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Facilitating Aligned Autonomy — Design for Inclusivity

Tim, the facilitator, struggled to guide the meeting. Too many people stared into space, waiting for the senior leaders or outspoken people to talk. Even after the meeting, the team didn’t create an outcome that worked for everyone. He knew he was missing something but wasn’t sure. When he described it to me, I realized he had not worked on creating an inclusive space.

An inclusive space creates an experience where everyone regardless of their preferences, perspectives and expertise can help the group achieve the desired outcomes.

What I have found is that workshops are missing the care to build this kind of a space for everyone to participate. When some participants hold back from sharing their ideas, the team could be at a disadvantage. Maybe those ideas are good, and it will prevent the team from getting to the right outcomes.

When the facilitator creates an inclusive space, everyone contributes to the discussion and the team walks away with a shared understanding. I call this state aligned autonomy.

If you have not tuned into my previous post on facilitating aligned autonomy by building an equitable platform you may want to understand what I mean by the term aligned autonomy.

Aligned autonomy is a magical state when the participants in a workshop walk away with a shared understanding of the topic, have the freedom to continue to explore & creatively problem solve to get to the desired outcomes. It is exhilarating for teams and the facilitator when this happens.

Facilitating aligned autonomy is — bringing teams together into a space, aligning them to their purpose, so they can generate great ideas & collaborate magically.

The role of a facilitator is to keep this outcome in mind & build a platform for meaningful collaboration.

Inclusivity enables better communication and collaboration

When it comes to a workshop, diversity is about being invited to the workshop however inclusion is about being invited to participate.

When collaboration is done right, it means everyone in the room shares and exchanges ideas, so the collective group can find a way forward and build consensus.

Here’s what I have tried that has made a difference to build an inclusive space.

Design a facilitator alliance

You have already built an equitable platform when you set the context and discussed a code of conduct. Now, you can build the facilitator alliance. The purpose of the alliance is to clarify the role you will be playing as a facilitator, to ask for what you need from the participants and ask them for what else they need from you.

What can you expect to hear? Here are some examples I’ve seen:

  1. Team needs frequent breaks: You are in an all-day workshop however there is a critical issue that some of the participants in the room need to stay on top of. They need to check emails every hour for a few minutes to ensure things are under control. Build in 5–8 min breaks every hour so the team feels cared for.

  2. Team needs dedicated time for a breakout: There was an unexpected wrinkle in the discovery work leading up to the workshop and the team has not finalized a technical design. Now we need to make time for a breakout session to discuss the design before we can move forward. Adjust the layout of the workshop & the build in the time needed (i.e., 30–45 mins) for this breakout.

A facilitator alliance usually takes about 10–15 mins to build and once you build one you will be glad you did.

This helps increase engagement since you have taken the time to understand what everyone needs to focus & be present to make this workshop a success!

Enable multiple modes of communication

It is important to keep in mind that we all communicate differently. To create an inclusive space, it is important to open different modes of communication so that everyone can choose the way that suits their style the best. Designing the workshop & clarifying how you want the team to share their thoughts/feedback at any time goes a long way in building inclusivity. This applies to all activities you conduct in the workshop.

So, what do you need to think about as a facilitator?

  1. Build in time to think: When a team is performing an activity, give everyone some space and time to think so they can share their thoughts. Don’t put people on the spot. Not everyone is able to think on the fly. Build in the structure to give teams time to think.

  2. Invite not force: When everyone has finished adding their thoughts in virtual or physical sticky notes, don’t make it mandatory for people to share their thoughts verbally. Ask for volunteers to kick off the sharing & invite others to do the same.

  3. Make it easy to share ideas: When everyone is brainstorming it can be intimidating for some of the introverted team members to jump into a conversation. Sometimes, extroverts talk over introverts without noticing. Enabling ways for people to share their ideas other than the verbal way, will encourage more sharing. For e.g. — Using the Zoom Chat, Using the Parking Lot Q&A area could be ways to share ideas without disrupting the conversation in the room.

Designing for inclusivity allows for team engagement. The easier you make it for the team to share ideas, the more likely it is that the team will have more ideas to play with.

Understand everyone’s hopes & fears

Another way to promote inclusivity is conducting an activity called hopes and fears. What I have found is that the higher the stakes, the more essential it is to perform this activity. Most of the times, there are a few people in the room that have fears about the outcomes of the workshop that will prevent them from focusing on the activities. They need to get things off their chest. If they don’t have a chance to do this their fears will keep coming up and interrupting the flow of the workshop.

So as a facilitator you have everyone’s hopes and fears, now what do you do with all of that?

  1. Address the fears: Some of the fears might serve as talking points for breakout sessions that need to be conducted for the team to successfully get to the outcomes. Other fears might be follow-up items for after the workshop & is not on the critical path to be further discussed now.

  2. Acknowledge adding to the Collective: Now that everyone has voiced their hopes & fears, everyone in the room has a “shared understanding” and is in the same headspace so all future discussions can build upon this. Acknowledge this as a facilitator so the team is re-assured the discussions are adding to the collective. This builds an inclusive space since everyone feels heard.

Conducting a good hopes and fears session in the beginning of a workshop is cathartic (almost like therapy).

How are you building an inclusive space?

After Tim learned these 3 tips: a facilitator alliance, providing multiple communication options and conducting hopes and fears he practiced with his next team. It took all of 30 minutes to conduct a facilitator alliance and hopes and fears, and it was well worth it. In addition, Tim designed every activity with multiple communication options. That team achieved something magical and created outcomes that benefited everyone.

If you understand how important an inclusive space is in increasing engagement, reflect on how you are doing this in your workshops.

  1. Which one of these activities will you include in your next workshop?

  2. What feedback loop will you design with yourself, your co-facilitator, and your team to see if integrating these new activities in your workshop is improving the engagement?

Collaboration can feel magical when everyone in the room is part of the consensus building, feel included, feel safe to contribute and build a shared understanding through all of it!



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