Developing a Shared Brain

Credits Chris Michael Last Updated 2016-03

As a trainer, one of the most fundamental aspects of leading a great event is assessing and managing participants’ expectations as early as possible. By doing this, you will build an agenda and develop exercises that help ensure their time and the group’s time is well spent.

Let’s face it: We’re all busy.

We’re often over committed and juggling multiple responsibilities in our work and personal lives. As a facilitator, one of the most fundamental aspects of leading a great event is assessing and managing participants’ expectations as early as possible. By doing this, you will build an agenda and develop exercises that help ensure their time and the group’s time is well spent.

In an Ideal World…

In an ideal world, you and the event’s organizing team would have conducted a series of pre-event interviews with all stakeholders involved weeks in advance of the event. Conversations and questionnaires conducted with other organizers, participants, funders and allies would yield critical insight and inform the content you would cover, the agenda you would design and the flow of experiences you would create throughout the event. Weeks before the event, you would have started an event email chain in which all participants introduced themselves and their affiliations, shared their hopes for the event and one or two topics or skills they were eager to cover.

If you were able to gather this information in advance, you would share highlights and major themes in communication with participants before the event and in the first session of your gathering. Sharing back this information helps to ensure everyone in attendance begins to develop a “Shared Brain” – a shared understanding as to the why we are gathering, why now, why they were chosen as participants, what we will collectively cover, what we aim to accomplish while we are together and, where applicable, action plans moving forward.

Objectives of Establishing a Shared Brain

This Shared Brain is useful to develop in advance; however, that is not always possible. Consequently, here are a few tips to help you develop a Shared Brain in real-time on the first morning of your event. Whether a short, multi-hour or long, multi-day gathering, this process is highly recommended as one of your first sessions. Once you establish the Shared Brain through conversations and documentation on flipchart paper or butcher block, you can refer back to it throughout your event and note your progress.

This process will help ensure we collectively learn and clarify how we will make the most of our time together, allow us to:


…participants’ motivations for their attendance.


…any shared desires or needs for conversations or skill-building.


…some of the group dynamics and any potential challenges around content or perspectives.


…expectations by noting what content will and what will not be formally covered – such as due to not aligning with overall objectives, time constraints or lack of expertise in the room.


…a shared understanding of goals, objectives and content of gathering.


…the agenda and invite reflections on where the current agenda design meets with the Shared Brain and if there are gaps that need to be addressed.

Exercise - Developing a Shared Brain: Assessing and Managing Expectations

Allow 30 – 90 minutes for this exercise, to ensure that everyone has time to share and reflect. Schedule this as early as possible in a training; either as part of the introductions, or immediately after. The only supplies required are post-it notes (two colors) and thick markers.


Introduce yourself and invite one of the organizers to give a very short welcome to the gathering, outlining a few of the key goals that the organizers envision, and sharing why participants were invited. This very brief introduction should take no more than five minutes.

Considering Motivations

Distribute post-it notes and markers (everyone should take 1 of one color, and 2 of another color – 1 pink and 2 blue, for example). Introduce the exercise, noting that it is designed to help the group develop a Shared Brain – an understanding as to our motivations as individuals that will be reviewed as a group. Encourage participants to be open and honest.

Write the question prompt out visibly, and ensure everyone can see it - they should write their answer(s) out on their post-it notes in one sentence or less. Here are a few example statements participants could complete:

  • “Success by the end of this gathering is _____”
  • “I want to learn / discuss / address _____ by the end of our time together”

Have each person work alone for 5 minutes to finish their notes. The lone colored post-it note is their most important need or expectation; the other 2 post-it notes are of great importance. Make sure everyone writes their name or initials in the upper-right corner of each post-it.

Pause: Ask someone to repeat the instructions for the exercise before participants begin. Invite any clarifying questions.

Sharing Motivations

With their notes, each participant should introduce themselves to the group with their name, brief affiliation and read their top three motivations, placing each post-it note on the wall once they’ve read it. To help manage time, stress that each person should just read and not elaborate or explain their reasoning.

Pause: Ask someone to repeat the instructions for the exercise before participants begin. Invite any clarifying questions.

As each participant finishes, have them move towards a “gallery wall” where the post-it notes will all be put up. Once everyone has shared their notes, ask everyone to stand and look at all of the post-its. Ask for reflections – are there any similarities?

Invite the group to cluster post-its into themes, such as all notes that deal with “Learning to use encryption” or “Better protecting my online identity”, etc. Once all of the post-its are clustered, and you’ve had a group discussion on any themes that have emerged from participants’ clustering, invite everyone to sit down.

Introducing the Agenda

Introduce the agenda alongside this process, noting and inviting commentary on where the agenda is in-line with participants’ needs or motivations. Ask participants if there are any gaps, especially if there are common themes of expectations that are not currently in the agenda. Address these gaps with the reasoning for the agenda, or plans for adapting the agenda to address the lack of time allocated for themes missing.

To wrap-up this exercise, the facilitator should note what motivations or needs will not be covered.

This is essential in order to manage expectations. Communicate if needs or desires cannot be met due to the goal of the gathering, time constraints or lack of expertise in the room.

Regardless of the reason, place the respective notes of desire on a flip chart titled “Bike Rack” or “Parking Lot”.

This is a series of topics and questions that are not part of the formal agenda, but are documented for the notes as well as serve as an invitation for participants to discuss during open sessions or during free time. Keep these notes up, or transfer to a large piece of paper. Keep individuals’ names associated with the motivation so you can check-in with them throughout the gathering individually and see if their needs are being met.

On the last day, invite each person to remove or cross-off his or her need or motivation if met during the event.

Review what is left and allocate time participants to connect after the gathering if they can assist or are also interested in outstanding needs or discussions

Trainer’s Note

Don’t rush this exercise! By taking time developing a Shared Brain at the beginning of your gathering, you will build clarity on the purpose of the gathering and a shared understanding about participants’ motivations. You will also be able to clearly cover the goals and objectives of the gathering while reviewing the agenda in a clear, engaging way. For a digital safety trainer, this is crucial information about your participants that you will need in order to adjust the agenda as required for the rest of the training.