Flip Chart Dumping

Flip chart dumping is a way of parking ideas and actions and ensuring they are never realised in practice. The act of writing on a flip chart in front of others is a fairly physical activity and often gives the false impression that we are all “doing something”. In too many cases, what we are doing is parking what needs to be done in a place of nonaction. The flip charts will be rolled up, a neat elastic band put around them, and they will then lie in a corner before finally being discarded, like an elderly grandparent, palmed off into a retirement home.

Facilitators often call this process “convergence” and dress it up with colourful Post-it stickers and neat prioritising techniques. The workshop or away day ends on an artificial high of everyone (who usually remember the last half an hour most, and often only remember the last half an hour) leaving the session feeling motivated, feeling that they have achieved something and colluding in the fact that the actions that have been beached on the flipcharty desert island, will soon be collectively forgotten when we get back to the day to day “real” business of work.

The facilitator leaves the venue happy that they have “delivered” an action plan that is simply one collective false revelation.

Flip chart dumping is the friend of unchange. Flip charts require people to stand up and write on them with big stinky inky pens. Few people can write neatly on them. Few people know how to write on them in ways where others can see, or in words that really capture accurately what is being said by people in the room. Writing every word can be impossible in a short timescale and summarising is a skill few have learned well, if at all.

So we also end up with scrawly, draftish, writing that doesn’t feel anything more than rough, unworthy of status or formal commitment. This usually leads to a further, even sneakier form of dumping which is for someone with no authority or influence back at base to type them up and circulate them. This usually happens after an apologised delay or, worse, so soon after the event that the first is like having your meal delivered to you two days after you left the restaurant, or, in the second case, like having your meal rammed down your throat whilst you are still eating your starter. One is too soon, one is too late. Both arrive at a time where action will fall flat because the dynamics of the event where commitment was really possible have died.

Flip chart dumping is a way to ensure that an away day or workshop doesn’t harvest in practice what was visioned, explored and agreed collaboratively.

So, what is to be done?

We have to make flip charting and the process of converging on decision and action one of authentic commitment. We have to allow time for it and not rush it at the end. Ideally, I’d suggest the process is broken up over two days, allowing people to sleep on what they are about to decide and commit to.

Flip charted actions need to be written up with legible love and collective care. The words need to be like an undistorted mirror, reflecting back an objective picture of what needs to be done. Then we need to ensure all in the room agree that that picture is clear, that the reflection is a reflection of them. If it isn’t we have to have to courage, the willingness and the time to go round again, to rework, to redraft, until the image IS clear.

Then comes the process of setting real timelines, real dates. We have to put the process into present and future. This needs to be done by then.

Next come real human beings who physically sign up to the actions, voluntarily, as part of their professional duties. If others, not in the room, are to be tasked, this needs to be done DURING the process. Those people need to be contacted and their tasks made clear, with similar sign up. There need to be consequences for non-action – formal and informal. Formal in terms of the usual processes of discipline. Informal in terms of sharing with each other how non action will impact on other tasks being agreed.

SIgn up should be physical. Sacred in blood. In this case, the organisational form of blood which is your name next to the action, written by you for all to see. A task, a date and deadline and your name.

The energy in the room becomes palpable. Fear and uncertainty arise, because we are forced to faced REAL realism. We explore what is needed and what is possible. We’ll battle for resources, we’ll argue about deadlines. And it will take longer. But the flip charts will not be dumping grounds – instead they will be priceless maps into the shared, wanted future. When all the actions are achieved and the organisation or community is in a better place, there is sometimes a reluctance to throw the original flip charts away, which have often been white tacked to the office wall as real plans should be. Instead they are framed, happily remembered proud artefacts of the shared history. A0 sized works of art. And that is what they are, pictures of a time when we were all at our best. Made by us. And, best of all, no one can remember a single thing about the facilitator.

2 thoughts on “Flip Chart Dumping

  1. I dig where you’re coming from Paul and resonate with many of your points, but this post is very one-sided. It makes your point well, but a few key issues.

    First, flip charts are helpful because they create shared artifacts. The alternative of not having anything written in a visible place is for people’s words to simply dissipate into the ether after every discussion session. The notes on a flip chart offer a synthesis or summary of a discussion. This can help people to later in the day remember what was discussed at earlier sessions.

    Next, the “parking lot” use of flip charts is a very helpful facilitation technique for keeping discussions on track. In this use, the issues that arise that are tangential get listed and followed up on later in the day or at a later time. This strategy is very helpful for keeping a discussion focused and giving participants faith that their related concerns are not being dismissed. Of course, like you say, these parking lot issues need to be followed up with in clear and concrete ways.

    Finally, your point gets at a larger problem with meetings of all kinds. Whether it’s a weekly team meeting or a quarterly executive retreat, there is often a huge disconnect between meeting notes/minutes and action. I generally prefer to eschew detailed notes for simply a list of next steps. Who’s responsible for each step and by when must they deliver it? This is often missing from meeting notes. The final piece, which can’t necessarily be written down, is who will hold people accountable for completing next steps? This is a combination of project management, supervision and team standards, and groups often struggle to make responsibility for this accountability and follow up explicit.

    This final point gets at the fact that many meetings are not clearly aligned with activities and actions, but really are just forums for wandering discussions about various unresolved issues.

    This is where meeting and discussion design are very important. Structured facilitation techniques, such as variations of the K-J technique (), can pull teams out of rambling discussions and focus them on making decisions and determining priorities.

    As I like to say, there is a long distance between an agenda item and a productive discussion. The distance is usually bridged when you know exactly what you want to get out of an agenda item and you intentionally design structured discussions to get you there.

  2. All good points Ephraim. I’m demonising flip charts here in order to throw up a less discussed aspect of them. In the right hands a flip chart can be the right tool. Unfortunately they end up far too often in the wrong hands.

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