Grid Facilitation

A grid, waiting to be filled from a LeanCamp in Wageningen (2014)

The  planning grid at an unconference is the centre of the event. The grid  is where people present themselves to the community. It is also  something participants come back to regularly, to check their schedules,  or to change their selection. All coordination for the day is channeled  through the grid.

As  a facilitator, you have a key role in getting things planned on the  grid. That gives you influence on the flow of the unconference: a pretty  powerful position. In this post we’ll provide some grid facilitation  tips on how to effectively wield this power to create an inclusive, and  exciting event.

This is not a popularity contest!

As mentioned in an earlier post on steps to introducing the unconference,  participation is not about headcount. Large groups are actually  counterproductive for the unconference. You want to get people together  in smaller dedicated groups to go deep. As a facilitator, emphasise the  power of intimate groups, and close conversation, over 1-to-many  broadcasting. Size doesn’t matter, personal progress does.

Do a practice round

Particularly  with groups that are new to the unconference, the practice round is an  effective way to demonstrate how the unconference will work. You can  arrange some of your pre-planned speakers to jump in here, and get the  flow going. But prioritise making room for a first-timer to take the  stage. There are usually one or two brave souls in the audience who are  prepared to do this. So, call out for sessions. Wait for a while to  trigger them to stand up. Then, if no one steps up, ask one of your  pre-planned speakers up, and catch momentum that way.

Be prepared

You’re  going to create the appearance that a great schedule can magically  appear, but in reality, you should be a curator, familiar with who’s in  the room and what they have to offer each other. Know the big names, the  different challenges and the interesting stories in the room. Then,  when you’re up in front of the grid, you can act as a Connector.

“Aline, did you have a similar experience? Anything to offer this session?”
“I think a few people here might struggle with something similar. Anyone got a related challenge?”

Nudging the schedule

First  and foremost, letting people just put their session anywhere is a great  way to imbue the magic feeling that “we’re building this by ourselves.”  That’ll create a sense of excitement and ownership among the  participants. If done well, you’ll be a kind of “invisible facilitator”  where you’ll have shaped the schedule well, but nobody will have  noticed. This can be done in subtle ways, like “that would be fun after  lunch”, or “I think you’ll need a bigger room, so let’s put that here.”  Sometimes, you can even just take their session card from them, in a  helpful gesture as they’re speaking, and post it for them — then ask,  “is it good there?”

Encourage the first timers: offer yourself as their facilitator

First-timers  might be reluctant to come up in front of the audience to pitch. Often,  not having a strategy for structuring a session is also a barrier for  them to step up. The facilitator in front of the room enjoys some  respect from the audience, as she is putting herself out there, making  it happen. The facilitator can utilise her position to encourage first  timers to come up front. Call out specifically for people that haven’t  done it before. Offer yourself as a facilitator during their session.  Lets team up!

Boost first-timer session pitches

Ask  for a volume vote before posting the session card. If this is not  received warmly enough, then try rephrasing the title in your own words.  Make it catchy and on-point. Also try to call out some of the  influencers in the audience to help out in the session if you see the  relevance of their help. Influencers, in turn, will pull in some more  people, and; hey presto! Your first-timer is set to go.

Abstract session topics?

There’s  always someone who proposes a session topic that isn’t concrete, or a  PhD-level research question, which is hard to turn into something  actionable within a 30 minute timespan. The room then lights up with  confused faces. In this case there are 3 things you can do:

  1. Ask  clarifying questions to help find analogies “Is this like X?”.  Alternatively ask the audience who has experience on this topic, and get  their voice in to help filter out something actionable that is worth a  session.
  2. Propose  a facilitation tactic for during the session like a post-up with the  question. Affinity mapping always leads to something interesting: “Lets  note everything we know about his idea”. And then cluster.
  3. In  case there’s no salvation in sight, then intervene, and offer to help  clarify this session during the break. Be sure to call out this person  again, at the next planning session.