Posted on by Brandon Klein


Every module in a design event can be considered pivotal, and probably in several ways. Build-A-There is no different. There are a number of ways in which this module can be considered pivotal.

It is generally the first time that we let the participants collaborate directly on the design of their solution. There is no misdirection or indirection in the way we frame the work. Usually, the assignment is extremely straightforward. We tell them what to create and provide some general specifications for the output they are expected to achieve. In essence, we point them at a piece of the solution and say, "Design it!"

By now, the participants should be ready to take a crack at designing their solution. They have spent all of Scan and half of Focus exploring and learning, shrugging off their normal structures, and developing the enlarged perspective and depth of understanding needed to create the problem. They also have been forging a new working culture, forming a common pattern language, and preparing for the emergence of group genius.

This is where the concept of "Decision by Design" really comes to the fore. Each team is given a manageable slice of the solution to model. They are also given a fairly large chunk of time to develop that model and reasonable latitude in what they can design.

The work they are doing suddenly feels very "real." We are no longer taking metaphorical approaches, nor putting stakes in the ground for them. Now, we ask them to put the stakes in the ground.

As a result, there can be a tendency for participants to get incremental in their thinking. Breakthroughs can and do occur. But when asked to make real decisions, to design the real future, it is human nature to pull back and retreat to what is safe, to what is already known.

Build-A-There is therefore a trial run for the Act phase. It lays the foundation. By getting in and actually engaging in detailed modeling, the participants gain an even greater understanding of what they need to create. It may not be apparent that they are creating it yet. (Some aspects of the eventual solution will be more apparent than others.) But they are eliminating options. Even the incremental thinking will be useful once they proceed into Act, because they will, as a group, react against it. They will know where they need to leap further, be bolder.

Build-A-There is also a trial run — a dress rehearsal, if you will — at handing control of the DesignEvent back to the participants. Up until this point, we have taken on the role of executive control. But we are getting them ready for the handoff that has to be made if the solution is to be of, by, and for the participants. This is how they take full ownership, full responsibility, full accountability for their solution.

In Build-A-There, we don't formally make that handoff yet, because we still assign the work and select the teams. But the participants may, in fact, seize control of the DesignEvent at this point. Be ready for this possibility.



Usually, this module has two rounds, giving the participants the chance to attack the solution from two different dimensions or to take it to two successive levels of detail.

The facilitation team will have worked with the sponsors to slice the work up into meaningful chunks that individual teams can tackle. The result is parallel processing that adds up into a draft of the solution. Many of the Build-A-There topics can end up being topics that a team will take on in the Act portion of the event. But by going through Build-A-there, the group may realize that there is a new chunk of work that needs to be tackled. Or they may realize that some of the chunks are too big for one team, or can be combined with others.

Sometimes, all of the teams work on the same body of work in the first round and different pieces of it in the second round. Other times the two rounds of work come at the solution from different dimensions: for example, designing around products or markets in the first round and around processes in the second. There are many ways that the work can be organized.

In between those rounds, there can be a full group report out in the Radiant Room or a shift and share report out in breakouts. Either way, the teams are usually shuffled from one round to the next.

Sometimes a short module called Why It Won't Work is used immediately after the report out of the second round of Build-A-There work. (If this module is used, it is the last module of the Focus phase of the event). This enables participants to write down comments or questions they have about the work that has been reported and post them directly on the hypertiles, which are left on the Radiant Room walls. This can also be a way to keep questions after these reports to the minimum needed for clarification. The facilitator tells participants to capture their questions on the post-it notes with which they are provided.

Another common name for this module is First Draft/Second Draft. It has also been called a lot of other things, such as Building The There, Modeling the Future State, etc.

Critical Success Factors

Good Work Topics. The way the work is divided up in this module is critical, because it lays the foundation for the Act day. These topics should be co-designed with the sponsor team.

Clear Assignments. The written assignments should be clear and to the point. As with the work topics, there are many different ways to handle these assignments. Often times they are quite short. Sometimes they are quite detailed. There is no prescribed "right" model. Shape them according to what you think will work best for the participants. However you handle them, write them so that the participants understand what is expected of them.

