5 Habits of World-Class Creative Facilitators - The Ideas Bodega
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5 Habits of World-Class Creative Facilitators

5 Habits of World-Class Creative Facilitators

Facilitation is an art form and with techniques and practice anyone can become a world-class creative facilitator. Here are 5 of my favourite lessons from my one-day course Creative Facilitation Masterclass

  1. They Create a Safe Environment

The first brainstorm I was ever invited to was at my first job in advertising at Saatchi & Saatchi. I was really excited to be invited but I didn’t end up saying a word or contributing any ideas. Don’t get me wrong, I had ideas but I was so intimidated as the agencies ECD (Executive Creative Director) was also in the room and at the time I was only a graduate trainee. The facilitator made no effort to create an environment where I felt comfortable to speak up. I walked out of the room at the end feeling very deflated and my ideas walked out with me. Unfortunately, this is something that happens a lot.

A good facilitator will create a safe environment from the get-go. At the start of every workshop I facilitate, I remind participants to “leave your titles at the door” as they enter the room. I want to create a neutral playing field where everyone feels equal and safe to speak up. 

In every group there will be introverts so I always design smaller group activities. Not only does this help to avoid ‘group think’ but the introverts or juniors will feel more comfortable to speak up in a smaller group of people.

2.    They Encourage Crap Ideas

I have been in many workshops where the facilitator puts a lot of pressure on participants to come up with the perfect, million-dollar idea in that session. This approach is the absolute worst thing you can do as participants will kill every idea they think of before it even leaves their mouth. The creative process just doesn’t work like that. Ideas need time to be finessed. I always say that ideas come out like a giraffe being born – very lanky and awkward and they need to time to find their feet.

A better approach is to encourage crap ideas and lots of them. I will often say to a participant in a brainstorm “Give me 5 of your crappest ideas now”. The freedom to come up with crap ideas is so liberating and actually they are usually pretty good. Remind participants to be ok with the crap ideas as the core team will reconvene after the brainstorm – all ideas will go through a filter and only creative and effective ideas will be considered at that stage.

3.    They Understand the Many Roles of a Facilitator

There’s an assumption that the creative facilitator’s job is to merely be the scribe, capturing all ideas in the room. In actual fact the role of a facilitator is far bigger and more demanding than that. A great facilitator has the ability to keep their mind on many things at once. Here are a few of the crucial roles.

Designer – A great facilitator will design their workshop rather than just getting people in a room and expecting magic to happen. When I am designing a workshop I think about the following;

·     How will I achieve the objectives?

·     How will I make the workshop dynamic and engaging?

·     How will I keep participants energised?

·     How do I invite the right people and make the most of their individual strengths?

·     How do I make this workshop creative and fun?

Leader – A facilitator must lead people with confidence. One of the hardest things about facilitating brainstorms is that they are completely unpredictable. Very often I have chosen a technique to help participants generate ideas and it doesn’t work. In moments like this I need to stop the group, rework the plan, use a new technique and get the group on track again. I don’t tell participants that the technique didn’t work. Inside I might be slightly nervous but on the outside I confidently move them in a new direction and they would never know it wasn’t part of the plan. 

Timekeeper – They must keep their eye on the clock and make sure that the workshop is achieving the objectives in the set time.

Scribe -They must not only listen and capture ideas from everyone, they must know when to allow the creative ideas get really big and when to steer them back in again.

4.    They are Acute Listeners and can Read the Room

A skilled facilitator will be able to read the room and really tune in to where people are at. Often I need to keep people focused, energised and engaged for a whole day. I have learned the art of reading feet. I know that sounds ridiculous but when people are frustrated or tired they often wiggle one foot from side to side. I also look for yawns or people resting their head in their hands. When I see these signs I know I’m loosing them and I need to get them back quickly.

I have some very simple techniques. I make people stop what they are doing and stand up, stretch and sit down again. I have many energiser techniques in my tool-kit that I can use at any moment. Sometimes the group just needs a five-minute break. The challenge is to tune in and listen for what’s not being spoken.

5.    They Plan a Strong Opening and Closing

Having a workshop plan is critical for success but often a facilitator will spend all their time designing the body of the workshop and not thinking about how it will open and close. Primacy and Recency are scientific terms stating that long after a workshop or meeting, people will remember the first thing that was said “Primacy” and the last thing “Recency”. We can dramatically improve our workshops by designing a strong opening and closing.

Let’s look at openings first. If I’m designing a brainstorm I want the opening to achieve two things. The first is to build rapport. I do this by simply going around the circle and making introductions. As well as their name I will always ask them to answer a question like “What’s the first concert you ever went to? Or “What’s the first job you ever had?” These questions are not work related. They help to build rapport by connecting us as humans and giving people a glimpse into who we are beyond our role at work.

The second objective is to warm up the creative muscle. If prior to the brainstorm the participants were sitting at their desks filling out spreadsheets, it’s going to be tricky to now get them coming up with highly creative ideas. I’ll always use a quick two-minute creativity warm-up to get them in the zone. One such technique is to give them a non-work related challenge. E.G. “Design a new hotel”. They then have to come up with ideas that will go into three columns – Business As Usual, Interesting or Crazy. The objective is to only generate ideas that go into the crazy column.

Now lets look at closings. I recently facilitated two Strategic Visioning workshops for Taronga Zoo. We spent months designing the workshop and after the first one there was feedback that it was great but felt a little flat at the end. I had forgotten to design an ending! When I facilitated the second one the feedback was incredible and everyone loved the workshop. The only difference was the ending.

If I am facilitating a brainstorm I will make sure that I leave enough time at the end to discuss the ideas with participants. I give them a chance to vote for their favourite ideas, tell them what the next steps are so they feel they are part of the process and finally acknowledge the group for their time, creative ideas and energy. This is much better than an abrupt stop when the facilitator realises that time is up and everyone starts leaving the room. 


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