25 June 2018

The Design Brain: Notes on Design & Facilitation 

by :

By Glen Milne

(Originally posted May 28, 2018. Updated, June 25, 2018)


  8.   STRATEGIC  CONCEPTS                                                      





Design thinking engages our perception, intuition, imagination, memory, and analysis…in thoughtful making of successive approximations of the design product.

The research, thinking and work that led to this conclusion included;

> 20 hours research of the scientific, academic and professional literature.

> Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’

> My 40 years of training design, government and military students

>  20 interviews with professional designers and military officers

> Observing squirrels designing successive solutions for getting into a bird feeder

> Designing buildings, landscapes, curricula, programs, organizations, consultations, election platforms, policy, strategies, processes, furniture, art, etc.

Brain science tells us that design activities, (intuition, analysis, memory, speculation and decision-making) are centered in – but not limited to – assigned parts of the brain, and that the whole brain and nervous system are involved in the conversation, including touch and the other senses. Left brain/right brain distinctions have recently lost importance.

Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ presents compelling evidence that the mind works in two complementary systems. System One is fast and intuitive, but impetuous and prone to jumping to conclusions based on preconceptions, biases, recent events and information, etc. System Two is slow, more careful and analytic, more able to make rational assessments, compare options, etc. but has some flawed heuristics.

Memory makes fast and slow contributions to the conversation including:

> comparable experiences, products, successes, failures and experience

> informed empathy with ‘the nature of everything’ in the design context,

An evolving external product that captures the work, learning and successive outputs of the conversation, such as a series of sketches evolving into a careful drawing, is a vital element. The parts of the brain can convince themselves that they have produced a good concept without a tangible product – but – playful/thoughtful making and considerate review of progressive external approximations produce far better outcomes. “Design is captured intelligence”.

Design tools, (e.g. visual thinking, system models, continua ordering, scenarios, marketplace analysis, design critiques, etc.) enable the design mind to grasp, reframe, simplify, model and manipulate the key variables in the design situation…and provide vehicles for the external product of the design conversation. They also enable our mind to discover design objectives, criteria, issues, etc. in fresh ways. Even a new notebook and pen can refresh our design thinking.

Despite my excellent experience with Synectics as a facilitation method I am wary of copyrighted design methods that are in effect design prescriptions or doctrine…sometimes from folks who study design but have never practiced it. Perhaps one can enjoy a running start with such methods. For me, part of design thinking is finding the design process for the project at hand.

Playful thinking is an essential partner with thoughtful making. Performance anxiety, self doubt, procrastination, doodling, day-dreaming, etc. are, in moderation, part of the natural design process. For instance procrastination and anxiety can help build the tension required to break away from a preconceived way of doing things and ‘go to press’ with an original idea at the deadline. Fantastic thinking enables imagining a perfect product…and working ‘downhill’ towards genuinely innovative and feasible products from there. For example; “My objective is infinite span with zero mass– Robert. LeRicolais, U. Pennsylvania.,1963

Professional designers use walks, naps, and other diversions to enable the brain to rest and work without being bothered by fresh inputs and questions. In the midst of a design struggle I am frequently overcome with the urge to nap. So I do, then awaken after 12 minutes with a calm sense of what is next. I also tend to wake up too early with a ‘morning report’ of ideas and designs for the important challenges on my mind. It reminds me of a printer spitting out pages. Creative capabilities can be harmed by too much electronic screen time. Adequate sleep, naps and regular exercise are vital to creative performance. Mindfulness and meditation are helpful.

The design brain becomes more capable through continuous use. It’s capabilities can be enhanced with activities that develop listening, seeing, critical thinking, thoughtful making, etc. You might consider designing and making almost everything…Christmas cards, table settings, rooms, garden, buildings, furniture, family strategies, ROE, improvements to doctrine, etc. The design mind sometimes plays with leftover resources to make something interesting that has no apparent use – then might find a good use for it.



In the late 1960’s George Prince and his partners at Synectics Incorporated, Boston, videotaped and analyzed the dynamics of hundreds of design and problem solving meetings….then developed the fundamentals of facilitation methods used today around the world. Synectics methods of facilitation incorporated then what we now know about how the mind instinctively works.

