022 – Conversations matter! How to design group conversations – with Daniel Stillman


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In this episode, I talk to Daniel Stillman, a conversation designer and host of the podcast “The Conversation Factory”. We talk about the difference and similarities between facilitation, conversation design and coaching. And, we talk a lot about power dynamics and how you deal with them and take them into account when designing group conversations that shall solve a problem. In the show, Daniel and I discuss a lot about the circumstances that determine our choices of exercises – depending on the purpose of a workshop, group dynamics, and stakeholder groups.  

Don’t miss our arguments related to the “Fishbowl Conversation” that led us to explore how to evaluate which exercises were appropriate in specific situations. 

Don't miss the next show: Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify to get notified for new episodes. 


Questions and Answers


[1:43] What’s your story? How did you turn from a BA in Physics into a conversation designer?

[5:48] How did the experience of power dynamics impact you and your style of working in designing conversations?

[10:43] Is there actually a line between being a conversation designer, a facilitator, moderator and a coach?

[25:24] So what's according to you the most effective way to make a decision with a large group?

[27:54] To what extent do you believe does the facilitator has a responsibility to protect the group from their decisions being highjacked by the p[roblem-owner?

[29:43] What is the key skill according to you, since you are also teaching facilitating managers, what is the key skill that they should learn first?

[30:46] Can you learn that? Can you teach that?

[33:24] According to you, what makes a workshop fail?

[37:48] So how much time do you usually spend on understanding the participants before him?

[40:53] I would be curious to hear how you define the experience in the context of a conversation.

[43:21] What’s your favourite exercise?

[46:49] If someone fell asleep after a minute, just woke up and doesn't have time to listen to the entire show again. What do you want them to remember?


Related links you may want to check out



Other shows we mentioned: 


Rein Sevenstern on How to create experiences for your audience


Connect to Daniel


on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @dastillman




Myriam: 00:00 What if your next team workshop delivered the results you hoped for? What if everyone believed that the working session was a valuable use of their time and felt inspired to take action? My name is Myriam Hadnes and it is my mission to help you to deliver workshops that work. Today with me on the show is Daniel Stillman. He's a conversation designer and the host of one of my favorite podcasts: The Conversation Factory. So today I'm looking forward to pick his brain and to talk about - surprise! - Conversation design. So stay tuned.

Myriam: 00:40 Hello Daniel. I'm so excited to have you on my show.

Daniel: 00:45 Thank you. It's a real pleasure. Yeah. I liked our pre conversation, our pre conversation was great.

Myriam: 00:51 Yes it was. And thank you for having taking time for that one as well. Yeah, I always enjoy to feel a little bit into it and, to see how the conversation could flow. And while listening to your show - yeah - I guess every week I realized that there's so much more that I would like to hear from your side. So I was curious to get you on the other side of the mic, so to speak, and to pick your brain. So maybe we can start with just your story because if I'm not mistaken, you started with a bachelor in physics.

Daniel: 01:30 I did.

Myriam: 01:30 And then you went into design and now you're a facilitator and book author, and podcast host.

Daniel: 01:39 That's my whole [...]. You nailed it.

Daniel: 01:43 That's it. That's the whole story.

Daniel: 01:46 I mean, I guess for me, I mean I do a lot of, training as part of my work still. And if I draw the through line back, I definitely was always interested in teaching and learning myself, learning and teaching. And when I got into design, it was, I went to design school mainly because I, I thought I wanted to do museum exhibit design work. Because I have my background in science and I was like, well what do I do with science? Cause like I was having a hard time, you know, navigating that question, you're out of college and you're like, what do I do? How do I add value? And most of the jobs I had after college were sort of in the work of translating between disciplines. So like one of my first jobs was helping manage a group of PhDs who were trying to find emerging technologies.

Daniel: 02:38 And what I did was go and talk to people on various innovation boards at various universities and find emerging technologies because I knew enough biology, chemistry and physics to search the relevant databases and they didn't know how to do that. The job I had right before going to design school was at the Museum of Natural History. I took that job thinking like I'll get closer to this idea and I was starting to develop in my head of doing something creative and technical, which was I was most interested in doing. And when I got to the museum I realized that being hired from inside, like going from this research lab that I was managing to like the exhibit design department was not going to happen. And I went and I talked to some people in exhibit design and they're like, well yeah, you need a design background to do this job.

Daniel: 03:30 You can't just have the science part. The science part is actually done by the curators. The person who is very high up in the chain, they're the ones who actually like say what's going to be in the exhibit, but we need us people on the science side. So that was like my first realization that there were multiple stakeholders behind creating something complicated and that there were like power dynamics and who had to say what and and so when I realized that exhibit design was a thing and that the school I went to, Pratt had a studio in it that was like, I remember this guy saying he sees like if you'd go to Pratt, you can learn how to be designer and you can do the studio. And when I did my studio in exhibit design, I realized that exhibit design was this, and I'm sorry for an exhibit designers listening to this, but museums are really big and slow moving and

Myriam: 04:17 Yeah, public service, right?

