Navigation Center Facilities:
Designing Sessions in the Environment
by Bryan S. Coffman
Design is the eighth step of the 10-Step
Knowledge Management Process. Information events are documented,
logged into the K-base, distributed and tracked. Feedback from a collection
of such events is fed into the design stage of future events as input.
Information events that involve the collaboration
of a number of participants--usually face-to-face--are called sessions.
If an upcoming session concerns project management
issues, for instance, relevant events might include updates to the project
management system or documentations of previous, related sessions. These
updates and documentations are distributed, and the recipients read them,
making notes concerning the influence that they have on their portion
of the project. These notes are entered into the system as feedback. A
team of sponsors
draw upon feedback and documentations from the K-base to assist them in
the design of the next session. Critical advance information for the upcoming
session is then distributed to participants in the form of a read-ahead.
Three Stages and Four Components of Design
A session is designed in three stages:
- a Sponsor Session
to determine the objectives, participants, venue, and other basic parameters
of the session,
- the creation of a Strawdog
(a design of the event's agenda and process), and
- a Walk-thru to validate and
adjust the Strawdog and prepare for the session.
For simple sessions, these stages can be accomplished at
one sitting. The larger and more complex the event, the more lead time
required. The Sponsor Session, Strawdog and Walk-thru can be viewed as
successively more final and detailed iterations of the design. Typically,
the Sponsor Session occurs from one to two weeks prior to the session
and the Walk-thru happens either the day before or the day of the session.
The Facilitation Team completes the Strawdog in the interim. This allows
time to create, collect and distribute the read-ahead so that participants
can digest it and accomplish whatever tasks it may specify. In a fully
automated system, the read-ahead is distributed as a series of links to
electronic documents and databases. Each of these stages has four components
as shown in the following table:
|Session Objective and Outcomes
|Content (agenda and read-ahead)
||refine and ship read-ahead
|Process (individual, team, large group)
||determine team composition, venue, support, meals,
||finalize, send invitations, arrange for support,
meals and supplies
||work last minute changes
The balance of this article covers session objectives,
content, and process in more depth. A separate article will address logistics
Component 1: Session Objective and Outcomes
The objective states the purpose of the session so that everyone knows
why they're attending. The outcomes expand upon the objective and indicate
the types and composition of any products expected to emerge from the
session. Outcomes may include a list of decisions to be made. A Journal
or Work Product from the session is also
classified as an outcome. If the participants are to write specific documents
such as charters, those are outcomes as well. ANDMap®
documents , Gannt charts, flow charts, and other similar tools add
to the list. To help determine session objectives and outcomes, use the
- Imagine that you've just finished the session and that it was successful.
- What are the participants walking away with?
- What's on the WorkWall
- What products were produced?
- What surprises did the session generate?
- What decisions were made?
- What dilemmas were resolved?
Component 2: Content
The content may be divided into two parts: read-ahead material and material
to be distributed during the session in support of the process assignments.
Don't use sessions to distribute, read, or brief information that can
be covered in a read-ahead. It's a waste of the collective time of the
participants. That's one reason why the distribution of documentations
and the read-ahead are separate from the conduct of the event in the 10-Step
Knowledge Management model. Choose read-ahead materials so that the participants
come into the session with a firm foundation from which to execute a good
Scan, Focus and Act. Newspapers, journals, the web, and books are good
sources for read-aheads. Also seek out feedback from a variety of sources
concerning the current state of projects or ventures related to the upcoming
The agenda is a list of topics to be considered for discussion or design
and an indication of the order in which they should be addressed.
Sometimes it will be advantageous to use a session for the presentation
of new information rather than use a read-ahead. Either the information
is so complex that it requires interaction between a presenter and the
participants, the information serves as introduction or preparation for
a group or individual exercise, or the information is to be employed by
participants during such an exercise (an example is a syntopical reading
Component 3: Group Process
The process is different from the agenda. An agenda addresses content.
