By Sunny Walker
I’ve been in this business a long time. I often say, “since dirt.” So, it may come as a surprise that I’m still learning. For all those years, I was mostly a “one-shot” facilitator. I would come in and do a strategic plan with a group over a couple of days, they’d leave happy and I’d go home.
Sometimes I’d be hired to do follow-up work or I’d hear from them in a few years saying, “we finished that plan, come do a new one with us.” Or I’d be hired to help a group sort out a thorny issue.
However, not all meetings are big planning meetings. Some are simply regular check in, catch up, report out, and revise next steps meetings. These days, my friends often ask me to facilitate their regular meetings. I’ve found them to be quite a different form of facilitation and have had to learn a few things. The following reflection comes out of a dismal experience where I did not feel I’d given the group my best and had to sit down and sort out what happened.
I imagine we all, as facilitators, have had some of these learning experiences. If you haven’t, get ready. It’s likely to be somewhere in your future. Following is what I gleaned from my recent experience:
Don’t get up in front of a group until you feel confident you know what they are asking for and you can and will prepare to deliver it. Note, I said “can and will prepare.” What does that mean?
- Talk with your client – Facilitation is often referred to as “herding cats.” If that is the case, mine was an amorphous group of feral cats. I ASSUMED (bad idea) that since I’d been in most of their meetings, I had a clue. Based on that assumption I didn’t talk to them. Rude awakening to discover I did not have a clue.
- Once you’ve spoken to them all, create the best agenda you can, then check back. Will this work for them? Critical point here: Can you “herd” them through that agenda in a respectful way? In other words, can you do it without your wet noodle whipping them along? OR, is it too much for one meeting, given the group and its propensities?
That last sentence calls for further clarification. In a strategic planning session, it is easy (usually) to get the group to agree to your process given their passion for the outcome. In facilitating an ongoing meeting, you need to understand the way the group is used to operating and take that into account. My group was used meetings of mostly updates. That meant different individuals would take whatever time they needed to share and explain in detail what had been going on from their point of view. Then, when it came to needed decisions, next steps and assignments, they would throw all opinions out onto the table, repeat positions already stated, circle around a few times and usually not decide because they were out of time of people would just “carry on” with their own agendas.
These are not bad or ornery people. They simply have become accustomed to one way of meeting, not in a way that will serve them better. And they have not decided on a governance structure that gives people permission to do work supported by the whole and to come back to the group or the leadership when new information calls for changes. This is a classic example of how participation, something facilitators strive to enhance, can backfire if not managed well. For an ad hoc group who hold strongly to the value of consensus, the other side of that approach and its equally valuable perspective was not even on their radar.
- In the beginning of the meeting, get confirmation of the agenda. Something may have changed that requires you to change your plan. You need to know this at the beginning, not part way in when it will throw everything off. Revise with the group, adjusting items and times as needed.
- THEN, stick (kindly) to that agenda. When the group wants to go off on a tangent, gently rein them in and continue. It the tangent is something that is clearly not a tangent, but a new understanding revealed in the conversation that must be addressed in this meeting, ask what to change to make room for it.
In the beginning, this may be difficult because the group has not learned to behave in ways that will serve them more effectively. They may have some bad habits. Over time these can be changed and new, more useful habits put in their place.
- Early on, in this subtle group training period, when you are reflecting on the meeting at the end, bring up the topic of the processes you used: for example, using a timed agenda and changing it as needed. How well did that work? What are other suggestions for meeting improvement? Be sure these are open-ended questions to give you enough information to continue to tweak how you work with them.
- And don’t end without these two things:
- Next steps with assignments
- Agenda items for the next meeting
There are many other kinds of facilitation to learn and master. Because I’ve not been facilitating ongoing meetings, it was a painful experience to discover I had yet another type to discover and master.
For any of these regular meetings, to counteract the sense of them going on and on, to turn them into productive meetings where creative thinking can emerge, critical information is shared, and both decisions and next steps are clear, serious facilitation preparation is still needed. Good meetings rarely happen on the fly, even the “ordinary” ones.
Finally, a further recommendation to all facilitators: Use your failures to reflect and learn so they are not repeat experiences. Reflect on your successes, too. IN WRITING. Make it a habit. If it already is, you know why. If not, you’ll soon see and appreciate it. Flip through your notes as you sit down to plan another facilitation.
In closing, what challenges have you had lately? If you do these kinds of ongoing meetings with the same group, what advice do you have for others who have little experience with them?
I look forward to learning more from the rest of you. Comment below! And look for future blogs on additional faces of facilitation.