I originally wrote this back in 2018 to support a colleague who was running some design sprints for the first time. I’ve since reshared them a few times so have updated a few bits to take the pandemic and remote working into account.
Facilitation is one of the most useful skills a designer / product manager / project manager can have, especially as more and more people get involved in the design process. Without it meetings or design sprints can descend into a mess of conflicting personalities and agendas, or simply grind to a directionless halt.
General facilitation tips
Sweat the basics — don’t assume anyone else has sorted a decent venue, sent out meeting invites or bought a load of post-its. You can delegate this stuff, but do so with plenty of time so you’re not creating stress for yourself or others. If it’s online, think about the easiest possible way for people to connect that doesn’t require downloaded software or high bandwidth.
Be aware of the goal and bring people back to it — whether you’re creating a new initiative, revisiting some older ideas or re-inventing a whole business, be super aware of what you’re looking to achieve and ensure everyone else is too.
Be conscious of time and rhythm — people want direction on the boring stuff so they can focus their energy on the creative stuff. Regular stand-ups and check-outs will help bookend each day, and loudly communicated lunches and breaks will stop the horrible drift back to the ‘dayjob’ that can plague corporate creativity.
Get to know EVERYBODY — if there’s someone new in the room, introduce yourself, learn their name and ensure they know what they’re doing. Don’t assume they do.
Know when to use your ego, and when to sit on it — any creative process is subject to insecurity, excitement and general emotional highs and lows. As facilitator you can create a safe space for others to bring their whole selves into the process, and to give and receive honest feedback on ideas. One of the best methods for this is to model behaviour, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and/or holding back to allow someone else to take the limelight.
Dress the space — if you have walls, create zones with big headings for goals, carparked ideas, agendas etc. If you can play music, stick on something without words. Move desks and chairs to stop the group drifting back to email. Do whatever you can to make it feel like a space for creativity. This is true for online also, as you can prep figjam or googlejam boards in the same way.
Be honest — if you’ve been handed a dogs-dinner of a brief and just need the team to rally round and bash out some thinking, tell them so. People are smart and will respect the process more if they know what they’re working towards.
Look after yourself — if you’re hungry, hungover, stressed or otherwise distracted all of the above will be hard. You owe it to everyone attending to be on top-form, so do whatever it takes to do so. For me this means clearing/delegating my to-do list, having a big breakfast and getting to the space earlier than everyone else.
Get a buddy — especially in online sessions, it’s easy for people to drift off and/or become sidelined. Having somebody who can help you nudge people back into the process is massively helpful and will allow you to focus on facilitation.
Get feedback — ask people how they feel the process is going and listen.
Specific facilitation tips
These bits are specific to particular bits of the design process:
- If the group need to soak up a whole load of input from various sources, make this as easy as possible. Brief anyone presenting to the group to keep it simple — cut down huge presentations to core points.
- Don’t schedule eight hours of research playback in one day. People can only take in so much information, so for every 90 minutes of input provide 30 minutes of respite/discussion/break.
- As above, check everyone knows what the goal is and what the scope of work is. Give constructive constraint, but also create a ‘carpark’ for tangents and out-there ideas.
- In larger groups divide people into 2’s or 3’s and send them away to develop ideas, and then create a well time-boxed playback session. Encourage rapturous applause and generate a safe-space for sharing.
- Hold off on criticism and instead model ‘building’ type language. Rather than ‘yeah but…’, try ‘yes and…’ to build on ideas and create a collaborative environment.
- Have some creative tools in your back pocket for when the energy lags. Crazy 8’s, business canvas or some design challenges I prepared earlier; build up an arsenal of prompts to kick-start creativity when needed.
- Push people out of their comfort zone — find the people who are convinced they can’t draw or write copy, and spend time showing them otherwise. Leverage those in the group with mad-sick design skills and buddy them wisely.
If somebody isn’t engaging, playing on their phone or somehow is being disruptive, call it out. There are some subtle ways of doing this, such as standing behind a person (which draws attention and can snap them out of it), and also posing a question to them. It’ll feel awkward but you owe it to the rest of the attendees to get the input you need.
- Create an ending for the process. Arrange food/drinks, encourage people to reflect, burn a candle. People want to feel that they contributed to something, which is hard if the ending is messy.
- Tidy up — your genius post-its are simply mess for everyone but you. Take them down, recycle paper and get notes written up on confluence or whatever you use.
I think that’s it — i’ll revisit this and tweak, but really interested in whether anyone finds this useful or if it resonates.