Well Met: The Facilitator

Originally posted to the Truss blog

We’ve all been in dead-end meetings. No matter how dedicated and efficient your team is, a few bad meetings can derail their productivity and, even worse, their morale. In the next post of our series on maximizing the value of meetings, we talk about one of the aspects of a good meeting: the facilitator.

Practice the techniques highlighted in this series to:

  • increase the effectiveness of meetings;
  • decrease the number and duration of meetings;
  • build team cohesion;
  • cross-pollinate information across teams; and
  • do so in a way which leads to new insights otherwise left buried.

You’ve learned how to determine whether you need a meeting and how to prepare for and drive those meetings, now we highlight how we select for that facilitator.

Who does this?

It’s a lot to take on. Plotting a course for effective meetings means setting aside time to discern if a meeting is actually needed, preparing for it, and assigning a dedicated person to facilitate the meeting. An important thing to note is that facilitators will participate differently in in a meeting. Experienced facilitators have a responsibility to not add their editorial opinions, and beginners may have a hard time facilitating while also joining a conversation.

Project managers as facilitators

In Waterfall, big plans are defined, then staff are tasked with executing a predetermined set of requirements. Project managers are responsible for tracking if individuals or departments are meeting deadlines such that the entire Gantt Chart stays on track.

In lower-case-a-agile, we see the project manager as facilitator rather than task tracker. The project manager should be primarily focused on creating uninterrupted time for the team, while also keeping an eye out for when sharing information would make that working time even more effective. This means the project manager should already have an eye out for meetings that would benefit the team and guard against those that won’t (our first post in this series). The project manager should have their finger on the pulse of what folks are up to so much of the work for agenda prep is already done (our second post in this series). Because agile team members are entrusted with finding the best route to solving a given problem, the project manager’s goal is to open and maintain the space for meaningful conversations, which points to the facilitation aspect of useful meetings (also the second post).

In short, at Truss we are structured to put project managers in the best position to uphold the responsibilities put forth in this series. But it’s not just on them.

Increasing facilitation capacity in your org

Facilitation is a core component of being a servant leader. But just as with any attempt at organizational change, it’s difficult for a project manager to come in and implement all this. A nurturing environment cultivated by the leaders of the organization means facilitation as a skill can build up throughout the organization. For this reason, when a project manager is unavailable, we tend to lean toward someone with experience in facilitation, and who doesn’t have a personal stake in the meeting itself. This could be an engineering lead, design lead, product manager, business lead, or founder. They often have additional authority and responsibility to a client.

Project managers can’t (and shouldn’t) be in every meeting. Whether there are multiple meetings happening at once or it just doesn’t make sense for the project manager to attend, other folks in the organization should also be upping their own facilitation game through facilitation mentoring. Project managers can support this by guiding a mentee through the agenda-building process, backchanneling about facilitation practices, flagging issues during meetings where a mentee and facilitator are both present, and debriefing afterward about questions or concerns.

Why would I want to be a facilitator?

To do so helps everyone make equitable space for others, amplifying the voices that might otherwise go unheard and the fountain of good ideas which accompanies that.

It also makes meetings go that much more smoothly, as the team is thinking about how to be effective and inclusive while maintaining focus on the objective. Learning to watch for signals and respecting stack can be distributed across the group, which helps everyone manage themselves.

Read more about deciding when to have a meeting and how to prepare for and drive an effective meeting to have the full impact this series offers.

Why are we doing all this?

Bad meetings, like bad policies and negative environments, are tractable problems. By following the techniques highlighted here around determining when to have meetings, how to prepare for them, and how to facilitate, your meetings can be worth the context switching they require.

Good facilitation allows you to have fewer meetings, and the ones you do have will:

  • be more impactful,
  • be more effective,
  • build team cohesion,
  • and lead to new insights otherwise left buried.

You can help make it happen!

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