A conversation with Alison Coward, Founder of Bracket
“What I found is that the workshop format is perfect for a creative team.”
Today my guest is Alison Coward, founder of Bracket, a consulting agency that helps teams in the creative and digital industries to work better together. Alison helps organizations build highly collaborative cultures and high-performing teams. She is a strategist, workshop facilitator, coach, trainer, keynote speaker, and author of “A Pocket Guide to Effective Workshops.”
She works across corporates, start-ups, agencies, and public institutions, and her client list includes Google, D&AD, Barclaycard, Wellcome, and Channel 4. With over 15 years of experience of working in, leading, and facilitating creative teams, Alison is passionate about finding the balance between team creativity, productivity, and collaboration.
While researching how creative industries could flourish, Alison came across the idea of collaboration, which she focuses on today. The first iteration of Bracket was a virtual agency that brought freelancers together into teams to deliver collaborative projects for clients.
“As a facilitator, you’re not there to contribute content, and you’re not there to tell people what to do, you’re there to create a space where all of your ideas can come to the forefront,” Alison told me. She further dives into the role of a facilitator, explaining that your role is objective–you need to stay focused on what you need to do to get people communicating. It’s also important to consider what is necessary for your team to get to know each other, and to be able to contribute ideas and feel at ease to speak up.
We also talk about how to make space for constructive conflict, why there is power in the introduction, and how your team can define who they are as an objective. Listen in to find out how to understand the context of what you’re working in, how you can create the environment to do your best work as a team, and why shared empathy across a team is so important.
[00:57] How Alison became a leader in building high-performing teams.
[02:45] Alison’s workshops: teaching others how to create teams that work together.
[04:48] Matching skills to brief and character in a team.
[06:54] Assembling successful teams from people who don’t know each other.
[08:09] Alison’s go-to strategies for getting members of a team on the same page.
[11:30] How your team can define who they are as an objective.
[14:33] Using the empathy map to dig deeper with the people you work with on your team.
[16:00] Emotional baggage tied up in teams and how you can bring that into work.
[19:10] Turning off the negative and looking at the positive to see the beauty we want to pursue.
[23:46] The value of having differing perspectives in a team environment.
[26:52] Developing behaviors and making them habits.
[30:19] To increase your chances of success you have to be intentional about what you’re doing in a team
[33:55] Managers are there to clear the path and make work easy.
[36:39] Alison’s advice in how to gain facilitation in a meeting room.
Links | Resources
About the Guest
Alison works across corporates, start-ups, agencies, and public institutions, and her client list includes Google, D&AD, Barclaycard, Wellcome, and Channel 4. With over 15 years of experience of working in, leading, and facilitating creative teams, Alison is passionate about finding the balance between team creativity, productivity, and collaboration.
About Voltage Control
Voltage Control is a facilitation agency that helps teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.
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Engage Control The Room
Intro: Welcome to the Control the Room Podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures for the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control, and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting.
Douglas: Today I’m with Alison Coward, founder of Bracket, where she helps organizations build highly collaborative cultures and highly performing teams.
Welcome to the show, Alison.
Alison: Thanks, Douglas.
Douglas: So, Alison, tell us a little bit about your journey. How did you get started in this work?
Alison: It is a bit of a journey, actually. So, I didn’t fall into workshop facilitation because I intended to. Actually, the angle that I came with it was because I was so passionate about collaboration.
And I’ve actually done an M.A., which was related to my previous career in the creative industries, did lots of research about how the creative industries could flourish, and came across this idea of collaboration. And, actually, the first iteration of Bracket, when I set out 10 years ago, was a virtual agency that brought freelancers together into teams and to deliver collaborative projects for clients. And at the start of each of those projects, because each of these freelancers never worked together before, it made sense and it was really logical for me to get everyone together to meet each other, but, then, also to have, I guess, a brainstorming session where we talk about what we were going to do for the client and how we were going to work together.
