Preparing Space to Support Group Process
As facilitators we are experts at designing conversations and processes that to meet the rational and experiential aims of a group. We pore over the information we collect from groups in advance to make sure we use the appropriate processes and have all the right questions ready that will support the group thinking through the questions they need to answer. You show up an hour before the session to prepare the room at a local hotel that the client has rented and has assured you is big with lots of tables and chairs, wall space and audio video gear. And then it happens. You arrive to find that the walls are filled with pictures that are secured, the tables and chairs are stacked neatly in the corner and the hotel employee who opened the room says it’s hotel policy that masking tape and hold-it can’t be used on the wallpaper unless there is a huge deposit in case of damage. It’s now 45 minutes to show time and your entire process that revolved around using wallspace with small groups spread around the room is not possible. What now?
The scenario I describe is not fictional and was a hard lesson I learned that changed my practice. When designing a session, or sessions, it is critical to think how the group will experience it as they move through the journey. A critical piece of the puzzle many of us underestimate is how the group will experience the space they are in, either face to face or virtual, and how timing will support the processes in that space. In this article I will discuss some of the key considerations to include in your space design that will support your process, help the group to achieve the aims of your session and support the relationship between the facilitator and the group.
Plan Ahead, Arrive Early for Set Up and Maintain the Appearance Throughout
Visit the room in advance to take measurements and sketch the room so you can do more detailed planning later and possibly create a map for the participants with the various rooms and other important factors such as washrooms and emergency exits if it’s a complex engagement involving multiple days and rooms. It is also an opportunity to speak with the people who manage the space to make sure there aren’t restrictions on how it can be used for the times that it’s available. Also confirm that whatever entrance you tell participants to use is accessible. And have all participants regardless of mobility use the same entrance. If you are unable to visit the space have pictures sent to you and follow up with the client and the room owner to answer the questions you need to have answered.
The size of the room is a consideration of which to be mindful. Having a small group in a huge room can create problems for hearing participants and will not create an environment that encourages participation. Similarly having too many people in a space will be uncomfortable and will quickly become loud which will discourage participants. Having a room that allows people to have sufficient physical space, something that will be more important than ever in the months and years ahead post pandemic, but yet small enough to have the participants feel they are together as one is an important consideration.
Whenever possible, have the room set up before the first participant arrives so you can be fully attentive to greeting them to build a rapport. The message you are sending to the group is that you are well organized, well prepared and in control of the journey you are about to take them through.
At the end of each day spend some time to return the room to order and prepare for the next day. Small things like having coffee cups removed, papers and materials neatly stacked, and participants settings orderly sends a message to the group that they are cared for.
If your space is virtual the same principles are held. Make sure that you choose a platform that comfortably supports audio and video so participants can engage each other. Critical to the groups experience is to have a space for co-creation where participants can work together such as Mural or Miro. Regardless of the platforms you use make sure that you are well prepared in advance to support the group and sufficiently comfortable with the technology so you can troubleshoot any issues that might come up. It’s a best practice to have a session dedicated just to getting the participants comfortable with the technology in advance, so no time is lost during the sessions where they are being asked to think deeply. The easier you can make it for them to participate the better. Just like setting up a room in a physical space do you planning well in advance where you have break out rooms ready and your co-creation platforms well designed and ready in advance of the session.
Central Home Space
Should you find yourself supporting a multi-room/multi-day event, having a home gathering space will make it easy for participants to participate. The home room will be a general space where people can come to find the main agenda, maps of the entire space being used and clear directions to other rooms that are being used for various sessions, either plenary or break-out. It is also a best practice to have some light refreshments in this area as well as comfortable seating in pods spread throughout for small group meetings or impromptu conversations.
The virtual world is no different. Whatever co-creation tool you use, have a main landing page that clearly lays out the supporting materials needed for the entire session(s) with links to other pages that will be used for each session. Make sure there is a unique page for each session/process as capturing too much information in one space will confuse participants. The adjacent image is an example of a main Mural page that we use to support our on-line Art and Science of Participation course. This landing page has all the information required to guide the weeks activities including assignments, general resources and links to the pages used for each of the 20 sessions over 5 days on the agenda. On the following page I have included a graphic of the course overview which is one part of the main landing page that participants use to navigate to their working space during and after the course. The ability to have a permanent space to hold the digital information for a group is one of the benefits of virtual facilitation as participants can revisit it at their leisure and allows for asynchronous work by participants.
Keep the Participant Experience Top of Mind
Careful consideration must be given to how participants will use the room to support their thinking and comfortably move through a physical space in a way that supports the flow of the process. This is your chance to use the space to send messages to the group that will encourage participation and creative thinking. Some factors to consider include:
– Location. In your design give thought to what location will best support a group. Does the group wish to remain in their own premises or will getting them outside of their familiar setting be helpful in achieving their aims? Don’t be afraid to mix up locations to signal change. I’ve held facilitated conversations outdoors with some groups with great response from the group. A colleague tells of doing a consensus workshop in the woods with string between trees on which to hold cards!
