The 5 Archetypes That Can Completely $%@# Your Creative Session by@caitriaoneill
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The 5 Archetypes That Can Completely $%@# Your Creative Session

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Caitria O'Neill
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Facilitating a workshop for Facebook or the European Space Agency isn’t all that different from leading a bunch of kids through the woods on a backpacking trip.


I’ve safely led executives through creative brainstorms, and kids through glacier country. Trust me, when you’re the group leader the skillset is about the same.

Each group has its own unique chemistry — even if only briefly assembled for a sprint or workshop. Most group members end up taking on and acting out specific, familiar roles. These defined roles are easy to fall into when groups approach an activity like brainstorming or a design sprint.

Here’s where issues spring up: when the participant’s ‘typical’ way of interacting with a group starts to derail the ability of the group to source and refine creative ideas.

When you’re facilitating a creative session, you’re the guide in the wilderness**.** You’re in charge of making sure that the group can work together and achieve their goals. As the facilitator, you’re also responsible for any rivalries, fights, hurt feelings or misunderstandings that crop up from clashes between team members.

When I facilitate, I think of it as my duty to address and check these behaviors. Even when the perpetrator is huge/angry/the person who is paying me to lead the session. As facilitator I play a special part as someone on the outside. I’m the guide, and I’m here to help us all survive each other long enough to do something incredible.

Meet the 5 Archetypes that can completely $%@# your design sprint or brainstorm.


The Dominator

Everybody has an opinion — but The Dominator thinks hers are more important than everybody else’s. The Dominator often speaks first, and longest. During brainstorm activities, The Dominator may keep drawing attention back to their ideas, or nit-pick the ideas of others. When the group must choose a spokesman The Dominator automatically claims the role. As spokesman, rather than sharing the group’s consensus, The Dominator may substitute their own idea or personal opinions.

Signs you may be working with a Dominator:

  • Wants to talk about their ideas, not engage others
  • Automatically installs self as group spokesman
  • Substitutes personal opinion for group consensus
  • May ‘lobby’ for their solution rather than seek what’s best for team

These characteristics can show up in a range of different types of people. I often encounter these characteristics in corporate settings, where career success results from taking charge and pushing ideas hard. I also see this on teams with established power structures — the behavior is tolerated from the ‘boss’ because addressing it may mean career death for an underling.

Confidence and assertion are fantastic attributes — as long as they aren’t limiting the group’s ability to succeed. Brainstorms and creative sprints are most successful when participants mix, mash and evolve ideas.

Tips on addressing Dominator behavior:

  • Stand, don’t sit — Seated discussions can allow ‘loud talkers’ to steamroll the rest of the group. When I run any kind of brainstorm or creative session, I have the group stand in a semi-circle facing a whiteboard or wall. When people stand shoulder-to-shoulder focusing on the work, it puts the group into a more collaborative, problem-solving mode.
  • Get more involved — Re-assert your role as facilitator, and group member roles as participants. Stand near the front of the group and call on quieter group members — gesturing and giving your full attention to them to lead the rest of the group.
  • Appeal to their better nature — Often these behaviors aren’t intentional. Pull the person aside privately, and ask them to help me draw out the expertise/opinions of other group members. If they need structure, I ask them to seek out two opinions or ‘potential improvements’ from other group members for each direction they personally suggest.


The Skeptic

Yeah, he’ll show up — but The Skeptic wants you and the rest of the group to know this is aaaaall bullshit. The Skeptic may question your choices as facilitator: the length, format, participants or individual methods employed. Often punctuated by loud sighs and an arched eyebrow, The Skeptic will publicly telegraph their lack of belief in the process. The Skeptic may lobby for changes to your program, or supply alternatives. Sometimes you will find The Skeptic in the hallway, trying to convince other participants to abandon faith in the process.

Signs you may be working with a Skeptic:

  • Questions/expresses doubt in methodology
  • Loudly sighs or exhibits dismissive/disbelieving body language
  • Quietly expresses doubt to group members
  • Suggests and lobbies for alternative methods

Skeptics come in all shapes and sizes. Some might have tried what you’re doing in the past and experienced failure. Some are skeptical because they personally employ different methods with great success. Some might have heard that your particular methodology (ex. Design Thinking) is a bunch of bullshit, and they want to be persuaded. Some people just like to try to make the facilitator sweat.

