Video and transcript from Alison Coward ‘s talk at Austin’s 3rd Annual Facilitator Summit, Control the Room

Recently, we hosted our annual facilitator summit alongside our sponsor MURAL, but this time, it was virtual. Instead of gathering in Austin’s Capital Factory, 172 eager learners, expert facilitators, and meeting practitioners gathered online for a 3-day interactive workshop. Our mission each year at Control the Room is to share a global perspective of facilitators from different methodologies, backgrounds, races, genders, sexual orientations, cultures, and ages. We gather to network, learn from one another, and build our facilitation toolkits. 

This year’s summit theme was CONNECTION. Human connection is an integral component of the work we do as facilitators.

When we connect things become possible. When we are disconnected there is dysfunction. When ideas connect they become solutions. When movements connect they become revolutions. 

Control the Room is a safe space to build and celebrate a community of practice for facilitators, which is paramount to learn, grow, and advance as practitioners and engaging in a dialogue that advances the practice of facilitation. We must learn the tools and modalities needed to foster connection and be successful facilitators in the new virtual landscape. 

“We must establish a personal connection with each other. Connection before content. Without relatedness, no work can occur.” —Peter Block

This year’s summit consisted of 18 expert facilitator guest speakers who presented lightning talks and in-depth workshops, where they shared their methods and activities for effective virtual facilitation. 

One of those speakers was Alison Coward.

Alison Coward, Founder of Bracket, closed out the day by discussing the lasting impacts of workshops. Her presentation explored the real potential of workshops in improving our experience of work, and what else that may bring. Integrating workshop culture into an environment allows for the intended products of workshops like engagement and progress as well as the unintended possibilities such as open communication and more trust. 

“Workshops bring many of the factors that we want to see in productive, engaged and positive cultures – collaboration, inclusion, motivation, creativity – so how can we take these elements beyond a one-off event and bring them more generally into the workplace?”

Watch Alison Coward’s talk “Workshop Culture for a Better Workplace” :

Read the Transcript

Alison Coward:

Hi everyone. I probably didn’t think that description through did I? My world records probably been broken way over by now but if anyone wants to count the number of times, I say workshop during this talk and tell me afterwards, I’d be really curious. Anyway, so I am going to be talking to you about how workshops and the principles or techniques that we’re using workshops. And what I call workshop culture can contribute to us creating a better workplace. A workplace that’s more joyful, more fulfilling, more engaging. I am based in London. My name is Alison Coward, as like I said, I’m based in London. I have a company called Bracket and at Bracket, everything that I do is about team culture, collaboration, helping teams work better together, doing their best together. Creating high-performing teams and looking also at the balance between team creativity and productivity. So as part of that, I run a lot of workshops, do a lot of workshop facilitation.

It’s really informed the approach, the principles and methodology that I use and when I’m working with teams. I’ve been really fascinated by this question actually, how do we continue to have impact after workshop has ended? There’s two reasons for that. I didn’t actually set out to be a workshop facilitator, it’s not like I looked at someone facilitating a workshop and thought to myself, “Oh, that’s what I want to do.” Actually, it came because I’ve got a real passion and belief in collaboration and the power of collaboration. For me, it just so turned out that if I wanted to help people to collaborate, then I would need to get people together in a room at some point. And I would be the person to facilitate that conversation. When I was first doing it, I didn’t actually even realize that facilitation was a thing and that’s what I was doing but it turned out to be a really effective approach.

For me, workshops have always been a vehicle and a way through to another end goal. It’s not been the thing itself. It’s been a way of getting there. The other thing about workshops is that when I run workshops, especially when they’re great, I get to the end and I’d just feel a little bit sad. I think to myself, “This workshop has been wonderful. We’ve got lots of energy. Everyone’s feeling motivated. We’ve got lots of creativity and ideas. But what’s going to happen tomorrow when they get back to their desk. Are we going to be able to sustain this feeling?” So I’ve always thought to myself, “What if we could, or could we bottle up that feeling that we have at the end of a workshop and sprinkled it through the workplace so that we can sustain that energy and sustain that feeling.”

