Virtual workshops and conferences – innovating fast and successfully

“Mummy, why can’t your clients come to you?” asked my 10-year old daughter a few years ago. I moderate large and small events at companies, foundations and governments all over the world and I work a lot – so that’s a lot of travel. I explained to my daughter why it was impossible for me to invite 500 people into our home for a large group conference or ask a company board to fly from North Carolina to Heidelberg for a strategy meeting.

Isn’t it strange how the “impossible” can change? IMG_0745 copy

Don’t get me wrong: things are tough. My business and daily life has been totally upturned by the COVID-19 situation. As a self-employed international consultant focussing on dialogue, many contracts have been postponed to when corona’s subsided. Whenever that is.

However, as in all crises, people see opportunities to innovate, adapt and change and I have clients and business partners with whom I’m excited to be doing just that!

We’ve already conducted workshops and small-group events with a cool mixture of Zoom, Slido and other tools and are working on a large-group conference in a few weeks with high-level panels and multi-room break-outs. It works!

But it only works if you completely re-think the format. A simple translation of the real-time event to its online alter-ego will bore, frustrate and (literally) turn people off. It certainly won’t achieve the results we’re after. One thing that strikes me about the sort of virtual meetings we’ve been running is that people can be both more and less efficient and focussed when they’re communicating via a screen. There’s a very fine line between strong engagement and the sort of 4% just about “in” that’s possible between reading a new mail and playing patience.

Timing is crucial: more than 60 minutes flat is unlikely to pay off. Those 60 minutes can be really effective though: start on time and engage with participants holistically from the beginning. Keep presentations that would have taken 30 minutes in the physical work down to at the most half that time and allow participants to engage briefly in small groups (e.g. on Zoom) before coming to conclusions or decisions with a pre-prepared tool like Slido. Our experience: we’re over twice as quick to get to goal. As long as the whole session is over within 90 minutes tops.

Rules of play need to be embraced by all participants too: similarly to the real world, effective dialogue needs people to turn notifications off during the discussion and focus on the issues at hand. Also as in offline reality, human basics such as eye-contact, respect and clear speech are a key parts of whole-person conversations that are meaningful and reach results. Participants at online workshops need to have their cameras on (watch that background and get out of your pyjamas) and a good microphone in place. There are loads of colleagues out there who’ve written about what makes online communication work and I’m grateful to all who’ve shared their experience.

We’ve learned a lot and will be learning a lot more over the next few weeks and that’s another joy of working in a crisis: people are keen to experiment, see what happens, reflect on what works and doesn’t work, show solidarity, criticise constructively and constantly improve. It’s more than a culture of error tolerance. It’s egging the errors on up front, in order to adapt on the fly and become excellent quickly. I’m seeing daring, speed, humour and genuine interest in what’s happening and who’s on board. That’s not recklessness, it’s courage and esteem. I think we really have a chance to conduct meetings and conferences in a more hybrid way after corona without losing our effectiveness.

Maybe my daughter had a point: saving on travel whilst aiming to serve my clients’ needs as well as I always have is a possibility, even though I’ll never give up on the many face-to-face conversations that need physical presence. This hybrid approach would certainly be a more sustainable way to get people engaged in the right dialogues.

Please let me know if you’re unsure as to whether your planned workshop, conference, debate or meeting could be rethought as an online event. I’d be happy to see what would work for you. Not everything has to be postponed. Life needs to go on. But maybe in a somewhat different way!

The strength of public private partnerships done right

High level Forum of the German Alliance for Trade Facilitation in the Museum der Kommunikation in Berlin052ED-066BE.jpg

This has got to be one of my favourite processes: the German Alliance for Trade Facilitation. I’ve been supporting it since its birth in 2016 and have marvelled at the growth of the network – German businesses and economic associations with the German Government. Monday’s first High Level Forum showcased how the simplification of non-tariff trade processes and removal of barriers not only benefits Germany’s exporting industry, but also business and community partners in developing countries. Whether in Ghana or Montenegro, the Alliance has shown it is possible to reduce time goods spend at customs, increase knowledge and reliability or generate more automated systems. As Dr. Thomas Ogilvie, Member of the Management Board at DHL Group, said: the Alliance is a unique opportunity to articulate, educate and innovate.

