Originally posted on the Truss blog
Everyone has been in a meeting that made them wonder, “What am I doing here?” While a meeting can be a productive way to drive a project forward, many meetings are the opposite—they disrupt productivity and waste valuable time. All it takes to ensure that a necessary meeting doesn’t go off the rails is a little bit of planning and someone to facilitate the process.
The first part in this series covered the hows and whys of determining that a meeting is necessary. Once you know you need one, it’s important to make the best use of everyone’s time. This requires some preparation in advance, and active attention to keeping the meeting on track.
Create an Agenda
Building an agenda is the most important, difficult, and fungible part of meeting facilitation. Here are the steps to developing a solid agenda:
- What concrete outcome do you need to get out of the meeting? You should be able to say this in one sentence. It should be the name of the meeting, and be included in any correspondence related to the meeting.
- Create a plan. Consider where the group is now (point A), and where they want to end up (point B). You likely need to talk to other people in order to figure this out.
- Identify your requirements and blockers. What would need to happen to get from point A to point B?
- What is your strategy for tackling these challenges? Pick activities that will help achieve the concrete outcome needed to get from point A to B. Search the internet for “facilitation activities” for some suggestions. A few of our favorites are:
- Spectrograms to explore just how divisive various issues are.
- Vizthink to externalize systems in people’s heads in a way that allows progress to be made.
- Breakout groups to allow more people to be heard about a topic.
- Who are the leaders who can push this project forward? To push power outward, you’ll ideally work with a different person to lead each part. This isn’t The [Facilitator’s Name Here] Show
Time management is the hardest thing to get right at first. Here are some ways to effectively manage meeting time:
- Pad for time.
- People will show up late. Decide how long you’re willing to wait (keep in mind waiting wastes everyone else’s time and sets a bad precedent) and stick to it. People will show up on time more often if they know you start on time and meetings are valuable experiences.
- A/V will break. Showing up early to troubleshoot can save others time, but you can’t fix the remote setup.
- Folks will want to dig into questions that matter, and having some extra time allows this to happen.
- Remember to have time to open and close. Rituals matter!
If you are new to facilitation, your agenda is your guide. The signposts you set in advance will help you remember how to get where you’re going when matters inevitably become complicated. As you become more experienced and gain trust, the agenda becomes more of a thinking exercise so you can adapt in the moment.
You’ve done all the work, you’re ready to try out your well-crafted agenda, and people are on the call or at the table (hopefully on time). What do you do now?
- Set expectations around communication. Two suggestions we have found the most useful are:
- Demonstrate respect for each other (and the clock) at all times.
- Follow the Rules of 1:
- Make 1 point and pass it on. This distributes the conversational load across more people, which means more people get heard from.
- 1 diva, 1 mic. Only one person should be speaking at a time, which prevents people speaking over each other, difficulty hearing for those dialing in, and gives equal attention to all speakers.
- Have 1 empty chair at the table/1 available slot for call-in. This makes it welcoming (and non-disruptive) for that latecomer (or someone from a different breakout session) to join you.
- Speak 1/Nth of the time. If you’re quiet, know people want to hear from you. If you’re gregarious, dial it back a bit to make room for others.
- Once you’re comfortable with those, consider adding in hand signals (Zoom and Maestro also offer approximations). These can save time by getting a “temperature check” on how the team is responding to a current thread without needing to hear from individuals one-by-one.
- Aspiration, an organization focused on building technical capacity for nonprofits has some pretty great participant guidelines that are useful to adapt to your own circumstances.
- Take “stack.” People signal to the facilitator or the stack keeper when they’d like to speak up in a discussion. The facilitator might call on people in the order they signaled, or they might change the order to have more equal speaking time based on the stack and to account for folks who have spoken less.
- Stop a speaker from going on too long. (You’ve already made this OK to do if they make more than one point or if they speak more than 1/Nth of the time.) You can do this through body language, hand signals, and directly speaking to the person.
- If people get into eddies of conversation (this often happens with two people going back-and-forth, rather than the group being engaged), push for a choice to be made, or if that can’t happen, clarity to be reached. This will encourage the discussion to move forward to a place where ideas can be tested by coming in contact with reality. If people truly need more time, offer to schedule a meeting specific to that topic (with a concrete outcome) so people can return to the subject at hand.
Who should be responsible for all this work? In the final part of this series, Well Met: The Facilitator, we’ll talk about what makes a good facilitator and how to choose the right person for the job.