Designing with Audacity – Focus on Big Picture and Finesse the Details

Design with Audacity Blog

You probably know this already. Designing a facilitated session requires paying attention to both the bigger mission and vision of the session and paying attention to extremely fine details. Designing is, as many of us say, “an art and a science”. In this blog, we’ll talk briefly about some of the tricks that my colleagues and I use to create the overall design of a facilitated session. But I’ll focus more on the finessing (fine-tuning) of details.

For example, yesterday I was talking to a colleague about the design of an environmental scanning process. We realized that there were many detailed parts related to having 12 pieces of blue paper, three different colored papers for small group exercise. After talking about a number of supplies needed, my colleague said “Wow, facilitation is more about math than I thought!” That’s what we mean by finessing the details. If you haven’t figured out how much pieces of data you need with the group for any exercise, you may end up taking your design completely off track.

I. The BIG Picture Design Details

Ponder the meaning:

The first thing I do when I’m designing an event is ponder the deeper meaning of why a group is coming together. What will make a really big difference at this moment in time. If I did nothing else, what would serve them really well? I use that as my continual focal point while designing and delivering the event. Winston Churchill has a quote that goes like this, “Plans are of little importance but planning is essential.” I feel the same way about designing a facilitated workshop. The design is of little use but the designing process is essential. Once you know the purpose of your event and the key focus, designing the details is essential.

Free yourself of emotional negativity and attachment:

Next I ask myself on a design: what is exciting about this group event for ME? What is scary or even terrifying? How might I make it more exciting and less scary so I can design without feeling an emotional heaviness? We also need to detach. What ever happens, you are doing your best. Go into the designing phase with motto “Nothing will go according to plan, so I can detach from this plan at any moment”. You must be willing to let go of your design and the details at any moment if the group needs changes from your plan.

Decide on the most important things:

I often also design an overarching question that focuses me for the whole event? This helps me stay on track with what is essential in my design. Here are several examples of the overarching focus Questions for events we have done in the last few years:

  • How do we work as a unified, collaborative, confident, creative high performing HR team?
  • How do we get our business model to support our organization and how do we support getting there?
  • How do we create a unique, enriching Committee structure that succeeds in having its intended Fund Raising impact?

Craft your aims or goals of the session:

Identify the Why of the event both from the product point of view and the experience point of view. In ToP, we call these the rational and experiential aims. Craft your language carefully and keep theses goal sentences succinct and understandable. Write about 5-6 aims and then narrow them down or merge them to 3-4 if possible.

Choose your structure or framework:

The aspect of the big picture of design is the framework you are using. It might be a ToP ORID structure. Please search on this term in our other blogs (e.g., this one or this one) if you’re unfamiliar with this structure. It might be Theory U, and Appreciative Inquiry structure, a Six Thinking Hats structure, World Café, SWOT analysis, strategic planning framework. When you have finished designing your event, go back and check that it meets the original framework you chose. These frameworks work for a reason. They follow the structure of how the mind works. They allow the group to systematically map their way through a logical process. However, now we get to look at the richness and creativity of the details. This is where the fun begins for me at least. Here are some things I really pay attention to when designing the details.


II. The DETAILED Picture Design Details

  • Choose your first activity very carefully. It will set the stage for EVERYTHING. It will “make or break” your event. If it goes well, the group will accept you as their guide and be willing to trust each other with important information and support. Choose 3-5 activities that flow well after the opening activity and that match the values and tone needed by this group in this space. Examples of relevant and collaborative opening activities we have used with groups who are struggling are:
    • Who am I and where am I coming from? Setting Our Intentions for Today.
    • Why do you do this work – i.e., the reason you are called to do this work?
    • What has been your most memorable bird sighting? (this was for Audubon – a bird and bird habitat protection agency)
  • Ensure you are familiar with the activity, have experienced the activity, or have a co-facilitator who knows it well. If you’ve never used the activity before, practice with a small group of colleagues or your co-facilitator(s) before delivering
  • Write out a description of every step. Our colleagues typically call this the facilitator guide. Describe each step and how much time it will take. List the supplies you will need for each step. We have example templates of detailed facilitator guides in our Silver membership resources.
  • Do your facilitator math. As noted at the beginning of the blog, does this exercise require 60 pieces of data, responses or would it be better to summarize their raw data into 5 themes? Typically you get the group to brainstorm 30-40 pieces of data and then you have them summarize them into 5-7 themes. That’s a typical guideline but you may get quicker results by changing this generalization in special circumstances.
  • Lay out your supplies, whether they be virtual or physical. If I’m doing an online session, how many dots do I need for everyone to participate in a gradient scale? If I’m doing a physical session, how many markers do I need for every small group activity? Do I have a few extras in case my pens are not producing clear and dark lines? Do I have my instructions written out ahead of time on a flipchart or small sheet of paper? Or if online, are my instructions really clear (short sentences; easy words) for those who’s native language is not the language of the event?
  • Finally, I tear myself away from the details and lift myself up to a higher level. I think about the flow of the activities and how they will help both the head and the heart expand into something more powerful than the group can imagine. I check that I feel comfortable with the flow and the timing.
  • Identify the MOST important activity that should not be shortened because it has great depth to it. I keep this in mind as I am delivering and hold onto this activity and intention no matter how tempting it might be to skip it or shorten it. Sometimes, but do not count on it, you will have a creative genius moment and figure out how to shorten it without sacrificing its depth.
  • Go back and check your timing. Is it too tight – will everything feel too rushed? Or is there leisurely pacing? What if one activity is 30 minutes longer than expected – how will you handle that?
  • Step back and imagine yourself going through every part of each activity. Say the instructions out loud as you visualize each activity. How does your body feel for each activity? Does your heart beam with positivity as you go through each activity design. Have you checked it with a co-facilitator or colleague so they feel aligned and happy with the design?
  • Finally, write out in long hand the essence of your design. In your own words, without referring to your guide or agenda, write out the essence of what you are attempting to do with this group. Draw pictures. Do it as a mind map and carry it with you to glance at when you need to as you deliver.

Now you’re ready – go facilitate!


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Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.


  1. Denis De Pape on August 31, 2022 at 2:38 am

    Superb stuff Barb. I find if you get the first three items you list right, and in particular, you nail down the third one to at most three goals, the rest usually falls in place. Your point about having a successful first activity cannot be underestimated.

    • Barbara MacKay on August 31, 2022 at 2:46 am

      Thank you so much Denis. so sweet to hear from you!!

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