Go on a field trip with our Lead Facilitator, Kevan, as he travels to Vancouver to talk to a group of CEO’s about “The Listening Organization.” This peek behind-the-scenes at a facilitator’s day illuminates how to adopt a mindset of listening and adaptation in order to more accurately understand and meet emerging needs.
Facilitation Field Notes with Kevan Gilbert
Kevan brings wisdom from over a decade of experience leading award-winning digital strategies for a wide variety of institutions and businesses. A seasoned and engaging facilitator and speaker who has been with Domain7 since 2010, Kevan has helped shape our collaborative and people-centric culture. He’s studied design thinking and innovation processes at the THNK School of Creative Leadership.
Veronica: Welcome to Change is in the Making, Domain7’s podcast where we explore all things digital thorough the lens of purposeful change. I’m Veronica Collins.
Kevan: And I’m Kevan Gilbert. Together we’ll be discussing themes of connection-making and culture-shaping, delving into how to create meaningful change from a business standpoint and from a human perspective.
Veronica: So let’s get started. Today we are going on a field trip.
Kevan: Last week, our colleague Stan was scheduled to speak with a group of CEOs on the topic of listening and design, but was unfortunately booked with too much client work to make it happen.
Veronica: So Kevan was asked instead to step in.
Kevan: Which I don’t mind, but I also don’t live in the same city as Stan or in the same city as the gathering of CEO’s was taking place.
Veronica: That’s true, so with only a few days’ notice, Kevan had to arrange a trip and a talk—and you had to get yourself ready to lead a two-hour conversation with a group of CEO’s on the topic of “the listening organization.”
Kevan: So we thought “Why don’t we make it into the podcast?” We’ll record the journey, we’ll record the talk itself, and invite our podcast listeners on a ride-along to learn what it’s like to facilitate a conversation about creating more human centered organizations.
Veronica: Kevan has done this before. He’s our Lead Facilitator at Domain7 and has been leading workshops and speaking at conferences for years. He’s personally one of my favourite people to listen to if I’m at a conference, so we thought it might be fun to see the inside story of how he does it.
Kevan: So here we go. We’re gonna take you now to the room. Here we are. It’s not a big room. There is a table, or maybe this is a couple tables pushed together. There’s a small desk at the back with a Starbucks carry-out container. There’s an easel-sized white board near the front of the room and there’s a projector.
Oh no. The projector has a VGA input. I don’t have a VGA adapter. My slides aren’t gonna work. And that white board over there…I’m not mad, but that’s gonna be a problem. We’re doing a talk about listening and a cornerstone of this talk I planned involves a 45-minute-long experience mapping workshop. This might seem silly, but that kind of workshop really only works on a large, rectangular writing surface. You can’t really just cram it into a portrait-oriented, easel-sized writing pad. Here we are, no projector adapter, no rectangular white board, I am mentally flashing back over the four hours of travel it has taken me to get here. I’m pretty sure this is many people’s worst nightmares.
Speaking of nightmares, I did have a dream about this talk. In fact, I recorded a voice memo about it at five a.m. this morning while standing outside the Kelowna Airport on my way here:
“I was having dreams about this talk last night. I dreamt that I was presenting it remotely over a video conference and it was to three grandmothers who work in a factory, but these three grandmas were super interested in it, so that’s a good sign.”
I realized in that moment, in the room, that most of the things I’ve planned for in this talk have to change. I don’t yet know how, and yet somehow I feel okay with that. Well, mostly okay with that. I think it’s because the loss of my slides and the loss of a valuable prop for a workshop means instead, I’m gonna have to host a conversation. As you’ll hear from the voice memos I recorded during the rest of my travel, I was somehow planning for that all along.
“I’ve just landed in Vancouver. It’s still dark outside. I think I’m going to be relying a lot of good questions in the session to invite participants into these newer topic areas instead of having to be a lecturer who has all of the content perfectly nailed down, smoothed out. Embracing a little bit more of the improvisational opportunities, blah blah blah.”
