Truth be told, there is no tool or process in the world of facilitation that is failsafe – there is no single logical progression that you can take every group through, with utter clarity and transformation manifesting themselves on the other side.

However – there’s a template that we’ve been using for close to twelve years now, and it’s proven itself to be pretty darned robust, so we thought we would share it.

Originally designed by Christina Comeau, and based out of TRIZ, 12 Windows is a wonderful tool for performing situational analysis and level-setting with a group of any size from 2 to about 50 (though it can get a bit unwieldy on the top end). We’ve used 12 Windows many diverse settings. We have built the template like an extended tic-tac-toe grid on a 3×4 whiteboard when doing account planning with a sales team. We have wallpapered it onto 90 square feet of wall space when working with three freshly integrated management teams to determine a key focus and a path forward. 12 Windows conversations can take 20 minutes, or eight hours. At the end, it always seems to have been a useful investment of time – even when it wasn’t obvious at the beginning.

What is 12 Windows?

12 Windows is kind of like a SWOT on steroids – it’s far more useful – to the point that we consider SWOT to be irrelevant (send your outraged emails here). We’ve included some images of basic 12 Windows templates in this conversation to illustrate how you might use the template, and have included a full-sized template at the end of the document.

PAST PRESENT FUTURE
1 UP
YOU
1 DOWN
2 DOWN

Basic 12 Windows Template

How to Use 12 Windows

1)      Choose your environment.

12 Windows presumes that “you” – whatever “you” is for the purposes of the analysis, live within time (past – present – future) and that you live within an environment. For most purposes, it is beneficial to look one level up and two levels down.

For the purposes of this document, we will presume that “you” are a product development team within a company. Looking up, you will see your company, your industry, and your clientele. Depending on the purposes of the analysis, you may want to choose one, two or all three of those entities as your point of analysis. Looking down, you will see your products, and perhaps your team. You can have more or fewer levels down – choose the ones that seem to most need analysis. Typically you will determine the environment prior to the facilitated session, in conjunction with your core client team. Also typically, you will introduce the environment as one of the first points in the facilitated exercise, explaining to the assembled participants the system you are analyzing, and allowing them to validate. Often, the level one up from “YOU” grows to include competitors, clients, and the world at large – all “systems” that affect you and your Products and Team.

PAST PRESENT FUTURE
Clientele
YOU
Products
Team

Choose the environment you wish to study.

2)      Choose your timeframe.

Having chosen an environment, you now need to choose a timeframe that is relevant. Ask the room how far back they need to look to see a time that was meaningfully different from today, and how far forward they need to think, to determine a future state that is meaningfully different from today. In some industries, like power generation, my clients need to look back and forward 20 years – it takes a long time to build a nuclear power plant. Working with startups, it’s sometimes irrelevant to go more than six weeks or three months in either direction. Ask the room. Start with the past, and write down the first date that someone shouts out. It’s very simple to scratch that date out if the room disagrees – and in fact it’s useful – you need to make it obvious that the 12 Windows is a tool to enable a conversation – and that things written on it can be scratched out and changed with total ease. The 12 Windows is not a deliverable – it’s a means to an end.

Back to your product development team. Pretend that you first started work on this product in earnest about 6 months ago, and that you can see that it needs to hit market within the next 6 months. Make it as real and tangible a conversation as possible – especially for the future. Count out the number of months and write down the month and the year – the day if it helps to focus attention on the fact that there is a future state in mind.

January 2010 June 2010 December 2010
Clientele
YOU
Products
Team

Choose the timeframe you wish to study.

3)      Point out the goal – the Intended Future State.

Now – you have a grid. Your audience realizes that you are beginning a framed conversation. You want to understand YOU – and how your Products and Team fit into the needs of your Clientele – from the dim and distant past, and on into the intended future state. Take the time to outline the 3 boxes that include You, Your Products and Your Team in the future state. Because the goal of the conversation is to understand what, specifically, you need to do to get from your current state to your future state, based on what you have and where you need to go.