And because I wasn’t a creative producer myself, I was the person that kind of convenes every one. I was the facilitator, but I didn’t know I was doing that at the time. And actually, that’s what people picked up on. They were asking me to facilitate their workshops. So rather than me bringing together teams, they were saying, “Can you come in and work with our teams to do what you’re doing with those teams? because we need that as well.”
It just kind of went from there, really. I kind of realized what workshop facilitation was, started to do more of that. And I wrote a book, A Pocket Guide to Effective Workshops.
And then over the last couple of years, I’ve kind of brought it back full circle—I’d say, over the last kind of three to four years—brought it back full circle to the original core of the idea, which was around collaboration. So whereas the workshops that I ran previously were—they were innovation workshops, maybe brainstorming workshops, or strategy sessions; now a lot of the workshops I facilitate are very much about how teams can gel and form and create new ways of working together.
Douglas: Yeah. I wrote the word forming down, as you mentioned, gel and form, form and gel and work together, that makes me even more curious because I’ve always found that model of forming, norming, storming to be kind of interesting, like this maturity curve that a team goes on. And so what did you find when you were assembling these kind of creative groups and facilitating them, as far as patterns and, I don’t know, maybe norms, that work that you could lean on in this forming stage or when you’re starting to get them to gel?
Alison: That’s a really brilliant question because, first of all, what I found was the workshop format was actually perfect for a creative team, and I don’t think I’d really made that connection before. The thing is, is when you’re facilitating a workshop as a facilitator, you’re not there to contribute content, and you’re not there to tell people what to do. You’re there to create a space where all of the ideas can come to the forefront. And I think I instinctively knew that, but I hadn’t realized it so clearly because I wasn’t a creative producer. It was my job for everybody to come together and create the best platform for this team to do their best work as people that had never met before but people that were experts in everything that they did. So I think that was the first thing was that, as a facilitator, your role is very objective, and you’ve got a specific role, which is about process of what do you need to do to get these people communicating, getting to know each other, being able to contribute ideas and speak up, and also make the space for that constructive conflict that is so important in innovation as well.
So I say that’s one of the things, particularly in terms of the form, is such, some stuff that came before that in terms of kind of understanding the brief and then matching skills to the brief and then kind of having a little bit of a background knowledge about the characters and kind of matching it that way. But, really, the work started in the room, or just before the room, when I would sort of plan that workshop out and figure out, I need to get these people working in the best way possible. How can I make that happen?
Douglas: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think that you mentioned it’s important to understand the brief, and I feel like that’s where so many people focus. It’s like making sure we’re aligning on what exactly needs to be done versus the best way for us to come together and work together, understand each other, and do our best work.
Alison: 100 percent. I mean, that’s the work that needs to be done before you even really start talking about the ideas, or maybe done in tandem. But you’re right that the emphasis is on the content and not on the how. It’s one of my favorite phrases, which is how you work together has more of an impact on the success of a team than what they’re working on and even who’s in the team. And I use lots of research to back that up. But it’s so important. And I think the emphasis for me was that, one, these people were specialists. I’d brought them into the room for a specific reason, and they were cross-disciplinary as well, multidisciplinary teams. Secondly, they’d never met before, and they were going to be working on a high-value client project together. So it’s not that there wasn’t room for mistakes, but we had to kind of get together and start working together very quickly. We didn’t really have the luxury of years of getting to know each other. We had to kind of get together, know each other, and start working together all in the same day. So it was very much emphasis on the kind of the forming part.
Douglas: Yeah, it’s interesting. You mentioned this situation where we don’t have years to get to know each other. We have to assemble and move pretty quickly. I would hazard a guess that we’ll see more of that in the future as the different models emerge for finding work and doing work. To me, the future work is about more kind of open talent.