Blah blah blah indeed. Nobody wants to be lectured at. These reflections continued on the rest of my journey through the city, from the sky train to the seabus to the coffee shop to the walk into the building where the meeting was happening.
“The best experiences that we have created for people to learn in have been the ones where they’re truly participants in creating the content and learning experience, not just passive recipients of knowledge being passed to them. I don’t know if there’s an opportunity to use this morning’s talk to do a similar thing. I have some techniques I could try. I’m exploring that right now.”
“I am on the sea bus. We are bobbing up and down on the water in the same spaces as cruise ships and whale watching tours for the price of a transit ticket. It’s a short ride, and on the other side, I’m going to have breakfast and work on my talk some more. I keep calling it a talk. Maybe I should call it a listen.”
I have about one hour’s time in a coffee shop before the meeting starts where I spend the time looking through my slides, running through the content while I finally have the chance for some breakfast and coffee, the first things I’ve had to eat or drink since I woke up at 4:30 am. Not a recommended pathway for self care, by the way. Before I walk out the door, here’s me summarizing my conclusion from that final hour of preparation:
“What I’ve done is introduced a whole bunch more questions throughout. Alright, nine minutes. Time for me to head over there. Okay. I am walking to the place. Feeling good about this conversation that we get to have. That’s the right word for it, not a talk, not a listen, a conversation.”
So now that brings us back to where we started. Standing in a small room with no adapter for the projector. As much energy as I’ve put into traveling today and preparing for this talk, I’m not the only one who has overcome hurdles to get here. Traffic is horrendous. Some of the folks had to commute three hours to get here. A few people are late and the energy in the room is much more subdued than my moments travel morning has prepared me for.
Attendee: “Traffic was horrendous…”
Kevan: I take this moment to check in with myself about how I’m doing. I realize I’m not doing fantastic, as the energy I’ve just expended to get here is hitting me, and I realize I’ve had an inflated sense in my head of the big dealness of this talk. It’s just us, a few commuting folks here to learn. This isn’t a crowd or an audience, it’s an intimate gathering. This group of eight CEO’s meet monthly as part of a peer coaching model. They support each other as fellow leaders and yeah, they hear from a guest speaker, but the speaker isn’t the main event. After this morning session, they’ll be sticking together until five pm to work through the rest of their coaching content. So what is my intention? My intention is simple, you know it from the intro. I want to host a conversation. I want to listen.
“The talk we get to do today gets to take a slight turn, as we don’t have the adapters we need to get to the projector, which is great because the topic is called the Listening Organization. As I was thinking about this, calling it a talk didn’t feel right. Just on my walk into the building, I was like, ‘You know what? This isn’t a talk. It’s a conversation, and sure enough, slides can’t happen so it has to be a conversation.’”
We do round-the-room introductions. I introduce myself, I explain the topic of our talk today, then I ask a question. “When you guys hear themes like what I just described, design thinking, the idea of the listening organization. Just out of the gate, how does that hit you and what do you become curious about when you hear that clyster of terms, or better yet, what makes you feel uncertain about that topic area?”
Oh gosh. The pause was exactly that long. That kind of silence can destroy me. It makes me just want to interrupt and talk into the void to get rid of the crushing awkwardness, but that goes against the intention I have for this whole morning. I said I wanted to listen and besides, my question was super vague and way to open ended, so I just wait. Eventually somebody answers. Thank you.
Attendee: “Design Thinking is a bit fuzzy for me.”
Kevan: And then another person answers.
Attendee: “Time being the biggest commodity. How am I gonna implement it and not waste people’s time?”
Kevan: If you couldn’t hear him, he said “Time being the biggest commodity. How am I gonna implement it without wasting people’s time?” Those are great questions. They reveal anxiety, uncertainty, a need for clarity. There’s good stuff we can dig into there. They don’t sound like confident, polished answers sure, but they’re gifts to me to keep this conversation going, so I say …
“Okay perfect. Thanks.”
Kevan: And I ask “What else?” and the answers keep on coming.
Attendee: “It sounds like a great thing. The question is how. How do you do it?”
