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Facilitating design thinking: What it takes

Facilitating design thinking: What it takes

For the past several years, I've had the opportunity to facilitate design thinking sessions for educators at the annual Big Ideas Fest. The conference requires its facilitators to tap all their skill and expertise to lead groups of educators through a user-centered design process that can feel at times exhilarating and at times down right frustrating. I've learned a ton about facilitation through this work, including what it takes to get groups of all sizes to stay engaged and collaborative.

I first attended Big Ideas Fest (or BIF, as BIFniks like me affectionately call it) as a participant back in 2010. I was familiar with design thinking through my graduate work at Pratt Institute, where we explored user-centered design as a way to build better information systems for library patrons. But I'd never seen design thinking done in large groups before; I'd learned the process by working in a small group of 4-5 "designers" who were familiar with the approach and had already bought in to its value. At BIF, we were assigned randomly to groups of 25-30 educators, none of whom knew anything about design thinking or even why we were brought together. As a facilitator and a teacher, I watched in amazement as our group leader got us to trust the process, try new things and eventually -- after hours and hours of ups and downs -- come to agreement on a design solution that would actually help make education better for kids. 

Participants at #BIF2016 generate insights from user interviews during Phase 1 of Design Thinking.

Participants at #BIF2016 generate insights from user interviews during Phase 1 of Design Thinking.

I wanted to understand the strategies that made it possible to do design thinking in large, diverse groups. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to take part in an Action Collab Facilitator Training, and later was chosen to facilitate at BIF 2012. I was hooked, not just on the process I learned to lead, but on the group of skilled facilitators I got to work with and learn from. 

Since then, I've facilitated design thinking at BIF, and on my own with numerous clients. So what does it take to facilitate creative processes like this with diverse groups? Here are my top tips:

Successful design thinking sessions begin long before participants arrive.

I'm a firm believer in the importance of pre-planning and space management. Anyone who's facilitated with me before knows that I'll obsess over things like the placement of the chairs in the room or the brand of sticky notes that should be ordered. I stress out about all the little details before participants arrive, so that when they get there I can relax and approach my facilitation with the confidence of knowing I've created the best possible environment for learning,  collaboration and creativity. For design thinking sessions, this includes having supplies available for each part of the process -- including stickies and sharpies for brainstorming and low-fi art supplies for prototyping. It means having a room that's large enough and has enough wall space for participants to spread out and interact in large and small groups. And it means planning carefully for how participants will use the space, furniture and technology in the room throughout your process so that you never have to wing it in the moment.

Make the case for collaboration.

Design thinking -- especially when done in groups -- is as collaborative as it is creative. And getting groups who don't know one another to truly co-create is hard. Getting groups who work together every day and have baggage to do so is even harder. As a facilitator, the most important thing you can do is make the case. One mantra I often share with my groups is the idea that "All of us are smarter than any of us." Reminding folks that by coming together and trying new ways of thinking could potentially lead to better ideas (and better outcomes for kids) goes a long way in getting them to buy in to what you're asking them to do. 

Don't ask participants to trust the process; instead get them to trust you.

Design thinking, however it's taught, is a process with several phases. Each phase is meant to build on the previous one, and culminate in the testing and sharing of innovative ideas. It's a proven process with many passionate adherents, but that doesn't mean that all participants are ready to follow it to the letter. Call me a control freak, but I personally hate it when facilitators ask me to "trust the process," when what they really mean is "trust me." With my participants, I try to be transparent. I talk about the process, break it down into its many steps as clearly as I can. But I also work hard to build a culture of trust in the room, and let participants know that I am there to lead them through this process, co-creating a special experience with them as opposed to marching them through some abstract process designed by someone else. I check in with my participants throughout, and give them as much choice as possible. This empowers folks to find ways to make the process their own, and helps them see me as an ally in getting to where they want to be.

Stay committed, not attached.

Finally, as a facilitator I believe it's my duty to create a safe space for participants to do their best work. That means I need to be committed to the core values of whatever it is I'm facilitating (for example, design thinking), but it also means I need to let go of any preconceived notions I might have for who participants are, what they'll bring to the session, or how they'll solve the design challenge at hand. If I'm committed to my values but not attached to any particular outcome, I can be more flexible and responsive, modeling for participants the exact mindset that's needed for success in design thinking.

Design thinking, summarized.

Design thinking, summarized.

Besides learning the process itself as a practitioner (I use design thinking in many of my consulting projects), these tips truly are all you need to facilitate design thinking. Well, these tips and a crap-ton of sticky notes. And, of course, having a network of facilitators you can call on when you get stuck is a huge asset. If you try facilitating design thinking on your own, feel free to reach out to me any time as a resource! You can find me @openclssrm on Twitter.

 

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