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Strategy and the Need for Facilitation

I’ll argue for the Need for Facilitation as strategists guide individuals and groups to make business decisions though effective facilitation 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 for 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 through effective processes.

TL;DR

  • Any product that makes it into the world it’s actually the outcome of a set of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of decisions along the way. Each decision builds upon the 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 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: the 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 tactical designer to strategic designer. They can not only move pixels but translate design insights into 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 in the same direction seems to be for many reasons:

  • Designers feel that projects start without a clear vision or focus on which problems to solve and for who
    • Our user-centered design tools set may have focused too much on the 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 viable (“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 the problems they are trying to solve.
  • Even the projects that do start with a 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: the 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 the project/backlog/sprint planning phase).
    • In reality “any product that makes into the world it’s actually the outcome of a set of dozens, hundreds or thousands of decisions along the way. Each decision builds upon each other, informing and influencing all aspects of the user experience”. (“Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond“, Garrett, 2010).

Strategy is, at its core, a guide to behavior. It comes to life through its ability to influence thousands of decisions — both big and small — made by employees throughout an organisation.

Heath, D., & Heath, C. “Sticky Advice” in Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die (2009)

A good strategy drives actions that differentiate the company and produce financial success. A bad strategy drives actions that lead to a less competitive, less differentiated position. A lot of strategies, though, are simply inert. Whether they are good or bad is impossible to determine, because they do not drive action. They may exist in pristine form in a PowerPoint document, in a “strategic planning” binder, or in speeches made by top executives. But if they don’t manifest themselves in action they are inert, irrelevant. They are academic (Heath, D., & Heath, C. “Sticky Advice” in Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die, 2009).

It’s not a lack of effort or good intentions that renders a strategy inert. Every executive wants their team to understand. But there are three nasty barriers that make strategic communication more difficult (Heath, D., & Heath, C. “Sticky Advice” in Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die, 2009):

  • Curse of Knowledge. It leads executives to talk about strategy as though they themselves were the audience. It temps them to use language that is sweeping, high-level, and abstract (The most efficient manufacturer of semiconductors! The lowest-cost provider of stereo equipment! World-class customer service!) Often leaders are not even aware they are speaking abstractly. To thwart the curse of knowledge, leaders need to “translate” their strategies into concrete language, and storytelling is a great way to do that!
  • Decision paralysis. Most people in an organization aren’t in charge of formulating strategy; they just have to understand the strategy and use it to make decisions. But many strategies aren’t concrete enough to resolve a well-established decision bias called decision paralysis. Psychologists have uncovered situations where the mere existence of choice — even choice around several good options — seems to paralyze us in making decisions. How can strategy liberate employees from decision paralysis? When people are about to talk about strategy, they are more likely to make good decisions than when the strategy exists only as a set of rules.
  • Lack of common language. Good strategic communication is like Esperanto. It facilitates communication among people who have different native languages and carves out turf that people can share. Employees rely on leaders to define the organization’s game plan. Leaders rely on employees to tell them how the game is going. For this dialogue to work, both sides must be able to understand each other. Here is why creating shared understanding, and facilitating two-way negotiations around outcomes become super critical!

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 an 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).

That’s why is important that designers engage with stakeholders early and often to make sure we’ve got the right framing of the problem space around the 3 vision-related questions (as per the Six Strategic Questions illustration above):

  • What are our aspirations?
  • What are our challenges?
  • What will we focus on?

What are our aspirations?

Aspirations are the guiding purpose of an enterprise. Think of Starbucks’ mission statement: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit–one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.” Or Nike’s: “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.” (The additional note, indicated by the asterisk, reads: “*If you have a body, you’re an athlete.”) And McDonald’s: “Be our customers’ favorite place and way to eat.” Each is a statement of what the company seeks to be and a reflection of its reason to exist. But a lofty mission isn’t a strategy. It is merely a starting point (“What is Winning” in Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works (Lafley, A.G., Martin, R. L., 2013).

What is Winning

Unless winning is the ultimate aspiration, a firm is unlikely to invest the right resources in sufficient amounts to create a sustainable advantage. But aspirations alone are not enough. Leaf through a corporate annual report, and you will almost certainly find an aspirational vision or mission statement. Yet, with most corporations, it is very difficult to see how the mission statement translates into real strategy and ultimately strategic action (“What is Winning” in Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works (Lafley, A.G., Martin, R. L., 2013)

Too many top managers believe their strategy job is largely done when they share their aspiration with employees. Unfortunately, nothing happens after that. Without explicit where-to-play and how-to-win choices connected to the aspiration, a vision is frustrating and ultimately unfulfilling for employees.

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

To develop a great strategy, we first need to clarify what is the purpose of our enterprise, our mission, or our winning aspirations. The term “winning” means different things to different people so the first step in developing a great strategy is to specify exactly what winning will look like for us. You can clarify those by answering the following questions:

  • What experience do we ultimately want to deliver?
  • How will we impact our customers’ work and daily lives?
  • How does our solution transform what they are capable of doing and who they ultimately are?

Importance of Vision

A global study conducted in 2012 involving 300,000 employees found that just over half did not really understand the basics of their organizations’ strategies (Zook, C., & Allen, J., Repeatability, 2012). Given the effort applied to strategy development, there is a massive disconnect here. The opportunity to reconnect a firm with its strategy lies in how the strategy is communicated and understood (Callahan, S., Putting Stories to Work, 2016).

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: the team will lack engagement and slowly drift apart.

A clear and meaningful vision of the future to which a business is aspiring will help to engage people and unlock energy and commitment. It also guides actions and decisions at all levels of the organization and helps to promote consistency of purpose so that everyone works towards the same goal.

Kourdi, J., Business Strategy: A guide to effective decision-making (2015)

Designers should advocate for the importance of vision and facilitate the creation of product visions that explain a strategy’s complex connection and express the product’s future intended destination. (Fish, L., Kiekbusch, S., “The State of the Designer” in The Designer’s Guide to Product Vision, 2020).

The beauty of a shared vision is that it motivates and unites people: it acts as the product’s true north, facilitates collaboration, and provides continuity in an ever-changing world (Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z.,  Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, 2017).

beach bench boardwalk bridge
Learn more about creating product vision in The Importance of Vision (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

What are our challenges?

Strategy implies the need for change, a desire to move from point “A” to point “B”. What are the hurdles to doing so? What opposing forces must you overcome to be able to reach the desired outcome? In other words, what is our problem space?

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 contemplating and exploring the problem space a little longer.

It’s tempting to appear decisive by jumping straight to the conclusion and making rapid decisions. But the chances are that those rapid decisions are predictable courses based on existing assumptions and prejudices, and that another chance for innovation as escaped.