Alison: Yeah. And temporary teams as well. I mean, I think the challenges that we’re facing and the problems that we want to solve and how we want to innovate, we’re going to need to bring different skillsets together. And that means that it’s going to be teams that are made up of people that have never worked together before, because we’re going to need to bring skills together in new ways. It’s almost like different jigsaw puzzles or different recipes, if you like. The raw ingredients, but mixing them up in different ways, and you get a different result. So we’re going to have to get much more used to working with people that we don’t know and, therefore, understanding what it takes to get a team up and running more quickly, which, like you say, it’s less to do with the content and more to do with the process of how. We need to get better at having those kinds of conversations.
Douglas: Yeah. To me, the word trust comes to mind. How do we get to that point of trust quickly? And I’m curious of what your go-to strategies or what you found to work to kind of really kick start some of that.
Alison: Yeah. Well, there’s a few things. I mean, I always talk about the value of a check in at the start of a meeting and finding a question that everyone can respond to, which not only kind of creates a moment for people to kind of focus and say what we’re going to—we’re in the room together, and we need to give our attention, but also an opportunity for people to get to know each other.
The book The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, he did a lot of research in hospitals, and he found that the teams that were going into surgery, the doctors and nurses and anesthetists that introduced themselves at the beginning of the surgery before they started operating were more likely to have a successful surgery because the fact that they spoke up at the beginning and got to know each other, got to know each other’s names, meant they were more likely to speak up later on during the surgery if they saw something going wrong.
There’s a real power in that kind of pause at the beginning of a session. And I don’t mean those introductions where you go around the room. I mean, I think I find those kind of quite daunting, actually, when I’m in a room of people that I don’t know and I’m under pressure to introduce myself in a really effective way. But finding an interesting question that you can talk around.
I mean, I think the other thing as well, which goes back to social psychology, is that finding ways that people can find things in common with each other, whether it’s two brothers or their parents grew up in the same town or their birthdays are in the same month, even things like that can start to help to build that connection which will then lead to trust. So as a facilitator, again, it’s about finding those questions. And I don’t really like to call them icebreakers all the time. And I know that there’s value in icebreakers, but I feel that this is really part of the work. It’s not just something that’s breaking the ice. It’s something that’s really helping people to get together and to focus on the work. And there’s so much out there. There’s so many questions that we can pick up on. People have created kits for questions that you can ask at the start of a meeting. So they can ware short on those kinds of questions, but I think the fact is we need to design something at the beginning to open up those kinds of conversations.
Douglas: I think you’re so spot on. You know, if we can tie it to our purpose and have it align, and there’s a broader intent or reason why we’re doing that work, then icebreakers, whatever you want to call it, they have value. But if we’re just going to throw them in because, “Oh, we always do this,” then we’re just kind of going through the motions.
I really would love to talk a little bit about—I was thinking about those—I had written down the word team charter. And I was thinking, also, about Patrick Lencioni’s organizational health is so important versus operational excellence. And so I’m curious to just hear your thoughts on this notion of the team really kind of coming together and kind of defining who they are as an objective.
Alison: Absolutely love it. Yeah. It’s one of the key principles that I have is that in order for a team to identify how they’re going to work, how everyone’s going to do their best work, they have to sit down and really explore, first of all, who’s on the team and what each individual is bringing to the team, as well as each of those individuals, how they work and how they do their best work. They also need to consider, therefore, what everybody looks like, what that looks like as a team, when you bring all of those people together, because that’s going to be unique. Because if we’re working in these temporary teams and each team is going to be made up of different types of people, which means each team is going to be different as well, then you need to think about what is it that you’re actually working on—some projects are more fast paced than others. Some are more pressurized than others, that require more creativity and innovation than others—but really understands what it is that you need to do together. And then, also, understand the context that you’re working within as well and whether that’s going to influence the way that you work together. And then once you’ve got all of that, once you’ve kind of discussed that as a team and understood it, that’s when you’re in the position to really start designing, okay, so this is a situation that we’re in. How are we going to do our best work? How can we create the environment for us also individually, do our best work within the way that we can, acknowledging that we’re going to need to make some compromises, and, therefore, what does that mean as a team for us doing our best work as well?
