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Facilitating design thinking - an art and a science

Facilitation is an essential skill in any professional's repertoire. From managing a meeting to mentoring and leading teams through challenging times. These days most of us working folk are required to hold a space and take people on some kind of experiential journey.

Whether it is to make small changes and incremental improvements in everyday work, or trail-blazing toward new innovative and disruptive opportunities most organisations expect senior staff to be able to work with groups and lead a meeting toward a positive outcome.

As a facilitator, it is important to realise your role in holding the space and allowing vibrant and constructive conversations to happen. Now, many companies are experimenting with Design Thinking as a framework to set-up a more customer-centric culture. In fact, Design Thinking can help in embedding higher levels of collaboration through the co-creation of new value propositions that attract new customers and retain the current.

This piece highlights four important skills facilitators should develop to help with this:
  1. Hold a safe environment to set groups up for success

  2. Challenge participants boundaries by asking questions

  3. Encourage full body cognition and engagement

  4. Guiding participants through uncertainty and ambiguity

1. Setting groups up for success

As a facilitator, your responsibility is to guide and to make difficult things happen easily. If we assume that the focus is learning, then, it is important to have participants acknowledge why they are present, to set goal(s) for themselves and agreements that the responsibility for learning lies with themselves.

Additionally, groups and those responsible for evaluating progress should be coached to avoid judgement. Both in terms of concepts and ideas, but also in terms of interpretation of the research findings.

A safe space should be set-up for learning and experimentation. When running a design thinking program or workshop, this is an essential element to get straight at the outset. If people are to discover emergent opportunities, they must be allowed to "crash gently" without judgement or repercussions. This learning process will remain embedded in their system and enable them to build confidence in to experiment further, thereby setting them up for success.

Facilitators (and project sponsors) must always remember that their role is it provide the framework and a safe space for individuals in groups to develop themselves without fear of recrimination or ridicule.

All ideas should be encouraged as good ideas and concept generation should build on the ideas of others. Light-hearted warm-ups can help set the tone for exploration and empathy generation.

2. Handling boundaries and conventions

Generally, people will enter a space with some pre-conceived It is the role of a facilitator to help groups leave those assumptions behind and discover new opportunities. It is also important to connect the groups to their inherent powers of observation, their cognitive and sense-making abilities. This can be done by guiding the groups through layers of learning and understanding.

As a facilitator your role is to encourage a new layer of learning and to challenge the current "theories in use". The goal is to guide groups to transformational learning where new theories are tested and adapted as prototypes take shape.

The art of asking a powerful question or "The Beautiful Question" can catalyse groups to become more inquisitive and curious, to explore and find new answers to previously ingrained theories. Good facilitators are practised in fielding a question and reflecting it back at the group to derive a shared understanding and deeper insight.

3. Cognitive Activation and Engagement

A facilitator should not act as a know-it-all. Facilitators need to act as a mirror or even a squash court wall to bounce back lazy learning or low levels of engagement to drive the group toward insights and "aha moments". This is an art and a science. The tools described below will help the facilitator activate full body cognition.

Firstly, an active interest in the personalities, actions and behaviours in the group is needed. This requires developing an adaptive capability to allow individuals to flourish, share and feel a part of the group. Building ownership in the outcome can be generated by setting up competition between participant groups, however, a higher order level of learning will come from inspiring an interest in the desire to learn, improve and find a more informed place to act from.

Essential to this is having participants take accountability for their own learning and the benefits that come with this. The realisation of the "what's in it for me" must be encouraged.

Secondly, it is important to create a level of trust and inclusion. Introverts should be encouraged to share their perspective and different techniques should ensure every personality type is engaged. The end output should include the teams diverse and valuable insights, not just one dominant personality's perspective.

Any Design Thinking project requires diversity (or requisite variety) and engagement of each team member sits at the basis of successful group level learning. Teams should therefore be encouraged to actively seek each other's opinions and explore their meaning.

4. Handling uncertainty and ambiguity

The design thinking framework is geared towards building a deeper level of understanding. It is necessary to use tools and techniques in a facilitators repertoire to help groups go below the surface. Both in terms of their own ability to learn, but also in terms of what they are trying to discover.

This inward journey can take an almost spiritual significance where breakthroughs and blockages can be overcome. These breakthroughs are sometimes generated by pushing the boundaries mentioned above.

It is the facilitators role to guide participants into this realm to help them obtain new internal realisations around pre-conceived theories that have not been fully tested or that are no longer relavent.

It is under the surface where the secret sauce lies. For groups to find the secret sauce, (hidden in latent needs that produce new insights) they must be encouraged to stay in discovery mode. People have however been taught to solve, solve, solve and often leap into solution mode a little too soon before key insights have been obtained.

We call this zone "staying in the squiggly line space". But staying here is not easy for many people. As a facilitator, allowing the group to go into solution mode can serve a couple of purposes. One, it can help test emerging hypotheses and two it can lower the participant's sense of anxiety. It is, however, critical for the facilitator to ensure that this is done mindfully. A decision to go to a solution and prototype as a first iteration is a choice, to learn and inform the emerging hypothesis of what the group thinks is desirable.

However, should these early hypotheses be fraught with assumptions, the facilitator should guide the group back to curiosity and ambiguity; Light-hearted games and illustrative warm-ups will help to lighten the atmosphere and encourage creativity. Facilitators need to be skilled in the art of inspiring creativity and sensitive to when to do so.

Some argue that creativity can really only happen when people are having fun and are at ease. So as a facilitator, planning and setting up space, time and fun are essential ingredients in helping groups to reach their goals.


In Conclusion

Facilitators are important conduits for transformational learning during design thinking activities. Sometimes it is important to push groups into new previously undiscovered realms. At others times creating a safe zone to allow for reflection and sharing is necessary to consolidate the lessons learnt.

Good facilitators are themselves practised in the art of sensing when to challenge a new realm and when to bring things back down to earth.

At DesignThinkers Academy we spend our time working out what best tools and techniques to use to bring groups together in an enjoyable but sometimes ground-breaking journey of discovery.

Robert is a design thinking pragmatist helping organisations humanize their way of work. Robert is based in Cape Town and is setting up a human-centred design platform for people to take ownership of their challenges and cocreate solutions together.

Join us at one our next course to be held in Cape Town to get to grips with this. Click here to find out more:

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