Sloane, P., The leader’s guide to lateral thinking skills (2017)

When your team can’t agree on a solution, it’s probably a good time to take a step back and align on the problem you are solving for. 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 awareness around the creative and problem-solving process.

yellow letter tiles
Learn more about problem framing techniques that can help you get team alignment by creating clarity of what problems they are trying to solve in Problem Framing for Strategic Design (Photo by Ann H on Pexels.com)

What will we focus on?

Once we’ve stated are aspirations (“what winning will look like”), we then need to identify a playing field where we can realize our aspirations. No company can be all things to all people and win, so where-to-play choices – which markets, which customer segments, which channels, which industries, etc. – narrow our focus. 

Arriving at a Common Definition of Value

As I mentioned in a previous post, 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 through effective processes. There are few decisions that are harder than deciding how to prioritize.

I’ve seen too many teams that a lot of their decisions seem to be driven by the question “What can we implement with the least effort” or “What are we able to implement”, not by the question “what brings value to the user”.

From a user-centered perspective, the most crucial pivot that needs to happen in the conversation between designers and business stakeholders is the framing of value:

  • Business value
  • User value
  • Value to designers (sense of self-realization? Did I impact someone’s life in a positive way?)

The mistake I’ve seen many designers make is to look at prioritization discussion as a zero-sum game: our user-centered design tools set may have focused too much on the needs of the user, at the expense of business needs and technological constraints.

While in the past designers would concentrate on enhancing desirability, the emerging strategic role of designers means they have to balance desirability, feasibility and viability simultaneously. Designers need to expand their profiles and master a whole new set of strategic practices.”

“Strategic Designers: Capital T-shaped professionals” in Strategic Design (Calabretta et al., 2016)

To understand the risk and uncertainty of your idea you need to ask: “What are all the things that need to be true for this idea to work?” This will allow you to identify all three types of hypotheses underlying a business idea: desirabilityfeasibility, and viability (Bland, D. J., & Osterwalder, A., Testing business ideas, 2020):

  • Desirability (do they want this?) relates to the risk that the market a business is targeting is too small; that too few customers want the value proposition; or that the company can’t reach, acquire, and retain targeted customers.
  • Feasibility (Can we do this?) relates to the risk that a business can’t manage, scale, or get access to key resources (technology, IP, brand, etc.). This isn’t just technical feasibility; we also look need to look at overall regulatory, policy, and governance that would prevent you from making your solution a success.
  • Viability (Should we do this?) relates to the risk that a business cannot generate more revenue than costs (revenue stream and cost stream). While customers may want your solution (desirable) and you can build it (feasible), perhaps there’s not enough of a market for it or people won’t pay enough for it. 
A Veen Diagram representing the intersection between Desirability, Viability and Feasibility.
The Sweet Spot of Innovation in Brown, T., & Katz, B., Change By Design (2009)

Here is how facilitating discussions around value with tools like Jobs to be Done can help streamline the strategy definition process: when the team engages in endless discussions around which customer/user problems we should be focusing on, Jobs becomes a unit of analysis that helps teams have facilitated discussions around finding ways to remove (or at least reduce) subjectivity while assessing value, especially while we are devising ways to test our hypothesis.

man in red long sleeve shirt holding a drilling tool
Jobs to be Done work as a great common exchange currency between leadership, designers, product managers, and developers by helping us discuss problems instead of solutions (Photo by Blue Bird on Pexels.com)

Clearing Bottleneck through Clarity of Priorities

What slows progress and wastes the most time on projects is confusion about what the goals are or which things should come before which other things. Many miscommunications and missteps happen because person A assumed one priority (make it faster), and person B assumed another (make it more stable). This is true for programmers, testers, marketers, and entire teams of people. If these conflicts can be avoided, more time can be spent actually progressing toward the project goals (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008).

As a design manager, I’ve always found that — while defining and shaping the Product Design vision to ensure cohesive product narratives through sound strategy and design principles — the way priorities are defined can potentially create a disconnect from vision, especially when tough choices around scope need to be made. It’s important that we facilitated discussions around priorities, so the hard choices that need to be made take into account not just feasibility, but also viability and desirability.

Product Definition and Requirements Prioritization
Visualising the impact of user experience of any given use case based on its opportunity score, while helping in the product decision-making process by providing a better sense of priorities.

The goal of prioritization is to determine what to complete next in order to get maximum value in the shortest amount of time and to avoid multi-tasking due to competing priorities (DeGrandis, D., Making work visible: Exposing time theft to optimize workflow, 2017).

Priorities Make Things Happen

Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management (2008)

It’s essential to set priorities and remove distractions so that people can get on with providing service to customers, thus increasing profits and the value of the business (Kourdi, J., Business Strategy: A guide to effective decision-making, 2015).

While priorities can make things happen, we need to make sure to prioritise things that are important, by focusing on value.

The build trap is when organizations become stuck measuring their success by outputs rather than outcomes. It’s when they focus more on shipping and developing features rather than on the actual value of those things.

Perri, M., Escaping the build trap (2019)

There are a few things you should ask yourself and/or the team when we keep coming revisiting and renegotiating the scope of work (DeGrandis, D., Making work visible: Exposing time theft to optimize workflow, 2017):

  • What is your prioritization policy and how is it visualized? How does each and every item of work that has been prioritized help get us closer to our vision and achieve our goals?
  • How will you signal when work has been prioritized and is ready to be worked on? In other words — where is your line of commitment? How do people know which work to pull?
  • How will we visually distinguish between higher priorities and lower priority work?

If you have priorities in place, you can always ask questions in any discussion that reframe the argument around a more useful primary consideration. This refreshes everyone’s sense of what success is, visibly dividing the universe into two piles: things that are important and things that are nice, but not important. Here are some sample questions (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008):

  • What problem are we trying to solve?
  • If there are multiple problems, which one is most important?
  • How does this problem relate to or impact our goals?
  • What is the simplest way to fix this that will allow us to meet our goals?
pen calendar to do checklist
Learn more about Prioritisation in Strategy and Prioritisation (Photo by Breakingpic on Pexels.com)

Quantifying and Qualifying Experience

If you clearly articulated the answer to the six strategic questions (what are our aspirations, what are our challenges, what will we focus on, what are our guiding principles, what type of activities), strategies can still fail — spectacularly — if you fail to establish management systems that support those choices. Without the supporting systems, structures, and measures for quantifying and qualifying outcomes, strategies remain a wish list, a set of goals that may or may not ever be achieved (“Manage What Matters” in Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works (Lafley, A.G., Martin, R. L., 2013).

