Video and transcript from Celine Thibault’s talk at Austin’s 1st Annual Facilitator Summit, Control the Room

This is part of the 2019 Control The Room speaker video series. Please join us for the Control the Room 2020, which will be held Feb. 5–7, 2020. You can find out more and buy tickets here.

Control the Room 2019 was Austin’s 1st Annual Facilitator Summit with the goal of bringing together facilitators of all kinds to build rapport, learn, and grow together.

The conference opened with a talk by Priya Parker, author of “The Art of Gathering.” After that, we moved onto 15 quick-and-powerful presentations by facilitators of all kinds.

Designer Celine Thibault spoke at the Control The Room Facilitator Summit about the importance of planning and setting up meeting environments to create successful

Within that group of amazing speakers, we were lucky enough to have Celine Thibault. Celine showed everyone that the way we plan for and set up our meeting environment determines the outcome. When we create a physically engaging space where people can close their computers and be a part of a group, we experience an emotional shift and make it possible for people to be vulnerable, to speak up, and to push the work forward.

“We often think of facilitation as one of those talents some people have, and others don’t. Years of practice, failure, and reflection taught me facilitation is a craft that we can improve over time. Control the Room brings in inspiring, experienced facilitators who break down facilitation into methods and tools we can practice and build on overtime.” — Celine Thibault

Watch Celine Thibault’s talk “Making the Meta Physical”:

Read the Transcript:

Celine Thibault: Hello. Hi. Good afternoon. Okay, cool. I’m Celine. I’m a designer in Austin, actually not too far from here at Handsome. We’re a small agency, but I want to start you off with something from a little further back in my lifetime. This is me when I was, I don’t know, I think I’m five, and I’m from Louisiana originally. I’m fishing for catfish, something that you’re supposed to do very patiently. You’re supposed to drop your line and wait for the fish to come and take your hook, but I was not going to follow any rules. I was a very free-spirited child, and I moved my fishing line all over the pond, and much to my parents’ dismay, I caught tons of catfish, and I learned no lessons.

As I got older, this is the day that I got my first car. You can’t see it here because I don’t have a photo anymore. This is before iPhones. I had a beautiful, sexy, 1992 Saturn. It was beautiful. But you start to adopt a lot of rules, right? You have to learn how to drive. You have to get your driver’s license. You have to do what everyone else on the road is doing. So even though I was gaining a lot of freedom and autonomy, and I was working towards being an adult, I was also having to adhere to a lot of cultural standards, and you know, governmental standards, and I wanted to do things right. So I was giving up my free spirited nature, and I was adopting a lot of rules. I don’t have a good photo for this, but as I got older, and I started to work because I did a lot of work that wasn’t specifically design before I came into this field, I went to meetings, and I wanted to succeed.

I wanted to follow the rules and to fit in, and I wanted to have the right idea and the right answer. I think probably a lot of people have experienced that, and if you haven’t yourself, you’ve definitely experienced it with people in your meetings. Well, as you know, this can be a huge blocker, especially if you are leading a meeting. This was basically how I felt every single time I went in thinking I could do that. I always failed. That failure is frustrating and it’s confusing and you know, you think you have to go into the meeting having all of the answers for everyone, and this was quite a few years back for me, and I’m still working at it. But what the hell was the meeting for if I had all the answers? They were never the right answers. Everyone else had better answers or we figured out better answers together.

That is the purpose of our meetings. That’s why we collaborate. I went to design school, a formal education actually here in Austin at the Austin Center for Design. This was the moment where I realized I was doing it all wrong. I had put all this pressure on myself to perform and to hold up the businesses I worked for, to have all the right answers, and that was blocking me from facilitating meaningful interactions. So you can see me here and this class and this doesn’t look much different than the studio I work in today. There’s a lot of pieces in the room, on the walls, work that we had done that we were evaluating and creating together.

This is what I want to talk to you about today. We do a better job of understanding complex situations and finding novel solutions when we create an atmosphere where people with diverse backgrounds and experiences are able to contribute equitably. Your space plays a huge role in that effort, and I don’t know what kind of spaces you have. This is my space here, and so my effort is a deck. It could also be an interactive activity like we’ve done, which are so fun, or something on the table that’s paper that you have in your hands. All of these things feed into helping people to open up, to share their ideas, and to listen to other people who have different ideas than their own.

