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Facilitating HiPPOs and other mammals

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Before a career in UX, I worked in a secondary school. I learnt that a room of teenagers is filled with many different personalities, each requiring a different approach to get the most from them.

Skip forward several years and I’m facilitating workshops for DLG employees across the country. While the average age of the room has increased significantly (and they’re all being paid to listen to me) much of what I learned in the school remains useful.

As a facilitator I can be the difference between an interesting workshop with exciting outcomes and a wasted afternoon spent listening to the HiPPO.

It’s common for colleagues to have nicknames, but calling someone a hippo seems a bit much. Thankfully, in this case I don’t mean the large animal. HiPPO stands for, ‘Highest Paid Person’s Opinion’. Be aware, but not afraid of the HiPPO. They have their job title for a reason and their experience could be vital.

As well as HiPPO awareness, I’ve built up a bank of tips for facilitating.

1. Make the space work for you
If you can, check out the space you’ll be using at least a day before the session. Make it casual. Make it creative. If you’re facilitating somewhere unfamiliar, always ask for photos of the room.

When you’re setting up, dedicate a wall to ideas. The majority of your session might be about idea generation, but this space is for out-of-place ideas: moments of genius that come to you while you’re supposed to be doing something else. These ideas could be gold, and thanks to your faithful, moveable post-its (more on them later), the idea will have a home until it can be developed further.

I’ve heard this space be called many things - an idea cloud, a parking lot, even a brain dump – call it what you like, just make sure people know it’s there.

2. No phones, no distractions

Begin by asking everyone not to use their phones during the session. In my experience adults are more guilty than teenagers of being on their phones when they shouldn’t be. Checking a phone makes people lose focus, as well as distracting everyone else. Your request might be received with a chorus of grumbles, so reassure the group that there will be regular breaks to check emails, as well as to caffeinate, nip to the loo, or whatever else takes their fancy.

3. Allow time at the beginning
You’re likely to have people turn up without the preparation you asked them to do, so allow some time at the start of your session to bring everyone up to speed.

Also, make sure any prep that you’ve asked people to do is relevant to the session – otherwise you may resurface childhood memories of doing endless pieces of homework that never got marked.

4. The seven second rule and open-ended questions
No, I’m not talking about eating food you’ve dropped on the floor. We all know that’s five seconds.

Seven seconds is the minimum time you should wait after asking a question, before speaking again. The silence will feel like a long time, but people need time to process what’s being asked, as well as being sure that the HiPPO has finished talking before they weigh in.

Whenever possible, ask open-ended questions, which should make sure conversations aren’t immediately halted with a straight up, “no”.

5. Use post-its
Do you remember when teachers used to say, “that’s good, but not quite what I'm looking for.” No? Then how about the positive reinforcement of Catchphrase host Roy Walker’s “It's good, but it's not right”?

Post-its are the workshop version of this. An idea might not be right in its current place, but it could be perfect elsewhere.

Post-its allow for moving around, rather than crossing out. The more colours you can find the better – make sure anyone can use any colour, so the HiPPO’s ideas are not seen as the most important.

6. Use board markers
Using a board marker means you can only fit a couple of words on a post-it. Therefore, people must consider the words they use carefully, cutting out the waffle, leaving only what’s absolutely necessary.

It also encourages people to verbally explain themselves, hopefully sparking debate within the group.

7. Speak in plain English
This sounds like a no-brainer, but people will still say things like ‘moving forward, our position is to identify…’, when they could have said, ‘what we would like to do next is look at…’.

Whatever the reason for using corporate jargon (to sound important, learned behaviour, etc...), letting it happen will cause people to switch off.  

If your session is subject specific (like insurance, for example) there’s bound to be some technical language. You can overcome confusion by defining technical words and phrases at the start of the session, as well as encouraging visual communications like storyboards and icons.  

Where have I learnt this? I’ve been on training courses (credit to Design Thinkers Academy), I’ve watched experienced facilitators do their thing and I’ve read blog posts (the irony). But the single most beneficial thing to becoming a good facilitator is, wait for it…facilitating!

Practice makes perfect, or at the very least, better.


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