So I actually love the idea of a team charter and particularly the idea of getting to know everybody’s working styles so that there’s that shared empathy across the team as well.
Douglas: Yeah. It reminds me of this technique where managers will write a manual on how to understand them, and give it to their employees or their direct reports. And I think that being able to do that as a team and get to a high-level understanding can be really powerful.
There is a technique I always loved to use as a manager if I had two employees that were struggling. Most of the time, it came down to a lack of understanding about role and perspective and capability, skillset. Unless there was something pathological going on, I would just ask them to go to coffee and tell them, “You can’t talk about work. I don’t want you to talk about your tasks or what’s going on. I just want you to take turns telling each other what the other person does. Describe the other person’s role, in your words, and just listen to each other. And once you’re done sharing back and forth, then discuss that.” It’s, like, 99 times out of 100, they come back, and they’re like, “Oh. You know, I had no idea.”
Alison: Yeah. I love that. I love that.
The other tool that I’ve used as well—and these are particularly across teams, actually, that have conflict, like maybe a marketing or a sales team, or I’ve done it with a research department in a university that had relationship with the academics they work with—I use the empathy map, which is, like, a really great way to kind of sit down, use the empathy map usually with your potential customers or clients if you’re service, but using the empathy map with people that you work with. Again, really trying to dig in deep and to really see things from their point of view. Again, you can kind of help to smooth some of those conflicts over.
Douglas: Yeah, that’s great. It reminded me of how awesome it is when organizations and consultants are using design-thinking tools to point them inward and start thinking employee experience versus customer experience.
Alison: That was—you’re talking about all the stuff I love talking about and writing about. I mean, I literally just wrote a post about design thinking and using design thinking as a way to build resilient teams. And again, one of the main things that I talk about a lot is that we’ve got all of these innovation tools which help us to create amazing products and services and innovate in those areas. If we turn them inwards, into our team, then actually we can innovate the way that we work as well. Most teams, if you think about UX or products, they’re used to using these tools. They’re kind of second nature to them. But often, they haven’t thought about just flipping them internally and using them to really create new ways of working together, and they can be really powerful when used in that way.
Douglas: Absolutely. One of my favorites—we were talking about starting meetings earlier—one of my favorites is starting with hopes and fears, because you talk about feeling strongly about something, this is your career. You spend more time with these people than you sometimes do with family because, frankly, there’s eight hours of your waking day is at the office, or at home, logged into a virtual session. And so there’s going to be a lot of emotional baggage tied up in teams and things. And so just giving people space to express those things can be really powerful.
Alison: 100 percent. And, you know, I think that’s the key, right? We spend so much of our time at work. We often—I think people don’t have the awareness or feel that they have the permission to make work better. And, you know, one of the thoughts is that if you make it work better—because we spend so much time at work and particularly in the area that we work in, a lot of our work is done with teams—if we spend the time making teamwork better, it will change the experience that we have of work. And because we spend so much time at work, it’s kind of going to change the experience that we have over all of our lives because if we’re spending so much time at work and if we don’t like our jobs, then, actually, that has an impact on how we feel generally. If we love our work, we feel that we’re able to go and express ourselves, and we have the opportunity to thrive, do our best work, have amazing conversations with our colleagues, which push us and challenge us and enable us to grow. And that’s going to have a knock on effects in our lives outside of work as well. And that’s one of the things that really gets me going.
I actually did a bit of an interview earlier, and one of the questions was, what’s your biggest delusion? And my delusion is, is that one day everybody goes to work or looks forward to going to work and has brilliant days every single day. I don’t know. That’s kind of like a utopia. But that is, you know, that’s my biggest delusion.
