SAP, Daimler and others:
Enabling Collaboration – Seven Tips For Facilitators

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In recent years the role of the facilitator has become more and more popular. Facilitators work as intrapreneurs in global companies, strategy advisors in big agencies, freelance consultants, designers, teachers or start-up founders. All of them have one thing in common: they use their knowledge of creative processes and their ability to inspire others in order to enable collaboration across the borders of cultures, disciplines or organizations.

Recently we met Moritz Gekeler, who is an experienced facilitator and senior design strategist. Talking to him we realized that up to now thisisdesignthinking.net has left out the perspective of an important part of design teams: The role of the facilitator. We are happy that Moritz shared some of his experiences with us.

For nine years I have been lucky to work as a facilitator of creative strategy-making and design thinking in various organizations and environments. These include the Daimler futures research department, the HPI D-School, the SAP Design and Co-Innovation Center and now my own company Dolaborate GmbH. I have the daily honor to work with great people who are striving to make a difference in their field of expertise. They want to put the human aspect at the core of their activity. They want to co-create new solutions to complex problems and all of them want to creatively change the way their respective field does its work.

The following seven tips are intended to start a conversation about facilitation – especially in design thinking. They are based on the learnings from the different companies I have worked with.

1. Design how people spend their time

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(Photo: Hedwig Pottag 2012)

 The main job of a facilitator is to design how people spend their time. In this regard what we do is very similar to the role of a director of a play or movie. Instead of telling the story yourself, it is your job to provide the environment in which great stories can emerge. You have to make sure that the stage is set for the task at hand, that the activities happening over a certain amount of time are designed in a way to inspire, and that all involved people can express their ideas. In order to achieve this, you have to come up with a dramaturgy (e.g. a structured process to reach a common goal) and to always be able to show the team where they stand. There must be times of excitement and times of quite, times of creativity and times of rest, times of mere doing and times of reflection. Sometimes you also have to decide when and how to provide what kind of information.

I remember one presentation with a colleague from the Daimler futures research department in 2008. We conveyed a somewhat fictional scenario of the future to a group of engineers to inspire them to think differently about the future availability of mineral resources. Instead of power-pointing them to death, we handed out sleep masks. When everyone had put them on, we read the story about the future to them. This different dramaturgy took them by surprise. The future we proposed in our story highly influenced the following three days of the workshop, with everyone talking about the implications that this future might have on business and work.

2. Do not think only in workshops

Design thinking as it is implemented in many companies is often mistaken for a workshop format. Of course collaboration often happens in workshops, but any kind of innovative problem solving cannot stop at being that. You have to make sure that in your company, team or project, creative collaboration goes beyond workshops. An often forgotten truism is that design takes time. In order to really create something of value, you will need more than a few days of crazy fooling around in a workshop. You will need time to try, to fail and to learn.

In an internal project with my colleagues from the SAP Design and Co-Innovation Center we were supposed to think about health apps. We started the project in a workshop with colleagues from different departments at SAP who could potentially have knowledge about the topic. After tapping their ideas and learning from them, we continued working in our smaller team of designers and user researchers. We went out and did twenty something interviews with colleagues on the topic of health. In the meantime we also gave the other participants homework so they could provide us with more insights about the topics they were experts in. When we came to the next session four weeks later, everyone had something new to show the rest of the group. This made it much easier to get things done, because everyone could work on the things he or she was good at.With such an approach the challenge becomes how all group members can share their new insights with each other, so they can work on them collaboratively.

3. Do evolve your methods

The design process (e.g. the six steps at the HPI D-School) is one important tool, when facilitating co-innovation. But design thinking does not stop there. It is much more than just a process: It’s a mindset. When applying this mindset it is the responsibility of the facilitator to know the right methods for each task. Therefore you have to evolve your methods by learning from others and by developing your own. According to the dramaturgy you follow in your project, be prepared in terms of methods and structure, but always stay flexible to adopt to the situation. You should try out your own process, which reflects the goal you want to achieve. Never become dogmatic about the approach you are using, but be sure about the methods and processes that help in achieving the goals of the collaboration.