Start Writing

In a three-day event, it is difficult to begin writing Build-A-There assignments until the event starts. First of all, the prep day is usually consumed with writing the day one assignments. If there is time to work on day two assignments, then other modules are usually easier to start on.

Part of the problem is that the way to chunk the Build-A-There topics may not become clear until the event begins to unfold. More often than not, the serious co-design of this module will not begin until the sponsor meeting the evening of day one.

Nevertheless, the facilitator and AR will often have a going-in position. It is good if the writing team gets a high-level understanding of this going-in position on the prep day. It can also begin to consider that model. But the team may not really understand the model until after it has written the day one assignments and begun to see and hear the participants work.

Things to think about include:

  • How does the Build-A-There 1 work relate to the Build-A-There 2 work? Does the second round take the work completed in round one and flesh it out to a deeper level of detail? Or does it focus on a different area of the solution?
  • How does the Build-A-There work relate to the objectives of the DesignEvent? If this module sets up the work on the Act day, then it should be targeting the keys areas of the event objectives.

Working with the facilitator, you need to come up with a game plan for this module. Once you have it, you can begin drafting your assignments. If this is a three-day event, then this writing is done during day one, with the understanding that it all may change when the sponsors review the day two straw dog that evening.

Part of your game plan will involve determining how robust the assignments will be. This can range from a lean assignment on a hypertile to a detailed assignment on paper. Also, you can determine whether the assignment for some or all of the teams will be the same. Sometimes, they actually all do the same assignment, such as designing an organizational construct. Other times, they work on different topics, but the assignment each team receives is essentially the same, with only the topic changing.

For instance, if each group was designing a different process, then all of the assignments might ask the same questions (or specify that the same elements be addressed). The name of the process would be the only thing changing.

On the other hand, one team may be drafting rules of engagement, another may be developing an operating model, and a third may be designing an eBusiness strategy. In this case, there is much more call for each assignment to be customized.

The assignment should always ask the team to develop a model. In many cases, you will want this to be a high-level visual model. Obviously, there are instances where this would not be as appropriate. (For instance, for the team that was developing rules of engagement.)

You will also want them to supply the details that support that model. The teams need to be pushed toward validating their models in this way. Often times, it is in the details where they will finally confront the controversial issues they have been avoiding.

As with the assignments for most modules, begin by developing a template that embodies the characteristics you have determined with the facilitator (lean vs. robust, generic vs. customized, etc.). Then write the assignment for one team. At that point, get feedback on this model if you can. That way, you won't have to make the same changes in multiple assignments.

Then draft an assignment for each of the teams. Do not worry about perfecting this draft. Build-A-There assignments require the most content and client expertise. Leverage the iterative process as much as you can.

Hypertile vs. Paper

There are some important considerations when trying to decide whether to use a hypertile or letter-sized paper assignment for Build-A-There. First of all, how much information do you want to include in your assignment? To be effective, a hypertile assignment should not have type that is smaller than 40 or 42 points. Nor should it be crammed margin-to-margin with words. It should be easy to scan and understand from ten feet away in ten seconds or less.

Second of all, how do you want the team to be focused? A hypertile assignment has a wider, group focus. A letter-sized paper assignment has a closer, more intimate, individual focus. If the assignment has several involved instructions on it that are critical to the module's success, then you should consider distributing these on letter-sized paper. Each person will then concentrate more on reading and interpreting the assignment. Their individual interpretations can come into play as the module unfolds.

Saving paper is not an important criteria by which to decide whether to use hypertile assignments. First of all, a tabloid sheet of paper is the equivalent of four letter-sized sheets of paper; so you may save half the paper normally used. Second, and more importantly, the written assignment is a facilitation element. It will trigger and define the work done by the teams for 90 minutes or so. The decision about the format of that element should be based on facilitation value, not on saving 20 to 40 sheets of paper.

I like hypertile assignments. They are excellent when used appropriately. If used inappropriately, they can compromise the success of a module.

Adapting Existing Examples

There are more than 120 examples of Build-A-There assignments provided here, catalogued by client event and by topic. It is therefore likely that you will be able to find examples that can at least provide a model for the Build-A-There assignments you need to write.

