Coping with Covid-19: Theory of Change workshop online
As we all struggle to come to terms with the personal, community, work and politico-economic / cultural implications of COVID-19, I’d like to share a few lessons drawn by me and colleagues from WIEGO’s Urban Policies Programme (UPP), after we ran a theory of change workshop online on Monday and Tuesday (16-17 March 2020). WIEGO is a global organisation – Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing. UPP is one of its programmes, with a vision oftransformed urban systems so that informal workers have higher and more stable incomes, secure places to live and work and the capacity to negotiate sustainable gains in urban policies, planning and implementation.
We were due to do a two day workshop in London, but instead were each at home (Brazil, Canada, Italy, South Africa, US), some in total lockdown, some in sort-of lockdown, and some only beginning to imagine what is coming. We decided to go ahead with the workshop, and it went brilliantly. At the end, I asked that we evaluate it both in terms of lessons about doing this kind of work online, and of course about the content. These are the main lessons generated:
Starting from where we are at
In keeping with feminist praxis, you have to start where people are at. Our actual agenda assumed that we all know each other (having worked together in UPP, and in my case, having done ongoing work supporting WIEGO in strengthening its internal monitoring and learning system); we’d also met before to discuss why the need to articulate UPP’s theory of change. For this reason, I’d allocated only 10 minutes for the welcome and reminder of why we were here. But the moment needed something else. Participants took time to share what was happening in their countries, cities and homes. Some had children in the workspace as schools are closed; some watched their governments pretending nothing was happening…. And as an organization working with informal workers, all were reeling from the likely impacts of COVID on workers’ safety, families and ability to sustain their livelihoods. So we talked. We shared strategies and coping mechanisms including how to keep children occupied in lock-down. We needed the time.
The online process
For the theory of change process, the group argued that two things were key to its effectiveness – a very clear agenda and process; and very strong facilitation, which was a lovely compliment to me!
On the agenda.
While this group routinely works online doing planning, sharing how the work is going, key achievements and so on, doing thinking together, surfacing differences in understanding of the group’s theory and practice and building a shared understanding is quite another thing. I built into the agenda time for people to think and write their ideas alone, to work in twos, and to work together. This allowed people reflection time, it ensured that each individual’s understanding of their work and that of the collective got onto the table, and it gave respite from having to engage as a full group for hours. It is much more tiring engaging as a group online than face to face because, even using an online platform where you can see everyone’s faces (and in our case some people’s bandwith was not strong enough to have video on), one cannot easily read the energy from people’s body language; on can’t as easily tune into the non-verbal side of communication. One has to concentrate really hard to keep aware of how well ideas are landing, what issues and dynamics need navigating, if silence means people are okay or that they’re struggling, and if everyone is still together.
Despite the agenda enabling this we agreed that even more time to work alone and then bring thoughts or writing into the group would have been good. We agreed that working in twos was great for processing ideas. In retrospect, and going forward – since this is likely to be my new mode of facilitation – I would encourage groups to do less each day – for example break up what face to face would be a two-day exercise into two or maximum three-hour slots over five days. And let everyone do ‘homework’ in between, whether alone or with someone else. This would make it less tiring and give individuals more time to synthesize their thinking. This probably holds even more when members of the group are thinking in different languages but all having to engage in English as was our case. In our case those in Brazil, Canada and US took on some work after we closed the meeting and that enabled participants from South Africa and Italy to comment on that work before we started our joint session the next day.
A bigger challenge was using a shared screen to write up the text. There’s a tension between everyone co-creating, and the exhaustion of watching the movement on the screen, the rolling up and down and so on. Some people found it helpful, others suggested turning off the shared screen during conversation about text, and only turning it on again to see changes.
No amount of careful preparation of an agenda or of understanding how to develop a theory of change is enough if you aren’t a confident and competent facilitator. This comes with experience. Participants named some specific aspects that made it work: “a facilitation style that is extremely welcoming and you provide a safe space”; “UPP and WIEGO are a very special beast; we know who we are and what people do and sometimes we err way too much thinking everyone else knows too; and you were fishing things out that we needed to put in writing”; “You do something I can’t do, which is respectfully say to the group, ‘let’s not go down that route’”; “your ability to pick up issues and move the group forward.” Without someone to hold the space, keeping an eye both on the strategic thinking side and the emotional side, it would be hard to achieve the workshop objectives or to do so with everyone still being on board.
On the ‘theory of change’ itself
As a way of ensuring everyone’s perspectives were up front at the start of the exercise, after an opening conversation about the history of UPP, I asked each person to write a case statement for UPP – what the private sector call ‘a value proposition’. I gave them five sentences to finish, along the lines of 1. The problem we address is …..2. The change we contribute towards is … 3. The difference our work will make is…. 4. UPP’s contribution to WIEGO’s objectives is….. 5. UPP contributes to the efforts of informal workers’ organisations by….. We went offline. People then dropped their case statements into the Zoom chat box or emailed them to me, and I grouped them so all inputs on statement 1 were together and so on. We then identified what words or concepts resonated and then either built a new statement or edited whichever one most resonated with the group. I looked out for anomalies that needed exploring to make sure that everyone’s thinking as reflected in their original write-ups was incorporated into the conversation.
Out of the distillation of responses to points 2 and 3 above, we landed up with UPP’s three major intended outcomes – strengthened workers’ capacities as economic and political agents influencing urban narratives and decision-making; shifted narratives and practices of urban practitioners in and out of government; and these two ultimately enabling transformation of urban systems, centred on workers contributions and lived experiences.
We took these 3 objectives and did a standard theory of change exercise looking for the preconditions for achieving each of these – described clearly in the ActKnowledge manual. We took this offline with people working in twos in the afternoon for some, and morning for others, before we reconvened midday on our second day. On the second day, we talked through the preconditions, and the kinds of strategies UPP uses in the hope of achieving these preconditions. In that conversation, innumerable assumptions came up which I noted and we then had a session on assumptions and context, noting which dimensions are outside of UPP’s control, and which they could address by incorporating certain strategies into their theory of change. Once we had enough agreement on the meaning of each strand of the theory of change, we agreed that again, in couples, people would do some editing and reworking and would pull together the theory of change narrative themselves over a series of engagements online. I took responsibility for synthesising it into an image that captured the overall vision, strategies and intended outcomes, as at least a working version for them to take further.
The agenda ran from 2pm – 8.45pm on Day 1 South Africa time, an actual five hours excluding the breaks; and from 2pm – 6pm on Day 2, an actual 3.5 hours. Participants spent at least 2 – 3 additional hours, working in couples in the afternoon or morning, depending on time zone.
I hope these are helpful reflections. In short, I think doing serious thinking work in a way that strengthens group cohesion around what they are doing and why they are doing it, requires attention to the immediate context, the emotional space participants are in, and the ensuring of individual space for reflection and generating of new ideas alone and drawing on collective wisdom. Doing this using an online platform, and with people from multiple time zones, means slowing the pace, listening carefully, and shifting plans as needed.
My best wishes to everyone in this unknown terrain,
21 March 2020
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