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. =)

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!