In looking for a good example, I look first for a structural example. I try to find an example that comes closest to matching the structure I want my assignments to embody. I use that as my starting point, and make whatever structural adjustments I see fit.

I cut and paste the example into the assignment template for my event. Then change the simple things, such as formatting, the name of the client, the name of any project, the title of the assignment, the time the team has to complete their work, etc. Doing these simple things up front will ensure that I don't overlook them.

Then I look for examples that can help me with assignment content. I look to see what kinds of questions and/or design specifications have been included in similar assignments in the past. This is helpful to me, especially the less I know about the topic area of an assignment. It helps me to learn and also helps me to see other things I might ask or specify in the assignment.

It is important to treat any assignment example— whether for structure or content — as a starting point only. It provides something to react against. It also provides a baseline, so that effort can be directed more toward adding value as opposed to meeting the bare minimum requirements of a good assignment.


Team Approach

Build-A-There assignments can be a challenging set of assignments for a facilitation team to prepare for three reasons:

  1. They require a fair amount of subject matter and client familiarity.
  2. The module takes place during Focus, which means work on it is usually delayed until the event has already begun.
  3. There are usually two rounds of work, each requiring a different assignment. Sometimes, each team in these rounds receives a unique assignment.

These challenges can be approached from sane and insane directions. One sane approach is outlined below. The insane approach is to put off work on Build-A-There as long as possible, trusting that things will work themselves out. Things always do work themselves out. But not necessarily for the best.

Before The Event

The pre-event facilitation team (facilitator, AR, PF) can identify a preliminary design for the Build-A-There module in advance of the event. Collaborate with the engagement and/or sponsor teams in this effort. This is not always done. When it is, it is very helpful. (See advice about creating the design below.)

Make sure that the engagement and sponsor teams understand that this is only a preliminary design. It very well may change at the event.

Distribute this list to the Krew before the event (usually as part of the event straw dog). That way, whoever ends up working on the Build-A-There assignments will have had a chance to consider the topics.

At The Event

There are a couple of things that will help you prepare to create the Build-A-There assignments. First, listen carefully during the initial circle-up and then the sponsor walk-through. Overviews will be given about the client, its situation, and the objectives of the event.

In particular, pay attention to the objectives of the event. Those objectives in large part define the work that will be done on the Act day, and the Build-A-There module is often a first cut at the Act day work. Therefore, the Build-A-There topics will usually be grounded in the event objectives.

Second, look over examples of assignments. 

Before you begin working on the Build-A-There module, discuss it with the facilitator(s). Each facilitator has his or her own ideas and preferences when it comes to specific assignments. Ask questions. Repeat back to them what you think they have said. Then get to work.

Whether these assignments are challenging to write or not usually depends on how lean or robust they are and on how customized each one is to its topic.

It is important that you create/iterate a good design for this module and then figure out how best to communicate it at the sponsor meeting the evening of day one. This must be done in a way that is both comprehensible and easy to modify. In short, you need a good model.

The sponsors must be able to quickly see and understand your design. They must also be able to revise it easily. This calls for more than a simple list of topics on a straw dog. It is best if the module is laid out visually on the wall, showing how Build-A-There 1 topics relate to Build-A-There 2 topics. If there is a Shift & Share report out between the two modules, then this can be communicated graphically. All of this will make it easier for the facilitator to walk the sponsors through the design.

As you do this, the sponsors will stress test the design and perhaps suggest alerations. Once the design is finalized, you can get them involved in writing questions and/or design specs. One way is to simply walk through each topic, jotting down their comments regarding what each team should deliver.

Make sure that the writing team, AR, and facilitator are all on the same page regarding the design and how that design will be communicated in the sponsor meeting. If there are any mistaken assumptions, it is usually impossible to correct them once the evening sponsor meeting gets rolling.

A Word About Build-A-There Design

Sometimes, there is only one round of Build-A-There. This is more likely to be the case in shorter events. But even when there is a full focus day, the earlier modules will sometimes eat up so much time that you can only fit in one Build-A-There round. On the other hand, you will occasionally see an event with three Build-a-There rounds (or a Strategic Modeling assignment followed by two Build-A-There rounds).

