My Interview on Techsmith’s “The Forge”

Last weekend I was invited to come and facilitate at the Visual Thinking and Literacy Conference in Birmingham, MI. This is the second year the conference has run – it’s a neat little event that draws a mix of people from the education & business worlds (as well as a hand full of students too).

In addition to my session (on brainstorming tools & techniques) I was also invited to participate in a live taping of The Forge, a monthly video show/podcast put together by Matt Pierce at Techsmith. The show was taped in two segments – the first a panel discussion/debate on paper vs. digital with my friends and visual thinking masters Jamie Nast, Karl Gude and Brandy Agerbeck. The second part was a one-on-one interview with me that ranged form “What do you do?” to my favorite tools, techniques and my thoughts on the paper vs. digital debate.

I’ve embedded the show below – the whole thing is worth watching. If you want to jump to my interview it starts around 16:05 in.

The Power of a Single Marker

Dave GrayWant to create a dictatorship in a workshop? Put one marker in the room.

I suppose I always knew this in the back of my head but learned it first hand this week while facilitating a 3-day long ‘think tank’ workshop at the bank I work at. As part of the process team I had helped design a self-facilitated process that teams would guide themselves through over the course of the day.

It was fairly standard vision-creation fare; ‘What’s our vision? What’s Stopping Us from getting There? How does our business model need to change? What do We Do First?” and exercises to help them think about do the thinking to answer those questions. To help them out we also had a team of roving facilitators (myself and the crew from The Moment) who would check on them periodically and either help them through parts they didn’t understand, or in the case of the teams who might be storming through, make sure they’re really working on expanding their thinking and not just trying to ‘Slam Dunk’ the idea.

A Room Full of Leaders
We expected there might be the odd challenge for teams as these were all high-performing individuals, each a leader (or potential leader) in their own respect – it didn’t take long for my first interesting scenario to pop-up.

I immediately knew one team was in for an interesting ride when I walked into their room 5 minutes into the morning and one team member (let’s call him ‘Bob’) was already laying out their ‘idea’ to them. My presence in the room received looks from other members of the team that clearly conveyed “help!” – their guide packages hadn’t even been opened yet. A quick pep-talk on trusting the process and the thinking that they needed to do before jumping to the ideas seemed to get them back on track and I wandered off to check on my other teams. However, when I returned a little while later I noticed that Bob was up once again, marker in hand and in control of the conversation.

The Invisible Hand
Now, when I do these types of sessions I try to insert myself into the team’s discussion as little as possible – I always picture those cars at amusement parks – the ones where you can steer a bit but there’s a rail to prevent you from getting too far off course. My job is to be that rail – if you’re steering nicely then most of the time you won’t even notice it’s there a little rub here and there to help make the corner but the passengers are probably completely unaware it’s happening – sometimes it takes a slightly rougher bounce to reinforce the path. The latter should be a rarity though if your process is designed right.

As a result, most of my time is spent listening to the teams trying to get a sense of how they’ve advanced since I last saw them as well as feeling out how ‘healthy’ the dialog is. Is everyone engaged & contributing? Has anyone checked out? What’s the body language in the room?

In the case of this room, Bob was the only one standing. The rest of the team were in their chairs. A couple of the team members looked to be on the verge of checking out, a few were actively listening and two were actively contributing to the dialog. Nothing surprising until I realized almost nothing was getting captured unless Bob either came up with the idea, or the idea supported his theory. The team wasn’t consciously aware of it but you could certainly see how it was playing out in the body language. As I scanned the room though, something clicked for me – I couldn’t see any other markers. There was only one visible, and it was firmly in Bob’s hand – the team hadn’t realized it but they had unwittingly granted him a dictatorship over their process.

