things that make a process successful. And yet that is what is required for global development (research) work to be ultimately successful. “It takes a village” is a good epitomy of the process literacy voyage we are suggesting to embark on.
Moving on with process(es)
Was the share fair a waste of time and resources? Definitely not!
Would ILRI and the process coaches run another ‘AgProcess share fair’? Probably not.
Will participants remember ‘the process’ and develop their ‘process literacy’. Probably.
Have we learned much in this process? Definitely!
Will we see important developments as a result from this share fair in the work of ILRI and other institutions, networks and individuals involved? It may be early to tell… change takes time and it can be exhausting, fun, painful and confusing. And the AgKnowledge Innovation Process Share Fair was all of that bundled in one intensive event. All we know is: with increasing complexity in our activities and in our professional relationships, process is here to stay, and this ‘process of all processes’ might be just a passing star or a precursor to change.
Find more resources online around the hash tags #AgProcess and #SFAddis.