Trondheim Conference 2019 #TC9 – Making biodiversity matter

450 experts from National Governments, NGOs, science and international organisations are mobilising everything they can to make drastic progress towards the global vision of  living in harmony with nature. The Aichi targets from 2011 haven’t achieved what they intended to. The Trondheim Conferences are a safe, encouraging but also challenging space for candid discussions about what caused the failure to act. And they also push for collaborative ideas on how to improve the strategy and its implementation.


ashgar and Natasha stage

Schwung mod

I had the privilege of designing the interactive sessions of the conference again and moderating it. The results will be appearing in full as well as in the synthesised form on the website: Trondheim Conference Report (work in progress). This year’s conference promised to have more interaction and, in addition to the round table discussions on prepared questions, participants filled an Open Space Agenda with their own topics, in order to make sure the important and relevant lessons learned are taken forward (see photo below).

Open space agenda

Photos by IISD/ENB | Mike Muzurakis

In 2020 (in Kunming, China) the Convention on Biological Diversity will adopt a post-2020 global biodiversity framework as a stepping stone towards the 2050 Vision of “Living in harmony with nature”. SUPPORT THIS WORK!

Web host server down

Now I’m not saying that organising a business isn’t complex – juggling emails, telephone calls, meetings and concepts – but it’s what I’ve been doing since going solo in 2010. And it relies on the IT service providers’ accountability, reliability and transparency. Unfortunately, I’ve been let down since Friday by mine. #domainfactory.

You won’t be able to reach me reliably per mail. Please feel free to use the horrible alternative that I still have from my early days: and Skype me on or give me a call.

This is an exercise in how NOT to inform customers of what they can expect. Really crummy crisis communication. As such, I have absolutely no idea when I’m back with emails.

So now I think I’ll go and bake a cake.img_0288

Agriculture 4.0 at the EU-Africa Summit in Vienna

I grew up in the countryside – really deep down in the sticks.


It was quiet and dark at night. Cockerels and sheep and church bells were the accompaniment to my youthful memories. And tractors, driven by underage school friends – helping out at their parents’ farms. Some of those friends went on to take over the family farm. Most, though, were drawn away from our rural idyll. The agricultural life of offer to young farmers didn’t seem to satisfy their job expectations. European small farmers – and rural areas – are losing more and more young people, who make their way to the asphalt and noise of the cities. And the picture in many African countries is similar: despite high youth unemployment, a life in farming is simply not attractive for young people.

What would help draw talented people to farming? This is a question we’ll be broaching tomorrow at the Roundtable discussion on “Agriculture 4.0” that I’m moderating for the Austrian EU Presidency at their High Level Forum Africa Europe

Another key prerequisite in modernising agriculture and making it a key lever in sustainable development is to align political mandates across ministries and commissions. It’s therefore great that my panel will be made up of Africa and European experts and that our discussion will be kicked off by both the EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Phil Hogen, as well as EU Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, Neven Mimica. This is crucial: we need to put an end to policy approaches that get lost in inter-sectoral squabbling.

I’m also going to be talking to entrepreneurs, researchers and civil society leaders on how they see digitisation and automation in agriculture really contributing to both social and ecological development as well as creating strong and competitive business models.

I hope, one day, to be seeing agricultural innovation made in Africa supporting the sustainable development of rural areas in Africa and Europe.

Mannheim’s international students are given a warm welcome

And what a pleasure it was to host the evening – Mannheim has a great deal to offer people from all over the world. It’s open and friendly, has great businesses and entrepreneurs ready to meet young talent and is well connected to the other important European regions surrounding it.

Thanks to the wonderful Mumuvitch Disko Orkestar: for getting everyone into the swing!

Ostbelgiens Bürgeragenda liegt vor!

