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 and facilitators 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:

  1. a Sponsor Session to determine the objectives, participants, venue, and other basic parameters of the session,
  2. the creation of a Strawdog (a design of the event's agenda and process), and
  3. 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:

  Sponsor Session Strawdog Design Walk-Thru
Session Objective and Outcomes determine refine finalize
Content (agenda and read-ahead) outline refine and ship read-ahead finalize
Process (individual, team, large group) outline refine finalize
Logistics determine team composition, venue, support, meals, supplies, etc. 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 for sessions.


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 following questions:

  • 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™ units?
  • 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 session.

Agenda Items
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.

In-Session Content
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 exercise).


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 Organizational Learning

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.

Individual Work
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 report.

Team Work
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 own diversity.

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 wall.

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.


Idea Management
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 different assignment.

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 points.

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 individual portions.

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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iteration 3.5