Daniel: 04:19 Exactly. And so, and I realized it was like, Oh it was so political and it was so ossified that I just was like, Oh wow, this doesn't seem like there's going to be room for me to grow here. Whereas like I did studios that were more about human centered design, we didn't call it that. It was, that was just sort of emerging and I realized like human centered design and innovation and was just like super duper cool, super dynamic, super fast. Like I love talking to people and learning what they needed and thinking about and talking about strategy. And so my first job out of design school was working as a design strategist from design researcher and just never looked back. And that's actually how I sort of got into facilitation was realizing that workshops were this incredibly important component of design thinking process. At the time, we weren't calling, we were just starting to call it design thinking, but it was like, okay, well how do we get all of the stakeholders from the client side together and talk about what they really want out of this thing and then how do we get all the customers together and get them to tell us what they really think.

Daniel: 05:22 I realized just started, you know, stealing and borrowing and absorbing different ways of getting that information out of people so that we could do the job of design.

Myriam: 05:35 And you just mentioned - I think twice - the words power and politics. How did this experience impact you and your style of working in designing conversations?

Daniel: 05:48 I now prefer to try and level the power dynamics in the room. I think that's an important thing that a facilitator does, but I think it's also important for a facilitator. If you're trying to actually get something done, you have to know what's going on inside of the organization. And honestly, large organizations are a mystery to me. It sort of blew my mind that we could be doing this big project - big for us. Meanwhile, they were paying to other agencies to do the exact same project and then there was another vice president who was doing a competing project like, oh, how are you all going to decide what gets done after this? Like there were a whole host of conversations that I was not privy to about what was the real goal of this large organization and once we could sort of peel back the layers and trying to find out what was really going on, we could do something that was better or more worthwhile, more effective. And so I think understanding power dynamics and the stakeholder connections is really important part of the process of making things happen.

Myriam: 06:51 So how would you react then in a situation if it happens to you today that you are hired by an organization and then you find out that actually there are two other parties that are doing exactly the same job as you do?

Daniel: 07:06 That's really funny, I mean I think that definitely is still does happen. I think the differences, when I was working as a design consultant, I felt generally responsible for the creation of good ideas. Whereas now as a facilitator, I believe that it's their responsibility to generate ideas and it's my responsibility to create a space for them to have it. And I would probably just say like, oh well maybe we should have a conversation about the conversations that they're having and we should all come together and it's great. I think diversity of thought is great. I understand why they're doing it seems like perfectly reasonable that if you have the resources, you should have multiple people thinking in multiple ways. But the question is how are we going to actually conglomerate them? How are we going to decide by what heuristics? By what measure will we decide which perspectives are good or less good? And that conversation often doesn't happen. So I think what I would probably want to do is just invite people in to have that conversation together to say, oh well this is what we're learning. Oh this is what we learned and this is what we learned. You're like, okay, well now what?

Myriam: 08:16 Yeah. By creating transparency and I guess that especially this tension that you might create this slight conflict. It could also lead to a totally different path and new ideas if the conversation is designed or managed properly.

Daniel: 08:32 Yeah, I think having two really big conflicting viewpoints can be valuable. If you share a large enough goal. If the goal is let's do the best thing, then the question is best, how? Best for who? And then we can have that conversation and that those are all totally reasonable. Many conversations are worth breaking out in say like, and I learned some of this from my conversation with my, uh, I went to the facilitation program at Harvard. I don't know if you listen to that podcast episode with Bob Bordone who I loved having my negotiation professor on my podcast and one of the big negotiation tactics or techniques I learned is that when somebody says, well, we should do x, or Oh, I want to buy something for y, you're like, oh, okay, that's really interesting. Where'd you get that number from? Or like, oh, that's what you'd like to do, but cool.

Daniel: 09:29 Like tell me why. Like lay it out for me and it's great to then understand somebody's reasoning. And somebody's goal. And then occasionally if you are asked enough questions, pretty much everybody's perspective is based on an opinion. And then that's because it's fine to say like, okay, well, so this is your opinion and your opinion is based on your expertise in your opinion is based on your experience

Myriam: 09:51 and hopefully some facts

Daniel: 09:53 and hopefully some facts and that can come out in the inquiry. Still worth asking like, okay, so cool. Now I know this is your opinion and this is your opinion. This is your opinion, what now what? Now that we've opened the conversation now and now we can exploring it, then we can say, well how do we pick a shared criterion? It's the conversation about the conversation.

