Book Excerpt: Meeting Design

August 20, 2018

This is an excerpt from Kevin M. Hoffman’s new book Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone. 2018, Two Waves, an imprint of Rosenfeld Media.

Chapter 5: Facilitation Strategy and Style

Cover: Meeting DesignFacilitation Styles

Facilitation is a balancing act. It requires demonstrating empathy for a group’s interests and capabilities while simultaneously keeping them away from tempting, but unproductive lines of discussion. The effort and focus required to maintain that balance varies based on what kind of person you are and what kind of topic or group you’re facilitating. These three spectrums—scripted to improvisational, drawing to speaking, and space making to space filling—are designed to help you get a better sense of your own, or anyone’s, facilitation style. They will also help to assess when a style supports a meeting or when it needs something different.

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Scripted to Improvisational

Do you plan agendas so precisely that you prescribe the number of minutes per topic? Do you distribute a written discussion guide in advance? If so, then you probably facilitate more in a scripted style. Scripted facilitation is well suited for organizations where meetings tend to be frequent, aimless, and meandering. The clarity provided by a more rigid discussion guide will seem novel and be welcomed.

Scripted facilitators can come across as less flexible or, at worst, inauthentic. A script helps, but you don’t want to seem like you wouldn’t be able to succeed without it. When you are perceived as inauthentic, people will believe that you’re more invested in seeing your plan followed than a positive outcome. If you sense any of those responses to your style, it’s time to become more improvisational. (See Figure 5.1.)

Figure 5.1—Improvisational versus scripted facilitation styles
Improvisational versus scripted facilitation styles

Effective improvisational facilitators can surprise people with strong questions out of the blue, and they seem to draw from a bottomless playbook of activities. Improvisational facilitation feels challenging and requires attendees to be present and focused. When it works, it helps the group synthesize in unexpected ways.

It may seem like an improvisational facilitator is unprepared, but they are like jazz musicians. Jazz musicians seemingly pull stuff out of thin air, but it’s really from tons of practice and a playbook of great ideas they’ve built over time. Good improvisational facilitators come prepared with a collection of conversational hacks that they can summon at will. Improvisers also convey a deep sense of empathy for the people in the room. Stopping the conversation without warning to unpack something conveys being in tune with the room’s mood.

Improvisers thrive when they get rapid feedback from the conversation. That feedback helps them forecast the next question or step in the process. They struggle when people are opaque or when they are unable to let go of the preconceived agendas. If people aren’t ready or willing to let go of their expected topics, having a basic script to fall back on will keep an improviser from losing control of the room.

The meeting at the beginning of the chapter might have been better served by being more improvisational. Amira’s agenda was very scripted. Since her style might be more scripted, simply having a fallback script of a few prepared challenge questions to draw from would have helped her when the discussion became too rigid. You can build a fallback script by first listing all the things that could go wrong. Then prepare a discussion question or two for each worst-case scenario.

Use improvisational planning to inject spontaneity when it’s needed. Think of your script as something that you iterate upon, in real time. Be ready to say, “If this question or activity isn’t working, how will I adapt?”

To hit the middle ground between scripted and improvisational, Amira could have prepared a branching agenda: a diagram of three or four steps, which outlined hypothetical discussion paths. This is like a “choose your own adventure book,” and should never play out the same way twice. (See Figure 5.2.) Branching agendas serve groups that are ready to improvise, helping them get past the obvious to new ideas.

Figure 5.2—A branching agenda would guide improvisational choices
A branching agenda would guide improvisational choices

Drawing to Speaking

Do you draw something to understand it clearly? Then you are more comfortable with a drawing facilitation style and might make a good visual facilitator. Visual facilitators will not move forward until they’ve had a chance to articulate the discussion as a sketch and then create a feedback loop of discussion around that sketch. They take advantage of the visually engaged parts of the brain discussed in Chapter 2, “The Design Constraint of All Meetings.” Visuals can move a discussion to greater clarity, past the obvious into a richer understanding of a problem. A visual also provides a map of the discussion itself, which you can refer to if you need to explore previous ideas further. If an organization has never been exposed to a drawing style before, it can seem touchy feely.