Process determines the best way to engage the participants with the content
to produce the objective. Process employs group dynamics techniques, while
an agenda specifies the ordering of content over time--an organization
of the body of knowledge for the DesignSession event.
Good process design requires well-crafted assignments. Good assignments
begin with good questions. This is so important. Taking the extra effort
to develop an excellent assignment clarifies the objectives and outcomes
of the session and increases the probability that the participants will
produce excellent results. At least half of the facilitation effort in
a session can be met through the assignments.
There are many models of group process. The accompanying
table is a simple Zwicky box that helps define the spectrum of options
for designing processes. The Zwicky box not only summarizes the various
components of process design but serves as an aid in generating options
during the design. For example, imagine that you're working on a design
for an early stage, or module, of a session--the Scan stage. Circle the
Scan stage on the Zwicky box. Next select a mode of education at random
or a mode that seems to appeal to you at this time and circle it. The
Explore mode has been circled in the example below. Next select a structure;
for instance, Team Work. Finally select a goal for idea management--in
this case, Fast-Tracking. This module, then will be a Scan in nature.
It will prompt the participants to Explore new options. Participants will
work on the exercise in Teams. Each team will have a much different assignment
to allow for a diversity of ideas to be Fast-Tracked.
The following sections of this article examine the four categories of
the Zwicky box in more detail.
The Creative Process: The Scan Focus Act Model as a Template
||The Scan Focus Act model provides an easy template
to use for session design. Once the objective and outcomes are set,
facilitate the participants in a search for options, through testing
the options that appear most viable, and through selection and implementation
of the options.
|Negative feedback (in the cybernetic sense) tests whether
the results conform to the intended outcome. Positive feedback allows
the intended outcome to evolve beyond itself based on the work done
in the session.
Often a session will progress naturally from Scan to Focus to Act, along
a path of steadily narrowing options, towards a more interdependent design,
and some decision making and determination of next steps. However, some
sessions legitimately begin with either Focus, Feedback or Act and move
on to Scan or one of the other stages. The order is not arbitrary, but
a result of a disciplined approach to the design: What should the participants
first experience? Sometimes it's best to experience some Act, gather Feedback,
Focus on the implications via explanations and examples, and then explore
to Scan for other alternatives.
Mode of Education: Applying the 5E's of Education to Leverage
||Learning organizations seek every opportunity to leverage
a collaborative experience into a combination of performance and learning
(see Robert Fritz's book, Creating). This ensures that the
organization remains viable today, and into the future as well.
Each session should incorporate explanations, examples and experiences
that drive the team to create an excellent product and meet the expected
outcome of the session.
|Each session should also provide experiences and exploration
to facilitate the team to drive beyond expectations, to fulfill both
the intended outcomes and outcomes that could not have been anticipated
before the session.
The traditional approach to education begins with explanations and examples
and then leads on to experiences (laboratory experiments, for example).
Another approach suggests an experience first, followed by explanations
and examples. This makes sense because we often seek explanations for
events we've just experienced. It's one thing to read about places in
Africa, for example, and another entirely to experience them and then
endeavor to understand the experience.
Education that begins with explanation or experience, or some combination
of both implies some expectation. Exploration wedges experience above
expectation. Imagine planning a vacation to the American Southwest. You
read explanations or hear of examples of trips and destinations that others
have made in the area. This sets your expectation for the trip and you
plan accordingly. Once there, however, the experience will expose you
to a variety of other opportunities. Exploring any of these will change
the expectation for the trip, and everything else shifts in accord. Chance
exploration in the Southwest launched me on a multi-year passionate study
of the Anasazi.
Some experiences, however, require explanation before they are experienced.
Parachuting and rock climbing come to mind. Sometimes an education program
employs the 5E's in a high-frequency, low-magnitude manner, that is, all
five E's are woven tightly together and delivered in a rapid succession
of small, digestible packages.
