6 myths about being a workshop facilitator

Newicon CEO Steve O'Brien shares his insight into the myths around what it takes to be a successful workshop facilitator./

Steve O'Brien

Founder & CEO
·8 min read (2036 words)
A team taking part in an innovation workshop.

One secret to a great innovation workshop is having a great facilitator.

Someone has to perform this role. It sounds boring but it's very effective and important if you want to make your team or clients collaborate more effectively. 

And the good news is that anyone can be a great facilitator. It can feel very strange at first, as it can appear like rather than going into a client or team meeting to solve a problem you are going in to guide people through a process.

However the role of the facilitator is not to teach, not to be the one with all the ideas, but instead help the team move forward and draw their ideas out into something clear and concise and something that can be worked on, and inevitably actionable.

The other good news is you don't have to be an expert in the subject, people often ask us what our niche or sector is, but the truth is we don't have one, we have a saying that “every company is a software company”, and it’s true all companies rely on software these days, and the fundamentals of software are all the same. And we don't need domain knowledge because our clients have that in spades. But this is also true of our design and innovation workshops, all industries need to generate creative ideas and engage in creative problem solving.   The role of the facilitator is to help the team focus, share ideas, generate solutions and make decisions. In fact why meet at all if not to run through that process.

Sure it can be nice to meet to grease the social gears, bond as a team, learn about other aspects of the business or customers or technology. These are useful, but workshops imply a problem or subject that needs to be focused on and improved.

The facilitator does not solve the problem for the group. Instead, the facilitator leads the group through a step-by-step process that superchargers collaboration, creative thinking and problem solving.

With that said, I want to do some myth busting around facilitator misconceptions:

Myth #1: You need to be creative

I have mentioned the word "creative" a lot. Everyone is creative! Creativity and creative problem solving is not a skill only for creative types with hipster beards. Creative types are good at unstructured creativity. But everyone is creative and can contribute. Creative thinking and problem solving is the same for simple problems like "what should I have to eat for dinner today?" as it is for big ones. And most of us manage this one. Just to address those of you thinking they find this hard. Sure sometimes using creative energy for trivial things like "what to eat?" can feel draining and that's why many of us set into routines. But my point is that creativity is a word that can cause people to adopt negative mindsets "I'm not creative" - you are creative just not perhaps in a way that is celebrated by our societies use of the word, which often means more artistic pursuits. But creativity in our context also refers to creatively linking information, or seeing patterns or insights no one else does.

Myth #2: You need to have the best ideas

This one is particularly pervasive if you are brought in as an external consultant. At Newicon we are often brought in to companies to perform innovation workshops. Whilst we like to think we are pretty smart the reality is that we're there to squeeze the best from a diverse group of people cutting across many key disciplines.

Using this approach everyone gets a lovely boost of energy. If you are a consultant, the team will be so bought into the idea that the rest of the project will flow much better. Getting everyone aligned and on the same page is a big deal.

Ironically people often think you are a rockstar when you have helped them make progress. Even when you contributed no actual ideas and didn't shape any solutions. As a great facilitator, you give others the tools they need to have great ideas, you don't come up with them yourself.

Myth #3: You need to be a subject matter expert

Facilitating a workshop about aviation, chocolate, computers? It doesn't matter, the people in the room are the experts, the facilitator guides them to solutions. Again once you have understood the mindset that you are not the hero or the saviour, your role becomes to guide. Ideally, you want a mix of people in the room but no more than seven. It also helps to cut across sectors of the business, sales, finance, tech, etc. For complex technical subjects cutting across business silos or key disciplines also really helps - often the interfaces between technologies are usually more important than any particular focused independent solution.

Myth #4: You need to be an extravert

Firstly saying someone is either X or Y is a horrible thing to do, it's just a preference and a behavioral tendency - no one has to wear the labels they are given all the time. You can choose. What’s worse is when people wear these labels themselves! Pigeon holes are places for letters not people.

Everyone gets nervous when standing up in front of a group for the first time, but a facilitator does not present to staring expressionless faces, the facilitator is having an informal conversation, it's a collaborative meeting not a formal presentation or lecture.

You do need lots of energy but exercises and warm ups exist from millions of training programs that we can use for our purposes.