Myriam: 10:14 And then we can ask who's in charge of which part of the process.

Daniel: 10:18 Yeah, Yup. Oh potentially. Yeah. Or does everyone need to be responsible for or be part of every single part.

Myriam: 10:25 And when I hear you speaking and the process of inquiry, I want to know where do you draw the line or is there actually a line between being a conversation designer, a facilitator, moderator and a coach? Wow. Yeah, or is it just one big thing that

Daniel: 10:43 just a mushed all together. Well, so lately I've been wondering this question myself and I have a like a model that I've been using that I sort of smushed together from somebody else is models and I can share. It's this quadrant of asking at the top and telling at the bottom and on the left is problem and on the right is solutioning. And so the question is like what quadrant do you need to be in when, right. And I generally try to be on the gentle or quadrants which are like asking people about the problem they're experiencing or asking them what the problem is like or asking them what solutions they've tried and and pushing them between those two quadrants. But sometimes you do need to go into the lower quadrants. Like if there's a fire or if there's somebody choking, you're like, okay, everyone light up.

Daniel: 11:40 And get out of the door. Like sometimes you just need to tell people what to do and that's okay. I think sometimes there's also different definitions of coaching. I've been looking at leadership models and some people of coaching leadership as here I'm going to tell you what to do and you'll do it along with me. The way like a sports coach, people are like, okay, do your back hand, do your front hand. But if you look at the Inner Game of Tennis, I don't know if you've read that book? Have we talked about that? Inner Game of Tennis is an amazing book about coaching that's not about coaching. It's about like life and it's not about tennis, but it's also about tennis.

Myriam: 12:20 Sounds like very appropriate title for the book.

New Speaker: 12:22 Yeah, it's a wonderful book. The audio book goes really fast and one of his perspectives is if I tell you exactly how to do your stroke, you can actually just make you self conscious and won't actually help you do your stroke any better.

Daniel: 12:36 So the question is how might I ask you a question so that I get the result I want? And so I would say, I will answer this question now. Like a coach I believe is interested in the development of the person that they're coaching, right? And so the question is, does the coach design their questions so that that person discovers for themselves? Does best practice? And in the Inner Game of Tennis, he points out that revolutionary tennis players played differently. Every tennis player does not serve or a volley in the same way. For years there was like, here's the way you do it. And then along comes Pete Sampras or you know, someone else who does it in a way that they're like, that shouldn't work, but it does. Right?

Myriam: 13:26 Yea, then it disrupts the game and - exactly - and the other person cannot adjust.

Daniel: 13:31 Yeah. Or or, or somebody. And actually I just started reading Unlearn by my friend Barry and he talks about Serina Williams in the beginning you're going to hear all this flipping pages on the recording now.

Daniel: 13:45 Yeah. So she hit a wall apparently in her career at one point. And then she met somebody who had to re coach her and so she had to unlearn all these things. Cause I coached I think is really focused on the individual. But obviously you can be a group coach or a team coach. I don't actually think there's very strong defendable definitions because the facilitator for me is somebody who, the classic definition is there's this Latin word of facile a French-ish sort of word of facil to make easy, right? And make what easy? The decision, the discussion?

Myriam: 14:23 The process?

Daniel: 14:24 The process. And so a moderator moderates a discussion, right? To me, I think that's why conversation design is more interesting because the question is where is the group now and where do they need to get to and how do I design a series of conversations for them to get where they need to go?

Daniel: 14:45 And the best example I can think of is like last night I was at the bar, I go out on Sunday nights with a group of people. I've been having dinner with them every Sunday for a couple of years, almost 10 years now. And there's my friend Miles is all working on a brainstorm for a side project he's working on and here's a really, really in the weeds difference between, okay we want the two owners of this problem that we're bringing in grouping people to brainstorm on and we want to share some reasons why the project exists, the goals of the project, some insights they have about the domain space and then they want people to have some initial ideas and responses to that. And I was like that sounds like a lot of information you're throwing at them. Are you going to break that up a little bit? And that's based on my own understanding of human psychology in the same way that user experience design is like, okay, you know that font isn't big enough or the button is too small, somebody won't be able to actually touch it.

Daniel: 15:45 Fit's law. Like is the object large enough for somebody to touch based on the distance that they are away and the time they have to touch it? And so he was like, yeah, actually what I'm planning to do is do three short rounds of expert talks and then three short rounds of brainstorming after each pump and I'm like, and then I'm going to have them get together in small groups and share things out. And I'm like, that sounds like that will work. The first way didn't sound like it would work based on psychology and my own understanding of group dynamics. Some people would say like, okay, well let's get that whole group of like eight people and let's have everyone share out their ideas. And it's like, well, yes you can. Do you want to give every person the same amount of time to do it?

