The art and science of great meetings—part two

In Part One we looked at what to do to prepare for a great meeting.  Now we look at what to do to make the meeting effective once underway.  The focus is on how to facilitate a meeting where you want to engage people on a complex issue or problem, versus say a weekly operational / tactical meeting.

In the first article we talked about using the TOP approach to prepare – Topic, Outcomes and Processes.  Topic is what the meeting is about, Outcomes are the specific outcomes you want from the meeting, and Processes are the methods for how you will achieve the outcomes.  Whether your title is Chair, or Facilitator, or simply “the person who called the meeting”, you need to facilitate the meeting effectively.  As the meeting facilitator your core function is to help everyone bring their “A game” to the discussion.

Good facilitation starts by having a clear agenda.  This provides participants with a road map for the session.  At the beginning of the meeting welcome everyone and then reiterate the topic under discussion and, most importantly, the outcomes to be achieved.  Next, overview the process or processes you are proposing to achieve the outcomes, and why you are proposing these approaches.  For example “I’m proposing we initially work in trios to maximise idea generation and then reconvene as a large group to refine and select ideas to take to the next stage.  How does that sound as an approach?”.

As the meeting leader, we may hope that the meeting will move along in a lovely orderly fashion with people freely sharing their points of view and then keenly listening to and building on other people’s ideas.   But the reality is that meetings around tricky and complex problems are messy affairs.  If they were simple and straightforward it may suggest insufficient idea generation and “constructive conflict” and you definitely want these.

It’s important to normalise the messy reality both for yourself and for meeting participants. It’s what we call the process of  “getting lost in the deep dark forest” or as Sam Kaner, author of the Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision Making calls passing through the “Groan Zone”.

Confusion and frustration is a natural part of group decision-making as people migrate from expressing their ideas and points of view to considering and integrating different ways of thinking.  Misunderstanding and miscommunication are normal and natural aspects of participatory decision-making.

To help generate engagement from everyone, to keep things on track, and maintain momentum, you will need to exercise facilitation skills.  The following is not an exhaustive list but they are among the key skills Catapult consultants use:

Drawing people out.  Many introverts won’t voluntarily offer their ideas. Failure to harvest their points of view means missing out on potentially great ideas.  Sometimes you need to call on people directly, for example, “Catherine I think you will have a point of view on this, can you please share it?” Or set up paired sharing and reporting back where people will be more comfortable expressing their ideas.

Paraphrasing.  Demonstrate you have heard and understood what people say. Use phrases such as “It sounds like you’re saying…Let me see if I understand you… Is this what you mean?”

Balancing. Helping the group broaden its discussion by advocating other perspectives that may not yet have been expressed.  For example…”Are there other ways of looking at this issue? Does everyone else agree with this perspective? What are we missing?”

Summarising. “I’m going to step back and summarise the discussion so far.”

While it is important to prepare for a complex meeting, it’s also important to be flexible.  If the process you have designed to generate engagement and ideas isn’t working, try something new.  Feel free to say “I’m not sure this approach is working – let’s take a five minute break while I think about how else we might approach it.”  During this break you can also gather a few people together and get their input into a different approach.  There’s no point sticking slavishly to a process that’s not working.

Last, as the facilitator of the meeting, always remember you are there to facilitate others to generate ideas and solutions, not to come up with them yourself.  Keeping this in mind takes the pressure of you and allows you to concentrate on managing the process and helping everyone bring their “A game” to the meeting.

In the next newsletter we will look at how to complete meetings so they end with clarity and result in action.