Monday, January 28, 2008

Selecting Plenary Facilitators

A couple days ago I wrote about the challenges of drafting plenary agendas. Today I want to discuss the selection of plenary facilitators. My idea is that there should be a standing committee that drafts the agenda for plenaries (see my Jan 25 post for details about this) and then turns it over to a Facilitation Team (another standing cmtee) who will select someone to facilitate that agenda, using the following four screens:

1. Neutrality In the ideal, you want a facilitator who is as content neutral as possible. That is, someone who is not a significant stakeholder on the topics to be discussed, and therefore seen as neutral to those who want certain outcomes (of course, groups members wanting particular outcomes may not get what they want; but you will already be in trouble if participants perceive that the facilitator prefers that the conversation goes in a certain direction).

Note: There is nuance here in that neutrality is more than just the relationship of the facilitator to the topic; it's also the perceived neutrality of the facilitator with respect to the group members expected to have strong opinions about the topic. That is, you may have a person with no particular opinion about the topic yet who is nevertheless a poor choice for facilitator because of strained relations between that person and key stakeholders on that topic.

2. Availability The obvious point here is that they have to be able to attend the meeting. But it's more than that. In addition to being in the room, they have to be able to set aside whatever else is going on their life long enough to give their full attention to running the meeting. A distracted facilitator does not serve the group well. In addition, they have to have enough time to do their homework. For each topic they need to know:
o Who the presenter is.
o What the objective is.
o How to arrange the room so that any audio-visual tools can be used effectively (this may not be needed, but you don't want to be surprised by it).
o What are the likely challenges to having a productive conversation, and from whom are they likely to come (sometimes it's worthwhile to have a conversation or two ahead of time with people known to be passionate and/or upset about a topic).
o What format(s) they want to use, and in what sequence (if there will be more than one).

In general, it takes about twice as long to prepare well for a meeting than it does to have the mtg, so you'll want to assess whether a potential facilitator has the time to adequately prepare.

3. Skill Set Meetings will tend to go better if you select a facilitator whom you think has the skill to manage the kind of challenges you anticipate arising. Typically, challenges fall into two main types: complex and volatile (or both). Unfortunately, the ability to manage complicated or intricate topics is completely different than the ability to handle highly charged topics. A facilitator might be good at one and not at the other, and you want to choose a person whom you think has the chops to handle what you think is coming.

4. Capacity Building The last screen has to do with strategic thinking. You can't use the same person to facilitate every mtg. Not only because they won't be neutral on every topic or available for every mtg, but because your less accomplished facilitators will not improve if they're never given any work. So sometimes it makes sense to not select the person who comes out on top after the first three assessments, because you have other candidates whom you think can do a decent job and you need to invest in the future.

Note: This is altogether different than simply rotating facilitation among all the membership (facilitation roulette) or even rotating it among a pool of people identified as willing facilitators (you do January mtgs, you do February mtgs, you do March... ).

I am advocating the sensitive pairing of particular people with particular needs. Plenary time is precious and you want to do all you can to have excellent and productive mtgs. Careful selection of facilitators should help get you that result.

Finally, there is an important point to make about how the separation of agenda drafting from facilitation selection can help power dynamics in cooperative groups. When combined in one cmtee, this tends to be viewed as a power spot. In addition to there being a greater likelihood of suspicion about the neutrality of the facilitators (if they have been integral to drafting the agenda), you can expect more irritation directed toward this single cmtee. They become a convenient target when things don't go well. If one cmtee drafts the agendas and another is responsible for running the mtgs, it should help diffuse this particular dynamic.


Ma'ikwe Ludwig said...

Hey everybody-- for those interested in learning facilitation, Laird and Betty Didcoct are planning to do a two-year facilitation training in the Northeast and another in the Northwest; and Laird and I are working on the same thing in the North Carolina area and southern/mid California. For any of these, you can connect with Laird and he'll put you in touch with our local coordinators: and (660) 883-5543.

I was a student of Laird and Betty's a few years ago in the Colorado training, and it was a great experience-- slow and steady skills building over two years with a lot of live practice, peer feedback and honest self-reflection, and companionship with others who really care about group dynamics and/or are interested in filing a servant leadership role. I'm now doing this work professionally and teaching consensus and facilitation... so this can actually be career development as well as personal enrichment.

Take care! Ma'ikwe

Tony Skyhouse said...

Wow. This advice couldn't be more timely for my community. We are in the midst of our annual retreat and are considering creating a process team and or facilitation team and this is perfect. We are already getting rumblings of concerns about the power that our agenda planners have so the ideas for diffusing that is perfect. Now all we need is enough interested parties to have the committees have different staffing:-)