Attendee: “My limited experience with it is it’s a long, very proactive process. You’re trying to design … even in the small organization like mine …”
Kevan: Now we’re getting somewhere. This conversation last for about 10 minutes and gives me enough insight into what they know and don’t know about today’s topic area that I now know a little more clearly where we get to spend some time this morning.
Here’s the new plan. I see we’ve got people who are not familiar at all with design thinking, so it’s going to be worth all of our time to invest in a healthy, in depth explanation of the model. So I do that.
It takes 15 minutes to walk through it all, and I’m using that tiny, easel-shaped white board to draw the key diagram of the design thinking double diamond. What I walk through for them is a simplified version of design methods, or design thinking. We talk about this as an innovation method for when the old ways aren’t working or a process of problem solving for uncommon situations.
It follows this general process. Number one, creating a guiding question, often in the form of “How might we,” statement. Then embarking on a process of listening and engagement with the community you’re serving. After that, synthesizing those insights into a new and clarified understanding of the community’s reality. After that, following a process of co creation and co design to openly explore new ideas and new approaches. Lastly, filtering down those approaches to one or two that you might wish to prototype and bring back to the community for testing. These five general steps summarize the process of design thinking.
To my surprise, that tiny diagram really captures their attention. It’s enough to generate 45 minutes of nearly un-facilitated dialogue that covers a wild array of topics, where they begin to share their own leadership stories, their culture struggles, their business anecdotes, all tying it back to the frame work.
How did this happen? Part of it is the model I’m sharing is genuinely powerful and interesting. I didn’t invent it, I just really like explaining it and using it and it’s landing for these folks, but the other thing is just the trick of active listening as a facilitator, affirming people’s input…
“I really appreciate that example, and what I see in it too is …”
Reflecting back what I’m hearing.
“I heard you highlighting …”
Saying thank you. Expressing interest.
“I love that. I love that perspective.”
It helps the conversation snowball and snowball it does. The room after the first hour is really starting to build a sense of shared meaning together. We’re speaking a common language now. We’re getting it. We get to the place where we hear a story from a participant about his efforts to convince telecom execs in the 90’s that cellphone technology was going to explode. The story has everything in it, including coffee with Canadian legend Marshall McLuhan.
Attendee: “I had coffee with Marshall McLuhan once…”
Kevan: “Oh wow.”
Attendee: “And he told me all these visions of what would happen. One was that you will have your own 10 digit number that’ll work anywhere in the world, 24/7. You’ll never have a home phone or office phone, you’ll have your number.”
Kevan: “What year was that?”
Attendee: “That was in 1978.”
Kevan: “‘78, he’s predicting that.”
It’s coming out of this conversation I sense the room getting an openness towards what I perceive is my opportunity to put into words my own main thesis for the day. My objective, to help deliver a learning moment where I can highlight the value of the listening organization is about to arrive. I’m gonna play an audio clip from the room, so you can hear what I had decided to say coming out of that storytelling moment.
Attendee: “I can see that big ideas, mysterious ideas, this is really critical to get the right data and the right process.”
Kevan: “I really appreciate that example, and what I see in it too is these twin effects that following a process has. Number one, yes, it can absolutely prepare you for guiding or shepherding through a process of innovation and the unknown, but in the meantime, you’re strengthening social ties. They’re gonna be critical for changing technology and changing worlds. Your decision to listen to people in your organization and people outside of it, means that more trust is built, and in shakier times, that’s the true commodity that needs to be created. Yes, the tech will change, but it’s outside of many of our hands.
We ourselves are less likely to be creators or co creators of new technology change, but all of us will be affected by the changes. Some of the only capital we have through that is the relationships with the people around us, the relationships of people in these organizations that we work in.
As job loss comes, as automation threatens different rules, your ability to keep social ties strengthened gets to decrease this sense of isolation and alienation and increase the strength of social ties throughout this, which is what we’re seeing more and more is the fabric of our times. People feeling disconnected from social structures leads to the type of unrest and health problems and the bigger issues that are the byproducts of new innovation.
