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Strategy and the Need of Facilitation

In this post, I’ll argue for the Need of Facilitation in the sense that designers must become skilled facilitators that respond, prod, encourage, guide, coach and teach as they guide individuals and groups to make decisions that are critical in the business world though effective processes.

In the first post of this series, I’ve argued that — if designers want to influence and translate strategy in ways that drive their user experience vision forward — they must become both business-savvy analysts and synthesizers. In this post, I’ll argue for the Need of Facilitation in the sense that — if designers want to influence the decisions that shape strategy — they must become skilled facilitators that respond, prod, encourage, guide, coach and teach as they guide individuals and groups to make decisions that are critical in the business world though effective processes.

TL;DR

  • Any product that makes into the the world it’s actually the outcome of a set of dozens, hundreds or thousands of decisions along the way. Each decision building upon each other, informing and influencing all aspects of the user experience.
  • There is more to a decision than deciding which option to choose. A good decision also must be communicated to others, explained sufficiently well to persuade people to agree, and carried through to successful completion.
  • More often than not, is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of what the problems they are trying to solve.
  • It doesn’t matter at that point if the team lacks a vision or the vision is just poorly communicated, the result is the same: team will lack engagement and slowly drift apart.
  • It’s important that designers need to ask good questions that foster divergent thinking, explore multiple solutions, and — probably the most critical — help teams converge and align on the direction they should go.
  • Designers need to navigate decision processes through methods choice and the established organizational hierarchy or decision structure.
  • If designers are to become skilled facilitators, they must ensure follow up action related to production and distribution of information, communication with stakeholders, and implementation of decisions, making sure that decisions made have buy-in and followed through

Strategy Decisions and the Lack of Facilitation

As I mentioned in the first post of this serieswe need a different kind of senior designer. We need designers working on user experience teams must first advance from a tactical designer to a strategic designer. They can not only move pixels, but translate design insights in a currency that business stakeholders can understand. After that, he or she can get teams to paddle in the same direction.

The challenge of helping teams paddle on the same direction seem to be for many reasons:

  • Designers feel that projects start without a clear vision or focus which problems to solve and for who
    • Our user centered design tools set may have focused too much on needs of the user, at the expense of business needs and technological constraints.
    • We need to point at futures that are both desirable, profitable, and viability (“Change By Design“, Brown, T., & Katz, B., 2009).
    • More often than not, is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of what the problems they are trying to solve.
  • Even the projects that do start with clear vision slow stray away as the product development lifecycle goes on
    • It doesn’t matter at that point if the team lacks a vision or the vision just is poorly communicated, the result is the same: team will lack engagement and slowly drift apart.
    • Designers may have naively believed that the user perspective can be provided at one point of the product development lifecycle (e.g. during project/backlog/sprint planning phase).
    • In reality “any product that makes into the the world it’s actually the outcome of a set of dozens, hundreds or thousands of decisions along the way. Each decision building upon each other, informing and influencing all aspects of the user experience”. (“Elements fo User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond“, Garrett, 2010).

Strategy is a set of choices about winning that uniquely positions the firm in its industry so as to create sustainable advantage and superior value relative to the competition.

“How Strategy Really Works” in Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works (Lafley, A.G., Martin, R. L., 2013)

It is crucial that designers engage with their business stakeholders to understand what objectives and unique positions they want their products to assume in the industry, and the choices that are making in order to achieve such objectives and positions.

Six Strategic Questions, adapted from "Strategy Blueprint" in Mapping Experiences: A Guide to Creating Value through Journeys, Blueprints, and Diagrams (Kalbach, 2020).
Six Strategic Questions, adapted from “Strategy Blueprint” in Mapping Experiences: A Guide to Creating Value through Journeys, Blueprints, and Diagrams (Kalbach, 2020).

As a result, designers will be better prepared to influence the business decisions that help create such advantage and superior value to the competition.

A good decision helps the person get closer to their goals; was made with the most relevant information available; is based on priorities that the person cares about.

“Weapon of Choice” in Engaged: Designing for Behavior Change, Bucher, A, (2020)

There is more to a decision than deciding which option to choose. A good decision also must be communicated to others, explained sufficiently well to persuade people to agree, and carried through to successful completion (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008).

