It’s not just another forced innovation session, where your frustrated inner dialogue continues to settle on the same old ideas. It is instead an approach to problem solving that takes you out of your comfort zone, unlocks your self censorship, and has you and every other participant racing against the clock to capture one another’s killer ideas.
Needless to say, we at Pancentric strongly advocate the approach. And personally, having facilitated and participated in countless sessions now, I enter them without preconceived ideas, but with excitement and fascination at what direction the day may take.
As a facilitator however, it’s a slightly different ball game.
Growing into my facilitation shoes
Pancentric recently ran a 3-day Design Thinking event at London Design Festival. We tackled 2 big subjects - creating a Better Bankside and Insurance as a service - with a single agenda: Imagine tomorrow. And, as my colleague Joe writes, the event was a huge success.
It was the first time that Bankside had become part of the London Design Festival, and the first time that I had facilitated a public event of this scale. With that in mind, here are a collection of my biggest learnings as I progress on my own journey through the turbulent waters of facilitation.
Write the agenda, and then forget about it
Confession: I’m a bit of a control freak.
To those who know me, that will come as no surprise. So, in my prep for a 3 day workshop event, I couldn’t help but plan activities to the nth degree. I recall evenings sat drinking beer with Joe, attempting to itemise every minute of the day, into a failsafe format. But the reality is quite something different.
The fluidity of a Design Thinking event is such that you have to learn to let go, and just let things happen. Don’t get me wrong. You need a framework, and a whole host of potential activities and tools up your sleeve. But then you just have to listen to what’s being said, learned and questioned, and adapt the day accordingly.
Sounds scary, but somehow it just works.
Mastery of the tools
The unpredictable nature of a Design Thinking session means that it is crucial that the facilitator knows their tools inside out.
I can’t stress this enough.
You need to call on activities to help break the ice, prompt conversation and unlock divergent thinking. Then later, select the tools which will help focus the participants and prompt convergent thinking. You need to know which activities work well with big groups, to ensure quieter participants have a voice, and which are more effective with smaller groups or individuals.
You need to readily respond to the room, and select the tools and activities that will steer the day in the direction that you feel is of most value.
One other curve ball you might have bat away, especially with open sessions, is changing numbers. The right size and mix of group is key to design thinking (ninja skill revealed) but the Pancentric London Design Festival event was a drop in session. So, though we had a whole raft of people who we knew were excited to come, we also had to be prepared for those who just turned up because they liked the sound of the event. And there was a lot of them.
Gratefully we had a suspicion this might be the case, so we made sure that each session was split into multiple small groups. This meant that new additions could just join an exisitng group, and the group could fill them in. Simple, maybe obvious, but invaluable.
As unglamorous as it sounds, you will do a lot of this as a facilitator. You will tell people time is running out, the clock will alarm, you’ll clap, you’ll shout and still they’ll continue.
Because this Design Thinking lark is addictive, ideas are being born by the second, and nobody wants to miss one. Of course, if there is a really good exchange taking place, letting it run its course is vital. But it’s also fairly easy to assess when the creative juices are running dry, and people are ready to share their thoughts. That’s when you need to give you vocal chords a good stretch, and be louder than the combined chorus of the room.
Reflection is a huge part of Design Thinking. So your role as facilitator is to encourage everyone to reflect as often as possible. For some this is quite an unnatural practice, so gentle reminders for them to take the time, and really think about what they’ve learnt, and how they’ve felt, are key. And this applies to you, the facilitator, too. What has been working? What hasn’t? Capture everything so that you can learn and improve.
And finally… the best facilitation is invisible
Like design, good facilitation goes unnoticed. If you take nothing else away from these ramblings, remember this - your role as the facilitator is to listen, support, adapt and guide. Gently.
Ambiguity is OK in design thinking. It helps propel people to think differently. They might look to you for certainty because they feel out of their comfort zone. But resist the urge to over explain or lead the witness. Allow things to happen naturally, and trust that they will get there on their own. Because they will.
This is their journey, not yours.