Book Chapter on Facilitation

The below is an excerpt from a chapter on facilitation for the forthcoming book on the Cabbage Tree Method (collaborative product design). The image is by the wonderful Pepper Curry.



Facilitation is a key ingredient for the Design Sessions. In fact, no group should attempt to use the Cabbage Tree Method or run a Design Session without a facilitator.

The facilitator is part of your open source team and should not be part of (if possible) the user group that needs the solution. This neutrality frees the facilitator, as best as possible, from existing ideas, and organisational politics and dynamics. In turn, this enables the facilitator to read the group clearly and interact freely.

You will need post-it notes, a large whiteboard and markers (or large pieces of paper).


Facilitation is both an art and a science. It’s difficult to master both aspects of facilitation. If you’re new to facilitation then it’s best, if possible, to watch experienced facilitators in action and try some small experiments first. I strongly advise against learning facilitation from a book. There’s no substitute for experience.

Having said that, here are some things to remember when facilitating Design Sessions. They’re intended to help you formulate an approach to this process. They’re not intended as a facilitation ‘how to’:

Build trust before products – As a facilitator, your job is to build trust in you, the process, the group, and the outcomes. Each time you make a move that diminishes trust you’re taking away from the process and reducing the likelihood of success. You must put building trust, working with what people say and towards what people want, ahead of building the product. Trust that the product, and a commitment to it, will emerge from this process, and it will be better for it. I am thankful to Allen Gunn for this wisdom made very kindly to me many years ago.

Change is cultural, not technical – Too often people propose technology as the mechanism for change. Technology doesn’t create change. People create change, with the assistance of technology. Make sure the group is not seeing technology as a magic wand. The group must be committed to changing what they do. The what they do shouldn’t be posited as a function of technology. It’s their behavior that will always need to change, regardless of whether there is a change in the technology they use. Behavioral and cultural change is a necessity, not something that might happen. The group needs to recognise this and be committed to changing how they work. This also means that they must commit to using the solutions you design together.

Even the best solutions have problems – Understand and embrace that even the best solutions, including the one you’re representing, will have problems. There is no perfect solution. If there is then, inevitably, time will make it imperfect.

Leave your know-it-all at the door – If you’re part of a product team, then you may be expected to be somewhat of a domain expert. It’s not possible to leave that at the door, of course, but you should be careful that you don’t use this knowledge as heavy handed doctrine. Instead, your domain knowledge should manifest itself in signposts, salient points, and inspiring examples at the right moments. These points should add to the conversation. They shouldn’t override the conversation. Don’t overplay your product knowledge and vision. You’ll lose people if you do.

Give up your solution before you enter the room – If you’re part of a product team, it’s a mistake to enter into a  Design Session and advocate or direct the group towards your product or your vision for a solution. If the group chooses a technology or path you don’t have a stake in, then that’s fine. The likelihood is that they’ll choose your technology or approach, otherwise you wouldn’t be asked to be in the same room with the group. However, if you facilitate the process and drive them to your solution you’ll be reading the group wrong and they’ll feel coerced. You must free yourself from this constraint and be prepared to propose, advocate, or accept a solution that’s not yours or which you didn’t have in mind when you entered the room. This will not only free you up to drive people to the solution they want, but it will earn you trust. When the group chooses your solution, and chances are they will, then they’ll trust it because they chose it and that reflects their trust in you and the process. If they don’t choose it, but you have done a good job, then they’ll trust you and come back another time when they’re ready for what you have to offer. They’ll also advocate you to others.

Move one step at a time – Move through each step slowly. The time it takes to move through a step is the time it takes to move through a step. There is no sense in hurrying the process, as doing that will not lead to better results or faster agreements. It will, in all likelihood, move towards shallow agreements that don’t stick and ill-thought-out solutions that don’t properly address the problem. The time it takes to move through a step will also give you a good indication of the time you’ll need for the steps to come. Be prepared to adjust your timelines if necessary, and to return to earlier unresolved issues if need be.

Ask many questions, get clarifying answers, ask dumb questions, the dumber the better – Try not to ask leading questions. Keep asking questions until you get clear, simple answers. Break down compound answers, where necessary, into fragments and drill down until you have the clarity you need. Dumb questions are often the most valuable questions. Asking a dumb question often unpacks important issues or reveals hidden and unchallenged assumptions. It’s very surprising how fundamental some of these assumptions can be, so be brave on this point.

Reduce, reduce, reduce – The clearest points are simple ones.

Get agreements as you go – Double check that everyone is on the same page as you go. Get explicit agreement, even on seemingly obvious points. Total consensus is not always necessary or possible, but general agreement is.

Document it all – Get it down in simple terms on whiteboards or using whatever tools you have available. At the end of sessions, commit what you’ve documented to digital, shareable media.

Summarise your journey and where you are now – At the end of a session, it’s always necessary to summarise in clear terms the journey you have taken and the point at which you’ve arrived. Get consensus on this. It’s also useful at various points throughout the session to do this as a way of 1) illustrating you’re all on the same journey, and 2) reminding people what the session is all about. In the summary, make sure to illustrate that you understand the key points. Bring out points that may have taken a while to get clarity on or that you may have initially misunderstood. There will be many of those points if you’re doing your job well! Doing that lets the group know you’re embedded with them and not merely guiding them towards your own predesigned end game.

Use their semantics – Use the group’s terminology to describe the problem and the solution. Don’t impose your own semantics. Remember, they are the experts. Use their language. If, instead, you use your terms in the process then inevitably people will become confused. If a term doesn’t exist for something, ask them to define it.

Remember, facilitation is an art of invention – At the very least, facilitation is an act of translating known patterns into a new context and tweaking those patterns to fit that context. But the reality is that much of the what a facilitator does involves making things up. Instinct and the fear of failure force the on-the-fly invention of methods, but a good facilitator makes it appear that the method has existed for a hundred years and has never been known to fail. When it does fail, a really good facilitator will ensure that no one notices and that the outcomes were the ones you were after.

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