It’s like…on the pathway to innovation, bring people along with you and you’ll have two forces working in tandem, a stronger culture that can withstand these disruptive forces and a leg up on what the innovation actually is. Do you know what I mean? A stronger culture that is more resilient in the face of disruptive technology is as important as knowing about the technology change. You need a team that can go with you into that future, otherwise you’re Blockbustering. You’re disappearing. It’s not just about staying abreast with technology change, it’s about having a team that can go with you, that is resilient enough to handle that.
That’s where I find this process to be magnificent, is that you can put the innovation off the table, but just give me stronger cultures and this has been worth its while.”
You can probably hear it in my voice, I’m pretty excited about that idea, and you can probably hear it in the dead air, I don’t think it really landed or resonated. I think it was essentially me talking to me about my own pet hobby horse. If I truly wanted to invite people towards that epiphany, I needed to plant those seeds way earlier and invite them on a pathway of questioning similar to the one we’d traveled to get to this point. I hadn’t listened enough to earn the right to make this particular point. Sure enough, the next person to speak changed the subject entirely.
Attendee: “I think there a real value … it reduces the likelihood …”
Kevan: So, if it wasn’t big picture, passionate, visionary rants about how listening will create healthier cultures, what were they interested in? That’s where it got fascinating all over again.
Attendee: “I’ve got a situation like that where in my company, I have…”
Attendee 2: “ I have discovered that there are certain groups of people where we do not make any progress. There is just no advancing anyone ‘cause they don’t think this way at all, and they just see it as …”
Kevan: They weren’t interested in abstractions. They were interested in the relationships in their world. They were interested in becoming better listeners, not as an organization, just as leaders, as people.
Attendee: “How do we work with these people to actually get them to open up and really really listen to others?”
Kevan: Around the room at the end as we’re passing out business cards and saying our goodbye’s, it’s not the framework we return to. It’s not the big-picture vision that people ask for resources on.
Attendee: “I would be interested in more on listening and active listening.”
Kevan: Instead, what people ask for are resources to improve their interpersonal listening skills, because they seem to know that once they can master the skills to listen well at a human level, only then can they begin to master it at an organizational level, which is the best insight and takeaway I could have asked for. If we want to create listening organizations, it has to start with us simply choosing to listen. I’m zipping up my bag when I hear the moderator say this.
Moderator: “For me, this was the clearest design thinking explanation I’ve heard. I can see how I can make this work.”
Kevan: That’s really nice, that’s really nice. It’s always a bit hard to tell how a conversation has actually landed with a group.
A couple of days later, after I’ve returned home, there’s an email from the group asking if I would say yes to being added to their official speakers’ database. They said our talk was really useful and mind-opening, so that’s also really nice to hear, but walking out the door and back onto the sea bus at the end of the talk, all I can go on is my own reflections and what I heard from the inside of the room.
“I’m kind of happy I didn’t have slides. I needed to be way more open to hearing from people instead of feeling like I had the pressure to present perfectly performed perspectives. I instead got to listen and learn from them and their business realities, which was engaging and interesting, they got to contextualize and reframe every piece of content I had into their own context. We heard stories and objections and frustrations and let us explore new territory. I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any other way.
I think I’m leaving it with a sense of a valuable set of seeds has been planted, and I can’t wait to see where those are gonna go. That’s so cool.”
Veronica: And that concludes our episode for today. Thanks for tuning in. We hope you enjoyed today’s field trip and will join us for upcoming episodes as we continue to find ways to tackle the complex challenges we find as digital makers and just as human beings in this technological moment in time.
Kevan: And if you’re wondering who created those sweet beats and ambient synths that are featured in this podcast episode that are not the intro and outro, those were composed by Riley Iverson. Thank you Riley for letting us feature your music in this episode.
You can find upcoming episodes and past episodes at https://domain7.com/podcast where you can also sign up for our newsletter. You totally should do that. You can also find us on Medium at The Connection and follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @domain7. You can drop us a line if you have ideas or feedback. We’d really really love to hear from you. Just send us a message, say hi. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Thanks for listening.
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