Podcast Ep19 – Alison Coward – How To Conduct A Creative Workshop

This is the nineteenth in a series of podcasts where Judy interviews people who have a track record of successful collaboration.

This series is for anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of real-life collaboration, especially collaboration among creative, intelligent, free-thinking individuals who are geographically dispersed. The interviews go well beyond the obvious, as metaphor master Judy Rees explores the hidden thinking that inspires collaboration that works.

Judy:      Hello and welcome to the Collaboration Dynamics Podcast.  With me today is Alison Coward.  Hello, would you like to introduce yourself?

Alison:   My name is Alison Coward, I’m the founder of Bracket.  I specialise in collaboration, I help people work in collaborative teams, to figure out how they can work together better so they can be more productive, get the best out of everyone on the team.

I also help them with workshops, training them in facilitation skills as well, and generally giving them tips on how they can be more productive together.

Judy:   So, an ideal person to be on the Collaboration Dynamics Podcast.  So for you, when you are collaborating at your best, that’s like what?

Alison:   In collaboration teams, I’m often playing the role of facilitator, so I really like to take the position where I bring the talent together, and I set the environment for them to be their most creative and bounce off of each other.

It’s like I go in, set things up, then take a step back and get out of the way so they can do their think.  The role I take as a facilitator is a bit like a conductor in an orchestra.  You’ve got all these talented people who are individually great, but they need to come together to do something.  So the conductor is there, not playing an instrument but setting the time and tempo, the energy.  I’m the person that someone might look to for the next thing to do, where should they go next, what should we do?  That’s the role I play.

Judy:   So when you’re like a conductor, setting the tone, tempo, energy, what kind of conductor is that conductor?

Alison:   What I’m thinking about a conductor, in my mind I’m seeing the classic orchestra, but it’s different in a creative team’s environment.  A conductor, you would imagine them standing at the front of the room.  They get quite a bit of attention, but when you’re in a collaborative environment, the way that I see myself is that I’m almost invisible.  A very subtle role, but it’s important and brings everyone together.

Judy:      So sort of an invisible conductor.  And when you are like that and setting the tone and tempo like that, how does an invisible conductor go about setting the tone?

Alison:   Probably through words, questions, a lot of questioning.  An invisible conductor needs to be quite sensitive to the environment.  They need to be alert, know what is going on individually with people, knowing their moods, how they’re getting along, whether they’re stuck.  And also looking at the room as a whole and getting a sense of what’s happening, whether any interventions need to be made.

So the conductor can then step back and let the discussion continue in the way that it is, or whether the conductor needs to get more involved to help that discussion flow, to help those individuals that need to get more involved in the discussion or the brainstorm or the idea generation.  Whether the people in the orchestra are playing too soft, or too loud and drowning out some other members of the team.

So it’s this idea of being there when you’re needed but knowing when to get out of the way as well, and knowing that everything’s going smoothly enough for you to just keep an eye on everything.

Judy:   So the invisible conductor’s got eyes everywhere and is sensitive and notices when an individual is playing too loud and they know when to take a step back or to get involved.

When it’s time to take a step back, how does the invisible conductor know it’s time?

Alison:   It’s according to the energy in the room.  As a facilitator you plan out your session, designed it, have your sheet music so to speak.  You have your score, the general direction the group needs to go in, or the discussion.  And you keep an eye on that to make sure that that’s happening.

But you’ve also got to be aware, maybe the team is actually coming up with something better than you envisaged, and the discussion is going off on a different direction.  That’s not that it’s the wrong direction, but you need to be able to tell if that’s useful for what you need to happen by the end of the session.

You’ll know based on what needs to happen, what will be the ideal outcome of the session and whether the discussion is going off track or not.  So you need to get involved when people are bouncing off in directions that might be interesting but not useful.  You might handle it, there’s an energy, a discussion, some excitement that you couldn’t have foreseen, so you need to go with that flow as well.

Judy:      When you go with that flow, when there’s an excitement and energy like that, what happens to the music?

Alison:   For me, we go back to the reality, the ideas, and then you’ll still get ideas coming out, you’ll get people in a productive atmosphere, they’ll feel that they’re making progress, and getting somewhere.  There might be that kind of productive conflict where some people are bashing ideas up against each other, and you can feel that they’re getting animated and they’re engaging in the discussion.

So you’ll know when it looks good, sounds good, feels good, and you’ll know when you need to intervene as well.  Perhaps the discussion is drying up, the energy is depleted, and you’ll maybe ask more questions, help the discussion along.

Judy:      I’m interested in “productive conflict” that you mentioned, bashing ideas together.  Tell me more about that.

Alison:   I think it’s getting more accepted now, that people see collaboration as something more than just everybody’s happy, getting along, no argument or disagreement.  I work in the area of creative collaboration, and the idea is that when people are working together and combining their ideas in a way that they haven’t done before, and the outcome will be some sort of innovation.

So for innovation to happen there needs to be some kind of diversity in the team, and when there’s diversity there’s going to be differences of opinion.  And that’s not a bad thing.  Conflict has to happen for something new to come out of a discussion or brainstorm.  I think some people mistake that conflict for bad conflict.

There is a non-productive form of conflict, where people attack each other and it gets personal.  And when there’s conflict around ideas, around what needs to be done, then that discussion should be handled in a way that it doesn’t get personal and still allows people to fight it out.  They have to, in some way not compromise, but combine those ideas, so that the best bits float to the top.

