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Facilitating workshops: What I learned from doing a trend overview

We had an excellent workshop earlier, and I’m looking forward to typing in the notes from people’s worksheets. My part of the workshop was a one-hour session on key trends in web channel delivery, and it prompted great discussion and plenty of ideas. Here’s what I learned from facilitating that session.

The goals of the session were to:

  • warm up and stretch the participants’ imagination,
  • set the tone for the innovation summit,
  • establish common understanding, and
  • generate ideas.

I chose eight trends that I thought were most relevant to the client. These trends were:

  1. Personalization
  2. Mashups
  3. Syndication
  4. Recommendations
  5. Real-time communication
  6. Social networks
  7. Learning
  8. Collaboration

For each trend, I followed this structure:

  1. An example drawn from the intranet or Internet
  2. A short description of the principle
  3. Some ideas for applying it in the client’s context, referring back to the goals mentioned in the previous presentation
  4. Quick questions
  5. A few minutes of individual brainstorming using worksheets: participants thought of ways to apply the trend to improve their organization’s website
  6. A short discussion about ideas and other thoughts

Here’s what I think worked really well:

  • Connecting the trends with the goals identified in a previous presentation reinforced the links and provided more structure. This is similar to call-backs in humor, where references to previous material strengthen the effect. If you can find ways to refer to previous presentations, that makes the connections smoother and stronger.

  • The worksheet allowed participants to take notes, brainstorm ideas, and jump-start the discussion. It was a simple worksheet with a guide question and eight rows of labeled boxes, one box for each trend. Jim Coderre suggested it at yesterday’s walkthrough, and it worked out wonderfully. We collected the worksheets at the end of the first day of the workshop so that we could summarize them. Provide note-taking aids and use them to help people individually engage with the content, then use that to start the discussion.

  • Selecting related trends instead of wildly separate trends allowed the participants to anticipate some of the trends, possibly cued by the overview slide and by the worksheet they had in front of them. For example, when we discussed personalization, some of the suggestions included aspects of syndication and recommendations. This made it easier to acknowledge and reinforce the way they were putting the piece together. It also helped build momentum. When we needed to move along faster, we could refer to some of the later topics that they were interested in (“Right! Let’s move along so that we can get to the part on social networking.”) Build anticipation into your content structure.
  • The clients responded to and appreciated the energy and enthusiasm I brought to the session. I love facilitating sessions on trends and idea generation because I enjoy the conversation. I love showing people that they have great ideas, and I love showing people the connections between those ideas and other things.

    There are two parts to being able to do this. The first part, I think, is that I’m generally quite a happy person, so it’s easy for me to bring that initial energy into workshops. The second part is that I love encouraging people and I love weaving those connections together, so that’s how the energy builds up. If I start with that initial energy and I can get to at least some people in the group who give me back that energy (and more), then that compounds throughout the session. If I had been tentative or nervous during the session, I doubt that the session would have been as effective. It works well with presentations, and it works even better with interactive sessions. Bring energy and enthusiasm to the session, and build on that energy as you go through it.

Here are some things I’d like to improve next time:

  • I’d like to figure out how to capture worksheet notes while still making it easy to hand the worksheets back to the right people. Maybe add names and e-mail addresses? Maybe just remove the expectation that the worksheets will be returned, and instead give back the summary document with everyone’s input?

  • We had great discussions around the trends, so we trimmed some of the challenges/opportunities discussion from the end. Looking back, though, all of the trends were interesting for people, and I didn’t spend too much time giving the background for each one. Maybe I should plan for 10 minutes for each trend instead, and reduce the scope even further.

Looking forward to sharing more as I learn about facilitation!

Figuring things out on the fly

Dark blazers are a newbie facilitator’s friend. No one could see me perspire as I wondered what to do. My session wasn’t working. The exercise structure I picked didn’t fit the energy and interest of the room. I needed to improvise.

Fortunately, my team helped me out. One of my colleagues asked a question that was really a hint about one thing we could try, so I latched onto it. That was better, but not quite all the way there. He suggested something else, I wove that suggestion in, and that worked. People got up and discussed the personas. At the end of the session, one of the clients asked if all of that would be summarized and sent to them: value!

It’s scary getting up there in front of a group, but it’s a darn good way to learn. My team helps me stretch and learn by giving me opportunities to facilitate workshop sessions and coordinate online brainstorming conversations. Over the past two years, I’ve surprised myself by having opinions, ideas, and even answers when people ask me about topics. And it’s awesome doing this with experienced people who can step in and smooth things over.

Maybe this is why large companies can be great learning environments. You’re surrounded by people with years of experience and a vested interest in helping the team succeed, so you end up learning tons along the way. =)

Learning more about facilitation

In 2010, I want to improve my facilitation skills. Facilitation is a large part of the consulting that I do at work, and I can see how good facilitation creates value. I’m frustrated by the limits of what I know and can do, and I’m looking forward to learning more. I’m particularly interested in three areas:

  • facilitating better online discussions (especially asynchronous ones)
  • doing visual facilitation and visual recording
  • helping people brainstorm wild success stories and worst-case scenarios

My work focuses on brainstorming rather than conflict resolution or other applications of facilitation techniques, although I’m also interested in facilitation of group processes in order to improve collaboration.