I was trained at Synectics via two week programs at the Basic and Master’s levels. Since then I have facilitated hundreds of meetings, most of them with challenging circumstances. Along the way I have trained many teams and new partners.

Expertise in facilitation comes about as naturally as a good golf swing. Some basics are not obvious or intuitive. For instance writing up someone’s fuzzy ideas in a clearer way, or suggesting good workable solutions from your previous experience will cause participants to lose trust in your impartiality and the event.

Facilitation knowledge and skills can enable the successful planning and execution of group activity from conversations to team creativity and problem solving, corporate innovation, and extended consultation and project processes. These capabilities in turn enable radically better leadership, teamwork, teaching, mediation, design thinking and negotiation with much less time, friction and conflict. A meeting or process that is planned and run with expert facilitation can produce twice the value in half the time.

Many organizations have dramatically improved the culture of their organization through facilitation training of interested staff at all levels…sometimes as part of training in design thinking. An infection of ‘facilitated design thinking’ can spread rapidly, resulting in better listening, more considerate support of colleagues, regular ‘brown bag’ work review and design thinking sessions, effective teamwork and meetings, awareness of bullying, and the capacity to take on difficult/ambitious multi-stakeholder initiatives.



Expert facilitation combined with design skills and tools can enable groups of all kinds (teams, committees, stakeholders, conflicting parties etc.) to work effectively as a design team.  An expert design facilitator can enable a creative, collaborative and iterative design process drawing on everyone’s design thinking.

My role and capabilities as a design facilitator emerged in response to certain clients’ expectations. Many teams pulling together policy initiatives learned to “get Glen in to do the graphics”, which was a euphemism for my providing design facilitation services.

A day of facilitated brainstorming and design by the team would end with the walls covered with charts showing elements of an environment scan, SWOT, vision, objectives, strategic options, resources, action plan, etc. I would stay behind – perhaps with the rapporteur- to clean up, organize the charts and review the results. Then I would take the evening off and rise very early the next morning to wrestle/design a new compact synthesis from the charts in the form of 2 or 3 charts of ‘point form plus visual thinking diagrams’. I found it necessary to do that design work on my own….which usually meant asking the client team to stay out of the room until start time.

After welcoming the group back in I would open the meeting by introducing myself as ‘the overnight design team’ and asking him to present his attempt at synthesizing yesterday’s work. I would earnestly present the synthesis as if I were one of the team presenting it to a client or boss. After a few clarifying Q&A  I would thank the presenter and revert to facilitating the team response to the synthesis and development of a final product and work plan by noon.

That model is also very effective for half and one day projects..



In June 2017 I was invited by Dr. Paul Mitchell of CFC to
be one of three SMEs for the week-long design thinking component near the end of the Canadian Forces College’s National Security Programme (NSP). While designing that week
I wrestled with the question. What type of design experiences to provide to higher level officers who have extensive successful operational experience, some exposure to design methods, but little design training and experience?

The approach I took was provide them with a range of a dozen or so
design tools imported from the design disciplines and other areas that deal with
change and the future such as strategic planning, public policy, and strategic foresight. My hunch was that the participants would want to pick up a range of ‘hands-on’ design tools and perhaps in the process be informed on the core nature of design by experiencing it from the various perspectives built into the tools.

For each of 8 half days I began the workshop by describing and demonstrating one or two new tools. The syndicate of 13 participants would then confer and agree (in a flash) on how they would apply it to some aspect of the case study; “Stabilization and Development in West Africa’… and do it. The syndicate tended to integrate tools picked up earlier with each successive new tool.

The results were integrated into a single presentation to the other two syndicates, and NSP/CFC staff on the fifth day. Enthusiasm was the order of the day all that week.

In the same context in June 2018 my syndicate group used the tools in their design case study: ‘A strategic concept for pursuing Canada’s interests in the S.E. Pacific region, specifically wrt China’. Two new tools were introduced: Proxemics, and, Branding.

Here is an illustration of the use of the Continuum tool.


Visual Thinking: Iterative drawing (by hand) of strategic situations and concepts that enable understanding and design of characteristics and relationships.