Daniel: 16:32 Can we establish the rules ahead of time so that we know if people are quote unquote breaking them? Or should we have people share them in pairs and then pair up with another pair? Or should we have them do a template so that all their ideas look the same like and then what after they share their ideas he was like, well I kind of want them to do a business model canvas and I'm like, why? He's like, well I want to think about the launch strategy but there's like half of the business model canvas isn't really relevant. And I'm like, well don't use the business model canvas. Then there's the value proposition canvas. It's simpler but you also don't have to use that. Just ask him the question, you ask them

Myriam: 17:13 or make your own template

Daniel: 17:14 or make your own template. And Miles who is a an expert at this stuff still needs a reflection partner to think through the process of designing this conversation. Well because it's hard to design in a vacuum. And so I was, what was I doing there? Was I being a facilitator or a coach or a moderator of his internal dialogue? Cause Miles has been at conversation with himself for awhile about this. He and I've had other conversations about how to do it well. And so to me, designing the conversation is like what's the series of conversations, a series of prompts and groupings, those sizes that can get the group to where they need to go and then what happens?

Myriam: 17:56 and I think it's especially difficult to design the workshop process or conversation process if you are interested yourself or if you are the owner of the problem,

Daniel: 18:09 it is hard to get that distance.

Myriam: 18:10 Because then, you're so focused on the outcome and on the next steps that you tend, and I have observed that a couple of times that you tend to forget to emphasize was actually the group of participants that they need to slow approach to actually first understand what the purpose is and to get them used maybe to the other groups of participants. I had a discussion with someone and she wanted to start a huge workshop with a fish bowl where you would had three people, three experts starting the fish fishbowl and having 150 people around them listening. I was like that might be interesting at the latest point in time, but if you do have 147 people not participating in the conversation and if this is the kickoff of the workshop, maybe you want to get them involved slowly and first have connections and conversations in smaller groups,

Daniel: 19:10 but since then this is based on your own model of a person because maybe those people are highly interested in what those experts have to say and maybe that is the best way to get them slowly integrated into the problem. I always tell people when somebody shows me their agenda and they say, what do you think? Will this work? And I said it might,

Myriam: 19:29 It depends on the group of participants obviously and the context

Daniel: 19:32 of the facilitators commitment to like I sometimes push people through far too many activities really fast and it tires me out in a tires them out. But boy was it like jam packed in. Are they really happy that they had a jam packed session? Right versus like something like this. Like maybe it's important to slow it down, really up to them

Myriam: 19:56 I do agree that putting some pressure and to put the participants in a pressure cooker. How do you call that in English?

Daniel: 20:03 That's how we call it

Myriam: 20:05 does help because have a clear time boxing. Then you also don't get tired if you just keep on running, you don't get tired. But I think in some circumstances it's important to have everyone speak up at some point and to get involved in the conversation. Also to have different personality types in mind.

Daniel: 20:23 Yeah, I I totally, totally agree. I was just the, the one of the workshops I was just working on, it's about training trainers and there's um, are you familiar with Knowles, principles of Andragogy? Most people don't even know the word andragogy means it's a weird word, but pedagogy is the word we use about teaching people had means child. So his thing was like, well what's editor God g, which is like a man or, or adults. And one of their principles is that adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction. And experience provides the best basis for learning activities and that adults are interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance and impact to their job or personal life. And that adult learning is problem centered rather than content centered. And those are four really good principles. And I think facilitation is all is a group learning process.

Daniel: 21:23 And so when I looked at those principles recently, I'm like, yeah, you're naturally using that when you're looking at what would make me focus on three people talking about this topic. If this is the first time I'm being introduced to this topic and yet many people are unwilling to or afraid of starting a workshop with why is this useful or interesting to you? Or what do you think about this? Cause they're like, oh well we have the experts here or I'm here to teach them what's important. So opening it up to the room is a different way of designing the conversation. It's total group centered versus center centered and but, but what I say is both can work both say something about the facilitator both say something about the power dynamics or power structure in the room. Both could get you a result, they will get you different results. Right.

Myriam: 22:20 And I think the power dynamics in the room might be more important even than the preferences of the facilitator. Because I think at the end of the day it's my job to choose the most appropriate exercise for the group that I'm facing and their needs. And I think if there are large power differences, then it's important to start it slower to also give those the chance who might otherwise not speak up because then you face. Otherwise you might face a leadership bias where everyone just follows the leader and agrees to whatever the experts in the panel at the beginning say or the next ones in the hierarchy jump in or some overconfident intern jumps into the fishbowl. Yes.

