Management & Leadership as Slow-Motion facilitation

Instead of thinking you have to become a business suit as a design leader, what if you think about management and leadership as slow-motion facilitation, using the skills you already have a designer?

Every week I spend my days coaching design leaders. In these videos, I reflect upon common themes and questions that came up.

This week, I present some thoughts on providing structure, cadence and reading the room in the way you might facilitate a workshop. You can use this same approach over days, weeks, months and years and lean upon your existing skills and experience.



[00:00:00] Andy Polaine: What if you thought about leadership differently, instead of it being about standing at the front and telling everyone to follow your direction. You think about it instead of slow motion facilitation. My name is Andy Polaine and every week I spend my days coaching design leaders and in these videos, I reflect upon the common themes and questions that come up in the week.

Slow-motion faclitation

[00:00:19] Andy Polaine: And this week, I want to talk about this idea that as you move into leadership and people management, yes, it does require learning some new vocabulary and understanding the business. But it doesn’t mean jettisoning your existing identity as a designer. If you do that what’s the point of you? You’re just another MBA. And instead I’m suggesting you bring your unique background and experience and tools and tricks to play.

A lot of business folks learning about leadership have to relearn a lot of the emotional intelligence that they’ve spent years leaving at the door. And I think designers generally already have a lot of this EQ.

When I was at Fjord, I had this real unlock moment where I realised that teams who were sometimes a bit gaseous, they were floating all over the place and really struggling. Typically in that sort of analysis and synthesis stage, or sometimes in ideation stage. They sometimes needed some structure to give them form. I would maybe go in and I on a big flip chart, I’d say, okay, here’s a kind of template for you to use for whatever the synthesis. And an hour later, I go in there and they’d say, "Oh, you know, that doesn’t really work for us, Andy, so we’ve changed this bit and that bit." And that was the whole point, right? My point wasn’t here is my way of doing things and it’s correct. But actually to give them a frame and boundaries so that this gaseous form is contained. And then they soon bounce up against it and bang their elbows against it and realise "Oh, no. Okay. No, this is what we want." And so by giving them some structure, you actually help them find their own structure.

And then sometimes it’s the other way around sometimes teams get very dogmatic about method and process and things like that and their ideation in particular can stall or they just want just one more bit of research as if the researcher is going to tell them how to design exactly everything. And it becomes a designing by numbers exercise. And actually at some point they have to start making stuff up and they have to think a bit more broadly. So in those cases, I’ll try and get them to do something to shake it up. I’d say, look, when I come in tomorrow morning, I want to see a hundred sketches or something like this. So that they come out of that dogmatic fixed structure.

And a real unlock for me was realising that this was like slow motion facilitation. I’m used to facilitating lots of workshops. And when you do this, and I’m not going to go through the whole of what I’m putting on screen here, but you’re doing a lot of reading the room.

So you’re thinking about who’s invited and included, who’s excluded. And what are the power structures at play? Things that sort of tools, methods, spaces.

Sometimes you’re thinking about the cadence and the intent and what are the methods and whether it’s a divergent or convergent process what I was talking about with that gaseous versus fixed solid structure just now.

If you think about when you run or facilitate a workshop, you are up front and you are directing the action, if you like, or the interaction between the people and where you’re going. But you’re not entirely telling them what to do. You’re not telling them what to come up with. You’re leading them through the process. Your expertise is actually in the process rather than necessarily the subject matter often in a workshop.

But what you’re also looking for, certainly in a face-to-face workshop is, "Oh, look, there’s a table of five there and one person’s checked out and they’re just on their phone the whole time what’s happened there?" Or you give a direction, say, we’re going to do this activity now, you know, here’s the template and you say, okay, right, go. And everyone looks at each other and says "What are we supposed to be doing? I don’t really understand what we’re doing." And so they’ve, they’ve lost that moment of purpose. They’ve lost the moment of what they’re supposed to be doing and direction. You’ll often find there is one person who is causing a lot of noise and very negative in the space. You’ll often find that the energy is really flat and my technique always is to get people, to start making things. And when people start making things, their energy sort of goes up again, usually.

And what I found was— and like I said, this was a really massive unlock for me in a leadership role— you can do this over the course of days, weeks, months, and years. You can look at what’s the shape of the kind of energy of the team, as you’re looking over this over the month or year or a project. You can look at have we sort of lost our sense of purpose. I need to bring people back and we have a reflection on where we’re going. Are there people who are disengaged? Are there side conversations going on that actually need to be brought into the middle and so on and so forth. And really what you’re doing is you’re reading the room.

There’s a very good book by my friend, Daniel Stillman called Good Talk and in it he has this OS canvas about designing conversations and some of which I put in that kind of big list of words.

So the nice thing about this is these are tools that a lot of designers already have. You already have that experience and understanding and reading the room in a workshop and facilitating people.

And so one of the things you’re doing, as you’re moving into leadership and people management, is you just use those same tools, you’re just doing it over a longer time span.

I hope that’s useful. If you’d like to check out my coaching practice, it is at and I’ll put the link below.

If you’ve got any of your own ideas and suggestions or you disagree, please post a comment below. I like these videos to be a conversation and not just a monologue.

Thanks very much. I’ll see you again soon.

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