Online facilitation: session structure

Enrico Teotti Focus On Sep 22, 2020

When you start looking at your session structure, you should be done with the session design and have a clear:

  • Mandate (who are you, what’s your role for this session)
  • Purpose (why are we here)
  • Outcome (what are we going to do).

I strongly advise against spending any time in structuring your session without having those defined first.

You might need to re-work or worst shoehorn a structure that does not fit anymore. And walk/facilitate n-hours with that uncomfortable shoe.

Should you never go ahead without purpose and outcome? Not never. In some circumstances, it can be interesting to see what emerges from a session with a theme. You can use Open Space Technology or its younger brother, lean coffee, to introduce enabling constraints and see where the conversation goes.

This post describes the structure I use to guide a group to look at data, generate insights and decide on next steps.

It’s based on Derby/Larsen’s retrospective framework and I highlight some ORID and HSD Adaptive Action concepts. I’ve been told Kolb’s 4L is similar. It’s really nothing new. (See below for full references).

Premise on emergence

I try to plan a supple structure and be ready to change the plan once the session starts.

If some new piece of information emerges during the session and the group reckons it's relevant and changes assumptions, it’s important to acknowledge it and address it.

I would still go through this cycle of what objective and reflective data do we see, what do we make of it, and what are we gonna do next.

Ignoring the new information and just spearheading your plan will lead to the group mistrust of your facilitation. They’ll ask: why is this person so stubbornly going ahead with this? Does this person have a hidden agenda?
This is where looking at your mandate and keeping your bias in check gets really hard and having an external facilitator helps.

If the new information is not relevant to the topic at hand, it’s still important to acknowledge it. I like to capture it in writing in a “parking lot” section with who needs to be part of that followup conversation.
At the end of the session remind the group that you didn’t cover all topics that emerged in the meeting and that follow-up sessions will be scheduled to address the parking lot.

Gather objective data

The first part of my go to backbone structure is to gather data about the topic at hand: "what are we looking at?" Everybody has a portion of this data and this is the time to share it to get the group to a fuller picture and mutual understanding of where we all come from.

This doesn’t mean agreeing! Just understanding where everybody is coming from.

Data can be collected before but it’s important to give time to the group to look at it during the session so they can ask clarifying questions and seeing where everybody else is coming from.

That’s hard data. Events. Feelings are equally important.

Gather reflective data

What’s the group’s internal relationship to the data about the topic at hand?

Imagine the worst possible commute you’ve ever had. Make it ten times worse. And your cat died. And they stole your Vespa the night before.

All that is inside of you and you might argue it’s not work-related and strictly speaking you’re correct. But that stuff will still influence and affect you at work. Bringing that out helps getting a more complete picture.

Eliciting reflective data can be done subtly without calling out the F(eeling) word that might put someone off.

Where were the highs and lows? What came to mind?

Another reason why it’s important to step through reflective questions is that some individuals might be better at talking about emotional tones, memories or associations than talking about raw data. Balancing that time will give a fuller view of what we’re looking at.

Generate insights

After looking at data, we want to reflect on it, foster divergent thinking and then think of next steps.

Asking interpretive questions can be a way to foster divergent thinking. So what are we going to do next about this? What other options do we have?

In an ideal world everybody would agree with each other and you can just decide what to do.

Some groups get to consensus pretty fast, and that’s to be expected for some business as usual decisions like "Should we get snack A or B for the office?".

Group thinking and lack of disagreement could be a signal of a lack of psychological safety. Sometimes when people don’t have opposing viewpoints you might lack diversity and be blind-spotted or worst get complacency. That’s why assessing psychological safety is important.

At the start of this phase there might be competing frames of reference. As a facilitator, you should promote mutual understanding, help integrate other perspectives and help people hang in there.
At the end there should be a shared framework of understanding and a looming “what are we gonna do about it? What’s the next step?”.

Decide what to do

At this point, you’re getting to a decision point. If you came in prepared you should have a decision-maker and decision mechanism clarified:

  • Unanimous agreement
  • Majority vote
  • Person in charge decides after/without discussion
  • Flip of a coin :)
  • Delegation.