Daniel: 23:07 And that's designing the conversation to reduce that. Yeah. Yet you can overdesign the conversation so that nothing happens. You know, I'm often very, very conscious of group dynamics and designing the group dynamics out of the process. But sometimes you want, it's helpful to have people seeding the group with ideas. Those first movers who either because of their gender or power perception for themselves or their just habitual approach to speaking, we'll just say, hey, what if we do this? It can be helpful to just accelerate the conversation and maybe two or three people will get squished by that person, but for the sake of time, that group, will at least have one idea. You know,

Myriam: 23:57 if the purpose is idea generation,

Daniel: 24:01 yes, yes. Yeah. If we're designing the conversation for speed and quantity of ideas, the question is like at some point we need to have some people come together and speak first, right? So we can either decide ahead of time who that person is going to be or rock, paper, scissors it. But if you try to do everything group decision like, okay, let's decide everything that's going to happen, right?

Myriam: 24:23 Do I hear some irony in your voice?

Daniel: 24:25 Oh yeah, you could over for, you could over facilitate or it can take forever and you're like, okay, how should we make a decision? Okay, let's decide on how we're going to decide on how to make a decision

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Myriam: 25:19 So what's according to you the most effective way to take a decision with a large group?

Daniel: 25:24 Oh Man. I mean affective. That's a very provocative term because the decider is the most autocracy is the easiest way. It is the most expedient way and that's why all the, the designs sprints people. Um, actually that's not true. The people who follow the Jake Knapp School of Design Sprinting use a decider because the idea is like, let's hear from the group and then let's have the decider decide.

Myriam: 25:57 And as long as it's transparent, it's definitely,

Daniel: 26:01 yeah, that's efficient. But inside of Google they have a flat organization and so there is no desire or they do it through consensus and I think, uh, efficient affinity mapping, dot voting, use score boarding. There's like, I think like you said, transparency, finding ways of making it transparent.

Myriam: 26:22 And I think you have to start from a shared goal. And, if you know that it is a true shared goal without hidden agendas, then it's definitely also a process that has most probability or likelihood to survive in the future.

Daniel: 26:38 Sure. So I would say you don't just like suddenly say, okay, let's decide. I think pretty close, you narrow the funnel and that makes it easier to, you know, you map the ideas in some way, shape or form then you do a heat map of preferences. You do scoring on top of that. I think layering that it makes sort of like backs people into the intuit and that makes sense. Yeah. And so exactly the job of facilitators is to design that process. So that is what's easy about it. It feels gentle and inevitable.

Myriam: 27:13 One question comes to my mind while discussing, to what extent do you believe does the facilitator has a responsibility to protect the group from all the group decision from being kidnapped as a one word?

Daniel: 27:28 Let's go with it.

Myriam: 27:29 Great. So for instance, I mentioned the situation where you have this workshop where you have a group working focused together, coming up with ideas and then in the last minute the problem owner comes in and says, you know what? Nice to listen to you but we'll make it differently. How would you deal with such a situation?

Daniel: 27:54 I mean, like we said, if there's a decider that can happen and that's okay, that's within their prerogative. It does make it really hard to expect people to be as generous with their creativity the second time. Yeah, and so when I teach facilitation to people, I think facilitative leadership is the willingness to step back and let others step forward. And to be clear about what hack you're putting on and taking off and to, and to understand what gets the most creativity out of people, it's okay to do that. If people know that it's going to happen and are still giving their ideas in the spirit of this is not going to be what really happens. This is going to be something that will influence what really happens. Right. And that's just about level setting and communicating the process. It's hard. I've had that happen in my professional life or something. It's like, nope, we're going to do it this other way now. So that that's, that's not fun.

Myriam: 28:55 Yeah, it's frustrating. And as you said, the next time people will either not show up or not be as engaged. Reminds me of the Dan Ariely experiment with the Lego houses, how he wants to show that we are most motivated when we see meaningful progress in our work. So if we see that the work we are providing will be disentangled at the end of it or ignored, then the next time we just don't want to engage and it's independent of money or any other financial incentives.

Daniel: 29:25 Yeah. Yeah. So I think that goes down to training the leader or the sponsor of the event.

Myriam: 29:35 What is the key skill according to you, since you are also teaching facilitating managers, what is the key skill that they should learn first?

Daniel: 29:43 Sensing. I think if you don't know, if you can't feel what's happening in yourself and in the room, you can't know what to do about it. Right? So the, I worked with a great facilitator who did an exercise where you're this question of how do you know that the energy in the room is flat? How do you, and we would just do like some brainstorming of this. So how do you know the energy in the room is dying? How do you know when it's increasing? And there's like visual signs to pick up but there's also like an energy in the room or you're like, hey, it's cooking, right. This is, this is going. And so I think

Myriam: 30:28 Can you learn that? Can you teach that? Cause it's a lot of intuition, right? And I think there are people who are more sensitive to it and others who are just not and I don't know whether it's self awareness or empathy.