From that perspective, we need to find ways to:

  • Explore (and preferably test) ideas early
  • Facilitate investment discussions by objectively describing business and user value, establishing priorities
  • Asses risk of pursuing ideas, while capturing signals that indicate if/when to pivot if an idea “doesn’t work”
  • Capture and track the progress of strategy implementation
Pivot & Risk Mitigation Assessing the risk, capturing signals, know when to pivot Visibility and Traceability Capturing and tracking progress Facilitating Investment Discussions Business /User Value, Priorities, Effort, etc Validating / Testing Ideas Finding objective ways to explore (and preferably test) ideas early
Instead of a single metric to measure ROI, let’s look at the different discussions that need to be facilitated while quantifying and qualifying strategy, namely: Pivot and Risk Mitigation, Facilitating Investment DiscussionsValidating / Testing Business IdeasVisibility and Traceability.

Strategy Decisions and the Need for Facilitation

No matter what kind of organization, team structure, or project type you’ve worked on, you’ve probably 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 a 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).

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.

Facilitating is a way to help people move forward together that harnesses contribution, connection, and equity.

Kahane, A. Facilitating breakthrough (2021)

Facilitation is necessary, however, when two conditions are met (Kahane, A. Facilitating breakthrough, 2021):

  • People want to create change: the situation they find themselves in is not the way they want it to be; they think that something is going wrong or could be going better. If this condition is not met–if people think that things are fine just as they are–then they can just carry on doing what they are doing, and facilitation is not necessary or effective. A facilitated change process won’t go far if the participants don’t want their situation to change. Sometimes the way people see their situation is that they simply have a problem, maybe easy or maybe difficult, that they need to solve. One example might be a project that is behind schedule and needs to be sped up. Other times they see themselves as facing a problematic situation: a situation that different people see as problematic from different perspectives and for different reasons, which they can work with and through but cannot neatly solve once and for all.
  • People want to collaborate: The second condition is that people want to collaborate to address this challenge. This means that they don’t think they can (or prefer not to) address this challenge on their own or by forcing others to come along. If this condition is not met–if people prefer to act unilaterally–then facilitation is not necessary or effective.

“More collaboration” is often suggested as a solution to ineffective organizations; but, in reality, collaboration needs to be carefully curated to avoid unintended effects and cognitive overload.

Skelton, M., & Pais, M. Remote team interactions workbook: Using team topologies patterns for remote working (2022)

Research by Harvard Business School published in 2018 found that in the knowledge work context — where there is discovery and innovation taking place — organizations that had everyone talking to everyone else all the time actually performed worse than in situations where teams or groups of people communicated and collaborated on a more occasional basis (Bernstein, E., Shore, J., & Lazer, D., 2018). This supports the idea that we actually need to create more purposeful interactions between teams (Skelton, M., & Pais, M. Remote team interactions workbook: Using team topologies patterns for remote working. 2022)

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.

Managing Conflict

I’ve noticed in my own experience — but also observing how junior designers conduct themselves — that we usually tend to bargain over positions (e.g.: “from a user experience perspective, this works best because….”), thinking that if we bring enough knowledge to the table or make strong enough arguments, designers would convince the team about the way to move forward. This idea of “Bargaining over positions” (through persuasion) comes with shortcomings that we are – more often than not – not even aware of since most of us were not trained with the emotional intelligence it takes to deal with conflict in a healthy way.

We can only change two things: our own minds and our own behavior.

Benson, B., Why Are We Yelling?: The Art of Productive Disagreement (2019)

As we argue our position, we often fail to question one crucial assumption upon which our whole stance in the conversation is built: I am right, you are wrong. This simple assumption causes endless grief (Patton, B., Stone, D., & Heen, S., Difficult conversations, 2011).

Difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and values. They are not about what the contract states, but what the contract means.

Patton, B., Stone, D., & Heen, S., Difficult conversations (2011)

The important question to explore during difficult conversations are not about who is right and who is wrong, but about interpretation and judgment. Determining who is right or wrong is a dead end (Patton, B., Stone, D., & Heen, S., Difficult conversations, 2011).

Moving away from the truth assumption frees us to shift our purpose from proving we are right to understanding the perceptions, interpretations, and values of both sides. It allows to move away from delivering messages and toward asking questions, exploring how each person is making sense of the world. And to offer our views as perceptions, interpretations and values — not as “truth.”

Patton, B., Stone, D., & Heen, S., Difficult conversations (2011)

From that perspective, another challenge that arises while negotiating comes from the fact that the way most negotiation strategies fail because they start arguing over positions (Fisher, R., & Ury, W., Getting to Yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in, 2012):

  • Arguing over positions produces unwise outcomes: we tend to lock ourselves in those positions. The more you clarify your position and defend it against attacks, the more committed you become to it. The more you try to convince “the other side” of the impossibility of changing your position, the more difficult it becomes to do so.
  • Arguing over positions endangers an ongoing relationship: positional bargaining becomes a contest of will. Each side tries through sheer willpower to force the other to change its position. Anger and resentment often result as one side sees itself bending to the rigid will of the other while its own legitimate concerns go undressed. Positional bargaining thus strains and sometimes shatters the relationship between the parties.
  • Where there are many parties, positional bargaining is even worse: although it is convenient to discuss in terms of two persons, you and the “other side”, in fact, almost every negotiation involves more than two persons. The more people involved in the negotiation, the more serious the drawbacks of positional bargaining.
  • Being nice is no answer: many people recognize the high costs of hard positional bargaining, particularly on the parties and their relationship. They hope to avoid them by following a more gentle style of negotiation. Instead of seeing the other side as adversaries, they prefer to see them as friends. Rather than emphasizing a goal of victory, they emphasize the necessity of reaching an agreement. In a soft negotiating game, the standard move is to make offers and concessions, to trust the other side, to be friendly, and to yield as necessary to avoid confrontation. Pursuing a soft and friendly form of positional bargaining makes you vulnerable to someone who plays a hard game.

Moving away from bargaining positions to negotiate on merits is pretty much aligned with two important skills that designers must master:

  • Create Great Choices: the effectiveness of the team in making good decisions depends on their ability to generate alternatives.
  • Facilitate Critique: when well done, critique focuses on analyzing design choices against a product’s objective.
black and white people bar men
Conflict arises in every team. Through Psychological Safety and Conflict Resolution techniques, we can channel the energy of conflict into productive interaction, constructive disagreement, open exchange of ideas, and learning from different points of view (Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com)

Creating Productive Patterns of Conversation

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 experiences. 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 an 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 the 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)

Signal Versus Noise

Let’s be honest: our events create a lot of noise. Our job is not to find the shortest path from A to B but to open up a world of possibilities and help the people we’re facilitating to converge on a very small number of those possibilities. We then help them dissect the surviving ideas and draft them into road maps that might sketch out the way towards creating value. That journey is full of dead ends and blind alleys. A lot of great ideas have to fall away in order to reveal the even better idea that is worth pursuing once the event is over (Newman, D., & Klein, B. Facilitating collaboration: Notes on facilitation for experienced collaborators, 2018).

