I’ve blogged previously about the importance of creating the right environment and experience that allow people to participate in co-design activities. But what about when you’re just holding a workshop or brainstorming session with your own team or other professionals such as content strategists, front-end developers, accessibility experts etc. The “all hands on deck; let’s nut this out” sort of workshop where you cram a dozen people in a room for a full day?
Clearly every person brings a unique set of skills, knowledge and experience to the table so should you as a facilitator acknowledge this and seek to leverage everyone’s unique professional viewpoint or should everyone leave their identities at the door and all be treated as equal brains?
The problem I observe is that what happens is a combination of both where people wish to assert their professional expertise to add the most value to the process. Due to a lack of shared understanding about each others’ roles and capabilities that assertion typically fails because credibility and mutual respect hasn’t been established resulting in a mish-mash of unheeded contributions and stepping on toes.
The people in that room are there because they are professionals and have valuable specialist knowledge and experience they can contribute. It’s not like a co-design session where there are laypeople present or subject matter experts who are contributing value other than expertise in a technical or design field.
So to strip people of their unique expertise at the door seems counter-intuitive. Workshop and brainstorming participants should take turns at the start of the session to mention their role and background with the aim of establishing themselves as having specialist knowledge that should be leveraged by the process.
When the session delves into accessibility issues whilst everyone might have a perspective the group should defer to the accessibility expert in the room rather than giving undue heed to a taxonomist. If a point of contention arises around evidence-based user interface decisions then the group should defer to the person who conducted user testing and research rather than a copywriter.
Of course the group is entitled to question members as to the rigour and substance behind claims but this should be done in a non-confrontational manner and honestly if people aren’t confident in the professionalism of members then that’s a greater issue than the group can resolve; it’s a performance management issue and should be handled as such. Not by group lynching.
Should the group blindly trust everything the “expert” says? Absolutely not. But the group shouldn’t be interrogating people on how big a sample size they used for research or the controls they used to conduct user testing. If there are concerns about someone’s diligence and thoroughness then escalate it out of session. Not in front of everyone else. It’s disrespectful, even if it does turn out that person is a bad apple.
The problem that can arise is if the group goes around the room at the start of the session and asks everyone to introduce themselves then the opposite effect can be had where instead of building mutual respect you build mutual disrespect. You might have a situation where during the workshop someone turns to another and sarcastically spits “Well, you’re the usability expert. Let’s see what you think!”. Building that mutual respect at the outset is important and it’s vital that everyone participates in that exercise. Get everyone to contribute and state their role and skills. Once they’ve all outed themselves as experts then its hard to turn on the sarcasm later.
At the end of the day if people are prone to turn on each other and get hostile then there’s only so much you can do. People need to come primed to be respectful and positive. Sometimes the session will just turn sour because of the mix of people in the room and clash of personalities. Do what you can but don’t be afraid to pull the plug and reconvene later with a subset of participants later on.
Environment and room set up are also important. People should have easy access to the whiteboard and each other. You don’t want to set up a front-of-the-room and back-of-the-room dynamic where you isolate people at the rear of the room who then feel intentionally cut-off and will at best not participate and at worst just snipe and make negative remarks without contributing positively.
Having the right number and mix of people is also important. You don’t want people feeling intimidated by the experts in the room and don’t want them feeling lost in a sea of opinions. Even worse, you don’t want the entire process and outcome of the workshop undermined because someone wasn’t invited and later complains and invalidates everything that was decided.
Brainstorming sessions can be one of the most powerful ways of achieving results, resolving issues and bringing a team closer together. They can also be very damaging if not set up and facilitated well, so don’t be afraid to bring people into a room together but do so with care.
I recommend Robert Bolton’s book People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflicts for further reading on how to facilitate and mediate better especially in tricky, confronting situations.
Michael Michalko’s Thinkertoys has some great ideas and techniques on group brainstorming and creativity.
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