Visual facilitators can also be more scripted in their initial approach to starting a conversation. They might draw from a preset visual vocabulary to save time, such as Sunni Brown’s, or a specific framework or map such those developed by David Sibbet. The Context Map is an example of a visual conversation map that can be filled out. These vocabularies or frameworks don’t limit the conversation at all, but they do require enough judgment to pair the right map to the conversation at hand. (See Figure 5.3.)

Figure 5.3—A context map, an example of a visual facilitation framework

Image source: Adapted from a Context Map by David Sibbet, founder of The Grove Consultants International

Attendees will have varying capabilities and experience with visual thinking, and that is a challenge. You’ll have to adjust the pace of reviewing the visuals to accommodate diversity. Another challenge is the size or style of the room. Not everyone may be able to see what you’ve drawn. You could overcome this by getting up and moving around; however, that raises the last, but most important constraint of a drawing style. This style presumes that everyone shares a similar level of visual ability. Although visuals are a powerful way to communicate, it is inherently not universally accessible. That’s a great reason to balance drawing style with speaking style. (See Figure 5.4.)

Figure 5.4—Drawing versus speaking facilitation styles
Drawing versus speaking facilitation styles

Spoken facilitation is so common that it’s usually taken for granted that meetings will be run this way. Good spoken facilitation builds meaning by blending what people say with subtext picked up from their tone of voice and body language. If you are good at making people feel welcome in a conversation, you probably will facilitate in a spoken style. It comes from having a natural empathy. That empathy helps you manage multiple streams of thought—and feeling—emerging from what people say. It also helps you connect the dots between ideas, even when those connections may not be self-evident to everyone.

Spoken facilitation has built-in limits, just like visual facilitation. As you learned in Chapter 2, visuals can trigger different or greater levels of understanding. To ignore that possibility is a disservice. Spoken conversation requires an exhausting level of concentration. Some people find the volley of a good conversation energizing for a limited time. Too much talking, however, and you will miss opportunities for more considered, quiet reflection. Consider which style is most effective for you and then supplement the style you do well with the style you could do better. If you know you lean toward spoken facilitation, find opportunities to sketch simple diagrams. Process flows like the Graphic Gameplan shown in Figure 5.5—a visual, process-flow approach based on action plans—represent an example of a way to incorporate some drawing style into your speaking.

Figure 5.5—A Graphic Gameplan
Graphic Gameplan, a visual process flow approach based on action plans

Image source: Adapted from a Graphic Gameplan by David Sibbet, founder of The Grove Consultants International

If you’re better as a visual facilitator, think of your drawings as a series of images that tell a story. There will be an initial state of your sketches, before the meeting; an active state, during the meeting; and an after state—no surprise here—after the meeting. Before you begin, the halfway point, and after the sketch is completed are good times to pose questions to prompt discussion. There may be multiple halfway points; think of them as chapters in the book of your meeting. Make sure that each chapter has a title and verbally call out that title before moving on to the next sketch.

If you’ve never attended a meeting with a visual facilitator, try doing it a little yourself. It can be a humbling experience requiring intense concentration. But it has provided tremendous value for companies like Zappos, Disney, and TED, to name just a few. If you are wondering how to get started with visual note-taking and facilitation, Kate Rutter, an accomplished visual facilitator, shows you the way by sharing her journey toward a more meaningful way of creating meaning from meetings.

Blending drawing and speaking styles would have enabled Amira to slow her brand workshop down when it inevitably reached natural conflict. A good example of blended spoken and visual facilitation is an activity called Cover Story, from the book Gamestorming. For a detailed agenda read Gamestorming, but the overall approach would work like this: Amira first spends time at the beginning of the meeting defining what success looks like visually, as the cover of a popular magazine about her type of work. What stories would be on the cover or what photograph? By phrasing success using stakeholders’ brand aspects in that sketch, Amira could connect the brand identity work to the outcomes that leadership needed.

