How to design and facilitate a world building session?

Many worldbuilders are solo pioneers spending months or years crafting intricately detailed universes in which to weave narrative stories, use as the basis for table top or computer games or form the setting for a movie.

My interest is in using the same techniques with groups and in a business or educational setting to help people explore alternative futures, surface complex systems thinking, design strategies for transformation or digital marketing or just as an activity to build team cultures and shared perspectives.

I hope some of you will want to try this with your students, teams or colleagues and this post is about how to set up and facilitate a worldbuilding session.

1. Start with a reason to explore

Design each workshop or activity with a clear objective and thought through outcomes.  Although one of the most exciting aspects of worldbuilding is what spontaneously emerges, each session should have a plan; even if you abandon it.  I recommend that you allocate at least 90-120 minutes to each activity and if you want to run a whole day or a longer workshop you break this up into 90 minute segments each with their own plan.

Ninety minutes is enough time to introduce the session, run it and leave 20-30 minutes to reflect on what has been achieved.  

If you are running a full day session you may want to have a couple of longer reflection session at the end of the morning and afternoon to capture the impact.

Objectives for the session will vary depending on what you hope to achieve but I have run many sessions around some of the following ideas:

  1. Create possible futures for your customers based on technology trends that you can see
  2. Explore the future of an industry such as finance or insurance
  3. Explore how you might remove channel silos from your marketing and create a world for your customers (and non-customers) to explore
  4. Invent future products and services for a changing world
  5. Explore changing business models
  6. Show (through constructing a bigger view of your world) how what you do as a business is siloed and needs to be viewed as an end-to-end set of processes and relationships
  7. Uncover and share individual assumptions about what you do and why you do it
  8. Help the team imagine and tell better stories about the future
  9. Consider the future of work
  10. Create longer term dystopian futures based on machine learning and artificial intelligence and think about what you do as individuals and organisations to turn them to your advantage

2. You don’t need a lot of equipment 

World building can happen in your head but is much better when brought to life in some way using images, sound, maps, diagrams, artefacts, galleries or many other outputs.  This can also be a way of getting your team making and prototyping and a wide range of tools can be introduced to make apps, 3D models, immersive online worlds, games and digital artefacts.

A clear deliverable should be specified for each session.  This can be an incremental series of deliverables starting with a rough sketch, then a low fidelity prototype, followed by a higher fidelity prototype. 

You do need space for teams to work together and if this is to be run online this means breakout rooms.  I recommend 4-5 people to a team. If the group is too small then then energy can disappear and if too large some people will become passengers and not contribute.

3. Designing the session itself

The session needs clear instructions but does not need a lecture or lesson at the start.  You might show a short (5 minute) movie clip or trailer  to set the scene but the focus should be on getting the learners making and doing.

The instructions should remind them of the deliverables, the process and the time constraints.  

I have found that when working online it is sometimes preferable to announce shorter time constraints and then award 15-30 mins extra once teams request more time.  This time pressure encourages participation at the start of the session; where as longer deadlines allow some people to feel that they can go and make a phone call or check their emails.  Face-to-face sessions suffer much less from this phenomenon.

In designing what they should do I tend to give them a choice.  We know that choice and agency help learners feel in control of their own learning. The choices could be around selecting a focus for their thinking, considering a specific technology or industry, identifying their own problem or starting point or defining their own form of the deliverable.

4. Provide stimuli for learners to explore

I tend to research and provide a pack of resources for each session.  These could be in the form of links to further movie clips, cards explaining emerging technologies in a short digestible form or a template or canvas for groups to fill in.  They are encouraged to find further ideas on their own but by giving them some starting points I accelerate the process.  I usually provide more stimuli than can be used by a single learner in one session so that they divide the resources between them and have to share back what they learned with the rest of the group.  Take care not to overwhelm them with materials.  If there is more for them to prepare than can be explored in 10-15 mins then ask them to do this before the session.

You can also bring in the outside world into the session by asking participants to photograph objects around them that provide clues to what the future might be like.  I have run several multi-day courses where learners spend time outside the sessions finding a photographing existing settings to imagine the future.

5. Facilitate the session as a co-learner

You cannot be an expert in everything that comes up doing a world building session and should not present yourself as such.  Many educators find this a change in their role and may feel uncomfortable about it.  Their reaction may be to try and find a world building expert to bring in instead but even if these people can be found they still cannot be an expert in everything.  Be comfortable with this uncertainty (and practice will quickly improve your confidence).

