Saturday, April 25, 2015

Facilitator Prep

One of the features of the Integrative Facilitation Training programs that I offer (see Facilitation Trainings on Tap for news about what trainings are available now) is teaching how to prepare for a facilitation assignment. Because training weekends are always compacted (we get a lot done in a short time, making maximum use of the three days we have together), the students don't get their assignments (for a one-hour chunk of live facilitation time) until Friday afternoon and sometimes have to be on stage as soon as that evening. (Yikes!)

While in normal life (whatever that is) it's far more common to have a week, or at least several days, to prepare for a meeting, we don't have that luxury in the training program, and thus, students need to learn how to get ready quickly.

In this essay I'm going to lay out a checklist for accomplishing that. The order is not so important as that each of these things needs to be covered:

1. Mind Set
This is about doing whatever personal work is necessary to set aside other things in your life to give yourself over as completely as possible to the task at hand (you're going for maximum free attention), and being as clear a channel as possible once the meeting starts. This is analogous to what athletes do in preparing for a game or an event, excepting that the work is generally not aerobic.

To the extent possible you're aiming for heightened awareness and an egoless state. In my experience this is not about vanquishing nervousness, so much as it's coming to peace with it, so that it's not distracting. As the facilitator, you are there to help midwife a great meeting, not to be the hero or the center of attention. While you should unquestionably prepare for the meeting and what you expect to encounter, you have to be fluid enough that you can adapt plans to fit emerging needs. Meetings are not scripted, and surprises go with the territory.

If you're worried about some aspects of your capacity to perform well, sometimes it helps to simply admit that at the start of the session: As a facilitator, I'm still learning my craft and the skill I want to focus on today is excellent summaries. If you think I'm missing something or am off base in my summaries, please feel free to suggest adjustments. It won't bother me a bit.

By owning this as a weak spot, it will be less scary and you will have enlisted the group as your ally (after all, they want a great meeting, too).

Getting your game on can look like a lot of things: meditating; lying down and closing your eyes for 15 minutes; going for a walk; making a cup of tea; journaling; taking a shower; sitting in a dark room; standing alone in the meeting space before anyone arrives, to feel into the space. Do what works for you.

2. Objectives
You need to know what's wanted on the topics that will be examined on your watch. Is this just a discussion, or is a decision expected? Will there be new data or research results presented in this session, or is all of that already on the table? What questions are we trying to answer? How clearly have the issues been articulated? Is this the first meeting on this topic or is this a follow-up meeting (if the latter, where were things left at the end of the prior meeting and what remains to be done)?

3. Background
Is there any prior work that the group has done on the topics that are on the agenda? This could be either recent or old. Are there any existing agreements that bear on the topics, so that everyone is clear what's already in place. You don't want to be scrambling in the meeting looking for old minutes. That should have been done ahead of time. Are there any relevant precedents in play?

4. Land Mines
Are there any known friction points relating to the topics to be discussed? I'm not talking about plain old vanilla disagreements; I'm talking about non-trivial distress or upset. If so, you want to know who has it, what those feelings are, what they represent, and whether they've been resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Nothing sinks a meeting as dramatically as bumping into an iceberg, where you suddenly discover a reservoir of intractable frozen feelings, ready to flood the floor once surfaced.

Of course, even good reconnaissance will miss some subterranean boulders. So you need to be prepared for field upset if it pops up, even if it wasn't on your radar at the start of the meeting. Although weather forecasting is imperfect, it's better than no-casting.

5. Formats
Now that you have the information you need about the topics (as a result of steps 2-4 above), it's your job to think about how to work them productively and efficiently in the meeting. Among other things, this means making choices about what formats to use to gather viewpoints. The default is open discussion, and that may work well some of the time. Yet you need to have in mind that no format works well all of the time, and you need to mix things up—both for the energetic boost that the group will get simply from making a change, and because different formats allow you to access different strengths in the group.