You will be potentially standing up in front of a group explaining ideas and next steps. But everyone can do this, an extravert feeds off the room or gets energy from being personable. I find myself ping ponging between extremes depending on how I am perceived. If a customer sees me as the CEO rocking up to solve their problems they treat me differently. I become more extroverted. If however, they treat me as the geeky tech guy I’m totally happy to play this role too. Anyway this is not about me! This is about the myth. Relying on interpersonal skills to save the day doesn't always work. You need a toolkit of exercises to rely on and be prepared to use them when appropriate. Shameless plug: checkout our innovation kit for a great head start on building effective workshops to kick start innovation

Myth #5: You should teach

Whilst we love all things about teaching and coaching. Taking command, lecturing and assuming the role of the teacher is not good for facilitating workshops. If you do that, participants become mindless observers. The only teaching aspect of the facilitator is to explain and walk through the exercises and how to do them. A bit like an experienced board game player might explain the rules of the game to people who have never played before. Often doing a quick dummy run or example works best. A facilitator is not the saviour. Not the hero. You don't even need to contribute any ideas. In fact, often, good facilitators, if they feel an idea has been missed, might ask a leading question to prompt others to contribute in areas that might have been missed. However, this is only done in the context of helping the group not steering the group in a direction the facilitator secretly wants.

Myth #6: You need to steer the group to the right answer

This leads on from the following point. You are there to help the team follow a process and identify the critical ideas and key insights. You are not there to steer a meeting to a predetermined destination.

You need to show that you are not steering the meeting in any direction other than that determined by the group.

If you are wearing the hat of both an active participant and a facilitator then you need to be careful not to bias results in your favour - the team will know and it will not look good. If you are also the decision-maker then simply have clear decision time slots where you can decide on the direction. However, if you have already decided then an innovation workshop might not be the best format for buy-in. Perhaps be upfront about the decision before the workshop and then explain the workshop is to explore alternatives or confirm the direction. This way you can be a participant coming up with alternatives. Or just facilitate.

Early in my journey running Newicon I thought these kinds of workshops internally would be a great way to get team buy-in.  But I had already clearly made up my mind.  And then it just looks like I’m manipulating people and not listening. If this is you then a better approach is to simply relay your current thought process.  This is my current decision, I’d like to run this workshop to see if there are any things I’m missing and to validate the idea. Then you can actively participate or just facilitate the team to challenge the idea. At the end you can then give a conclusion and any other information.

If you have not made any decisions yet then you stay in an open mindset - perform a voting exercise too. I also find “High impact, low effort” (HiLo) exercises very useful.  Once voting and other tactics have been done you can put on your deciding hat. Originally I always hated the voting exercises! “What happens if people choose the wrong thing!?” I was missing the point here.  The voting exercise is really useful to gather opinions on what the team thinks within the context of the workshop or current situation - but teams don’t always have all the information and the decider can still pick a particular idea as long as they can get the team to buy in to that.  Teams usually pick the ultimate idea and this is great but it doesn’t mean it's always the most practical and that’s when performing a HiLo or feasibility exercise can help. Typically you’d expect to pick one of the most popular items. If you pick the most unpopular then this probably highlights misunderstandings and more communication with the team is necessary.  Either way, knowing this is super valuable!

We do something similar when estimating the complexity or effort of building technical features in software projects, getting everyone to have a guess at the effort from a quick gut estimate helps sense check understanding. If you all estimate a similar number then you can probably move on to estimating the next item.  If however, one person thinks it's 1 hour and the other thinks it's 10 days then you need to have a conversation and likely check the understanding and assumptions of the feature you are estimating.  Really we are estimating relative complexity and for this reason, everyone can and should get involved so they learn this process.  We often get our designers to estimate for coding features  - and you often can’t tell - newbies to this process are either completely wrong or about right and even if they are completely wrong the differences between estimates are usually right. Essentially the size of the estimate is actually not relevant; we want the invariant representation between two points. For this reason, many agile proponents estimate tasks with story points or bananas instead of time.  Anyone can understand that adding another logo to the bottom of a website is less work than adding a shopping basket. “That task will be 4 bananas long”.  Of course to ensure customers maintain good opinions of our mental state we use time units.  But bananas or sausages would be equally as useful.

I have gone down a bit of an agile estimation rabbit hole here. So I think on that note we will wrap that up there!

I hope that provides some insight into facilitating great meetings.  May all your meetings be productive.

If you'd like to find out more about our innovation kit and get some free exercises to give you an idea of what's involved, then head on over to our dedicated Innovation Kit page

 


I'm Steve O'Brien

Founder & CEO at Newicon

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