Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Facilitator Prep

Today I'm going to launch a series of three blogs on the topic of meeting facilitation, covering:
—Managing Open Discussions
—Selecting Formats

There are a number of things to do when getting ready for a facilitation assignment. For each topic on the agenda, you need to know:

What's wanted from the meeting; what are the desired outcomes? Hint: it's not always to reach a decision about what to do. Is this the front end of a conversation expected to take multiple meetings? Are you looking to clear the air on something about which there's unresolved tension? Maybe your main goal is to agree on a road map for tackling the topic, agreeing on an organization of subtopics and the order in which you'll address them.

Are there any existing agreements that bear on the issues to be discussed? Is there any partial product from recent prior meetings that needs to be taken into account? If this topic has cropped up in the past, are there relevant minutes from meetings at which this was considered (no need to reinvent the wheel)?

Where do the bodies lie? Is anyone in distress relative to this issue (and if so, about what)? What attempts, if any, have been made prior to the upcoming meeting to work through these tensions, and what more needs to be done in order to establish a firm foundation for problem solving?

While investigating these three aspects of an agenda topic creates a solid jumping off point, where will you jump to? Facilitators should create a plan for how to work each issue, which will include a choice of formats and timing. Before that, however, it's generally a good idea to make room for one-on-one (or one-on-two) conversations with the presenter and key stakeholders.

By stakeholders I mean the members of the group who care a good deal about the outcome of the consideration. It may be because their lives or their work area will be substantially impacted by what the group decides. It may be because the group will be wrestling with how to interpret a core value that's near and dear to that person's heart. It may be because the person has a nostalgic connection to the way things used to be done and is struggling with the idea that it's time for a change. It may be that they mistrust the person(s) who is advocating change and are nervous about the possibility of the group making a mistake acceding to their wishes. In short, people identify as stakeholders for all manner of reasons.

Conversations with stakeholders can be valuable in a number of ways:

o What you learn from them may be different (or at least richer) than what you'd been given by the agenda setting committee [see my Jan 25, 2008 blog on Gatekeeping Plenary Agendas for more on this] or by talking solely with the presenter, whose slant on the issue may not be balanced. Thus, these conversations are likely to help you gain a fuller picture of what's needed.

o Stakeholders may not start in a place of trust regarding the facilitator's ability to understand where they're coming from and what's important to them. They may have a story to tell leading up to current events, and it may be helpful for the facilitator to hear that story before the meeting, both to establish rapport and perhaps to save time in the meeting. This is about relationship building and what the facilitator can reasonably do ahead of time to put the stakeholders at ease about whether the facilitator can be counted on as an ally in being heard accurately. (Note: this has nothing to do with whether they'll be agreed with or get what they want—which you can't promise.)

o It can also be a time to give key people a heads up on what you expect will come out in the meeting (that may be challenging for them to hear) or to let them know about how you're intending to explore the topic so that they can be ready for it. Surprises can be fun at birthday parties, but tend to promote unwanted volatility in plenaries.

o If there has been a history of bumpy communications between you and a given stakeholder, this can be a time to address any trust issues, or to assure the stakeholder that you believe yourself sufficiently neutral to be able to serve them fairly. Alternately, if you are not able to make headway on a trust issue, it may be a sign that you should step down as facilitator and get someone else in there. By having stakeholder conversations ahead of time, there's still room to make adjustments, which is far better than suffering a meltdown on the plenary floor.

o If there are difficult patterns of meeting behavior with the person (perhaps they interrupt a lot or repeat themselves), this time can be used to discuss what you can do to point this out in the moment in such a way that the person will feel is friendly, rather than embarrassing. Agreeing on a protocol ahead of time can make this potentially awkward moment go better.

In case it hasn't already become apparent, it's not going to be possible to do a bang up job on prep if you don't allow enough time. Depending on how busy your life is and how available the stakeholders are, you may be smart to start prepping about a week ahead of the meeting. Working backwards, that means you'll need to receive the assignment ahead of that.
[For more about this see my Jan 28, 2008 blog: Selecting Plenary Facilitators.] When I see a group choosing a facilitator (perhaps relying on rock-paper-scissors) as the first item of business in a meeting, I shudder.

Now that I've put the fear of god into you about how important stakeholder conversations can be, let's be realistic. It will seldom be possible to talk with everyone, and generally that's not necessary in order to have a good meeting. Do the best you can and try to develop a nose for which conversations will be most essential. The only must-do on this list is talking with the presenter, so that you two are clear about what they'll be doing to introduce the topic, and at what point you will take over. There is often a dance between the facilitator and presenter over what visual aids will be created to support he meeting and who will craft them—make sure you know who's leading and who's following.

Once the stakeholder conversation have occurred, you should be ready to map out of the meeting. This will include how you intend to focus the conversation and the way you'll ask people to engage. The front half of this equation is identifying the questions you'll want the group to address and in what order. Often it makes sense to write up focus questions on flip chart paper ahead of time, so that participants will have a visual reminder of what they're supposed to be speaking to. You should be clear why you're asking each question and how that will lead the group toward clarity about what to do in response to each topic. The theory is that if you know what you're looking for, you'll know when you have it, and therefore when it's time to move the group onto the next question.

The second half of the equation is about formats. The default choice is open discussion, where anyone can speak once the focus question has been introduced and clarified. While open discussion is often the quickest way through a topic—I'll discuss the elements of doing this well in my next blog—there are a number of reasons why you might prefer a different format (which could include brainstorm, card storm, silent meditation, small group breakouts, Go Round, sharing circle, individual writing, and a host of other techniques). I'll tackle the pros and cons for selecting any of these alternatives in the blog after next.

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