Douglas: You know, I think that’s really beautiful. And I was just coaching someone recently on leadership, and they had, not that long ago, been promoted. They’re a software developer, and they’re kind of on the track to become V.P. of engineering at their startup. And the thing that I noticed, this trend, was they were from a background of just big company, corporate gigs, where the hobby or the pastime is to sit back and just complain about all the things that are wrong. All the things about work and all the things the boss did and someone else did and blah, blah, blah. And that stuff’s addictive. That mindset, that behavior, that pastime is super addictive. And I’m a big fan of positive deviance as a workshop technique, and it can be a way of life, too, if we just reflect on what’s working rather than what’s not working. But as, especially as engineers, it can be really difficult or really easy, I would say, just to fall into that trap. And I’m trained and lifelong engineer, a software developer, and we’ve spent our entire career building our abilities to figure out what could go wrong and to plan against it, and find the bugs and fix them. And we have to be able to turn that off and look at the positive sometime, because if we’re always looking at what won’t work, then we’ll never see the beauty that we might be able to pursue.
Alison: Mm, yeah. And I even like what you said about looking at finding the bugs and fixing it. You can even kind of put a positive spin on that. If we look at that as work, what’s not working in work, and kind of think what we want to problem solve and the things that aren’t working to make it better, that’s the kind of really good way of looking at is, is also a positive spin. But I do agree that it feels quite addictive, and it almost feels like there’s a kind of element of that’s what work’s meant to be. We’re not meant to enjoy it. We’re meant to moan about work. We’re meant to moan about our colleagues.
But what if we weren’t? What if work was meant to be this place where you go to where you are fulfilled? It enables you to sort of, not in a, I guess, in a controlled way, but enables you to be a better human. It enables you to kind of search for what it is that you want to do and kind of grow and develop and explore and become a better communicator. So therefore, you can contribute in better ways to your family, to your community, to society.
I’d love for companies to see themselves as having that role. Can you imagine if companies, alongside, see companies have to make a profit and they have to survive, otherwise they can’t employ people. But when they do kind of get to that stage, it’s like, what if we saw ourselves as a place where people come to thrive, because we see the impact that that’s going to have on society?
Douglas: That’s beautiful. I love it.
I’m going to switch gears a little bit and come back—it’s something I was thinking about when we were talking about the forming and just understanding each other and some of the things that are required to build trust. And it struck me—and this is something that we’ve been doing in some of our workshops. I’ve found great results with it, and I’m sure it’s found your way into your work—where usually when people get along or there’s disagreements or they’re disgruntled by someone, it’s because they have a weakness of their teammates. It’s the behavior that their teammate or someone on the team’s exhibiting is hurtful or doesn’t connect in some way, and it upset someone. And usually, I’ve found that those behaviors are the exact opposite manifestation of a strength.
So, for instance, let’s take one example, which is I’m an achiever, so I get a lot of stuff done. So then my expectations on others can be quite high, unless I check myself and say, “Not everyone is going to be functioning on this achiever level as me. And even when I keep taking them into account, it can potentially still come off as overwhelming to others. And it’s one thing for me to carry that burden and do my best to take care of others, but if we talk about all of this as a team, now everyone else can understand that ‘Oh, I don’t need to interpret this as an attack on me. That’s just Douglas being an achiever. And that’s great for the team.’”
Alison: Yeah, absolutely.
Alison: Of course, I’ve a bit of a love-hate relationship with personality tests. Well, I’m kind of addicted to them because I love doing them for myself, but then I know that they have their limits in the past—
Alison: But I think that they’re a good entry point into self-awareness. And what happens—I remember when I did my first one, which, I think, was Myers Briggs years ago, and it was kind of mind-blowing for me because we need, sometimes, need these kind of assessments. How did they get that so right? But what it did for me was, as well as kind of creating that self-awareness, with Myers Briggs, for example, you’ve got those 15 other personality types. And you’re like, “Oh, right. The reason that person and I clash all the time is that they were on the opposite end of the scale. So they just see things in a different perspective from me.”