The single most important role a facilitator can play to ensure value capture is to stay focused on the difference between signal and noise; between capture the ideas and insights that could have potential long-term value and other observations that cloud the vision of those charged with implementation the event’s outcomes

Newman, D., & Klein, B. Facilitating collaboration: Notes on facilitation for experienced collaborators (2018)

As the noise gets louder and louder, we help the participants identify the signal – the gem of potential value – that lies within (Newman, D., & Klein, B. Facilitating collaboration: Notes on facilitation for experienced collaborators, 2018)

Strategy Decisions and Shared Understanding

As I mentioned above, 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: the 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 of 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.

Collaboration means shift from thinking big ideas alone and moving into the real-mess of thinking with others.

Van Der Meulen, M., Counterintuitivity: Making Meaningful Innovation (2019)

Changing the behavior to a “we think together” model is the central activity of collaboration. Because thinking together closes a gap; people can now act without checking back in because there were there when the decision was made. They’ve already had debates about all the trade-offs that actually make something work. This may appear a case of “when all was said and done, a lot more was said than done.” However, time needs to be spent in the messy and time-consuming front-loaded process of thinking through possibilities in order to inform the decisions that need to be made (Van Der Meulen, M., Counterintuitivity: Making Meaningful Innovation, 2019).

Shared Understanding comes through Facilitation

I’ll argue for the Need for 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 through effective processes.

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

Shared Understanding comes through Honouring the Wisdom of the Group

Honouring the wisdom of the group means placing your full attention on what the group needs rather than focusing on your own needs. It starts with being deliberate about why you are meeting and how you can help invite full participation by creating and sustaining a space that will support it (Acker, M. The Art & Science of Facilitation: How to lead effective collaboration with agile teams. 2020).

Honouring the wisdom of the group is a cornerstone of collaborative decision-making, but not every topic, problem, or decision needs to be collaborative. Higher complexity in decisions means a greater degree of collaboration will be important. When you are interviewing the sponsor and evaluating the complexity of a decision to be made, think about the scope (Acker, M. The Art & Science of Facilitation: How to lead effective collaboration with agile teams. 2020):

  • Urgency. How quickly does the decision need to be made?
  • Risk. What’s at risk? Risks are uncertain events that might take place. Higher risk means there is a higher probability that certain events may happen, which means there is more benefit to be had from collaborative thinking and seeking multiple stakeholders’ perspectives.
  • Impact. What’s the scope of the decision’s impact? Does the decision impact one person, a whole team, a department, or the entire organization? Greater impact means higher complexity and makes having diverse voices and thinking more important.
  • Durability. How long does the decision need to last? Does it need to last a day? A week? A month? The longer it needs to last, the more important collaboration becomes during the decision-making process.
  • Buy-in. How important is it that others buy-in to the decision that’s being made? How much ownership do they need to feel in the decision? The greater the need for buy-in, the greater the need for a collaborative decision-making process.

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 knowledge and skills.
  • Designing a planning process that is unique to the team they are working with. An experienced facilitator creates meeting designs from a wealth of methods, tailored to the objectives of 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 our 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 does this transition.

Developing Process Awareness

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

Knowing when the 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.

Asking Questions and Developing Process Awareness
Asking Questions and Developing Process Awareness: there are questions that should trigger the right conversations are the right time.

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 awareness around the creative and problem-solving process.

That said, I’ve seen designers trying to convince the entire organization to change how they work. You might try but I’m quite sure that — unless you have the executive support of a strong stakeholder or have strong alliances in the organization — it will either take a long time to change it (and you will end up being frustrated ), or you might not be able to change it the way you want (and you will end up being frustrated ), or you might end not being able to change it at all (and you will end up being even more frustrated).

I suggest trying to find what activities your team is currently running and see how can you find opportunities to run Problem Framing activities in synergy with the processes already in place.

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) encountering 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) that 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, and philosophy. You can check some reflective questions to get you started in my lecture on 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 choosing the appropriate methods 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.

As product leaders and design strategist conduct product discovery and user research-related activities, they generate a large amount of raw data. By itself, this data isn’t very useful. It isn’t actionable and doesn’t help the teams move forward with their creative design process.

Design Strategy is about controlling the amount of subjectivity in the product or service development process. It provides a decision-making framework and a rationale to stakeholders around which stakeholders can make product development decisions.

McCullagh, K., “Strategy for the Real World” in Building Design Strategy: Using Design to Achieve Key Business Objectives, Lockwood, T., Walton, T., (2008)

We need to make sense of data by interpreting it; learn to make sense of it. Synthesis is about making informed inferences, leaps from raw data to insight. This is a hard skill to learn, and designers are taught several different methods to help them make these inferential leaps (“Design Synthesis” in Exposing the Magic of Design, Kolko, J., 2015)

We can all recall meeting disasters. I’ll list the ones that stuck with me (Smutny, M., Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings, 2019):

  • Meetings where there is no apparent agenda and the facilitators sit clueless about how to move the meeting along
  • Meetings where expectations are perfectly unclear
  • Meetings dominated by men with few women present 
  • Meetings absent of diversity and marked by group thinking 

Meetings are usually not designed. They are rather used as blunt force, expensive but ill-considered tools to solve communications problems. These problems don’t always warrant such a costly, high-fidelity solution. But even when they do merit that kind of solution, insufficient intention and energy go into creating the meeting experience itself (Hoffman, K. M.,  Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018).

Adams, S., “Who called this meeting?” in Dilbert (2001)

To combat that insanity, apply the design-thinking checklist (Hoffman, K. M.,  Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018):

  1. Identify the problem the meeting is intended to solve. Understand that problem sufficiently with research or a clear understanding of constraints.
  2. Revisit and experiment with format, including length of time and method of facilitation. Consider skipping a few meetings, just to see what happens.
  3. Make changes to the meeting semi-permanent after observing successes. Eliminate changes that don’t produce success.
  4. Walk away from meetings that no longer do the job intended.
letters on wooden cubes
Influencing larger decisions that shape strategy starts with the smallest of decisions, including how to facilitate and incorporate feedback to designs to drive product vision forward (Photo by Ann H on Pexels.com)

Better Meetings via Screenplays

Using meetings to share information is also a waste of time. Meetings are more often social and political. We feel bad if we exclude colleagues when sending invites for a meeting. Instead of thinking about who are the right people to be in the room, we think about who we don’t want to exclude. Not having the right people in the room – or having too many people in the room – leads to slow progress. This wastes everyone’s time. The key to good meetings – and even better workshops – is to create a screenplay. Not to be confused with an agenda, a screenplay details who will work on what and when. Most notably, it will help you design a meeting based on the results you wish to achieve (Van Der Pijl, et al. Design a better business, 2016).