This blog post is entitled in German, because it refers to my work in the German Speaking Community of Belgium, where a randomly selected group of citizens have spent their free time working on a “Citizens’ Agenda” for the future of childcare in the region. The “Bürgeragenda” was presented on Saturday to the region’s politicians and welcomed as a call to action! Many recommendations and thoughts will be implemented or find a place in the region’s masterplan on childcare. Politicians and citizens alike praised the process and described it as a success. Media was involved in the process from the beginning. Here’s the latest report:




Albania hosts Regional Labour Market Monitoring Conference

IMG_3303The famous clock tower in Tirana ticks away on our conference on the relevance of regional labour market monitoring for more effective policy-making. The conference is drawing not only on the important research results of the European Network on Regional Labour Market Monitoring (EN RLMM), but also on GIZ’s work in developing and emerging countries. The aim is to create a platform for both groups to explore how research findings can be transferred to countries outside of the EU. Albania is an excellent choice to host – the results of migratory brain-drain, combined with strong economic growth, mean that national employment policy urgently needs to obtain and act on strong labour market information: where are which skills required and how can national and regional policy-makers support skills development and effective matching of supply and demand.

This is an amazing space for participants from EU, South East Europe, Central Asia and Northern Africa to understand their different situations and explore how experiences can be built on and used in different contexts.

Kick off citizens’ dialogue in the Parlament of the German speaking community of Belgium.

24 citizens, randomly selected by a university, will start their dialogue in Eupen today to develop policy recommendations on childcare. Their discussions will take 3 Saturdays and end  with a dialogue with the Parlament in which they present and discuss future possibilities. Next time they meet, they will confront a selection of experts that they will choose themselves today. Instead of being “force fed” by expertise, the process creates a pull from the questions and gaps identified by the citizens themselves. Over 30 potential experts have already been asked to block the date, but whether they are asked to attend or not depends on the citizens.

President Mieser hopes to install a New Democratic dialogue here in East Belgium. The parliament is committed to learning from the process and plans to hold similar dialogues with citizens on other hot topics in the future.

I am proud to be designing and supporting the process and meeting the citizens in just under an hour!

International Germany Forum – Huge interest in the changing stigmatisation surrounding mental health

3. Internationales Deutschlandforum_Gruppenfoto_Group Picture copy.jpg

Bildnachweis: Foto: Bundesregierung/ Sandra Steins

These are the notes I took during the forum on Mental Health at the 2017 International Germany Forum (IDF) and hopefully show how exciting the near future could be for society’s understanding and treatment of mental disease:

  • Mental health stigma affects all of society:
    • people living with/suffering from mental health illnesses, thus making it more unlikely that they seek help early.
    • Families, friends, colleagues and public life as a whole, thus making mental health a “non-issue” and stopping people understanding what they have and how (effectively) it can be treated.
    • Healthcare and medical institutions – lack of understanding of the implications of mental health on physical health and vice-versa. Prejudice and maltreatment of people with mental illnesses when they need physical help.
  • What’s behind the stigma? What has caused it and is contributing to keeping it upheld? (Mirai Chatterjee: “People just don’t know how to approach mental health”)
    • Guilt – e.g. Mentally ill people and/or their parents and family: “what have I done wrong to have caused this to happen”
    • Fear of treatment – e.g. Exorcism, painful and/or humiliating experience
    • Lack of knowledge or the “normality” of mental illnesses: is it an illness? Are you dangerous? Is it contagious? Is there a treatment? Am I a lost cause? Will I waste my doctor’s time by seeking treatment?
    • Fear of exclusion and loss of legal rights after “coming out”: will I ever be able to drop the label? No understanding of the continuum of the diagnosis and the fact that it can end!
    • Lack of access to a group: I’m on my own.
  • We need to differentiate in our approach to mental health and mental illness:
    • Different mental disorders (from schizophrenia to depression, etc.)
    • Mental disorders (treatment) and mental health (prevention)
  • We need to learn from others on how to destigmatise mental health. E.g. HIV/AIDS, homosexuality
  • Main levers for destigmatisation: 1) Talk, talk, talk (famous people and normal people – multichannel – use social media to generate broad groups of people!), 2) showcase successful treatment! The more people are seen to be successfully treated and “well”, the less taboo, 3) involve people living with mental disorders in issues (relevant for them)
  • Main action for experts and specialists: connect the dots (there’s already a wealth of things going on, but no roof, so that the effect is reduced)
  • What should we be doing NOW?
    • International action: Germany is called on to take on a leading role in merging the agendas (Agenda 2030, G20, etc.). Create a movement – bottom up and top-down. Mental health is one of the prerequisites for all people to be productive citizens and combat the tasks on the agenda 2030.
    • National action: e.g. Germany needs a National Mental Health Action Plan to connect the dots, increase access, develop technology and treatment and destigmatise.