My dear friend, Linda Coles, an absolutely superb speaker, author and social media expert from New Zealand, sent me a note the other day asking if I had read any really good books on how to be an expert at facilitation of meetings. I thought it was a great question, and one that I’ve gotten several times in the past, so I decided I would post my response to her – in hopes that it might be helpful to you. Here is exactly what I wrote to Linda:
Linda – sorry for the slight delay in my response, I have been traveling and did not have access to my library. I looked around – and I do not have any really good books specifically on facilitation. So let me take a moment to share with you what I’ve learned over the last 15+ years of being a facilitator.
The number one goal as a facilitator is to have a clear map for where you’re trying to get to by the end of the event. As Mr. Covey would say – “Begin with the end in mind.” I sit down and think very, very carefully about what an absolutely perfect result would be. Actually, this is one of the first questions I always ask my client: “At the end of the session, if everything went perfectly, what specifically would a great outcome look like?” I try to get them to talk about the three or four things that MUST happen for it to be a successful event – and get them to, as clearly and specifically as possible, describe for me what an “Ideal Outcome,” would look like. I then use that as my goal and build a plan backwards to the beginning of the event to make sure, as much is possible, I end up in the right place at the end of the session.
The second thing I try to keep in mind is that my job as a facilitator is: To be a… Guide on the Side – not a Sage on the Stage! In other words, facilitation is about assisting, cajoling, pushing, coaching, refereeing – but not offering MY opinions or directing the conversation in the way that “I” think it should go. So I try to create a very clear path from the beginning of the session…… to the end of the session (with workshops, interaction, discussion, presentations and consensus building moments) and then I am simply there to make sure that everything goes smoothly as possible and progresses exactly as I’d like it to from point A – to point B – to point C – to where I want the day to end at point Z.
Another thing that I’ve learned over the years is that I use a progression of: Delivering information at the beginning of the session (setting the stage, setting the context, getting everyone on the same page, creating a shared language – and shared ideas around where we are going for the day and what is most important) —– I then transition from me presenting and talking (only for about 30 to 40 minutes) to getting people into individual workshops (usually I have them read a Harvard or Wharton article on the topic of the retreat – strategic planning/leadership/high performance teams — or the results of a survey I have conducted before the retreat) —– Which then lead to small group workshops (3-8 people) —- Which leads to each of the small groups presenting what they have developed to all the other group —– Which leads to me as a facilitator synthesizing and combining all of the various feedback from the groups into one overall idea that I can then gain commitment and consensus on.
To me that is the true definition of a facilitator– guiding and facilitating the discussion – helping them learn together, helping them teach each other, helping them gain consensus on what they think is important… and what they want to do about it. After all, if it is the group that is teaching each other – exactly what they feel they need to do, what they’ve all agreed on, and what they are all 100% committed to – it is much, much stronger than any presentation I could ever deliver!!
Lastly, I typically follow up all my facilitations with a two or three page “Management Memo” helping the group understand what they focused on during the retreat or session, what they created together, the synthesis of everything they agreed on, and some ideas/feedback/suggestions for how they can make sure to stay focused on what they developed and implement it successfully in their organization. If the group had a particularly challenging session I will also sometimes send them four or five additional articles that they can read in the coming weeks/months keep them focused and help them stay on task and on track.
I hope you found this helpful Linda – this is the framework I’ve used for the last 10 years or so and it has been exceedingly successful for me. Please let me know if you have any questions at all, as always I am here to assist you in any way that I possibly can. Good luck on your next facilitation – my very best to you – John
**** I encourage all of you to offer any insights and advice you might have for Linda – and recommend any really good books you know about how to be a superb facilitator. Let’s start a nice conversation around this topic and see if we can all help each other. I very much look forward to your ideas and feedback.
***** ALSO — As many of you know I have recently been nominated as one of the “Top 100 Small Business Gurus in America” and a big part of the competition is based on how many votes I get. I have placed a button right below this paragraph for you to vote as part of my “Cheer Squad” – ANYTHING you can do to help spread the word and get me lots more votes would be awesome (you can vote every day) – it would be fun and a great honor to be named a top small business guru!! Thank you very, very much for any help and assistance you can offer – John