This is the first in a series of posts about the models we use in our work as facilitators. In this installment, senior principal Geoff Amidei goes deep on one model we have found extremely useful for a long time.

You can make a lot of progress on a complicated problem in a short amount of time with a lot of people in the same room if you are thorough and thoughtful about planning and facilitation. You don’t need experts to go off and do it by themselves and then come back and try to align everybody. Instead, you have everybody wrestle with it in a sloppy, difficult, challenging, maddening way. That is, you have them collaborate.

Collaboration can be messy, so it’s best when facilitated. Thanks to our egos, our fears, and our insecurities, collaboration is not a natural act for many people. We at Collective Next believe in collaboration, but we recognize that it requires attention and tools. That’s not an earth‑shattering realization, but it is something that needs to be articulated thoroughly. We often need to help our clients accept the possibility that facilitated collaboration is powerful and can help them do what they need to get done.

Of course, not every collaboration is a success. Who doesn’t remember that time when you were assigned a group project in school and it stunk? But there are tools and models that make collaboration more effective. Some of them were invented or leveraged by MG Taylor. One model that we’ve found particularly useful over the years is Scan-Focus-Act.

At its most basic level, Scan-Focus-Act is a three-part way to gather information, use that information to decide what’s worth exploring more rigorously, and test whether the areas you’re concentrating on can lead to useful results. It’s a model that not only works, but is particularly useful for group work.

I first encountered Scan-Focus-Act as a way to think about and plan for three-day collaborative events. It was a convenient breakdown: a phase a day.  But it’s also a natural planning model that is effective when applied to different lengths of time. One of the first sessions I facilitated on my own at Collective Next was an off‑site at a hotel. I didn’t have the luxury of three days. I think I had a day and a half in total.

There is a little bit of physics involved in Scan-Focus-Act. To effectively stretch people’s thinking, you need some time. That’s a natural constraint. If you have three hours and you really want to stretch people’s thinking, you’d better be pretty precise about what you’re going to scan. The shortest scan module that I’ve ever done, which I developed for that early off-site, is an exercise we call Really Rapid Read. We give people just enough time to read, teach one another, and debrief. We start by curating a set of articles. It can be as few as two articles so long as they express opposing views or some sort of tension, and can be consumed in about 15 minutes. Following that, you pair up the participants so they can share the differing views. And then we pull together the larger group and debrief. We’ve done this well in as little as 45 minutes. (You can read more about how Collective Next runs a Really Rapid Read session here.)

Scan-Focus-Act is a core model for us, in part because it’s a great way to help people – clients, partners, and us – understand how we go about our work. One of the hardest things that we do is convert a business problem to an effective, creative series of movements – a design – that a group of people can engage in together over some set period of time in order to create a solution. As Bertrand Russell put it, “The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.” Scan-Focus-Act provides a powerful template to help us do just that.

(photo credit: Kelly Davidson)