The Difference Between Facilitating and Leading

By Megan Tremeling | Design Strategist | verynice

I recently co-facilitated a Design Thinking Lab — a.k.a. Ideathon — with my colleague from verynice, Marlon Fuentes. The workshop was hosted by the Center for Nonprofit Management as an amuse-bouche to their annual 501(c)onference. This 8-hour design thinking adventure with nonprofit leaders left me with some practical ideas to share about the ways facilitating can help us reach our goals.

1. Your Role As Facilitator and Designing Optimal Space For Collaboration
Earlier in my career I used to fluidly dance between the words facilitate and lead. I learned the important distinction between leading with your own ideas and facilitating thought, leaving me far more satisfied as a facilitator. Marlon and I created a structure and environment for the participants to learn, come up with their own new ideas, and celebrate themselves. A crisp understanding of the role can help keep you focused on “What can I do to help this team get the most from an empathy map exercise?” rather than “How can I jam a smart comment into this conversation so that I sound smart?” Facilitating is a process of inclusion and thought organization. 

2. Encourage Participation
We can create value for participants by making time for teams to share with each other. Many participants told Marlon and I (in questionnaires before and after the event) that they wanted to meet other professionals. I highly relate, but was so focused on passing on design thinking skills that I forgot about this other, possibly primary, reason why participants paid money and took 8 hours out of their day to attend. Team sharing not only allows for new connections, but insights such as: “Oh, our team is way off on the journey map!” or “Ahhh, I never thought considering the needs of an internal, fundraising team member could earn our organization more revenue!”

3. Tactile Experiences Go A Long Way!
Everyone’s energy went through the roof when we did scrappy, hands-on prototyping. Earlier in the day, I saw teams shy away from drawing colorful dots and curvy lines on a journey map, let alone sketching an idea for a new product on a Post-it. Throwing out a goofy sketch of an idea that your team may criticize can be terrifying. This fear vanished once we asked people to stand up, physically move about the room, and forage for neon shoe strings, toilet paper tubes, and egg cartons. I had a nonprofit leader ask me, “Where are those LEGO action figures again?” I don’t know why this activity seriously boosted the room. Maybe it was breaking free of sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at a classic business roundtable, but I will throw active, colorful, and crafty activities into a workshop as early and often as possible. 

4. Sharing is Caring
Brief and defined share outs kept the room alive. I think we’ve all been in a workshop or group discussion where listening to others share their work feels like a lifetime at the DMV.  Marlon and I used a defined, fill-in-the-blank pitch statement and we asked teams to stick to it during share outs. This made for quippy, fun, safe, and competitive sharing, and a lively room to end the workshop. 

Final Thoughts
I believe workshop facilitation is like the board game Othello, “A minute to learn…a lifetime to master!” Marlon agrees. Whether it's a design thinking workshop that deals with large, systematic issues or effectively running a meeting, learning how to keep things inclusive, fun, and efficient can lead to breakthrough learning and discovery.

By Megan Tremeling, Design Strategist, verynice