Parti: The basic organizational concept underlying or generating a design expressed as a simplistic diagram.

Strategic Layers: Using transparent layers of information pertaining to a challenge and its context, resources and strategic options.

Facilitation+Design: Facilitating group problem solving, operational planning, design thinking, etc, then designing a synthesis of their results for their review & improvement..

System Models: Identifying and strategically relating key elements and causal relationships of complex situations plus key drivers, interventions and tipping points.

Continuum: Organize random collections of anything—things, situations, strategic concepts, options, resources, processes, etc.—into continua that enable strategic selection.

Proxemics: Understanding the functions and meaning created by locational/geographic juxtaposition and composition: from gesture, to innovation cluster, to geopolitical region.

Strategic Foresight: Generating a range of three or four feasible ‘could be’ scenarios 10 to 30 years in the future. Frequently accompanied by step-by-step narratives illustrating how we got to those scenarios from today including key drivers, events, changes and technologies along the way. Enables identification of key conditions, technologies, etc., and provides a context for strategic planning and tracking of outcomes.

‘Goldilocks’ Scenarios:  Three simplistic scenarios (cold, just right and too hot) illustrating drivers, components, relationships, outcomes, paths, implications, etc.

Empathy with people, equipment, situations, environments, everything…including the collective search for ‘the nature of’, and, ‘what does it want to be/do?’

Marketplace Analysis: Analysis and understanding of social and natural marketplaces and their memberships, institutions and vital behaviours: trading, competing, collaborating learning, stealing, and sharing of soft-medium-hard infrastructure.

Design Charrettes: All stakeholders in a fast paced design thinking, planning, and project management event. Includes musical chairs with roles, design sherpas, and sherpa work to produce scenarios and designs.

Design Studio and Critiques: Design work is done in a collective ‘marketplace’ space. Presentations are collective critical thinking for insights and learning.

Branding Options; Describing the essential nature of options for a strategic concept, product, event, process, etc. in brand names that enable clarification and comparison.


In June 2017, I asked my syndicate members: “What do graphics convey better than words?” One member kicked off smartly with one word; “relationships”. In June 2018, a member caught our attention with “enable the viewer to infer”.

The 2018 group added other attributes of visual thinking such as; enabling understanding of the whole, layering situation, resources and strategy, pattern and system recognition, using more areas of the brain, shared group perspective, conveying characteristics of the elements, etc.

They then identified the graphic tools/variables of layers, location, size, distance, colour, line width, etc. I coached both groups in how to draw a simple clear diagram. They dove into making graphics for our case study that were far better than any graphic program.

In 1986 I ‘design facilitated’ the following graphic for a client working group to illustrate the need for changes to the broadcast act in Canada. It was part of a slide deck for the Minister of Communications to use when presenting a contentious issue to her Cabinet committee. Three years later she enthusiastically told me that she had put a copy in her purse and used it to convince her Cabinet colleagues of the necessity of the changes, “Once they saw that drawing they came around instantly”. 



This experience combines the ‘learning-by-making’ studio format of architectural and arts training with adult education methods including: articulating what participants know ‘coming in’, expert contributions, visual thinking and facilitated group collaboration. The topic of the studio depends on client requirements. The case below was developed for a government department with the objective of developing policy capacity in regional staff.


LEARNING OBJECTIVES:                                                                                             

1. Start developing the capabilities to design and manage a strategy for a successful policy initiative (i.e. one that wins the attention and approval of the Prime Minister and Cabinet) through creating both demand for and supply of the initiative among key stakeholders…as well as responding to the PM’s values and agenda.

2. Become familiar with the scope and nature of stakeholder interests in the policy marketplace.

3. Develop policy design and implementation instincts, capabilities and networks…plus visual thinking, design facilitation, and group participation skills.



Two weeks before the studio event participants are provided with a kit including: a copy of this years edition of Glen’s graphic publication ‘Making Policy: A Guide to How the Federal Government Works’; a large wall chart of the policy marketplace; and logistic materials. It also contains a briefing note from Glen suggesting how to: develop the strategy and chart using one’s own knowledge; refer to the Guide, review the Minister’s Mandate letter, SFT and other sources of intelligence on the PM’s mindset; consult with local colleagues and experts; and so forth.