Within the framework of the Scan Focus Act model and the 5E's, the participants
can be organized to work individually, in small teams, or as a large group.
Each of these modes has different advantages, limitations and tradeoffs.
An obvious tradeoff is communication. In large group mode, an idea that's
shared by one is heard by all (assuming that they're listening and not
thinking of what to say next). All of the communication is shared. Unfortunately,
only one person at a time can speak and it's difficult to fast track ideas.
If the group is divided into teams, then more individuals can contribute
to the solution but not everyone will hear. It's incumbent upon the teams
to carefully choose and format the fraction of their work that they wish
to share with the rest of the group in their report.
Every exercise in a session should have a work product associated with
it. Never conduct an exercise whose purpose is to "discuss"
something. Never send teams or individuals out to "talk about the
issues." An exercise must have a tangible deliverable--a decision,
diagram, story, plan, answers to questions, and so on. This may be the
biggest difference between an agenda and a process. Agendas usually list
items to be discussed. A process describes the deliverables and the method
used to obtain them.
An exercise such as a take-a-panel exercise, allows each participant to
develop and document their ideas fully, without interruption. It also
encourages them to employ a variety of media in support of their ideas.
In a large group setting they are confined to the spoken word. In a Take-a-Panel®
exercise, they express their thoughts as drawings, lists, flow charts
or narratives, and also employ the spoken word when reporting their ideas
to others in the share-a-panel exercise that usually follows.
It takes longer to process all of the information generated by a take-a-panel
exercise. If there are 20 participants, nearly two hours can be consumed
in reports if each participant reported to the rest of the group. The
trade off here is depth and independence of analysis versus complete information
exchange. In a multi-day session, it's not important that everyone have
a chance to brief their individual work to the rest of the group: it's
sufficient for them to present their work to a representative cross-section
of the group and to receive a copy of their work to refer back to. The
ideas will enter the general mix throughout the remainder of the design.
In shorter sessions, particularly those of four hours or less, it may
be more important for all of the participants to hear each Take-a-Panel
Teams of from four to eight or so present the best configuration for working
on complex problems. There are enough different vantage points present
to avoid getting stuck but not so many that the work bogs down in its
Deciding which participants will be assembled into which teams is an
effective way to facilitate all sorts of group dynamics. Sometimes it
will make sense to place participants in teams where their strengths are
obviously applicable. Other times, it may make more sense to put them
into situations that stretch their vantage points. A sales manager working
on a finance team will gain a different perspective on the business than
if she were on a team with other sales managers.
Never use team assignments as an attempt to manage the behavior of individuals.
It is important to assemble teams that can accomplish effective work together,
but using individual behavior as a primary criteria for generating results
is a waste of time. Seek instead to bring a certain mix of vantage points,
skills and experience together to yield the best possible result.
Large Group Work
Every so often it's necessary to assemble the whole group in one place.
When teams have finished their work, it's natural to have them report
their results to the rest of the group so that the new information can
be folded into subsequent exercises. Some discussions can only take place
profitably in large group. Some decisions must be made by the whole group,
although usually decisions can be made by iterating a design.
The Case of Sessions Having Only a Few Participants
A special situation occurs if the session is short and contains perhaps
six or seven participants altogether. The design may employ take-a-panel
type exercises that allow the participants to work individually, but the
session's "large group" is identical with its "team."
It's not profitable to divide the participants into anemic groups of two
or three, and the time frame and objective may not allow for such divisions
in any event. In this case, the group tends to switch between "large
group mode" and "team mode". The switch happens almost
unnoticed and can be confusing to facilitate. But there are signals to
watch for, particularly if a scribe is involved. The early portion of
the conversation is usually easy to scribe--particularly if it's a Scan
exercise. At some point, though, the content becomes difficult to keep
up with, or one participant is found dictating things to the scribe. This
means that the group has switched into team mode, and the person with
the ideas needs to take the pen and work on the board. The scribe should
facilitate this switch and move to the side or back of the room. Towards
the end of the session as the team focuses on conclusions, work product
or next steps, the scribe may find another opportunity to work at the
It's more difficult sometimes to facilitate small sessions than larger
ones because it's hard to make clear transitions between assignments.