If I improve my skills, I can use that foundation to help figure out more effective patterns for virtual facilitation and collaboration.

In order to learn more about facilitation, I plan to:

  • proactively take on more responsibility for facilitating discussions at work, including doing the background research and helping prepare the deliverables
  • read and reflect on lots of resources about in-person and remote facilitation
  • collect templates and processes
  • practice visual notetaking and facilitation during meetings, conference calls, and talks
  • reflect on and share lessons learned from the workshops and idea labs we do
  • shift more of my talks to interactive formats
  • build mentoring relationships with people who can help me plan my learning

I plan to share what I’m learning with you through blog posts, sketches, lessons learned, and talks.

Looking forward to the adventure!

Facilitation: Thinking about the ends and means

I want to learn more about facilitation. What does better facilitation look like? Thinking about that will help me figure out what I need to learn and how.

Online facilitation

At work, I organize online brainstorming on specific client challenges. It’s a good idea, and there’s plenty of room for improvement.

The results of a perfect discussion would be:

  • Clients get the results of the brainstorm and think, “These are great ideas from different industries! I hadn’t thought of that combination before, and I want to learn more about those examples.”
  • We find interesting people whom we could involve in the preparation of the face-to-face workshop and future workshops.
  • We hear about relevant resources and examples.
  • Participants are happy and energized about the opportunity to work on client challenges.
  • Participants discover other people with similar interests, broadening their networks and continuing the conversation.
  • The discussion results in at least one initiative that the client chooses to explore further.

The challenges include:

  • Agenda flow: Still haven’t figured out how the Idea Lab results can best support the in-person workshop
  • Summarization: The account team doesn’t have time to do this, so I can take responsibility for the first draft instead, and then it’ll be easier for them to revise it. Are there more effective ways of presenting the information than the laundry list of ideas we currently have?
  • Deep vs broad: How do we balance deep insights from subject matter experts with broad insights from cross-industry experts?
  • Time: Participants may not be able to spend a lot of time thinking about the brainstorming questions, so we sometimes get surface answers

The factors I can influence are:

  • Reaching out to cross-industry communities for breadth: For example, HorizonWatch and the Web 2.0 for Business community are good to draw on.
  • Phrasing questions: What kinds of questions can bring out the mix of responses we’re looking for? How can we prioritize the questions?
  • Summarizing results: How can we better organize and present the information?
  • Using and developing tools: Last year, I developed mail merge and calendar entry enhancements that were very useful. How can I help further improve our processes?

In-person facilitation

In our face-to-face workshops, I occasionally help with the ideation segment, particularly for clients interested in social networking or Generation Y. We usually use a persona-based wild success story approach. Clients do their own visioning in workshops. How can we add value?

The results of a perfect session would be:

  • Energized and happy clients
  • A clear, coherent story that includes potential initiatives that can be explored and prioritized in the next sessions
  • A common vocabulary of personas for evaluating ideas

The challenges include:

  • Me sweating ever so quietly in front of the room
  • Infrequent opportunities to practise facilitating

The factors I can influence are:

  • Learning from other consultants and workshops: I can learn from brainstorming and persona-based techniques
  • Building a library of personas: so that I can pull together a persona deck quickly
  • Experimenting with where the session is in the agenda: Earlier = more shared vocabulary. Maybe start with persona definition and worst-place exercise?
  • Simulating workshops: How can I rehearse these things so that I can experiment with more ideas in less time? Can I do them in my spare time, perhaps with other audiences?

Visual facilitation

I like drawing. Visual notes are fun to make, and other people find them interesting too. I’d like to get better at many different facets, like visual recording and visual facilitation.

What would better look like?

  • Diagrams and graphic organizers help me think about things and share those thoughts with others.
  • During a workshop I’m scribing, clients and other participants like and learn from the visual record of the discussions
  • During a session I’m facilitating, the graphic structures make it easy for people to brainstorm and organize on the fly
  • When I’m summarizing results, visual tools make it easier for me to highlight important points and help people understand.

The factors I can influence are:

  • Practising visual recording and brainstorming: There are plenty of personal opportunities to practise that, hooray! Ideas, teleconference calls, talks, recordings, thoughts, blog posts…
  • Collecting graphic organizers and practising using them
  • Preparing more graphic versions of other presentations could be a good way to practise visual facilitation and summarization

I’ll share my notes in the Facilitation category of my blog. Looking forward to the adventure!

Lightweight personas for ideation workshops

One of the techniques we use to help a group generate ideas in Innovation Discovery workshops is to create light-weight personas. Anchoring the brainstorming using a name, a face, and a story makes it easier for people to generate and later evaluate concrete ideas. The personas also give the group a common vocabulary for talking about different audience segments. For example, if the group defined John as a middle-aged professional concerned about healthcare issues, people can then ask, “What would John think about this?” during other sessions.