Before the design studio event participants work collaboratively in geographically distributed local pairs to research and develop a strategy for a policy initiative using the chart as a reference and presentation medium.

At the half or full day in-person studio event the policy initiative charts are presented by their authors, then positively critiqued by Glen and other participants via facilitated observations and ideas. Glen will contribute short briefings as required emerging from the studio conversation.

The studio concludes with a facilitated review of lessons learned, synthesis of participants’ ideas, and ideas for further development of policy capabilities.



The design thinking movement has in large part been built around specific copyrighted methods for the design process. Key elements in most of these methods are empathy and iteration. Googling ‘Design Thinking Diagrams’ brings up dozens of such models associated with business and design schools and consulting companies around the world. Here is one that I like from the Bergen design cluster DesignArena in Norway. BTW I think the first ‘Empathy’ stage should include empathizing with – and sensing the nature of – every social, economic and physical element in the situation.



 The design-thinking process begins with gaining empathy for the user and ends with the real-world implementation of products, services, processes, experiences and/or systems. Despite first impressions, though, this method is highly iterative and non-linear. Design thinkers learn to swiftly move forward and backward in the process by embracing high-levels of ambiguity and uncertainty.

(Image Source: DT Bergen,


Empathy & Needfinding

As design thinkers, we begin by focusing on the human experience.  We understand that the most impactful innovations are those that address important human needs in meaningful ways. Many times, though, these needs are hidden under the surface.

To better understand these needs, we adopt a deeply empathic perspective by standing in the shoes of others, and experiencing life from their perspective.  This kind of need finding is not new, of course: anthropologists and ethnographers have been doing this for generations.  Design thinking simply relays this powerful approach to address the challenges of modern-day organizations, such as increasing revenues and market share by developing more user-friendly products and services.

And indeed, since companies are made up of humans, the need for empathy is everywhere:  internally, with retail’s B2B (back to business) customers, and with many other external stakeholders.


Design thinkers focus more on asking the right questions than coming up with the right answers.  This is because the goal of design is not to discover an existing truth through traditional analytical thinking.  That’s the role of science.  Instead, design thinkers seek to invent the future through synthesis.

And because there is no single ‘right future,’ but instead many ‘possible futures,’ asking the right questions helps us explore multiple possibilities — eventually honing in on the most appropriate one.


Design thinkers understand that with the right approach, our minds can become boundless.  Quite often, however, the flow of creative ideas becomes obstructed by social constructs, self-imposed cognitive limitations, and personal biases, which we inevitably adopt as we grow older.

Design thinkers learn to break these mental blocks by deferring judgement, letting go of unhelpful preconceptions, building on the ideas of others, and bringing mindfulness to everything that we do.


Design thinkers embrace iterations by building rough and rapid prototypes, and testing them early on.  At first this can feel chaotic and risky.  Design thinkers quickly become comfortable with trial and error, however, and value the immediate feedback that it provides.

We are open to small, early failures, which can eventually pave our way to success.  We don’t, however, think that failure is fun.  That would be disingenuous.  All we do is train ourselves—and our companies—to embrace failure for the learning opportunity that it really is.

Test & Commercialize

Ultimately, design thinkers want to have an impact on the world.  This is why besides developing new ideas, we also focus on the execution and commercialization of those ideas.  This means that we must understand how our innovations become part of an organization’s operations, management structure, and culture.

Similarly, it’s important for us to view our creations as a part of a greater whole, one which includes markets, suppliers, competitors, among many other stakeholders.  We therefore learn how to integrate our creations into the larger market context by designing innovative business models.


Although some quiet independent thinking can be good for idea generation, design thinkers recognize early on that meaningful human-centered innovations can only flourish through team-based social processes.

Design thinkers constantly seek opportunities for radical collaboration and co-creation.  It is through the cross-pollination of multiple perspectives, ideas, and approaches that the creative process flourishes.  We leverage diversity in all its forms—gender, cultural, academic, professional—to break with the status quo.


