2. Get the venue and set-up right. The monkey enclosure at the Melbourne Zoo was a recent workshop venue highlight. My general preferences: offsite is better than onsite; natural light is key; ceilings not too high or too low (converted barns or halls are hopeless); beware basements of expensive hotels; no noise or distractions from other rooms; screens/boards (if used) visible to all; AV, pens and other equipment ready, tested and working; U-shape set-up for smaller groups, round tables for larger groups; breakout rooms nearby are nice but not essential.
3. Be shockingly clear on the workshop objectives and outcomes. Design the process/agenda to achieve those outcomes; leave the rest out. Calibrate outcomes to the time available or vice-versa – don’t kid yourself that you’ll get full agreement on a 5-year strategy in a one hour discussion.
4. Visualise the process or “screenplay” of every session. As a facilitator you need to imagine the flow of the discussion, how long each deliberation will take and where it may go. If you can’t really do this perhaps more work needs to go into describing the specific discussion topic i.e. it may be framed too generally or narrowly.
5. Anticipate the most contentious issues. Good preparation should reveal the likely potholes, road humps, obstacles and diversions. Give more time to these in the agenda; gather more data beforehand to inform this discussion; pre-identify options/likely solutions; get to these issues quickly by getting everyone to sign-off on the less contentious stuff.
6. Understand who’s who in the room. Do your homework on the participants; know their hot buttons, preferences and needs; identify likely supporters, vocal disruptors, passive aggressors and abstainers. If appropriate, make contact with key opinion shapers before the workshop to see where they’re at and get their advice on how to run the meeting. Getting their fingerprints on the agenda can also be very useful at times.
7. Get engagement before the workshop. Ideally ask participants to do some work beforehand and apply their minds to the issues at hand. This may be pre-reading, completion of a survey, gathering data from other staff or clients or just to jot down their questions or concerns next to each agenda item.
8. Mix it up. In designing the agenda try vary the process and keep it fresh. Don’t have four or five breakout sessions in a row with the same groups. Consider a variety of buzz groups (two or three people sitting next to each other), syndicate work, debates, videos, post-it note brainstorms, guest speakers, competitions, presentations, etc.. David Gray’s book is an excellent resource on different types of activities you can use.
9. Look to parallel process. Assume you have five major issues to deal with in the workshop. One option is to deal with each sequentially by the whole group. My preference, not always though, is to parallel process and get five smaller groups working on each issue at the same time. One should try avoid boring plenary report-backs from each group. There are a variety of ways to get the outcomes from small group work fed back efficiently and effectively.
10. Be independent. As a facilitator it’s important to be content neutral by not taking sides or advocating a strong view during the meeting. If you want to state your view or advice, pre-qualify your comments. If it’s a really contentious issue, people need to trust the process and trust that you will not bias the outcome.
11. Plan your note taking. If you’re going to use the whiteboard or butchers paper to note comments during discussion think beforehand about how that might be presented. Where are you going to start, continue and end; where you will go if more space is needed; what layout will you use. I use mind maps a lot but sometime just a bullet point list is fine. I ran a workshop recently where I wrote up the key points on the glass encasing the room. It was better than butchers paper and blue tac.
12. Get early involvement. If time allows, start by asking people their expectations for the meeting and any concerns. Get everyone to say something as early on as possible. Directing questions at specific participants keeps people on their toes.
13. Let the bees fly. Quite often one or two participants will have a bee in their bonnet – a strong opinion about the issues to be discussed. In my view the worst thing you can do is bottle them up. Let people get things off their chest early on in the process and try get all the key problems on the table. If there are no more bees and elephants left in the room (this is mixed metaphor mayhem (with alliteration)) you can start to work on options and solutions.
14. Limit the loudmouths. In most workshops there are participants who love the sound of their own voice, interrupt others and make it easy for the abstainers. I try limit their impact on the discussion via buzz groups, polling, ’round the rooms’ and/or directly enquiring from those less vocal. Another tactic I use is to frequently mention their name and their key points: “As Alex pointed out, cross-practice collaboration is a major problem in the firm…”. They then feel heard and their ego stroked – two major causes of loudmouthedness.
15. Draw in experts. Where and when its possible get the experts or most well-informed person on a particular issue to be involved. So, for example, if it’s an IT issue get your CIO to introduce the topic, help with Q&A and contribute to the debate. This approach avoids the blind leading the blind and accelerates collective understanding.
16. Frame the problem. One of the most critical skills of a facilitator is the ability to fathom all the discussion and synthesise and frame it it in a way that allows for clearer decision-making. Without this intervention the workshop runs a huge risk of becoming a talk fest and the issues left unresolved. It’s actually a worse outcome than not having the workshop at all. My approach is as follows: I wait till the law of diminishing returns kicks in – the moment when people start repeating themselves and no major new insights/contributions are made. I then try to play back everything I’ve heard by clearly defining and restating the problem in as simple words as I can, and clearly mapping out all the alternative solutions/options. I then ask the group if to give some feedback on my problem statement and options. After some discussion, if appropriate, I ask for a vote around these options. If one option is clearly preferred, or not preferred, it helps narrow the choices and you’re one step closer to resolution.
17. Help the strugglers. If someone is struggling to make their point, [i] restate your understanding of their issue in your own words, or [ii] ask them to give an example or re-explain. Chances are most others in the room will be confused too.
18. Hand back the agenda. If it appears that a particular issue is going to take up much more time than scheduled, put it back to the group on how the agenda should be rejigged, i.e. what agenda items should be kept, what should be deferred or dropped. This empowers the group and protects your credibility as a facilitator.
19. Use the clock as your friend. “We only have 20 minutes left and we have to get a resolution on this”. Use the pressure of the clock and people’s desire not to waste time to break a deadlock. If resolution is not reached, then at least agree the process to be followed to reach it some time in the future.
20. Finish on a high. A great way to end is to revisit the objectives/expectations and recap the key outcomes and next steps. Even if things were not completely resolved, it’s important that people feel that the issues have been advanced and there are clear steps to get resolution in the near future.
I’d love to hear some of your top facilitation tips and secrets.