After one of my first research projects at Dropbox, I decided I’d do something different. I knew my team believed that “the most actionable kind of understanding wasn’t externalized in reports and fact nuggets,” but rather through conversations and connections. So instead of turning my findings into a series of slides, I decided to bring this project to life. Literally.

But how? What is something that could be informative as well as fun and participatory?

I went over to my trusty facilitation library and started flipping the pages of my books. I was searching the texts for innovative games or fun frameworks for inspiration. I’d need help if I was to organize an afternoon that could help our designers participate, learn, and have fun.

I want to share with you some of the books from my facilitation library and encourage you to read them so that you can bring your research, writing, or design work to life. I fundamentally believe design practitioners can benefit from the field of facilitation. It’s an art and science that helps individuals organize and convene gatherings in order to mutually progress. I have seen firsthand how it helps us at Dropbox to share information and align minds around action.

Oh, and in case you’re curious about my research activity, I ended up designing an “adventure,” leading a session where we “deconstructed” aspects of the research while wearing construction worker hats.

construction hats
construction hats on team
happy team wearing hats

I turned my design meeting into something informative and magical. And you can too.

Facilitation is an essential design skill

Facilitation is more than just standing at the front of the room or delegating action items. It’s shepherding people to spend time productively and purposefully. It’s getting cross-functional partners talking. It’s helping individual contributors take action. It’s encouraging busy people to make decisions. It’s about creating comfort for groups.

Facilitation encompasses a broad set of activities, and its techniques are varied. At its most basic, though, the facilitator’s job, as Sam Kaner says, is to support everyone to do their best thinking.

Facilitation is kind of an abstract field, so let me make it a little more concrete. Facilitation can include any of the following:

  • creating informative activities for knowledge sharing
  • crafting clear agendas to support conversation
  • preparing rooms so that individuals feel inspired
  • understanding attendees to better negotiate their power dynamics
  • maintaining time to prioritize subject matters
  • managing expectations to avoid confusion
  • leading groups towards a conclusion or decision
  • making meetings memorable and magical

While the above may sound pretty standard, it’s remarkable how often I see design practitioners forget to send out an agenda before a meeting, or dismiss the idea that we can (and should) artfully rearrange a boring meeting room. I myself sometimes fail at the basics.

I’m bummed to hear when a colleague fails to help their team reach a decision or take an action. I’m especially bummed when I observe that they didn’t employ some facilitation techniques.

There’s strong evidence out there that points to how seemingly small things like transforming your interiors can inspire ideas or how employing discussion tools can transform disagreements. Facilitation techniques create the conditions for groups to thrive.

Start reading about facilitation

Facilitation, as mentioned above, is a broad field. It’s one that I could write multiple blog posts about.

Rather than try to boil the ocean, I’d like to instead point you to seven facilitation books, so that you can start your own facilitation journey. Try checking them out from your local library or buying them used on Amazon. I have faith it’ll level up your design thinking.

It might even make your meetings magical…

  • Get going with facilitation via “The Art of Gathering.” This book is jam-packed with interesting anecdotes, reminding us that facilitation permeates all aspects of life. Begin your reading adventure here!
  • Get rid of facilitation ambiguity via “Fearless Facilitation.” This is an actionable book filled with easy-to-implement presentation techniques. Use it to go beyond the basics.
  • Gamify facilitation exercises via “Gamestorming.” This is a classic book that can’t be left off any list. It’s like recipes for innovation. Utilize it as a reference once you have your bearings.
  • Go forth with your facilitation journey via “FutureSearch.” This book details a unique method that is employed to help complex systems create a vision. It will help you expand your understanding of facilitation. Recommended only for the more advanced or nerdy practitioners.

Thank you: Alex, Andrea, Angela, Bjørn, Danilo, Derrick, Jason, Kate, Kris, Liana, Mackenzie, Sheta, and Tiffany for participating in the “construction worker” workshop; Nicole Lavelle for co-designing the heuristic checklist; and Jennifer Brook for inspiration and input in earlier drafts of this blog post. If you’re looking for a chance to facilitate an interesting and valuable exercise with your team, I recommend that you read her excellent post, Design Your Team.

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