At SAP there are many different teams who apply design thinking. Instead of implementing one singular process these teams have evolved their own processes. The team I was working with – the Design and Co-Innovation Center – uses three words to describe their basic process: discover – design – deliver. This idealized depiction of the design process helped us best to explain it to others. Many internal teams at SAP have adopted the design process of the d.schools for their needs. There are many different depictions of this process circulating through SAP. Besides that, the teams that work closely with pre-sales and sales use the concept of look – think – do for their work. Even though some people might think that this is inconsistent, I personally think it’s a very good thing. Design thinking is not a dogma, so the methods you use should be always adapted to the goal you want to achieve and the process you use should reflect that.

4. Do not forget the value of the individual profession

When collaborating across the borders of disciplines and organizations it is necessary that people stay open towards the perspectives and the ideas of others. As a facilitator you have to make sure that the teams you work with don’t criticize each other personally and that they actually listen even to unconventional thoughts – especially at the beginning of the process. Nevertheless, you should not forget the value of the individual profession. Instead of leaving their expertise at the door, all team members should contribute their unique skill set to the project. As the project evolves towards prototyping and even implementation, people are needed who can not only think creatively, but who can actually create artifacts. These people are designers, developers and all sorts of craftspeople. Don’t undermine their abilities by overrating groupthink. There are times to work in groups and times to work individually.

I learned this through hours of really inspiring discussions and during our project work with my design colleagues from the DCC. Since my background is more in the facilitation and training aspect of design thinking, I cannot claim to be a designer myself. My abilities are based on collaboration and group work, but not on craftsmanship. As a design thinker I try to stay curious and learn from others, but it doesn’t make any sense to compete with others in a field where they have yearlong expertise. Only if you manage to also take a step back at certain points will the collaboration truly be successful. On the other hand, the expertise and experience of each individual really helps in advancing the projects you are working on.

5. Do become friends with facility management

As a facilitator your responsibilities also include setting the stage for collaboration. Do you want the team to work energetically? Have them stand up. Do you want to encourage prototyping? Already have all sorts of material available in the work space. Since this is not the normal office culture you will find in many companies or organizations: make friends with facility management. They have to understand, why it is crucial for you and the team you are working with to have a flexible space. In many companies there are so called innovation spaces. They are nice, but usually neglected. Nobody feels responsible for them and since they can be booked like normal meeting rooms they get treated in the same way. The outcome is often a room that is neither cozy nor inspiring. It is the role of the facilitator to make sure that whatever room is available, it should be transformed into a place of comfort and engagement.

Daniel Markwig – the AppHausmeister at the SAP DCC in Heidelberg can tell amazing stories about the importance of bringing facility management on board. At the Apphaus the team managed to convince facility management that it would be beneficial if they could design their own environment. Instead of using standard equipment, they were able to create a creative space that attracts SAP employees as well as customers. Have a look at this video to see for yourself: 

6. Do practice

Facilitation is a skill that can be learned. You have to be able to explain the reasons for certain methods, but at the same time not talk too much. You have to be professional, but at the same time entertaining. Like any other skill, you can get better at it by doing it. Actors, musicians or entertainers all have a gut feeling for their audiences. When they first stand in front of a crowd, they probably do not know how to behave. They only feel really comfortable after many hours on stage. As a facilitator you need the same feeling of comfort when working with teams – small or big. Put yourself in the position of speaking in front of groups. Learn how to improvise and have ideas in your back pocket that can save your life. But the most important thing to remember: don’t lose the ability to laugh at yourself!

This was one reason for us to create a little tool that helps people simulate design thinking processes. With this tool, we want to enable as many people as possible to try it out – especially to try out being a facilitator. Please have a look at our design thinking leporello:

Download the Design Thinking Leporello for your own workshops here.

7. Do not become a diva

As a last tip, I would like to remind you that you get a lot of attention as a facilitator. Especially when teams are new to collaborating creatively, they will love you if you do a good job. Make sure to stay humble. You should neither behave like a guru who knows it all nor should you become a diva who always needs extra attention. At the end of the day it’s not your ideas that should be implemented, but the ones that were selected in the process of successful team collaboration.

I hope these thoughts help other facilitators out there. Please feel free to comment, disagree, contribute and share your own thoughts. I look forward to our discussion.


Image Sources

  • Facilitation Ninja @ Kuala Lumpur Genovasis: Hedwig Pottag, 2012 | © Traditional Copyright

The Authors

Moritz Gekeler

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