So that, actually, that’s the most powerful outcome of the personality test, I think, second to the initial self-awareness is the awareness that other people see things and work in different ways. And the more that you can understand that, the more that you can benefit from collaboration, because in a collaborative team, you don’t want people that all work in the same way. And that’s the whole point of collaborating, that you get different perspectives. But the nature of having those different perspectives may cause conflict if people haven’t taken the time to get to know each other and understand how people see things and, therefore, how valuable that is to have those different perspectives.
It also comes back to the debate around diversity at the moment, which is the value not only from a moral standpoint, that people, the team should be diverse because we are globally diverse, but at the same time, the opportunities that come from inviting or including people into a conversation that have different perspectives and being able to hold those types of conversations. And we’ve seen that it’s pretty challenging, but it’s something that we have to learn to do, not only because we want to make the world better, but also it just makes better workplaces.
Douglas: So, when we talk about working together and how we’re going to do that, we’ve spoken a lot about the soft skills and the understanding around coming together and understanding how we’re going to work together. I think there’s also some very, I would say, more hard skills that go into how we’re going to work together. Even deciding, are we going to use Google Docs and do some real-time collaboration, or what tools are we going to use? When are we going to meet? When does it make sense to have certain types of meetings? And I think that that causes a lot of strain on teams when they don’t have those conversations and they take it for granted or they let things evolve organically versus having some upfront conversations around, what’s the best way for us to share these things, and what is our iteration cadence, etc.?
Alison: Mm. So, here’s the thing, right, is that this can be seen as a design process. You can create and design the way that you work together as a team. And, you know, all those kind of factors I mentioned before—the individuals on the team, the project that you’re working on, the context that you’re working with it—what do you need to design to enable you to reach the outcomes that you set for yourself? And that might be looking specifically at how you meet, when you meet, what types of meetings you’re going to have, what tools you’re going to use, and how you’re going—but not even just what tools you’re going to use, but how you’re going to use those tools. We’re going to use Slack for this, and we’re going to use Google Docs for this.
The other thing is what kinds of mechanisms and, perhaps, rituals can you put in place to foster that communication and the connection and trust—we’ve seen this a lot with remote teams. We’ve seen it a lot in remote teams in the fact that, you know, people aren’t in the office as much, and they’ve really been missing that connection. And it’s not that you can necessarily replicate those water-cooler moments in the office, but there is something that you can create to try to ensure that you’re checking in with your colleagues, for example, or you are having those kind of social chats, and being really intentional about how you work together. And then thinking, “This is all a behavior-change piece.” So not only do we want to collaborate better, and, therefore, that means we need to have this meeting then and that meeting then, but actually really be specific about how and when you’re going to start to develop these behaviors or make them habits.
Douglas: Mm. I love this notion of developing behaviors and making them habits.
Alison: Mm. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, this is it. You know, if we want to work differently, then we’re going to be changing the way that we work, and, actually, we know that as humans, we find change quite difficult to do off of our own backs. However, when change is done to us, like we’ve seen in the recent situation, we’ve had to change quite quickly, when we’re trying to be proactive about change, then we have to be a lot more, I guess, disciplined with ourselves about how it’s going to take place. So it’s not just the conversations with your team of saying, “We want to be a good collaborative team.” It’s saying, “Well, what does collaboration look like to us, and what do we mean by collaboration? And on a practical level, what actions do we take in order to make that happen? And then, when are we going to do those actions? And what does it look like? How do we know that it’s working?” and making sure that you’re having those kind of regular conversations as a team to review how you’re working and what you need to improve or what you need. It’s right on.
Douglas: Yeah. Speaking of change, if you could change anything about most meetings, would it be?
Alison: When I say most meetings, I’m talking about the team meetings that are kind of big parts of projects because the “getting to know you” meetings are slightly different than presentation meetings. But I would say that I would love teams to look at those kinds of meetings and approach them as if they were workshops. So that means taking each of those meetings and thinking, “Right, okay, what is the purpose? What is the outcome? What are the things that we need to discuss? And what are the best ways to discuss those different points? And then, how can we make it engaging, and how can we make sure that everybody gets the chance to have a say?” So I think that’s one of the things that I would like to see change in meetings is that how can we make some of our meetings more workshop like? because that’s what we need. If you want collaborative discussions, that’s exactly what a workshop achieves.