The secret of a great session is to present yourself as a facilitator or co-explorer who has thought through the process, the likely pitfalls, prepared and explored the resources in advance and knows how to nudge the conversations and the making forwards for the group.

There is a lot written about the role of facilitators but for me the main things to think about are:

  • Clarify any confusion around instructions or deliverables 
  • Ask the group to manage itself rather than being the leader or manager.  You may need to establish who will take on specific roles within the group but allow that to be negotiated rather than imposed.
  • Listen much more than you talk – nudge the conversations forward only when the group has clearly become stuck.  Don’t jump in to every silence but allow others to think and respond in their own time
  • Ask open questions to test out the thinking that is emerging: what would happen if? why don’t we try?
  • Although you are a co-learner or co-explorer you should allow others to surface their ideas first and only suggest your own if no-one else contributes.  Even then it is much better to suggest with questions rather than with direct ideas
  • Help manage the energy in the group to make sure that everyone is contributing and no one person is controlling or dominating the discussions
  • Don’t avoid big issues. Worldbuilding and future thinking are full of social, political and economic challenges and if they are surfaced this is a sign that the session is a success
  • Encourage exploration and experimentation especially with technology and making.  Don’t allow the discussion to prevent the group from trying out their ideas
  • Help establish that progress is being made by encouraging documentation (on a wall or digital whiteboard) of key ideas established or agreements made
  • Step in to manage the group only if real conflict emerges.  Then get the group to take a time out and work to resolve the conflict before the activity is restarted

6. Allow groups to share back

It is important that groups hear and see what other groups did as this provides another perspective on their own work.  Take care however to manage the time and format for these presentations and consider alternatives to consecutive  “show and tell” as these can quickly become repetitive and boring especially if the number of groups is large.

  • Consider creating a gallery (physical or virtual) of what has been created and allow groups to explore the gallery and then post questions and comments to the creators.
  • Restrict the presentations to one big idea and leave discussions until every group has quickly presented. 
  • Ask groups to send an envoy to another group to make a presentation and collect feedback from the other group which they then share back with their own group.
  • Select specific groups or ask for 2-3 volunteer groups and ensure that over a whole course in which people make incremental deliverables every group gets a chance to present.
  • Get groups to turn their presentations into short 1-2 minute videos that are the watched by everyone.  This is often much more successful than 5 minute presentations which end up taking 15 mins each but extra time needs to be available to the teams to make and even roughly edit the videos.

7. Use reflection to capture the lessons learned

Worldbuilding is exciting, learner centred, engaging and fun but to fit in with the learning or teaching objectives we need to capture both the deliverables and the impact on the learners.  We tend to do this using specific reflection or retrospective sessions.  These sessions are designed around “what I learned (and felt)” rather than “what I did” (which is the purpose behind the “show and tell’ sharing back).

Good reflection takes time and the skills of reflecting and running reflection sessions takes practice.

A basic format is to ask learners to think about what they learned, what surprised them, what changed in their ideas and how they might use the ideas in the future?  We give them some time (5-10 mins) to make notes around the question and then share their ideas with one other person before hosting a discussion in which people contribute their biggest insights and build on reactions from others.  Well facilitated this can be a powerful session.

There are lots of variations and suggestions that you should experiment with to find formats that you use interchangeably during a course or multi-day workshop.

Use a simple survey tool to capture individual reflective insights and share these with the group before having a discussion around common themes and lessons.  Take care not to use this as a way of omitting the individual reflection and note taking;  jumping immediately to a polling tool as the tool will become the focus if you are not careful.

Facilitate reflection by minimising the talking you do and maximising the listening.  Between each contribution you want to nudge the group to allow the next speaker.  This can be as simple as turn taking around a circle or asking “who would like to build on that?” or “who has a different insight?”.

Take care not to allow one individual to grandstand.  It’s ok to interrupt and say thank you if someone starts to give a speech or read a long set of notes.  Framing the reflection about biggest learnings and asking people to share one or two ideas.

Take notes or better still get someone else to take notes so that you can summarise what you have heard for the whole group at the end.

I hope that others have the chance to try out some of the above ideas.  Please feel free to ask questions or leave comments.

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