How Can You Get Started with Visual Facilitation?

Kate Rutter, Founder and Strategic Sketcher, Intelleto

Kate is an expert in visual thinking, graphic recording and facilitation, and sketchnoting and teaching. She practices all of these skills at her company, Intelleto. Previously, she led the UX teaching practice at Tradecraft, cofounded LUXr, and worked as one of the first experience designers at Adaptive Path.

Very early in my career, I was a technology director for a nonprofit organization. As part of that role, I served on the executive strategic team that led an effort to revitalize our vision and mission. Our team brought in a facilitation group called The Grove Consultants International, led by David Sibbet. They provided a visual facilitator for us to work with. I didn’t stay with that job long enough to see the process come to fruition, but I saw that visually articulating complex, abstract ideas is fundamental to groups really understanding each other in a discussion and making a discussion actionable.

I had been making pictures of ideas throughout my career: diagrams, doodles, and observational sketches. I’d never seen it applied toward the hard work of humans working together and that was just a breakthrough moment for me.

Ten years later, I was working in a user-experience design consultancy called Adaptive Path. All our work with digital product design happened within the machine, the laptop. We were almost always working within digital tools like Photoshop or Keynote as ways to get ideas about product interface out of our heads and into a buildable concept.

Our work became more strategic as companies started making more strategic decisions about their digital products, but we didn’t have a way to share things outside the machine. We could project visuals, but we needed a way to have more abstract conversations. Without a visual facilitation practice, we were trying to cover a lot of complex information and losing each other in the process.

We developed quick, tangible tools for visual discussion. In 2007, we started to use sharpies, white paper, and sticky notes to collaborate with client groups. This cocreation approach became fundamental to our work, and also a huge selling point because people who hired us could cocreate with us. Clients could get their ideas heard in a way that many other consulting organizations just didn’t know how to do.

Simple visual marks that can show someone a picture of a potential future is incredibly helpful and powerful, more so than tools like PowerPoint, spoken words, and data visualizations. (See Figure 5.6.) Taking a lot of words and making them into a set of pictures helps people understand and grasp complexity in a much more time-effective way, which is great when you are in a meeting and time is of the essence.

Figure 5.6—The results of visually facilitating a complex meeting
The results of visually facilitating a complex meeting

Image source: Sunni Brown

Why Visual Facilitation Works

Visual facilitation is effective in meetings for three reasons. First, our brains are highly optimized for spatial information. For example, if you imagine yourself standing in the front doorway of your childhood home, point to where the forks were kept. I don’t care how old you are, you’ll be able to point your hand in that direction. We have an extraordinarily powerful ancient brain system that helps us understand and remember space. Long-form narrative writing and verbal discussions don’t have that power. These are sequential forms of communication that aren’t spatial. When people don’t have to read something or hear it in a sequence, spatial thinking helps people tap into that ability of their brain to see the big picture.

Second, verbal and written communication both have extraordinary richness with endless subtlety and variety. When you are forced to visualize ideas, you get rid of a lot of that detail. It forces you to identify the key messages and why they matter. What belongs near each other? What things are similar, and what is more important in a hierarchy? To put key ideas down visually, you should do that synthesis and analysis. That’s why it bubbles up the big ideas. You don’t have time to write down everything.

Finally, people are enchanted with hand-styled visual depictions of things. Dan Roam, the author of Back of the Napkin, says, “The more human the picture, the more human the response.” If you showed someone a very polished, high-fidelity precise visual, it might feel like something that only a professional could do. But if you showed someone a quick sketch of the human form, with a little bit of a layout: where they’re standing, what is happening around them, and the expression of emotion on that person’s face, that feels accessible. It doesn’t alienate.

Why Visual Facilitation Isn’t Everywhere, Yet

When people can communicate and discuss ideas with visuals, it’s a very emotionally sophisticated working style. That may be why a lot of companies balk at this type of facilitation. If the unspoken social contract between employees isn’t supportive of being human with each other, this technique is not going to do well in meetings. Sadly, work meetings can be one of the least human places to be doing business.

