Facilitating Collaboration

Brandon Klein & Dan Newman
Read Time
Solid star iconSolid star iconSolid star iconSolid star iconSolid star iconOpaque star iconOpaque star iconOpaque star iconOpaque star iconOpaque star icon
More Info
A quick and straightforward introduction to group facilitation. It includes some interesting thoughts on the role artificial intelligence could have in collaborative workshops of the future.

The facilitators job is to ensure that we have assembled the right elements in the upper teardrop of the hourglass and then to provide just enough direction to the movement of the sand during the workshop itself and afterwards so that the lower teardrop fills up in the most satisfying way possible.

The design team invest several weeks understanding the problem to be solved or the solution to be designed.

A solution to the problem can exist. No one sees it yet.

We’ve invited a good cross section of participants, representing conflicting points of view, cutting across the hierarchy, with sufficient knowledge of how things work and don’t work.

Facilitation, Design and the Rest

Similar design methodologies to Scan, Focus, Act: Open Space, LEAN, Theory U, World Café, Scrum / Agile and many derivations of Design Thinking approaches: from Target and IDEO to Grove and Stanford Design School.

Essential Elements for a Successful Event

  • Convening — getting the right people in the room.
  • Content — assembling a single version of the truth.
  • Ecosystem Management — looking after all the moving parts.
  • Data and Social Content

The Facilitator's Role

Six Jobs

  1. Scoping — clarifying what outcomes the client is seeking, how these outcomes will be put to use to achieve broader objectives, what decisions have already been taken, and what topics will not be addressed.
  2. Working with sponsors — building a trusting relationship with the sponsors about content.
  3. Preparation
  4. Designing
  5. Delivery
  6. Value Capture — Helping sponsors employ event outcomes to achieve desired objectives.

Facilitation Skills


  • The main prerequisite to effective listening is caring.
  • Listening and caring reinforce each other. The more I learn about my client’s problem, the more I care about it.


  • Tell stories early in the facilitation process to begin the process of conveying the participants as far from their problem as possible, and giving them a lens through which to view it from a distance.
  • A compelling story is a great way to launch a large event . If told with passion and a light heart, it can focus the attention of an entire room on a common theme.

Problem Solving

  • A good facilitator should be the last person in the room to see the answer. A good facilitator keeps all plausible options open far longer than anybody else and feels real surprise and gratitude when the group finally settles on the ‘right’ answer.



Objectives refer to the ultimate result that the work performed during our event will contribute to.

For an event of any importance, months or perhaps years will pass before the ultimate objective can be judged to have been achieved or not.


Outcomes are the specific, tangible products of a workshop.

No matter how ambitious the event, you never want more than two or three objectives. More than that deprives the event of its own identity and the subsequent association of results with the processes used to achieve them.

Out of Scope

Professor Michael Porter describes strategy as making clear tradeoffs and choosing what not to do. The same discipline is necessary when scoping a workshop.

Key Questions

I frequently identify several questions that I hear the sponsors explicitly or implicitly asking me or, more likely, themselves.

Working With Sponsors

All these sponsors, men and women, have great clarity of vision – they know exactly what they want their group to achieve – but they are bad communicators and their teams fail to see what their boss really wants.

The sponsor ‘sees’ the solution right away and is then increasingly frustrated when his or her people fail to reach the same conclusions with sufficient speed and clarity.

I suggested focusing on three types of participant:

  • People who decide
  • People who know
  • People who implement


What exactly am I looking for? Three things really:

  • A ‘map’ of the client and the issue we’re addressing. Helps to understand what the client’s issue is.
  • A compelling hypothesis about the unspoken sub-text of the event. Helps to understand what the issue means.
  • Politics. I want my work to be a catalyst for real change. If I sniff dead ends I bring it up with the sponsors.


Two key considerations are iteration and recursion and common language.

Iteration and Recursion

How the same themes emerge in different contexts and at shifting levels of detail.

Common Language

The use of metaphor and of learning tools to help participants discuss their concerns in unexpected ways and establish a deeper dialogue.

  • Metaphor can provide an intellectual thrill when deciphered consciously, but, when it enters through the brain’s back door, so to speak, metaphor provides something more profoundly new: perspective, new language, insight, surprise.


The moment in some events when facilitation overtakes design, or when the two merge in the most unexpected and profound ways.

  • Emergence is a term that describes how highly-organised structures can result from extremely simple or even random components. E.g. how the wind and waves can shape millions of grains of sand into intricate patterns of ripples and dunes.


How facilitators behave during an event.

We help people have new conversations about old problems.

The principal role of the facilitator during an event is to make it new. Make everything new.

Storytelling to make the conversation new. Stories serve to provide new language and new imagery with which to diagnose a condition or circumstance as well as to imagine alternative realities.

The fundamental barriers to collaboration are the same – fear, unequal power, lack of understanding, unwillingness or inability to listen – and the same creative approaches should be employed to overcome these barriers regardless of context.

The flip side of metaphor is simile, and we need both. Metaphor is useful when we need to open up a topic, when we need to see a problem from multiple and unexpected points of view. Simile, on the other hand, is useful when we need to develop more precision in language.

A story is not a line connecting A to B, the beginning to the end, but rather a scene-by-scene sequence of divergent paths, and the path that is chosen reveals to the audience – and to the protagonist himself – the true nature of his character.

Value Capture

Participants usually leave our events on a high. They feel as if they have seen the invisible and achieved the impossible. Yet they have done nothing of the sort.

At best, our work has created the potential for change. The value of our work evaporates in hours or at most days after the event unless we, our sponsors, and the event participants make a conscious effort to channel that potential and capture the value that our clients are paying for.

Many Executive Summaries capture event highlights without distinguishing between signal and noise. A more useful document builds on a very few themes (the signal) and ignores, as much as possible, the rest.


It is relatively easy to check whether we produced the desired outcomes, but the real value of those outcomes can only be judged in hindsight and only when their contribution to the event’s objectives and its deeper purpose can be assessed.

I often describe the arc of an event; how it develops a narrative and passes through moments of doubt or crisis and then lands firmly in a safe and desired place. Achieving this narrative arc is more a function of design than of facilitation. Once in a while, though, the arc closes in on itself and becomes a circle.