Facilitation – 8 Do’s, 5 Don’ts
It started out promising enough. “The topic is ‘Scaling Agile’ – there is no agenda but we’ll bring our collective experience and knowledge to the table and have a deep, meaningful conversation about how we can scale Agile”. After that it all went rather downhill. It quickly became apparent that this was going to be a Master Class. The CEO and his Lead Consultant dominated the conversations. Nearly half the participants (and we are talking about a small group of maybe 10 people) didn’t say anything at all the entire time. The whiteboard wasn’t used, the post-it pads remained unopened, and the meeting ended when the CEO (who was also ahem.. “facilitating”) had to rush out to the facilities. I still don’t have clue what “Scaling Agile” was supposed to be about…
So here are some tips on what to do and don’t do at the next meeting that you facilitate:
- Be Clear About the Objectives. When you introduce the topic, write it up on the White Board where everyone can see. Ensure that everyone understands the scope of the topic. A great idea is to have everyone write down on a post-it what they want to get out of the session. It takes two minutes to do and another 2 minutes to review. Its worth it.
- Know Who You Are Talking To. If the group is small enough have everyone quickly introduce themselves by name, and use the introduction to get a temperature check – are you talking to Agile gurus who have been around for 10 years, or newbies? It matters.
- Get the Ball Rolling, Then Stand Back. Start the ball rolling with a provocative question or challenge. Stop talking as soon as possible. Go round the room (this is especially important for the first topic). Take notes. Try to keep the temptation to ‘answer’ or give your opinions on anything anyone says at this point.
- Practice Divergence/Convergence. One of the most important and most difficult roles of a facilitator is to keep the conversation moving in interesting directions. Look for themes in what people are saying. Tease out those themes for deeper discussions. Divergence is the practice of getting as many ideas and thoughts on the table. Convergence is the grouping of those into themes, teasing out conclusions, and keeping the conversation moving forward. Divergence will happen naturally – convergence can only be done by facilitation.
- Be a Participant OR Facilitator (not Both). It is famously difficult to both facilitate and participate. As a facilitators you are an active listener – its difficult to be able to deeply listen while offering your own opinion. Also, the facilitator holds a position of authority in the discussion. Nothing will close down open dialog faster than a pronouncement by you on what you think is the ‘right’ answer.
- Radiate The Discussion. As the conversation unfolds keep people on the same page by writing down points of convergence, topics or open questions, and conclusions. Write on something everyone can see – the WhiteBoard or Flipchart, or in a remote session a shared desktop. This will ensure that the conversation moves forward (or that when it goes backwards, its obvious that it has gone backwards).
- Everybody Speaks. Actively encourage anyone who has been quiet for a couple of rounds of conversation “I want to hear Jane’s perspective on this”. They aren’t quiet because they have nothing to say – they’re quiet because they are thinking about it, they have too much to say, or because they don’t feel safe to speak up. After you’ve asked them wait for them to speak…really – WAIT!
- Come to a Conclusion. Finishing the meeting well is just as important as starting it well. Summarize the main conclusions, ask for final comments – “what is your biggest takeaway”, “What will you do differently as a result of this conversation”. Review the objectives that participants said they wanted to achieve out of the session – were they met. Are there action items to follow through on? End the meeting definitively.
- Invite Completely Undirected Discussion. People will talk about the most irrelevant things if given the chance. Ask open questions, but beware of being hijacked. Steer the conversation back to the topic at hand.
- Dominate the Show Yourself. This shouldn’t be a master class. Yes you have to do some speaking to keep the meeting on track, but don’t think that you have, or need to have all the answers.
- Let Anyone Else Dominate. Watch for the session turning into a conversation between two or three people. Put off deep conversations that aren’t relevant to everyone, or which look like they are rabbit holes (see next)
- Go Down Rabbit Holes. There are a million and one things to talk about – keep the discussion focused on the higher objectives, and watch for discussions disappearing off into tangents. Learn how to say “that’s a very interesting topic for another day, but I’d like to talk about….”, or “let’s go back to interesting point about…”
- Ignore the Introverts. The converse of ‘everyone speaks’, and corollary to don’t let anyone dominate. Quiet people aren’t (necessarily) stupid people.
One of the a-ha moments of the workshop was the first, simplest question: do we need to have a meeting? It’s up to the facilitator to make this decision, and then to decide who should be included. I’m sure we’ve all left a meeting or two feeling that it was a huge waste of our valuable time. As facilitators, we can lessen this risk by planning the meeting design effectively, starting with defining the purpose and desired outcomes, creating and sharing an agenda, and choosing the most appropriate tools for the audience. As participants, we can influence the process and outcome as well. This workshop truly changed the way that I think about meetings.