Shifting Group Energy

Posted on by Brandon Klein


Managing a DesignShop event off an agenda is like driving while looking only at a map. There may be some critical problem that surfaces suddenly, or a sea change in the mood of a set of participants that the facilitator must be attuned to.

In the Scott/Jaffe model of change, groups/individuals go through a path of denial, resistance, unlearning, learning, engagement and exploration. There is a ‘moment of truth’ when they cross between unlearning and learning.

The ASE process is founded on group collaborative interaction which requires a cohesive energy to allow the process of both creation/expansion of ideas and the focus on effective options/design. The stages of a workshop require different states for the group, which given the dynamics of time/space/people will/may not evolve as planned – requiring a highly reactive/sensitive approach. 


Continually monitor the energy of the group. It ebbs and flows in interesting ways. It can be raised (or diminished) by your actions, confidence or personal energy. It is powerfully affected by the ASE environment. You create the containment vessel. The facilitator must constantly test the energy of the group to know when and how to guide it next. You can move with the energy or try to fight it.

What is group energy?

· Positive energy looks like involvement. For example the Saltsman Standing Factor rates group energy by the proportion of standing to sitting participants in breakout groups, which ought to increase with each day of the DesignShop.

· Positive energy feels like excitement, eagerness, energy and enthusiasm.

· Positive energy sounds like laughter, or a buzz of work that increases with time

· Energy is affected by music, temperature, fresh air, food, impending end of an assignment, feeling stuck, breakthrough, and the knowledgeworker field. Each positive description has a negative counterpart.

You can move the energy in 3 directions, depending on your need:

· Shift mood upwards/lift energy – creative, open up, free.

· Refocus/consolidate – affirm, seriousness, delivery

· Push down (depress/challenge/insecurity)

You can shift the energy depending on what is necessary. For example, in a Legends report the participants usually have a rollicking good time. Most of the Legends are played for laughs, and a lot of important things are said, but said with humor. Your task as facilitator is to shape that energy towards the next assignment, without calling into question the good time. You have to recognize the creativity and effort of the teams, but then call to mind how humor and stories are used to convey things that are difficult to address any other way. Poll the group to extract these things. Work with them some, so they are the subtext of the next exercise.

Another energy to be aware of is when the group is not getting much out of an assignment anymore. Don’t go another 20 minutes just because the strawdog calls for it. Hand out the next assignment or do something that moves with the energy and timing of the group. An event can turn very quickly and requires close monitoring.

As a facilitator, you must

· Understand the role of energy – you play a key facilitator role in creating and modifying this crucial element of group dynamics that can assist or really hinder their progress.

· Plan for energy states – by understand the DesignShop process you can anticipate where the group will probably be at a given point which lets you match desired outcomes with generated outcomes

· Utilize DesignShop elements – the space, music, toys, events, games, modules, your demeanor, krew activities all play a factor. Sometimes it is a huge distraction being in Cambridge on a perfect spring day, and a group wont progress until they go out in it.

· Observe group behavior – empower the whole team/Krew to help you monitor.

· Diagnose behavior – empower the whole team/Krew to understand behavior models you are working from and client’s culture. This will help you interpret what you are observing.

· Create response – empower the whole team/Krew to utilize their knowledge, experience, “war stories” so that you can have a planned versus reactive response.

There are times when reactive is all you can be. Group energy has an inertia to it that is difficult to confront head on. Instead, work with it. Use the energy that is there to propel you, like a surfer. If you ‘take an arrow in the chest’ act it out and say, “Oh, they got me!” If they are too jocular, do a ‘humor reverse.’ Work with the energy to guide it rather than fight it. There is a real ‘live in the moment’ part to facilitation that requires you to be perfectly in synch with the participants. You won’t have time to think, only react. It has some elements of rehearsed performance, but only in the way an Improvisation troupe works. Be real in the moment, balancing the intuitive and intellectual instantaneously.

The facilitator is a little like an aircraft pilot. They have to be on for about two critical hours in a ten-hour flight. But they also need to be ready to instantaneously grab the controls and do the right thing at any point. The facilitator needs to be constantly ready for a wind shear in group energy. There are also many behind-the-scenes conversations that are critical.