KEY TAKEAWAYS FROM THIS STORY:
What is ‘collaboration facilitation’?
How does process, people content and experience come together to support purpose in a collaborative setting?
- Principles for curating a group of participants
- How to build and organise a facilitation team
- Design principles for designing an agenda
- The elements of workshop experience design
- How to manage content
WHAT IS 'COLLABORATION FACILITATION'?
The Facilitation Starter’s mission is to increase more people’s facilitation confidence and capacity by increasing facilitation literacy. When we say ‘literacy’ we mean an increase in understanding of facilitation language, mindsets, skillsets and toolsets.
A challenge we face is in distinguishing the type of ‘facilitation' we’re referring to. Most people’s understanding and experience of ‘facilitation’ refers to learning and development or training facilitation typically as a result of having attended a training course. Although the Facilitation Starter fulfils its mission through this mode of facilitation, this is not the type of facilitation we’re focussed on: a mode of facilitation we broadly term ‘collaboration’ or 'co-design’ facilitation.
Talking about language, ‘Collaboration’ is one of those terms that’s commonly used but do we all mean the same thing? The definition we use comes from our good friends Collabforge who are experts in scaleable collaboration and innovation for public sector. There’s much to be read about how to define and conceptualise collaboration in Collabforge’s own collaboration wiki, EpicCollaboration. The knowledge here is based on years of solid research and practice with clients. For the purposes of this blog, we will use the simplest definition of collaboration: ‘creating together’. It is this act of creation and creation with others that distinguishes collaboration from other modes of group work such as ‘coordination’ or ‘cooperation’.
So when we say ‘collaboration facilitation’ we’re referring to making it easy for groups to create together. "Create what”, you ask? Well it could be anything ranging from a strategy, a design, a process, a decision, a new organisation, a strategic roadmap.
We believe the best way for us to exemplify what we mean is through show and tell. The intent of Starter Stories is to share collaboration facilitation stories of our practice and then to mine and share the core insights and learnings from these experiences with you.
HOW DO PROCESS, PEOPLE, CONTENT AND EXPERIENCE COME TOGETHER TO SUPPORT PURPOSE IN A COLLABORATIVE SETTING?
A recent story I’d like to share is of a 2-day collaboration session which was designed and facilitated by WhereToFromHere (WTFH) for the University of New South Wales (UNSW). I was the ‘Process Facilitator’ for the session. It’s a great story because not only was it a great outcome for the client and participants, but it demonstrates some best practices and great learnings for collaboration sessions in general.
To start with, here are some of the basics about the session for context. I’m paraphrasing/greatly simplifying because there’s detail in the workshop website and video, but also it’s not really pivotal for you to understand everything about the session but rather for you to have a sense of the experience and how we made it happen.
UNSW's 2025 strategy places a much stronger emphasis on a world class service delivery to its students. But what does this look like and how does UNSW become that organisation?
Purpose/key design challenges
The purpose of the session was to unpack the strategy and to explore and model how a new CRM system might facilitate this new future state implied by the strategy.
Key challenges that participants had to wrestle with included:
- What does ‘World Class’ look like?
- Do we really understand what students expect and need? How do we truly co-design with students? What does this mean? How does this work?
- How do we collaborate on a shared vision and a shared plan for achieving this future state given the unique environments and cultures each ’school’ operated within?
- How do we balance the sometimes competing needs of the University, academics and students?
There were approximately 45 participants who were curated based on their ability to provide diverse but relevant vantage points on the topics that needed to be worked on. Most of the participants were UNSW academic and support staff from different schools across the University at various levels of seniority. There were also some external vendors and consultants who were supporting the design and implementation of the new CRM system. There was an ambition to have students in the session but this proved challenging given the timing of the event was during semester break.
The facilitation team
We had a team of 10 for this session, each of whom brought a range of expertise and perspectives. The session overall was lead by WTFH co-founders Philippe Coullomb and Charles Collingwood-Boots. Philippe and Charles collectively bring over 20 years of experience in management consulting and collaboration facilitation. As a leadership team they have a highly adaptive leadership style but with a starting point of inclusiveness and collaboration and only reverting to a more authoritative style when the situation required it.
Why is this is important to know? We often hear the expression ‘creating the right conditions for ‘X’..’ but what does mean? In my working career of over 15 years, 12 of which were in the headquarters of a large Australian bank, I have never seen a system that is able to rapidly onboard a new team like the MG Taylor facilitation network.