I’ve discovered this about myself.  About a year ago I was out with some friends, and we decided to have a debate, a high-level debate the theory of life, what is it all about.  There were some people around the table that had some really strong differences of opinion.  I came away from that discussion really energised, because I’d had the opportunity to really fight for my ideas.

And it didn’t get personal,  no one said, “You’re really stupid, how could you think that?”  It was all about our opinions.  There were some people I could see around the table that were really uncomfortable about it, they thought we were arguing, but the people that were engaged in the discussion were really enjoying that debate.

We tend to shy away from conflict sometimes because it can make us feel uncomfortable.  But there is a type of conflict that can do the opposite, in fact.  Make us feel that we’ve engaged in something that is elating in a sense.

Judy:      And how do you tell the difference?

Alison:   It’s really challenging to tell the difference.  And that’s the role of leaders, facilitators, even people on the team.  They have to make sure it doesn’t get personal.  There’s techniques you can use when you’re in a brainstorming session to keep it from getting personal.

There’s a preparation there; you have to say “The purpose of this discussion is pull apart each other ideas and question them.”  So the point of the session is about creating some really good conflict and pulling things apart so that we create something new together.

Judy:   And when there’s productive conflict like that, then what happens to the invisible conductor?

Alison:   It depends.  The facilitator sets the tone, saying this conflict is good or reassure the team that the conflict is going in the right direction.  If they see that conflict is getting too comfortable, then they’ll intervene and steer away from that.  And maybe they can get out of the way, maybe they just let that discussion happen because it is going in the right direction.

Judy:      When you’re collaborating like that invisible conductor and you’ve got that productive conflict and you’ve got the energy, you’ve set the tone and the tempo, and the invisible conductor has eyes everywhere and is sensitive in knowing what’s going on, and you know if an individual is playing too loud or anything like that.  Is there anything else that needs to be noticed about the invisible conductor?

Alison:   This invisible conductor is the homing point.  In workshops particularly the facilitator comes to the fore and then retreats again.  The facilitator is the thread that holds everything together.

When I’m facilitating I’m exercising, and the people in the room will get on with the exercise, they’ll have the discussion, and then we’ll come back and we’ll talk about what they discussed, the ideas they generated or the questions they came up with, the challenges they identified.  Then the facilitator is the person that’s asking those questions, winding up the notes and paraphrasing that content back to them, synthesizing the information.

It’s almost like that point that people come back to like a compass, it’s their wayfinder.  So you go off in different directions, explore, discover, and then come back to this point again that brings everything together, then go off again to explore, discover ideas, then come back again.  And it’s the role of the facilitator to bring everyone back and send them off again, be that thread that connects everything, the ideas that come up, connect the dots,  observe and see the things that people say and point them out to them if they haven’t noticed them.

Judy:      So that’s how you do your collaboration when you’re at your best.  So we’ve got several metaphors there, not only the invisible conductor but also the idea of the homing point and a compass and a thread running through the whole thing.

Is there a relationship between the thread and the conductor?

Alison:   I haven’t seen it before, because a lot of the stuff I’m saying to you today, I haven’t really articulated in this way before.  I would say the thread is another way of describing the conductor almost.

Judy:      So that’s great stuff, thank you for all of that.  If people want to contact you, and find out more about what you do and book you, how do they do that?

Alison:   Use my website, which is bracketcreative.com.uk, and also please email me at Alison@bracketcreative.com.uk.  I also write a blog as well, with ideas around collaboration and how people can work with their teams and introduce things to increase the effectiveness, learn the “how” as well as the “what” you’re going to do.  I’m really happy to hear from anybody who wants to find out more, get some tips for their next facilitation.

Judy:      Wasn’t that interesting?  A couple of the big ideas that really struck me from that interview, probably the biggest was the importance Alison placed on productive conflict, on the fact that a wide diversity of opinions could contribute to a really lively, interesting discussion where there could be strong differences of opinion.  And that could be really energizing for me, because in my history I’ve tended to avoid conflict, and at the first hint of conflict I’ve shied away and tried to pour oil on the waters.

But the more I’ve worked in collaboration the more I discover that that diversity and that productive conflict is an essential part of the process.  There has to be divergence before there can be convergence.  That’s a theme that has come up in several of the interviews.  I think this is the one where it became most sharply obvious.

Another thing I enjoyed about interviewing Alison was a pattern that I noticed that I think she has, I think I heard what are instances in the pattern the way she uses metaphors.  This bit is probably most interesting to people who are working directly with metaphors, perhaps people who have studied clean language.  If you don’t know what clean language, do go to xraylistening.com and do a quick search for clean language.  Clean language is a precision tool kit for working with the metaphors that underpin people’s thinking and that drive their behavior.  Clean language is the thing that I’m famous for; I co-authored a book called “Clean Language.”  It’s something I work with very much and it’s something I use a lot in these interviews.

As I’ve been working with people, particularly creative, intelligent people, I notice there’s a lot of them have a pattern of coming up with several metaphors which are metaphors for the same thing.  Other people will grab one metaphor and stick with it, whereas this particular subset of creative intelligent people are constantly coming up with a new way of expressing what they’ve just told you.  So Alison started off talking about the conductor and the orchestra, and then later the facilitator the homing point, the compass, the way finder.  And then later, another metaphor for the same thing, the thread.

So she was coming up with new ways of expressing the same thing.  And you can see how that would be really useful in the divergent phase of any project, where you are looking for as many different ideas as you possibly can to put into the pot and stir it, because any one of those metaphors that Alison comes up with might be exactly the one that would inspire another person to come up with an even better idea.

So I thought it was very interesting to see that idea, that pattern playing out in one of these Collaboration Dynamics interviews.

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