Douglas: Yeah. We’re going to increase participation that way, for sure.
Douglas: I love that. It’s like, can we unleash everyone? because I think so many meetings provide too many opportunities for social loafing.
Alison: Mm. And for people to dominate, as well, the conversation. And that’s the special role of a facilitator is that they are there to keep an eye on these things and make sure that the conversation is inclusive, kind of draw out the things that aren’t being said and the people that aren’t speaking, and understand why they’re not speaking.
Douglas: Yeah. How have you noticed some of those dynamics change now that we’re in the virtual space so much more often?
Alison: Yeah, no less people being intentional about it, then it doesn’t change. I think that was one of the big mistakes that happened is that everyone got very excited by having these online, virtual meetings because we had Zoom, and we’ve got Slack and those kinds of things. But they didn’t—if meetings are terrible face to face anyway, then they’re not automatically going to be amazing because they’re virtual. You’ve still got to apply the same principles of planning those meetings and making them better.
I think it’s the same conversation that we have around collaboration. You know, just by putting great people in the room doesn’t mean that they’re automatically going to work well together. It can happen. But actually, if you want to increase the chances of success, then you’ve got to be intentional about it. And it’s the same with our online meetings.
So where people were feeling, perhaps, that they weren’t able to contribute in online meetings, in fact, it’s been accentuated. So where they weren’t able to contribute in face-to-face meetings, it’s been accentuated in online meetings. And all of the kind of cracks in cultures, in meeting cultures, in team cultures, have just been highlighted and enhanced even more in a situation where we have to work remotely.
And I do believe that a lot of this stuff—I mean, I know I’m biased, but I think what I learned from facilitating workshops was really transformational for me. I said that I started off my career, but I was working with creatives. I was working with freelance creatives. These are people that worked for themselves. They were their own boss, and they were specialists. So I knew, as somebody who didn’t have any knowledge about how they did their work and how they got their results, there was just no point in me telling them what to do. I didn’t want to tell them what to do. That’s the whole point. I got in there because I wanted to kind of draw on their expertise.
Now we’re finding ourselves in a situation where the workplace looks a little bit more like that. We are bringing together multidisciplinary teams. People are specialists in their own areas. And the way that we’ve managed in the past through, or the traditional idea of the manager, i.e. telling people what to do and making decisions, won’t work in an environment where we want innovation.
And what I learned from facilitating workshops was transformational because for me a workshop is the exact same feeling and environment that you need to lead a creative team through uncertainty is exactly what a facilitator does. So it’s almost like, how do leaders take on some of those principles of facilitation and apply them to how they work with their teams? because that’s kind of what we need. We need to make that shift from the tell-and-sell manager to a manager or a leader that is more facilitative and creates the space for people to do their work and enables those conversations.
Douglas: You know, I recently had Lynda Baker on the podcast, and she loves to share this definition of facilitation to be to make ease.
Douglas: And I’m pretty fascinated by this definition, and especially as it relates to what you were just talking about around, how can leaders improve their teams by adopting these skills and this way of working? And tying back to your point around, can we help teams and employees and workers enjoy their work more and not feel like they’re dreading work? And if management is less about like—well, leadership is less about managing and having you under their thumb, and more about, how can I make this easy? that seems like it would bring about more delight.
Alison: Absolutely. Do you know that that—I talk about this all the time. If anyone’s heard me speak at events, then you know that I talk about this all the time, but it just made me think about Teresa Amabile’s book The Progress Principle, where she identified that the thing that knowledge workers want more than anything or the thing that ignites most joy in people’s work is that they’ve made progress every single day and it, therefore, changes the way that we look at managers, that managers are there to clear the path to make that progress easy, which goes back to Lynda Baker’s definition of facilitation.