This is why. When we think about why people hire us for workshops. Whether we do that internally with our colleagues, or we do that externally as a facilitator. These are all the things that were expecting to get collaboration. We want people working together. That’s the basic and we want people to think in different ways, be more creative, explore opportunities and possibilities. We also want to make sure that the conversation is inclusive and everybody gets a chance to speak. Everyone gets a chance to be heard and there’s equal contributions.

Then alongside that as well, we’ve obviously got the content that we want to produce. We what do you want people to come up with great ideas and to discuss the way forward and decide on a way forward together. And with that, we get that clarity and alignment, and also that forward momentum. And that’s from the role of the facilitator, the basic results. But I also want us to now just put ourselves in the shoes of the participant.

Now one of the prompts that I gave you on the mural board was, think back to a great workshop that you were part of. What feelings came up for you? What kinds of emotions came up for you? If you get a chance, you can just put it in the chat box and I’ll see it later because I can’t see it now. But yeah just type in the chat what feelings that came up from the workshop you attended. I’m sure there’s loads of different types of responses that come up there but these are some of mine. As a participant, you’re so focused on what you’re doing but you’re really engaged with what you’re doing and also the people around you. You’re connected to the team and the people that you’re working with and your colleagues.

There’s this also this idea of how motivated you feel this idea of autonomy, mastery and purpose that comes from Dan Pink’s book Drive, where he looked into the factors that motivate knowledge workers and he identified autonomy was one of them. The concept of having freedom and control over the way that you do your work and how you do your work. Mastery, the knowledge that we’re using our skills and our expertise and it’s valued and also we’re being challenged in a way as well. And then finally purpose, the knowledge that our individual contribution fits into an overall purpose, a bigger picture. So we get all of that stuff in a workshop, that’s our job as a facilitator to make those things happen. We also get that progress as well.

But then there’s also something else. There’s all the invisible ambient stuff that comes up and this phrase, unintended consequences. It actually came up unintentionally. It was a contact of mine on LinkedIn. He tagged me and for him, this was just such a flyaway comment, but it really resonated with me. I think someone had put a post up about creating engagement and connection within teams and he tagged me and he said, “Alison, this is one of the unintended consequences of the work that you do.”

 And it just really stuck with me. So all those things that happened between the engagement and the connection is that there’s better communication between people in the team. You know that when you’re facilitating workshops, sometimes things come up that never would have come up in the usual workday. People open up more and as a result, they develop more trust with each other. With that trust comes new ways of thinking and working and when you look all of that… Actually we don’t want that to just be reserved for workshop. We do want that in the workplace. So I do believe that a workshop can be and actually is much more than a one-off event. So when I talk about workshop culture, what I mean is the idea in basic principles from workshops and ensuring that we see them in the wider culture. They’re not just reserved for a one off event. In my work, I’ve seen how this has developed and a team progresses to some stages in which they can have the possibility to reach a workshop culture.

Now the first stage is one off workshops. Again, I’m sure as facilitators you’ve been in that really privileged position of being the first facilitator that a team or a company has ever employed. You know that the transformation can go from zero to a 1000 in a very short space of time, because people just have their minds blown like, “How did we get so much done in this short space of time?” I never knew that you had those ideas. I never knew that that’s what you thought. We can really make a big impact in a short space of time, when it’s the first time that people have been exposed to this way of working. There’s one client that comes to mind for me, it’s a very traditional company that I’ve worked with. Actually they hired me to facilitate a small part, not all of a small part of their meeting.

And I remember walking into this room, really long table, or really long conference table. 25 partners sat around the table and me facilitator walks in, chucks the post-it notes on the table, get them working in small groups. Get them mixing up and moving around in groups, gets them moving post-its around and sticking them up on the wall and thinking silently as well. Again for them, it was mind blowing because the rest of that meeting and what they’re used to is a series of long monologues of the loudest person in the room. I was really able to go in and shake up their way, their ideas of how things had to be and show them a new way. Show them a new way of working and then something else happened.