Just like it is in movie-making, a screenplay provides an efficient and effective way to design a meeting. The more thorough the screenplay, the better the meeting.

Van Der Pijl, et al. Design a better business (2016)
Design a Better Business' Screenplay Template
Screenplays help you to design a meeting or workshop and share this with the key stakeholders and facilitators. Well-designed screenplays enable you to gain clarity about what can be done during a workshop in order to make decisions about time, activities, and topics to be covered. Most importantly, a screenplay is a visual tool to help you design for results while managing all of the information in one simple document. (Van Der Pijl, et al. Design a better business: New tools, skills, and mindset for strategy and innovation, 2016)

How well do the meetings you have every day do their intended job? Before you answer, consider how much of your career is spent in meetings. In more than twenty years of working in design, I’ve been in thousands of them. Some were good, but many weren’t—filled with agendaless rambling, unstructured discussion without outcomes, and needless aversion to conflict (Hoffman, K. M.,  Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018).

Collaborations can’t succeed if they are free-for-all discussions without structure. People’s personalities will lead to some dominating the work, or to teams getting lost between defining problems, solving them, and learning how well their solutions work.

Anderson, G., Mastering Collaboration: Make Working Together Less Painful and More Productive (2019)

Structure is needed to keep teams from devolving or losing focus, especially when facing complex challenges. By understanding how ideas develop and setting up cycles of effort that are timeboxed and iterative, you can help teams de-risk situations and learn to reduce or avoid negative consequences that come from their solutions (Anderson, G., Mastering Collaboration: Make Working Together Less Painful and More Productive, 2019).

The more freedom you have, the more structure you need

Stickdorn, M. et al, This is Service Design Doing (2018)

The structure you create isn’t meant to govern exactly what teams do or function as a monolithic order, but rather to help the core team and their stakeholders to be explicit about where they are in their efforts and manage expectations. Plans should be made visible and revisited periodically to see what’s changed and whether the effort needs a different approach (Anderson, G., Mastering Collaboration: Make Working Together Less Painful and More Productive, 2019).

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

Every collaboration is different because the particulars of the problematic situation, the participants, and the process are different. But in all collaborations, the participants and facilitators need to work through the same five basic how-to questions about how they will move forward together (Kahane, A. Facilitating breakthrough, 2021):

  1. How do we see our situation? In other words, what is actually happening here, around, among, and within us? This question is about the reality (including the reality within the group) that the group is working together to address. If we can’t understand our reality, we can’t be effective in transforming it.
  2. How do we define success? What outcomes are we trying to produce through our efforts? This question is about where we are trying to get to through our collaboration. If we don’t know what our finish line is, we can’t know whether we’re making progress.
  3. How will we get from here to there? What is our route from where we are to where we want to be? This question is about the way we will move forward–the approach, process,
    methodology, and steps.
  4. How do we decide who does what? What is our approach
    to coordinate and align our efforts? This question is
    about how we will organize ourselves to collaborate across
    our differences (without necessarily relying on our usual
    roles and hierarchies).
  5. How do we understand our role? What is our responsibility
    in this situation? This question is about how we each position ourselves vis-à-vis our situation and our collaborative
    effort to address it.
blue printer paper
Learn more about the need for structure and more Project Management skills that will prove invaluable for the effectiveness of design strategists (Photo by Startup Stock Photos on Pexels.com)

Whether you’re about to go on a journey of exploration to understand your customer or design new business models for your future, preparation is key. You wouldn’t go into battle without preparing first. Likewise, you’ll need to prepare before launching a design (or redesign) initiative (Van Der Pijl, et al. Design a better business, 2016):

  • Design is about preparation. The design process requires preparation in order for it to run well. You must prepare to observe and understand your customers, business, and context. You must prepare to ideate, prototype, and validate. What this boils down to is that to set yourself and your team up for success, you must prepare your team for the journey ahead, prepare your environment for the work that will ensue, and prepare your tools so that you’ll get the best results from everyone.
  • Set yourself up for success. The design process may be different from many of the other processes you’re used to. For one, it is not really linear; it’s cyclical and iterative. It’s about embracing uncertainty. Not everything can be planned or controlled. It is also a full-contact team sport. Teams that take the time to prepare often enjoy much better results and outcomes. Design also requires physical space to work in. And not just people hunched over computers. The people designing the better business will need space to ideate, prototype, and validate. It also requires that you employ new tools, which also necessitate preparation in order to achieve the best results. Last but not least, design requires that you get used to a new way of working and a new project structure. It’s not about planning. It’s about maximizing the chance of a positive outcome and empowering others to make real change. There are things you can control and things you can’t. Set yourself and your team up for success by controlling what you can; don’t leave things up to chance.
  • Prepare your team. Babe Ruth, the famous American baseball player, once said, “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” The same can be said about designing great businesses: the best businesses are the products of great teams. That said, not just any team will do. A team that will generate the most useful ideas from its key findings, and that will most thoroughly prototype and validate those ideas, is made up of a diverse group of unusual suspects (think the A-Team, not Friends). They will find diamonds in the rough where no one else has. They will challenge each other. And, by virtue of their diversity, they will bring with them a network of other people and resources that will come in handy when it’s time to get down and dirty.
  • Prepare the Environment. By now you’re aware that design is not linear. It is an iterative process in which you will constantly need to refer to artifacts that have been developed along the way. Carting these around the office and sticking them on different walls every other day not only is it a pain in the neck, but it also reduces the time you have to actually design. This reduces overall productivity. Having a “war room” where the team can get together and see progress will boost productivity and efficiency tremendously.
  • Prepare how you work Together. Tools like the screenplay will help you design your meetings (or design sprints) to maximize your time together. Visual artifacts like the customer journey and Business Model Canvas will help your team hold more focused strategic conversations. Taking the time to think through how you’ll use these tools will help you maximize their value. It’s not hard work – but it’s essential.

