As you may know, I belong to a collective of consultants called Framework which is based in the UK and works with not-for-profit organizations worldwide. Framework currently has a membership of six consultant practitioners all of whom are involved in organizational development and capacity development work. We usually work individually but sometimes work together in pairs or larger teams on more complex contracts. Each of us is self-employed and of equal status in the collective. There is no management hierarchy. The key organizing principle in Framework is mutual accountability for high quality work through shared values and peer supervision.
Over more than twenty years, Framework has developed methods for enabling reflective practice and experiential learning. The three most valued methods used by the collective are peer supervision, annual reviews and biannual retreats. These methods are very influential in shaping the identity of Framework as a learning organization because each method provides a powerful platform for reflection and learning before, during and after the contractual work with clients. The methods work in the following way.
Peer supervision involves a circular arrangement with each of us supervising a colleague and, in turn, being supervised by another colleague. As Framework colleagues are geographically spread across the UK, most of the monthly sessions are conducted using Skype (more recently with video-conferencing). The consultant who is the subject (the supervisee) determines the agenda for how the time is spent during each 60-90 minute session. In practice, sessions focus mainly on the progress of work with clients and wider practice issues arising from this. A number of tools are used to facilitate reflection and learning. The supervisee usually prepares an update on the progress made in the work under discussion prior to the session using a list of questions devised to stimulate self-reflection. The update may be shared with the supervisor in advance but more often is simply used at the time to guide discussion. Sometimes the supervisee will prepare a short critical incident analysis for a piece of work and share this with the supervisor. The close, trusting relationship that develops between peers means that very little is ‘out of bounds’ for discussion and, as a result, the discussions range from practical strategies for dealing with challenges that arise in the work with clients to deeper issues of self-awareness. Supervisory relationships are changed every year to 18 months to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to supervise and be supervised by everyone else in the collective. This helps to strengthen the collective as a team and exposes all the consultants to a range of supervision styles and professional development opportunities.
Annual review involves each consultant and their supervisor in an annual in-depth discussion lasting two to three hours. Annual reviews have a number of purposes including assessing the quality of work undertaken with clients; increasing self-awareness; guiding professional development and contributing to Framework’s organisational learning and development. As part of the preparation for the review, the supervisor interviews three of the consultant’s recent clients using an agreed list of questions to receive first-hand feedback about the quality of the consultant’s work and the working relationship they developed. The feedback is discussed with the consultant, usually after the consultant is asked to anticipate what clients have said about them. After the discussion, the consultant prepares a list of ‘Intentions’ related to work with clients, professional and personal development, work portfolio and contribution to Framework’s development as a collective.
Framework holds two residential ‘retreats’ each year. The retreats cover two days of work time over a three day period. The retreats involve all Framework consultants and attendance is obligatory. In practice, the retreats are a highly valued part of Framework membership and everyone looks forward to the time together with great anticipation. The venues for the retreats are carefully chosen to provide a relaxing and supportive environment. Retreats provide an opportunity for information exchange, skill-sharing, knowledge development and in-depth reflection on work with clients. Part of the time is also allocated to decision-making about collective strategy and marketing but it is the in-depth discussion of work and work practices that provides the essential focus of the retreats. Two consultants plan each retreat in discussion with their colleagues. Everyone attending prepares a presentation based on a piece of current or recently-completed work with a client. Presentations involve practical activities such as action-learning, coaching, discussion and role play. Some sessions are used as ‘peer assists’ to develop strategies for work in progress; some take the form of ‘clinics’ where relevant experiences are exchanged to overcome problems of ‘stuckness’ in a piece of work and other sessions are used to share new practices or to identify what has been learned from a recently completed contract that may be of value in future contracts.
Peer supervision, annual review and biannual retreats provide a supportive environment for Framework consultants to reflect on and learn from their own and each other’s practice. The methods work because of the strong, trusting and challenging relationships that evolve between colleagues. We expect each other to speak from the heart as well as the mind: emotional and spiritual issues are as likely to enter discussions about capacity development as more conventional professional concerns. Together, the three methods provide a nurturing and enquiring environment where a deep level of reflection on practice is not just possible but is a required part of being a Framework practitioner.