What happened was that they started to build trust in the format. They started to hire me to come in to do more regular workshops, come in at various points in time to facilitate their conversations. Also not just hold these special events, but also to bring in workshop techniques to some of the meetings that they had that were part of their usual work streams. So what I started to see then was again, that stuff that’s happening in between the meetings and the sessions. They were starting to open up. They were starting to relate to people, to each other in a different way. They’re starting to get different ideas and have different types of conversations. That’s when we start to edge towards what I call a workshop culture, which is where there’s not so much of a difference between workshops meetings and the way that a team works generally.

That’s not to say that we don’t have a place for those special one-off events. There’s definitely still a place for that. There’s a reason why we need to get people together at a specific time to talk about something specifically. When we’re able to actually take people to a different location to think differently, but what happens when we’re in a workshop culture is it makes those conversations easier. It makes the start of day sessions that people ease into them because they’re used to that way of working. I started to see a little bit of evidence of it with this client as well. I remember they brought me in to facilitate a session where they actually bought some of their external partners in, and they wanted me to facilitate a discussion within that. It was just really interesting to see the dynamic because the post-it notes were on the table and my client, just were very happy with picking up the post-it notes and thinking silently and jotting their ideas around.

You can see the awkwardness and with the other partners in the room who weren’t used to that way of working that can make an impact. Then at a basic level, it’s about fixing the world of work. There is so much broken about the world of work and actually some of these problems are what were brought in as facilitators to fix. This idea of disengagement, lack of collaboration, lack of communication and what if actually we weren’t brought in to fix those problems. We were brought in to sustain and build culture and so that people could thrive. We flipped work on its head and work became much more like this, naturally like this. It was more of a default. I mean, we spend so much of our time at work, but if we have a bad experience with work, then it has an impact on how we feel about our lives.

There’s an opportunity to use workshops, to bring in some of these elements that can change our experience of work in our life. Obviously at the center of this is the idea of facilitation. I always say that to run a workshop, it’s almost like an intense version of leading a team through uncertainty. As facilitators, we have all of those skills, those leadership skills. It’s not just me saying this there’s loads of research out, there that hints at the idea of facilitation being a really valuable and almost essential and leadership skill for now and for the future. This is one of them, some research from Carmeli and Paulus. I came across this a long time ago, actually, it’s probably informed my work. They studied 500 CEOs across organizations and found the CEOs that were able to cultivate creativity within the top management teams had this very special skill of ideation facilitation leadership. Leadership behavior that cultivates an exchange of ideas and discussion for creative thinking.

Some of you may have come across this book, The Progress Principle by scholar academic Teresa Amabile. A very well-known scholar in the area of team creativity and co-authored with Steven Kramer and they were looking into what is it that makes for a joyful engaging workplace. They asked 238 knowledge workers to take a daily diary entry at the end of the day and they analyze those diary entries to understand that what it was that made people’s days good. The common factor that was across all of these diary entries that made worker’s day good was, that they made a little bit of progress. It didn’t have to be a massive amount of progress, just a small shift in the right direction. Again, it really ended our view of what we see managers are. Our managers are there to clear the path so that people can progress and get their work done and do the work in the best way that’s possible for them and to be able to enjoy that work as well.

Finally, this research I’ve come across very recently, which shows is by Allen and Rogelberg, shows the connection between an employee satisfaction or experience with their meetings and their overall engagement with work. That was a bit of a no brainer, isn’t it? That if somebody is able to feel heard and is able to speak up and feels that [inaudible 00:13:02] of time, that’s going to have an experience and effect on the impact on their experience of work. This research showed that managers may be able to promote engagement by simply running their meetings more effectively in terms of allowing open communication. That’s what facilitators do. Starting/ ended on time, something that facilitators do and calling relevant meetings. We’re always very aware as facilitators of making sure that the work that we do in the workshops fits in to the bigger picture.