Prepare Your Team

You won’t win a soccer match with 11 strikers or a football match with only quarterbacks. The same holds for business. Whether you’re trying to win in sports or in business, it’s crucial to employ players with varying skills (and superpowers) – the team
needs to be multidisciplinary (Van Der Pijl, et al. Design a better business, 2016):

  • Build a Multidisciplinary Team. The ideal team will be able to cover a wide range of tasks. Need someone to write a proposal? Add that person to the team. How about someone to design a pitch deck? And maybe we need a coder … You get the picture.
  • Find The Unusual Suspects. If every team has the same exact life experiences, skills, knowledge, and viewpoints, the range of options they will zero in on is incredibly narrow. To avoid that, intentionally design your team to include people from different departments and with different skill levels, backgrounds, cultures, and mindsets.
  • Roles (It’s not on your business card). When you look at a business card, what do you see under the name of the person? Likely a title and that title is very likely not that person’s role. Roles describe the responsibilities that someone takes on, either formally or informally, as part of the team. They play a central part in getting things done. Roles, not titles, are critical to your success. It is important that each team member take ownership of the design, both while working on the design and when it comes to pitching ideas to other stakeholders. Designing the right roles helps team members understand how and where they can best contribute to the end result. The roles people play on your design team will vary from ambassadors to sales, and from visual thinkers to engineers. Just as you’ll intentionally design who’s on the team, you also need to design the roles people play on that team. When your team doesn’t know the plays, you can’t score a touchdown.
  • When to Assemble a Team. When considering your design team, it’s essential that you assemble the right people, with the right attitudes, at the right time. You’ll need this team for design workshops, brainstorming, and fieldwork: when you need to get out of the office to understand what your customers want, need, and do. You’ll need to assemble a team to design and produce prototypes. Unlike in most corporate settings, do not assemble a team for a project or simply join meetings or discussions. Do not assemble a team to engage in planning if that same team is not going to engage in the design process. Do not assemble a team for project communication; that’s what the facilitator is for. Your design team’s goal is to do and make and learn and deliver results.

If every team has the same exact life experiences, skills, knowledge, and viewpoints, the range of options they will zero in on is incredibly narrow

Van Der Pijl, et al. Design a better busines (2016)

Prepare the Environment

Design is not business as usual. The spaces your team designs in must be able to handle a new way of working (Van Der Pijl, et al. Design a better business, 2016):

  • A Space for People. If Design is a contact sport, then the environments you play in must be able to handle the frequent interactions of the team. Design isn’t about meeting, sitting, talking, and leaving the meeting to go back to email. It’s about standing, interacting, writing on sticky notes, going outside, crunching numbers together, and assembling to update each other before doing it again. The best design environments take into account how people interact – not just while they’re seated, but also while they’re standing, evaluating a canvas on the wall. These environments leave space for working together and presenting concepts. The best design environments are dedicated to a specific project, so that all of the design artifacts can be left as is, enabling the team to quickly track its progress.
  • Home Base. However you prepare for your environment, your goal is to create a home base where your team can be creative, soak in the information, and have meaningful discussions about it. Whenever possible, design a war room: a physical space in your company where people can meet, work, and see the progress visually. Alternatively, you can design temporary, pop-up spaces that can be rolled into and out of rooms efficiently. You will see the team start to work and think differently.

Design isn’t about meeting, sitting, talking, and leaving the meeting to go back to email. It’s about standing, interacting, writing on sticky notes, going outside, crunching numbers together, and assembling to update each other before doing it again

Van Der Pijl, et al. Design a better business (2016)

Prepare how you work together

You’ve put together a team and secured an environment to work together. Now it’s time to actually work together, efficiently and effectively. To achieve the best results as a team while continually staying on the same page, you’ll need some design tools (Van Der Pijl, et al. Design a better business, 2016):

  • The Designer’s essentials. There is very good reason designers and creative types carry around sticky notes and big permanent markers. Sticky notes are expendable, additive, stick to anything, and have the added value of being constrained by size, while permanent markers are, well, permanent, and make what’s represented on each sticky note more readable. Hand stacks of each of these tools to everyone and let the ideas fly. By the end of the day, you should have a wall of ideas and a floor piled high with half-starts. You get bonus points for getting everyone to draw their points of view (visually) on sticky notes.
  • Frame discussions using a canvas. The Business Model Canvas, Value Proposition Canvas as well as others can be used for visioning, storytelling, validating, etc. These visual artifacts will help spark interesting conversations while framing the ensuing discussions. These tools are not tools to be filled out and put away. As essential design tools, the canvases are also living, breathing records that document your design journey: When you pair people, sticky notes, markers, and sketching, not only will the design process be faster and easier, you’ll get much better results and learn to speak in a new shared language.
white dry erase board with red diagram

Strategy, Facilitation and Visual Thinking

Learn some visual thinking techniques that are key to effectively facilitating and communicating strategic decisions.

There are many different types of coaching – for example, sports coaching, life coaching, directive and non-directive coaching – as well as different expectations of what coaching can achieve. Coaching is goal-oriented, non-directive, and learner-led, with the coach helping an individual develop their thinking or skills, successfully resolve an issue or challenge, or achieve or progress a goal. Crucially, coaching is more to do with attitude than skills (Kourdi, J., Coaching questions for every situation, 2021)

Coaching is unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance. It’s helping them to learn rather than teaching them.

Whitmore, J. Coaching for performance (2017)

The idea is not new, Socrates had voiced the same concept some 2,000 years earlier. Now we are seeing the emergence of a more optimistic psychological model of humankind than the old behaviorist that we are little more than empty vessels into which everything has to be poured. The news model suggests we are more like acorns, each of which contains within it all the potential to be a magnificent oak tree. We need nourishment, encouragement, and, and the light to reach toward, but the oakness is already within us (Whitmore, J. Coaching for performance, 2017).

Coaching relies on several fundamental, related skills as well as
active listening and questioning. These skills include (Kourdi, J., Coaching questions for every situation, 2021):

  • giving and receiving feedback (positive, non-judgemental feedback in particular)
  • demonstrating positive regard and intent, and seeking to help the person being coached
  • being objective in your analysis of the person being coached and the issue being discussed
  • evaluating what to do and when to help the person develop, learn and grow
  • consistently maintaining high standards of professionalism and integrity at all times establishing rapport and displaying skills of assertion – in particular, being warm and supportive while also challenging the person being coached.
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!

