Gathering Momentum

On Saturday, I was one of a team of facilitators working at the Gathering Momentum event. The turnout was significantly higher than expected – maybe 70-100 people. They were a mix of individual activists, volunteers and staff from community groups, and NGO campaigners. A fair few were veterans of the GM campaign of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. All came together to share up-to-date information about genetically manipulated (GM) crops and animals.

The campaign to keep the UK GM free was hard-fought and a significant victory for grassroots direct activists, the organic and wholefood movements, and the NGO community. But with so much money invested in the technology it was inevitable, that terminator-style, the large corporates would be back.

I’d say the day was an excellent attempt to pull diverse groups together, to initiate dialogue, build mutual trust and respect, and therefore sow the seeds for a much more effective response to the renewed threat. Previously the worlds of farmer, direct activist, professional campaigner, concerned consumer, and concerned scientist had collided with little thought or planning. The collision was inevitable and in many cases very positive, but less effective than it might have been. There was tension and conflicting world views, and that inevitably dissipated some energy that could have gone into the campaign. So Saturday seemed like sound strategic thinking. As veteran campaigner and Gathering Momentum speaker John Stewart said, successful campaigns had a unity of purpose and a diversity of tactics.

From a facilitation perspective the challenges were down to numbers and diversity of the group (opinion-wise, sadly not so diverse culturally, ethnically etc), and the tight schedule. When the agenda was originally devised there had been an assumption that numbers would be significantly smaller than actually turned out.  Clearly more people is a good thing, but it did mean last-minute rethinks for one of the sessions that I co-facilitated to ideastorm and then begin to plan possible campaigns. To accommodate more people (there were about 65 ideastorming) and the greater number of ideas they would inevitably generate we broke them into more manageable groups, briefed them carefully about the creative non-critical space we were trying to achieve and left them to it, before asking each group to prioritise just 2 of their ideas. The prioritised ideas were fed back, clustered where relevant, and then groups formed around these, directed by interest and energy. Their task was to continue in ideastorming mode, but now focused on just one idea. After a break people moved as they saw fit, staying with their original idea, or putting energy into a different group. And as people shifted, so the focus shifted – from ideastorming to critiquing and planning.

In many ways it was simply a logistical exercise – we weren’t taking any decisions, we weren’t expecting to get very far down the planning process. The most frustrating aspect for me was bringing the small groups together. Because we were going through a multi-stage process (ideastorm => prioritisation => ideastorm on previously generated ideas => developing  ideas => preparing to feedback) I think we needed to set up clearer protocols (backed by a clearer rationale) right at the start of the session for coming back together relatively promptly and quietly. Yes we outlined the whole process; yes we regularly outlined the specific stage we were in; yes we circulated round the group with time warnings; yes we rang a noticeable but not intrusive bell and yet we still needed to raise our voices (not in temper, I hasten to add) over the general hubbub to get full group attention. Now I always try to do this with humour, but when you’re having to be louder than a whole room full of people in order to get their attention, something’s not working as it should (and it’s very tiring)!

Perhaps the groups are focusing on the single stage of the process that they’re currently engaged with and forgetting that there’s a bigger picture – more care needed to reinforce that picture. Perhaps it’s us facilitators working to a timescale that only actually works on paper and not when you factor in real people (especially passionate, diverse, articulate people!) – a more realistic ambition for the end point needed. Both are things I’ll pay more attention to next time around. It would be easy to write it off as a noisy group, but I’m increasingly of the opinion that’s there are very few problems that aren’t the direct result of the way we facilitate – something (usually very simple) that we omit to do, or something that we do that doesn’t work for the group.

The overall agenda for the day also had its flaws: not enough warming up at the start for my taste; no formal opportunity for the participants to ask questions or interact with the keynote speaker; no time for us to turn the room round after lunch, tidy up and sort out the chairs. And depending on your take on on my comments above, the agenda may also have been overambitious. But to be fair, the flip side of this was that the campaign idea planning was able to progress to a point at which, as a facilitator, I can be quite happy that something will actually come of it. And that’s not something I say that often!

I haven’t seen the evaluations, but as always will feed them back to you when I see them. And if you want to get involved talk to the nice folk at Stop GM!.