Tools For Facilitation

I didn’t intend to write this article. I didn’t even want to write this article. But I decided that I couldn’t let last week’s article end the series the way that it did. Not that it was necessarily a bad article. Just that it was… incomplete.

Here’s the thing. It’s one thing to talk about the kinds of tools out there. The capabilities and features and types of solutions that exist today, that didn’t even show up on the radar a couple of years ago. But when you write an article describing them, a very real and very reasonable response is, “Sounds interesting, Mark! What kinds of tools are you talking about here? Got some examples?”

While I do have examples, I avoided sharing them. This is what leads me to my conundrum around this particular post. Because I don’t really want to get into specifics, and yet not doing so robs what I’m talking about of some of its illustrative meaning.

My reasons for avoiding specifics in the past are numerous, and long held. For starters, I have never endorsed—or been seen to be endorsing—one particular tool. I have, for example, supported the selection of project management software for probably close to a dozen organizations. In that time, I have not supported the implementation of the same software twice. The reason for that is that in each case we picked the solution that met the needs of that client at that stage in their growth and evolution. We picked what works, not what was easy or popular.

I don’t want to presume that there is one, perfect software package out there. I recognize that for every solution that I talk about, there are probably a few dozen more that I’m not mentioning (and I don’t particularly want emails from the several dozen companies that feel slighted by their omission). For everything that exists now, more will emerge next week and next month and next year. And for everything that is useful now, its functionality will change—sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad—over time. I’ve seen awesome software be undermined, delightfully simple software be bogged down with complexity, and perfectly serviceable solutions be pulled from the market. It’s a fleeting world out there.

But I recognize that some specifics are also useful in illustrating just what is possible in facilitating meaningful and useful strategic conversations. So despite my reluctance to go there, we’re going to talk about specifics. We’ll call this my non-biased, still-opinionated, non-evaluation and non-endorsement of the software products that I mention. They are an illustration, not a recommendation, and I encourage you to review them in that spirit.

Polling Tools

One of the coolest and easiest to apply tools that have emerged in a surprisingly short time are polling tools. In concept, they’ve been around for a while integrated into group decision support systems. There was a hardware solution that I’ve used several times that requires you to provide your physically-present audience with radio-controlled clickers (that you have to make sure you collect again) that provided a way of polling an in-person audience in real time. The solution I’ve used is Clickapad but others exist.

The idea of polling software has evolved quickly, though, particularly given that so many of us wander around with smartphones and tablets (and full-on laptops, if we’re entirely honest). Giving the audience a clicker is redundant when they’ve brought their own hardware and it already has an internet connection.

That’s where polling has exploded, for in-person presentations, online webinars and hybrid mixtures of the two. You can have participants online or in-person, all responding in real time to polls managed through your computer. Give them a web-link to follow, and interaction becomes breathtakingly easy. I’ve used PollEverywhere; it was the polling solution I mentioned last week, and my use of it was solely because that’s what the organization I was presenting for had provided. There is also Slido, MeetingPulse, Vevox and Mentimeter.

They all provide similar functionality, centred around audience participation and polling. That can take the form of simple surveys, polling or open-ended questions and (this will be exciting for some of you) word clouds. Polls can be integrated into—and usually managed directly from—your presentation software, particularly if that happens to be PowerPoint. My basic issue with all of it, though, is that it’s incredibly expensive to get a plan that is in any way meaningfully useful (most offer free start-up plans with minimal functionality). I recognize that we’re dealing with a recalibration of software costs in the app economy, but $50/month (and some are more) for polling functionality when a Zoom meeting platform runs you $20/month is a bit steep. Mentimeter is the most economical of what I’ve seen, with a useable plan sitting around $25/month, but that’s still a hefty charge.

Feedback Tools

A different class of tools are what I’m going to broadly call “feedback tools.” There is no doubt a more buzz-wordy name that I didn’t get the memo about, but essentially they are a class of tools that provide a way of compiling and collecting feedback on design options. Those designs might be static, they could have multiple versions and that can include everything up to and including video.

If you’re working in a design space, or even if you produce deliverables where you need to collect and compile feedback, these go well beyond taking a Google doc (or a Microsoft Word document), putting it into ‘review’ mode and letting people rip (pun intended). Some have more of a presentation orientation to them that would probably be really useful for designers, ad agencies and software developers; Prevue would be a good example here.

Many are designed to provide a way to simply collect and compile notes, though. Examples include Red Pen and Concept inbox. Veering closely to the next category is something like Moqups, which allows you to not just collect feedback but also collaboratively design and prototype.

Again, these run to the pricey (although most of them seem to settle in around $25/month for meaningful functionality). More importantly, they are pretty specific in terms of their capabiliites and what they allow people to do. In my view, you’ll know pretty quickly and clearly whether these are in your sweetspot. For the work that I do, I can’t currently see a use for this class of tool. For many that I know and consult with, however, I could see a phenomenal amount of relevance.

Collaboration Tools

From there, we get into the truly collaborative space. This is the space that I wrestled with when I started this entire series. A lot of my facilitation makes use of whiteboards, flipcharts and post-it notes (I really should have bought shares in 3M). My facilitation style is highly visual, highly interactive and extremely collaborative. I don’t like people sitting and talking (much). I prefer them up, moving around and interacting. It’s a very different dynamic, and usually engenders a very different level of participation.

