Facilitating an X-Matrix Workshop

I was asked recently for guidance on facilitating a workshop to populate an X-Matrix. My initial response was that I don’t have a fixed approach because its so contextual. It depends on who is in the room, what is already known or decided, what the existing approaches are, how much time we have etc. On reflection though, I realised that I do tend to follow some general patterns.


The overall flow is one of divergent and convergent thinking, as described by Tim Brown in Change by Design, and as as shown in the following diagram which turns the TASTE model on its side. We begin with an exploration of options, framed by Strategy and Evidence and guided by the True North, before moving to decision making on what actions to take.


I always like to start any training or workshop with a clear purpose. This is the generic starting point I usually being with. Its a bit wordy but mentions most of the key points.

To create organisational alignment by collaboratively exploring and co-creating a strategy, and to enable autonomy by communicating and deploying the strategy, such that everyone is involved in discovering how to achieve success.


I referred to the following agenda in my post on a Strategy Deployment Cadence. (Eagled eyes readers will spot that I have added a seventh item which I originally omitted).

  1. What is our current situation?
  2. What aspirations define our ambition?
  3. What are the critical challenges or opportunities to address?
  4. What strategies should we use to guide decisions?
  5. What evidence will indicate our strategies are having an impact?
  6. What tactics should we invest in first?
  7. How coherent is the plan?
What is our current situation?

For a group that has already worked this way before, this might be as simple as a brief presentation on the current key business metrics or results so far. Effectively it is reviewing the current likelihood of meeting the aspirations.

For a group that is completely new to this way of working, I have had good experiences of using Future Backwards from Cognitive Edge to create some situational awareness and start drawing out conversations about different perspective on the way things are.

What aspirations define our ambition?

Again this will probably be some form of quick presentation for established groups – probably combined with the prior review of the current situation.

Alternatively, it can simply be a quick discussion or check-in where the key economic drivers are reasonable well understood.

I can also imagine using a technique such as 1-2-4-all here to draw out some different ideas and come to some agreement.

What are the critical challenges or opportunities to address?

This is where the divergent thinking really starts and I try to encourage as much variety and include as wide a group of roles and experience as possible.

Open Space has worked really well for this, allowing people to bring in and discuss any topics that they feel are relevant. Having said that, it’s important to emphasise that discussions should be around learning more about the current situation, and to hold back on jumping to discussing solutions for now.

The downside has been that Open Space makes it possible to not discuss topics which might be important. I have seen relevant sessions abandoned because necessary people are not there to share useful information. It might be worth considering some additional constraints, such as specifying that a certain mix roles or departments must be represented in each session.

What strategies should we use to guide decisions?

This could be as simple as a review or reminder of existing strategies, or it could be a deeper dive into deciding new strategies.

Where there are’t existing strategies in place, a diagnosis will be needed, which could be an output from a previous activity (e.g. Open Space, or Future Backwards) or a new activity. For example creating and exploring a Wardley Map might be a useful approach. (I’m looking for an opportunity to try this!)

What evidence will indicate our strategies are having an impact?

As with strategies, this could be as simple as a review or reminder of existing artefacts (of evidence), or it could be a deeper dive into deciding new forms of evidence.

For the latter I have used a variation on the 15-minute FOTO exercise from Mike Burrows and Agendashift which uses Clean Language questions to transform obstacles to outcomes. (FOTO is an acronym for From Obstacles To Outcomes). In this case the “Obstacles” are derived from the challenges and opportunities explored earlier in the agenda, and the “Outcomes” are such that we can look for evidence that they are being achieved.

Multiple resulting Outcomes can then be combined with 1-2-4-all again to come to agreement.

What tactics should we invest in first?

Up until this point, the work has ben very exploratory, and participants are usually itching to come to some concrete decisions. This is where the convergence of all the ideas begins to happen.

Open Space has again worked really well for this, allowing people to bring in and discuss the solutions that they feel will have most impact. To help focus, and introduce some enabling constraints, its useful to use A3s as an output of each session, either the Backbriefing or Experiment A3 depending on the scale of the workshop.

How coherent is the plan?

The last section depends on whether we are explicitly populating an X-Matrix. Sometimes it is just a model on which the workshop is based. If there is an X-Matrix its usually a large shared one, formed of multiple sheets of flipchart paper, and we use it to look for the messy coherence by filling in the correlations on various matrices.

Depending on group size I’ll do some variation of a small to large group exercise to get everyone’s input, discover differences and explore the rationale. For very small groups, this can be as simple as 1-2-4-all (again!). With more people we have split into four sub-groups, each working on a separate matrix, and then presenting back for discussion. For a huge group we had sub-groups work on the whole X-Matrix and then use coloured sticky dots to mass-populate a huge shared X-Matrix to see the patterns of agreement and disagreement.


I hope this gives a flavour of how I approach facilitating Strategy Deployment and X-Matrix workshops, without it appearing to be prescriptive. If I have more time with the group then I’ll probably spend it on tactics, forming teams and backbriefing. This could include a Cynefin Four Points Contextualisation, using the Outcomes generated while deciding what Evidence to look for. Another possible agenda item is to decide how to track progress i.e. what is the feedback mechanism for how and when the evidence be shared and discussed.

Of course if you would like me to help you – and it is always valuable to have an external facilitator – please contact me. I’d love to talk about how this could work in your context!

Facilitating A Kanban Konversation

As I mentioned in my Scrum Gathering Musings, I came up with a twist on the Goldfish Bowl format which I used during the Kanban Exploration Deep Dive.  Here are some more details.

The Goldfish Bowl format works really well for facilitating a focussed discussion with a large number of people. It keeps the active voices to a manageable number, while being open for anyone to join in if they have something to add. Apart from providing a solution to my challenge – keeping a spirited debate under control – it also seemed appropriate that the limited number of chairs provided a means of limiting “Voices In Conversation”.

However, there was one thing about the Goldfish Bowl which didn’t seem appropriate. With a Goldfish Bowl, when someone wants to join the discussion, they fill an empty chair as part of the conversation, and force someone to leave to free up a seat again. That seemed to be like “pushing” in to the discussion. What it no-one wants to leave? So instead, I moved the empty chair out of the discussion, and made it a Queue. If someone had something to contribute, they could fill the “Waiting to Talk” seat, which would be a signal to the “In Conversation” people that one of them should leave when ready. I was pleased to find that this change worked really well. Rather than the discussions being interrupted when people moved around as they figured out who would leave, the conversations flowed smoothly as people moved in and out naturally. Initially the “Waiting” person had to wait some time, but once we got used to the system, this seemed to be less of a problem.

These are the instructions I used:
  • 4 “In Conversation” seats and 1 “Waiting to Talk” seat
  • Only “In Conversation” people may speak
  • If you want to join the conversation, fill the “Waiting to Talk” seat (if it’s empty)
  • When someone “In Conversation” leaves, that is a signal to move from “Waiting to Talk” to be “In Conversation”

I wondered whether we would evolve the system, by increasing or decreasing the number of seats in each state, but that didn’t happen. Its something I’ll look out for in the future. I’d also love to hear if anyone uses this format, or has already done something similar.