Tuesday, September 19, 2017


One of the bread and butter skills of a good facilitator is getting everyone on the same page. I use the term "roadmapping" to cover this, and there are two ways that facilitators use it to help guide meeting participants: 

a) Providing a clear picture of the intended arc of the meeting (what will be discussed and in what sequence). For the most part this is taken care of with a well-crafted agenda. However, there can be a trap to this: facilitators may fall in love with the elegance of their plan, or they may hold on too tightly to the plan as a life ring in choppy seas.

It works like this: as a facilitation instructor I emphasize the value of being prepared for the anticipated agenda, which includes what questions to pose, in what order, and in what formats. If it turns out that the meeting doesn't flow as anticipated and there need to be adjustments, some facilitators can be reluctant to make them—both because they want the payoff from their planning investment (it looked so good on paper!), and because once they leave the map they may be unsure of their footing and worried that they'll lose their way.

b) The more subtle aspect of roadmapping—and the one I want to mainly focus on in this essay—is regularly reminding the group of where it is in the conversation and what kinds of responses are appropriate. When you take into account how common it is for surprises—both big and little—to arise in the course of a meeting, this in-the-moment skill is crucial to bringing everyone along effectively with the unplanned twists and turns of a dynamic conversation.

This second aspect manifests in three ways:

This is deviating from the planned agenda. While it may not happen often, the group has the right to change its mind about what to talk about whenever it wants to, and sometimes it wants to. (To be clear, in consensus the whole group has to agree to the change; it doesn't happen simply because someone threatens to hold their breath until they get their way.) While this should be a deliberate choice, sometimes things emerge that justify it. For example:

• Working fulminating distress.
• Clarifying a misunderstanding that no one knew existed ahead of time.

• Exploring a question that's suddenly more compelling than the regularly scheduled agenda.

Following the juice
Good facilitators know how to temporarily narrow the focus for tactical reasons. It frequently happens that the topic in hand has several components and comments do not necessarily follow one another, even though all are on topic. When that occurs, facilitators have choices about how to proceed. They can lay back, allow the chaotic flow, and try to pick out themes over time. Or they can look for moments when there is an energetic surge and then restrict responses to what was just said, in the hopes of riding the wave of interest to pin down agreement about that component. Once the surge dissipates (and you've captured all the product you can), the facilitator will widen the focus back to where it had been previously.

This technique can be an effective way to tackle complex topics—aggregating a solution piece by piece as opportunities present themselves. Doing so, however, requires facilitators who are light on their feet, and able to see the possibilities as they open and close in the moment. They need to be able to seize the time and walk away gracefully from their original plan.

In order to get there, facilitators need to be crystal clear about the objectives of the meeting, so that they can constantly sniff out shortcuts as the meeting unfolds.

Not leaving food on the table 
The last benefit to roadmapping is knowing what's possible and being ruthless about harvesting all the agreement that's in the room. By knowing exactly where you are with respect to objectives and concerns, the skilled facilitator knows when to stay with a topic a little longer and when to pull the plug.

—Partly this is keeping a weather eye on the goals for the topic, extracting maximum benefit from the conversation. Where can precious time be used to greatest leverage?

—Partly this is time management: you have to start wrapping up a topic soon enough that loose ends can be identified and tied off without slipping into overtime. 

—Partly this is the magic eye skill of learning to see potential agreement (instead of obsessing about the ways in which people diverge) so that you can accurately sense when to stay with a topic a bit longer and when to pull the plug. Often a skilled facilitator will be the first person to see the possible agreement, simply because they're the one most attuned to looking for it.

• • •
A good facilitator should always know where the conversation is supposed to be focused and what the group is trying to accomplish.


Ann Christine said...

You stress how much "good facilitation" can help, so how do we get to "good?" Are you planning to do the two year facilitation training in the future? if so, where and when?thanks

Laird Schaub said...

I am currently conducting facilitation trainings in New England, the Pacific Northwest, North Carolina, and Michigan. Contact me at laird@ic.org and I can give you details about any of those, or about the possibility of starting something nearer to you.