My analogy for this class of software is that of offering some form of virtual whiteboard. This isn’t an analogy, really, because it’s pretty much exactly what you can find. Some solutions are generally white boards writ virtually; they provide the ability to collaboratively draw on a white screen that others can see. Examples of this include AWW (a web whiteboard), which is delightfully simple and straightforward (so much that they plunge you right into it) and Sketchboard.

Many more in this space provide the kind of interactivity that becomes possible when you also arm participants with post-it notes and sharpies. The idea of capturing, sorting, sifting and finding meaning across many ideas in a visual space is exactly what these solutions are trying to accomplish.

There are many examples to offer here. There is Stormboard, Shape, Span Workspace, Lucidchart and Mural. Conceptboard offers all this, plus sharing of documents and the ability to produce simple mindmaps, as does Miro.

The pricing in this category is a great deal more reasonable. Most of the solutions again offer a free version, of varying degrees of functionality. Many I’ve mentioned have pricing that is functionally useful and ranges from $7/month to $15/month. There are a lot more examples here, and so more work needs to be done to hone what you need and figure out what is available. But this is a type of solution that seems to be growing quickly, so I expect many changes to occur in all of their capabilities in the coming months.

As I mentioned at the outset, for every solution that I’ve included, there are others that I’ve omitted. Nothing that I’ve mentioned is an endorsement, and much of what I’ve included is based upon research and reading about features and capabilities, not actually using the software for its intended purpose. Given the type of facilitation that I do, I lean to some combination of polling and group collaboration solution.

I am as yet uncertain the specific form those solutions will take, or the products that I will start with. And I’m sure that wherever I start won’t be where I ultimately finish. But there is a great deal to explore and investigate, and I’m looking for opportunities to experiment with them in real time with real groups. I’m also looking forward to influencing how they might evolve in actual use, and pushing the bounds of how they can be used to guide and support strategic conversation.

The tools are an enabler, not the primary focus. But they do play an important role in supporting what is possible in terms of process, particularly when trying to support collaboration online. As we outlined last week, low-tech is certainly an option; even in simple solutions, though, there is some sort of enabling technology making things happen. Oftentimes, the lower the tech, the more manipulation, care and feeding that is required to get where you want to go. The greater the capability, though, the more that the technology can potentially lure you with whizz-bang distraction. Finding the sweet spot between those points is a delicate balancing act on a razor’s edge. Stay tuned as I walk it.

What are the products that you’ve found—and particularly that you’ve used? If you are a regular reader of this site, and you have some facilitation resources that you think worth mentioning, please do so in the comments below. And if you’re a software developer and think you have something to offer, please send me an email instead (it’s still my blog, and I don’t intend the comments of this site to turn into an advertising free-for-all).

5 Comments to “Tools For Facilitation”

  1. Michael Hilbert says:

    Mark,
    Thank you for the non-biased information, examples and for providing a road map for our further exploration and review of this subject. One issue I have seen with the switch to virtual meetings is the level of computer competency with our team. Some users have no issues, others are challenged simply getting their microphone unmuted (or worse yet, muted….) As I clicked on some of the links you provided, I envisioned this technology knowledge gap expanding with users not being able to operate the software easily causing them to withdraw from the discussion or process. There are certainly many options out there, with no single one providing all the answers or solving all the needs.
    Thanks for pointing us in a direction!
    Regards,
    Mike

    • Mark Mullaly says:

      Hi, Mike, and thank you.

      Are certainly right about the need for proficiency with the tools. And some of the technologies I outline here have many, many moving parts. Preparation in advance (and some practice sessions) would be a minimum for some. Although bringing in something like a virtual whiteboard as a daily practice (as opposed to just an occasional tool) would certainly help to get comfort level built up over time.

      Cheers,
      Mark

  2. Brian Cohn says:

    Mark:
    Thanks for the inputs. Planning for how to make meetings more collaborative is a key to better facilitation and having a participant experience and better meeting outcomes. I’d like to add a couple thoughts here. First, polling can be done (though slightly less seamlessly) at essentially no cost in Teams using Microsft’s Forms tool or using a Google Form.

    Second, many meetings and workshops are too big to keep everyone engaged. Becoming adept at setting up and using breakout meetings is a powerful tool for positive outcomes. I’ve seen it done in Zoom and it seems pretty easy. It can also be done in Teams, but it takes a bit more preparation.

    Thanks again for the series!
    Brian

    • Mark Mullaly says:

      Brian:

      Many thanks for the comments. I totally agree that you can use low-tech solutions to accomplish similar goals, so you are bang on; using forms is one way around investing in polling technology. The challenge to be aware of is that the more low-tech or not optimized the solution, the more work the facilitator needs to do to prepare, use and assess and share the content. Doing that in real time could be a significant challenge.

      As for size, that generally depends on how they are organized. I’m actually pretty comfortable that you can facilitate meaningful engagement with a large number of people, where you have sufficient interactivity to keep them focussed. But small breakouts are powerful strategies for online as well as in-person workshops, and I make use of them often. It’s a great way to generate content that can then be explored with the larger group.

      Cheers,
      Mark

  3. Santosh says:

    Hello Mark,
    That was an excellent compilation of useful tools (even though the list will be different say after few months and their use varying with different needs. You have been very careful not to endorse ant as that is a slippery path.
    All the best as always!
    Your articles are thought provoking!
    Cheers!
    Santosh

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