A favorite facilitation format you should have in your repertoire
Approximate reading time: 8 minutes; 1708 words.
Creation time? five hours and fifteen minutes to write, edit, and design graphics. Two really big Americanos consumed.
Are you looking for a highly adaptable and easy-to-use format that:
Engages participants in meaningful exploration of thoughtful and diverse perspectives on a topic rather than passively listening to comparable content presentations?
Scales for a variety of group sizes and session lengths?
Works both synchronously or asynchronously, as well as online, in-person, or hybrid?
Honors both introversion and extroversion?
Helps generate insights and possible actions, both individually and organizationally?
Can easily support participants with varying experience or knowledge?
Attracts and supports individual interest and contributions?
Well, have I got a deal for you lol.
Let me introduce you to The Exchange, the name I use for this valuable and adaptable multi-purpose format. I don’t profess to have invented something entirely new here; rather, this is simply my take on common meeting elements. I regularly use it in workshops, design thinking and strategic planning sessions, and as a part of committee, board, or staff meetings.
Quality Content is Key to The Exchange’s Success
In a relatively short amount of time, The Exchange allows individuals and small groups to explore a variety of perspectives on a topic and identify relevant implications and applications.
Curating (or working with others to curate) quality content that will accelerate discussions and decisions is a critical facilitator responsibility. All curated content must support a gathering’s overall intentions and outcomes.
Content options include an article or blog post, a video or audio clip, a case study, survey responses or other data points, or even a quote. Note that small group content assignments do not need to be of the same medium. One group could have a video clip, another an article, and another a case study.
How Much Content Should Be Curated?
The number of overall participants should inform the number of individual content pieces you select.
Imagine a session with 30 participants. I might divide them into five groups, each having six participants. So I would need to select/curate five different content choices, one for each group.
Now let’s imagine a larger gathering, perhaps one with 60 participants or even more. Your content curation and selection options include:
More content selections assigned to similarly sized group, i.e., ten pieces of content, each assigned to a group of six.
Similar amount of content options assigned to larger groups, i.e., five pieces of content, each assigned to a group of ten.
More than one group receives the same content assignment, i.e., five pieces of content, each assigned to two different groups of six.
An additional option—that often is desirable regardless of the overall number of participants—is to involve some individuals as facilitators, recorders, and/or observers of the content small groups instead of participating directly in them.
The Rounds: How The Exchange Unfolds
The secret sauce of The Exchange is a series of content and conversation rounds that can occur online, in-person, or hybrid … synchronously or asynchronously. I usually provide a semi-structured notetaking worksheet to help individuals make the most of each round.
Always begin with an Individual Round followed by Small Group and Large Group Rounds that you can combine and sequence as needed to support the desired outcomes. Rounds can be spread over multiple online and/or in-person sessions when necessary or desirable.
On their own, individuals review their assigned content and note their own takeaways and insights. How long this takes obviously depends on the length of the content you assign, but in general, I aim for 15-20 minutes max.
I often assign this as pre-work for individuals to complete prior to the gathering.
Small Group Rounds
Note for all of the following small group rounds:
For in-person events, people can join together at a table, in a circle of chairs, or in separate breakout rooms or informal gathering spaces. When online convene small groups in separate breakout/chat rooms.
Also, any small group round could be combined with a meal function, i.e., “please sit with others for breakfast who are in your assigned content group.”
Similar Content Round
Individuals join with others assigned the same content, exchange and explore insights and takeaways, and identify general consensus and interesting outliers about the potential implications and applications of their content.
Mixed Content Round
Individuals form “mixed content” groups, joining with one or more people from each of the similar content groups. In these mixed or interdisciplinary groups, participants share summaries of their content assignment and what their groups made of it, exchange and explore insights and takeaways, and identify general consensus and interesting outliers about the potential implications and applications of their mixed content.
Affinity Group Round
Where content defines the other group rounds, groups in this round organize around a shared affinity, interest, goal, or other common participant characteristic. Affinity examples include functional responsibility or role, career stage, demographic, organization size or budget, political affiliation, et al.
Conversation in this round focuses less on making sense of content in general and more on what it might mean specifically for the affinity that participants share.
Adding an affinity group round at the right moment can help ensure people feel their perspectives are heard and/or help like-minded individuals consider how the content applies to their unique shared interest, demographic, or role, et al.
Large Group Round(s)
Facilitated efforts in the large group round often includes:
small groups reporting key takeaways, actions items, decisions
all participants debriefing from The Exchange experience
voting on recommendations or decisions to advance
determining next steps and individual or group assignments
Some Common Combination of Rounds
What I love about The Exchange is the almost endless number of ways you can combine, structure, and schedule rounds based on the time available, participants’ needs, and the overall outcomes and objectives.
I’ve used the format during in-person gatherings with time blocks ranging from 60-180 minutes. I’ve also used individual rounds spread over many weeks of offline work and online sessions.
The most common combo of rounds I use is (unsurprisingly) individual, same content, mixed content, large group. This has the effect of broadening and accumulating insight, perspective, and ideas. Time permitting, I often include another brief round at the end for individual application.
What About Small Group Reporting?
In a sense, each round is a form of reporting out because individuals share thoughts from the previous round, be it an individual or small group round. As a result, I tend to do less traditional small group reporting out during The Exchange.
For me, the key tactical question is this: would hearing brief reports from other small groups help accelerate the discussions or decisions in the round that occurs next? If so, I’ll include appropriate reporting and sharing.
If the large group needs to make some decisions when reconvened, I am more likely to include some small group reporting prior to that effort. This could be traditional verbal reports or more of a Gallery Walk in which groups post flipcharted responses to instructions I’ve provided: “share the top two actions you think the organization needs to take based on all of your discussions today.” People skim those posted responses silently (often combined with a refreshment break).
In some situations, it may be useful to poll participants before and after The Exchange, assessing the ideas and opinions they carry with them into the content conversations and then reassessing to see how they may have changed as a result of them.
Your Role in The Exchange
As facilitator, you:
Select (or work with others to select) in advance the content that will help achieve an event’s outcomes, group sizes, and time available.
Determine the different rounds—and their length and schedule—to include and prepare to Call An Audible if needed.
Prepare the worksheets that will support individuals and groups taking useful notes during The Exchange rounds.
Communicate about The Exchange with participants and provide them their assigned content and instructions.
Ensure the online platform and/or in-person meeting space(s) support The Exchange’s needs.
Manage The Exchange rounds and float among individuals and groups to ensure they are engaged as desired.
Facilitate any large group discussion or decisions rounds that you include. This often involves helping participants identify next steps and assignments for what transpired during The Exchange and/or implementing any decisions reached.
Your heaviest lifting occurs before the event is convened. If you effectively structure the process and prepare participants to engage, you will appear to do very little during The Exchange rounds themselves.
Whether it be a meeting or workshop, facilitators and presenters get limited airtime to command participants’ interest and attention. A format like The Exchange allows us to reserve our own voice, introduce a large amount of diverse content in a short period of time and enable individual and group self-management of their conversations about it.
Have questions about how to use The Exchange or any of the components I described? Note them in the comments or email me directly. I’ll happily respond with additional information.
© Facilitate Better and Jeffrey Cufaude, 2022. All rights reserved.