Strategy Decisions and the Need of Facilitation

No matter what kind of organization, team structure, or project types you’ve worked on, you’ve probably had experienced problems working with teams, such as:

  • drifting focus
  • misunderstood communications
  • uneven participation
  • Conflict
  • struggles for power and control
  • difficulties reaching consensus
  • frustrations with obtaining commitment to follow up action.

This is not by ill-intent: Patrick Lencioni posits that making a team high performing – i.e. high-functioning, collaborative, cohesive, aspiring, engaging – requires self-discipline, courage and stamina (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2011).

Facilitation is a deceptively familiar word, because it sounds like something you know, but means different things in different workplaces. For the purposes of this conversation, a definition of facilitation consists of two things (Hoffman, K. M.,  Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018):

  • Facilitation is an explicitly designated role for managing conflict. That role is filled by a single individual, or multiple individuals when you have multiple small groups, with each group having its own facilitator.
  • Facilitators create a productive pattern of conversation, built on divergence and convergence. This pattern encourages tangents, but also manages tangents to direct the conversation toward decisions.

Facilitation is the design and management of structures and processes that help a group do its work and minimise the common problems of people working together

Justice, T., & Jamieson, D., The Facilitator’s Fieldbook, 2012

It’s been my experience that — left to chance — it’s only natural that teams will stray from vision and goals. Helping teams paddle in the same direction requires not only good vision and goals, but also leadership, and intentional facilitation.

Strategy Decisions and Shared Understanding

In my practice, I’ve found that — more often than not — is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of what the problems they are trying to solve.

Just to make sure I’m not misunderstood: it doesn’t matter at that point if the team lacks a vision or the vision is just poorly communicated, the result is the same: team will lack engagement and slowly drift apart.

Shared understanding is the collective knowledge of the team that builds over time as the team works together. It’s a rich understanding of the space, the product, and the customers.

“Creating Shared Understanding” in Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve userexperience, Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J. (2013)

Teams that attain a shared understanding are far more likely to get a great design than those teams who fail to develop a common perception of the project’s goals and outcome (Jared Spool, “Attaining a Collaborative Shared Understanding” in Govella, A., Collaborative Product Design, 2019).

When teams share an understanding, everyone knows what they’re working on, why it’s important, and what the outcome will look like.

Govella, A., Collaborative Product Design (2019)

It’s very easy to verify if the team lacks understanding around the problem the team is trying to solve. Just ask some fundamental questions in your next meeting, like “what is the problem we are trying to solve”? “And for whom”?”

If you get different answers from key stakeholders, it is probably a good indication that you should jump in and help facilitate the discussion that will help the team to align.

Shared Understanding and the Need of Facilitation

I’ll argue for the Need of Facilitation in the sense that — if designers want to influence the decisions that shape strategy — they must step up to the plate and become skilled facilitators that respond, prod, encourage, guide, coach and teach as they guide individuals and groups to make decisions that are critical in the business world though effective processes.

That said, my opinion is that facilitation here does not only means “facilitate workshops”, but facilitate the decisions regardless of what kinds of activities are required.

The Mindset of a Facilitator

Facilitators are here to enable groups to succeed by (Smutny, M., Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings, 2019):

  • Asking questions. Creative questions allow a composite picture of the organization to emerge before a strategy event. This listening prepares the consultant to facilitate with knowledge and skills.
  • Designing a planning process that is unique to the team they are working with. An experienced facilitator creates a meeting designs from a wealth of methods, tailored to the objectives to the team.
  • Helping the group get specific action plans. She or he will not let teams get stuck with vague generalities.

You become a better facilitator by (Lewrick, M., Link, P., & Leifer, L., The design thinking playbook, 2018):

  • Adopting varying mental states. As the situation requires, we combine different approaches with design thinking, data analytics, system thinking, game storming, and lean start-up
  • Developing process awareness. We know where we stand in the design thinking and/or other facilitation processes and develop a strong sense of when is the right time to change the mindset (e.g.: from divergent to convergent).
  • Reflect on actions. We reflect on our way of thinking, our actions and attitudes because they have an impact on what we do and on the assumptions we make.

Adopting Varying Mental States

Bill Buxton famously described the characteristics of design superstars:

Great Designers have to have their feet in the mud, but their heads in the clouds

Buxton, B., On Being Human in a Digital World, Closing Plenary, CHI08, Florence Italy, April 10th, 2008

Designers need to be comfortable in this abstraction transition. That said, not every team member is comfortable with this kind of transition. We need to help — or in this case, facilitate — the team do this transition.