Tips on addressing Skeptic behavior:

  • Call it out — It is completely normal to come into a new experience a bit unconvinced. But it is the participant’s job to reserve judgment for long enough to try it out. Don’t be afraid to use humor. I ran a workshop for European Space Agency and addressed it head on by having everyone stand, raise their right hand, and pledge to suspend their disbelief for 48 hours. I reminded participants how many hours I had left on their pledge whenever I got pushback.
  • Speak to them privately — It is a waste of everyone’s time to start a public trial and defense of your methodology. Instead of calling out skeptical participants in a group setting, pull them aside and let them know you’re going to try your best to convince them, and if they need to reserve judgment for long enough to learn something new.


The Mouse

There’s a lot going on in his head — but The Mouse would never utter a squeak about it. The Mouse is interested and follows the group discussion, but does not volunteer any thoughts or opinions of their own. When asked for their opinion, The Mouse may give noncommittal answers or quickly defer to another speaker. You may notice The Mouse more actively engaging in smaller groups or paired activities.

Signs you may be working with a Mouse:

  • Stands at back of group, never speaks
  • Lets others step up or volunteer
  • Quickly defers to others
  • Interacts more comfortably in smaller groups

Often the quietest people have the most complex and thoughtful take on the subject, because they’ve been watching and analyzing while others speak. If you can create a safe enough space for shy people to share, you allow the group to benefit from their participation and ideas.

Tips on addressing Mouse behavior:

  • Limit group size — quiet participants often find it easier to volunteer thoughts and suggestions to a smaller audience.
  • Tweak your format — When I run a brainstorm with mixed groups (quiet/forceful), I’ll often have ‘heads down brainstorm’ time where participants put ideas on post-its, then allow every group member to read off and add their ideas to the wall.
  • Help them share — Bounce between participants, making sure to call on the quiet ones. Consider giving them a more structure prompt to help get started — rather than just calling on them and asking for their ‘thoughts’.
  • Use Roles — Assigning group members roles with clear responsibilities can help shy participants feel more confident in their contributions. Even a low-stakes role like notetaker involves summarizing and repeating back information to the group.


The Teacher’s Pet

He’s holding your eye contact — wait, now The Teacher’s Pet is holding your coffee for you. The Teacher’s Pet tries to interact with or impress the instructor at the expense of working with the group. The Teacher’s Pet wants you to recognize them as the best in the class, or acknowledge they’re different than the rest of the participants. Often found at the facilitator’s side during breaks, The Teacher’s Pet may try to fill time with conversation unrelated to the workshop.

Signs you may be working with a Teacher’s Pet:

  • Trying to interact/impress the instructor instead of work with group
  • Separating self from group, attempting to create distinctions between self and rest of group
  • Following the instructor around engaging in semi-related conversation

The Teacher’s Pet isn’t a bad person, they’re just bidding aggressively for the facilitator’s respect and attention. They might not realize that their behavior makes it harder for the rest of the group to collaborate. Since their motivation is to excel, just helping the individual understand how to excel as a participant within their group can remedy the problem.

Tips on addressing Teacher’s Pet behavior:

  • Let them know you’re making time for everybody — If you’re having trouble extricating yourself from a conversation with this individual, just let them know that part of your job is to make equal time for each of the participants. Try to move between different participants during breaks, or pull others into the conversation you’re having with the individual.
  • Give them a task — Sometimes there is a significant difference between the skills of the Teacher’s Pet and the rest of the group. A way to re-engage this person with the group and the process is to charge them with carrying out a specific task (ex. helping the team by taking charge of grouping similar ideas during a brainstorm).


The Buddy System

This might be the funniest thing anyone’s ever said — too bad The Buddy System isn’t letting you in on the joke. The Buddy System is a tight-knit set/group of friends or colleagues that bring that private jokes and clannish behavior into a group of strangers. Sometimes motivated by awkwardness, The Buddy System falls back into their comfortable friendship instead of meeting other group members or experimenting with new behavior or mindsets.

Signs you may be working with The Buddy System:

  • Limits interactions with unfamiliar group members, interacts heavily with existing friend
  • References inside jokes, shared history, or memes only familiar with their friends
  • Makes group feel as if they’re on the outside of the relationship or conversation thread

Tips on addressing Buddy System behavior:

  • Talk to them — I ask tight-knit groups to voluntarily separate themselves during workshops. The selling point is that the group of friends or colleagues will collect unique experiences and be able to share them back to their friends later.
  • Split them up — Either hand-select groups to separate buddies, or encourage people to form groups with people who are different/unfamiliar in order to share skills and learn.

Know other archetypes? Have tips for handling them?

Please add your wisdom to the comments below!

Graphics designed by Freepik.



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