The persona ideation exercise is great for sparking energy and getting people to stand up. It can be used in different places, and it can become a running theme.

  • Beginning of workshop -Defining personas - talking about characteristics and challenges: Who are the target segments? What are the gaps? What’s the worst-case scenario?
  • During the workshop – Brainstorming: How can we apply the ideas discussed in the previous session and other ideas we generate to build an ideal scenario for each of these personas?
  • End of the workshop – Evaluating and summarizing: Which of the parts of the ideal scenario can be implemented easily, and which take more effort? Which potential initiatives serve which personas, and how well?

Structure of the session:

Goal: Concrete vision, ideas for initiatives

Input: Light-weight personas which we flesh out with the help of the clients during the workshop session.

Output: Scenarios for each of the personas, and possible summary of key initiatives to explore in the next session.

Preparing:

  1. Identify a few persona types that reflect the client’s target audiences, with the planning team’s help. Ex: entrepreneur, parent, student, and so on.
  2. Look for pictures through Flickr Advanced Search (check all the checkboxes related to Creative Commons so that you can search for commercial-use modifiable photos). Stock photography sites such as sxc.hu and stockxpert.com are also useful, although I prefer to use Flickr because the people and situations look more real than posed. Put the pictures into a presentation, one slide per picture, with proper photo credits. If possible, crop the picture so that only one person is in it, and scale it up so that it fills the slide.
  3. Review the pictures and select which ones will be used. Aim for a diverse mix that represents the target audience well in terms of ages, professions, races, etc.
  4. Give the personas nicknames for reference. Use names that are easy to remember and spell. Alliteration is fun to use and makes names more memorable (ex: Bob the baker). Label the final slides with the nicknames in a large font, so that the names can be read from a distance. Adjust the photo contrast if necessary.
  5. Print full-colour copies of the pictures with names. You can post these next to easel sheets taped to the walls for brainstorming. If you have access to a poster printer, you can print large sheets of paper with the picture and the name at the top of the page.
  6. Finalize your persona presentation. Your presentation can be as simple as flipping through all of those pictures one by one, or you can show them all together if there’s space on the slide.

During a break before the session:

  1. Tape up 1-2 easel sheets per persona. Spread these around the room, making sure that there’s enough space for people to stand and talk. Have at least one blank set of easel sheets just in case you need to create a new persona on the fly. If you have plenty of space, put up more easel sheets.
  2. Place markers, Post-it notes, and masking tape near the persona groups. Different-coloured markers and notes give people flexibility.
  3. If you want (and you don’t have too many personas), post the persona pictures next to the easel sheets.

During the session:

  1. Explain the structure and flow of the session (goal, input, output, and the next few steps).
  2. Very briefly review the personas with names, faces, and light detail.
  3. Review the different personas, pointing them out around the room. Ask people to define the characteristics. You can change the characters completely at this point, or introduce new ones. A co-facilitator (or coworker closest to the poster) should jot quick notes about characteristics.
  4. Find out if you need additional personas. Use the blank pages you’ve set aside or repurpose a persona that didn’t click.
  5. Review the personas with the characteristics again, pointing them out around the room. asking people to move to the one they want to focus on. See if you can get people to take responsibility for reporting back at the end. Consider the balance of people among the different groups.
  6. Explain the structure again: people are going to figure out what that persona’s “moment of truth” is with the organization (key customer experience?) and walk through what that scenario could be in 2-3 years (or whatever the workshop’s vision timeframe is). Point out the markers and the notes. Encourage people to move around to other personas they’re interested in contributing to as well.
  7. Give people a time limit. Split up into groups. Walk around and facilitate, asking questions.
  8. Remind people when the time limit is almost up.
  9. Get the groups’ attention. Ask them to briefly tell their persona’s story based on the brainstorm. Take public notes on the different initiatives that can enable that scenario. These notes can be used during the analysis portion.

Analysis (can be done in another session or by another facilitator):

  1. If there are a lot of common initiatives, do the next analysis as a large group. If there are separate initiatives, let people continue the analysis from there.
  2. Let each group (or the large group) discuss which initiatives can be done by either organization separately, and which initiatives need collaboration. Help prioritize the initiatives in terms of perceived effort and benefit. Capture the results in a table.
  3. Review the results with the team.

After the workshop:

Summarize the persona characteristics and stories (may be bullet-point form) in the workshop output document.

Lessons learned:

  • Don’t offer too many choices, because clients may just want to have all of them.
  • Don’t give personas too much detail, because clients will benefit the most from personalizing them during the workshop.
  • Don’t be afraid to revamp your personas entirely.
  • Don’t panic. =)

Visual organizers

I love visual organizers. 2×2 matrices, mindmaps, fishbone diagrams, even more interesting ways to structure and organize ideas… Just as a wider vocabulary helps you express more when you speak, a wider visual vocabulary helps you express more when you think and draw.

Here are some sources for inspiration:

Also interesting – tools: http://www.visual-literacy.org/pages/maps/mapping_tools_radar/radar.html