The connection among decisions you make lies not in what you decide, but in how you decide. An effective decision-making process takes into consideration these 8 elements (Hammond, J. S., Keeney, R. L., & Raiffa, H., Smart choices: A practical guide to making better decisions. 2015):

  • Work on the right decision problem: the way you frame your decision at the outset can make all the difference. To choose well, you need to state your decision problems carefully, acknowledging their complexity and avoiding unwarranted assumptions and option-limiting prejudices (learn more about problem framing).
  • Specify your objectives: ask yourself what you most want to accomplish and which of your interests, values, concerns, fears, and aspirations are most relevant to achieving your goal. Thinking through your objectives will give direction to your decision-making (learn more about the importance of vision).
  • Create imaginative alternatives: your alternatives represent the different courses of action you have to choose from. Your devious can Ben no better than your best alternative (learn more about the Art of Creating Choices).
  • Understand the consequences: how well do your alternatives satisfy your objectives? Assessing frankly the consequences of each alternative will help you to identify those that best me your alternatives — all your alternatives (learn more about discussing consequences in Feedback and Design Reviews).
  • Clarify your uncertainties: what could happen in the future, and how likely is it that it will? Effective decision-making demands that you confront uncertainty, judging the likelihood of different outcomes and assessing their possible impacts.
  • Think hard about your risk tolerance: people vary in their tolerance of risks and, depending on the stakes involved, the risks they will accept from one decision to the next. Conscious awareness of your willingness to accept risk will make your decision-making process smoother and more effective (learn more about risk tolerance in Strategy, Pivot and Risk Mitigation).
  • Consider linked decisions: what you decide today could influence your choices tomorrow, and your goals for tomorrow should influence your choices today. Thus many important decisions are linked over time. The key to dealing effectively with linked decisions is to isolate and resolve near-term issues while gathering the information needed to result in those that will arise later. By sequencing your actions to fully exploit what you learn along the way you will be doing your best, despite an uncertain world, to make smarter choices
Learn more about the different mindset facilitators have to adopt during divergent and convergent phases (picture: banking business checklist commerce)
Learn more about various aspects and nuances of the decision-making process in Facilitating Good Decisions (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

At some point in the decision-making process, we know what we should do. We have clear intentions, 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)

Overcoming Lack of Commitment

In a previous post, we saw that — like trust — conflict is important not in and of itself but because it enables a team to overcome the next dysfunction: the lack of commitment. Teams that commit to decisions and standards do so because they know how to embrace two separate but related concepts: buy-in and clarity. (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators, 2010).

The lack of clarity and/or buy-in prevents team members from making decisions they can stick to.

Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, enhanced edition: A leadership fable (2013)
Five Dysfunctions of a Team
The journey of every high-performing team starts with addressing the absence of trust (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013)

And like the other four dysfunctions, commitment needs to be correctly defined before it can be achieved. Buy-in is the achievement of honest emotional support; Clarity is the removal of assumptions and ambiguity from a situation (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators, 2010):

  • Buy-In: Commitment is not consensus. Waiting for everyone on a team to agree intellectually on a decision is a good recipe for mediocrity, delay, and frustration, which is why it amazes me that so many of the teams I work with still seem determined to achieve consensus. Ironically, commitment is something of the opposite. It’s about a  group of intelligent, driven individuals buying into a decision precisely when they don’t naturally agree. In other words, it’s the ability to defy a lack of consensus.
  • Clarity: Unfortunately, even when teams master this ability to “disagree and commit” (this is something that the folks at Intel came up with years ago), they can still fail to benefit from their commitment. That’s because many teams fail to achieve clarity and alignment around a decision. Instead, they make well-intentioned assumptions about what they’ve agreed to, and they end up creating confusion and frustration among employees who wonder whether their leaders are even talking to one another. I’ve seen this happen often and it’s worth describing.

This problem with failing to align around commitments can easily be avoided by using two simple techniques Patrick Lencioni calls Commitment Clarification and Cascading Communication. Here’s how they work (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators, 2010):

Commitment Clarification

With five minutes to go at the end of a meeting — any type of meeting — the leader of the team needs to call a question: What exactly have we decided here today? On the whiteboard, the leader writes down the decisions that the group thinks it has made. In many cases, team members see what the leader is writing on the board and react. “Wait a second. That’s not what I thought we agreed on.” And so the group dives back into the conversation until everyone is clear (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators, 2010).

It is amazing to me how a group of intelligent, highly educated adults, all of whom speak the same language, can sit in a room for two hours of discussion, and then leave the room under the false impression that everyone is on the same page.

Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators (2010)

In any case, by being extremely explicit about what has been agreed upon, a team will be able to identify discrepancies before a decision has been announced. Now, you might be wondering, “But maybe team members are purposefully sitting back and allowing for ambiguity, preferring to later ask for forgiveness rather than permission.” (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators, 2010).

Cascading Communication

To avoid that situation, the leader must also engage in cascading communication. That means demanding that the team go back and communicate the decisions to their staff members within twenty-four hours of the meeting. And not by e-mail or voice mail but either live in person or on the phone, thus giving employees a chance to ask questions for clarification (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators, 2010).

Even the most passive executives will call out their concerns about a decision if they know they’ll be expected to go out and communicate it publicly.

Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team: A field guide for leaders, managers, and facilitators (2010)

Of course, this assumes that if they don’t communicate decisions to their people, the leader of the team will hold them accountable.

banking business checklist commerce

Strategy and Facilitating Good Decisions

In this post we talk about how designers and strategists can respond, prod, encourage, guide, coach and teach as they guide individuals and groups to make good decisions that are critical in the business.

The Challenges of Becoming a Facilitator

So I’ve made my case that designers 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 through effective processes. So far we’ve discussed the mindset, the skills required, and the work of a facilitator. Now let me give you a heads up of some of the challenges you might be facing if you want to set up for that role.

Facilitation in Virtual, Remote or Distributed Teams

Itamar Medeiros speaking at IxDA Latin America
In my talk at IxDA’s Interaction 14 South America, I explored the dynamics of distributed design teams, then I also framed some of the problems these teams face, and discussed some strategies to cope with these challenges

This might not have been necessarily your experience, but since 2005 I’ve been working with global or virtual teams in one form or another. What that means is that the organizations I work for try to make the most efficient use of the knowledge and expertise of all parties involved — marketing, engineering, design, management, suppliers, production, etc. — in the design team, no matter how these parties are distributed geographically and organizationally.

Then COVID-19 pandemic came, and (overnight) everyone is working from home. Funny enough, I told a few people that this “working from home” anxiety was actually pretty normal when you first start working in distributed teams (“welcome to my life!”).

Sophie Kleber and I met recently at the UX Strat Conference in Amsterdam, and — in her talk — she captured a sentiment I’ve had since the beginning of this pandemic, and yet it was hard for me to explain:

This pandemic was the great equaliser: everyone suddenly was – regardless if your office used to be in closest to headquarters or in the farthest fringes of your company location – on the same playing field, dealing with the same struggles.

Kleber, S., “Designing the Future of Work at Google” in UX STRAT Europe (2021)
Sophie Kleber's "Designing the Future of Work at Google" talk at UX Strat
In her talk at UX STRAT Europe 2021, Sophie Kleber presented what role UX research and design played in working through the pandemic and in defining the new Hybrid norms. She also talked about problem statements and user journeys Google is addressing, and show examples of her internal work, and discussed how to measure success across a diverse workplace.