– Movement. How will people physically move throughout a room? Design your room so that there aren’t traffic bottlenecks or areas where participants might cross each other unnecessarily. You might also wish to move participants around a room, so they don’t nest in one space over multiple sessions.
– If you are moving a group around a room or multiple rooms, ask yourself if there’s a logical flow or progression that matches the journey that the group is on. If, for example, there are several separate, but related, processes that build on each other have the group move together clockwise through a room with each process.
– Spacing. If groups are working separately at the same time make sure there is sufficient separation so conversations don’t blend.
– Keep documents that groups create on the wall throughout the entire facilitated process. Participants can revisit the information at their leisure and refer back to it if needed.
– Creative Décor can bring vibrancy into a stale room. Something as simple as a creative centerpiece on a table that they are working around can send messages to a group that something different is happening here.
– Audio-visual equipment. Do you want to use audio-visual equipment for presentations? Using equipment is good for presentations however be careful not to overuse them. We all see enough power point presentations!
– Seating. Different seating styles will support different types of participation so think about what you are trying to achieve with the group before you arrange the seating. Theatre style seating arrangements discourage participation, however there are many other ways to get groups to work with each other that encourages participation such as:
o Seating in a circle with no table sends a message of openness and encourages sharing of information.
o Seating in a horseshoe allows participants to see each other while having the safety of a table to support their materials and physical space.
o Seating in an unconventional style such as a “V” can send messages of movement and direction.
An Example of Space that Supports Group Journey
I had the honour of working with a group of community developers who were about to regroup after several years of inactivity. They were volunteer based with limited financial resources, but they had tremendous passion and some committed volunteers who wanted to dig in. I was asked to work with them over three days to create an action plan with the session to be video recorded. They had donated space in an interior room of a hockey arena with the only view being the ice surface below. The picture below is my space plan that I created after visiting the space and matching it to the process flow.
Part One: Journey Wall. The group had a long history but for various reasons had gone dormant. A larger group of past board members assembled with the new and they explored their shared history to understand the lessons learned to be mindful of as they look to the future. I designed a large horseshoe -seating facing the wall they would be using. In in the middle was a centerpiece of holly bush. This brought some life in to an otherwise sterile environment and was reflective of the rebirth of their organization (for those of you gardeners reading this article). The key findings of the session were kept to the left wall and remained there for the entire event. Previous members left after this session with the core group remaining for the rest of the deliberations.
Part Two: SOAR and Gifts. Moving clockwise the group was seated in a circle discussed the Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations for the future and Results they needed. They also discussed the gifts they brought and willing to share as well as the gifts they saw in others and how they will be helpful as they work together. The key findings were put on flipchart paper and placed on the wall in front of the circle.
Part Three: Vision Workshop. A smaller horseshoe was created with a centerpiece and participants were brought through a consensus workshop articulating their shared vision of the future. Flipcharts were also around the table for participants to do some deeper thinking on their priorities with the results placed on the wall to the right of the workshop between the main working space and the coat rack.
Part Four: Action Planning. Continuing clockwise the group was seated in a V formation to signal momentum and forward movement. The gifts they bring from part two were transferred to the wall adjacent to their action planning space which helped shape what they would actually commit to doing in the next six months. In front of the V was a timeline where the groups goals, measureable accomplishments and tactical steps were outlined for the next six months.
Refreshments/Music: Below the window overlooking the ice surface the snack table was created that participants could use at their leisure. A speaker was also placed there for music that was played between breaks.
Holding these same values in the virtual space is equally as important. When you design sessions using co-creation tools it is important that the information flows well throughout the page they are working from in a logical and supportive manner. I could replicate the session above virtually by having:
– a landing main page with the supporting materials placed and links to each of the 4 workshops.
– Each page for the workshops that would graphically replicate the experience of the face to face workshops. I have successfully worked with groups using all of the methods identified virtually using Zoom for audio/video and Mural for the co-creation.
Have a Plan B
Even with the best made plans there is always a chance something will cause your space design to go sideways at the event. Don’t panic — there are some simple things you can do to rescue your session. A few tips to consider:
– Have a sticky wall (or two) with you at all times along with adhesive spray, cards and markers. Regardless of location you can quickly create a working space. These can be purchased from the ICA USA web store or you can make your own using parachute cloth.
– Test your design by thinking through what you might do if your space was compromised at any time. Often this will be a matter of altering your process as opposed to the key questions that need to be asked.
– If something happens during an event that is beyond your control, be open with the group about what’s happening and together discuss how you can respond to achieve the results the group needs.