It’s not the meeting’s fault that it sucked!

The Artful Facilitator is a new program to master the art and science of facilitation and turn them into Magic

We’ve all been in meetings or other sessions which have sucked all our energy, haven’t we? I know I have. Sessions where people have been on their laptops or checking email on their phones and not paying attention to the proceedings. What about when 1 or 2 people dominate?

We’ve also experienced meetings where everyone is in love with the shape of the problem; when the time allotted for the session is over and no decisions have been made. So they decide to have another session to make some decisions… or they rush through some meaningless actions causing the meeting to run over, making people late for their next session. And let’s not forget the group of people, impatiently waiting outside the room to start their meeting…?

Contrary to this, a meeting or a session that is skillfully facilitated:

  • Engages everyone in the room;
  • Lets all the voices be heard;
  • Remains focused on its purpose; and 
  • Unlocks wisdom and creativity beyond your expectations.

The contrast between the two is huge. We leave the second one with a sense of achievement; feeling our time has been well spent, something worthwhile has been achieved, and we maybe even feel energized.

What is it that makes the difference? 

It starts with having some facilitation tools & techniques (the science), however that only takes one so far. The magic really happens when we have developed the art of facilitation, and when we blend that with the science.

When this magical combination happens, these are some of the things that we will begin to notice:

  • Everyone quickly shifts into a state of ‘being present’;
  • Participants contribute from their strengths and their hearts;
  • Ideas are generated and solutions may be found;
  • Constructive disagreement takes place;
  • Clear decisions can be reached with buy in from everyone;
  • Real outcomes are achieved faster;
  • Trust, collaboration and accountability grows; and
  • New effective behavior results and continues beyond the session.

To access this magic, we need to look inside ourselves. Only then can we develop our art.

Imagine you have had a tough sprint and you now need to facilitate the retrospective. You know it is not going to be easy. Take the time to prepare for the upcoming session by following this 4-step process:

  1. Take responsibility for yourself. Many times we go into sessions when we are feeling defensive. Defensiveness is the quickest way to a failed session. You begin to take responsibility for yourself by acknowledging that you are feeling defensive. It’s that easy.
  2. Identify the triggers that are making you lose your neutrality. Losing your neutrality might take you into ‘push’ mode and you risk making the session about you, when it should be about the group. Spend some time reflecting on these, draw (yes, draw!) each one on a separate sticky note. Now put them all in a box and lock them in your desk drawer…you can collect them later.
  3. Now you are ready to begin to understand the others who are going to be in the room. If you are feeling defensive, what might the others be feeling? Reflect on this using empirical evidence of what happened in the sprint and the interactions between the team. Put yourself in your team’s shoes and try to see how they see the sprint, what it means to them, and what they want for the next sprint.
  4. Now you can plan your retrospective… and you already know how to do this.

All of this is done before the session. A wise man once told me, “For every hour of the session, you have to spend 2 to 3 hours preparing. So if your session is 2-hours, you need to spend 4-hours preparing.”

Originally published on agile42 on 26 July 2018.


How to Design a Facilitated Work Session

I’ve just finished a call with a client who commissioned me to facilitate a strategy session for their leadership team. In walking her through my design I realised again the importance of creating a generative container for people to do their best work. As such, the facilitator takes care of the structure, while the group takes care of the content.

This article highlights three design elements that help me each time when I design and later hold the structure of a facilitated work session. A work session can be anything from a status meeting, Manco, retrospective, planning event, team building…I’m sure that you can fill in the rest.

The first one is…

Creating relationship

Creating relationship is about the ties that bind – the constructs that hold a group together. So spending enough time at the start of a work session establishing this before diving into the “work” part of the session is time well spent. 

Consider the following things to help you hold the group:

  • The emotional stuff – e.g. how is the group going to be together in the session?
  • The physical stuff – e.g. is the room set up conducive to people doing great work together?
  • The cognitive stuff – e.g. how am I, as the facilitator, going to ensure the engagement of the people?

The second is…

Ensuring diversity

Great results come from groups that embrace how different people see the world, how each one processes information, and consider any cultural norms. This is the difference that makes the difference that provides the potential for new ideas to emerge.

Consider the following things to keep the session moving towards its desired outcome:

  • The emotional stuff – e.g. how can participants accommodate the differences between them, such as organisational levels, that separate them?
  • The physical stuff – e.g. – how can everyone’s voice be heard equally, even the soft ones?
  • The cognitive stuff – e.g. how do I keep people engaged throughout?

…and the third one is…

Encouraging open discussion

Relationships cannot grow without communication and collaboration, so how participants connect and share information is important. This can be any flow that creates some change (and exchange), such as feedback, dialogue, and conversation.

Consider the following things to keep the flow of information untethered:

  • The emotional stuff – e.g. are participants listening to each other or talking over each other?
  • The physical stuff e.g. what are the rules that inform discussion and help participants collaborate?
  • The cognitive stuff – e.g. do participants have the time and space to think before engaging? 

Becoming masterful at facilitating means combining the art and the science. What I’ve mentioned above talks to both. The science is the actual tools, techniques, and exercises. The art is what the facilitator brings to enliven the tools and techniques that help a group move towards their desired state.

Originally published on LinkedIn on 8 February 2020.