Designing new products, services, and experiences is inherently ambiguous and messy.  Design thinkers embrace this non-linearity and chaos through open-mindedness, flexibility, and a youthful sense of experimentation and play.  


Micromanaging or over-controlling the innovation process is not only futile, but also counterproductive.  Design thinkers revel in uncertainty, improvise constantly, trust their gut feeling, and laugh a lot.  We don’t take ourselves too seriously, but we take what we do very seriously.



A strategic concept can be captured and expressed in any medium: a half page document, poem, painting, music, diagram, etc. Here are diagrams illustrating a strategic concept for the Canadian economy and human resource development system that were developed—with the aid of design facilitation—for a national committee advising the Prime Minister,



These guidelines are extracted from my training and experience as a facilitator for 40 years or so. They can serve as a briefing on the purpose, bases and techniques of expert facilitation, and as performance specifications for facilitation services.

1. Purpose & Product of a Expert Facilitation 

Expert facilitation enables;

–   effective fast meetings

–   development of individual and group communication skills

–   synergistic team design thinking and innovation

–   mediation and resolution of differences among individuals and stakeholders

2. Working with human nature (and the design brain)

Facilitation works with human instincts rather than logic. These include:

–   We do best if we are briefly oriented to context, challenge, who, why, what and when, but not submerged in data.

–   It is difficult to listen well until we’ve been recognized and ‘seen to be heard’.

–   We arrive with things we want to tell, and can’t really participate until we get them off our chest (or added via a loaded question).

–   If you pose a question, the mind will tend to answer right away.

–   We tense up if asked for the best answer, but gladly volunteer an example.

–   The mind can work more effectively ‘downhill’ from idealized solutions to innovative feasible designs…than push existing solutions ‘uphill’ to true innovation.

–   The mind will find a pattern in almost any field of information.

–   People sag, tense up and retaliate if their ideas are immediately tested – but relax and build on each others’ ideas if the virtues of an idea are counted first and concerns raised afterwards.

–   It turns us off when some participants assume authority, take too much air time, interrupt, ignore or put down others’ contributions, etc.

3. Careful Planning

A successful facilitation session depends in part on clarifying the situation, requirements, desired outcomes, best participants, hidden agendas, etc, before the session. This can be achieved through the following steps.

–   An early discussion and assessment of the objectives and conditions for the session by the facilitator and client.

–   Interviews between the facilitator and a representative range of stakeholders (before the session is fully planned) to develop joint insight on the content, issues, desired product, agenda, process, etc.

–   Bringing a representative group of stakeholders together to plan the session, including:

>  clear definition of the challenge and its context

>  delineation of expectations for the event and its follow-up

>  the agenda, participants, briefing materials, facilities, etc.

–   Develop an invitation that outlines the objectives, the agenda, what will be produced, and participants’ roles and contributions.

–   A group can usually make a better contribution on the basis of a ten minute ‘sitrep’ briefing at beginning of an the event, then trying to read substantial documentation.

4. Clear roles

The senior person from the client organization(s) can act as the host for the event…but not the chair or “he or she who must be pleased”. They can welcome the group at the outset and thank everyone for the results at the close. During the session they become a participant–or the ‘client’ for the session.  The client for the session is the person with follow-up responsibility for the project under consideration. The group is there to help them with their responsibilities. The facilitator is responsible for the design and execution of the process. The rapporteur’s responsibilities are to help set-up the room, record the key contributions and decisions, and enable the facilitator to keep tuned in to the room dynamics, process, and agenda.

The facilitator periodically asks the ‘client’ and rapporteur for their sense of progress and what comes next. Everyone in the room is a full contributor (except the facilitator and rapporteur). ‘Observers’ can cast a chill and frequently jump into the dialogue in a disruptive manner… as in;  “I just came to see how you were doing…but I must say you don’t really understand why we…”

5. The number of people in the room fits the purpose of the meeting

A problem solving or creative session runs best with seven participants—plus or minus two. Larger groups can consider a proposal, make collective decisions, or develop a joint understanding, situation report, environment scan, etc. We recommend that groups larger than a dozen or so break into smaller groups for more creative work—then report back to plenary.

