What does a Facilitator do?

When you have decided it makes sense to have someone facilitate your meeting, what does a facilitator do?  Specifically?

A facilitator’s major concerns are to:

  • Influence the way the meeting runs rather than contribute to the topic(s) under discussion.
  • Help the group identify and follow ground rules.
  • Help participants stay involved while balancing and supporting discussion so one point of view does not dominate.
  • Encourage full and free participation by everyone.
  • Have process ideas and exercises ready to use when the situation calls for one.
  • Protect people, ideas, and the purpose of the meeting.
  • Track the discussion (on an easel pad or notepad).
  • Keep the discussion focused and on-track.
  • Create an upbeat, enthusiastic mood and team.

A good meeting facilitator will harness the energy in the meeting and set it to work on the given task.  So, when asked “what does a facilitator do?”, you may now answer with specifics!


Do You Need A Meeting Facilitator?

What is a Meeting Facilitator and do I need one?

I have seen the term “facilitator” used in a variety of ways.  Sometimes it is used to mean a trainer.  Other times it means the same as moderator.  What is your definition?

My definition is a blend of many others I have seen through the years plus my own emphasis.  Here it is:

A facilitator is someone who contributes structure and process to meetings so groups and individuals are able to function effectively, think productively, and make high-quality decisions.

Do You Need a Meeting Facilitator?

Facilitation is a skill that focuses on upgrading the process of meetings in order to improve the quality of the meeting results. A trained and experienced facilitator understands meeting dynamics and brings to bear techniques to ensure the client gets the desired outcome. She or he is responsible for harnessing the group’s energy and setting it to work on a given task.

Management of organizations is not easy in an era characterized by constant change and an unpredictable political and economic environment. A professional facilitator can help a team or organization move forward productively, whether on a single topic or a strategic plan. Typical instances where a facilitator can make a big difference include:

  • If you are scheduling a strategic planning “retreat” to decide where your
    company, organization or department is going over the next three to five years
  • Having a neutral or unbiased meeting guide would enhance the discussion
  • If you want innovative thinking on a recurring task
  • If critical meetings go on and on without a decision
  • When you have lots of ideas but can’t get them to solution stage

A professional facilitator can help a team or organization address and manage challenges creatively and productively.

Best Times to Meet

When To Meet?

Sooner or later, we are involved in the discussion of “when to meet”.  Meetings held within your company can be easier to schedule than in non-business situations.  But not always.  I have worked in many organizations where the hardest part of the meeting was scheduling the next one!

In order to have meeting participants in attendance, on time, and prepared, give careful thought to your meeting time.  Elements to consider include:

  • availability
  • facilities or location
  • time required to prepare
  • deadlines related to the content
  • connected events
  • and probably more

Obviously, avoid late afternoons before a holiday or the first morning after a holiday.  Friday afternoons, in the US, can be problematic because people may plan to leave early or are mentally getting ready for the weekend.  Most research suggests a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday are best.  Morning tends to be the best time of day because most people are more alert then.

Non-business groups or volunteer associations such as professional societies or community commitments often have to meet outside of normal work hours.  This can present a challenge.  Usually, they meet either in the evening of a weekday or early morning (pre-work day).  Again, if you meet in the evening, earlier is better than later to get the full energy and brainpower of attendees.  If you meet before work, make sure the meeting ends with enough time for participants to leave and reach their workplace or you will find your attendees disappearing before your agenda is complete.

So, rather than shoehorn a meeting into time that is open on everyone’s schedule, look first for the time of day and day of week.  THEN pick the exact time that works for everyone.

Effective Meeting Manager

Being a Meetings Traffic Cop

A meeting is a lot like a traffic intersection. Many people want to occupy the same “space” or “air time” at once. Whereas a traffic light can be rigidly programmed and inflexible (sometimes traffic is stopped on the busy street when there is no traffic at all on the cross street), a meeting manager has the advantage of being able to assess the ebb and flow of discussion and adjust to meet the demand. The key to success in this role is keeping balance in the conversation and keeping it on track.

An active meeting with lots of ideas flowing and energy and excitement in the room can appear chaotic. However, in this case, a meeting manager or facilitator can guide the interactions so as to maintain the energy and flow while keeping the meeting effective and productive.

In the middle of this hum and momentum, the facilitator or moderator also has the responsibility of ensuring that no one in the room feels their ideas or they themselves are being attacked. Thus, the creation and maintenance of a climate that encourages honest and full participation reflects the open and even-handed approach of the meeting leader.

