Written by Marc Bolick
DesignThinkers Group has been running our Design Thinking Facilitation course since 2017, and it is by far our most popular offering—for good reason. Our customers are looking to up their innovation game by learning the skills and tools to effectively catalyze creativity and change.
Facilitation is one of the key skills for the future of work. Facilitators are professionals who, without official power or authority, guide groups of people to achieve common goals. It’s a superpower that you can wield to help teams do things they couldn’t do on their own.
Facilitator: “One who contributes structure and process to interactions so groups are able to function effectively and make high-quality decisions.”
(From Facilitating with Ease!: Core Skills for Facilitators, Team Leaders and Members, Managers, Consultants, and Trainers by Ingrid Bens)
We’ve gathered quite a bit of wisdom over the years, and share this knowledge with you now in the form of easy-to-digest tips and tricks. If you bristle at the idea of an abbreviated list, we get it—mastering facilitation requires a host of hard and soft skills that goes way beyond any simple list. But these points can be a great start for those who are actively working to improve their facilitation skills.
This article isn’t exhaustive, by any means, so please add YOUR advice and thoughts!
WORKING VERTICALLY vs. HORIZONTALLY
Working ‘vertically’, or standing up, stimulates creativity and engagement. Working horizontally, at a table, for example, can help people lean into a concentrated task as a team. As a facilitator, you should design your activities with how the team will work in mind.
When you are facilitating a group be aware of your physical position in the room and with respect to the people you are facilitating. Moving to the front of the group brings all the attention and power to you. Use this position sparingly and empower the team to achieve the goals of the activity you designed. Stepping outside the group helps you monitor engagement and participation, allowing you better to judge if adjustments need to be made.
SOLO v. PAIR v. GROUP
Working ‘silent and solo’ allows everyone to participate on an even level prior to sharing with the group. It gives everyone in the team a voice. In some activities working in pairs can stimulate creativity and may be faster. Moving from solo or pairs to group sharing helps generate a shared understanding and perspective on the activity. Always carefully design your activities considering how you want people to collaborate at different moments.
OWN THE PHYSICAL SPACE
Make sure that teams are empowered to make the physical space in which they are working their own. To the extent possible, provide them with options and guidelines of how to work, but allow them to ‘own’ the space. As a facilitator you may need to nudge different physical configurations if you see things might be better, for example a team may be constrained by working in a corner where some people aren’t able to see the work area.
PLANNING & AGENDA
The success of your session will depend on the design of the activities and thoughtful preparation for your session. As a rule of thumb you should expect to spend 2-3 times the session duration on the design and preparation of the session. ALWAYS make your agenda clear and visible for your participants, and make sure the goals and outputs are clear to everyone.
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Design Thinking is a different way of working; it’s a form of ‘radical collaboration’ that can yield great value. Setting out clear expectations for how you would like for people to collaborate helps ensure a level playing field and mitigates the risk of your carefully designed session going off track. Think of your rules as a form of social contract that helps protect everyone’s investment of time. Make time in the agenda to cover the rules and make them visible.
LEAD v. FACILITATE v. PARTICIPATE
As a facilitator you are assuming a special role to act as a guide for those you are facilitating to achieve the goals of the session. Sometimes you are required to step into the role of leading a group. Sometimes you may also need to contribute to the activities as part of your responsibilities. Just be aware of your role – facilitator, leader or contributor. Self-awareness and knowing when to assume which role comes with practice.
MASTER THE MATERIALS
Making the right resources available to session participants is your responsibility. Whether it be flip charts and sticky notes, or adequate familiarity with the digital tools for a virtual workshop, as a facilitator you need to ensure everyone is prepared and equipped to participate. Be sensitive to different levels of ability with different materials because not everyone is able to participate in the same way.
OPEN, EXPLORE, CLOSE
Meetings, workshops and other sessions are like conversations and they have an opening, an exploratory phase and a closing. Be particularly aware of the opening and closing as these are parts of session design that have great impact on the outcomes. Be aware that as a facilitator you carry the responsibility of convening at the start, and concluding at the end of a session. Plan these activities as carefully as the parts in the middle of your agenda.
Visualization is a key strength of master facilitators. A well-crafted sketch or drawing can communicate much more clearly and concisely than a paragraph of words. Learn to master simple drawing techniques in physical workshops and leverage the power of digital tools to help effectively convey things like the session agenda and activity outputs. Using tools, frameworks and templates are key ways to make the work visual and engaging for participants.
CHANNEL v. SWARM
Channelling is when the group is working in harmony and the progress of the session is being routed through one person, for example when someone is scribing for the group. Swarming is when everyone in the group works in parallel, for example moving sticky notes into clusters or organizing sticky notes in a certain hierarchy. Swarming can be quicker, but channelling can be better if the group needs to discuss details and get alignment. As a facilitator be aware of these two modes and direct participants accordingly.
Master facilitators do not need to wear themselves out because they have a well designed plan that leverages the participants in the room to do the bulk of the work. ‘Lazy facilitation’ is not about doing the minimum and getting poor results, it’s about being smart and designing sessions as efficiently as possible, then establishing a group ‘flow’ that naturally moves through activities to a constructive outcome. It’s the ultimate state of facilitation expertise to set the stage, provide the enabling environment and step back to let participants do the work.