Idea Storm Blog - Design Thinking Facilitation


This week’s Idea Storm blog will focus on the role of a Design Thinking facilitator and if an external facilitator is recommended.

What role does a Design Thinking facilitator play?

Researching the role that a facilitator plays during a Design Thinking workshop I came across an article “FACILITATION SKILLS – THE KEY TO MAKING DESIGN THINKING EFFECTIVE IN TEAMS” – by Harish Achappa Kallira

Facilitation is the process by which someone – either from within or someone accepted by the group - steers the group dynamics to take steps towards learning about symptoms, defining problems, validating assumptions and generating ideas before validating and executing the solution. The key part being that – the person doing the facilitation (facilitator) does not decide for the group; on the contrary the facilitator aides the group to decide by itself.

Good facilitators adopt and advocate certain core principles to make groups work effectively. They:

  • encourage availability of contextually relevant information to the entire group

  • ensure that every member of the group is able to operate and make choices independently

  • ensure that people are ready to make commitments of their own will

Good facilitators – either working as leaders in shepherding the group or in a purely consultative role - take a path of inquiry and advocacy – stating positions and courses of actions, with their reasoning and being open for others to inquire. They help each member of the group do the same.

Another article discussing the role of the Design Thinking facilitator is from Medium, and is titled, “What about the design facilitator?“ by Justine Lai.

A good facilitator is a teacher, psychologist, and strategist all rolled into one — they’re able to share the design thinking process and help employees apply it to their everyday experiences, convey excitement for design and design thinking, listen to their audience’s concerns and skillfully translate these pain points into a call for change, and also encourage the greater vision underlining the need for change. They typically engage with their “clients,” or fellow employees via workshops, meetings, or as consultants — rather than participating in the core work of the firm, their job, first and foremost, is to engage others as participants in the design process so that participants work differently.

Should an external Design Thinking facilitator be used?

Design Thinking is neither art not science nor religion. It is the capacity, ultimately, for integrative thinking.

- Tim Brown

Based on the above, a Design Thinking facilitator is highly recommended to run Design Thinking workshops to ensure that the best results are achieved. But can a colleague fill that role or should an external Design Thinking facilitator be used?

Eric Morrow, a leading Design Thinker, working for IBM and LUMA before that, wrote an article titled “THE CALL FOR DESIGN THINKING FACILITATORS”.

As an instructor, I’ve often seen people apply Design Thinking very productively when they are being guided through its practice in a facilitated workshop but struggle to continue making forward progress the following week back in their regular jobs. The more I thought about it, this struggle makes intuitive sense. We wouldn’t expect anyone who spent 8 hours practicing a new skill to be able to apply it flawlessly the very next day. So why is Design Thinking any different?

A team that has a well-trained design facilitator can come to a drastically different outcome. This individual understands what it takes to have a good ideation session and comes prepared to the meeting to make it happen. She ups the energy level in the room with a “stoke”, a short exercise that gets the team members’ brains and bodies moving. She lays out the ground rules for the session and makes sure everyone has the proper tools. She guides the participants through the exercise, moving things along when idea creation slows down and picking out moments to slow down when she sees certain team members’ processing an idea. She also knows when to call the session to a close and to move onto the next phase in the design thinking process.

More good reasons to use an external facilitator

The last article that I am going to refer to, is titled “Ten reasons to use an external facilitator”.

These reasons are:

  1. The right preparation - good preparation is one of the keys to successful workshops and will save time by having most of the preparation done by an external person. It takes at least a full day to prepare for a single-day workshop, and busy executives often do not have the capacity to commit this sort of time.

  2. Effective agendas - expert facilitators have deep experience constructing agendas which ensure that sessions flow, that each session builds on the last, and that the overall structure will result in you the objectives being met.

  3. Strategy expertise – most facilitators are experts in strategy and planning disciplines, so they will bring new thinking and best-practice strategy frameworks to the workshop and help guide conversations.

  4. Independence - an external workshop facilitator brings an independent perspective which allows them to better resolve alternative viewpoints among workshop members and keep meetings on track.

  5. Attention to detail - small details can often get overlooked, so an external facilitator would coordinate materials, projector, whiteboard, and discussion templates as well as bringing along props to create more engaging and effective group sessions.

  6. Full engagement – as most people find it almost impossible to guide a discussion, record key points and make a meaningful contribution; hiring an external facilitator for meetings and workshops means that all participants can be fully engaged in discussions rather than focused on the process and documenting discussions.

  7. Managing personalities - managing meeting dynamics can be difficult, especially when the participants know each other. Keeping a meeting on track and managing conflict is core to producing useful outcomes, and so a facilitator is trained to ensure that everyone has a say, and no single view-point dominates the discussion.

  8. Action-orientation – on completion of a workshop, an external facilitator would provide an actionable documentation of workshop outcomes. This includes a summary of the discussion and outcomes of each session and the agreed next steps, so that no decisions get lost and plans can be implemented immediately.

  9. Risk reduction - external facilitation reduces the risk that the investment of staff’s time will be wasted. Workshops have an opportunity cost; which is thus reduced. Spending a day out of the office for senior team members is costly, so a facilitator ensures that the best is got from the team and ensures that the skills and expertise in the room is harnessed.

  10. Unlocking additional value - a well-run, well-facilitated workshop will have side-benefits far greater than meeting and exceeding workshop outcomes, such as inspired conversations, which add value over and above the primary purpose of the workshop.

What do you think?

I would be very interested to know your thoughts? Have you used internal resources to facilitate Design Thinking workshops or did you hire external professionals? What does a skilled facilitator bring to a Design Thinking workshop? Has the quality of facilitation made a difference at a Design Thinking workshop you have attended?

These views are my own and don't represent the views of the company I work for.

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