The Spectrascope Facilitation Method

We specialise in spontaneous, fun, people-led discussion. Clients often ask us how they can use the energy and creativity we unleash to help their communities make decisions and create things together. The Spectrascope is one of our many methods, often used in conjunction with Talkaoke, but as it works really well with any discussion format, we wanted to share it and see if other people find it useful!

One of the hardest things to do in any group discussion is prioritisation.

People are always happy to give feedback, and love feeling heard, but how much importance should be attached to each thing they say? And further to that, shouldn’t the importance be decided by the group, rather than after the event, filtered through the perceptions of the facilitator or organisers?

This is the problem that The Spectroscope method was designed to address: how to get a sense of priority from a diverse group discussion in a fun, easy way.

The Spectrascope is ideal for working with groups of people with diverse requirements and priorities but associated goals and interests. Here is how it works.

A block of Spectrascope memos from Paperchase

A block of Spectrascope memos from Paperchase

What you’ll need:

  1. Plenty of memo-sized bits of differently coloured paper. I prefer to use a Spectrascope memo block from Paperchase (after which this method is named). Of course you can use coloured post-its or some cut up bits of paper, but these cards are really nice and flexible to use. You will need at least 4 colours, with scaled intensities eg: light pink to dark pink, to orange, to red.
  2. A large surface to lay or stick the paper onto. I like to use magic whiteboard because it’s very flexible (you can write on it with whiteboard markers, paper sticks to it, it sticks to walls). Obviously, you’ll need blu-tack to stick things to walls unless you’re using post-its. A large table will do fine.
  3. Lots of black pens for participants. I prefer standard-issue black sharpiesbecause their writing is easily visible from a distance.

Step 1: Preparation

Spectrascope scale of importance

Spectrascope scale of importance (and Sharpie)

  • Separate out the coloured paper into small blocks and scatter them all over the room so that all participants can easily reach a post-it of any colour.
  • Then create a ‘key’ for participants, indicating the scale of priority, by labelling each colour with a mark of it’s relative importance.

The colours can have any importance you think relevant to the context. In the example here, red is the most important (OMG!), and blue is the least important (not really…).

In my priority key, the purple memo is a bit of a wild card. I use it as a catch-all category for notes that are not directly relevant to the issue at hand, but should still be recorded, eg. if the subject is ‘what features should we have on our new website’, a participant might use a purple memo to say something like (“I’m in a post-lunch slump. Need coffee!”).  The post-it doesn’t mean you have to get them coffee, but it’s relevant when looking over the post-its later, we might be able to infer something from that fact. “Why are there so few memos in this session? Oh, it was 2:30 and everyone was dozing”. It can also be a useful space for feedback on the process itself: “I noticed that only the boss is using red!”, which also help to rationalise what’s been going on after the event.

Step 2. Introduction
Explain the questions at hand. Why are we here? Then introduce the key. Make sure people understand that:

  1. They should note down things that other people say/write, as well as what they say themselves. That helps to understand shared priorities (not just the priority of the writer/speaker).
  2. They can speak out loud as well as write on the memos, if they want to clarify or discuss something.
  3. The should try to write as many memos as they can. If they think it should be recorded, they should write a memo about it.

People can use whatever terminology and language makes sense to them. It’s the facilitator’s job to help everyone make sense of them later.

Participants write Spectrascope memos during a Talkaoke session

Participants write Spectrascope memos during a Talkaoke session

Step 3: Start the session

Get people to write stuff down, have discussions, or listen to each others in whatever way makes sense for the context.

The session itself can take any form, and can even incorporate other facilitation formats, as long as people are free to write down ideas and thoughts on the memo pads.

Make sure, during the session that people remember to write things down, and that they have enough pens and memos!

As the session is running, ask people (or helpers) to collect memos and stick them on the surface where everyone can see them.

Participants discuss the categories

Participants discuss the categories

Step 4: Review and Categorize

Once the discussion session is complete, and the wall is full of post-its, begin grouping them.  This is more an intuitive and subjective reaction than a strict process. If you have time during the session (ie. if you’re not running it, or it’s just quiet group memo-writing), you or your helpers can start doing this job early, which can help to shape people’s use of the system and initiate useful category-clarifying discussions.

Start by just grouping similar-seeming memos, for example, if there are lots of memos about wanting task-management systems in our new website, put all those together. They may be phrased quite differently, for example memos like: “know what jobs I have to do, and know what others should be doing”, and “have a list of my upcoming work” belong in the same ‘task management’ category.

There will be ambiguous memos and edge cases. Don’t worry. Since you are grouping these spatially, if one memo should be in two groups, put it in between the two groups. If you’re not sure what to do with a memo, you get to use your most powerful tool: asking people! Ask the author where they think it belongs. This kind of conversation is very useful. It will let you know if you need to change or refine the categories.

This should be a relatively long and detailed session, where people talk about categories of the things they’re talking about. Once those categories become stable, and all the memos are where they should be (according to their authors), you’re finished.

An ideas heatmap in progress

An ideas heatmap in progress

Step 4: Analysis / Closing discussion

  • Step back, look at what you’ve all done.
  • It should be quite a significant moment – like walking up a mountain together then turning around to look at an amazing view. This is the landscape of your discussion.
  • The overall ‘heat map’ of red/pink/orange memos should indicate immediately what the shared priorities are. Those are your top priority areas.
  • The less important areas may need to be shuffled around in light of what the main priorities are. Are they, in fact, sub-sets of the main issues, or should they just be thrown out?

What you do with your knowledge about priorities is very context dependent, but it usually aligns the discussion very clearly around the ‘hot spots’ on the landscape.

This is the moment to close the discussion, get people’s reactions to the overview, their clarification of edge-cases and outliers (some ideas that are out on the fringes). Those are often the most interesting or lateral insights.

Rinse and Repeat

You can then use The Stereoscope to drill down into the hot spot issues if you need further clarification of group priorities before action.

Enjoy, it’s a fun method and we’ve had some really useful insights from it. If you have any great ideas about how to improve it, or nice stationary-obsessive ideas about what you can use to make The Spectrascope better, please share them!

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