Forcing imagery out of a group with visual facilitation puts them into this place of feeling vulnerable. That creates a different sense of understanding in meetings. If you want your meetings to be human, use human techniques. Making pictures of the future is one of the most fundamentally human techniques that is out there.

Space Making to Space Filling

The last style spectrum covers how much content you fit into the time allotted. Are you fine with pauses in the conversation? If you are, you make space. Space makers recognize that conversation takes on a life of its own, so they provide room for that conversation to go in its natural direction. They give people time to reflect on what has been covered so far. Add a few minutes at regular intervals to reflect, provide short breaks to observe the public notes, and build in periods of time where everyone circles back to a previously explored idea.

Conversations facilitated in a space-making style feel sparse, but still productive. Space making is best when there is a goal of taking something further, like developing new options. Space-making facilitation is good for developing a thorough list such as pros and cons of a decision.

Space makers aren’t going to be successful with people who think aloud, using speech to process their ideas. When part of the group works this way, their pace will expand to fill spaces and dictate the conversation’s rhythm. A space maker may feel like they are losing control of the meeting to a stronger personality. If you are a space maker, but are having that feeling, it’s a good opportunity to switch gears into a space-filling style. (See Figure 5.7.)

Figure 5.7—Space-making versus space-filling facilitation styles
Space-making versus space-filling facilitation styles

Space fillers get antsy if there’s too long of a pause. Extended silence feels like a problem. They verbalize more to maintain group focus and may have little tolerance for surprise tangents and inefficiencies. This style feels dense and can move from topic to topic quickly. Space-filling facilitation moves a conversation toward detail, refinement, and shared clarity. It’s a good style for prioritization and making decisions.

Without good alignment on goals and critical concepts at the start of a meeting, space filling fails. When people aren’t working from the same concepts, they need more time to suss out differences in understanding. That requires creating space, and if you are naturally a space filler, you’ll have to force yourself to stop and occasionally shut up. If you give the group more time to respond, that second answer or follow-up conversation will move past the most obvious answer into more interesting or challenging spaces. Something better may be just across the horizon of an uncomfortable silence. Provide space to move through that silence.

Amira’s own discomfort with people’s reactions interfered with her ability to make space to explore conflicting viewpoints. You can see this in her poor question design. When challenged, Amira should have stopped taking up space and unpacked the conflict with a system question.

“Are successful experiments in the digital space the rule or the exception?” This would have helped the group align on the current state of the brand. You should work through difficult points in a conversation by being aware of your facilitation style first and then modulating it along these three spectrums as needed. A space-filling facilitator working with a group of people locked in a conflict might need to make space to identify points of difference. Or, if you are stuck too far down into the weeds, stop talking and start drawing. When you improvise most of the time, consider sketching a backup script, just in case. Making an intentional decision to abandon your script and improvise is easier than realizing you need a script, but don’t have it.

No matter where your facilitation styles sit, facilitating a lot of meetings will give you a better sense of your strengths and weaknesses. In most organizations, there are plenty of opportunities to facilitate meetings. You can formalize that facilitation in your organization by establishing a facilitation competency. Samantha Soma is a designer at General Electric on the digital team that established a facilitation competency for multiple design teams. This is how that came about. 

Vice President for Design Practices at Capital One

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Kevin M. HoffmanKevin connects people, ideas, and solutions to solve our industry’s pressing design challenges. At Capital One, he takes responsibility for assessing, exploring, and accelerating all areas of design with a team of more than 70 very talented human beings. Prior to working at Capital One, he founded and led Seven Heads Design, a network of digital-design thinkers who collaborated frequently on major projects. Trusted by major brands such as Capital One, Zappos, Harvard University, Nintendo, and MTV throughout his career, Kevin is a design thinker whose roles as agency founder and product manager have given him a unique perspective on how people interact when they make things. Kevin regularly shares his insights at conferences around the world.  Read More

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