Activate! South Africa’s new leaders and public innovators
In January 2012, a new national network of young public innovators was established under the name ‘Activate! Leadership and Public Innovation’. This year 220 young adult leaders drawn from communities across South Africa have joined a three year programme to build their skills in public innovation. The successful applicants come from big business and small community organisations; from the Democratic Alliance and the Young Communist League; from the hamlet of Jan Kempdorp and the bustling hub of Johannesburg; and from a variety of disciplines and sectors. Some are studying, others are working, while some are unemployed. These ‘Activators’ represent what we hope is the greatest diversity of South Africans. Through their journey together – grappling with the challenges through face-to-face training and interaction, continuing seminars and high-tech connections – they will develop a common identity as activists for the public good.
The programme is structured through three 9-day residential modules based at nodes in Mpumalanga, KwaZulu Natal and the Western Cape. The modules are made up of a series of sessions that build in complexity throughout the programme ad cover five key spheres: a) my identity, b) group identity, c) innovation toolkits, d) socio-political navigation and e) deploying ripples and waves of change. The first module focusses primarily on the Activators own journeys, their identity and begins to delve into the realm of public innovation. During the second module, Activators get to grips with various leadership methodologies, begin learning how to create and get the most out of teams, and start to turn innovative ideas into practical solutions and project plans. In the third module, Activators move into full-on project implementation, working with various tools to ensure the success of their endeavours. At the end of the year, Activators are invited to present their projects at an Innovation Showcase in Kimberley. Activators will continue to participate in a variety of activities, seminars, field trips and mentoring sessions for two more years beyond the intensive residential first year of the programme.
At this point, the 2012 Activators have completed Module One of the programme. This learning brief will focus on the role of facilitators in developing and deploying an effective programme, and how best to understand and ensure their success throughout. One of the critical challenges facing Activate! is that it is starting at a large-scale – 220 participants – and will be increasing numbers dramatically over the next few years to reach roughly 750 participants a year by 2015. Working at scale requires that the team develop a set of effective quality-management tools that can ensure the programme deployed is consistent across all nodes and intakes.
The starting point of ensuring high quality facilitation is to ensure that facilitators are completely comfortable with the materials at hand. In deploying the Activate! programme, the facilitation team had only two months, and 12 full days of training, before deploying Module One. This created extreme pressure on the facilitators to perform, and what emerged were a number of hiccoughs in the first intake of participants. The Programme Manager – Chris Meintjes – was very clear from the start that the effectiveness of the programme would rely on there being a quick response time to any emerging problems. Facilitators were required to immediately report any issues that arose, so that the central management team could assess and correct where possible. This process of quick notification and transparency meant that Chris was able to quickly improvise and tackle problems in real-time, rather than waiting for a post-module debrief.
One of the common problems that emerged was that facilitators – despite managing incredibly well – felt out of their depth managing the real traumas that many participants shared during the process. Unfortunately, the reality in working with young South Africans from predominantly disadvantaged backgrounds is that there is a preponderance of traumatic narratives from participants. Coming to terms with trauma is often a part of the personal development aspect of leadership development, and thus it is critical that facilitators are well-prepared to deal with what might emerge in sessions. Some of the preparatory work facilitators did was to create a list of helplines – such as lifeline – that they shared with participants who needed extra support. The programme manager has also decided to send all facilitators on a professional counselling course to better prepare them to hold the space while participants share their trauma.
A critical aspect of deploying a programme at scale is to ensure that adequate time is put into developing robust materials that are a combination of structured enough to ensure the core part of each session is covered, while leaving enough flexibility to the facilitators to define the spirit and nature of the sessions. Importantly, each facilitator bring their own skills to the table and a critical aspect of ensuring a successful training event is the process of identifying those strengths and ensuring that the responsibility for sessions is divided across the team’s skill-sets. For example, some of the Activate! facilitators do not have tertiary level education, but are incredibly good at reading the atmosphere in the room and responding to the needs of the group. What has emerged as the critical points when training facilitators is to ensure that they:
Understand the why of each component – what learnings and insight are we aiming to bring out though each activity?
Understand the what of each training component – what exactly do we need to do in this session?
Understand the how – what facilitation skills and techniques are needed in to deliver the session?