Restoring Democracy
Four whiteboard pens and a highlighterSo how to restore democracy? Bob was a good guy and I don’t think he even realized what he was doing – I know when I’m capturing stuff in sessions there’s time where my mind really doesn’t want to add some other idea to the board but as a facilitator I’m conscious and aware of those types of thoughts/actions when I’m in the room. Had I stopped him and asked he probably would have told me he’d captured all the ideas that the team had come up with. I also risked alienating him and/or causing him to checkout from the process if I called him out on it in front of the team.

Instead I didn’t do anything, I left the room and asked the facility staff for some more markers. When I came back I placed them on the table (in front of the two who were actively trying to get in on the conversation) and simply said “I noticed your room didn’t get enough markers” then walked out. Ten minutes later I peeked in the window and there were a couple of people up at the boards, people were leaning forward in their chairs and the dialog was rolling along again. They never knew what happened, no one felt their car rub the rail.

Letting Other Ideas Bloom
I also made a mental note to come back to these guys at a critical moment in the conversation where they would flesh out their future vision. Time was tight and I didn’t want to chance them getting stuck in a similar cycle again if Bob really tried to drive his idea home.  It was a part of the process that had been deliberately left open, in that there were no instructions other than “You’ve got an hour, and this is what you need to have by the end of it” – the roving facilitators all knew to visit their teams early in this step and help the teams get off to the right start. So with this team I suggested they break into two groups and do some brainstorming & bodystorming to get some ideas, then regroup and discuss later in the hour.

I didn’t want to squash Bob’s idea but it’s important to ensure other ideas have the opportunity to grow and the team has a crop of ideas to choose from. By splitting the team I ensured that even if Bob convinced half of the team his idea was the way to go other ideas would have the chance to bloom with the other group.

In the end, the team came up with their own idea that incorporated bits and pieces of their individual ideas (including Bob’s) and I think they came up with an interesting concept. This was another case where the team didn’t realize what was happening but they had gently been guided around another corner.

All-in-all if you asked this team how much facilitating I actually did they’d probably say not much, that’d I’d just answered some questions for them and helpfully got them some markers.

Photo Credits: Marker Tray – massdistraction | Guy at Whiteboard – Bill Keaggy | Markers – Tim Green aka atoach

Sidenote: The guy at the Whiteboard is not Bob but a guy named Dave. Dave’s pretty much the anti-Bob

Outputs from the #opendataTO ‘Open Data Lab’ session

Yesterday Toronto’s Mayor, David Miller, officially launched the city’s Open Data project (#opendatato) as part of the Toronto Innovation Showcase taking place November 2 & 3. Originally announced at the mesh conference earlier this year, it’s great to see this initiative come to fruition finally.

As part of this launch Mark Kuznicki  (a.k.a @remarkk) was asked to come in and facilitate an event called the “Open Data Lab” where interested developers and citizens could get informed about what the initial datasets contained, how to access them and to provide feedback on what else they wanted to see. Mark asked myself, and several other volunteers to join him in facilitating this session.


The Process

Inspire & Learn

After a series of presentations, intended to inspire the participants and get them thinking about innovative uses & applications for this data, we moved to the members lounge (attached to the City Council chambers) and began the ‘learn’ portion of the event. In this section the participants were divided into 6 separate groups (one for each dataset that had been released).

Taking cues from the speed-dating format, a subject matter expert (SME) associated with each dataset spent 10 minutes with each table, detailing what data they represented and answering any questions that the table might have. At the end of 10 minutes each SME moved to the next table and the process repeated itself. After a little more than an hour everyone in the room had had the opportunity to get a little face time with each of the datasets and their SME, have their questions answered and, most importantly really get the gears grinding on ideas for what was now possible.


From here we moved into the third and final stage: Ideate. The entire group was brought back together and people were invited to share their ideas and inspirations. These ideas were captured and then each was assigned to a table in the room. Participants could choose which conversation they wanted to participate in and for about 20 minutes some intense and interesting conversations took place as ideas were vetted and expanded on.