Sadly, many people still view telecommuting and geographically separated teams as a kiss-of-death to any hope of good collaboration or communication. But collaboration is a mindset, not a by-product of co-location. So long as that mindset is present, with a few tricks and the right tools, remote team members can contribute to collaborative activities just as well as the teammate sitting in the room with us (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015).

While the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the shift to working in a virtual space, many companies also lack the skills, knowledge, or insight to get the most out of telecommuting and geographically separated teams. The sudden need to adapt working practices to virtual environments means that there has been a steep learning curve, and many are finding it difficult to realize the full potential of virtual meetings (Andersen, H. H., Nelson, I., & Ronex, K., Virtual Facilitation: Create More Engagement and Impact, 2020).

top view photo of people discussing
Learn more about how to help improve strategic collaboration while working on Distributed, Remote or Global Teams (Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com)

Role, Title and Authority

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, a product owner, or 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 this 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 stakeholders.

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

The Right Time for Facilitation

You might be asking yourself “These are all great, but when should I be doing what?”. Without knowing what kind of team setup you have, and what kinds of processes you run in your organization, the best I can do is to map all of the techniques above the Double Diamond framework.

The Double Diamond Framework

Design Council’s Double Diamond clearly conveys a design process to designers and non-designers alike. The two diamonds represent a process of exploring an issue more widely or deeply (divergent thinking) and then taking focused action (convergent thinking).  

  • Discover. The first diamond helps people understand, rather than simply assume, what the problem is. It involves speaking to and spending time with people who are affected by the issues.
  • Define. The insights gathered from the discovery phase can help you to define the challenge in a different way.
  • Develop. The second diamond encourages people to give different answers to the clearly defined problem, seeking inspiration from elsewhere and co-designing with a range of different people.
  • Deliver. Delivery involves testing out different solutions at small scale, rejecting those that will not work, and improving the ones that will.
Design Council’s framework for innovation also includes the key principles and design methods that designers and non-designers need to take, and the ideal working culture needed, to achieve significant and long-lasting positive change.
A clear, comprehensive and visual description of the design process in What is the framework for innovation? (Design Council, 2015)

Map of Facilitation Activities and Methods

Process Awareness characterizes a degree to which the participants are informed about the process procedures, rules, requirements, workflow, and other details. The higher the process awareness, the more profoundly the participants are engaged in the 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 contemplating and exploring the problem space a little longer.

Knowing when teams 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.

Map of Quantifying and Qualifying Activities in the Double Diamond (Discover, Define, Develop and Deliver)

My colleagues Edmund Azigi and Patrick Ashamalla have created a great set of questions and a cheatsheet that maps which questions are more appropriate for different phases of the product development lifecycle. So the following set of activities is inspired in their cheat sheet.

Facilitating Discussions during “Discover”

This phase is wildly divergent, so we need to counterintuitively do the things usually perceived as “slowing us down,” such as user research, challenging the problem framing, creating a shared vision, and testing business ideas. While a degree of back and forth is expected, you can still move to clarity faster by agreeing on how we will be quantifying value and focusing on outcomes by discovering Jobs-to-be-Done.

Here are my recommendations for facilitation activities and methods:

Better problem framing is probably the very first step to help teams with facilitating investment discussions (yellow letter tiles)
Learn more about problem framing techniques that can help teams with facilitating investment discussions by creating clarity of what problems they are trying to solve in Problem Framing for Strategic Design (Photo by Ann H on Pexels.com)

Facilitating Discussions during “Define”

In this phase, we should see the level of ambiguity diminishing, so facilitating investment discussions and clarifying priorities have the highest payoff in mitigating back-and-forth. That said, the cost of changing your mind increases drastically in this phase. Creating great choices, facilitating good decisions, and experimenting to capture preference data allow teams to converge and align on the direction they should go.

Here are my recommendations for facilitation activities and methods:

Facilitating Investment Discussions is probably the best type of good decision that product teams can make (description: banking business checklist commerce)
Learn more about how to help teams with facilitating investment discussions by making good decisions in Facilitating Good Decisions (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

Facilitating Discussions during “Develop”

In this phase, we are going to a point where the cost of changing your mind increases rapidly as time passes. So the team should be focusing on learning as cheaply as possible (by capturing signals from the market) and discussions around investment should answer the questions if we should pivot, persevere, or stop.

Since we are moving away from simulations and we can put something that resembles the final product in front of customers and users, we should focus as much as possible on capturing both preference and performance data with concept testing and usability testing.

Here are my recommendations for suggested quantifying and qualifying activities and methods:

people playing poker
Learn more about what methods, tools or techniques are available for pivot and risk mitigation, and what signals we need capture in order to know if we should Persevere, Pivot or Stop (Photo by Javon Swaby on Pexels.com)

Facilitating Discussions during “Deliver”

In this phase, it might be too late to change your mind and pivot. However, once a solution is live, the best you can do is collect data from actual customer usage for visibility and traceability of how your strategic choices are playing out, and make hard choices of if/what to pivot, persevere, or stop on the next iteration of the product.

However, once a solution is live, the best you can do is collect data from actual customer usage for visibility and traceability to make hard choices about pivoting, persevering, or stopping the product’s next iteration.

Here are my recommendations for suggested quantifying and qualifying activities and methods:

close up photo of survey spreadsheet
Learn more about the visibility and traceability aspects of the execution of an idea/approach (Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com)

Mapping Questions to Resources

We need to create a shared understanding of what problems we are trying to solve, what strategic choices we are trying to make, and what questions we are trying to answer before we can choose what tools, frameworks, and methods are more practical to facilitate the discussions required to answer these questions.

Strategy Process, Questions and Resources
We need to create a shared understanding of what problems we are trying to solve, what strategic choices we are trying to make, and what questions we are trying to answer before we can choose what tools, frameworks, and methods are more practical to facilitate the discussions required to answer these questions.

Design Strategist Multiplication Program

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

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

This post was one of a series in which I’ve gone through the skills of a strategist (namely: thought leadership, stakeholder analysis and management, facilitating decision making, and project management) and challenged 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)

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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 multiple continents 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.

Itamar holds a MA in Design Practice from Northumbria University (Newcastle, UK), for which he received a Distinction Award for his thesis Creating Innovative Design Software Solutions within Collaborative/Distributed Design Environments.

31 replies on “Strategy and the Need for Facilitation”

Learning from the article – I have observed many leaders share strategy that is full of aspirations. However, after explaining this strategy it is not executed by employees because there is no understanding on where-to-play and how-to-win.

Question from the article – To that extent, how do we roll out a strategy at different levels of the organization? And how do we promote consistency of purpose?

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