Developing Process Awareness

Process Awareness characterises a degree to which the participants are informed about the process procedures, rules, requirements, workflow and other details. The higher is process awareness, the more profoundly the participants are engaged into a process, and so the better results they deliver.

In my experience, the biggest disconnect between the work designers need to do and the mindset of every other team member in a team is usually about how quickly we tend — when not facilitated — to jump to solutions instead of contemplate and explore the problem space a little longer.

I’m of the opinion that designers — instead of complaining that everyone else is jumping too quickly into solutions — should facilitate the discussions and help others raise the awareness around the creative and problem solving process.

Katja Forbes at IxDA's ILA2018
In this Keynote at IxDA’s ILA 2018, Katja Forbes argues that since multidisciplinary team members are all using the tools of design, our roles as Designers are changing to include an unexpected soft skill, Design Coaching. You are not a Designer, You are a Coach!

There are two kinds of thinking required to take advantage of tangents (which helps avoid jumping to solutions) without wasting time. The first is divergent thinking, where you are increasing the diversity and the quantity of ideas you explore in a meeting. The second is convergent thinking, where you are increasing the quality of ideas by prioritizing the best of those ideas and reducing the quantity (Hoffman, K. M.,  Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018).

Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J., “What is a Game?” in Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers (2010)

Following a pattern that leads with divergent thinking and concludes with convergent thinking helps you manage those tangents. Tangents can feel frustrating, but good tangents are one of the best things that come out of meetings. Good, novel ideas come from diverse opinions and experience. Going off on tangents is a way to get to those ideas. They won’t all be great ideas, but a few of them could be better than what you might come up with working alone (Hoffman, K. M.,  Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018).

From that perspective, I find it incredibly important that designers need to ask good questions that foster divergent thinking, explore multiple solutions, and — probably the most critical — help teams converge and align on the direction they should go (Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J., “What is a Game?” in Gamestorming, 2010).

While facilitating divergent thinking, remind people to be open-minded. Divergent activities include making lists, having open-ended discussion, and collecting perspectives. During divergent thinking, it’s the facilitator’s job to remind the group to suspend judgment. At some point, the facilitator should turn the boat around and switch the focus to convergence. The facilitator should help the group decide if one tangent is better than another (Hoffman, K. M.,  Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018).

Where divergent thinking is about being OK with disagreement, convergent thinking is about eliminating excess, or the least likely stuff to succeed.

(Hoffman, K. M.,  Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018).

Once the corner has been turned, the facilitator helps the group “closing”: summarise the essence of each approach to decide what’s worth keeping and how to act upon it (Hoffman, K. M.,  Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018).

Knowing when team should be diverging, when they should be exploring, and when they should closing will help ensure they get the best out of their collective brainstorming and multiple perspectives’ power and keep the team engaged.

turned on pendant lamp
Learn more about how to steer a conversation by asking the right kinds of questions in Strategy, Facilitation and the Art of Asking Questions (Photo by Burak K on Pexels.com)

At some point in the decision making process, we know what we should do. We have clear intention, but that is not the same as doing it. Without action, the value of the best alternative is nothing more than potential value. Converting potential value into real value requires action (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).

Without commitment, advice giving is merely the expression of opinions.

Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C., “Commitment” in The trusted advisor, 2021

A decision isn’t truly made until resources have been irrevocably allocated to its execution. And so we need a commitment to action and a mental shift from thinking to doing. Thinking and doing are two different mindsets. If a business decision has the potential for a bad outcome (as nearly all of them do), a leader may hesitate in committing to action. It can even be financially risky for a decision maker to act, since incentives  generally reward good outcomes rather than good decisions (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).

Without action, the value potential in a decision cannot be realised.

Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions (2016)

Shifting between the two mindsets is especially difficult for action-oriented executives and managers who get bogged down in the complexities and uncertainties of decision making. But to be effective, they must learn to operate in both modes — deciding and executing-moving rapidly from one mode to the other. A shift from thought to action can be emotional and may require courage. It also requires a shift from one skill set to another. During the decision-making process, conflict is fuel, encouraging a diverse set of alternatives, values, and perspectives. When it is time for action, we need alignment and buy-in (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).

The mindset of deciding must embrace uncertainty; the mindset of action must replace uncertainty with certitude of purpose: “Let’s get on with it.”

Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions (2016)

Shifting between the two mindsets is especially difficult for action-oriented executives and managers who get bogged down in the complexities and uncertainties of decision making. But to be effective, they must learn to operate in both modes–deciding and executing-moving rapidly from one mode to the other. Unlike the rapid action of detailed operational adjustments, strategy decisions involve less detail, have long delays before the outcome is observed, and may be very expensive or impossible to adjust once execution is launched (Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions, 2016).

Strategic decisions require considerable deliberation and involvement of others, unlike the ready-fire- aim execution focus of operations. These are two very different modes of thinking and behaving, yet executives and managers must be good at both.

Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J., Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions (2016)
Learn more about the different mindset facilitators have to adopt during divergent and convergent phases (picture: banking business checklist commerce)
Learn more about the different mindset facilitators have to adopt during divergent and convergent phases in Facilitating Good Decisions (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

Reflect in Action

During my time at Northumbria University, I’ve come in contact with the work of philosopher and educator Donald Schön, who argues that professionals can act at many levels of reflective activity. The first of these is ‘knowing-in-action’ which is demonstrated in the skilled physical actions undertaken by teachers in practice in the classroom. Schön’s focus on dynamic activity, as a crucial element of professional artistry, is exemplified in his distinction between ‘knowing-in-action’ and ‘knowledge-in-action’.

Schön calls the second level of reflective activity ‘reflection-in-action’. He describes this as the capacity of professionals to consciously think about what they are doing while they are doing it.

This concept of reflecting in action has influenced a lot of my practice, in the sense that I feel too many of us just go about life (or from project to project) encoutering different problems and expecting to use the same set of tools or skills. When these tools or skills fall short, we feel surprised (anxious or angry) they don’t work.

Visual Map of issues associated with Collaborative and Distributed work
Visual Map of issues associated with Collaborative and Distributed work (learn more from Distinction Award in the MA Design Practice, 2009)

Agile Methodologies (like Scrum) have retrospective meetings that — if were to be used consistently — have long advocated for such reflection to help teams get unstuck, but I’d like to encourage you to do your own personal reflection on your work, practice, philosophy. You can check some reflective questions to get you started in my lecture of Reflection in Action at the MA Integrated Design at Köln International School of Design.

The Work of a Facilitator

Most facilitation involves a few key core processes (Justice, T., & Jamieson, D., The Facilitator’s Fieldbook, 2012), including:

  • Analyzing information about purposes, desired outcomes, work context, and participants to determine.
  • Designing meetings to enable the group to succeed at its purpose using appropriate structures, processes and sequences.
  • Creating and implementing structures and processes to accomplish tasks and meet objectives.
  • Coaching/Training group leaders and members in effective behaviors.
  • Navigating decision processes through methods choice and the established organizational hierarchy or decision structure.
  • Ensuring follow up action related to production and distribution of information, communication with stakeholders, and implementation of decisions.

Most facilitation involves a few key core principles (Smutny, M., Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings, 2019), including:

  • exude calm authority;
  • encourage the team;
  • Let others shine;
  • Teach the basics skills and practice them;
  • Have fun; Don’t be too serious;
  • Work towards a common goal;
  • Cheer a lot;
  • Eat afterwards;

The Challenges of Becoming a Facilitator

At this point you might be thinking and asking yourself:

  • Isn’t it Someone Else’s job? I’ve had people suggest that a product manager, or a product owner, or a someone in some business capacity should be ensuring the team has a clear vision and goals. That’s probably right! And yet, what I’ve noticed in my practice is that most of the decisions we’ve been talking about here are related to key questions you as a designer would need answers to do your own work: what are the personas we are trying to help? what are their key problems? What do they consider success? From that perspective, I found it more helpful to frame the facilitation discussion as “if we can’t answer these questions as a team, shall we get together and work them through?” Once framed this way, it’s usually the case that teams will not only welcome the facilitation exercise, but also ask for more in the future!
  • Even if I had all the skills and mindset above, how am I going to lead the team through these discussions? That involves a few key soft skills, particularly influencing without authority.

The True Measure of Leadership is Influence – Nothing more, Nothing less.