If your event will have more than one round of Build-A-There, the first thing you need to determine is what the focus will be of each round. This varies from event to event. For instance, in the Microsoft event, each team in the first round worked to optimize a process. In the second round, they each focused on a profile area. At other events, each team will focus on one area in the first round, then some members will shift to other teams and the new team will drive deeper into the details of the same area.

There is no prescription for how to structure this. It is a matter of knowing the client, knowing the objectives they are trying to obtain, and applying good design principles to create a module that will enable the participants to take a good first cut at the solution. The module will also need to tee up an effective Act day.

Three-Day Events

If possible, get your list of Build-A-There done by the end of the prep day. This enables you to show them to the sponsors who review assignments the following morning.

If a template and model assignment hasn't been drafted during pre-writing, try to do so by the end of the prep day. Once one scenario is drafted, you will have a template for writing the rest of the Build-A-There.

Anything you can get done on the prep day will be a blessing, because Day One can be pretty crazy. Early on, you'll be finishing and handing off the Day One assignments to production. After that, you'll be helping to support such modules as Take-A-Panel or Win As Much As You Can. It's likely you won't get a chance to work on the Day Two assignments until the participants are in a trade show or reading module.

When drafting assignments during Day One, start with the topics that seem strongest. Get at least a rough draft done on as many of the topics as possible. Ideally, you'll get a draft done for all of them. Although one or two may be replaced or eliminated during the sponsor meeting, it is easier to iterate an existing assignment than it is to start from scratch.

Once the sponsors have reviewed the topics and approved the final list, do not hesitate. Whoever will be working on Build-A-There should peel off from the sponsor meeting at that point (or work on their laptop in the back of the room).

In those cases where the sponsors have reviewed and approved the list of scenario topics at the beginning of Day One, you should certainly have a good draft of each of them done by the end of Day One. Sometimes, the facilitator will have had a chance to review and edit these. In this case, he or she may want the sponsors to review them that night instead of the following morning.

Usually, the facilitator comes in early the morning of Day Two to review and iterate the scenario assignments before the sponsors see them.

Because the Build-A-There module usually is scheduled during the last half of Focus, it is possible that the assignments will change after the sponsor's morning review. For instance, you may face a time crunch and need to adjust the time allowed for each round of work. Sometimes, new topics or issues can emerge during the report outs in the first part of the day, which can lead to the creation of a new assignment or new questions to ask.

Two-Day Events

You will need to finish your Build-A-There assignments on the prep day. In this case, the discussion of the topics will take place during the sponsor walk-through. This means that it is important to have a good list developed before the event.

Listen carefully during the discussion of the topics and take notes, because the facilitator and sponsors should provide excellent insight into the premise and questions for each assignment. As noted above, it can be very helpful to have the sponsors list the key questions or design specs for each Build-A-There assignment.

After the walk through, someone should start working on the Build-A-There. You want to make sure that you can iterate the Build-A-There at least a couple of times. Ideally, members of the writing team will draft the assignments, review and iterate them.

When I have an engagement team member on the writing team, I like to have them work on drafting the Build-A-There assignments. I set up the template and try to write one as a model.

The facilitator review will enable another solid round of iteration. You should be able to get this done by a reasonable hour on the prep day.

As mentioned above, expect that you will need to revise the Build-A-There assignments once the event starts. You may need to alter the times, add questions, or even draft a new assignment. Plan to get together with the facilitator at some point during the Scan phase to discuss the Build-A-There module.

A Note About Pre-Writing of Build-A-There

Pre-writing of Build-A-There can be helpful, especially for two-day events.

As with all assignments, pre-writing enables you to get the assignments into a template so that you can focus your effort at the event on the sections of the assignment that benefit from iteration.

It can be difficult to draft Build-A-There before the event because you often don't have enough understanding of the client, its situation, the solution they're trying to develop at the event, etc. On the other hand, the struggle to establish a preliminary draft will enable you to frame the questions that will clarify the understanding you need. In short, it gets your head in the game.

As a result, you should not expect to create a robust first draft of Build-A-There during pre-writing. Nevertheless, some effort spent setting up a Build-A-There template and drafting a model is worthwhile.

The more you become involved in the advance preparation for the DesignEvent, the more context you will have and the easier it will be for you to write assignments at the event.