So, to make your meetings work, pay attention to the power and passion of ideas and thoughts and make sure no obstacles impair the group’s movement toward the desired results.

Effective Meetings Need the Right Attendees

Are the Right People at Your Meetings?

When you arrange a meeting, make sure you invite the right people.  (And ONLY the right people since most meetings have more people in attendance than need to be there.)

Who are the right people? They should meet one or several of these criteria:

1.  Have expertise or experience in the topic(s) to be addressed

2.  Are responsible for implementing decisions made in the meeting

3.  Have influence within the organization as to the success of the results (they can make OR break the idea or decision)

4.  Can make valuable contributions to the quality of thinking in the meeting (perhaps he or she is very creative or skilled at summarizing discussions or understands the company strategy, etc.)

Are there other criteria you have found to be helpful in determining who should attend your meetings?  Mention them in the comments section below.

More Creative Ideas in Your Meetings

Diversity Adds Creativity to Your Brainstorming

When your meeting is convened to generate creative ideas to solve a problem or take advantage of an opportunity, success is more likely when you have participants representing diverse styles, backgrounds, knowledge, ideas.  Why?  Because everyone brings their whole self to meetings. Thus, they bring fresh perspectives and “new eyes” on the task which may lead to insights and then new ideas.

 As Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Consider these questions:  Does your organization welcome diversity?  Or does it attempt to make everyone have the same values and approaches?

As much as possible, structure your meetings to welcome and embrace diverse viewpoints and perspectives.  Find ways to  build respect into your group norms so that all kinds of ideas are considered. In a business context, you are more likely to gain a competitive advantage from an innovative idea and innovation comes from the clash and creativity of ideas and perceptions.

This means respectful listening to other group members, open-minded consideration of seemingly contradictory ideas and attitudes, and withholding instant evaluation of ideas.

Stimulating Discussion for Productive Meetings

You need discussion in order to have productive meetings.  Sounds obvious, doesn’t it?  But how do you get participation?

Some key approaches:

  • Be sure participants feel that a mutual sharing of ideas and opinions is welcome and safe.
  • Ask questions that elicit a broad range of potential responses (not yes/no).
  • Protect people who offer controversial points of view.
  • Question assumptions that underlie comments.

Be sure that comments are clarified and understood in order to create productive discussions.  One other key element is to let people know when you want their participation by telling them, e.g., “I want to share some information then get your reactions.”  This allows participants to get ready with their thoughts so the discussion is lively.

Hold Effective Meetings

How can you make your meetings work?

There are a few key elements that will make meetings better – that is, more effective and enjoyable.  Stick to these and you will experience significant improvement in your meetings.

  1. Make sure everyone knows why they are in the meeting.
  2. Start the meeting on time.
  3. Stay focused on the agenda items.
  4. Encourage participation.

If you commit to these four principles, I promise that you will find participants praising you for the quality of your meetings!

Help Meeting Participants Prepare

One of the most common complaints I receive about meetings is that attendees come unprepared.  A lot of time is then wasted getting them up to speed.  Here are some ways to address this challenge:

  • Make sure the purpose of the meeting is clear and communicated ahead of time.
  • Consider having a sub-group meet ahead of time to identify what needs to be done to prepare and perhaps distribute responsibility for doing it.
  • Give someone responsibility to take time at the beginning of the meeting to brief the group on the task, the background, and what the desired outcome is.
  • Contact key people ahead of the meeting to be sure they have done the reading or preparation required to get value from the meeting.

Take these steps and you can make a big impact in helping your meeting participants be prepared.

Facilitate for Full Participation

Nominal Group Technique

Sometimes in a brainstorming or idea generation session, you may sense that some people are holding back on offering ideas or thoughts.  This could be because they are intimidated by someone in the room, are hesitant about the quality of their idea, or prefer to build on others’ ideas rather than offer their own.  Or maybe they value group conformity over individual innovation.  Whatever the reason, one technique that enables participants to think first and share ideas second is the Nominal Group Technique.

How this works:

1.  Each group participant writes out one or several ideas in response to the task at hand.  This is done by each individual on his/her paper.

2.  Have group members report what they have written, one idea at a time.  These ideas are captured on a flipchart in front of the group.

3.  After all members are finished reporting, other group members can add additional ideas to the list.

4.  Continue this process until all ideas written on the notepads have been reported and written up on the list in front of the group.

By using this technique, you can be sure to get input from everyone in the room and ensure that their ideas and comments are heard and understood by the whole group.  It’s also a great way to re-focus a group on the meeting objective if their discussion has gone off-topic.