For example, Go Rounds are wonderful for equalizing air time and protecting entrée into the conversation, but they tend to be slow and repetitive, so you don't want to overuse them. If the meeting is long (three hours?), you may want to think about how you can incorporate physical movement into your format choices (so that people can get off their butts other than during bio breaks or to refill their coffee cup).

6. Time Estimates
Although the time needed to deal reasonably with the topics chosen should have already been taken into account by whoever drafted the agenda, in the meeting it will be up to the facilitator to manage time. In service to that need, you generally want to map out (at least roughly) how much time each segment will take so that you have a running sense of whether you're on target, ahead, or behind.

Your job is to bring the train into the station on time (end the meeting at its allotted end point) and you should think through ahead of time what adjustments you might make mid-course to help ensure that result. What could you cut short or delete from your plan without sacrificing quality? If you're running ahead, is there an extra step that would enhance the consideration, or is it better to end early?

7. Coordination of Support Roles
There are many roles that support a good meeting. While that of facilitator is likely the most visible, there is typically also a notetaker (who should not be the facilitator), and there may be others, including:
o  time keeper
o  vibes watcher (person alert for ruffled energy and stepping in when they find it)
o  door keeper (person bringing late arrivals up to speed on what's happening)
o  scribe (person writing notes on a flip chart or whiteboard)
o  back-up facilitator

All together, this collection of players is an orchestra performing in service to the meeting, with the facilitator as conductor. With this in mind, it's up to the facilitator to take responsibility for discussing with each person filling a support role how they'll coordinate during the meeting. For example, it is relatively common that a well-intentioned scribe will do their best to capture the highlights of a conversation, yet not organize their work in such a way that the facilitator can use it easily. Ugh! This awkwardness can be avoided if the facilitator and scribe discuss this ahead of time.

Some facilitators choose to handle many of these support roles themselves, in part to avoid the challenges of complex choreography, but you have to know your capacity—it's a mistake to try juggling more balls than you can keep in the air.

8. Visual Aids
In a typical group there will be a number of people whose primary information intake is visual and you can help make everything easier for those folks by offering visual reinforcement of what you'll be saying. I'm thinking of things like:
o  schedule
o  agenda
o  ground rules for meeting behavior & the facilitator's authority
o  key questions
o  themes from a discussion
o  factors to keep in mind when developing a proposal
o  draft proposals
o  end-of-meeting evaluations

When you know you'll want these, write them up on flip chart paper ahead of time to the extent possible.

9. Setting up the Meeting Space
While this might be handled by others as one of the support role (step 8 above), the facilitator is the bottom line on this and may want to direct the set up to suit their preferences. If people have to move tables and chairs at the last minute you'll probably start late and be somewhat frazzled. Not good. 

Where do you want the visual aids (hint: not back lit by bright windows)? Will you need wall space for posting flip chart pages? If so, do you have the supplies needed (markers that are not dried out; with ink that's dark enough and broad-stroked enough to be seen readily from across the room; with ink that isn't cloyingly offensive to the scent sensitive)?

Where will the facilitator stand? Is there a good spot for the notetaker, so that they're not blocking other people's sight lines and yet can see the flip chart (or whiteboard) easily? Is it close enough to a power supply if they're taking minutes on a laptop?

10. Wardrobe 
Last, do you have appropriate raiment, so that everyone will be comfortable with how you're dressed and your clothes will not be the center of attention. You can get this wrong either by overdressing (suit and tie for men; skirt, hose, and heels for women) or underdressing (clothes that are dirty or with unmended tears; provocative, skimpy clothing).

• • •
If you thought that the facilitator only needed to show up on time and decide who was going to talk next, think again. Good prep often takes as much or more time ahead of the meeting than you'll spend in front of the group in the meeting—especially for neophytes. As a professional I can do this a lot faster, but I've been doing it for 28 years. You have to learn to walk before you can run.

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