Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Group Conversation Styles and Lessons Learned Discussions

I recently facilitated a day-long effort to discuss and capture lessons learned with a group of participants from West Africa and the Maghreb region.  While I have worked extensively in Africa in the past, this was a return to international development work after a decade of work with engineers and scientists in the aerospace industry.

There were a couple of elements in the design of that day of lessons learned that contributed to making it less than 100% successful  (perhaps it was 75% successful, not a disaster at all).  One such element was a potential mismatch between the group conversation style which is part of the local / regional culture on the one hand and the facilitation style and approach on the other hand.  I want to figure out what I could have done differently in the design of the sessions as well as in the facilitation approach and my own communication style.

It's difficult to disentangle the communication/conversation style issue from the lessons learned paradox which stiffles real learning in the international development community.

Note on the lessons learned paradox: Facing strong pressures to document successes and share success stories, international development partners, especially those whose existence depends on continued funding from donor agencies, have little incentives to take a hard, honest look at their programs and projects and discuss -- let alone learn from -- what isn't working.  This isn't just a problem of lack of individual psychological safety within a group.  It's a problem at the organizational and industry level.  The incentives are simply not supportive of learning based on open, honest conversations.  Instead, the focus is on providing "evidence-based" results.

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