Then on a very basic level, if you bring some of those techniques from workshops into our meetings, things like [inaudible 00:13:36]. Things like breakout sessions, things like thinking and effective brainstorming. We could really have an impact on how people experience their work. I just quickly want to go through some of the things, we may not think of that we have this facilitators, to really transform and have an impact. A longer term impact on the way that people work together. In effect, starting to introduce a workshop culture, at the very basic level collaboration we can’t really be effective facilitators if we don’t believe in the power of collaboration. If we didn’t, we just go and talk to people individually and bring the content together. But we know the value of bringing people together in a room. Facilitation I’ve already spoken about, but then there’s these skills that appear at various stages through the workshop process.

I’m not just talking about what happens in the workshop, talking about what happens before and after the workshop as well. At the very start, we are designing the workshop and we have to think about where that workshop fits into the bigger context of the work. We need to understand the bigger purpose or what it is that we’re doing the workshop for. That’s strategic thinking. Likewise, in the workshop culture and a wider organizational culture, if we can help a team understand why collaboration is relevant. Why it fits in picture, then we’re on a way to create a workshop culture.

That’s one that we have naturally, [inaudible 00:15:01] going to take news ways. Also, using a design mindset. We’re using designer, all stages of design. We’re designing a narrative and an agenda, we’re designing activities. That same skill that we use to design processes. We need to transfer to our teams to help them design their ways of working together. We are intentional about how we intend for a team to interact through our sessions. That’s needed also within an uncertain, evolving, changing workplace. Transferring those skills of design thinking for teams to apply to the way that their working. In the workshop I mean, there’s lots of skills that we’re using facilitators. Listening, asking great questions, synthesis, curiosity, but there’s one specific skill that I want to hone in on. That’s this really subtle skill of being able to translate ideas into action. It’s so subtle, it’s sometimes quite hard for me to put my finger on it, but it’s this idea of being able to constantly balance creativity and productivity in a workshop.

We’re switching and transitioning between those two states at any one time. We can have a workshop of creativity, but also in the workplace, we need to turn it into something. We need to support our participants to actually turn their ideas into something that’s actionable. In a workshop culture using those skills, we can show the value of both creativity and productivity. At the same time, simultaneously help people understand the messiness and the fun and the playfulness of creativity, but help them channel it into action. Then finally behavior change again, something that we do quite nicely in workshops.

We don’t often don’t realize that we do it, but if we’ve had a really great workshop where people are developing new ideas. Talking about new products, new services, or even a new way of working. When they leave that workshop, it’s going to require them to take on a new behavior in order to make that happen. We know that just by saying something, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen in practice. We need to understand how it is that people make those changes and again, facilitate people towards that process. It may be as simple as the micro actions that we do at the end of a workshop, or it could be some of the follow up coaching work that we do to help people really integrate the ideas into what they’re doing. In a wider workshop culture teams are going through change constantly, and they need to be able to understand how they change their behavior and their actions to support that change.

So really my belief is if you can design and facilitate great workshops, then you can also introduce a workshop culture. That’s what we’re going to be delving into in the workshop a bit later. I just want to leave you very quickly because I’m almost out of time. With some principles that we’re also going to delve into in the workshop and this idea that a workshop can be more than a one-off event, I spoke that. This idea of constantly balancing creativity and productivity.

Behavior change, making tiny tweaks, not sweeping changes. This idea that change doesn’t come instantly. It comes from these small shifts done over time and they compounds to make this overall and wholesale holistic change. And then finally this idea that a workshop culture is designed in the same way that we design our workshops and we pay attention to the process. We’re intentional about what we do to help that team work together, the same way that we apply that to a wider team culture, the wide organizational culture. This is a question we’re going to be looking at in the workshop: how can we use workshops and facilitation to transform the world of work? I really hope you join me. I’m really looking forward to this exploratory conversation. Thank you for listening, hope to see you there.