The reason why this is so important is because we all work on products and services that are much bigger than the people we work with. And then what we know. It’s so exciting to be here, but I get very caught up in the speed of the presentation. I’ve definitely worked on small projects, so you know, even smaller than 10,000 people. At the city of Austin when I was working for the innovation office, which is where I’ll share a project from today, I worked for a million people. Or if you look at larger than Austin, greater Austin, I think at the time it was about 2 million. I recently worked on a project that could potentially be for billions of people. Well, certainly, billions of people don’t have my experiences of fishing for catfish in Louisiana. We all grew up with different experiences, and it’s more interesting to learn about and collaborate with people who have those different points of view in a room than it is to know what I already know.

So let’s jump into what it looks like to build your space, to help people to create share. And critique new ideas. Most engagements that we have, I don’t know if you’re in house or if you consult. I’ve done a little bit of both. You usually have a jumping off meeting. We often call this a kickoff. Like Pria talks about in her book, if you’ve had a chance to peek at it. This is the category of the meeting, but it’s not the purpose. The purpose is usually to identify gaps in the product or service that you’re working on and to prioritize how you’re going to work at it together. It’s also to get to know the team that you’re working with, and in this instance we had already done that larger goal setting meeting of understanding what the problems were and then honing in on the work we were going to do together.

This one was to meet with the decision maker on our project. Excuse me, and the core team, the people we were going to be working with regularly. So the person standing here is Aiden, and then our project lead, Catherine. Aiden is talking about his deepest, darkest fears around the work that we were doing. This is one of the most important things that you’ll do in your work, is having people talk about the things that they’re afraid of. Luckily Aiden likes to hear the sound of his voice, and he’s very happy to share, so he wasn’t a tough person to pull that out of. But you will definitely have people who don’t want to talk about that.

So how can you use the room as a tool for pulling those things out of people’s heads and their hearts? In this instance, we use a very simple tool that everyone knows, which is team canvas, in the meeting we had done an icebreaking activity to get everybody laughing. We’d work through all the positive parts of the team canvas and then you get to the part where it’s risk and concerns. I stepped up first. Actually, I think Catherine went first, and she said, “You know, I’m worried we’re going to fail because…”

I should tell you the goal of the project, Austin, and I actually don’t know where we are with our rates now had invested a lot of money in recycling infrastructure, but we weren’t hitting our targets. That is not only sad for the environment, but also sad because the city was losing money, and they needed to figure out how they were going to make that money back. So they wanted to work with us so that we could understand what the challenges were for residents with residential recycling and to make products and programs and services that would help them get better at it. So the biggest concern for us was we’ll do something that’ll make it worse. Right? That was Catherine’s but concern, I’m sorry, I’m so bad with this. So yeah, this was a really important activity to help everyone feel comfortable with sharing their fears, which were very different. The other important part is that Aiden knew a lot more about the department he worked for and about the subject matter than we did, and we needed to make him feel comfortable enough to share that information.

I’m not going to talk about research interviews, that’s a completely different type of facilitation and one that I do maybe the majority of the time. But this gives context for the next slide. This is a woman who lives in Austin. She’s showing us her garage and why recycling is so incredibly difficult for her. She’s also got a child on her hip, and what we do often in interviews, and I do it a lot at Handsome, is we go to people’s homes, and we ask them challenging questions about their lives and what’s blocking them. So then we come back to the office, we debrief all of that work onto those giant 3M sticky notes that you put on the wall. So on the wall behind Ashley, you’ll see the photos of all of the participants at the top of each canvas, the person’s pseudonym. It’s not their real name, to protect people.