Daniel: 30:46 God, I hope it can be taught. I really hope it can. It's tough because the people who come to these things are generally interested and have a growth mindset. I think if you're curious like there are like, so I'll use a really weird example, which is like people who are on the neurological spectrum who may be are have Asperger's syndrome. And I, and I have a good friend who I, who I went to high school with who, who suffered from this, I don't know what the right way to, to classify it as, but he had a hard time reading faces, wasn't able to read emotion from faces. And that led to him actually getting beat up a couple of times in high school because like he didn't know when he was being annoying to people and pushing them too hard because he was just asking very simple questions and he just wanted to know what he wanted to know. He learned how to hack it later he was able to develop a set of algorithms where he's like, oh, and some of these brow goes below here and this furrow means that they're tense and tense means anger yeah, yeah, sure. He's like literally drawing. He's using math and graphs, which he's good at. And he's like, okay, so I'm going to chart this person's facial expressions over time. And he's like hacking it backwards to say like, I think they're getting tense with me.

Myriam: 32:04 Yeah. And I think that for those who know that they struggle with these kinds of things, it might be even easier then too, because as you just explained, they will find little hacks and little signs on how to read the room and how to translate it into their system.

Daniel: 32:22 So I think breaking the problem down into smaller problems always helps people sense that. And that's one of the things that I've been trying to do with the book that I'm working on is taking this idea of, well, how do I shape this conversation? And breaking it down into smaller pieces, but just giving people a thing to look for is like, oh, what's the body language like? What's happening? What are people's facial expressions? The thing that is hard to teach, you're absolutely right, Myriam, is self perception. And I'm a big proponent of this now in my workshops, is that if you literally don't know what you're feeling, it's hard to know what the group feeling now, but breaking the problem down into little pieces can help people do it, I think. I hope.

Myriam: 33:09 Yeah. And then maybe it goes hand in hand. If you learn to read facial expressions more, you get an instant feedback also, um, how you have perceived and then maybe be more sensitive to it. Yeah, it's a process. Interesting. According to you, what makes a workshop fail?

Daniel: 33:24 Well, so that's a really interesting question and I think it's a question of like what is the goal of the workshop? Right. Cause I was just talking with a friend of mine who talked about undesigned sprint being a failure. Actually Jake Knapp talks about this book. It's like it's a failure if the users didn't like it. And it's like, well actually the truth is the workshop, the sprint didn't fail. Like the prototype didn't fail either. The prototype probe the customer's perspective and now we know more about it. And so like in that sense, like what does fail mean? Like if a group of people came together and they walked away feeling like that was a colossal waste of my time, then it's a failure. Yeah. Right. If they felt like, wow, we didn't accomplish anything.

Daniel: 34:16 We didn't learn anything. We didn't move the conversation forward. I wish that I hadn't taken that time out of my agenda. That's the only way that I think that it would fail. And I think the only way it can fail is if there isn't clarity of purpose, right? The main way it can fail is if it's not clear why we're there. And the other way can fail is if we don't manage group dynamics and if one person talks the whole time I, the loudest person in the room or the facilitator of the facilitator talks all the time. So I think that's, that would be how it could fail is that if people didn't get out of it what they needed to. And the only way that can happen is that if you don't spend the time to understand what the key goals are for the workshop.

Daniel: 35:00 And I've done that before. I've definitely designed workshops where I thought they needed to go here. It was a very well designed workshop for another group of people. Right. And they actually, instead of going there, they, they really needed to go there.

Myriam: 35:13 And at what point did you find out?

Daniel: 35:15 At the end. Of course. Well, you know, the, the ideas that came out of it were based off of the activity that happened before or in those very progressive, and we started with the wrong prompts. We asked the wrong question, right? So I think the way it workshop can fail is by asking the wrong questions and by not being clear on what the goals are, if you ask the right questions and you have the right series of activities that get you there progressively, you'll get something right. And they did get something. It's not like they got nothing out of it, it's just that the ideas were sort of like just, you know, in the vector model of things, like they could have just been more to the point. And then we ran it a second time with another group in the organization and revised the agenda significantly. I understood the, the, the needs and the people and the goals a lot better. So like that's how workshops fail. If you don't understand the people and the goal and the right, the right series, you're not going to get there. But that seems so, so obvious. Like that's, it's foundational.

Myriam: 36:25 It depends. I enjoy asking the question and just see what comes around because it often boils down to the same things. Obviously the fundamentals, the fundamentals. Yeah. But then you have some facilitators who would rather focus on the purpose. Others more on the safe space in the room. Um, or people dynamics said. It's interesting. So how much time do you usually spend on understanding the participants before him?