Douglas: Mm. It also reminds me of—I think Gallup did a study and came up with these twelve questions that were the critical questions that you could ask of employees to kind of rate their satisfaction. They kind of presented a little more negatively in the sense that, like, if they answer no to more than one or two of these questions, then they’re probably likely to leave. I always found them to be really powerful questions, the pepperin and one-on-ones and stuff. But I’ve never used them in workshops, and I just jotted it down because I think it could be interesting to start kind of bringing those in and thinking about, could they be almost design principles? So instead of using them as a reactive measure, we actually use them as a standard to, like, well, how do we design situations that ensure we’re all yeses on all these questions?
Alison: Yes. Yeah.
Douglas: One of them was, do you feel that you’re doing your best work?
Alison: Mm, yeah, yeah. If you’re kind of looking at that from a design point of view, again, it comes back to that self-reflection. It’s like, how can you be sure that you’re doing your best work, or what do you need to be able to do your best work?
Douglas: Yeah. And are we making sure we’re putting people on the right teams? Like, if we’re routinely reassembling and looking at projects, who should be on the projects could be highly informed by the fact of, well, where could Susan be doing her best work? and not necessarily what’s most convenient for me as a leader or for whatever reasons, we can kind of consider some of these things when we’re allocating resources.
Alison: And that’s what makes me think that that’s what work should be about, because you’re going to get not only engaged employees, but if you kind of bring someone in that is able to do their best work on whatever projects that they’re doing, then that’s going to benefit the company in the long run, obviously, because you’ve just got all these people that are just doing amazing work wherever you put them.
Douglas: So, I want to wrap up with one question, which is, if you’re thinking about a leader who’s just starting to hear some of these things, and they’re curious about how facilitation could play a role in the future of their organization, or it could even be someone in the trenches that just wants to be a facilitator, what’s your biggest advice as far as how to start to gain the benefits of facilitation and start to practice some of this stuff?
Alison: I would say, don’t feel that you have to only practice facilitation in a workshop setting. There are skills in facilitation, which is, I guess, what I’ve been saying throughout our chat is that the skills of things like asking great questions and listening, I mean, they’re very aligned to coaching, actually. But actually, if you start with those two, that for a week, every conversation that you have with one of your team, just ask questions and listen and see how that changes and shifts the dynamic. That’s a key skill that a facilitator will have to use in sessions anyway, asking questions and listening to those responses. And that’s, again, what makes facilitation really powerful because people are being listened to. So I’d say try to extract some of those skills. Definitely look at how you command your meetings to be more facilitated as well. So some of the kind of classic ways of designing workshops and facilitation skills. But I would say, also, look at the opportunities outside of those workshop settings for using facilitation skills where you can apply them.
Douglas: I love that. People can go to all the training they want. And I’ve talked to countless facilitators who have gotten lots of training and even multiple levels, and are still daunted when they’re asked to plan a meeting with the CEO. They’re asking for advice of, what do I do? And I think you’re right. Practice matters so much, and you don’t have to wait for the meeting, the big event, the big workshop, to your point earlier. The best way to improve meetings is to make them feel more facilitated, make them feel more like workshops. So start practicing this stuff on everyday meetings, where the stakes are a little lower. And quite frankly, the stakes are higher than you might realize because doing that’s going to unleash so much value, as you previously mentioned.
Alison: Absolutely. Yeah.
Well, this has been such a pleasure, chatting with you today. How can the listeners—how can they find you?
Alison: You can find me on LinkedIn, Alison Coward, on LinkedIn. You can also find me at my website, which is bracketcreative.co.uk. And my email address is alison@email@example.com to get in contact with me.
Well, it’s been a pleasure, chatting with you, Alison. I really enjoyed the conversation.
Alison: Likewise. Thank you so much.Outro: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control the Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want more, head over to our blog, where I post weekly articles and resources about working better together. Voltagecontrol.com.