Then all of those stickies are actually quotes from each person. So whenever someone comes into the space, and this one is the slide is about sprint reviews, but this is important context setting. They can walk around the room and familiarize themselves with who we’re serving and why. Ashley, in this case, didn’t work on our team. She worked for the department in Austin who manages recycling, and the cool thing that she’s able to do here because the space is supporting her, is she can tell stories about the people she met when she went on interviews. I’m not telling the story because I’m the researcher, I’m the consultant. It’s important that… I think somebody mentioned this earlier, but no, I can’t remember who. It’s important that she’s telling the story because she… I think Ben did. She’s got to be the one that’s going to work in the department for years to come and carry those voices through as they continue to iterate on their services.

Also, I think this is the first time that Ashley’s practiced design research, and it makes people more confident if they can stand in that place and practice their new role. That department really loved this engagement, and they wanted to continue to do that type of research going forward, and so this was a practice run for them, and you can see she’s actually feeling really good in the moment with what she’s talking about.

Ideation. Once you’ve done research, if you do research, and you know, you can use this for different things in your organization if you don’t do research. You’ve identified a problem area that you need to work on. You need to develop a program or product or a service to address or you need to refine something that already exist. This is when we get to ideation, and especially if you are just working with a design team that you work with all the time, this step will get missed. You’ll have your one or two designers ideate on their own, but this is a cherished moment that you need to take. It’s like the four seasons model. This is the winter. No, this is the… I can’t remember how I was comparing that.

It is definitely the moment where he needs it. Everybody’s saying spring and summer, so I’m going to go with that. This is the moment where you need to stop, reflect on what you know, and you need to create a huge array of ideas and concepts that you can potentially prototype and test and then reflect on those. You don’t always get to do this with the client, but our client was wonderful, so we chose to do it with them. They don’t draw on a daily basis. So that was terrifying to a lot of people. So the room is set up with the participants on the wall and then butcher paper wrapped around the tables and I’ll show you why.

Gina is drawing some lines on the table. This was a warmup activity that we prep the room for, that helped everybody to get into the mode of drawing. We told everybody you don’t need to be an illustrator to be in this meeting. The important point is to communicate ideas. So we had everybody, I think to like Katy Perry. Music is really important as well to set the mood. We had them draw basic geometric shapes, squares, circles, lines. This was also part of my design education, by the way. You know, it’s a little serious in this photo, but everyone filled up the entire surface on the table, and there was a good time. So a lot of laughing and sort of like, you know a little bit of a ferrous moment but a really good way to get people used to the idea of using common design tools.

All of this was working towards us creating concepts so that we could figure out a different products and services. We didn’t actually design any products; programs and services that could maybe address what we were hoping to address. Each concept sheet, I don’t have an image of it. I’m happy to send it to you if you get in touch with me. It’s very basic. It has a block on the left side of the eight and half by 11, a line for a title of what you’re trying to design, and a description. So anybody can fill that out. You can use stick figures, you can draw whatever you want, but it does challenge people to draw a moment in time where a person is using the service that you want to put out into the world. Then I forgot to mention, but at some point we showed them like some really crappy examples. You don’t show people your best examples, you show them the ones that communicate an idea really well and maybe look really bad.

Why do we do that? Well, we want them to feel comfortable drawing poorly. So this was a great exercise. After everybody finished drawing, they stood up and shared their favorite ideas, and then we went through an evaluation process where we went through the ideas and voted, and then went through a more rigorous process later. This is not a great photo of critique, but it was only one of the ones I have from this project. Critique is definitely the most important activity you will practice as a designer. I would encourage you to work it into your process wherever you work. The room is really important for critique because most of the time people tend to bring their laptop. They’ll open their laptop, and they’ll say, well, this is what I created from the last conversation that we had. What do you think?

It’s really difficult to see what someone has done on a laptop. Maybe you’re at the other end of the table, maybe you’re all sitting down, you’re not really feeling very engaged in the conversation. So what we always do is we print out digital artifacts and put them on the walls and make them interactive. We’re trying to sort of democratize the pieces of our work and make them everyone’s work. You also put a pen in everyone’s hand and bring them up to the wall and have them write their critique on stickies themselves. So this is extremely important if you have different opinions or people have precious ideas. Amelie here is facilitating. You can see notes all over the wall, and she’s had a lot of different people write their feedback on the card, not deliver it verbally, and then she feeds it back to the group. Then as a group you can make plans for how you want to change the work going forward. All of this is captured on the wall.