In debriefing after Module One it became clear that at times one or more of these factors – the why, what or how of the session – was not entirely clearly articulated. For example, at some points the facilitators may be very clear on the what and how of the session, but do not adequately convey to participants the why or purpose of the session. We found that where the purpose of a session was less effectively communicated, Activators in general gave lower feedback ratings. This framework of the “why, what and how” of each session was thus built into the Module Two training of trainers as a checklist to ensure that all facilitators are entirely clear on each aspect and able to articulate.
A new mechanism being implemented from reflection on Module One is a “keyring quality management system”. The keyring system responds to the fact that each module is broken up into submodules and individual activity sessions. They key ring is made up of a series of laminated cards, connected together on a keyring, colour coded for each session during a module. This design means that facilitators have quick and easy access to all the information they need to properly prepare and frame the session while in action in the room. The set of cards for each session cover the following points:
The objective of the session
Overview of the session, including: the set-up of the room, key learning opportunities, and the expected outcomes of the session.
Entrance and exit strategies for the session, ie: what sessions come before and after, do energy levels need to be ramped-up or calmed down, how does this session connect to those before and after.
One of the biggest challenges for the facilitators is the vast range of educational background of the participants. Activate! intentionally attempts to build connections between young people from across the poles of South African society – racially, economically, geographically and in education level. In reality this means that within a training venue, facilitators might have a Masters graduate and someone with limited literacy, or a social media savvy person and someone who has never used the internet, working through the same materials. The process of getting the pitch of the sessions right becomes very tricky: facilitators have to ensure they don’t leave behind some participants while also stretching the more experienced participants so that they gain enough from the sessions to see the value in the programme. Finding the right balance has proven to be very challenging, and remains a critical factor to address if we are to ensure the success of the programme.
What does this all mean for our own programmes and others working in the field of youth leadership development?
Firstly, it has become clear that it has been very worthwhile to have spent time and money creating the materials for the programme. No matter how good the facilitation teams are, ensuring quality materials means that even where facilitation can be improved the likelihood of the session’s outcomes being met is high. It is particularly important for this programme that the materials are also able to be easily adapted by the Activators themselves so that they can continue to practice and learn the processes and tools covered in the training room. We also made a commitment from the start to ensure that all materials were open-source: this allows both Activators as well as other programmes to use the materials in their work, and extends the impact of the programme beyond its initial participants. Small details such as laminating the materials, using expert designers to craft them into usable formats, and ensuring full and detailed facilitation manuals has a major impact on the user-friendliness and usability of the materials. Creating clear facilitator manuals means that facilitators have easy guiding processes should they get stuck or lost during a session.
Secondly, it is critical to ensure that there are real-time reporting processes in place so that when problems arise facilitators have a clear sense of how best to alert the central team and take immediate responsive action when things are not going according to plan. If debrief sessions are held only at the end of a module, then there is no measure in place to course-correct while still in session. One of the very positive things we have taken from the work thus far is the capacity of the team to respond at short notice to changing conditions. This requires building a very strong trust-based relationship between the facilitation and management teams.
Finally, while leadership development programmes often focus on creating very strong programmes to develop the participants in programmes, the facilitators’ development can be overlooked. It has become clear from the first part of the programme that we need to focus both on developing the participants as well as the facilitators to ensure that each facilitator has the confidence and capacity to handle the full range of emotional, strategic, developmental and practical aspects of the programme. It is also critical to be flexible about the make-up of teams and the way in which their strengths can be matched to ensure the best possible training set-up. Using the why, what, how questions and the keyring system have been important development in the quality assurance process.
The Activate! programme has, thus far, proven to be incredibly exciting. Our expectations of the quality of Activators has been surpassed, and it is becoming clear that this initiative is providing a unique opportunity for young people to connect beyond the enclaves of the original organisations, geographies and sectors. Already Activators are beginning to work collaboratively, and share experience and resources to strengthen each others’ work. Their experience of the residential modules is critical to promoting these collaborations, and the skillsets being built in individual participants, and as such we are committed to maintaining a clear focus on our facilitators and the process of facilitation. We are very proud of all they achieved to-date, and believe that as we strengthen our support mechanisms, we will be able to secure an even more effective facilitation team.