In this phase, once a proposal for action is drafted, I like to use a gradient of agreement to visualize how much support the proposal has. I don’t call it a vote, which is reminiscent of win/lose, but rather a poll.

This is Kaner’s version but you can tweak it as you see fit:

  1. Whole-hearted endorsement, “I really like it”
  2. Agreement with a minor point of contention, “Not perfect, but it’s good enough”
  3. Support with reservations, “I can live with it”
  4. Abstain, “This issue does not affect me”
  5. More discussion needed, “I don’t understand the issue well enough yet”
  6. Don’t like but will support, “It’s not great, but I don’t want to hold up the group”
  7. Serious disagreement, “I am not on board with this--don’t count on me”
  8. Veto, “I block this proposal”.

Based on the session decision mechanism, the gradient helps to see how close we are to an adequate decision point. Not all decisions are equal and having clarity on their mechanism before the session starts is paramount.

In this phase as a facilitator you’re fostering inclusive alternatives, synthesizing and refining.

Opening and closing

You should wrap the above phases with an opening and closing.

Opening

In the opening, you can explain the purpose/outcome to the group, create some energy and make sure people are present and ready to engage.
Explain the why, who, what and briefly the how.
This is also a good time to do a time check in case we started 15 minutes late and ask if everybody can stay 15 extra minutes. If not we might have to rearrange portions of the session.

Closing

In the closing, make sure the group knows what the next steps are and who’s involved.
Have we reached our overarching goal? If we have new follow up sessions what’s their purpose and outcome? If this was a session in a string are the scheduled sessions still valid or did something emerge that changed our plan?
I also love to dedicate 5/10 minutes to get feedback on how the session went. What could have been better? What was a positive highlight?
I use a variation of Esther Derby’s ROTI with a plus and a delta.

Break time

As you create your online flow make sure there is an adequate number of breaks.

Usually 5/10 minutes every hour is a good reference, especially after more intense portions or when you feel the group’s energy is going down.

Involving the audience with non verbal communication mechanisms can help gather that energy level.

What about activities?

I left this at the end because in my opinion there is way too much focus on activities and not enough on structure.

Choosing activities online is very contextual to the group. Liberating structure has a vast directory of activities--often without giving credit to its creators--or you can find a lot of activities in Kaner’s participatory group decision-making book (see link below) and other online directories, the most exciting is you can also come up with your own activities!

I always see blog posts about fancy new activities and I always ask myself: "what’s the purpose of this activity?", "Where would I use it?", "What group would mostly benefit from it?".

The important thing is to have a clear flow of activities on top of the structure. Don’t pick random activities. You should be familiar or practice those activities before the session.

How are you gonna brief and debrief the group?
I once saw someone leading a session googling an activity at the whiteboard and trying to explain it. It looked really really unprofessional.
I like to have a script to explain new activities so if I hesitate I can read that. Eventually I memorize and familiarize myself with it and don’t need them anymore. When doing online facilitation I like to keep them visible so people can read.

Tip 1: I actually hide the prompts from the audience and show them only when it’s time for that activity so it doesn’t spoil the surprise. :)
Tip 2: When you communicate briefs/debriefs activity explanations, make sure you speak at around 120 words per minute--like if you were giving a public talk--faster than that and the group will struggle.

Conclusion

Make sure you have time at the beginning of your online sessions to assess that people are present and energized. Use this moment to also clarify purpose, outcomes, who’s here and what are we gonna get out of this.

Then guide the group to look at data first, objective and reflective, then interpret the data to generate some insights so that you can decide what’s the next step. Avoid premature convergence and jumping to conclusions and help the group stay present in the phase they’re in.

Before wrapping up make sure it’s clear to everyone what’s happening after this session, and do get feedback on how the session went.

Make sure you have breaks spread around your session!

Check out the next article of this series: Online Facilitation: the lay of the land.

Further Readings

Learn with Enrico Teotti

Enrico is the author of Online Facilitation Praxis Camp.

Enrico Teotti

Enrico is an agile coach and (visual) facilitator with a background in product management and software development starting in 2001.

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