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