6. Appropriate facility and equipment

The physical environment is a key driver of the results of a session. Flip charts on wobbly tripods, or wheely wobbly white boards are inferior to eight feet or more of clear flat wall to tape up 11”x17” sheets, 3M ‘stickies’, etc. That display enables ‘gestalt’ instincts for the emerging pattern and direction of the contributions.

An ‘open square’ table arrangement works best. Put the participants around three sides of the square, leave the front open for the facilitator, and a clear view of the wall for all. Avoid narrow rooms and furniture that dictate a ‘board room’ table arrangement. It creates many difficulties, including encouraging those at the head of the table to turn their back on the facilitator and making it difficult for participants to see each others’ faces.  Allow for ample circulation space around the edge of the room and a table of liquid refreshments…including alternatives to caffeinated coffee.

Filtered daylight helps keep the brain invigorated. Allow for participants with significant hearing loss. Ask those presenting briefings to only turn on their projectors when needed.  Check out the room early enough to remedy problems or find a better one.

Prepare two-sided light cardboard name ‘tents’ with lettering large enough to see across the room. The tents help make people feel present and focussed on the event – as well as helping the facilitator address people by name. ‘Bivouac’ the tents on a table near the door for participants to pick up as they select their own seat.

7.  Expert facilitation

A well trained facilitator can enable a group to quickly produce innovative, feasible and often breakthrough results. They have no vested interest in a particular outcome other than serving the client and group well. Most untrained volunteers attempt to facilitate with the best of intentions but unknowingly make fundamental errors in technique and process. Some can be tempted to hold the pen and help steer the discussion in the ‘right’ direction.

Part of the facilitator’s professional commitment (and trust with the group) is to resist any pressure to manipulate the group to a particular outcome.  It is in everyone’s best interest to encourage transparency, full disclosure, grappling with the real issues, bringing the skeletons out of the closet, and developing ideas that lead to fresh creative and feasible strategies.   With or without a facilitator a group can help make a good meeting by forming ground rules for process at the outset. Teams can learn from the occasional use of professional facilitators how to better manage their other meetings and interaction.

8. The right length of time

Sessions can be too long or too short. A brisk half-day session (especially in the morning) can achieve as much as a full day because of the inevitable post-lunch sag or difficulties in keeping participants present for a whole day. A good format for a longer strategic planning – or equivalent – session is to hold it over an evening of orientation, full day of work, and conclude the next morning with the consideration of a draft product prepared overnight by the design facilitator/rapporteur team. Training some team members to a basic level in facilitation can enable their meetings to be shorter, more innovative and productive.

Weekly 45 minute brown-bag lunch sessions can make radical improvements in team and organization performance. Questions can be raised and answered, news provided, issues defined, and follow up agreed on. Such meetings also generate a foundation of understanding and collaboration and provide a safe forum for concerns and competition among team members.

9. A naturally flowing agenda 

A starting point for a session agenda taking the above into account might be as follows.

  1. Welcome and purpose of the session by the host(s)
  2. Participant self-introductions and ‘2 liner’ interests in the project
  3. Review the session agenda and time allocation
  4. Briefly review the existing ‘state of the art’ and challenge
  5. Conduct an environment scan: stakeholders, interests, & ‘SWOT’

(strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats)

  1. Key factors and ideas from everyone
  2. Ideas and creative scenarios by small teams
  3. Group synthesis of the scenarios into a strategy
  4. Development of a ‘W5’ follow-up action plan

(who does what, when, where, with whom, etc.)

10. A few ‘false finishes’ to draw out important leftovers and hold-backs.

11. Ask everyone to conclude the meeting with their 2-line observations on;

– what have we accomplished?

– what have we learned?

– what are the implications for the future?

10. Frequent Refreshment

Time refreshment breaks by the clock – when necessary find a break in the middle of an item.  A group can lose steam for the whole day if the first break is at 10:45 AM rather than 10:00. Give folks light-hearted two minute and one minute warnings that the group is about to reconvene. Take 60 second st-r-e-t-ch breaks every 45 minutes. Encourage participants to wiggle, raise their arms, re-set their lower back, etc. – then back to work.  Beware the inevitable sag after lunch. Mother nature wants us to nap about 30 minutes after lunch. In the absence of cots that phenomena can be sidestepped by having folks work in a pairs or small groups for a half hour. Do not ask people to work formally over lunch or at night. Other kinds of valuable distraction, rest and consideration get done in those breaks.