The switch will be easier if clear deliverables, work products and outcomes
are identified for each phase of work that the team does during the session.
There are times in the creative process when the group should generate
ideas, and other times when ideas should be winnowed, or folded together
into a single convergent design. At some times, every team should be working
on the same issues, and at other times the teams should each address separate
components of the design. Scan is usually associated with generating divergence
and diversity, but a Scan may also be a good time to create convergence.
Likewise, Focus tends to promote convergence, but divergence is very important
to this engineering phase of the creative process as well. The point is
to disassociate stages of the creative process from modes of idea management.
To generate diversity or a variety of options, vary the number of teams
and the vantage points that each team's assignment takes. If you give
two teams identical assignments, you can expect each team to come up with
different alternatives. You can increase the divergence between their
alternatives by giving each of the teams the same assignment but with
a different twist for each team. For example, if the teams are assigned
to design innovative alternatives to a traditional middle school education,
and the group is in the Scan stage, then one team might be asked to accomplish
their design without using any school buildings, while the other team
might be asked to do the same thing without a central administration.
[This type of exercise is called a "take-away" exercise.] You
can also increase the number of alternatives simply by increasing the
number of teams. For maximum divergence, maximize the number of teams
(using team size of four to eight as a guideline) and give each team a
Large group mode usually facilitates convergence, or the discarding of
options. However, iteration also does the job. If a group of teams have
finished a divergence exercise and shared reports with each other, the
facilitator may conduct a large group session to expose common elements
and those elements yet in conflict. Subsequent small group sessions may
handle the elements in conflict. This strategy is a direct, overt one
in that it attempts to craft a straightforward convergence. But several
successive exercises punctuated by reports or a shift in team composition
can also do the job in a more subtle fashion. The ideas mix with each
other through each round and each exercise's deliverable forces the teams
to reincorporate the ideas to meet new criteria or performance standards.
This doesn't mean that the same assignment is given over and over. The
assignment must be varied so that through the successive iterations the
group creates a robust design that has been tested from a variety of vantage
Imagine that a group is working on a business plan. The group can sequentially
address individual components such as products, processes, projects and
financials. This linear approach has the advantage of tying one phase
of the planning to the next one. However, it's slow. It's also possible
to get near the end of the planning and have to backtrack. Financials,
projects, processes and products are all interrelated nonhierarchically.
To fast track the work, assign each business plan component to a separate
team and then design a system for each team to update the others in a
high-frequency, low-magnitude fashion.This means that everyone shares
information frequently in small bites as progress is made rather than
making infrequent, lengthy presentations. This way the teams don't progress
too far in their design without feedback from other related teams. [See
the Web, Patch and Node rules for an example.] Fast-tracking sounds a
lot like divergence. Usually a group can't fast-track unless it has already
experienced convergence on some stage of the design. With a foundation
in place, the teams can confidently conduct independent designs on their
Synthesis is not the same as convergence. Convergence discards options.
Synthesis forces the combination of all vantage points until a solution
is reached that incorporates and satisfies each of them. Synthesis avoids
compromise and does not rely on voting, ranking or other techniques used
in consensus building.
There are two major ways to approach synthesis. A facilitated large group
discussion can sometimes generate synthesis. A good facilitator and a
scribe can help the group map a cohesive, coherent combination of ideas
that may seem at odds with each other. Synthesis can also be assigned
to a team. If there are four or five teams fast-tracking the development
of a strategic plan, an additional team might be employed to synthesize
the work of the other teams in real time.
Below is a sample of a Strawdog, the document
that summarizes everything that has been discussed in this article. The
actual format doesn't matter.
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