January 2010 June 2010 December 2010
Clientele
YOU Intended
Products Future
Team State

Highlight the Intended Future State as the goal of the conversation.

4)      Start the conversation

Many times we’ve been asked, “Where do we start?” The beauty of 12 Windows, and we’ve never seen it fail, is that you can start anywhere. And you can finish anywhere. Sometimes your Intended Future State is predetermined – it’s very much a “get to point x or bust!” situation – and you might as well start from the fact that that is the immutable fact – you must get there. Other times, and the nature of the exercise will lead you to this choice – it’s most natural to start with the past, and work through the present, aiming towards the future. Trust your own intuition, and listen to the human system in front of you.

And off you go, building your first “12 Windows.”

Segue: Seating for a 12 Windows
In most cases, we prefer to work without tables. A 12 Windows is taped to a wall, and the room is seated in a semi-circle facing the wall. Particularly with large groups, tables are absolutely taboo. You will lose most of your audience if they have the distraction of tables. With a small group (10 or less), if they are engaged, and if you are seasoned enough to engage the curiosity of 10 people simultaneously, and if they can all be seated around one table (or group of tables pushed together), then fine – allow them a table. No computers, no PDAs, no electronics. This exercise calls on the wisdom, the knowledge, and the judgement of the room – most of the time, there’s nothing of value that electronics could add. Feel free to put anything on the tables to enable them to think – pipe cleaners, lego, plasticine, coloured paper and pens…but nothing for them to hide in, unless they are hiding in creativity.

What you are looking for

We’ve found this tool to be highly pliable and have been able to customize it for a variety of situations; but typically, you will use this tool to give the assembled stakeholders three gifts: a shared vocabulary, richer levels of compassion and understanding (particularly amongst disparate stakeholders) and a common directionality that will enable the group to move usefully forward.

a) Shared Vocabulary

As a facilitator, you can build a shared vocabulary for the stakeholders through listening, being openly curious, and clarifying with specificity. Words are a very clumsy way of communicating, but they’re all we’ve got. So it’s up to you to hear the key words, and wherever there are competing terms for the same concept, the enable the stakeholders to choose one. Resolving the confusion of vocabulary is a huge benefit to many systems.

b) Mutual Compassion and Understanding

12 Windows seems to offer this benefit almost as table stakes, so long as you, the facilitator, approach this exercise with open curiosity and a good heart. In practical terms though, the primary way in which you can help the group is through understanding and drawing out the transitions. What happened between the past and the present, at each level and for each stakeholder group? Why did these shifts occur? How did changes at one level enable or face changes at another? Looking forward, what shifts do they see likely (or even inevitably) occurring at one level, and what effect with they have on other levels?

Hearing one another’s stories, talking about the challenges they’ve faced, the decisions they’ve made (or had thrust upon them); all of these things provide a much-needed context to the here-and-now that people often never get otherwise. We’ve often had participants walk up at the end of a 12 Windows and say “I’ve been a part of this company for 5 years, but I never understood it until today.” That clarity enables fundamental shifts – we understand the larger problem space much more fully, and our biases and pre-judgments start to shift.

c) Common Directionality towards an Intended Future State

A 12 Windows is intrinsically built to enable the discussion “What Do We Need To Do To create an intended future state?” However, it is almost never helpful to make this question explicit at the start of the exercise. Our choices benefit profoundly by allowing information to diverge and consider a broad information set prior to converging on a solution set, but our time-pressured lives usually lead us to the path of quickest (not most useful) choices. So, opening with this explicitly question will usually result in a group collapsing into previous choices and patterns, without even considering the possibility of doing something different.

Download a basic 12 windows poster – suitable for printing on a 36″ plotter – prints 36″ x 86″ – be sure to print 18″ of blank paper on each end (122″, or ten feet) to give you extra room to write!