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Facilitating Aligned Autonomy — Design Thoughtful Activities

Tim, the facilitator, struggled to guide the meeting. There were people with varying degrees of context, expertise, and knowledge in the room. The group needed to conduct a few deep dive discussions & make decisions on a product design approach. The struggle was making enough time for all the conversations. When Tim shared his thoughts with me, I knew he had not spent enough time thinking about the context, activities, flow, and maturity level of the team.

A workshop that flows at the right pace from one activity to another creates an engaging experience and the team is able to get to the desired outcomes.

What I found is that workshops are often missing this “Fit for Purpose” type thinking. When some participants need more context & others have too much of it there is an imbalance in the room. The imbalance causes friction since some people want to speed things up, while others are still absorbing the information shared. In this state it is hard to create an engaging environment where the team can share ideas & collectively make decisions with everyone’s input.

When a facilitator designs activities that flow and match the maturity level and knowledge of the team, it creates an environment which stimulates collective decision making. Everyone walks away with a shared understanding. I call this state aligned autonomy.

If you have not tuned into my previous posts on facilitating aligned autonomy - build an equitable platform & design for inclusivity, 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.

Designing thoughtful activities enables collective decision making

When it comes to a workshop, the role of a facilitator is to create a harmonious & stimulating environment where everyone can come together and collaborate effectively.

Here’s what I have tried that has made a difference to build an engaging space, keeping everyone’s knowledge and expertise in mind.

Know your Audience

Knowing your audience is about understanding the context the team has regarding the topic and types of activities being conducted.

What can you expect? Here is what I’ve seen:

  1. New or inexperienced: A team that is new to a type of a workshop, might need more context about what to expect to come mentally prepared for the session. Send them some pre-reading materials and hold a Q&A before the workshop to make sure they have enough context. With a new team, the role of a facilitator oftentimes is teaching the concepts along with facilitating.

  2. Familiar or experienced: A team that is very familiar with a type of a workshop, does not need as much hand holding. Think of ways to make it engaging & use some advanced activities/techniques to keep it interesting and challenging for the group. Altering the pace of how you navigate from one activity to another would also be something to experiment with. With an experienced team, the role of a facilitator shifts more to coaching & advising (vs. teaching in the case of a new team).

  3. Some new, some experienced: A team having a mix of some new & some experienced team members, means you must work at providing enough context for the new folks. Hold a session prior to the workshop for the new members & help them understand what they will be walking into and how they can participate. As a facilitator you want to focus on building an equitable platform, so teaching the activities briefly to set context is a good way to be mindful of bringing everyone along.

Tailoring the way information is shared based on the audience makes it an engaging experience for everyone.

Use Pomodoro for Breakouts

The pomodoro technique of time-boxing is very effective for breakout discussions in any workshop. It helps the group create time & prioritize the conversations that are important for the team to reach its outcomes.

Here is how you can start to use this approach:

  1. Identify & schedule breakouts: Connect with the leaders of the group to understand the number/types of breakouts & decisions that need to be made in the workshop so you can save time for it.

  2. Timebox discussions: Use 25-minute time increments (pomodoros) for the short topics, or string multi-part topics in 25-minute increments each with breaks in-between.

  3. Organize the breakouts: Setup the sequence of breakouts based on who needs to be involved.

  4. Identify facilitators & note takers: Ensure there are facilitators & note takers in each breakout to capture the discussions & decisions made.

  5. Learn & Share: Once all the discussions have completed, do a walkthrough of discussions/decisions at a high level, and bring it all together. This helps build a shared understanding with everyone.

Using pomodoros is a good way to create focus & a sense of urgency for discussions in a workshop.

“Park” conversations for Later

Building an alliance of how the group will navigate “rabbit hole” conversations is key. As a facilitator, you can do this as part of a facilitator alliance to design the space for more inclusivity.

When you think about creating an engaging space as a facilitator, it is important to keep the collective needs in mind. Every topic that comes up is important to someone in the room, but it may not be relevant to discuss it in the moment and can sometimes be “parked” for later.

Here is how you can guide your team to manage their time better:

  1. Make it fun: Identify a word or phrase that anyone on the team can use if we’re steering off topic and make this part of the facilitator alliance. For e.g., Rabbit hole, ELMO (Enough Let’s Move On).

  2. Model the behavior: When you have enough context about the topic as a facilitator & you can sense that the team is off track — model the behavior and call it out. Taking this step yourself, as a facilitator will make it easier for your team to do the same the next time it happens in the workshop.

  3. Ask the team: Oftentimes you might not have enough context as a facilitator to know if the team is off track. During the workshop, sprinkle in questions like “Is this conversation still relevant to everyone?” and get a pulse check of whether we are on topic or not from the collective group.

  4. Back-channel communications: When it’s hard to break into a conversation & you want to make sure everyone is getting value out of it, you can also use a back-channel to get clarity. Setup a back-channel (e.g. slack) with a few leaders on the team to stay aligned & communicate periodically as the workshop is in progress.

Developing parking lot etiquette is key to the success of any workshop. There is never enough time to talk about everything.

How are you building a space for collective decision making?

After Tim learned these 3 tips: Knowing & tailoring activities based on the audience, using a way to time-box breakout discussions & developing an etiquette for managing parking lots, he practiced it in the next workshop.

Tim ensured everyone on the team had the right amount of context prior to the workshop & in a few cases sent out pre-reading materials. He helped the team make space for the right breakout discussions & ensured they were prioritized or parked for later as needed. Lastly, Tim also pre-selected the activities in the workshop based on the knowledge/maturity level of the team which made things flow. The workshop was a success, and the team was able to come together & collectively make decisions to get to the desired outcomes.

If you understand how important it is to take a “Fit for purpose” type approach, reflect on how you are doing this in your workshops.

  1. Which one of these activities will help you 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 flow & collective decision making?

Collaboration can feel stimulating when everyone in the room has just enough context to feel included, safe to contribute & banter ideas, make collective decisions & build a shared understanding through all of it!


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