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Making post project reviews more conversational

Posted to Gurteen Knowledge-Log by David Gurteen on 9 January 2014



Making post project reviews more conversational
WeblogGurteen Knowledge Log
Knowledge LetterAppears in the Gurteen Knowledge Letter issue: 164
Posted DateThursday 9 January 2014 12:25 GMT
Posted ByDavid Gurteen

I am currently documenting the many ways in which I have seen the Knowledge Cafe taken and adapted by organisations for different purposes. I am also writing about further ways in which I think the KCafe could be used.

Early last year, I wrote how I thought it could improve the Post Project Review process for a colleague, hoping that we might have the opportunity to try the process out with one of his clients but nothing came of it.

Rather than letting my thoughts sit on my hard-disk for another year or so I thought I'd publish them here. They are a little rough but I hope you will get the general idea. If anyone would like to experiment with this process then get in touch with me.

Introduction to Conversational Post Project Reviews
Many post-project reviews rely on people filling in forms. Or on meetings where the whole group is asked a question and people reply individually. Or where people present their pre-filled forms to the group. Others are based on interviews.

Often they are highly structured and formal in nature, with check-lists, specific categories of questions, pre-defined questions and pre-allocated times for discussion and so forth. There is nothing greatly wrong with this structured analytical approach and there is no one way to run post-project reviews but its fair to say that in general they are not very "conversational". By and large, it is assumed that people already know what the problems were and all that is needed is to capture the "lessons learnt".

The Knowledge Cafe Philosophy takes a different approach by assuming that until people start to talk openly about how the project went many of the problems and missed opportunities and insights will not be surfaced. It takes group conversation, people talking freely and openly in small groups of 3 or 4 to achieve this. It's not that the more formal approach does not work, it's that it does not surface the deeper, more important stuff.

The Process
One or more Knowledge Cafes can form part of any larger post-project review process and elements of this conversational process may be built into other activities.

A typical process might be as follows though this methodology can be adapted in many ways to meet the needs of the review.
  • The cafe process is described to the participants if they are not already familiar with it.
  • A speed conversation session is run. Here the participants are asked to join each other in pairs and have a brief conversation about anything they wish. Three rounds of 5 minutes each might be sufficient.
  • Some one talks for 5 to 10 minutes to set the context of the conversation.
  • They then pose a question to the group to trigger the conversation (more on the question in a moment).
  • People are seated in small groups, 3 or 4, at the very most 5 people group. There are no table leaders.
  • The small groups have a conversation around the topic/question and after about 15 mins are asked to change groups.
  • This change of groups takes place twice thus there are 3 small group conversations.
  • Everyone comes back together to form whole group. People move their chairs to form a circle and everyone sits in the circle.
  • The conversation then continues where people share their insights from the small groups with everyone.
  • Finally, the KCafe leader goes around the circle and asks everyone to share one lesson that they have learnt from the project and/or their KCafe conversations.
Speed Conversations
Recent research (Friends With Cognitive Benefits -What Types of Social Interactions Boost Executive Functioning? by Oscar Ybarra, Piotr Winkielman, Irene Yeh, Eugene Burnstein, Liam Kavanagh) shows that talking with other people in a friendly way makes it easier to solve common problems. Conversations that are competitive in tone however, rather than cooperative, have no cognitive benefits and actually suppress the ability to solve problems. This is the reason for the short round of speed conversations at the start of the Cafe. It relaxes, people, gets them talking about uncontroversial things and actually boosts their thinking ability.

Group Size
The essential ingredient of the Cafe is the small group conversations and the fact that each group is only 3 or 4 people in size (never less than 3 and never greater than 5). Research on group size (Group Discussion as Interactive Dialogue or as Serial Monologue: The Influence of Group Size by Nicolas Fay; Simon Garrod; Jean Carletta) shows that in small groups the communication is like dialogue and members are influenced most by those with whom they interact in the discussion. However, in larger groups, the communication is like monologue and members are influenced most by the dominant speaker. Large groups tend to be dominated by one or two members to the detriment of the others. In other words, if you are looking for highly interactive conversation that connects observations, thoughts and ideas and surface new things, then a small group size of 3 or 4 is essential. The whole group is more suited to reporting back and sharing knowledge rather than surfacing or creating it.

The Circle
The circle that is used for the whole group conversation is a very powerful. By sitting in a circle, first and foremost everyone is equal. Everyone can also easily see and hear each other. Its not easy to hide and its actually more difficult to dominate. Importantly, the Cafe leader can also see everyone and through eye contact and body language to some degree can shape the conversation by indicating to dominant people they should talk less and encouraging the quieter members of the group to speak up.

The Question
There is usually only ever one question asked in a Knowledge cafe and as it is the trigger for the conversations that ensue it is of the upmost importance and it is essential to think about it and craft it carefully. The KCafe is about creating a conversational experience. In some ways the question should not be designed so much as to get answers to specific issues but to generate engagement. Engagement at times can be important then content. We are not looking for surface issues here we are looking for deep ones.

If the KCafe is held early on in the post project review, maybe it is the first item, then it sets the conversational scene for the remainder of the session. We want people to feel relaxed, free from fear, energised and engaged. One way to do this is to make the questions personal, responsibility and action oriented.

For example:
  • What did you personally learn from this project?
  • In what ways do you feel personally responsible for the outcome of the project?
  • What would you personally do differently next time as a result of your experience of working on this project?
  • What opportunities did you miss to do things better?
  • What was the most valuable thing you accomplished in this project?
Building elements of the Cafe into the post project review process
One very simple adaptation of the KCafe process is to build time for conversation into your existing process. For example, at present, you may ask the participants as a whole group to answer a specific question and let some sort of conversation emerge around that question.

The KCafe approach, would be to have people seated in small groups of 3 or 4 and to ask them to discuss the question in their small groups first before coming together to discuss as a large group. Forming a circle for the large group conversation is also a powerful KCafe technique to adopt.

There is not one, prescriptive way to do this but I think we need to get away from the rigidness and formality of so much that we do in corporate life and make processes such as this one more relaxed, engaging and conversational.

If you like these ideas, experiment and let me know how you get on.

If you are interested in Knowledge Management, the Knowledge Café or the role of conversation in organizational life then you my be interested in this online book I am writing on Conversational Leadership
David Gurteen

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