So this is the last example from that project. Here’s some ways that you can take this work home with you, or these tools. The basics of building your physical space. Building the space as your own prompt. As you can tell, this presentation is my prompt. This is the first time I’m presenting this work in this format, and so I need the presentation to be my narrative. Some of the most wonderful presentations are the ones that don’t require any presentation deck, but this is really useful because you can see the experiences, and the room is the same exact way. The room should prompt you to move through your agenda, to move through your timeline and activities, and to capture the important details of the meeting.

We already talked about translating digital artifacts, physical ones. The other important part of that is in the photo you can see there’s a lot of stuff printed on the walls. The boards are also labeled, and then there’s flows on the walls. There’s not individual screens or individual pages. They’re shown in context of someone’s experience. So Brianna is going to the grocery store. She needs to check her banking app to make a decision about what she can purchase in that day. That’s the prompt that’s typed on the wall and printed on that paper, and then shows the experience in the app. This is something people often skip, but even for the smallest meetings, it’s so important because it helps you or it forces you to think through the entire experience critically and to have your team think about edge cases and also think critically.

The last basic is labeling and organizing and talked about that a little bit, but you do want people to be able to come into a room and feel confident themselves that they are a part of the process. So that means taking the information I know and putting it on the wall for other people. The questions to ask yourself for that are what are the parts of the story that you want other people to know? If I work on a five person team and we have six clients coming in, what story do I want them to see when they walk in the door? Do I want them to feel inspired? Do I want them to feel like they need to do some real work? Or are we in a of a celebratory moment? These are some detailed ones. Christina’s a developer. She never draws. She’s holding up a storyboard that we used for a hackathon activity. We were designing a children’s game to help them start to become aware of sex education. It was a great form of communication, and you can see she didn’t have to be a good illustrator.

The fastest way to propagate design methods and tools is to give people the tools and make them practice using them. Setting and carrying the tone. So there’s a lot of ways to do this. I’m still learning so many ways to do this. I’m excited because I’ve taken a lot of tips home today. But the way that I do it is I often step up first, take a risk first and fail fast to show other people that it’s okay. In this instance, Laura is a content strategist that I’ve worked with several times, luckily. She’s awesome, and we’re writing a storyboard about the new city website. Laura had never drawn a storyboard at this moment, and so I drew up and drew a lot of really bad stick figure images, and then she drew this amazing storyboard. I think because it took the edge off; it made her feel like she could participate. She didn’t need to be an illustrator to do a great job at this.

I think the other thing I want to add here is just because someone’s not a designer doesn’t mean that they can’t participate. Everyone has something really important to contribute, and it’s your job to figure out how to pull that out of them. Invite and plan laughter. I encourage everyone to have a Polaroid or Instax camera in your office. I’ve used it a lot of times and so have other people in our office. This is a really fun way to do that. You have everybody come in. Usually the first few meetings you have are pretty stressful or nerve wracking. You have everyone take photos of each other, and then you fill out a profile card that talks about what you’re interested in and your concerns are for the project, and then you put it on the wall, and every time the client comes in they feel a little bit happy because they see this thing that you did together the first time you met.

This one, again, it’s similar to the critique before. This was actually a kickoff meeting, but it speaks to the importance of some of the things that are important around critique. Usually a meeting’s around tables. There’s a few people that are really bold with loud voices, and they’re usually controlling the room. To combat that you can get everyone to stand up and have them move to an artifact and have them verbalize or externalize what is important to the meeting goals onto the wall. People will tend to lower their voices, or if they’re quiet, they heighten their voices or they speak up, and people have one on one conversations. It really changes the dynamic in the room.

This is the last one, giving people domain over space. I just realized I’m at a time, I have no idea when that ran down. I spoke to this earlier. By giving people power over the room, it can make people who feel uneasy or feel like they’re different than everybody else have a stake in the game. Thank you.

Please join us for the Control the Room 2020, which will be held Feb. 5–7, 2020. You can find out more and buy tickets here.