Daniel: 36:55 It's really tough. I know that there are some facilitators who would interview all of the participants. And I, I don't always have the, the [...]. Yeah. It depends on how many. So sometimes I will allow the sponsor of the workshop to sort of be the stand in for that, that group of people. So because they are the sponsor, they're the ones who are telling me where they really want to go. And then I use the early stages of the workshop to understand what it is that they really to validate or invalidate their perspective and that the structure of the workshop is resilient enough, generally good enough to allow minor shifts based on that understanding to bring that forward.

Myriam: 37:42 So would you change or adjust some exercises if you realize that there is for instance there are large power differences and how would you do that?

Daniel: 37:48 I well no because I think, I think I would generally build in for that in the first place. Like I think that's just best practices because there's always going to be a power differential and there's always going to be somebody who's more willing to talk and more people who are a little more reticent. So it's just about the size of the group and the mechanics of the workshop just have to be this, have to support that. And the general goal, you know the group sizes are designed to make sure that those group mechanics are accounted for. That's the most fundamental thing. I'm not going to try and manage a 15 person round table discussion to try and get to a point. I'm not that good of a facilitator. I think there's some who are like, they're large person, large group facilitators and there they'll just say, okay, we're just going to, the whole group is going to talk the whole time and we're going to get there. And I think that would be that for me. That'd be very hard to not know. You would definitely want to know all the people in the room. You would definitely want to know what the power dynamics are. In that case. I think the group you're breaking up the group and recombining the group allows an organic process of uh, clarity or grouped thinking to happen and so they get someplace they'd get to a place at the end of it based on the design of the conversation.

Myriam: 39:16 It makes sense.

Daniel: 39:19 I'm glad.

Myriam: 39:20 Sure. I mean, yeah, because you cannot have a discussion with, as you said, 15 people. I think. Yeah, even the discussion was six does some like

Daniel: 39:26 I think a really good moderator can do that. I'm more of a process based, I'm more interested in people patterns that can make those types of conversations more, more fluid and functional and then just managing that large circle.

Myriam: 39:48 I think again, it really depends on the purpose of the meeting. Yeah, so if the purpose is an exchange of information that not necessarily idea generation or creativity, then it might make most sense. It actually makes most sense to have everyone together and to share this information. Yes. Everyone to contribute to a new idea or to challenge an existing idea than maybe sitting with 15 people around a large table doesn't help a lot, even if you're a very good moderator.

Daniel: 40:21 Yeah. Well I can certainly get bogged down. I'll, I'll say that. Yeah.

Myriam: 40:27 You refer in your freebie to the conversation experience. In a previous podcast episode we talked about experiences and how to create design experiences for, uh, within workshops in order because we all remember better when we felt and we feel through experiences. All right. Yeah. Trigger feelings. So I would be curious to hear how you define experience in the context of a conversation.

Daniel: 40:53 I can do that. Experience design is actually really ephemeral to design because the question is who is having the experience and can I actually design an experience? I can't make them have an experience. John Kolko was probably the first guy who helped me understand that you can orchestrate experiences, you can design for experiences, but you can't actually design experiences. And there's another book that people should totally read, which is Setting the Table by Danny Meyer. It's the best book about experience design that's actually about food. Everybody's actual favorite topic and the, and the title is about setting table. You can set the table for the experience, you can have the knife in the fork and the spoon. You can have the meals and the courses come out at the right time, but still have a crappy experience because they had a bad day or because they're on a bad date and so it's your job to orchestrate all the touch points so that the person gets what they need when they need it, and if the customer says to you, I'd like everything at one at the same time, then you go, cool, I will try. I won't course it out for you. And if they say like, no, we'd like this, then this and this, you're like, cool. Then this, that's designing the experience with the person who's receiving it in mind. A workshop is an experience and that it has like any other experience a beginning, a middle and an end and there's an arc and it's your job to shape that arc.

Myriam: 42:18 It's interesting because when you mentioned Setting the Table it, I love the analogy - and it made me think also of expectation management. So if you are setting the table with chinese and with these nice cutlery and nice glasses and then you are served a frozen pizza, well you know high, low also shaped your experience because you built up all these expectations. Yeah, it's not consistent anymore.

Daniel: 42:47 Right. And this is why I generally love to draw during workshops instead of having slides because it implies that we are having a organic improvisational fluid experience instead of a polished, perfect one.

Myriam: 43:00 And you can apply the same rules to everyone that you say you don't use screen and this applies to you as a facilitator as much as the participants.

Daniel: 43:09 Completely legitimate. Absolutely true.