Finally, as the 20 minutes concluded everyone was brought back together and a spokesperson from each group was asked to answer three questions:

  1. What is the idea?
  2. What datasets does it require?
  3. What do you need most to make it happen?

My Thoughts

All-in-all the afternoon was an interesting process to watch unfold. There were certainly a lot of unknowns, would anyone show up (and if yes, who would they be), would they stay around for the interactive portion, would they engage and ideate or will it devolve into a conversation of everything that is “wrong” with the initiative?

OpenDataTO-8847Thankfully people did show up and it was a great mix of people, from hard-core coders, to very non-technical people who just had an interest in more access to information. The group I was with during the learn portion had a lot of great ideas and questions and really put the city’s SME’s through the ringer (in a friendly, positive way) and for the most part the SME’s had the answers.

What I took away from the event: First off, the city staff who are responsible for publishing this data are all over it and seem to be behind the idea 100%. That said, they even admit that there are parties within the city’s bureaucracy that would rather not put a lot of data out there, especially anything that allows people to analyze and form opinions on how certain departments or elected officials are performing. The apolitical nature of the content that was released was brought up several times.

OpenDataTO-8849The three big themes that emerged for me: People want more data, in real-time in a standard format. I spoke with some of the co-facilitators after the event and many of them noticed similar trends in the conversations they were a part of.

I think what was presented yesterday was a great start and everyone around the table admits and agrees that there’s still a lot of work ahead. To make this work, the city is going to need to learn to live a bit outside their comfort zone on this one (as I think they’re already starting to do), and I have no doubt that the Toronto tech community is going to help drag them out there.

The Outputs

I recorded the final output presentations where each of the ideas was presented. They’ve been embedded below:

Table 1: Application to Facilitate Citizen Fact-checking

Table 2: Enhanced 3-1-1 – “What’s available in my neighbourhood”

Table 3: GPS-aware “NextBus” for mobile Devices

Table 4: Childcare Space Splitting/Sharing Application

Table 5: Well documented API to Standardize Data Sets

Table 6: Application to Facilitate Dataset Translation

Table 7: Multi-modal Commute Evaluator

Table 8: TO Fun Finder

Table 9: Building Widget Friendly Data Access

Follow-up: Defining and Measuring Social Success

From June 8-12, 2009 the MaRS Discovery District here in Toronto, ON ran an event called “Netchange Week” (, a week-long event designed to explore how social technology can bolster social change. As part of this week I was invited to come run an afternoon workshop on social media and how to effectively define success in a way that could be measured.

Working with Chris Berry from Critical Mass we collaborated on a two-part session – the first, a talk by Chris on practical social metrics followed by a facilitated session where I broke the attendees into groups and they took what Chris had presented and applied it to some example scenarios.

If you’d like to know more, I’ve included Chris’ slide deck below and detailed the full session at

As a freelance facilitator and information designer, I can help your organization discover, define and develop your story so you can share it more effectively – If your organization could benefit from better explaining what it is you do, then I can be of help. Contact me today.

[Follow-up] The Integrated Content Lifecycle

The Integrated Content Lifecycle

A quick post to update you on the Translation World session, “The Integrated Lifecycle: Creating a Foundation for Envisioning and Planning an Integrated Translation Lifecycle that I facilitated last month – A summary of the session, as well as the visual outputs, including a high-rez PDF, are now available on my site, here.

Overall I think the session went really, really well – we had a perfect mix of attendees (we had three of the four major stakeholders represented) and all had mixed levels of experience with integrated systems. I’m really happy with the final visual as well – I think we captured the important points and I know the attendees themselves gained a much deeper understanding of the process and discovered areas where integrating systems might prove valuable. Be sure to check out the full rundown of the session (including the process we used) and sneak a peak at the full-size graphic while you’re at it.

All of the outputs have been licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution, Non-commercial, Share-alike license.

As a freelance facilitator and information designer, I can help your organization discover, define and develop your story so you can share it more effectively – If your organization could benefit from better explaining what it is you do, then I can be of help, contact me today.