11.  Good process execution

The facilitator and/or rapporteur succinctly notes on charts and/or 3M stickies all contributions using the participants’ key words and developing instant diagrams to catch relationships and models. This visual record builds over the session to become a collaborative body of knowledge and ideas. Seeing their contributions ‘up there’ minimizes impatience and repetition, enables participants to see patterns, etc. and encourages the group to move smartly through the agenda.

The facilitator’s job is to ask questions that encourage creativity, progress and keep the conversation on topic.  Perhaps small funny awards are given for the ‘furthest out’ ideas.  Once a topic has been lightly explored it can be very effective to ask everyone to write down their main points, ideas and/or recommendations….then ask each person in turn to read aloud their contribution. It is also effective to ask ‘teams of two’ to come up with such contributions. Ask folks to read out their ideas even if they feel they have been said by others – there will be nuances that add value and buy-in.

The facilitator can draw on her own developing understanding of the topic to ask some leading questions—but never suggest anything. As soon as a facilitator makes suggestions the group will subconsciously lose trust in their impartiality and expect steering to foregone or personal directions. Attribution of a contribution to a particular participant only happens when it is necessary for follow-up action. This is a group effort. Several times during the event the facilitator checks with the ‘responsible client’ and asks for an ‘itemized response’ on what is useful that has been produced so far, concerns and further direction for the session. The facilitator also checks with the rapporteur to make sure they have everything needed for their report…including the ‘W5’ action plan.

In order to avoid being subject to special consideration, pleading, or pressure the facilitator encourages all participants to raise suggestions regarding content and process with the group as a whole and not one-on-one with them at breaks, etc.  Progress reports can be produced in the middle of multi-day sessions and serve as a springboard for the next stage.

12. Enabling participants with difficulties

Excited zealots, control freaks, bullies, fading violets, yakkers, impulsives, know-it-alls, and other critters can be brought into the flow of the event with techniques ranging from: helping them see that their contributions have been accurately noted and considered; to—in extreme circumstances—the facilitator asking for an unscheduled break and having a quiet consultation with the difficult person. The facilitator must never get ‘hooked’ by a difficult participant and become difficult as well. I sidestep many such difficulties by frequently asking participants to jot down their two or three contributions to the topic at hand, then go around the table asking for all of them to be read out.

13.  Quick follow-up 

After the event the rapporteur and or facilitator synthesizes the results in a report which organizes the results in a strategic logic—as opposed to chronological order.  A useful session report from a half-day workshop might take a few days to prepare. The facilitator and rapporteur can meet with the client to review the draft report and other lessons learned. Sooner is better than later.   A clear distinction must be made between the rapporteur’s session report and any strategy document to be developed later. Participants might consider the report as part of their compensation along with that great sandwich lunch.

14.  Costs and Benefits 

The facilitator’s time for the planning, facilitation and report of a half-day session can add up 3 or 4 days. The client organization gets that investment back many times over in saved time, clarity, innovation, team building, and project acceleration.



Glen Milne provides facilitation, design, training and advisory services from his base in Ottawa, Canada. He works with his clients to design and implement projects in areas such as professional and organizational development, strategy, foresight studies, policy and business design, design thinking, governance, and consultations. His contributions are based on experience with all parts of the federal government, including Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, central agencies, departmental executives and programs, regional offices, and the Canadian Forces. He co-founded the School of Architecture at Carleton University, and is the co-author of the classified doctrine and unclassified publication “Decision Making for National Security.” 


We can provide facilitation training in several formats from a 90 minute workshop to a course consisting of three to six half-days. The training includes a self- assessment of skills, knowledge and aspirations and builds on those through short presentations and skits, mini projects, coaching and field work assignments. The method is a mix of facilitated learning and mini-projects. We mostly learn to do it by doing it. A trained group can provide ad-hoc services and leadership skills to meetings and teams throughout their organization.

Coordinates:,,         613-562-4333








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