Maxwell, J.C., “The Law of Influence” in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You, (2007)

The grasp of such important concept is what differentiates people with delegated authority and earned authority: if you had to ask for the team to “let you lead them” through this kind of facilitation, then you will have to probably find some stakeholder to support you (your manager, a scrum master, or a sympathetic product manager). That approach might work depending on how successful you are in finding (and collaborating with) such stakeholder.

group of people sitting in front of table
Learn more about the importance of understanding and identifying Cultural, Social, Political dynamics of working with stakeholders at Strategy and Stakeholder Management (Photo by Rebrand Cities on Pexels.com)

Design Strategist Multiplication Program

As I mentioned in the beginning of a previous post, myself and my colleague Edmund Azigi are designing a Design Strategist Multiplier program per request of Scott Lietzke, our VP of Design at SAP SuccessFactors.

In order for this kind of profession development program to work — in my opinion — should be practice-based, accompanied with a series of seminars, corresponding required reading and reflective practice journaling to create the opportunities for people to grow.

This post was one of a series in which I’ve went through the skills of a strategist (namely: thought leadership, stakeholder analysis and management, facilitating decision making and project management) and challenging you with questions that will help you think of ways to how to pick up these skills yourself.

group of people sitting on chair on stage
Learn more about how can designers become both Business-savvy Analysts and Synthesizers in The Skills of a Strategist (Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com)

Berkun, S. (2008). Making things happen: Mastering project management. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Brown, T., & Katz, B. (2009). Change by design: how design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. [New York]: Harper Business

Bucher, A. (2020). Engaged: Designing for Behavior Change, Rosenfeld Media; 1st edition (March 3, 2020)

Buxton, B., (2008), On Being Human in a Digital World. Closing Plenary, CHI08, Florence Italy, April 10th, 2008.

Garrett, J., (2010), “The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond, 192 pages, New Riders; 2nd edition (16 Dec. 2010)

Govella, A. (2019). Collaborative Product Design: Help any team build a better experience. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J. (2010). Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J. (2013). Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve user experience. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media

Hoffman, K. M. (2018). Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone. Two Waves Books.

Justice, T., & Jamieson, D. (2012). The Facilitator’s Fieldbook (3rd ed.). Amacom.

Kalbach, J. (2020), “Mapping Experiences: A Guide to Creating Value through Journeys, Blueprints, and Diagrams“, 440 pages, O’Reilly Media; 2nd edition (15 December 2020)

Lafley, A.G., Martin, R. L., (2013), “Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works”, 272 pages, Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press (5 Feb 2013)

Lencioni, P. M. (2011). Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators (J. Leffert, Trans.). Recorded Books.

Lewrick, M., Link, P., & Leifer, L. (2018). The design thinking playbook: Mindful digital transformation of teams, products, services, businesses and ecosystems. Nashville, TN: John Wiley & Sons.

Maxwell, J. C. (2007). The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership: Follow them and people will follow you. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C. (2021). The trusted advisor. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster..

Schön, D. (1984) The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals think in action, London: Temple Smith.

Spetzler, C., Winter, H., & Meyer, J. (2016). Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions. Nashville, TN: John Wiley & Sons.

Smutny, M. (2019). Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings. Bothell, WA: Civic Reinventions, Inc. (August 10, 2019).

By Itamar Medeiros

Originally from Brazil, Itamar Medeiros currently lives in Germany, where he works as Director of Design Strategy at SAP.

Working in the Information Technology industry since 1998, Itamar has helped truly global companies in several countries (Argentina, Brazil, China, Czech Republic, Germany, India, Mexico, The Netherlands, Poland, The United Arab Emirates, United States, Hong Kong) create great user experience through advocating Design and Innovation principles.

During his 7 years in China, he promoted the User Experience Design discipline as User Experience Manager at Autodesk and Local Coordinator of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) in Shanghai.

22 replies on “Strategy and the Need of Facilitation”

[…] Earlier in this series, I mentioned my experience has been that — more often than not — is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of what the problems they are trying to solve. In this post, I’ll deep dive on some problem framing techniques that can help you get team alignment by creating clarity of what problems they are trying to solve. […]

[…] Earlier in this series, I mentioned my experience has been that — more often than not — is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of what the problems they are trying to solve. In this post, I’ll talk about how psychological safety is a prerequisite for creating shared understanding and some tools you for building the trust required to create a psychologically safe team climate. […]

[…] Earlier in this series, I mentioned my experience has been that — more often than not — is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of what the problems they are trying to solve. I’ve also mentioned that there are problem framing techniques that can help you get team alignment by creating clarity of what problems they are trying to solve. […]

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