There were several observable conditions which facilitated this outcome for this team on this event:
- A high degree of shared history, understanding, intent, language, experience and capability amongst MG Taylor practitioners
- A ‘patches and nodes’ system of organisation whereby we organised ourselves into three specialised, yet interdependent ‘patches’: Design & Facilitation, Experience and Content. Each of these patches had 3-4 members of our specialist facilitation crew within it.
- A style of leadership from Philippe and Charles that supported this degree of autonomy, creativity and emergence.
A key outcome from the sponsor co-design process was the design of a process that would deliver the desired outcomes and experience for the workshop.
Some of the design principles we use in designing these sessions are
- to ensure that teams are regularly mixed to benefit from the diversity in the room
- to ensure that participants come at the challenge from a few different vantage points and levels of detail, each time identifying ideas and models that could be carried forward to further stages of iteration
- to ensure that participants are developing and are provided with the language and tools they need to solve their problem
- to ensure that the design challenges them in ways that will allow them to achieve the breakthroughs they need to have
- that there are cycles of divergent (opening) activity, modelling and testing of alternatives, and then converging (closing) on decisions, commitments and plans
I won’t go into the details of the session design but I will highlight a few of the more important activities in the context of the purpose of the session:
- A Fishbowl conversation where participants were able to listen deeply to different perspectives on the opportunities and challenges they would need to wrestle with over the two days. This included the perspectives of a senior UNSW executive (can’t recall whether he was a VC or D-VC!).
- A field trip into the University grounds to interview students about their experiences, understandings and expectations around their UNSW experience
- An activity to model and test what ‘World Class’ might look, sound and feel like from different stakeholder perspectives
- An activity to allow the group to reflect on and deepen their learning around the new ways of working that they were experiencing in the session
- An activity to propose experiments that would help UNSW move towards a new future state in a way supported by action learning
The experience ‘patch’ was responsible for ensuring that participants had a really positive and memorable experience from the session.
The team created a rounded experience which drew on the mindsets, skillsets and toolsets of the members of this patch.
- Graphic scribes, lead by Alex Wisman, created visual models to capture live conversations and in other cases to visually synthesise and represent key ideas and models that were emerging from participant work.
- We were very fortunate to have access to the UNSW Michael Crouch Innovation Centre which not only provided a highly functional space, but also one that provided requisite inspiration on the themes of student innovation and experience. We had access to all the resources, supplies light and space we needed, including moving work walls which enabled us to quickly reconfigure the space to suit the mode of work that was required.
- As a team we adopted a concierge mindset and practice where we were highly tuned into the needs and the experience of participants, and of each other, and to act to support these needs. This ranged from friendly and helpful greeting into the space, to delicious and healthy catering that was well organised, to having dedicated cloaking facilities, to ensuring the space itself was kept clean, safe and organised.
- We were fortunate to have a facilitator on our team who specialised in the use of sound and stories to help groups collaborate. Simon Jankelson - aka the Human Sound Project - was on our sound station and he played a curated selection of music to help participants transition between different activities and to support the level of energy required for particular types of activity. Once again, thoughtful and deliberate.
- Finally we made excellent use of video and photo to capture student interviews but also the workshop experience. This video was cut and played in short cycles meaning that rather than wait for the end of the session to receive a video, participants were able to very quickly see photo and video of what had just happened. What amplified the impact of the near real-time turnaround was the high production quality of the video and photo.
Content (and value capture)
The content 'patch' was responsible for distributing content inputs and work assignments to participants and then capturing and cataloguing their work outputs.
Normally in these types of events this is a very manual process involving multiple people and hand-offs e.g. printing, photographing participant work, photocopying , saving files to a directory, distributing hard copy printouts to breakout teams. Things were very different on this session because of the use of some very handy hardware and software. Each breakout group (up to 6) was provided with an iPad Air which had an app called 'Workshop' loaded onto it. This very cool app was able to 'push' content inputs and work assignments to each breakout team, and then allow teams to capture their own work in the app and then project this image for their report out.
Needless to say that this use of technology - lead by Sven Lefers and Andrew O’Sullivan - made the whole process a whole lot more seamless and a much better experience for both participants and the facilitation team. It was an excellent demonstration of how the right technology, deployed in the right way at the right time, can itself be a great facilitator!
The 'Work Product'
A conventional client deliverable from a workshop might be a report or a presentation. The ambition with this session though was to create a deliverable that would 'extend the intent' of the session over a longer time horizon and to more people. To support this, a digital work product - a squarespace website - was created to share the workshop story and become a basic platform to host conversation and share updates. The website is more aligned with what students would expect and would facilitate sharing to broader networks. Something else that's worth noting is how the work product was being designed and prototyped during the session and the first version of the site was published within 2 working days of the completion of the session.