What did we learn from six months of training senior Aid people in Influencing?

October 4, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Well that was intense. We’ve just come to the end of a one year programme to design and deliver a training course on ‘influencing’ to senior aid leaders (UN, INGOs, Red Cross/Crescent and National NGOs). 6 months to design the materials and methodology; the rest to deliver the training to 6 cohorts of 25 people in 5 locations around the world. I’m devoting the next few days on the blog to some reflections.

Bit of background before I get onto what I/we learned from the exercise. Why influencing? Because in the words of one person we interviewed, in the humanitarian system ‘you get promoted because you’re good at tents and blankets, then you have to try and stop the Saudis stop bombing Yemen’. The Global Executive Leadership Initiative (GELI) influencing programme is part of a broader set of leadership training, funded by USAID and the EU. LSE won the bid for the influencing bit (despite me being the director); Harvard is delivering most of the rest. The methodology is big on participation (a 20/80 rule – only 20% of the content should be traditional teaching, the rest is participant-led) and adapted to the realities of being a senior aid person (insane inboxes and time pressures).

Each cohort kicks off with a 4 day Face to Face programme, followed by four weeks of online learning, combining online modules with personal coaching sessions.

The funding has now run out, but we think we now have a great course, and will be casting around for new funders – if you are such a person, please get in touch!

Here’s a few headlines from what we’ve learned:

While the core flow of argument remains Analysis → Strategy → Private and Public Influencing, there has been a lot of evolution, as we tweak each successive course. We:

  • Found better ways for participants to lead the discussion, such as a participant panel (better than external speakers, IMO) and ‘dilemmas labs’ of 5 or so people, who take it turns to present a work challenge and get feedback from their peers.
  • In a similar vein, we abandoned pre-cooked case studies (Ebola, Sri Lanka) in favour of improv – listening to the intros on the first day and selecting a theme that everyone could get their teeth into as we worked through the influencing cycle. That gave us themes such as migration (in the Panama cohort), disability (in Bangkok) and hunger (Nairobi). A bit scary, in that you can’t prepare the materials, but much more immediate. It worked better.
  • Simplify, simplify, simplify: we reduced the number of online modules (people basically want the same ones), cut the number of tools we were chucking at them (the most useful in the Analysis part, which I ran, turned out to be the fishbone diagram for unpacking problems, and the stakeholder map based on choosing a particular point of entry from the fishbone (in this case the role of women) and digging into the players. See examples from the last workshop, in Nairobi, courtesy of Asli Salihoglu.
  • Have fun: we introduced a social evening half way through, and devoted the last day to a simulation of a crisis in the imaginary country of ‘Gelia’. These were big hits and bonded the group together. We also ‘defended the breaks’ – two half hour coffee breaks, and at least an hour for lunch, rather than let them be eroded by session over-runs (a common annoyance at conferences).
  • There’s no substitute for face to face. Yes it’s expensive and hard to organize, but people arrived delighted to be away from their office (even if they had to take numerous calls), and meet new faces post-Covid. The challenge has been to take that buzz into the online sessions, when people are once again swamped by work demands. I’d say we’ve only been partially successful there.
  • Whatsapp beats emails, every time.

What feedback have we had from the participants? The full MEL won’t be in for a couple of months, but from our brief end of course surveys, I would pick out:

  • People valued the peer-to-peer interaction with a range of others (e.g. UN and (inter)national NGO) who are normally across the table (or even lobby targets)
  • But people also value ‘hearing from the experts’ – a term I’m not comfortable with personally (because I’m really not) but does describe my fellow trainers, Hugo Slim, Anna Macdonald, Jess Crombie and Mahrukh Hassan. Weird how big cheeses revert to studenthood in that environment – I had senior aid peeps asking for permission to go to the bathroom!
  • Learning materials need to be light on reading, in favour of podcasts, videos and one pager ‘top tips’ sheets
  • A few simple tools that help them systematize what most of them already know, and most important, explain it to their teams
  • And stories, lots of them – from the trainers, and from the participants. That’s often what sticks.
  • Fun – the simulation is always a big hit

What happens next? Still processing what has been an intense year, but a few initial thoughts:

Find some dosh, or nothing happens

Find an institutional partner(s) in the Global South, e.g. one for each region. Trying to decolonize one trainer at a time did not work.

Maybe broaden the audience (eg to future leaders, rather than current ones) or the subject matter – no reason to confine this methodology to influencing.

Build a cohort of trainers a la PDIA?

Would welcome comments from others involved in the course – what have I missed?

And here’s me discussing the programme with the Thinking and Working Politically network’s Alina Rocha Menocal. Check out that shirt – already feeling nostalgic for the summer!

October 4, 2022
Duncan Green