How IBM Trains Design Thinking Facilitators

Ann F. Novelli
IBM Design
Published in
6 min readMay 8, 2017


All experiences begin with a question or trigger. For us, it began when we decided to co-lead what IBM calls a Facilitator Activation — or F.Act — workshop. After discussing our past experiences with training IBMers in Design Thinking and looking at resources from other F.Act workshops, we discovered that there was still a question to answer. Design Thinking needs to be facilitated, so we need skilled facilitators. How then do we help people to develop and advance their facilitation skills in a fun and engaging way?

The Design Challenge: Design a better way to train facilitators.

As we focused on creating a compelling experience for people to improve their facilitation skills, we began by asking ourselves, “What do facilitators need to be able to do to effectively plan, deliver, and follow up on a workshop?” and “What do we (Ann and Eric) do when we’re planning a workshop?” Then it #gotmeta. We started thinking, “How do you facilitate people practicing facilitation and debrief with people practicing debriefs.” The short answer — just do it!

The Framework

We thought through workshops we’d led in the past and tried to come up with the top three things a facilitator needs to do to execute a workshop. We developed a framework that encompassed all of the pieces and formed a facilitator view of a workshop experience:

We used the framework to design a day-long experience to teach the same framework. #meta

Even though we thought we had two or even three days worth of worthwhile material to go through, we decided to start with a one day experience because it was a low commitment to an unknown product for the participants.

The Experience

Normally when workshop participants walk into the room, the facilitators have everything set up for them. We’d have chairs and tables arranged and ready for the number of participants involved, post-its and sharpies would be divvied out for each group, blank exercise templates might line the walls along with a feedback grid for the facilitator, and the design challenge and agenda would be posted.

Not this time though. Throughout this facilitation training, we wanted participants in two modes — thinking about what was going on in the room from the perspective of a facilitator and participating in the workshop activities. This was as close as we could get to crucial real-time feedback needed to improve their skills.

Starting off in the later of the two modes, we led a warm up exercise for everyone to get to know each other and learn why they each decided to take the class.

Then, introducing the facilitator perspective mode into the workshop, we had a conversation about what it takes to prepare a room for a workshop. The group developed a plan for how they would set up a room and then together we set up the space we were in, as we would have for this workshop before it started. #somuchmeta

Pre-Workshop Exercises

The conversation of preparing for a workshop brought up the topic of an agenda, which led into the planning portion of the day. The participants began by generating a design challenge for themselves based on something topical or current for their work. For example, it might have been product focused, like “How might we tie together the integration portfolio through the lens of a unified user experience?” The challenge became a platform for them to design an agenda.

The Focus: Participants will leave with the mindset, methods, and feedback necessary to lead a workshop on their own.

They considered the focus of a workshop that would address the design challenge. Each participant (as the facilitator for a fictional workshop of their creation) thought through which people should be in the workshop, what the expectations would be, and what the outcome should be. If the design challenge is the starting point, the outcome is the end point.

The purpose of the agenda is to connect these two points. An agenda for a Design Thinking workshop is primarily made up of Design Thinking methods. The RTP Studio has been prototyping method cards to help with the agenda planning process. We gave sets of the latest version to the workshop participants, and they used them to map out sample agendas and shared them with their colleagues to solicit feedback.

The Agenda

These three activities allowed participants to think like facilitators and practice how they will plan workshops for their own teams and customers.

During Workshop Exercises

Then Elon Musk walked into the room and said, “Design the ultimate Tesla road trip!”

The first part of the day had been devoted to planning a workshop, through the lens of a design challenge the participant came up with. The second part of the day was for practicing the skill of facilitation, using Elon Musk’s design challenge. We also gave them an agenda to follow which included a fairly typical recipe of design methods — Contextual Inquiry (observe), Affinity Diagram (reflect), Need Statements (reflect), Ideation (make), and Prioritization (reflect).

Participants were split into teams of four and watched a video of a Tesla owner on a road trip. They each individually recorded their observations (Contextual Inquiry). After the video ended, each member of the small group took turns facilitating the other four methods in the agenda. After each method, the other members of the group filled out a feedback grid for the facilitator.

The execution portion of the day ended with playbacks to Elon Musk about the process each team went through and the outcome they reached. We coached throughout this section of the day. We watched the participants facilitate, gave feedback on the feedback grids along with the team members, and paused the room when we noticed something from a facilitator’s view that affected the momentum, awareness, or outcomes. With these exercises, participants were able to see an executed workshop from multiple perspectives.

Post-Workshop Exercises

To demonstrate the whole framework, we focused the last section of the day on what to do after a workshop ends. The teams recorded their playbacks and took photos of the design artifacts. We demonstrated how they debrief workshops by going through the global feedback grid posted during the room set-up stage. After a few sections of the grid, each team debriefed their facilitation practice by going through the notes on their own teams’ feedback grids.

The day ended with each participant going into Mural and making commitments to themselves about the actions they would take over the next 30, 60, and 90 days to continue making progress as a facilitator.

The End

This type of workshop was tricky to design because participants came in at many different skill levels and wanted many different things from the workshop. It’s also impossible to observe and give feedback on more than one practicing facilitator at a time. But, we believe we achieved many of our design goals and many of the participant’s goals, as they were expressed to us at the start of the workshop.

There was a lot of hands-on practice and near-time feedback. We found, based on multiple follow-up discussions, that the curriculum we created through this process is best geared toward people with some prior experience as Design Thinking workshop participants who are looking to coach others through a design challenge with Design Thinking practices.

Co-written by: Eric Morrow & Ann F. Novelli

Ann is a Designer at IBM based in Poughkeepsie, NY. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.



Ann F. Novelli
IBM Design

Designer @IBMDesign. Adopted Dog Mom. Always in search of sushi. Posts are mine, or I stole them. (she/her)