019 : Facilitating the big idea

The team at Google Ventures pioneered the SPRINT process.

It’s a 5 day creative journey from question-to-answer that harnesses the collective power of a small group of people. Project teams scope the brief on Monday and Tuesday, nurture ideas on Wednesday, they prototype on Thursday and then test live with customers on Friday. It’s a compelling proposition and one we ought to acknowledge; they’ve ran over a 100+ SPRINTS. The model has been copied many times over with successes, outside of Silicon Valley and around the world.

Hackathons, Incubators and our own genius boot-camps have been en-vogue for a while. There are different processes and approaches that portent to accelerate output. Agile, Lean, Design Thinking and Human Centred Design will be familiar terms to many of you. You may also have heard of scrums, skunks and MVPS’s. Again, a dearth of tools and language out there, but all share the same DNA – that of arriving at better ideas for your customers.

This is a good thing. It’s good for consumers as new designs get to market and garner reactions. As a result, we’re more likely to live and work in a world that’s built around our needs. It’s also good for the brand of innovation as finally the EXCO have a way to sign off an approach that yields results without months of expensive consulting or having to significantly change internal processes.

But can these disciplines with their roots in digital coding or engineering practices offer help to the creative efforts of other and all organisations? Is it feasible for the retail strategy of a global bank to adopt an agile mind-set? How can a medical insurer embrace lean innovation? Where can an energy drink manufacturer develop new propositions through design thinking? These are the sort of questions we’re being asked to facilitate. And whilst I think these are potentially good questions for our clients to be asking, they can also be distracting. Consider the 90’s tide of innovation; when businesses caught in the swell commissioned innovation labs and brainstorm rooms. They all had interactive white boards and expensive espresso machines. But emphasis was solely placed on a faster thinking unit separated from the main body of the organisation (please don’t do that). It was hard for these labs to yield anything useful for the parent business. I know of a number of dusty labs now storing the copier paper and chairs for the canteen.

The key factor in the success of any creative approach, isn’t the chosen discipline but the skills and behaviours in the team charged with the responsibility of facilitating that project or programme. Yet this is overlooked during the quest for the perfect process. The art of project workshop facilitation isn’t valued or invested highly enough. I say this because facilitators (as a brand) are still seen as low rent, low skilled and ineffective at best. Because no-one ‘owns’ the standards to which project facilitation ought to meet, it’s left largely to personal interpretation and style on how to navigate the process. Despite the certificates on the wall, there’s a lot of bad facilitation out there. With a perceived fear of causing upset, mediocre facilitators don’t challenge problem owners and remain passive fence sitters nodding enthusiastically at bad behaviour. Worse still, I’ve sat at the back as an invited guest observer to some shocking sessions where I’ve seen no facilitation at all! Meetings and conferences all designed to shift a project on easily descend into chaos. Is it any wonder we facilitators get a bad name? When facilitation is seen as an after-thought or something anyone can do easily, then the rot sets in. And when Agile, Lean or Design Thinking offer becomes a service extension to an organisations existing media agency or consultancy, it’s an open invite for any idiot with a sharpie to get stuck in and that’s when standards slip to the lowest common denominator and your output suffers.

Whilst I believe we can all be creative, I don’t believe that we all have the capacity to lead and facilitate the creative process. In addition, I believe people should double down on their strengths rather than improve their weaknesses; so if you don’t like giving instruction, handling crowds or taking responsibility for room energy – then best you don’t facilitate! Facing the dynamics of live project work requires more than a sense of positivity and a handful of quotes from Steve Jobs. Great project facilitators are active contributors to the creative process. When ran well, the process inspires everyone including the facilitator to generate ideas, so of course they can contribute their own thinking. Great project facilitators need to do more than just juggle the differing needs of sponsors, participants, invited customers and their own colleagues, but instead add value to everyone’s experience. Inspiration strikes at any time and facilitators need to be great at capturing the planned and the spontaneous moments. Finally, facilitation is not training either. It is not projecting slides on to the wall and sitting at the front reading them out one after the other whilst your participants complete smiley sheets. Yet your last experience of it was probably just that.

Our quest continues. That of championing the roll of the creative facilitator. One who can hot house thinking, fuel co-creation and constantly re-invent the approaches to do so. For me, the present and popular discussions about agile, lean or design thinking is academic as your customers don’t lie awake at night worrying whether you practise agile, lean or a design thinking approach. What they care about is leading their lives in a meaningful way. If they have access to products and services form you that solve problems for them; so much the better. The more you focus on that, it won’t matter which methodology you adopt. Ultimately the approach you choose will only be as good as the facilitation team you task to deliver it.
Are you really going to leave it to chance?