Category Archives: Facilitation

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.

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.

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.

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.


Meeting Breaks

Take a break!

If your meeting will be longer than 90 minutes, you need to plan a break. If you do not, you run a high risk of participants getting fatigued and tuning out. Or even disappearing entirely.  If nothing else, they need a biological break!

When to schedule breaks and for how long?

Look at the amount of time you will need for your meeting.  Consider your agenda.  Anecdotally, I have found that people need a “bio break” more often when the content of the meeting is dull or one-way (someone talking at them) rather than in an interesting discussion.  Your experience may differ.  Also, will your agenda permit a break between topics or can you combine two or three, if short, to allow a good breaking point?

Keep breaks to a maximum of 15 minutes. A lot of time can be lost while people run “for a minute” to get coffee or a soda or worse, a phone call. Sages say,
“There is no such thing as a 5-minute break.”  Before anyone leaves the room, tell them how long the break will be so they can police themselves.  If necessary, ask for a volunteer to round up attendees two to three minutes before the end of the break and then herd them back to your meeting.

An alternate “break” can be simply allowing people to move around the room to keep the blood flowing.  For example, having the group stretch or interact briefly with people sitting near them is a good  technique.  I often pair people up for short thinking exercises at key points to boost the energy.

Consider having refreshments in the meeting room so participants stay put and breaks do not stretch beyond the allotted time.

If you have an additional way you use or plan for breaks, please share it in the comments section.

Shorter Meetings Are Better Meetings

Ways to Shorten Your Meetings

One of the most common complaints I hear from clients is that meetings run too long.  Often, this is because agendas are too full or discussions wander.  You can handle these problems in the meeting (and you’ll see other posts in this blog about this also).  Here are five strategies to shorten your meetings:

1.  Determine the average salary of people in the room and then project the amount of money being spent during the meeting on a laptop or projector somewhere in the room.  People become aware of the cost of going off-topic or unproductive discussion and manage their input to be more concise and focused.

2.  Eliminate distractions. At the start of meetings, ask attendees to turn off phones, laptops, etc. during the meeting.  Hold them to this.  If someone is sneaking a peek at their email, point out the behavior.  Consider confiscating the devices at the start of the meeting or when people ignore the guideline.  Close the blinds on the windows facing into the larger office.  Turn off the phone in the conference room.

3.  Set clear guidelines for behavior. Include items such as “share airtime” to prevent people from dominating conversation.  Another item might be “stay focused on the agenda item” and when people  wander away from that topic, point out that the guideline is to keep on-topic.

4.  Make the planned time shorter than usual.  Remind attendees that this meeting will be fast and efficient and they will be done sooner if they operate within the time limit.

5.  Have fewer agenda items. Rather than cram everything into one meeting, hold two shorter meetings a week apart and address only one or three topics instead of five or six.

Try these out and let me know how they work for you (in the comments section below or just email me).  Also, feel free to share additional methods you have used to shorten your meetings.


Gap Analysis Technique in Meetings

Meeting Technique for Getting From Here to There

Have you been in a meeting intended to figure out how to get from where you or the organization are to where you want to be?  One way to achieve your objective is to do a Gap Analysis. Businesses often use this technique to compare actual performance with potential performance.  The analysis provides insight into areas that can be improved to achieve a goal.

What is a Gap Analysis? It’s a way to identify the obstacles preventing achievement of a desired goal.

What does it do? Gap Analysis encourages exploration of the gap, or obstacles or blocks that are in the way of your objective.  It forces a realistic look at where you are at present and helps identify the specific actions needed to be taken in order to be successful

How does it work? Gap Analysis creates alignment among team members through discussion of each obstacle because people begin to understand what steps are open to them and make decisions given that shared understanding.

Steps of Gap Analysis:

1.  Identify the desired objective. You might do some visioning on this or imagine magazine articles detailing the achievement or use any approach that captures a mental picture of where the group wants to be in future.  Post the picture or phrases on a flipchart and place it on the wall.

2.  Identify the present situation. Create a detailed picture of what exists today.  If possible, see what the elements identified in Step 1 look like today.  Again, write this on flipchart paper and post it on the wall.

3.  Focus on the gap between what is now and what is desired.  Identify the gaps/barriers.  Is anything missing that is necessary to bridge the two mental pictures?  (This can be done in small groups so that you move forward quickly.)

4.  If the group was broken into sub-groups, come together into one group and share the identified gaps/blocks/obstacles.  Again, write these up on a flipchart and post them.

5.  Have the group review all the gaps and reach a rough agreement on the key problem ingredients.

6.  Divide the group into smaller groups and have each sub-group focus on a gap and generate ideas to address it.

7.  Come back together as a single group and share recommendations and action plans.  Get new ideas from the full group on what they hear.

8.  Create an overall action plan that will move the group forward to addressing the gap between where they are now and where they want to be.

A Silent Meeting?

Should you worry about silence in your meetings?

Many people, especially Americans as those familiar with several cultures tell me, are uncomfortable with silence in a meeting.  Oftentimes, a silence tempts you to start talking – to fill the silence.  Resist this temptation.

Silences may have different causes and meanings. The group may be considering a point that was made.  The group may be tired, confused, bored, or hungry.  Their biorhythms may be kicking in – you know, as with the mid-afternoon sluggishness.

What should you do?  Ask the group what is happening. You might say, “It’s quiet – are you all thinking or just wondering what to say?”  If you are comfortable with humor, you might say, “Usually, our problem is that we all speak at once!  Now what’s going on?”  Then wait for an answer.  Again, you will be tempted to keep talking.  Don’t.  Let people tell you what’s happening.

If the silence continues, you might give the group several options.  “Well, we could review what we’ve already covered on this topic and see what makes sense as a next step.  On the other hand, we could go around the table and have each person offer their point of view on the subject.  Alternatively, we could take a break, get some caffeine, and come back and start up again.  Which course of action seems most appropriate to you?”

If you are a moderator or chairperson of the meeting, you may be very sensitive to the silence. Nevertheless, frequently, the participants are feeling very busy thinking about the discussion, so they do not experience the silence with the same intensity that you do.  Be patient.  Train yourself to wait. The words will begin again!

Meeting Room Arrangement

Does your meeting room help or hinder your meeting?

When you are arranging a meeting, give thought to what size room is necessary for the full group.  Also, how should the furniture be arranged to support the meeting topic and set the tone you desire?  Is a boardroom style better than a U-shape arrangement?  Would a casual, living room-style setup be more appropriate?

Make sure the chairs are comfortable if you’re asking people to stay for more than an hour.

Also, decide if the meeting is best held on-site or off-site.  Off-site locations tend to be best for creative problem solving or brainstorming because the new environment and fewer interruptions enhance focus and creative thinking.