Design Team

Working with Design Teams

Almost all of the large group (whole system) approaches are characterised by a big investment in the planning work with a ‘planning’ or ‘design’ team. This planning work can typically take longer than the time which be spent by the participants in any ‘event’. This is an important investment for a number of reasons: -

  • If the plans include pulling together a large number of people it is better to invest time in learning what will and will not work with a smaller representative group rather than risk struggling in any events themselves.
  • The work they do will look comprehensively at the issues and scope out all of the work necessary to move things forward successfully... fast
  • If they are a well-chosen microcosm, many of the system dynamics will play out as they achieve consensus and the plans will be based on a thorough understanding of what is possible and probable.
  • They will build a thorough appreciation and ownership of what they want to achieve and they will continue to hold that sense of shared responsibility and ensure that changes are made as and when needed.
  • The planning/design team is a significant opportunity to live out the new ways of working together and to forge new partnerships across the system. If they are not trusted and believed then the whole process is likely to meet the same reaction.


Ideally the design/planning team should constitute a comprehensive ‘microcosm’ of the system in terms of: -

  • Level/grade/function
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Attitude
  • Length of service
  • Etc.

In particular it is worth paying some attention to ensuring that some cynics and leaders of informal opinion are included in the team. The more you are worried about the difficulties of the team working together the more likely you are to have a comprehensive mix!!! The team can be as small as eight to ten people and as large as thirty. It can be harder to reach consensus with the larger team although the risk with a smaller team is that a significant voice will be missing from the discussion, which could cost downstream.


Essentially the design/planning team are sharing responsibility with the leaders for the success of the event with all that this will entail.

Their purpose could be described as

“To come together as a cross-section of the organisation to share information and ensure that we set ourselves up for a successful event taking into account all views”

Mental Models

Working with design teams to co-create the plans can be a very difficult process with many polarities or paradoxes to manage

  • National change with local needs
  • Process knowledge with content knowledge
  • Leadership with involvement
  • Speed with consensus
  • Purpose with activities

It often needs two people to see the complexity of the emerging data and to ensure the polarities are successfully managed.

These facilitators (and leaders) will act as boundary managers for the group, create a safe enough environment to share important although initially undiscussable information, provide expert advice as to what will and will not work in large group and push the group to be purposeful and creative.

There are several helpful mental models for this work

  • Inquiry - be very, very curious (hold off on advocating as much as possible until you are sure the data is understood)
  • Boundary management - have a clear plan and structure for the design team work and encourage them to share responsibility for self-facilitation and looking after their own needs whilst keeping focused on the task
  • A safe environment - stop fights and help people stay in the room focused on the task by:
  • sticking to the structure of task and times
  • encouraging and supporting differing voices to be heard and understood,
  • asking for others that have opposing views
  • encouraging people to ask questions and give all information rather than judging statements
  • encouraging concrete examples
  • focusing on the task and the common ground.
  • Authority - the team have information and data about the content and facilitators provide information about the process as well as reframing and mirroring on the content.
  • Purpose and vision - the role of the facilitator in this context is believing in the possibility of positive outcomes in the midst of the chaos, confusion, and conflict. This is not cheerleading, but knowing in your gut that people can deal with complexity and will create the order they need. Like any good mentor, the facilitator sees the possibilities in the group before they become aware of them themselves.
  • Staying with anxiety and uncertainty - not afraid to let the team struggle and of beware rescuing them from difficulty. Encourage people to voice differing points and pieces of information, allow time for people to digest and reflect on difficult conversations. Asking for concrete examples. Making process observations and staying balanced in the midst of chaos and complexity by staying focused on the task and process. Encourage opposing viewpoints by drawing out if anyone else feels the same way.

Elements of the Design Process

Sharing Information - A significant amount of time is invested in developing a shared understanding of information from the diverse views within the team. This builds the context for the design and acknowledges that there are many differing views and needs across the organisation. The conversations to share this information support the later consensus.

Building a Clear Common Purpose - Using the information they have shared, the design team move on to develop specific outcomes and a clear and compelling purpose for their meeting. The purpose not only serves as a guiding light to inspire the creative design work, it acts as a test for the design logic and content and will support the work of the participants at the meeting itself.

Planning the Activities - The team make decisions about the design of the overall shape of the meeting and of the individual activities - always relating back to the purpose. A good test of the design is to put themselves into the shoes of participants - imagining they are walking in through the door and ask themselves "what sort of information do I need now"? "How will I be feeling as I arrive "? "What will my concerns be as the time goes on?” etc.

In addition the Design Team may identify processes for follow-through and success measures that need to be in place in order to ensure the event is not seen in isolation of the work of the organisation.


The basic steps in design/planning work are

Share Data

Invest a significant amount of time developing a common database of the diverse views within the team. This is a useful reminder that there are many differing views and needs across the organisation and the conversations to share this data support the development of integrated thinking which will support the later consensus. The more that people feel their views have been heard and understood at this phase the more constructive they are likely to be in developing common purpose and putting the plans together. Arguments later about purpose or the plans are almost certain to indicate that data was not surfaced at this stage, which is relevant and important. The output of this phase is a clear understanding of the relevant information.

Build a Clear Common Purpose

Using the data they have shared the design team move to develop a clear and compelling purpose for the event that will speak to the needs of the organisation. This purpose not only serves as a guiding light to inspire the creative design work, it acts as a test for the design logic and content and will support the communications (invitations) with the rest of the organisation.

Plan the Activities Needed to Achieve the Purpose

The next step is to develop the plan for the event as well as any other supporting activities that are seen as necessary. Design teams should be putting themselves into the shoes of participants and asking themselves - ‘what would make sense for me, what information would I need, what would I want to do next’?

If the team are speculating at this stage about people who are not present and whether those people could cope etc. then that is a good clue that the team are not representative enough and there are some views missing. Speaking for yourself is a good ground-rule for activity design.


This should occur throughout the design team process ensuring that all views are being heard and that the process is progressing. The purpose should be checked back against the information generated at the beginning. The plans should constantly be checked to see how they achieve the purpose.

After the Design Meeting

Once the design meeting is over, the information is written up and a first draft design produced. This is tested with the design team at a subsequent meeting. The first draft often includes several options for specific pieces of work and the purpose of the second meeting is to finally decide which is the best option for the participants and the organisation.

Once the second design meeting is over, we will produce draft handouts for the specific tasks of the day. These are passed to the organisation for checking and printing.