Myriam: 43:12 We are a little bit running out of time and I don't want to let you go before hearing your favorite exercise. Your silver bullet.

Daniel: 43:21 Well, I mean, so those are two separate things potentially. I wrote a book last year called the 32nd Elephant and the Paper Airplane Experiment and I've written about a bunch of those exercises online. I did the book just to conglomorate them together. I think. I don't like having to go to the shopping market before I want to teach somebody about something. So I personally don't like having to bring a bag of Legos or a bag of marshmallows and spaghetti with me to teach somebody something.

Myriam: 43:52 I got to get your point.

Daniel: 43:53 Yeah. And so I have a background. I grew up doing origami as a kid and so the second exercise in that book is the paper airplane experiment. It's very simple. I've written it up the basic ideas to get a pair of people together to make a set of instructions on how to make a paper airplane.

Daniel: 44:13 And that simple activity that takes about five minutes can be unpacked in a lot of different ways. I get people to think about first speakers syndrome, like how do groups, how does even a pair of people make a decision together, right. Who initiated the the choice cause they weren't even thinking about that. They were just like, oh I have to make, and then they get to also think about how do I communicate my ideas to other people and did I think about the functionality of the idea and the person who was going to be the recipient of this thing. Yeah. And so all of these questions happen from this one five minutes and then we can talk about prototyping and testing. We can talk about iteration and revision and I can do it in 20 minutes or 30 minutes or 45 minutes. But the paper airplane experiment is a really fun exercise that gets people to focus on collaboration, visual communication, iteration like had been literally everything about design thinking in like 30 minutes with nothing more than a piece of paper. And some of this

Myriam: 45:19 I'd also answer another question I had where you referred to, an eye opener instead of icebreakers. So this paper airplane experiment is an eye opener because people understand by doing that.

Daniel: 45:33 Yeah. An icebreaker is just like, hey, let's throw around an invisible ball. But as soon as you say, what did it feel like to catch what somebody was throwing, then you can say, oh, well what can we learn about collaboration? It's all ball. Communicating intentions and receiving intentions. You can do it with anything but an icebreakers just like, okay, let's five, four, three, two, one, jump in the air, cool ice broken or tell me your truths and a lie or whatever it is that breaks the ice, but it has no functionality building the Ark. It just gets people Jew stop. It's like giving them chocolate in my personal opinion in IMHO in my humble opinion. I think giving somebody an exercise that connects them to each other and to the topic yes and moves the conversation forward is has more functionality.

Myriam: 46:24 Yeah, I agree. Well, I generally agree. I think there are so many layers to that because it's also about creating. So an icebreaker is not only about pumping up energy, but it's also about sharing, about landing, about creating safe space about.

Daniel: 46:40 Yeah. But it's very common to see people focused on the ice breaking part and not on the connecting and landing and building.

Myriam: 46:49 Yeah. If someone fell asleep after minute, just woke up and doesn't have time to listen to the entire show again. What do you want them to remember?

Daniel: 47:00 Conversations matter. Conversations can be designed, it's somebody's job to do it when there's a lot on the line. And so being intentional about how you designed them is worth doing. That's it.

Myriam: 47:16 Wonderful. And if someone needs a conversation designer, how can they reach you?

Daniel: 47:20 Um, uh, you can find me at theconversationfactory.com. That's probably the easiest place. DanielStillman.com is less utilized but it does. Those are the two places on the Internet they can tweet me at, at @DaStillman and I will, I will respond to their conversation requests immediately.

New Speaker: 47:41 What's your favorite conversation trigger? The one line that might trigger conversation in your private life.

Daniel: 47:52 Oh, how might we? obviously, that always works. Rose Thorn Bud is actually like almost my universal. It's like it almost always works. What's working, what's not working, and what were opportunities for growth or development or a certain invite is pretty handy. Unfortunately, we're at the time where I literally have to go out the door. Otherwise, I client would be very upset with me. I'm sorry for putting things,

Myriam: 48:18 Well, I put all the remaining questions in the last two minutes. Thank you that you answered them all.

Daniel: 48:25 My pleasure. I really, really am excited to hear this in the world. I think you asked lovely questions. I really appreciate it.

Myriam: 48:33 Awesome talking to you. Thank you for making this happen. All right, thanks. Yes, there is. I. Bye. All right, bye.

New Speaker: 48:47 Thank you so much. Thank you. Happy Monday. Happy Monday.

Myriam: 48:52 Thank you for staying tuned and listening to the show. I appreciate your attention as I know how busy you are. If you enjoyed it, please subscribe and engage by sharing your comments and thoughts and visit www.workshops.work to download the one page summary. I'm looking forward to seeing you back at the next episode and I wish you a fruitful day.

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October 24, 2019 in Amsterdam